Is It Possible Not To Objectify Someone?

Flirt Partner

I want to start off this post by stating that if it comes off as argumentative, I have done something wrong. I’ve flipped this particular piece over in my head a few times now and bounced my theories off of some friends with relevant expertise yet the sum of my own limited personal experience prevents me from claiming this theory of mine as a universal truth. It is an argument and I will do my best to represent my stance as clearly as possible but, ultimately, I hope to offer this theory more as an invitation to a lengthy and possibly never ending conversation rather than assert my “rightness”. So, while I will argue that it is, in fact, impossible to not objectify someone, the subject of this post (as the title suggests) is an open question and your response, whoever you might be, is greatly helpful and appreciated.

So, having said that, I would like to address what I think is a misdiagnosis on society’s part in regards to sexist behaviour. We hear time and time again that sexually objectifying someone is wrong and that by doing so, a person is dehumanized into an object to be used as a means of sexual gratification. Oftentimes, when a woman is sexually harassed, the source of the issue is often identified as the aggressor objectifying her sexually therefore sexual objectification is wrong. I find this leap, making “objectification” the root cause of sexist behaviour, problematic.

To objectify someone is to reduce them to a simpler, truncated version of themselves. In a sense, an objectified person becomes more “manageable” as the objectifier has now conveniently reduced the objectified to a narrow version of themselves that exists only to serve the matter or need at hand. This, I think, not only makes long-term relationships workable but is absolutely fundamental in the initial flirting stages of meeting a potential romantic interest.

We can objectify someone for many reasons; we can yearn to spend time with someone due to their knowledge of classic literature, knowledge of sports, incredible grasp on quantum physics, amusing collection of novelty T-shirts, etc. We objectify when we say things like, “I hate my boss”. Even having a group that connect over certain activities like poker, breakfast, or martinis is to objectify the others in the group to some extent; your friends are “objects” whose appearance and conversation you can rely on. Also, assuming that you never fully understand someone or know exactly how they think, i.e. completely see the entirety of another individual and their mind, you can know someone, even intimately, and still objectify them to a certain degree. What are terms like “husband”, “mother”, “best friend”, or “lover” but objectifying terms?

And when it comes to flirting, I would argue that it is absolutely impossible not to sexually objectify someone even if you’re not “sexually objectifying” in the standard context of the term. if someone is attractive to you, there is probably, at the onset of the attraction, a single trait, mannerism, or skill that could be identified as the source of the attraction. Whether your pulse is quickening because the person across from you has a great ass or is fluent in Klingon does not matter, it is still sexual objectification.

The problem with our society is that the overwhelming emphasis of desirability for women is placed on her sexual attractiveness that is, in turn, based upon unrealistic and often unattainable beauty standards set by the media but this is not an inherent problem with objectification necessarily.

We live in a culture where sexual assault and rape are very real occurrences but, again, we are mis-catagorizing these acts as resulting from objectification. Instead, we ought to recognize this systemic problem as the result of a male based sense of entitlement. The media “promises” sex to men in the way it frames women (and men, for that matter). Thanks in part to media representation of gender roles, men come to expect sex at their proms, from their dates, and, horrifyingly, sometimes from women who bear too similar an appearance to the media women who “promised” the sex. We also live in a world where the kind of thinking that leads to the rape of women dressed provocatively is often excused by rationalizing that the men in these cases were “provoked”. What this suggests is that heterosexuality, even at its most violent and invasive, has been normalized which is far more dangerous, I think, then the act of objectification.

As opposed to articles I have read about sexual objectifying women written by other men, I do not think that lecherous activity, such as leering, cat calling, or rape is a natural instinct of heterosexual men. I find that theory to be, well, stupid. We live in a culture that celebrates heterosexual masculine desire while all other variations of sexuality are taboo. To argue that straight men only behave this way in public because we are programmed that way is only furthering the notion of heterosexuality as the “normative” identity. I’d be curious to know how long it would take to reprogram these “innate” traits if the leerer was aware of the very real possibility of being ostracized as a “whore”, or “faggot”, or “dyke” every time they expressed their variation of sexual desire in public. Probably not very long.

Essentially, I feel that the problems that continue to pervade our dating scene is the overemphasis on women’s physicality as a statement of her desirability, the ways is which the said physicality is warped in the media, and the normalization of male heterosexuality: not objectification. Objectification is something that everyone does and, if not paired with the three qualms listed above, can serve to form healthy relationships and very engaging flirting opportunities.

Now, If you, the reader, find that there’s a weakness somewhere in my argument, I have a theory as to where you might find it. I identify as a white, straight, cissexual man and, as a fellow blogger,Timber Wraith, says, “Nothing blinds like privilege” (who, by the way, writes an incredible blog and ought to be read by anyone more interested in asking the bigger questions than finding the smaller answers on religion and atheism). I concede to the fact that, having never been scrutinized the way that women are in society and never having had my flirting techniques called perverse, there may be “blind spots” in my argument. So please, comment away. All comments will be posted below and I will do my best to respond to all feedback.

5 thoughts on “Is It Possible Not To Objectify Someone?

  1. Hmmm. You’ve got my brain ticking. I haven’t thought about the term objectification for a long time now. I like the fact that you have expanded the concept to include human relationships that extend outside of the context of heterosexuality.

    (OK, this is really, really, long—my apologies.)

    Because human beings’ minds are of limited capacity, we have a tendency to over simplify everything. Information is broken down into convenient chunks, categories, and virtual images. Our understanding of the world—including people—is always subject to the limitations of coarsely rendered mental images. Hence, we understand those around us via inaccurately constructed virtual models which are loosely correlated with real life people. In this sense, we transform people into virtual objects that our minds can more easily interact with. Our very attempts to understand people inevitably lead to our objectifying those around us.

    Interesting. Until now, I’ve never connected the feminist concept of sexual objectification to my understanding of the pitfalls of human perception.

    When interacting with people on the same level of social power (same sex, age, race/ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, etc.), this natural tendency to objectify allows us to interact more easily with people than simply treating others as unknown entities with unknowable qualities. This objectified rendering of people is fraught with errors and misunderstanding, but it gets us though the day. It is necessary for normal social interactions. In fact, we do this objectified rendering instinctively. In many respects, it is beyond our control. As time progresses, however, we do our best to create more accurate mental images of those we interact with.

    OK, here’s where major problems arise. When this process of mental objectification occurs across a differential of social power, particularly bad things happen. The tensions produced by a differential of power have a tendency to transform “normal” social relations into a dynamic that hurts members of the subordinate group. Off the top of my head, two primary negative dynamics arise via objectification across a gap of power: negative stereotyping and exploitation.

    The sexist, racist, homophobic, classist (and so on) stereotypes that exist surrounding subordinate groups serve to create and justify the existing imbalance of power. Because this form of mental objectification occurs across an in-group/out-group boundary, it is particularly difficult for the objectified to challenge the inaccurate mental images of the objectifying group.

    Exploitation can take a number of forms: women serve as sexual objects for men, the lower classes serve as cheap, exploitable labor for the middle/upper class, racial/ethnic minorities serve as a reserve labor force (unemployed when not needed, underpaid when needed), transgender women serve as sex workers for cis men, women perform underpaid emotional labor in “nurturing” fields of employment (elder care, social work, teaching, etc.).

    And of course, the two dynamics are tied together: stereotypes that are used to inaccurately render the groups in question are then employed as justifications for the modes of exploitation that the subordinate groups are subjected to. Women are better at relationships than math and science. Thus, women are better at “nurturing” fields of employment. Particular races/ethnicities are intellectually and socially inferior and hence, are only employable as manual laborers and domestic servants. Since women are submissive and less sexual than men, they naturally serve as passive sexual objects.

    So yeah, it’s power that twists the human tendency to render people as coarsely imaged mental objects into something deeply problematic. Even on a good day, our understanding of others tends to be inaccurate. Add in power, negative stereotypes, and exploitation, and the everyday mental objectification of others becomes quite damaging.

    The moral of the story is this: if you happen to be a member of some dominant group, you need to practice special care in being aware of the ways that everyday habits of understanding members of the subordinate group will lead you into exploitative behaviors that are justified and guided by stereotypes. The preexisting social dynamics in the relationship between dominant and subordinate encourage members of the dominant group to render members of the subordinate group as exploitable, inferior objects. This exploitation is normalized in everyday behavior—to the point were it goes unnoticed—because the limitations of our human brains make it so and the benefits of social power serve as strong motivation to remain ignorant of the underlying reality.

  2. Well, after timberwraith I’m not sure I have anything left to say! Heh. But to sum up my thoughts, I don’t see objectification as an in-and-out evil, per se, as much as I do a symptom of a greater problem in our culture.

    For me, objectification isn’t just noticing someone and being attracted (via the ass, or Klingon, as you said), but more putting that aspect on a pedestal until it’s the defining (or only) trait of that person. Like ads that only show women’s bodies and not their faces, for example.

    I do agree completely that the cop-out “it’s just instinct” that many people — men and women — tend to use when describing sexist behaviour needs to stop. Men can control themselves, and to say they can’t is just insulting. My high school had a rule that girls couldn’t wear tank tops because it would distract the boys, and even though I never wore tank tops I still fought the rule because I felt it was disingenuous at its base. Ah well.

    • Yeah, that’s a really good point, Lora. The mode of objectification exists as a primary defining characteristic of the objectified. In the case of women, the defining mode of objectification is sexuality.

      Here are a few anecdotes from my life as a trans woman. In my pre-transition years, I began to keep my distance from many men because of the sexually objectifying comments men would make about women when they thought they were only in the presence of a group of men. Many of the comments were pretty angering, actually. I tore into a lot of guys over their terrible comments. Consequently, I felt a lot more comfortable around other women both pre and post transition because the level of “sex-centered” comments about people was considerably toned down in comparison with the banter I’d hear around guys.

      After my body had shifted, the amount of male attention I received simply shot through the roof. I had a really hard time taking men’s interest very seriously because I knew the sudden shift in attitude had much more to do with sexual attraction then who I was as a person. And then, of course, there were the ridiculous amount of catcalls and off color comments from guys. That definitely ate into my personal sense of safety in the world. There are a lot of guys out there who have no notion or care about personal space and boundaries–a very, very different experience from walking through the world while male-bodied.

      A shift in women’s attitudes toward me happened as well, but it was far more subtle. It took me far longer to figure out what had shifted in dynamic. (I was fairly attractive as both a guy and a woman. So, I don’t think the degree of physical attraction was the factor at play.)

      Anyway, yeah, the effect of sexual objectification is definitely an everyday thing and it has a real impact on everyday interactions. My sense of safety and social ease around men was permanently impacted… and certainly not in the most positive of ways. I certainly know that this isn’t a news flash for other women, but it might be helpful for men to read about this stuff.

      Oops, I just wrote a whole heck of a lot again. 😛

  3. Thanks for the responses so far! Sorry I haven’t been quicker in responding.

    I have to admit, reading your response was a little bit embarrassing for me, Timber Wraith, because I didn’t factor in social hierarchies at all into my argument.

    Of course you are right, I think. Objectifying among people on the same rung of the social ladder is, as you say, “necessary for normal social interactions” and not inherently malicious. I see now that the examples I gave fall into this category: people of same or similar social positions objectifying each other over fairly inconsequential criteria.

    You capture the essence of the argument I was attempting to make very succinctly in the statement, “stereotypes that are used to inaccurately render the groups in question are then employed as justifications for the modes of exploitation that the subordinate groups are subjected to.” In the context of the argument I make, I see the popular media as being the source of inaccurate stereotypes and the notion of women as “consumable” commodities to be taken by men.

    And thank you also Lora for your comment! Something you said strongly resonated for me.

    Men can control themselves, and to say they can’t is just insulting

    I attended a conference a few weeks back on the status of women and one talk dealt with the way rhetoric forms around instances of rape. One case (trigger warning) we discussed included some horrifying details. A young aboriginal girl of 12 was raped by three white men outside a bar. What offends me so much is how often this behaviour will be written up simply as “boys being boys”. It is insulting and yet few people question this kind of thinking. I wish more men that don’t take part in our rape culture were more outraged by this.

    And Timber Wraith, you can write as much as you like! I feel that thanks are in order for sharing some of your personal story on this thread. As for your blog plug, my pleasure! It’s so nice to read a regular feed about the spiritual realm that cannot be summed up by stating, “this is how it is and to hell with the rest!”

    Thank you, both!

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