Does Sexual Objectification Lead to Bad Sex?

Turning women into sex objects heightens the erotic experience, right?

A growing body of research indicates the opposite: for women and, surprisingly, men.

A new longitudinal study out of Pennsylvania State found that when women lost their virginity, they lost self-esteem, too. Before they had sex, the body image of the women in the study steadily improved. But after a first sexual experience it dropped. Why? The study found that in bed women became self-conscious and critical of their bodies.

Tracy Clark-Flory over at Salon.com points out that this loss of self-esteem likely spells a loss of sexual pleasure. While women are supposedly enjoying sex, an awful lot of us are distracted, worrying that we don’t meet sex-object standards. Breasts are too small? Butt is too big? Cellulite, anyone?

Or as Clark-Flory puts it, “You think, ‘Do my breasts look OK from this angle’ instead of, ‘Wow, this position feels fantastic.’”

Even if you are proud of your body, self-scrutiny can distract from lovemaking. Caroline Heldman, assistant professor at Occidental College, writes that women who are hyper-aware of their appearance see sex as an ‘out of body’ experience, but not in a heavenly way. They view themselves through an imaginary camera lens, focusing on how they look in one position or another, as if they were porn stars. And their sexual pleasure suffers.

Heterosexual men should pause at this news. It’s likely they would enjoy themselves more if their partners were present and actively engaged, instead of dealing in distraction.

But objectification of women can also interfere more directly with straight men’s enjoyment of sex. Men who consume porn say they come to objectify women in a way that has them expecting a particular body type, leaving them disappointed if their partner looks different from the idealized images they’re used to.

“I prefer women with a C- or D-cup, full-figured but definitely not overweight. I don’t want some small spindly girl either,” a young man explained in Pamela Paul’s Pornified. “Briana Banks is the ultimate. She’s not only blonde, she’s got the right chest size.”

In Pornified, psychologist Gary Brooks explains that he is concerned that many of these men lose the ability to be aroused by their partner’s positive features, and try instead to “re-create the images from porn in their brain when they’re with another person in order to maintain their arousal.” Adds Mark Swartz, clinical director of the Masters and Johnson clinic in St. Louis:

You’re making love to your wife, but you’re picturing someone else. That’s not fair to the woman, and it’s miserable for the man.

Some men may think objectifying women is a harmless pleasure, but the Penn State study and others suggest it’s a buzzkill.  Think this information could spur a movement to end objectification?

Photo from www.CGPGrey.com.

Comments

  1. No, no ‘movements’ no ‘call to end’ anything, because that just brings up the old argument that anti-porn is prudish and anti-sex, at which point people just stop listening. Just tell it like it is! Watching too much porn, contrary to popular opinion, does not always enhance your sex life, it can damage it.

    The objectification of women needs to be discussed in a wider social context, we need to continually question the way women’s achievements are always sidelined by reference to their bodies.

  2. Charlotte says:

    I can one million percent agree with this. A child of the 80s, I grew up during a mainstream porn explosion with pornographic video clips and pornified women’s magazines and almost all the sex I had was a complete disconnect for exactly the reasons listed above. I have to learn in my late twenties what sex is when it is not influenced by media-induced expectations which is really sad.

  3. While I totally agree that mainstream pornography is pretty disgusting in the way it depicts women, I find it hard to believe that porn in and of itself is uniformly negative. I feel like it is possible that pornography can be used as a medium by which to challenge conventional gender norms and expectations about sex. Take sites like nofauxx, for example. It is a pansexual porn site upon which images are not categorized along sex or gender lines, in which trans folks aren’t treated like a fetishized novelty, and bodies of all shapes and sizes are celebrated as sexy and beautiful and in which people are depicted genuinely enjoying sex. There are people that get off on being watched, and a whole hell of a lot of people who get off on watching. I don’t see how any expression of healthy sexuality is a bad thing. I enjoy porn- but I don’t enjoy the fake breasts, fake orgasms and general misogyny that defines most pornography. I do think there can be a middle ground in this debate.

  4. Well… feminists have only been saying this for the past 4 decades. But who’s listening?

    • NWOslave says:

      Feminist have been saying women own their sexuality for 4 decades and are presently engaged in slut-walking around North America. The multi trillion dollar fashion and beauty aid is run and endorsed by women. Porn is women making their own choices, they choose to objectify themselves for money and/or attention.

  5. Sheldon says:

    Hey – perhaps we should all go back to the 1950s, when there was no porn explosion, and women NEVER felt self-conscious and enjoyed themselves immensely in bed!!

    • It seems that as women’s sexual repression has decreased, our sexual objectificaiton has increased.

      • Goldmarx says:

        With all due respect, such objectification has been around before, say, the 1960s. It just takes different forms.

        Air force pilots painted Betty Grable on their planes during WWII. Male moviegoers were influenced by Marilyn Monroe and other Hollywood icons and were just as willing to be judgmental about women they dated under that “influence”. But since that stuff was not sexually explicit, it tends to get more of a free pass.

        What also has changed is that a sizable portion of internet sex viewership is women – women watching without men. Objectifiction is much more of a two-way street than ever before, yet folks like Caroline Heldman seem not to know that.

        Instead, they imply that sex for women was better when repression was greater. Somehow, I think Betty Friedan would disagree.

        • The internet has put porn into far more households so that men (mostly) who would have once been embarrassed to go into a sex shop or rent a video in public, can now easily access pornography in the privacy of their homes. As a result, men are much more exposed to it, and at much younger ages, than they were in the 50s. Pamela Paul sees the problem as “overexposure” to porn more than pornography, itself. I’m not sure how overexposure is defined, other than: if it’s harming your life and your real relationships, it’s overexposure.

          • Goldmarx says:

            Is it harming lives and relationships, or is it just a handy scapegoat for what’s really going on? The fact that most of the folks who are raising the issue of ‘pornification’ have always had an anti-porn agenda makes their credibility suspect.

            Since when were MEN embarrassed to go into sex shops? They weren’t the ones who would be called sluts if they were seen doing that. It’s women, not men, who are proportionately more exposed to it as a result of the Internet. A symptom of this is all these new Christian women groups treating female porn “addiction”.

        • Nancy Matthews says:

          Yes, in WWII planes had Betty Grable on them. And everyone know that it was Betty Grable not some nameless and faceless woman. Look at the pictures that accompany this article. That is what is meant by objectivication in the article. These are ads in magazines, for view at supermarkets and stores. The women do not have names, in some cases they do not have faces and they are in positions that are either interchangeable (i.e., you could have another woman in the picture in the same position and not change the message of the advertisement).

  6. Wintour says:

    It is extremely challenging to have a discussion of the potentially negative psychological (thus poosibly leading to larger-scale social) effects of such a broad industry as pornography. @ Sara, I totally agree that porn can be a liberating and valuable source of pleasure and creative expression for both producers and consumers of it, but I also feel that it is important to address certain specific social changes that may have manifested as a result of the wide proliferation and availability of all types of porn. As another child of the eighties, I saw my first porn via my neighbor’s satellite channel (with little technological challenge) at the age of nine, but that was just the beginning of the ease with which one can now access pornography. I am NOT saying Internet porn is a bad thing, but rather, I feel it is important to address the fact that hardcore porn may now have a much greater role in forming young people’s sexual identities than ever before. For instance, how do we help young people to understand the importance of condoms / barrier methods and other safer sex practices if the majority of the sex they have seen in their lives is ‘bareback’ sex between porn actors? Instead of the old good porn / bad porn, or yay porn / nay porn arguments, I would love to see (and intend to have) more discussions addressing how we can flourish within current social realities instead of one party placing moral judgements on another.

    To reign this tangent back into the topic at hand, I feel that specificity is they key to making progress in the discussion of the way pornography effects our sexual lives in many positive and potentially negative ways.

  7. Also, until the pornography industry takes a serious look at the collateral damage its internet proliferation inflicts (think child porn, torture and snuff genres), feminists will need to continue such analysis. Being “sex critical” does not make us anti-porn prudes with an “agenda”.

    • Goldmarx says:

      The adult porn industry has no connection to kiddie porn. Snuff is a mythological genre – its existence has never been proven. These are well-known facts, but if so-called feminists insist otherwise, then yes, it does make them prudes.

      • Glossing over the spin-off harm that the increasingly violent and in search of the next “edge” element of the porn industry is so standard for those with blinders on. Making the completely illogical jump from one who looks at the big picture of things to prude is also quite old. Find a new insult to sling – this one’s done worn out.

        • Goldmarx says:

          I don’t think so. If it walks like a duck and squawks like a duck, chances are it still is a duck. Or would you prefer ‘mallards’ so as not to appear so worn out?

          Maybe it’s just me, but I think making judgments based on facts is what’s important. When you just make up stuff about ‘collateral’ damage, you are going to get called out on that.

          Don’t like being called a prude? Don’t be one.

          • It’s not at all that I don’t like being called a prude. I know I’m not one, and I’m certainly not making anything up. It’s the reluctance of staunchly pro-porners to enter into any sort of discussion about the extremes and what can be done to ensure the safety of those within the industry that’s my issue. There’s this dismissive attitude of “well, I don’t watch child porn or get bothered by violent torture genres, so to hell with those affected by it”. I’m all for mutually consenting anything, but really wish there were more compassion on the part of everyone towards those affected negatively – that’s all – and your insistence to bring it down to the personal and write any critical comment off as prudery is an indication that there’s something bothersome about the larger context you’re attempting to sidestep.

            In that regard, if the so-called anti-porn agenda involves ensuring safety and true consent amongst all parties involved, what is so wrong with that?

          • Goldmarx says:

            Yes, you are making stuff up, as when you referred “snuff films”, or linked kiddie porn to the legal adult film and video industry via the ‘collateral damage’ smear. I’m surprised you didn’t claim that the porn industry is run by the Mafia!

            Your refusal to let go of long-refuted allegations is reminiscent of Tea-talitarians who refuse to believe that our President was born in America despite his release of his long-form birth certificate. Concepts like ‘safety’ and ‘consent’ are alien to those whose grasp on reality is tenuous at best.

  8. From a male’s perspective I couldn’t agree more. My experiences have proven to me that porn is the ultimate way to objectify women. It has also lead to creating unrealisticly high standards of arousal, making it harder to have a good time with a carbon based humans as opposed to the silicone based toys we often see.

  9. @Goldmarx Again, the personal insults do NOTHING for your argument. Peace, out.

  10. Elizabeth Calhoun says:

    Pam you are very well spoken, even while being called names by someone who can’t make an argument. Goldmarx, stop with the ad hominum. And regarding child porn, just gotta mention Traci Lords. They may not have known she was underaged when she was doing the shoots, but they haven’t stopped distributing the mags/images. They are very popular.

    And as far as hard core porn goes, Linda Lovelace was raped multiple times with a gun to her head during Deep Throat, and ‘people’ consider that a ‘classic’.

    • Are you seriously discussing porn that was made over thirty years ago that no one under forty knows about, much less has even seen? Hey, you forgot Shauna Grant and Natalie Boet.

      • If it’s still selling, it’s still an issue. In fact, I saw a piece talking about the great porn “revolution” brought about by Deep Throat just two weeks ago. It was entirely positive, and mentioned not one word about what the actress went through to film that little piece of “revolution”.

        As for today’s porn and how it treats women, I’ve yet to see any porn in a long time that doesn’t involve a woman on her knees with some guy ejaculating in her face. One woman after another pulling out her thatch so she can be sans pubic hair like in porn and please some guy. (Seriously, if that isn’t making the pre-pubescent look the ideal, I don’t know what it’s doing. Really, really gross obsession that is rampant in adult porn.) Yep. It’s all better now.

  11. Possibly the silliest, most tenuously supported argument I have heard in some time. Does this qualify as scholarship and/or journalism? It would be more intellectually honest to say. “Porn is bad ’cause I say so” than this bizarre, yet mercifully short, exercise in pretzel logic with incomplete and tangential references to assorted studies. (No, I don’t like Steely Dan although I still think their name is funny.)

    Shoddy work like this does a disservice to the feminist cause.

  12. I like this article and am convinced that pornography objectifies women.

    Porn contributes to the double standard of looks. In the United States, women are expected to be well groomed and fit but men are allowed to be overweight slobs. Dating “experts” constantly tell women to always look their best because men are so “visual.” However, they seldom tell men to always look their best and are very tolerant of objectification because “it’s in men’s genes.”

    Objectification of women is not just in the media. It’s extremely prevalent in marriage counseling and dating coaching.

    We can’t just critique the media. We need to criticize the Annie Gleason’s of the world. In her dating columns, she tells women to always look their best but she never says it to men. She also tells women to let men “be the man” and to be the “follower” in the relationship. Nina Atwood and several other relationship
    “experts” also give this male chauvinistic advice.

  13. Jennifer Majewski says:

    In regard to: Does sexual-objectification lead to bad sex?

    I think the real problem with objectification of women, for women, is that women continually endorse self-objectification, primarily because we are taught from a very early age to do so. We are constantly bombarded by images of the spectacularly “perfect,” desired woman–tall, tanned, impossibly thin, but always endowed with at least C-cup breasts. Women that look, essentially, like Barbie dolls, and the only real difference in these images seem to be in hair color and style, eye color, and so on. On television, in myriad (so many of them pointless, and useless) magazines, and in pornography, we see ourselves defined as “perfect” creatures existing to serve the pleasures and desires of men. Fashion magazines in particular (and I think they can be as dangerous pornography, and much more insidious, because they are not “stigmatized”–by stigmatized I mean, they are not directly connected to graphic sexual expression–they are much more accessible to women in this way) are almost ridiculously objectifying, and present women as sexualized creatures, who are given countless tips on how to make themselves more attractive to men–weight-loss tips, hair and makeup tips, dating tips (“how to drive him crazy,” etc.) As a result of this perverse saturation, women become trained (by an early age) to accept that they exist, first and foremost, to attract men (which leads to marriage, children, and alleged “happiness)–as we are trained to believe this, our brains become hyper-attuned to the desires of men; we begin to see ourselves not only through the eyes (the lens) of men, but of women, too. We become insanely self-critical, but we also are trained to be critical of other women, too, and jealous of other attractive women–either they “have” what we don’t have, or we see them as direct threats to our connections and relationships with men. We have become almost as bad as men in terms of endorsing this nonsense; we viciously self-objectify, self-judge, criticize…we lose all sense of our true identities as women–what we like and don’t like, what we desire and eschew…and worst of all, we can lose sight of the much more vital (and enduring) aspects of ourselves, such as our talents, our intelligence, our meaning as individuals in the world. I think pornography presents a real problem in the sense that it also exacerbates this objectification–most women (not all, but most) in pornography are presented as more conventionally attractive, with the almost genetically impossible combination of long, thin limbs, tiny waist, and large, perfect (frequently silicone-enhanced) breasts that defy gravity. We watch these perfected representations of ourselves heartily enjoying sex, with no inhibitions, and most absurdly, the seemingly limitless capacity for explosive, multiple orgasms. As we watch this almost perverse caricature of reality unfold, we cannot help but link the idea of sexual pleasure with sexual attractiveness. If we are not these idealized versions, we cannot allow ourselves to fully indulge in fun, purely uninhibited sex…we just can’t relax in bed, because we fear scrutiny by not just ourselves (and it goes on all the time–do I look good in this position? Should I try and hide this part of my body so he can’t see it? Well, I can’t have sex in the daylight, because then he’ll see my cellulite, etc.) but by our partners–and even if our partners reassure us that we’re “attractive” enough, we still can’t shut off that internal dialogue we torture ourselves with: “he says he likes the way I look, but he must be lying to me…he must be thinking I look fat; he’s just trying to be nice.” Etc. As women, how on earth can we possibly begin to accept our bodies as the way they are, in a culture that is morbidly obsessed with image, perfection, status, and constant physical “self-improvement?” We are saturated by images of celebrities and their latest plastic surgery ventures: did she, or didn’t she? And while of course many male celebrities have plastic surgery, the dominant images we are presented with are of women. We even delight in seeing the plastic-surgery disasters in female celebrities; it somehow satisfies our need for revenge in seeing a perfectly beautiful actress ruin her god-given beauty by totally unnecessary, pointless plastic surgery. Why, as women, do we constantly buy into this self-objectification? What has happened to us? Partially because, now with social media and more sophistication and availability of all sorts of websites and images, we are even more bombarded than ever: before this explosion of the Internet and social media, we only really had movies, magazines, and television to contend with–those were the main thrusts where advertising found their homes. And I think advertising is one of the real culprits for all of this toxic nonsense. The main reason for advertising, of course, is to make money: lots and lots of money. And how do you do this? By creating products. How do you sell products? Convince the potential buyer that they need these products. And how do you do that? By creating a problem to be solved–a problem that can only be solved by the purchase of the product (the solution). How do you create a problem that really doesn’t exist? By tapping into the deepest vulnerabilities, fears, and worries of the consumer. With women, this is so easy to do, because we are inherently fraught with so many of these vulnerabilities and insecurities. Convince a woman that she just can’t live without a $200 jar of La Mer creme, and she’ll buy it. Stress the connection between sexual attractiveness (and eternal youth) to the product itself, and she’s even more convinced she has to have it. Throw in a few celebrity endorsements of this wonder cream, and connect an image of the rhapsodizing celebrity with an image of the cream: the cream becomes this elevated, all-desired, must-have, otherworldly product of mythic proportion. We see that this particular celebrity looks incredibly young, dewy, and happy (although more likely than not, she has had “work done,” that delightful euphemism that puts a positive spin on things), and suddenly we want what she’s got, so we happily spend money we haven’t got, on something we really don’t need. I think women have to be much more aware of this tendency to self-objectify, to self-sexualize, and to ask themselves where their real desires, pleasures, and needs are rooted…and to ask more questions, do more research…but unfortunately, in my experience, it doesn’t seem like most women (especially young women) care all that much, even as they suffer as a result of it; and if they do care, they don’t voice their concerns; in fact, I have known (and been friends with) women who actively engage in self-objectification (I have done it much myself, particularly in my twenties and thirties), who enjoy being seen as sexual objects, and who find much sexual pleasure in regard to being viewed in this way, not just by men, but by women, too. I think all women have fallen into this really very dangerous trap. And for a woman, there can be a very real, very tangible personal pleasure to be found in the process of self-adornment, something that becomes akin to a ritual: dressing for a date, a dinner party, whatever it may be. And the pleasure of self-beautification is very frequently a sexual one, not only directly connected to the way we present ourselves to our partners (and the joy we receive from their reactions), but to true sexual selves, our personal sexual desires. So when do we know where, and when, the separation takes place? When do we realize that we have lost our true selves, and are just merely sublimating our wills to the sexual pleasure of others? It’s a very serious problem culturally, and with very few satisfying answers.

  14. bluefooted says:

    So from what I read… did I get this right? Women during sex are self-scrutinizing themselves, and the fault is men?

    We can talk about porn, but it has been around for a long time. People have always preferred different women. Personally when I was in middle school, BEFORE porn, there were girls I liked and girls I didn’t like. I even played games with other boys and girls where we would flip playing cards to find out who we were going to marry, but you had to choose which 4 (max) you wanted.

    So even as early as 5th grade, before porn was in my life, I was realizing I preferred the look of some women over others. Does porn make that more so? I highly doubt it.

    So that just goes back to what this article starts with. Women are self-scrutinizing themselves during sex, and somehow it is porn industry / men’s fault.

  15. What, exactly, is objectification? How does it differ from sexual thoughts or pleasure?

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