Sexual Objectification, Part 2: The Harm

This is the second part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects. (Part 1 can be found here.)

Sexual objectification is nothing new, but this latest era is characterized by greater exposure to advertising and increased sexual explicitness in advertising [PDF], magazines, television shows, movies [PDF], video games, music videos, television news, and “reality” television.

In a culture with widespread sexual objectification, women (especially) tend to view themselves as objects of desire for others. This internalized sexual objectification has been linked to problems with mental health  (clinical depression, “habitual body monitoring”), eating disorders, body shame, self-worth and life satisfaction, cognitive functioning, motor functioning, sexual dysfunction [PDF], access to leadership [PDF] and political efficacy [PDF]. Women of all ethnicities internalize objectification, as do men to a far lesser extent.

Beyond the internal effects, sexually objectified women are dehumanized by others and seen as less competent and less worthy of empathy by both men and women.  Furthermore, exposure to images of sexually objectified women causes male viewers to be more tolerant of sexual harassment and rape myths. Add to this the countless hours that some girls/women spend primping to garner heterosexual male attention, and the erasure of middle-aged and elderly women who have little value in a society that places women’s primary value on their sexualized bodies.

Theorists [PDF] have contributed to understanding the harm of objectification culture by pointing out the difference between sexy and sexual. If one thinks of the subject/object dichotomy that dominates Western culture, subjects act and objects are acted upon. Subjects are sexual, while objects are sexy.

Pop culture sells women and girls a hurtful fiction that their value lies in how sexy they appear to others; they learn at a very young age that their sexuality is for others. At the same time, sexuality is stigmatized in women but encouraged in men. We learn that men want and women want-to-be-wanted. The yardstick for women’s value (sexiness) automatically puts them in a subordinate societal position, regardless of how well they otherwise measure up. Perfectly sexy women are perfectly subordinate.

The documentary Miss Representation has received considerable mainstream attention, one indicator that the public is now recognizing the damaging effects of sexual objectification of women.

Widespread sexual objectification in U.S. popular culture creates a toxic environment for girls and women. The next two posts in this series provide ideas for navigating objectification culture in personally and politically meaningful ways.

Photo of Playboy Bunnies via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. wonderboy says:

    Women AND men (that can’t be underscored enough) both have a biological imperative toward sex; ergo, attracting sex. It is the engine of genetic multiplication. You shouldn’t be surprised at this. Why I bring this up, though, is that in similar, generic arguments (and there are plenty) this is never mentioned. Just as it has not been mentioned here. And to not acknowledge this is to fall right in with the glib, distorted, no-account culture that you presumably stand against. Good luck challenging a system if you choose only to operate on the surface and in the present…

    • Vicki Wharton says:

      Hey Wonderboy, The biological is just a small part of the story, and it doesn’t just stop and start with sex – as sex is just one part of the wider biological imperitive of procreation and bringing up the next generation. I think you are trying to undermine the whole topic by trying to dissect the discussion into one tiny area, which is also part of the glib, distorted picture that is served up by our no account biological determinant culture, as if we are not animals that function in family and societal groups bound by very strict handed down laws on behaviour. Our society is going through a time of massive, but largely undocumented change. As women have made strides for greater recognition of their human equality alongside men, a large percentage of men have retreated into violent chauvinism to safeguard their unearnt superior share of the wealth of this world. In the face of a massive global recession brought on largely by fiscal greed and fraudulent practice, coupled with global warming and governments that have abandoned tending the needs of the whole people in favour of the needs of the rich, this can’t go on. A corrupt system based on greed and subjugation challenges itself, it is inheritently unstable – any flick through a history book should tell you that so I don’t think it is this article that is purely dealing with the surface and the present …

  2. You’d think being the wanted would mean power. But the point is sex is NOT power. Power lies elsewhere. That’s what women have been learning, that’s what feminism means.

  3. Another point is that sex sells. Commodifying women, especially “sexy” perceptions of women, creates this false illusion of perfection that seems glamorous–Men want her, girls want to be her. And this “want” has economic and SOCIAL implications. We, the consumers, have to stop demanding and supporting companies that use sex to sell their ads or whatnot. Then and only then will the sexual objectification of women end.

  4. If there is an organized action against buying from a company that uses sex to sell, including letters to the leadership of the company explaining the reason for the action, it might be successful.

  5. That first d&g ad is the creepiest advert I have ever come across. Most of the others in this brilliant series of articles are lazy objectifications but that one just gave me the shivers..

  6. Hi I run a Movement against sexist representation in Media & Sexist perspective in the society. I have made a video about such representations from ancient text to today’s films (its in tamil only)…

    //At the same time, sexuality is stigmatized in women but encouraged in men. We learn that men want and women want-to-be-wanted// – Women need to self-criticise them and get out of the parrot talking of Men’s words.

    Women’s Empowerment – Who is responsible? is the question raised in the video.

  7. It is no secret that the American society is obsessed with sex. As a result, companies tend to use this fact to make money, but at what cost? The objectification of women’s bodies? The self-esteem of young women? The images of women that we see in the media, movies and advertisements have a great effect on the way our society behaves toward women.
    The advertisement I am emphasizing is the Carl’s Jr commercial with Parris Hilton in a scandalous bikini eating a large hamburger, the commercial states, “She’ll tell you size doesn’t matter. She’s lying.” Carl’s Jr has made several objectifying commercials since this one and they will continue to make more because this is what appeals to male viewers.
    Cral’s Jr is clearly portraying an oppressive view of women’s bodies in this commercial. In a patriarchal society women in the past and present have been look upon as lesser than men in more ways than one. A major concern of mine is that we may be starting to regress in our progress instead of pushing forward toward equality. With the continuous obsession of sex and the “beauty” of women’s bodies, will this give men more of a reason to treat women as sex objects who do not deserve to be respected? If women do not respect their own bodies enough to use them as productively why should men respect them?
    I do realize that men’s bodies are too used in sexual ways to sell products to women, however they are not nearly as prevalent in our society and in my experience I see men portrayed in more powerful ways whereas women are in much more vulnerable positions as if they are waiting for a man to overpower them. I believe this is a way for men to keep the upper hand on business, in the workplace, and in society in general and to make it seem like women are only on earth to please men’s needs.
    So, what can we do to change this view of women? First, as a society, we need to be more aware of the manipulation that is occurring when companies try to sell a product using sex. Second, the women that are being objectified in these advertisements, media, movies ect. need to be educated on the harmful effects that are occurring by displaying their bodies in such manners to entice men. These are important to change how society views women and to stop oppressive mannerisms from men.

  8. BasementBoi says:

    You objectify almost every person you meet in your daily life. Be it your dentist, your teacher or your mailman. If these people feel confortable within their roles, i don’t see what is wrong with objectification per se.

    A doctor for example, might be glad to ‘hide’ behind his professional role, because that enables him to do his work more efficiently.

    • There’s a huge difference between stereotyping and objectification. While stereotyping (as in seeing a doctor primarily as a member of his profession) makes us imagine people as less complex than they actually are, objectification equates people with objects, which have no complexity at all. While a doctor may feel comfortable being seen only as a doctor, I don’t think many people are comfortable being seen as inanimate.

      • Stereotypes have zero complexity; they are constructed of bullet-point generalizations.
        Objects are not necessarily inanimate. Women as objects are still expected to do things, just in a prescribed manner under control of the objectifier.
        In the same manner, the stereotyped are expected to act in a prescribed manner.
        Both are superficial, frequently harmful ways of viewing individuals. Why would a doctor feel comfortable only being seen as a doctor, and not also a great rock climber? Conversely, perhaps a Playboy bunny wants to be known as just that, because she has put so much time and effort into her career.
        Furthermore, what is up with the both of you typecasting the doctor as male? I say this to promulgate the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

  9. Alicia says:

    How does sexual objectification differ from lust? I see nothing wrong with lust.

    • If you see nothing wrong with lust then try and be an example of the victims of rape and other victims of objectification with the difficulty that comes with it and being treated like an object, then you will know that in every desire there must be sanity not excuses.Objectification does nothing good for anyone,it makes some dumb ppl turn into stereotypes and it affects the objectified in such a way that they want to be seen beyond their appearances or what they possess that attracts the lustful ones.Let human be Human not a piece of meat, no sentiments,Humans are beyond bodies,Bodiess are beyond and above ordinary sight and attraction.The human body is one of the most important thing that makes a human being if anything goes wrong with your body it affects your whole being,Humans are not just pictures or pictures to grab and fold into different positions like objects,the reality of it is that lust has a selfish motive and nothing sensible afterwards.This is why am an individual not a collection of every woman’s mind cause you be suprised some women are conditioned to look down on themselves thinking they are fine,some are conditioned to be ashamed.some even think they are basically sex object thereby making all the good works and the feminist movement to protect women and their rights to be treated with respect as fully human and good treatment to go into a total waste cause they are so backward in their thinking ,easily brainwashed and manipulated with naïve way of thinking . that is why you read some females comment who are still dozing waiting for their miseries to teach them what it means.rape cases should be reported as quickly as possible not by victimizing the victim and any other female victimization should be reported this should never be a norm.In every thing we do million excuses will never justify a thief or an armedrobber.Million and backward excuses should not justify objectification. self control and giving respect and dignity to human beings is the ultimate not when you dismember their body in your own way.A doctor maybe called a doctor by his profession by giving the dignity of health,a wife has her own name.,a girl has her Own name and a reason for being called a girl none of this sound like objectification to me but taking ppls sexuality for plaything is definitely objectifying them .what do you call ppl?Talk is cheap

  10. I believe men are also sexualized as well. I also think if women want to not be sexual objects they should reevaluate the message they are sending. This is not to say the phrase “she asked for it” is true because there is a difference between knowing you are dressed provocatively and dressing normally. Also, men are definitely to blame when it comes to rape because they are actively crossing a boundary. Unfortunately advertisements embody a lot of sexual objectification; however, we as a society have to make a change even thought it certainly won’t happen overnight.

  11. It is not right to completely correlate human beings with objects as a tactic for selling products. It is demeaning and lessens the worth of each individual. I understand playing on stereotypes of an individuals job and such but connecting two ideas and automatically assuming and asserting there beliefs and interests is immoral.

  12. I completely agree and identity with this article. As a high school student, I see objectification and issues of body image play out every day. The media is very influential, specifically social media, and plays a massive role in the lives of a lot of teens. I also think the media does promote rape culture and make objectification seem like it’s normal and ok.

  13. I think the part about the difference between sexual and sexy is very interesting. I never thought that there was any distinction between the two before. The idea that “Subjects are sexual, while objects are sexy” is empowering for those women who are often misjudged for being sexual. This article debunks the theory that women being “sexual” is a bad thing.

  14. I dont know if this is the right place to comment.
    But what im mad about about is how mostly every movie i see women are either full naked or got their. Breasts. Showing but with a man they. Have underwear on thats insulting and dis respectful towards women. Yes they agree to it but dont put a woman in a position to expose her self!!

  15. Wow…..I am a man and this is quite interesting for/ to my ears, but don’t many women in present society generally use their femininity (whole package) as a lure to aid them to passively/ subtly get what they need/want. I think also as an addition to their strength, naturally. I stand to be corrected. e.g. society expects a woman to be feminine not masculine as it’s deemed unusual and might be called tomboy/lesbian, yet the same society that wants sexual equality frowns on a feminine man and he may be suspected/labeled “gay”, by both women and men. So, in its very own nature, society is contradictory and can’t comprehend sexual equality. Can any one ever make a fair standardized comparison between differing entities? There will always remain exceptions that may very well contradict/ challenge the same equal comparison that society is at such pains to muster. e.g. Men are expected from early on, by society, to be rough, tough, strong, masculine, etc, while women are expected to be feminine, delicate, etc. Even the girl’s and boy’s toys are different, girls get bought barbies and boys get bought toy guns, toy vehicles, etc, and are expected to later on in their lives to reverse their roles. So, ultimately, wherein lies the comparison between men and women either than that we are both human and are interdependent upon each other, with different expected roles to perform?

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