By Jane Gilmore
In another example of academic research proving something we already know, psychologists from Melbourne University and Sydney University recently ran an experiment showing men are more likely to become aggressive towards women who reject them if the women are sexually objectified.
Sexual desire and sexual objectification are two very different things. Desire is a feeling someone has for a specific person, they are humanised more, not less, by being desired. Objectification is the opposite, it dehumanises.
An objectified woman is nothing but a collection of body parts, interchangeable with any other objectified woman. She exists only to provide gratification to the man gazing at her.
Both men and women feel less empathy for sexually objectified women. They are perceived as less moral. People are less concerned if they are harmed, less likely to report violence done to them, and more likely to blame them for that violence if it occurs.
Research (and common sense) says women sexualise themselves for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s to attract attention from men, but they are equally likely to do it just because it’s fun or it makes them feel good about themselves.
Taking ownership of sexuality can also be a powerful feeling, it’s something women can choose for themselves rather than have it imposed upon them. Other women say they do it because they feel pressured to look sexy.
While women play with expressing sexiness for a variety of reasons, most men respond to sexual women the same way: they assume (wrongly) that any woman displaying sexuality is available for sex.
According to the research, “because sexualised women are presumed to be more interested in having sex, rejection by a sexualised woman constitutes a greater ego threat than rejection by a non-sexualised woman”.
The combination of damage to the ego and a dehumanised woman makes aggression much more likely. An objectified woman is a thing and sex with her is an entitlement she has no right to deny to a man who claims it. Men will react aggressively and sometimes violently to objectified women who reject them.
This experiment was about specific women who were interacting with individual men. If you make the logical extension from individual to social, what happens when women as a group are objectified?
Jean Kilbourne, writing for MediaLit, says, “Advertising is an over 100 billion dollar a year industry and affects all of us throughout our lives. We are each exposed to over 2000 ads a day, constituting perhaps the most powerful educational force in society.”
Research from the Geena Davis Institute shows a distinct difference in how men and women are depicted in those 2000 images. Men are significantly more likely to demonstrate intelligence, have a job, be funny and be older than twenty. Women are six times more likely than men to be shown in sexually revealing clothing.
I live in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. The tram ride to the CBD takes about half an hour. Late last year I spent a week counting every sexualised image of women I could see from my seat on the tram. I couldn’t get below 100 images on any single half hour journey. I’ve been catching that tram for 20 years and until that week I’d barely noticed those images, let alone how pervasive they are. The things we don’t notice are far more dangerous than the things we do.
How many women do you know who look like this? The answer is none because these women don’t even look like this. But these images are everywhere: sexual, passive, objectifying, demeaning, and inescapable.
It’s impossible to measure the effect of ubiquitous objectification because there’s no way of finding a control group of men who have never been exposed to it, but it makes logical sense that if men react aggressively to one sexually objectified woman the overall effect must be true when women in general are objectified.
And then there are the women we don’t ever see. The invisible women. Trans women. Lesbian women. Aboriginal women. Women with disabilities. Older women. Working women. Asian women. Black women. Brown women. Women bigger than a size six and older than 22.
Just women as they actually are when they are living their lives and being human.
There’s being misrepresented and then there’s not being represented at all. The women that don’t fit the old white man’s narrative of womanhood are completely erased from public view. They’re dehumanised by not being allowed to exist. For these women, before they can have their voices heard, they have to fight to have their very existence acknowledged. The debilitating exhaustion of that is unimaginable.
Research that proves what we already know is necessary because it takes a feeling and makes it fact.
Feminists are not decrying objectifying images of women because they are the hairy fun police hating on joy and freedom. They do it because these images make women less human and men more dangerous. And if we can’t stop it we can at least notice it.