An object, what is that?
When a person is Subject, she is the doer, the actor, the agency, the person.
When a person is the Object, he is the done-to, the acted-upon, the effect… we are not interested in him or his personhood or his preferences, because he is the done-to, not the doer. What he feels or wants is not part of the equation.
He: or she.
Women are objectified daily, especially in the context of sex and sexuality.
They are the done-to. Things are done to women by men.
They get kissed.
They get touched.
They get held in a manly embrace.
They get screwed, shagged, poked, banged, fucked.
What we feel or want is not part of the equation.
Because we do not do – we have things done to us.
Question: How did this happen?
Answer: Women became objects because of male culture.
For example… by forcing women to be different – feminine – they made us Other, and Less.
Men made women different because… well, patriarchy, duh. It suited the purposes of men to make women and men different, women “feminine” and men “masculine”. So that is what they chose to believe. Because they chose to believe it, because they wrote and painted and legislated and lived that belief, it came to pass. Male culture forced women to be feminine: they were educated to it, they were socialised to it, they were brought to femininity just as surely as a child born in Vladivostok is brought to speak Russian. It isn’t because children born in Vladivostok are inherently, biologically Russian-speakers – it is because Russian is the language to which they are exposed and which they will inevitably learn.
Patriarchy makes women and men different. It makes men the default and women, being made different from the default, Other. Patriarchy goes further: women are not just Other, but also Less. Femininity is not socialised womanhood, but socialised inferiority.
Thus women were ripe for objectification. Permitted no agency, we could not act but only be acted upon. Permitted no power, we could not affect anything, but only be affected. Permitted only an inferior personhood, what could we do, but allow our male superiors to take the lead, become the Subject to our Object? How could we have prevented it?
Male sexual domination makes us the done-to.
Wolf-whistles and bottom-pinching make us the done-to.
Unwanted sexual comments in the workplace make us the done-to.
Being looked at, without looking back, makes us the done-to.
Rape makes us the done-to.
We are the objects of male action, male attention, male agency.
We are the objects.
“Object” has another meaning.
An object is not just the done-to. An object is a thing. We women have become not just the done-to; we have also become things.
Naked women are used as dining tables* for male pleasure.
Naked or semi-naked women dance and strip for male pleasure.
Naked or semi-naked women are photographed, filmed, prostituted – for male pleasure.
And for male profit, too.
(* Yeah, Sparkle.)
When we become objects to eat off, to look at, to masturbate over, to masturbate inside, we become things. We become sexual objects. Not people, not at all. Sex toys.
Question: Can a man both view a woman both as an object and really get that she is also a person?
Answer: Of course he can.
I can look at women and men as objects, sometimes, without losing sight of their personhood. I can interact with a person who is the object of my actions or intentions without losing sight of the fact that I am also an object of their actions or intentions. And I can admire someone’s bottom and not give two hoots about his personality, yet care enough about his feelings not to embarrass him or invade his personal space. I can look at someone’s body parts as body parts, objects – her breasts, her vulva, her arms, her legs – and still understand that she is, when you zoom out from the body part to the whole person, fully human.
If I can do this, so can a man. So can anyone.
But just because they can does not mean that they do. And this I understand.
For women, there is no overwhelming daily bombardment with images of objectified men, there is instead an overwhelming culture that shows men as the Subject – in films, in literature, in art, in the news, in advertising: men are everywhere portrayed as fully human. We can empathise so easily with men because we have so many of their stories in our consciousness. We find it hard to forget that men are people too.
Yet, for men, things are different. Every day, everywhere they go, are images of women as Objects. Women are feminine. Women are different, mysterious, Other. Women are weak, helpless, devious, easily distracted by chocolate or jewels. Women are sexy, beautiful, desirable. They are accessories. They are victims. They are dependents. They exist for male pleasure and ownership, as beautiful, sexual – or even just plain useful – objects.
Women’s stories are not mainstream culture. Women’s stories told by women about real, interesting women are hard to find. You have to almost go underground to find a female culture that does not pander to the worldview that places women in the Object category.
For men, it must be very easy to forget that women, different and confusing and Other, are people too. It must be very easy just to let us be objects. And because we are objects, because we are something Other to them, because we are something different, it is easier to ignore or dimiss our suffering. To ignore or dismiss our relative disadvantage and our relative oppression. To ignore – and to dismiss – and to perpetuate – and to instigate.
Objectification, in short, is compatible with respect and equality. We can see a person both as an object (in either sense) and also as a person. But things have long since fallen out of balance – one group, women, are consistently the objects and the other group, men, are consistently the subjects. We are exposed over and over to the messages that objectify women and “subjectify” men. Over and over. We would have to be resilient indeed not to start believing the hype. The brief, individual, gender-neutral, mostly-harmless objectification that accompanies, say, curiosity about or appreciation of another person’s body has become an apparently permanent mass delusion that women are in fact things. Not people at all.
The mass delusion is – do I have to say it? – damaging.
And every image or message that confirms and reinforces the mass delusion, perpetuates it. Every time we create or promote images or messages that perpetuate the mass delusion, we harm women.
Men who objectify women reinforce the message.
Women who willingly become sexual objects reinforce the message.
Men who consume the products of objectification encourage the industries of objectification.
They reinforce the message.
I am not talking here about blame. This isn’t about blame. It is about understanding how harm happens. How it is perpetuated. How it can be stopped.
Because “object” has another meaning, too: It is not only a noun; It is also a verb.