No woman wants to feel that the man watching her from across the room sees a collection of body parts rather than a fully formed human.
Feminists have asserted all along that objectifying women is unhealthy, base and unappealing. Perhaps it's because objectification seems so akin to dehumanization. What if a man's idea of women as mere tools for sexual gratification makes him physically and emotionally manipulative, aggressive or otherwise coercive? One recent study seems to be connecting the dots, so to speak.
The new research, published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, discovered that more objectification of a female partner's body is related to more incidents of sexual pressure and coercion in romantic relationships — an important area of inquiry, given the heartbreaking toll of intimate partner sexual violence in the United States. Psychologists Laura R. Ramsey and Tiffany Hoyt spoke to 119 males and 162 females for the study. "Men who frequently objectify their partner's bodies by excessively focusing on their appearance are more likely to feel shame about the shape and size of their partner's body," they write, "which in turn is related to increased sexual pressure (i.e., the belief that men expect sex and that it is a woman's role to provide sex for her partner) and sexual coercion, both in general and through violence and manipulation."
Why is it again that some still believe catcalling and other forms of harassment are harmless?
Another study conducted by Washington State University researchers establishes a similar idea. It says that men who read magazines that tend to objectify women are less likely to respect sexual boundaries because their content gives them a false impression about physical experiences and consent. While there may be no direct correlation (all Maxim-reading men certainly aren't predators), there's definitely more damage done in looking at women as your personal entertainment and pleasure machines than as empowered individuals.
One common excuse for the objectifying gaze is that men in particular are wired to do so, that some part of their brains can't help themselves. Unfortunately, it's not simply a male issue; one 2012 study found that both men and women tend to look at women in the same way they look at houses or sandwiches — not as a whole, but as a composite of separate attractive parts. Over time, women who felt like their partners were constantly evaluating them physically were more likely to feel shame and insecurity and to devalue their own self-worth. As the Huffington Post's Rebecca Adams points out, "This body insecurity made the women less comfortable in front of their partners, which in turn made them less likely to refuse sex, communicate their sexual needs or actually enjoy sex."
So what's woman to do? Pop culture has long been fueled by the male gaze, but as Caroline Heldman once wrote for Ms. magazine, "this latest era is characterized by greater exposure to advertising and increased sexual explicitness in advertising, magazines, television shows, movies, video games, music videos, television news and 'reality" television.'" In short, despite the best efforts of gender-equality advocates, objectification is still very much widespread.
The first step, it seems, may be self-awareness. "Acknowledging objectification in their relationships may help women realize when they lack agency and allow them to resist and avoid sexual pressure," Ramsey and Hoyt write. "Furthermore, thinking about objectification in terms of agency and sexual pressure could also have implications for women's relationship satisfaction, both sexual and otherwise. Women who feel that they have no control and who experience sexual pressure from their partner will not be as satisfied as women who feel like they have control over their body and the decisions in the relationship."
The moral here is that women need to understand that being in a romantic relationship with someone does not mean that person gets to dehumanize or disempower them — just as objectifying men need to wise up to ladies' humanity too.