"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

My objections to “objectification”

Ozy keeps writing about objectification, which they seem to use synonymously with “fetishization”. I had high hopes they would finally be the person who uses that word in a way that makes sense, so I can stop just assuming it’s a totally made-up horrible useless concept. But this was not to be.

Ozy is bisexual and gets upset when people with a fetish for bisexuals proposition them, describing it as “some asshole dude deciding that your sexuality is for his entertainment” and saying that “I am deeply creeped out by dudes who are more attracted to me because I’m bi”.

They are equally upset when people “objectify” fat people, trans people, Asian people, black people, dominant people, submissive people, et cetera. If I understand this right, they say being attracted to a dominant person just because they’re dominant is “believing that people you’re attracted to exist for your boner”; being attracted to fat people is equivalent to telling them “look, people who are attracted to you are so rare that you should be willing to fuck literally anyone who’s attracted to you”.

It is probably a bad sign when, in order to criticize a concept, you have to make your hypothetical target example say and think things totally unrelated to that concept and much worse than it.

Look. Suppose Bob is a sadomasochistic amputee who has a fetish for fat transgender Asian women. And suppose he happens to live next to Alice, a fat transgender Asian woman who has a fetish for sadomasochistic amputees. They can either both sit alone in their rooms, feeling like approaching the other would be vaguely sinful for reasons they can’t exactly parse. Or they can, as the economists say, derive gains from trade.

I don’t think Ozy objects to Bob and Alice starting a relationship. I just think they object to either of them ever asking the other whether they’d like to start a relationship. If the Relationship Fairy fell out of the sky and magically informed them that they were interested in each other, then it would be totally acceptable. But if one of them has to go and check, then that’s wrong, because it might make one of them feel “objectified”.

But if you lash out in anger any time someone investigates whether they can make a mutually beneficial deal with you, such that fear of this reaction prevents everyone all around the world from ever trying to make mutually beneficial deals with anyone else, then the problem is with you.

I have not had much experience with psychiatry yet but one of the things I have learned is that human fetishes are one of the most powerful forces in the world. I met a man who had used up pretty much his entire life savings going to niche prostitutes who would satisfy his fetish; eventually it came out and led to a divorce. We asked him: did you ever ask your wife if she might be interested in doing this with you, so you didn’t have to cheat on her in the most expensive possible way? “No, of course not, it would have been so embarrassing, imagine what she would have thought of me, I couldn’t degrade her like that.”

I have just enough faith in the fundamental perversity of the Universe to consider it inevitable that his wife shared the same fetish and was probably going to expensive prostitutes of her own, like a disgusting x-rated version of Gift of the Magi. If they had just talked to each other they could have sorted out the whole debacle. But no, because of this concept of “objectification” we can’t have nice things.

And I am still loading the dice in Ozy’s favor by mentioning all these sadomasochistic fetishes and amputee fetishes that make it look like objectification is something perverted. What if you like guys with red hair? Guys who dress in suits? Girls who play the harp? Girls with an unwavering committment to leave the world a better place than it was when they arrived, which shines brightly forth through their every word and action?

(I have both of the latter two fetishes. It’s terribly embarrassing and you must never tell.)

But seriously. How come we think “attracted to a girl who plays the harp” is socially acceptable, but “attracted to a transgender woman” is a disgusting fetish?

(Ohmigod. I just realized my girlfriend doesn’t actually love me for who I am. She just loves all of my characteristics.)

As far as I can tell, the distinction seems to be that liking someone because they play the harp is the sort of thing associated with wanting a long-term relationship partner, and liking them because they’re transgender is the sort of thing associated with wanting to have casual sex.

If someone likes you because you’re transgender, you have to not just politely say no, but become extremely offended and yell at them, or else people will suspect you’re the kind of person who thinks having casual sex with people is okay, ie a slut.

Which is fine, if you’re one of those conservative people who think sluttiness is a real thing and you must never have casual sex because that is wrong. Yet the people attacking “fetishization” claim to be sex-positive. For them to continue hating on “objectification” doesn’t compute.

I talked to Ozy about this, and they finally said that their real problem is people assuming they deserved sex with them because the person had a bisexual fetish and Ozy was bisexual. And that sometimes this led to them being pushy or pressuring them for sex.

This is obviously a legitimate complaint. It’s just not a complaint about objectification.

If someone learned everything about Ozy, and fell deeply in love with them for their amazing personality, and then said “I deserve sex with you, whether you’re interested or not, and it has nothing to do with your bisexuality, it’s solely because I’m deeply in love with your amazing personality” and then kept pressuring them about it, then even though this is exactly the opposite situation it would be exactly as bad.

But the point is, there is absolutely zero wrong with objectifying someone. There is a lot wrong with ignoring other people’s right not to consent. But we knew ignoring non-consent was bad already. All the concept of “objectification” adds is giving you an excuse to hate innocent people because they’re in the vague periphery of a bad thing. Screw that.

I wrote this about gender because people only read blog posts when they’re about gender or politics, but the same principle of “Informed consent is sufficient and all that worrying about objectification adds is preventing mutually beneficial deals” applies to pretty much all discussion of objectification including in philosophy.

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49 Responses to My objections to “objectification”

  1. suntzuanime says:

    Please don’t kill everyone in the world. They’re hateful hypocrites, but they’re all we’ve got.

  2. aretae says:

    complete side-note to the main thrust of your point. I think the PUA/Game folks have the nice guy thing nailed better than you have. Here’s their line:

    For most men, there is some category of women for whom one finds sexually repulsive. That category varies some by the particular man, but it usually exists. If you were hanging about a sexually repulsive woman, and said sexually repulsive lass let you know, ever so nicely, that she wouldn’t object if you suggested a roll in the hay, and even left the notion alone…what happens? For most men, first they get an unpleasant image in their head that might require brainsoap. Then they get the willies. And then they have trouble being near said sexually repulsive woman in the future, even though as an acquaintance/friend/non-sexual entity she is non-bothersome…for reasons of disgust.

    Insufficiently manly men (“nice guys”) are the male-equivalent of the above repugnant woman when considered against a typical female psyche. Fine, treated as asexual friends. BUT…when even thought of sexually, they land somewhere between disgusting and needs brainsoap. AFAICT, this is a better read of “nice guy” issues than yours.

    • im says:

      I think that the PUA analysis is massively off base, and I don’t think that women find nice guys, insufficiently manly men, or Nice Guys particularly sexually repulsive.

      Plus… my own take on the sexually repulsive woman: Sexual repulsiveness is not neccessary for friendship to be weird. If somebody is attractive but denied to me (because they are already in an exclusive relationship, because they are too old or too young, etc.) then it can be hard to be friends with them. If somebody not repulsive, but not even slightly sexually attractive were to make an advance, same thing.

      I don’t think that the whole nice guy thing is connected to masculinity at all.

    • komponisto says:

      I think the missing link here is that complaining about this phenomenon can be seen as “feeling entitled”. This is especially true when the complaints come from less articulate people whose words can be literally read that way.

      • anodognosic says:

        Well, maybe the problem is unselfconcious complaining, or the unexamined double-standard, and the unfair resentment thereof. The complainers are more than usually non-conventionally-attractive passive guys who are pining after conventionally attractive outgoing girls–I might add, girls who often treat them with the same level of regard and consideration as the “assholes” they rail about treat the objects of their affections. It’s not the nice, plain girls that they are typically mooning about. (And if this sounds harsh, please keep in mind that I am talking about myself ten years ago, and I think my experience generalizes). So in short, these guys are acting no differently from the girls they obliviously and hypocritically complain about.

    • Anonymous says:

      If you were hanging about a sexually repulsive woman, and said sexually repulsive lass let you know, ever so nicely, that she wouldn’t object if you suggested a roll in the hay […] first they get an unpleasant image in their head that might require brainsoap. Then they get the willies. And then they have trouble being near said sexually repulsive woman in the future […] for reasons of disgust.

      I’m not most men, but that’s not how things happened when I encountered this situation. The unrequited sexual attraction was problematic for a while, as these things are, but mainly because of emotional asymmetries: when someone’s strongly attracted to you, they put certain kinds of weight on your opinions that you might not put on theirs, and that’s stressful for a friendship. I didn’t feel any lingering disgust around her, though, and although it took some work to resolve the other problems, she ended up staying one of my best friends.

    • Army1987 says:

      For most men, first they get an unpleasant image in their head that might require brainsoap. Then they get the willies. And then they have trouble being near said sexually repulsive woman in the future, even though as an acquaintance/friend/non-sexual entity she is non-bothersome…for reasons of disgust.

      Huh, that basically never happens to me. Well, there was that time that that short, pimply Asian girl kind-of hit on me, but I barely knew her — if someone has actually been my friend for any amount of time, no matter how ugly they are, I mithridatize against their ugliness so that the idea of a “roll in the hay”, while still not appealing, definitely won’t be a Langford basilisk. (But then again, watching 2 Girls 1 Cup didn’t have any long-lasting impact on me, even for “long” = “five minutes”.)

    • im says:

      Personally I think that the claim that (at least some) objectification involves being talked about but not considered part of the audience. : .

      I’d add that either expecting unilateral fulfillment of desires or assuming that the other party’s desires are exactly compatable with your own often seems to be considered objectifying.

    • Fnord says:

      One of the issues that article raises is why “objectification” so often is reduced to meaning sexual objectification.

      It is absolutely true that non-sexual objectification happens. And I think there’s a paucity of discourse on it, and that the mostly exclusive focus on sexual objectification can obscure the issue.

      • Anonymous says:

        Well, I’d argue that the vast majority of interactions between people in a modern society require some degree of objectification. I mean, take ordering food at most restaurants – I’m going to treat the person who takes my order as, essentially, a human vending machine, who takes money and information and spits out food. I’m polite, sure, but at the end of the day I don’t care about that person for their personality or their personal traits, I care that they either will or won’t get me the food that I am there to purchase – that person specifically has no terminal value to me, they are simply an instrument to get food.

      • Anonymous says:

        Heh, that will teach me to read the entire comments sectionbefore commenting on any one post.

    • Fnord says:

      Since I’m taking about that article, it points out, correctly, that “We all use each other as means to an end, or as objects of one kind or another, all the time. And we can do so while respecting their autonomy.”

      Using someone as a means to an end does fulfill criterion 1 “Instrumentality. The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.” But a single criterion is not necessarily problematic (as I think even Nussbaum would agree). If you’re doing it in a way that does respect the other persons autonomy, you’re not, by definition, meeting criterion 2, and probably not particularly likely to meet the other criteria (in particular 3, 7, and 10 are unlikely to be met when autonomy is respected).

      To take an example of non-sexual objectification, the waitstaff in a restaurant are there in order to provide the function of delivering food to the customers. As you say, they’re being used as a means to an end. Which is, in this context, not a problem. But perhaps you’ve heard the expression “If someone is nice to you but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person.” If someone is rude to the waiter, they’re going beyond criterion 1 to (at minimum) meeting criterion 7, because they’re treating the waiter as someone “whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.”

  3. Andrew Crawshaw says:

    Makes a lot of sense to me.

  4. Ben L says:

    Somehow I managed to miss all the expansive definitions that bother you – I never got the impression than objectification and Nice Guys ™ was anything but particular ways somebody could act entitled and/or ignore your agency. But now that I think about it, I guess that’s an easy way to see the example that comes to mind, which is Asian (women) be propositioned uncomfortably, especially as if any Asian would do.

  5. Alice says:

    Oh god. I just realized that this is probably part of the problem when people talk about Nice Guys (TM). They’re probably actually upset about nice guys who think they deserve sex for being nice, but no one ever frickin’ mentions that

    Really? That exact point is one I’ve seen made fairly commonly in descriptions of the Nice Guy concept.

  6. im says:

    Ummmm.. in the Nice Guy Discourse, the problem with entitlement has been discussed a LOT. Although it seems confused between ‘I seem to be unfairly singled out for not having sex’ and the actually bad ‘I deserve sex with this person and am not getting it’

    I think that a lot of the objectification complaints are that the language used tends to be really degrading on its own and it involves people who end up being really disgusting. Alternatively, it happens in environments that shouldn’t be about sex and results in particularly objectifiyable people having a shitty time.

  7. Firedrake says:

    Note, all of this is in my perception and worldview; I’m not claiming it’s valid for anybody else.

    Objectification is a state of mind, or at second order a presentation aimed at achieving a state of mind. As with any such, any definition is going to be fuzzy.

    First-order: the sort of person who says “I’d hit that” rather than “I’d like to sleep with her“.

    Second-order: presenting a (usually female) character as a body, an object, rather than as a person. (See, well, practically any film or TV. Particularly note, when a character is introduced, how often the face is left until last, or for a minor character not shown at all.)

    • Fadeway says:

      Objectification is linked to two things – fetish and harm. I only see the term used in feminist/etc publications to describe sexual content and equate it with badness without due explanation. That is, with objectification as the middleman, sexualization/wish-fulfillment = objectification = bad sounds reasonable; whereas if you remove it, sexualization = bad is harder to push as an idea. The problem is that those two things are not equal at all.

      The more important aspect would be that in order to harm someone, you have to forget that they’re a human. That is, it’s painful to be harmful to others if you keep reminding yourself that all they want is to be happy and they have emotions just like you etc. It can be downright enjoyable to inflict harm if you convince yourself that they’re “evil” or subhuman (just targets etc) though. Hence, to objectify someone in one’s mind would be to remove one’s empathy towards them, enabling violence.

      Objectification is often also linked to sex; if you watch porn, you’re objectifying the pornstar because you’re not thinking about them much and are instead enjoying their body. Which is, well, wrong, and even if it were true, it is still orders of magnitude removed from losing empathy for them.

      I’m not a fan of uniting both meanings under one term to equate them.

      • anodognosic says:

        I think an instructive set of examples here comes from the Escher Girls tumblr, in particular those which show how sexualization of female comic book characters overrides any other concern about story and character. A particularly egregious example showed a female character portrayed in a heavily sexualized pose while dying a tragic death (http://eschergirls.tumblr.com/post/44478581846/more-asbar). I think superhero comics are a general case in which the art all too often leads the reader to forget that female characters are human, which can be usefully called objectification. Contrast this with porn, or at least the best porn, where sex is actually the point, the proper context of the situation. Here, the viewer has the opportunity to engage with the actors and their actions and reactions as human beings, not merely bodies, in a way that’s different but somewhat analogous to what happens when watch a good movie, say.

      • Federico says:

        A woman is valued, by the objectifier, more for her uniquely female attributes than for her sapience.

        The thesis, however valid, is that objectification is a root cause of social inequality. The perception of woman as a source of hedons marginalises the perception of her as a being who experiences hedons, and this is an excuse or motive to mistreat women. One can substitute any vulnerable minority group for women.

        The alleged problem with pornography is that it establishes the mental habit of objectification, which might easily contaminate a person’s reaction to and conception of women in everyday life.

        Antipathy to objectification sits uneasily with celebration of broken taboos about sexual relations, because objectification is almost an inevitable concomitant of sexuality.

        • anodognosic says:

          Pornography is hardly the only (small-a) art that is conducive to objectification, and sexual objectification is not the only flavor of objectification either. I actually contend, with an absolutely straight face, that there is plenty of pornography that is less objectifying than the torpid Madonnas that appear in so much Medieval and Renaissance painting, at worst an accessory to the baby Jesus, at best a sort of all-giving mother figure that exists no less for the comfort of the viewer than the porn star for his titillation.

        • Federico says:

          That isn’t a fantastic claim. John Berger made the same point more strenuously in his TV series Ways of Seeing, which is a critical response to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation.

  8. Jack says:

    “Seriously, I should kill everyone in the world.”

    *hugs* I know that feeling all too well. People can be hopeless 🙁

    “I had high hopes ze would finally be the person who uses that word in a way that makes sense, so I can stop just assuming it’s a totally made-up horrible useless concept.”

    I’m surprised to hear this because I assumed I knew what it meant, even though I now find it hard to describe. But I’d also say, if a bunch of people are complaining about something that makes them feel awful, it’s often the case that they have a legitimate complaint, whether or not they’re good at explaining it.

    I’m trying to think of good examples. You must be familiar with the stereotype of a man who enters a room and sees a bunch of men and a bunch of women, and instinctively forms opinions of the men based on what they seem to be like, and of the women based on how attractive they are to him. And that that’s incredibly common. As you say, everyone reacts to people who push their fetish buttons to some extent, but it’s a problem if people become _primarily_ defined by that.

    Like, I’m very happy to make tea or fix the build server at work, or be ogled when gay kissing, or a thousand other things, but if those become all everyone expects from me, then I feel awful, that I care about everything else about me, and no-one else thinks that even exists.

  9. I feel like frequency is probably relevant here.

    If Scott gets someone hitting on them one time because of their thing for psychiatrists, he might be okay with it, but if he’s constantly chased by a horde of psychiatrist fans he will probably have a totally different view and start complaining (“I’m not just a doctor! I have human feelings too!”)

    • Earnest Peer says:

      This is a problem, but it’s not fetishization, and I think it’s common that those two get confused:
      Say you’re an Asian-American woman, in fact, the only Asian women where you are right now, and someone approaches you. This is really annoying to you for reason the reason you mentioned, but that reason doesn’t have a name or is otherwise easily referred to. Another reason that has a name and is a common problem of Asian women is fetishization, and while it looks sort of similar, it’s not the problem at hand – he didn’t even get a chance to fetishize you.
      So your mood is ruined and you go home and tell this story to the internet, complaining how annoying it is that Asian women always get fetishized.
      Later Scott reads your comment and others like it and gets confused as to what the problem is, because what actually went wrong didn’t even appear in your post.

  10. Khoth says:

    Oh god. I just realized that this is probably part of the problem when people talk about Nice Guys (TM). They’re probably actually upset about nice guys who think they deserve sex for being nice, but no one ever frickin’ mentions that

    It’s hardly a secret, you just need to read more wikipedia: Nice Guy

    Conversely, feminists accuse the “Nice Guy Syndrome” of being a chauvinistic, blame-the-victim ideological construct used by male stalkers and other kinds of women abusers to justify their prejudices and actions towards them. They also argue many self-professed “nice guys” (often referred to as “Nice Guy” to differentiate from “actual nice guys” who are earnestly kind to both genders with no ulterior motive) aren’t genuinely acting nice to women out of chivalry or selflessness- but out of the belief their behavior entitles them to a relationship and/or sex.

    • im says:

      It should be noted that the discourse on Nice Guys has become focusedd on the most egregious, most exploitative examples.

  11. Benquo says:

    I talked to Ozy about this, and ze finally said that zir real problem is people assuming they deserved sex with zir because they had a bisexual fetish and ze was bisexual. And that sometimes this led to them being pushy or pressuring zir for sex.

    This is obviously a legitimate complaint. It’s just not even remotely a legitimate complaint about objectification.”

    I think the idea is that the objectification tends to cause the “pushiness” because people start confusing other people with the fetish/fantasy objects they resemble. So being attracted to people for specific reasons is not the problem, but treating them like they must be exactly like your fetish fantasy suggests leads to problems.

    It’s just like how making probabilistic inferences based on people’s attributes is OK, but assuming that everyone will always be exactly like their stereotype is not.

  12. Alex R says:

    My favorite explanation of sexual objectification is this. It’s parsimonious in that it talks specifically about sexual objectification in advertisement (because that’s where it’s most readily apparent). The criteria in Luke’s LW post also seem in line with my understanding of the concept.

    The usage you seem to be objecting to is not precise; it’s not objectification per se but evidence of objectification. Just like it’s possible to be a neo-nazi and be a perfectly nice individual, it’s possible to say something which strongly indicates that one is objectifying without actually doing so; analogously, in the absence of further information, it is rational to believe that the neo-nazi is a jerk and that the person making the comment is, in fact, objectifying someone. (Note: it is possible to have a comment that is in itself objectifying, but those are more in line with “Dayumn, nice ass” than with the kind you’re objecting to Ozy objecting to).

    If you were to ask Ozy out, that’s perfectly okay. If you were to ask Ozy out because zie’s bi or non-binary, and that attracts you, that’s still mostly okay. If you justify your attraction that way, however, you set off alarm bells. Presumably, there are other reasons you’d want to date hir, which would be more socially acceptable to mention or more complimentary or more in line with zir choices; however, your approach gives pretty good evidence that your primary interest is in zir sexuality or gender identity which even if it weren’t objectifying is insulting (imagine asking a woman out because she’s female).

    • ag says:

      If you were to ask Ozy out, that’s perfectly okay. If you were to ask Ozy out because zie’s bi or non-binary, and that attracts you, that’s still mostly okay. If you justify your attraction that way, however, you set off alarm bells. Presumably, there are other reasons you’d want to date hir, which would be more socially acceptable to mention or more complimentary or more in line with zir choices; however, your approach gives pretty good evidence that your primary interest is in zir sexuality or gender identity which even if it weren’t objectifying is insulting (imagine asking a woman out because she’s female).

      And, like the OP said, informed consent is all you need in that situation. ‘I am not attracted to people who are attracted to me only for the characteristic X, therefore go away and no hard feelings.’ No one needs to justify their rejection by spinning stories about how the rejectee is evil.

      Also, calling something insulting is begging the question. Nothing is inherently insulting. We can say that something is insulting to mean that most people would in fact be insulted by it. Which may or may not imply an ethical prohibition against performing the action. Which is a complex question of responsibility and personal boundaries.

      Yet, when you call something insulting, you are skipping the complex question altogether and simply asserting that it is right and proper to be insulted and everyone should rally against the insulter.

      • Alex R says:

        Also, calling something insulting is begging the question. Nothing is inherently insulting.

        I fully agree with the second part but not with the first. I am using “insulting” to mean “is considered to be insulting according to societal conventions”; whether or not the individual is insulted is a different matter altogether. I am avoiding the question of whether or not it is right for society to consider such a thing insulting, but that’s a lower level issue.

        [I]nformed consent is all you need in that situation. ‘I am not attracted to people who are attracted to me only for the characteristic X, therefore go away and no hard feelings.’

        I disagree that it’s “all you need”; after all, there are requests which are not socially (or morally) acceptable.

        No one needs to justify their rejection by spinning stories about how the rejectee is evil.

        Indeed, but there’s a difference between “the rejectee is evil” and “the rejectee, by virtue of the way e asked me out, made me uncomfortable and extremely likely to reject em even if I’d otherwise have considered accepting” or “the rejectee asked me out in a way I expect to be indicative of something I view as morally reprehensible”.

  13. Earnest Peer says:

    I think you’re confusing two things: Ozy said they’re creeped out by people who’re into them for being bisexual – but Ozy didn’t say that this is objectification. In fact, they started off the “Fetishization!” post explaining that just being attracted to bisexuals was not objectification.

    It is probably a bad sign when, in order to criticize a concept, you have to make your hypothetical target example say and think things totally unrelated to that concept and much worse than it.
    At this point you probably weren’t charitable enough, specifically, you could have thought: “It seems that Ozy is making their hypothetical target example say and think things totally unrelated to fetishization and much worse than it to criticize fetishization – have I maybe misunderstood them? Did they actually mean to say the worse thing was fetishization?”

  14. Angie says:

    For me, the difference is thus: If the fact that I’m fat is one of multiple things you find attractive about me, that’s cool. If you find me attractive _because_ I’m fat, and not for any other reason, that’s objectification. There has to be more to an attraction than just “Asian” “Fat” “Bisexual”. It’s when those are the definining characteristic around your attraction that I start feeling objectified. Someone is not attracted to ME, they are attracted to my fat.

  15. naath says:

    I think you’ve been reading the wrong people on Nice Guys ™; because from where I’m standing the discourse is essentially entirely about guys who act nice in order to get into your pants but turn nasty when you say “no, sorry, I’m just not into you that way”.

    On Objectification – on a personal level I find it creepy when the *entire reason* that someone gives to want to spend time with me is that (say) I have long hair. I mean, finding my long hair cute, and maybe approaching me for the first time because of that is cool – but if the only thing you like about me is my hair but you still want to be with me… that’s weird. Also I think objectification is more about prevailing social wossnames – for instance if someone writes a newspaper article about my astonishing victory in the London marathon (ahahahaha; I haven’t even entered, but, y’know IF) and they go on and on about my hairstyle… well that’s epic weird.

  16. Further theory, based on several comments:

    People like to believe they are unique and special and their personfriend couldn’t possibly be in a relationship with anyone else.

    If you suggest you value them for common characteristics, they are forced to realise they are pretty interchangeable and their personfriend could be happy with a number of other people.

    Since this is threatening to them, they do their best to deny this threatening data in a variety of ways.

    • anodognosic says:

      I think you’re wrong about that, because not all characteristics are really candidates for objectification. I don’t think many people would object to liking a person based on characteristics like talent, loyalty, altruism, etc. Characteristics that are generally associated with objectification are typically superficial in nature. Excessive focus on one or more of those characteristics (and a lot of the other commenters are getting at this point as well) is evidence that the “objectifier” (for lack of a better word) is not interested in engaging with the other person in any sort of meaningful, personal sense, and thus is likely to think of the other person as nothing more than a means of gratifying his or her own desires, rather than engaging in the mutuality that characterizes satisfying human relationships.

    • im says:

      I… think that it’s more substantiative than that. I think that this happens even for people who are not affected by false uniqueness.

  17. Vladimir says:

    My reactionary theory of “objectification” is that it’s an incoherent attempt to grapple with the problems brought about by the weakening and disappearance of the traditional norms of decency, modesty, and good manners.

    One can’t explicitly argue in favor of these norms nowadays without coming off as a silly conservative fuddy-duddy at best, and a nefarious fanatic and wannabe-oppressor at worst. The liberal ideology that demolished them is sacrosanct in today’s respectable public discourse. Yet these norms had an essential role in civilized society, and their disappearance has made people’s (and in particular women’s) everyday lives highly unpleasant (except insofar as there still are strong lingering remnants of these norms in many social surroundings). So we see desperate attempts to re-establish some of these norms under a pretense that they somehow follow from a truly correct and enlightened understanding of that same ideology that displaced them, particularly its feminist aspects.

    Of course, there’s simply no way to square this circle, so the results are completely incoherent. It also doesn’t help that feminsts insist on a result that would imply that men should revert to modesty and decency when it suits women, while any such requirement for women would be beyond the pale. So what follows is a signaling game where it’s high-status to pretend that all this stuff is just obvious for all good and enligtened people, and to back this up by suave navigation through the resulting incoherent and contradictory social norms. This is clearly a very bad situation for those poor naive souls who believe that they’re supposed to take this stuff at face value, understand it as something rational and logical, and apply it in a straightforward way.

    • novalis says:

      Why don’t you taboo “decency, modesty, and good manners.” Because it seems to me that all three of these words are still in good taste (and you know this, or you wouldn’t have used them). So you must mean something by them other than “Behavior that conforms to accepted standards of morality or respectability”, humility, and adherence to standards of etiquette.

      In other words: Say what you actually want people to do that they are not doing now.

      I am aware that my translation of “modesty” and “decency” above are somewhat tendentious (that is, they’re the applause lights version rather than the version you probably were thinking of). So, to take Wikipedia’s second definition of “modesty”: “more about women than men, to describe a mode of dress and deportment intended not to encourage the opposite sex; actual standards vary widely”. And similarly for “decency”. Because of this variance, you need to choose a particular place, time, and social class that you want people to emulate. Then it will turn out that the one you choose did not actually make people all that happy, or depended on large (or small) amounts of wealth and leisure time, or on people believing demonstrably false things, or was abandoned for some other perfectly good reason.

  18. Swimmy says:

    Talked about it with my wife and this is what we came up with:

    People like to pick on mascots. She worked at an aquarium, and once while she was in a stingray costume, someone tackled her. The guy who regularly wore the panda costume regularly got punched, had his mask pulled off, etc. He even needed a couple of security guards around him for shows.

    Everyone in the audience was objectifying the panda guy, while only a few were being rude. The people watching the panda guy for their amusement aren’t doing anything wrong. Thus, there’s nothing wrong with objectification and everything wrong with being a jerk.

    But objectification works as a psychological explanation for why some people act like jerks. If the guy puts on the panda costume in front of people instead of backstage, they are less likely to be jerks to him. Something clicks in some of our heads, when we see a human underneath the costume first, that makes the panda guy feel more human to us, even though we always know that he’s a human.

    Equating objectification in itself with being a jerk doesn’t help raise awareness. It just confuses people. But genuinely raising awareness about the psychological phenomenon and how to train yourself away from it might help prevent jerkiness.

  19. Sarah says:

    There are people for whom the main problem, with regards to the romantic/sexual side of things, is that nobody finds them attractive or wants to sleep with them.

    And then there are people whose main problem is that too many people want to sleep with them, in a jerkish or greedy or demeaning way.

    Everybody thinks the grass is greener on the other side and has trouble finding empathy for the other group. It is just hard to wrap your head around objectification if you’ve never had enough sexual attention — how can you possibly imagine having *too much*? or imagine complaining about having the *wrong kind*?

  20. AphroditeGoneAwry says:

    Attraction is very complex, isn’t it? No matter if it’s about food or people.

    This is like how I was discussing on Le Forum, except instead of calling it objectification, I compared the concept of objectification with finding someone to love based on who you want to sex, instead of finding someone to sex based on who you come to love. Which is why I have a sort-of problem with stated sexual orientation in general.

    The fact is, they are interrelated concepts and just cannot exist on their own, whether you are talking about relationships or what you eat. I mean, like the sex/love thing, you can just have diet that consists of things you WANT to eat, like chips and chocolate (sex first); or you can eat things that fit the diet you decide you want to have (love). The first way objectifies food, but the second way objectifies the ideal diet. Which way is better? They are interrelated concepts because they are both about objectification.

    I guess it just depends on the person(s) involved, which way is better, and where one is at in life. Though generally, most would agree I think, that having more consciousness about the deeper issue, the conceptual one, brings more benefit in the long-term, than choosing to act on more superficial desires. Choosing love over sex, choosing a diet over foods.

    In short, objectifying ideals/values seems to bring more fruits to one’s life than objectifying individual characteristics, but both really ARE about objectification. 🙂 Anytime we make choices to interact with the outside world, what we are interacting with necessarily becomes ‘objectified’.

    Who is Ozy?

    Great blog. I’m very impressed. As usual. <3

  21. Atreic says:

    I don’t think Ozy objects to Bob and Alice starting a relationship.

    I wonder if part of this is ‘what does it mean to say Bob and Alice start a relationship?’

    If the only thing Bob knows about Alice is that she is a fat transgender asian woman, then Bob might want a ‘relationship’ with Alice for one of two reasons.

    1) He might believe he knows general things about the sort of people fat transgender asian women are to live with. Maybe he thinks they’re kinder, or wittier, or more likely to make relationship bonds for life, or better at cooking pizza, and Bob is seeking a life partner with these qualities. These are all good features to look for in a relationship, but it’s a bit foo-ist to think that Alice has them more than Catherine, just because they’re fat, or trans, or asian. [I always get confused by this, as clearly there are general trends – maybe on average trans people are more polite, or asian people are more accepting of difference, but it does seem to be bad to make sweeping generalisations about people based on sex or race etc etc]

    2) Fat transgender asian women make him horny, and he is really turned on by the idea of sex with them. Now, hot sex is not a bad foundation for a good relationship. But what he is not saying, if he hits on Alice just because he thinks the sex will be hot, is ‘I think you are a soul mate who I want to spend my life with’. He doesn’t know anything about Alice other than fat trans asian women make him hard.

    It is the second situation that I think is objectification. Now, many people think there is nothing wrong with the pursuit of hot sex for its own sake (although some religious types would disagree) but it is seeing a certain type of person (fat trans asian women) as a slot machine that can dispense an object you desire (in this case, hot sex)

    As you say, there is a fair trade that can be made here. If Bob sees Alice as a slot machine that dispenses hot sex, and Alice sees Bob as a slot machine that dispenses hot sex, then hurrah for them, and I hope they don’t break the bed. (Actually, I tend a bit to the religious here, and think that just exchanging hot sex as a net win trade without strings is a bit full of perils, but let’s elide that)

    But there are two asymmetries that make that model not very useful. Firstly, there are often more people prepared to ask for the thing they want dispensing (hot sex with asian trans women) than there are people to ask. Bob and Alice are in a sweet spot. But if Alice was asked by everyone on the street ‘hey, I think of you as a hot sex machine, wanna shag?’ it would get tedious well before she bumped into a sadomasichistic amputee. And just hearing over and over ‘I think of you as a hot sex machine’ is wearying and dehumanising and not very nice. I have a friend who’s a vet, and when people find out what he does, their first response is often ‘oh, my dog is sneezing, what should I do?’, to which he tends to respond ‘take it to your own vet and pay them’. But that is objectification – they’re not then interacting as ‘oh, a cool person to talk to’ they’re interacting as ‘a machine for dog fixing advice’. This is better than being objectified as a hot sex machine because vets are given higher status in society than people who sleep around.

    The second asymmetry is that the things other people look for when they objectify people are often not the things that the people care about themselves. Alice was probably born fat, asian and trans. She can’t really change these traits, they probably have shaped who she is to a point, but actually she’s passionate about singing madrigals, shark wrestling, and ju jitsu, and they’re the things she spends 40 hours a week on and likes to talk about. If someone is interested in Alice because he likes fat asian trans women, not only is that objectifying, it means Alice spends a lot of time having conversations like ‘hey, you’re a fat asian trans woman’ when she wants to have conversations like ‘Do you think Fair Phyllis or the Silver Swan would be a better accompaniment to wrestle sharks to?’ [I guess this is really a side point, that objectification is bad, but objectification on things that you don’t even think are that interesting and important to you is much more annoying]

    So I think objectification is about seeing people as a way to get from A to B (whether they are hot sex dispensing machines, or dinner serving machines, or report writing machines), without thinking about people as big complicated things Just As Important As You Are, who may not want to get from A to B but are in the middle of their own journey from C to D.

  22. Kevin says:

    You might be interested in Julia Galef’s take on the issue, which she wrote as a response to Luke’s LW post: What is “objectification,” and what’s wrong with it?.

    Objectification’s not necessarily a problem at the individual level. When Person A uses Person B as a means to an end, as long as B’s not being harmed, then it’s ethically unproblematic (at least for us utilitarian-minded folks). The tricky thing is that when you have a lot of A’s systematically treating a lot of B’s as a means to an end in the same kind of way, it can start to become a problem. Because at that scale, it can affect the way A’s and B’s think about each other — people’s attitudes are influenced by the way the people around them think and act. So it can have this self-reinforcing ripple effect that ends up stifling other kinds of interactions and relationships that many A’s and B’s would’ve found fulfilling.

    So, that’s my current theory. It’s the best I can do at reconciling the facts that (1) I’m not at all bothered by the idea of a particular man being interested in a particular woman only for sex, and (2) I hate the idea of a society in which most men are only interested in women for sex (and I think such a society would be seriously sub-optimal for both men and women).

  23. michael vassar says:

    From my facebook wall.

    “ok, i rarely post on romance, but i will say this since i seem to be saying this a lot my girlfriends this week and have no idea why, (in the air(?): from what i see as the best romances, — men come to women. they know where to find you, if they want you. it’s been like that for millennia, plus it is so, so, much sexier that way. so, ya, don’t overcomplicate it, or stress out. ya know? (i.e. take said brain/ “head” – remove it – think with heart).”

    Guess the gender of the poster. Is this a call for men to objectify women? How is it not?

  24. Ialdabaoth says:

    Oh god. I just realized that this is probably part of the problem when people talk about Nice Guys (TM). They’re probably actually upset about nice guys who think they deserve sex for being nice, but no one ever frickin’ mentions that, they just say how much they hate when guys who are in love with them are also nice to them and their friends. If someone had JUST FRICKIN’ EXPLAINED that the problem only starts when you start feeling entitled and pressuring them, they could have saved me like ten years of being terrified to befriend any girl I was attracted to for fear of being called a Nice Guy (TM) and therefore Worse Than Hitler (TM).

    An observation on this, as I trawl your archives:

    As a recovering Nice Guy, I’ve never felt like it was about “deserving” sex, per se. It’s way more nuanced than that:

    – I want the kind of relationship that I want, with the intensity that I want it. I *think*, if I understand basic cultural values correctly, that I can assert that I have a right to want things, independent of my right to have them.

    – I see that {person X} fulfills most of the criteria that I want, so I get socially closer to them to find out if I fulfill any of the criteria that *they* want.

    – After forming a friendship with them (which happens naturally as a result of getting closer to them, not as some ploy to get in their pants), I see that they claim to want various traits that they claim I possess. I therefore mention that they also possess various traits that *I* want in a partner, and ask if maybe we could try adjusting our ‘friendship’ into a ‘relationship’, or at least go somewhere in the ‘FWB’ zone (depending on their desires).

    – They insist that this Can’t Happen for reasons that seem utterly illogical, such as “you possess {trait that I want} in too high a quality!”, or “I don’t {possess trait that I have personally observed them to possess}!”. If they had simply said “eww, no”, or even a more polite “sorry I don’t like you that way”, this would be the end of it. But because they attempted to provide $REASONS – $REASONS which do not logically cohere with my understanding of the situation – I am not dissuaded; I am confused.

    My response to confusion is to attempt to investigate. This means inspecting the contents of their mind, which means asking questions and presenting my understanding of the situation when that understanding conflicts with the answers I am given.

    This is seen as Being Pushy. Therefore, I am being a Nice Guy, and should kindly die in the nearest fire.

    Confusion intensifies.

    After several attempts to tease the situation apart, I recognize that “you possess {trait that I want} in too high a quality!”, or “I don’t {possess trait that I have personally observed them to possess}!” are code-words for “I am attempting to let you down easy”. So when I hear these words, I back off – because I want to be respectful.

    I am then told that I am angering them, because I don’t “go for it” – that sometimes a girl “wants you to pursue her even when she says no”. I inform the girl that “I thought no meant no, and that pursuing after the girl has hinted to stop was being kinda creepy-stalkerish”. I am then informed that that’s SOMETIMES true and SOMETIMES not, but not given any explanation of when it is or isn’t.

    Confusion intensifies.

    I find other places on the internet that explain that the distinguishing trait is “1. be attractive, 2. don’t be unattractive.”

    Confusion dissolves, and bitterness takes root.