If you want a satisfying relationship then never present yourself as a sex object to your partner.
When Joan Holloway – the bombshell office worker on the show “Mad Men” – enters a room, she knows she looks good and is going to turn heads. Every morning, Joan meticulously does her makeup and hair and puts on a skintight dress. The men in her office take notice and are quick with the catcalls and sexual comments.
Rather than becoming embarrassed or angry, for the most part, Joan finds the attention invigorating. Her hourglass figure is a source of power that she wields intentionally.
Male attention is welcome and men’s reactions seem largely innocuous. But her male coworkers’ reactions are objectifying and ultimately may not produce the empowerment Joan desires.
Objectification occurs when one person treats another like a thing or commodity, ignoring his or her humanity and dignity.
Objectifying a woman reduces her worth down to her physical appearance. It reflects the view that women’s bodies are objects of sexual pleasure without regard for the living, feeling, thinking people inhabiting them.
Research has shown that objectification of women opens the door to a whole host of other issues, including not taking women’s work and accomplishments seriously, sexual violence, increased concerns about appearance and lower self-esteem.
Experiencing objectification from strangers may be particularly demeaning because unknown others never have the opportunity to dig deeper and truly know the woman as a person. But what happens when it happens within a close, romantic relationship?
A pervasive way of perceiving women
Unfortunately, objectification from many quarters is a common occurrence in women’s lives. To determine exactly how frequently American women perceive it happening, researchers contacted participants throughout the day via a smartphone app.
Young women reported experiencing objectification themselves an average of once every two days, most typically in the form of a sexual gaze – someone checking them out or staring at their bodies. The women reported seeing other women being objectified even more frequently, a little over once a day.
Perhaps due to its frequency, sexual objectification of women may seem normal. As a result, it’s seeped into many aspects of our world including advertisements, movies and television, and even the workforce, where women’s looks can dictate how they are treated.
According to objectification theory, women often take objectifying comments to heart and use them to evaluate themselves. As damaging as these comments and views can be, what does it mean for women when their romantic partners objectify them too?
Object of a partner’s affection
To address this question, psychologist Laura Ramsey and colleagues from Bridgewater State University conducted three studies to determine how being objectified by a male romantic partner affects women. If a woman enjoys being sexualized – like Joan from “Mad Men” – would objectification promote relationship satisfaction?
In the first study, the researchers recruited 114 women in heterosexual relationships: 9.6 percent dating, 28.9 percent steady partner, 8.8 percent engaged, 16.7 percent cohabitating and 36 percent married. They all responded to multiple prompts that fell into three categories.
Examples include, “I want men to look at me” (enjoyment of sexualization), “My partner often worries about whether the clothes I am wearing make me look good” (partner objectification) and “How well does your partner meet your needs” (relationship satisfaction).
Women whose responses indicated more partner objectification were less satisfied with their relationship – even when the women reported that they enjoyed being sexualized.
This suggests that despite liking sexualized attention, it may encourage objectification from a male partner, which may ultimately undermine the relationship.
Clearly those results sound bad for objectification. But it’s also possible that a male partner’s objectification is more innocent, merely his way of showing affection toward his adored female partner. If that’s the case, maybe objectification isn’t so bad, especially since other research shows that sexual desire in healthy relationships increases people’s happiness about them.
To explore the role of sexual desire in objectification, Ramsey and her colleagues asked 196 women to respond to the same three measures from the first study. Additionally, they asked the women about how much sexual desire they felt from their partner.
These results confirmed that feeling sexually desired by their partners did relate to greater relationship satisfaction. But feeling more desired didn’t relate to women enjoying sexualization more. Rather, feeling sexually desired went along with greater perceived objectification by the partner.