For all of the highly contentious debates among feminists — what is a woman? what is feminism? is Beyoncé a feminist? is Taylor Swift a feminist? — one matter that’s fully settled is objectification. Namely, that it is bad. To objectify someone is to look at her and see an object, usually a sexual one, rather than a fully formed human with opinions and feelings and a sense of humor. When men harass women on the street or, say, share nude pictures of them without their consent, objectification is at work. Research shows that women who realize they’re being objectified turn that gaze on themselves and start viewing themselves as a collection of body parts rather than a wholly formed woman. A recent study even found that men who objectify their partners are more likely to coerce them sexually.
This latest study piqued my interest because, while we can all agree the objectification of women has some pretty awful cultural consequences, it’s a far trickier matter within a relationship. Researchers Laura Ramsey and Tiffany Hoyt define objectifiers as “men who frequently survey their partners’ bodies” and think about their partners’ appearances. But isn’t that, I found myself wondering, every man — every person — who’s in a sexual relationship? And isn’t it necessary to keep that sexual relationship going in the long run?
Within a healthy relationship or sexual interaction, a little objectification is a good thing. Often, it’s a necessary thing. Even the most ardent feminist sometimes wants to feel physically appreciated and desired in a way that is separate from her other qualities. Without a little bit of objectification, every sexual encounter would essentially be gentle lovemaking with lots of eye contact. The sort of eye contact that’s deep and meaningful enough to convey complex messages like, “You really killed it at work this week, you make me laugh, and I love your hot bod.” It’s a nice sentiment, sure, but not exactly a headboard-banging night. Sometimes you just want to get laid.
Especially when you’re several years deep into a relationship, a bit of remove is often essential to getting it up. It can be hard to feel sexy when you’re thinking about the financial stress you’re under, or a parent’s illness, or your partner’s work, or any of the multifaceted aspects of your daily relationship. Focusing on bodies can provide a welcome disconnect. “There has to be an ‘other’ for there to be sexiness,” psychologist Marta Meana told Maclean’s last year.
This is especially true for women. In Daniel Bergner’s book What Do Women Want? he explains that long-term intimacy kills women’s sex drives faster than men’s — women, contrary to popular belief, are more turned on by novelty. Which means that if you’ve decided cheating and swinging aren’t for you, a little objectification is probably required for women to maintain some semblance of a sex life in a long-term relationship. Even Ramsey and Hoyt acknowledge that “despite these negative consequences, the male gaze may be an integral part of many heterosexual relationships.” I’m pretty sure this is an academic way of saying the couple that pervs each other stays together.
Of course, objectification is only a positive force in a relationship if you aren’t dating a total jerk. It’s annoying and dissatisfying at best — and utterly frightening at worst — to realize you’ve gone home with a guy who’s learned more about sex from watching porn than from interacting with real, live women. Most of us know at least one woman who’s been damaged by an awful boyfriend’s constant commentary about her body, to say nothing of partners who are outright abusive. Ramsey and Hoyt explain that 34 percent of women in the United States report having unwanted sex with their partner, and that women who feel objectified are less likely to speak up about what they want sexually. Given that the vast majority of violence against women is committed by a romantic partner, it makes sense to be skeptical about objectification within relationships.
When it comes to even the most settled feminist issues, context is everything. No woman wants to be subjected to a constant stream of comments about her body. No woman wants to be seen as an object for men’s pleasure as she’s walking down the street or running a meeting at work or having a conversation about the news. Occasionally, though, a little objectification is exactly what we need — but only if the objectifier is a man who, in most other circumstances and outside the bedroom, is quick to recognize our many other incredible qualities.