I’m going to say something that is going to be a bit new and difficult for some feminists to understand: Objectification is not always bad. Think about that for a minute. Let it turn around in your brain. Some of you might be getting angry, but bear with me for a little while and I’ll walk you through it. Imagine situations that you think involve objectification. Imagine sexual as well as non-sexual moments where you think that objectification is involved. Pick up the idea and slowly turn it in your head. For each example you think of, put yourself in the place of the observer and then put yourself in the place of the objectified. If you can’t really grasp it, that’s OK, because I’m going to try to help you through it as best as I can.
The definition of objectification within feminist theory has been primarily focused on sexualization of women, this is a pretty good summary of what’s commonly accepted as a definition:
Sexual objectification is the viewing of people solely as de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities and desires/plans of their own. This is done by speaking/thinking of women especially as only their bodies, either the whole body, or as fetishised body parts.
Sexual attraction is not the same as sexual objectification: objectification only occurs when the individuality of the desired person is not acknowledged. Pornography, prostitution, sexual harassment and the representation of women in mass media and art are all examples of common sexual objectification.
The definition, in this case, specifies sexual objectification, but we do have to admit that objectification is not always sexual and that the sexual aspect of this doesn’t make it more or less of a problem. People deal with objectification on a regular basis. A common example is the person at the grocery store who helps you check your groceries. The person isn’t necessarily a person that you might talk much to. Many people dehumanize the process and routine of grocery shopping and, with that, the person or people who help them. This is not a consistent thing, but it does happen quite frequently and most people who have worked in customer service have several stories about that experience.
But, if objectification is occurring, like that, why is there not the same opposition to this line of work as there is, say, to the adult industry? Well, we allow the clerk some room because of their individual experiences and social context. As long as they are consenting participants at the job and are not being mistreated, somehow, we give the job a pass. The same is true for other kinds of dehumanizing work. The garbage pick-up person, the mail delivery and even the short-order cook. Most people assume that as long as they are treated well within their own boundaries and they consent to the job, then it is just fine.
With the adult industry, the same thing can be true. A person who is objectified can consent to such objectification or not. That’s the difference. You can’t remove the element of possible objectification from all types of performances, but you can account for the wishes and desires or the boundaries of the person who might be objectified. If that person consents to the context, while fully informed about it, and their boundaries are respected then the objectification is not necessarily wrong.
So, that’s where this idea comes in that objectification is not always bad and where objectification is actually something that we should discuss in terms of individual boundaries. This is also why slut-shaming is a problem. Slut-shaming isn’t really only about the objectification of women. Instead, it is about what boundaries people are allowed to cross based on how someone presents themselves. In the history of our culture, a person’s boundaries were assumed based on how they presented themselves. That was wrong, obviously, because a person might have reasons for presenting themselves a certain way without wanting it to be related to anything involving other people. Because of our culture’s tendency towards sexual assumptions, certain clothing types were considered consenting, or were considered items for the benefit of the observer. In the last few years, people have begun to highlight the need to show that this is not the case, and that clothing is not a means by which we establish our boundaries, communication is. As much as we are not allowed to control what goes on in the headspace of other people, people should not be allowed to let what happens in their headspace to permit them to cross the boundaries of others.
And so, because of this, we’ve begun to learn that objectification is really only a problem when it leads to actions towards another that is non consensual. That’s the problem with things like cat-calling, slut-shaming and body-shaming. When one does things that allow themselves to be objectified, it can be consensual and it can be empowering.
So, you might be wondering, how is it empowering? Well, for many people how others view them allows them certain kinds of life liberties. For example, when I work as a dominatrix, there is often an exchange of power (that’s the consistent, key element of the job). In that exchange, the person I’m working with is often objectified, and that’s what they’re paying me for. For many people, these sessions allow them to escape into a part of their personality that they can only experience when they are with me. The rest of their lives don’t really allow it (which can be the downside and the sad part of this job, but explaining that is a whole other article). Because of that, for the brief amount of time they spend with me, even though I’m in control, they’re in the process of liberating a part of themselves that is usually completely hidden from the rest of the world. They often use that for their own empowerment. As an added bonus, the empowerment goes two ways, as I am also empowered by the nature of my work. I get to walk people through experiences when they are at their most vulnerable, and I can keep them safe through that process. It is something I enjoy and that myself and my clients benefit from.
Other examples include things like webcam work, stripping and pornography, where as long as the person is allowed to set their own boundaries and control it, it is an empowering experience. The complicated side of this is that like any improperly regulated industry, sometimes abuses happen. That’s not the fault of the entire industry, it is the fault of those who don’t protect their workers and it is the fault of the society that neglects to address those problems (typically because they misunderstand the industry).
Again, the empowerment within the context of the job is all about the choices that the performer is allowed to make. If a stripper is not allowed to determine his or her comfort level with their proximity to clients, when they are on the stage, then there is likely to be a problem where empowerment is lacking and objectification becomes invasive. If, though, they are allowed to freely establish boundaries with each client, as individuals, then they can remain empowered and objectification is not allowed to become an invasive problem (ideally, such a person would have protection from other people, such as bouncers, who would help them maintain that balance).
Many modern feminists have begun to learn that our mantra about choice is actually one that should carry over to multiple contexts. It isn’t just about what we do with our bodies, it is about what we do with our brains, with our lives and with our social context. To have a truly liberated body, one should be able to have access to birth control as needed, should be able to change one’s own body to match one’s own brain, should be able to label ones gender and sexuality according to what it is and not what society determines and should be able to control their own sexual experiences within whatever social context one enjoys, as long as it isn’t harming others. As a part of this, objectification should be seen as a social element that can be controlled by boundaries and consent. It is good or bad based on where it is in relation to those boundaries and that consent.