TAN: For more objectification

People talk about objectification like it’s a bad thing. We hear it all the time: “Such and such a thing is bad because it promotes the objectification of women,” “such and such a thing propagates the idea of women as sexual objects” and so on.

We hear it in protest to many things: advertisements that feature sexy women, beauty pageants, modeling, stripping, porn and sexy clothing. We hear it in relation to relationships; often a relationship or an encounter that is purely sexual is viewed negatively, as somehow degrading because it treats the woman as a sexual object. We hear it in the derogatory way in which the word “slut” is used. And yet, too seldom do people question whether being a sexual object is actually bad.

Objectification is a necessary part of life. How many people can we actually care about? How many people can we actually count as true friends? The answer is probably not that many. For each true friend, there are a dozen acquaintances and friends of convenience. And so while there are some people who we see as ends in themselves, it’s natural to see the vast majority of people as means to ends — as objects. Charming objects perhaps, objects with some degree of sentimental value, but objects nonetheless.

Objectification is the inevitable byproduct of true friendship, its shadow; as surely as night follows day, the juxtaposition of objectification with true friendship is what gives the latter value. Objectification is necessary for true friendship to exist.

There are many different kinds of objects. Some people are cash dispensers; others are founts of wisdom. Some, like my intrepid editors at the News, are sounding boards for ideas. Some are outlets for emotional unloading. Some people aren’t actually interesting but are useful for making us look good and connecting us to other people. Others are colleagues or teammates, temporarily bound to us only because we perform common tasks.

We’re surrounded by a multiplicity of people we treat as objects — financial, intellectual, cathartic, social and professional objects — and there’s nothing wrong with these objectified relationships, provided they’re mutual. We’re all objectified in countless ways by countless people. We all use and are used in turn.

So what’s wrong with being a sexual object? How is it worse than being any other kind of object? What’s wrong with sexual objectification? Is it because it involves physical traits rather than mental? If so, emphasizing a woman’s body wouldn’t be condemned any more than emphasizing her facial features, which are probably the most important physical attribute. There’s no good reason why close-ups of breasts should be any worse than close-ups of faces.

Is it because it breaks complex beings into facets and emphasizes just one? There’s nothing wrong with that. We do that all the time. It’s not seen as bad when someone’s intelligence or musical ability is emphasized, even if it’s to the exclusion of everything else. We think of Einstein primarily in terms of his genius and Yo-Yo Ma primarily in terms of his musical talent.

Indeed, we take pride in good test scores, GPAs, intelligence quotients, record times — all these measures designed to break our multifaceted selves down into separate components for appraisal. As feminist Wendy McElroy argues, “Women are as much their bodies as they are their minds or souls. No one gets upset if you present women as ‘brains’ or as ‘spiritual beings … Why is it degrading to focus on her sexuality?”

I see no reason why we should consider the sexual objectification of women a bad thing. In fact, it seems that the more outstanding characteristics someone has, the more desirable traits a person possesses, the more likely he or she is to be objectified, as he or she can be objectified — prized above others — in terms of any of those traits. Therefore, the more someone can be objectified, the better, and the individuals best off are those who can be seen as multiple objects. Perhaps the saddest case is someone who isn’t objectified in any way, someone who is of no possible use or appeal to anyone else.

I’d like to see a world where female sexuality can be displayed and appreciated as shamelessly as every other form of aesthetics, as shamelessly as a symphony or a sculpture — a world where women will know no shame because they know they have no cause for shame, a world where the word “slut” won’t be derogatory. I’d like to see a world where a woman can be proud of being both a sexual object and an intellectual object, where the purely sexual can be seen as empowering instead of debased and oppressive, where a woman can recognize her sexuality as a tool just as formidable as her intellect.

Shaun Tan is a second year graduate student in International Relations. Contact him at shaunzhiming.tan@yale.edu.


  • obsyed

    You’re kidding me..
    How naive do you have to be to think of it as a situation demanding merely definitional equality?
    Get your head out of your books and out of this bubble, realise what sexual objectification does to people, how it debases them in a horrible, primitive way, how different at core it is from definitional “parallels” you draw. Your ideal is “mutual” sexual objectification? oh please, get real.

  • MapleLeaf14

    This doesn’t make too much sense…

  • cwakefield2011

    interesting. shaun, assuming you’re serious, you should know that one reason sexual objectification is bad is that it’s an excuse to denigrate people who are historically treated as less than humans (read: less than men. and you probs don’t want me to go into ethnicity, race, class, perceived gender identity/sexual orientation and other wonderful methods of human classification that have allowed abuses of power since, well, forever). so the fact that you used women as your prime example of objectification is scary for that reason — all throughout the world, MOST women are not treated as objects in your idealized, egalitarian, ” let’s objectify everybody!” society. objectification means that many women are often politically, socially, economically, sexually, and spiritually silenced — because objects have neither consciousness nor agency. and i’m really only scratching the surface of the problem here.

    on a broader note, i want to address this: “Perhaps the saddest case is someone who isn’t objectified in any way, someone who is of no possible use or appeal to anyone else.” you seem to assume that objectification is the prime method of assessing a person’s utility in a given role — and yet a holistic understanding of other people is probably better than mere sum of objectified qualities. why? because the sum of the parts is not equal to the whole. admissions officers who consider a holistic view of their applicants are not automatically “cheating” people of merit out of a place at a college (common misconception about affirmative action: high merit, high “objective” qualifications, are already the bottom line.) but at some point, if we are truly to be fair, and uphold a commitment to equal opportunity, we have to counteract the fact that humans naturally classify and have biases about certain qualities — and because of these behaviors, we often come to inaccurate conclusions about people and situations.classifying is part of being efficient, which can be a very good thing. but we sacrifice social progress if we rationalize our objective categories for different people WITHOUT self-reflection. when we counteract objectification and aim to understand people as fluid, adaptive, conscious beings, we work toward eliminating ingrained, negative patterns of behavior that hold us back from becoming a truly fair and compassionate society. in short, we can do far better than objectification.

  • Again

    What is Yale teaching it’s International Relations graduate students??

  • schnickelfritz

    Does the YDN ever screen its op-eds? Or are there just not enough to choose from?

  • DH2014

    You seem to equate sexual objectification with sexuality and appreciation for sexuality. Fail.

  • River_Tam

    Oh, happy days. MapleLeaf14 and I agree on something.

  • MapleLeaf14


  • River_Tam

    Totes mcgoats.

  • positiveforeal
  • SY

    An intellectual fantasy of the 1990’s Volvo spring break commercial: Boys take mom’s Volvo to Florida coast where they discover all young women wear bikinis and carry pizzas, everywhere. Women must know that every male has had this fantasy. Now back to your book. A mistake, I think, is the assumption that sexual desire or attraction (unless drunk) means objectification. Sexual attraction can involve many other attractions. Women also know this, and depend on it.

    I have a question. Do women have a fantasy in common? Fantasies don’t have to be PC. Women may want to stay mysterious. I’d say it took some editorial insight to print this odd article.

  • River_Tam


    Because *that’s* a mature response.

  • nick


  • Tan

    I’ve got a lot of work due tomorrow, so I’m gonna limit myself to probably just the one response, but I think cwakefield2011 deserves a reply.

    Dear cwakefield2011:

    Some clarifications about definitions:
    I’m using the word ‘objectification’ in the way those who protest against sexy adverts, beauty pageants, modeling, etc use it. When they say that something sexually ‘objectifies’ women, I think they mean that it makes men see women LIKE they see objects – as means to ends – primarily in terms of how they can please them; in this case in terms of their sex appeal. I DON’T think they mean that it makes men see women as literarily the same as objects, i.e. lacking human agency, capacity for suffering, etc. I think you can think of people primarily in terms of their use to you whilst still recognizing that they have basic rights that shouldn’t be infringed. So that’s why I don’t think objectification in this sense necessarily leads to rights violations.

    With regard to your second point, I dislike the headline (which I didn’t choose) because it gives the impression that I’m arguing that objectification is a good thing. I’m not. I’m arguing that it’s not a bad thing. I’m not saying that objectification is right, I’m saying that it’s an inescapable fact.

    Yes, I do assume objectification is the prime method of assessing people – and I don’t think my assumption is unreasonable. I think that individuals in general, whether they like to admit it or not, objectify the vast majority of people around them – i.e. they think of others primarily in terms of how they can be of use to them / how they can please them. And this is just a fact of life because our love and our time is finite – there’s only so many people we can actually care about and only so many people we can find time to properly *know*.

    I think the metaphor of objectification as the ‘shadow’ of true friendship is apt. I think objectification is the natural corollary to true friendship. In that sense it can’t be bad in the same way that shadows can’t be bad, and it can’t be eliminated in the same way that shadows can’t be eliminated without eliminating all the masses that cast the shadows (or by eliminating light).

    I agree with you that in an ideal world we’d be able to view each person we come into contact with holistically, but more often than not we don’t have the time to get to know people well enough to do so, and objectification is the default.

  • cct25

    You should do some research before you write articles as offensive as this. I would suggest reading David Smith’s book Less Than Human : Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, you sexist. Objectification leads to dehumanization which leads to racism, discrimination, and “othering.”

  • cwakefield2011

    Dear Shaun,

    Thanks for taking the time to write a reply. To clarify what I mean by “prime method of assessing a person’s utility,” I’m using prime as “ideal,” not prime as “default behavior,” as we both agree it is. My point in the second paragraph is that the default behavior is not enough, and we should do better. As you suggest, if objectification is what gives true friendship value, recognizing others as more than just sums of characteristics and treating them as such is what really gives other humans value.

    I get that you’re trying to advocate for women’s sexual agency, but I’m trying to point to the big picture and suggest that your argument still sidesteps the root of the problem. “Slut” is not just derogatory because it vilifies women who assert their sexual agency, it’s fundamentally derogatory because men, with power, have used the word to determine what kind of woman is desirable – thus defining the “right” opinion of desirable based on their own needs, and ignoring the fact that women get to assert their sexuality *for themselves,* certainly not for others. Thus viewing people as beautiful objects often distracts people from perceiving others’ agency and self-worth.

    More of the big picture: what’s curious about your article is that you seem to understand that objectification leads to people viewing others as means to ends, but you don’t seem to understand that historically, that is why people mistreat each other. It is how powerful people rationalize ignoring personal rights of people who have committed no crime: by treating those “inferiors” based on their perceived value, and using that to inform which rights those “inferiors” deserve. In general, people viewing each other as mere means to ends lets us rationalize unwanted aggression and apathy. I understand that “you can think of people primarily in terms of their use to you whilst still recognizing that they have basic rights that shouldn’t be infringed,” but that behavior is taught, not natural, *mainly* because those who’ve been objectified for centuries have slowly managed to fight the uphill battle against it. So it is *exactly* because objectifying is an instinctive behavior, one that leads humans to only look out for themselves and those with whom they identify, that we teach people to overcome that instinct and respect others. I am not arguing that we get to know and befriend every single person we meet — our love and lives are finite, as you say. But we had better get in the habit of fighting the natural instinct to be apathetic about other people or take advantage of other people if we’d like to see long-term, worldwide societal improvement.

  • IsaacBloch

    Broadly speaking, I probably agree with the article’s point that some amount of objectification is inherent to our interactions with each other. But even if I grant it that much, the article fails to take into account that sexual objectification accounts for so many of the portrayals of women, while men are presented in many ways, some of them sexual but many of them not. Almost universally, women are treated as sexual objects more then men, whether that be in music, in movies or even literature. I do think that imbalance is very problematic in the way it generalizes and oversimplifies who women can be as people.
    And if there are so many more instances of women being objectified for men, what does that tell straight women about their own sexual desire? To me it seems to eschew straight women’s desire for men, or at least make it secondary to their role as sex objects. Although I’m suspicious of “equal objectification” as a goal, this article doesn’t even consider the quesiton, and seems to simply assume that such equality already exists!

  • oklohomosapien

    SIte staff, would you have removed my comment if I asked Shaun for a picture of his mom’s face instead of her chest? I don’t understand, I thought it was the same.

  • Clairowsmith

    **I understand both sides, but I can only agree with Tan on the rare occasion that the woman in question is consciously using her sex appeal to achieve an end. Unfortunately, we are not all models, actresses or porn stars, and, more importantly, most men do not place women on a pedestal (which is, I think, what Tan is getting at) for their looks. It is not out of praise or appreciation that most men objectify women (and here I emphasize “most” because I know that many men do have an appreciation for a woman’s physique)–rather, it is “DAMN son I’d like to take her home and __”. If a woman is promoting her body for money or sex or status, more power to her. But if she is simply trying to present herself in a way that pleases her and she has more important priorities on the agenda, i.e. pursuing a successful career, raising children, or what have you–I don’t think she’d appreciate men ogling her instead of treating her like the intelligent, talented woman she is. How frustrating would it be for a woman to be speaking at a board meeting, only to have someone make a comment such as “Gosh, Patricia, you make a great point, but I just wanted to say that your boobs look terrific today.” Should she be made to feel like she needs to tone it down and maybe wear a turtleneck next time? Of course not. This is who she is. As Tan quotes, “Women are as much their bodies as they are their minds or souls.” And that’s why we don’t need to be made to feel like our looks determine our self-worth. Respect us. Tell us we look good, but within reason. We are not objects, so don’t objectify us. Unless we ask for it.**

  • ShaunTansMom

    To oklohomosapien: You don’t even know the half of it! It’s always “your breasts look amazing today, mom” and “your cheekbones give me an erection that lasts longer than 12 hours I should see a doctor.” Which are both true, technically, but are really easy compliments that speak to Shaun’s sexual desires and not anything that speaks to my own individuality, which is what a compliment should do. Turning me into an object is insulting because it speaks to SHAUN’S mentality and his penis. It ties into centuries of sexual oppression and cheapens my relationship to him (and not just because I carried him in my womb for 9 months). Equating female sexuality to objectification is deeplly problematic because it implies that being an object, or a thing that needs filling (likely with penis) is the point of being a “slut” (which you apparently also equate to being a sexual being, but whatever, I’m glad we’re all down with the sluts). Anyway, it’s not the same thing. Female sexuality is a complex thing that requires a deeper connection than just “your body is banging, baby.” Objectification does not equal a compliment, it is pretty much the exact opposite. If you can’t think of any other way to support female sexuality/sluts/whatever except with objectification, I clearly have not raised you right.