Sexual objectification is linked to coercive behavior in heterosexual relationships

To sexually objectify someone means to think of them as an object whose sole purpose is to fulfill sexual desires, rather than as a human being with thoughts and emotions.

“Objectification from one’s romantic partner may be particularly powerful, given that physical attraction is a key element of romantic relationships and investment in romantic relationships is a feminine norm.”

A new study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly The Object of Desire: How Being Objectified Creates Sexual Pressure for Women in Heterosexual Relationships found that females who are sexually objectified by their male partners tend to experience sexual pressure (the belief that a man deserves sex and the woman is obligated to provide it) and coercion (generally or through violence and manipulation) within their relationship.

Sexual objectification of female bodies is an epidemic in this country, and is influenced largely by media’s portrayal and overall hypersexualization of women. For an overview on male gaze theory, and the impact of media’s portrayal of women in society, please check out my blog kitchentablefeminist.com, and specifically the post The Male Gaze, Part II: Consequences.

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What is even more troubling than the objectification itself is the disheartening conclusion from the study- that women tend to internalize their own objectification. Internalized objectification results in feelings of shame and low self-esteem, which makes it more difficult for a woman to assert herself. Moreover, women who are objectified find it more difficult to express what they want and don’t want to do sexually.

In order to fully address the issue of intimate partner objectification, a wholistic perspective of how our culture treats women is necessary. Research has shown that men who consume  media with sexually explicit and degrading images of women are less empathetic to female victims of  rape, and are more likely to sexually coerce and harass women. Considering that hypersexual images of women are ubiquitous in media, it’s difficult for any woman to escape these negative impacts.

The authors of this study encourage people in relationships to be aware of objectification, and to take proactive measures to  prevent and/or remove it from their intimate lives. Women who are objectified by male partners tend to experience lower levels of sexual satisfaction, not to mention many other negative impacts to her self-esteem, self worth and body image. Therefore, it is of the upmost importance for women to remove themselves (if possible/safe) from these types of situations.

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Conscientious consumption of pornography

It has been estimated that in the US 66% of men and 41% of women watch pornography at least on a monthly basis.

Even if you are not one of those who partake in this pastime, you are likely not protected from the ubiquity of erotic images on TV, in movies, and of course, on the internet. In fact, it is estimated that 50% of all internet traffic is dedicated to sex, making it a true phenomenon of our time.

If you’ve ever wondered about the neurological implications of chronic exposure to pornography, your answer may have arrived! 

A recent publication shed light on areas of the brain vulnerable to chronic use of pornography- and surprise!- they’re the same areas implicated in drug addiction.

The article published last month in JAMA psychiatry implicates changes in two main regions of the brain- the striatum and the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – in chronic pornography exposure. The striatum (caudate/putamen/nucleus accumbens) is a brain region responsible for motivation, reward seeking and movement, whereas the PFC is necessary for planning and decision making. Together, these areas work to initiate reward-seeking behavior and assess reward cues from the environment.

dopamine pathways

The main results of the article show an overall loss of neural volume in the striatum in accordance with the amount of porn watched per week. Moreover, they observed a significant decrease in activity of the striatum in response to sexual cues-hinting at a desensitization of the reward system. Additionally, they noted a decrease in functional connection between the striatum and the PFC.

Overall, it seems that the more pornography you watch, the more stimulus you need to feel sexually aroused.

So if you ever wondered if pornography influences natural desires, the answer is quite possibly. It seems that chronic exposure to pornography can highjack the natural reward pathway of our brains in a similar fashion to drugs of abuse, like cocaine. And like drug abuse, with time and overuse, pornography alters our neural pathways to compensate for the overwhelming stimulus.