Sexual objectification: Is it a problem? How do we solve it?

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EAST LANSING, Mich. — During Halloween in 2016, Sharon Thomas, a human biology major at University of Michigan, was walking through the neighborhood of Cedar Village around 8 p.m. when a man called her from across the street.

“He said, ‘Hey, baby, you look fine,’ then he ran over to me from across the road,” said Thomas.  “I didn’t really register what he was doing at the moment.”

Thomas said the man ran up to her and grabbed her waist while complimenting her. She pushed him away physically, but she couldn’t get him out of her mind.

She replayed the situation over and over throughout the evening, until she felt so uncomfortable in East Lansing that she headed back to Ann Arbor.

Walking down the streets of any area involves nervous “what-ifs” of sexual objectification and hypersexuality.

According to the Canadian Women’s Health Network, hypersexuality is the the obsession of sexual fantasy that comes from or is attributed to the pursuit of casual or non-intimate sex –which basically means treating someone with less respect based on their appearance with the idea of sex in mind.

According to the Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence (SARV) website through MSU; hypersexuality can present itself in various ways: sexual objectification, harassment and assault. Sexual assault is a crime where violence impacts someone’s physical and mental health.  Sexual objectification is treating someone solely as an outlet for sexual desire.  Sexual harassment is making someone uncomfortable in a professional setting by making unwanted sexual remarks.

With sexual assault charges being made towards Michigan State University’s gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar in 2016 and with recent sexual assault accusations against Hollywood Producer Harvey Weinstein, the amount of sexual accusations and charges against famous individuals shows bad influences towards younger generations.    

Stereotypes don’t justify behavior

A common excuse for hypersexual behavior is to suggest that women invite unwanted attention through behavior such as clothing choice.

“When I look back on what happened, it’s not that I was wearing any inappropriate clothing. I think it was because he was drunk and I am a girl,” said Thomas. “There’s nothing else that I could have done about this.”

Megan Maas, an assistant professor for human development and family studies at MSU, says there is no such thing as “inappropriate clothing” in cases of assault.

“How women dress and present themselves does not give anyone permission to assault them,” Maas said.

Maas, a sex educator, said sexual mistreatment is all too common among college students.  

“We know that one out of four college women will be sexually assaulted or harassed between when she starts college and by the time she graduates,” she said.

All data is reported from an informal survey made by the Spartan Newsroom. All responses are anonymous.

Nearly three out of four people responding to an informal Spartan Newsroom survey said they had felt sexually objectified based on their gender identity. The survey of about 50 people was conducted over social media.

Women aren’t the only victims of sexual harassment. Tyler Austin, a recent journalism graduate of MSU lives in New York City and experiences catcalling on a daily basis.  

“I don’t know why,” said Austin. “I always saw it happening to women on TV but when I moved to New York, I didn’t know it happened to men too.”

Three-fourths of people responding to the Spartan Newsroom survey said they had been catcalled. The same ratio of people answered “yes” to feeling unsafe in a location based on on fear of being catcalled or sexually objectified.

Victims rarely report

Only a small proportion of people responding to the Spartan Newsroom survey said they had ever reported someone who sexually objectified them.

All data is reported from an informal survey made by the Spartan Newsroom. All responses were anonymous

Some responses were, “I was embarrassed and it isn’t going to change anything if I report them” and, “I didn’t think it was necessary.”

Is there a way to stop people from being scared in their own skin based on hypersexualization of their bodies?

There isn’t a whole lot of support for people who report,” said Maas. “Most people don’t report because they don’t want to be ostracized and they’re ostracized because we have a victim blaming culture.”

Many say reporting a sexual objectifying subject is uncomfortable.

“We have to stop people from feeling uncomfortable,” said Thomas.  

Michigan State has been working to train students in becoming aware of sexual assault situations and potential harassment circumstances.  

Amy Bonomi, a professor studying sexual abuse prevention, said MSU has many prevention programs. Many of them are online, administered through the Title IX Office.  There are national clubs, like It’s On Us, that localize sexual assault to our campus.

Do those really help? Grace Guideau, a senior at MSU, has taken the yearly SARV tests four times and takes away something each time.  However, SARV has struggled with keep students attention towards the program.

“Everyone I know plays it in the background. The way MSU sets it up is very outdated and very boring,” she said.  “I only pay attention to it because I was sexually assaulted and I want to learn what I can do to help other people.”

The role of social media

The use of social media has not helped with torturing our own bodies and sexualizing them for gratification or acceptance.  Through puberty, the likelihood that men and women are starting to focus more on their physical appearance solely to please the other gender is increasing as social media reaches younger ages, said Dr. Maas.  

“A lot of feedback we get now is through social media,” she said. “That has been argued that that pressure is increasing.  Likes and favorites on different pictures that you post so that is direct feedback.  The feedback and amount of instances where you can make comparisons has increased dramatically.”

Dr. Maas said sexual assault is embedded in our culture.

All data is reported from an informal survey made by the Spartan Newsroom. All responses were anonymous

It’s something that we have to be aware of and conscious about that our mind is going to do that sometimes but there are ways in which we connect with each,” said Maas.  “Having more real connections and not giving so much power to social media if that contributes to young people,”

This subject has been an issue since before social media played a role in society.

“Sexual objectification stems largely from society’s patriarchal notions,” said Bonomi.  “To reduce sexual objectification, we must shift society’s underlying patriarchal notions.”

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