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How Porn Can Normalize Sexual Objectification

Research indicates that consuming porn can normalize sexual objectification, which can have profound consequences in the ways porn consumers view and treat others.

TRIGGER WARNING

 

We’ve all been impacted in recent years as the #MeToo movement has cast more light on the prevalence of sexual violence in our culture. Courageous victims of sexual assault have come forward with heartbreaking stories, leaving many of us asking what we can do in the face of such a monumental issue, knowing that we can’t let the choruses of “me too’s” be drowned out by the deafening silence of inaction.

But, despite efforts to curb sexual violence, there remains a high prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, sexual harassment in work settings, and sex trafficking around the world.Gervais, S. J., & Eagan, S. (2017). Sexual objectification: The common thread connecting myriad forms of sexual violence against women. The American journal of orthopsychiatry, 87(3), 226–232. https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000257COPY  On the surface, these different forms of sexual violence may not appear to be connected to each other. But, in truth, experts are increasingly recognizing that they may all stem from one common source—sexual objectification. Sexual objectification occurs when people perceive others as sex objects, rather than complex human beings deserving of dignity and respect. In fact, in a review of research on sexual violence, two leading experts called sexual objectification the “common thread” that connects different forms of sexual violence.Gervais, S. J., & Eagan, S. (2017). Sexual objectification: The common thread connecting myriad forms of sexual violence against women. The American journal of orthopsychiatry, 87(3), 226–232. https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000257COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Promote Sexual Violence

Each one of us can play a part in creating a healthier culture that rejects the normalization of sexual violence. And that starts not only with putting an end to sexually inappropriate and harmful behaviors, but also putting an end to attitudes that support objectification or dehumanization. If sexual violence starts with viewing others as sexual objects, then it’s important to discuss the role pornography can play. Research consistently shows that porn can play a big role in teaching viewers to consume people as products for their own personal sexual satisfaction, which can ultimately have unhealthy consequences for individuals, relationships, and for the cultures in which we live.Skorska, M.N., Hodson, G., & Hoffarth, M.R. (2018). Experimental effects of degrading versus erotic pornography exposure in men on reactions toward women (objectification, sexism, discrimination). The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 27, 261 - 276.COPY Seabrook, R. C., Ward, L. M., & Giaccardi, S. (2019). Less than human? Media use, objectification of women, and men’s acceptance of sexual aggression. Psychology of Violence, 9(5), 536-545. doi:10.1037/vio0000198COPY 

Research on sexual objectification

Not long ago, Princeton and Stanford psychologists performed a study showing a group of men two sets of pictures, some of fully-clothed women and others of women who had been sexualized and were barely clothed. The psychologists monitored their medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which is the part of the brain involved in recognizing human faces and distinguishing one person from another. For the most part, the mPFC part of the brain was activated with each picture. However, when the subjects of the study were shown the pictures of sexualized women, this part of the brain was not activated. Basically, the automatic reaction in their brains suggested that they didn’t perceive the sexualized women as fully human, rather they saw them as objects, focusing on their bodies and body parts. The researchers concluded, “sexualized women were perceived as having the least control over their own lives” and “this suggests that sexualized women are more closely associated with being the objects, not the agents, of action as compared to clothed women.Cikara, M., Eberhardt, J. L., & Fiske, S. T. (2011). From agents to objects: sexist attitudes and neural responses to sexualized targets. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 23(3), 540–551. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn.2010.21497COPY 

Pornography promotes what is often referred to as the “objectifying gaze.” As researchers Tracy Tylka and Ashley Kroon Van Diest note, “women in pornography are presented as the object of this sexual gaze, and they are defined according to how they will bring pleasure to the observer.”Tylka, T. L., & Van Diest, A. M. K. (2015). You looking at her “hot” body may not be “cool” for me: Integrating male partners’ pornography use into objectification theory for women. Psychology of Women Quarterly,39, 67–84. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0361684314521784COPY 

The people in pornography are often explicitly presented as objects, and porn videos are listed and labeled with the specific acts they perform or physical attributes they possess so the observer can “order” porn that fits their exact expectations. With so many people consuming pornography, is it any wonder that many are developing attitudes of sexual entitlement and objectification? Reducing people to physical terms and self-serving labels is the exact type of sexual objectification that sets the stage for sexual violence.Gervais, S. J., & Eagan, S. (2017). Sexual objectification: The common thread connecting myriad forms of sexual violence against women. The American journal of orthopsychiatry, 87(3), 226–232. https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000257COPY 

In fact, research routinely shows that frequent porn consumers are more likely to sexually objectify and dehumanize others,Mikorski, R., & Szymanski, D. M. (2017). Masculine norms, peer group, pornography, Facebook, and men’s sexual objectification of women. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 18(4), 257-267. doi:10.1037/men0000058COPY Skorska, M.N., Hodson, G., & Hoffarth, M.R. (2018). Experimental effects of degrading versus erotic pornography exposure in men on reactions toward women (objectification, sexism, discrimination). The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 27, 261 - 276.COPY Zhou, Y., Liu, T., Yan, Y., & Paul, B. (2021). Pornography use, two forms of dehumanization, and sexual aggression: Attitudes vs. behaviors. Null, 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2021.1923598COPY  more likely to express an intent to rape,Foubert, J. D., Brosi, M. W., & Bannon, R. S. (2011). Pornography viewing among fraternity men: Effects on bystander intervention, rape myth acceptance and behavioral intent to commit sexual assault.18(4), 212-231. doi:10.1080/10720162.2011.625552COPY  less likely to intervene during a sexual assault,Foubert, J. D., Brosi, M. W., & Bannon, R. S. (2011). Pornography viewing among fraternity men: Effects on bystander intervention, rape myth acceptance and behavioral intent to commit sexual assault.18(4), 212-231. doi:10.1080/10720162.2011.625552COPY Foubert, J. D., & Bridges, A. J. (2017). What Is the Attraction? Pornography Use Motives in Relation to Bystander Intervention. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 32(20), 3071–3089. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260515596538COPY  more likely to victim-blame survivors of sexual violence,Foubert, J. D., Brosi, M. W., & Bannon, R. S. (2011). Pornography viewing among fraternity men: Effects on bystander intervention, rape myth acceptance and behavioral intent to commit sexual assault.18(4), 212-231. doi:10.1080/10720162.2011.625552COPY Loughnan, S., Pina, A., Vasquez, E. A., & Puvia, E. (2013). Sexual Objectification Increases Rape Victim Blame and Decreases Perceived Suffering. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 37(4), 455–461. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684313485718COPY  more likely to support violence against women,Wright, P. J., & Tokunaga, R. S. (2016). Men's Objectifying Media Consumption, Objectification of Women, and Attitudes Supportive of Violence Against Women. Archives of sexual behavior, 45(4), 955–964. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0644-8COPY Seabrook, R. C., Ward, L. M., & Giaccardi, S. (2019). Less than human? media use, objectification of women, and men’s acceptance of sexual aggression. Psychology of Violence, 9(5), 536-545. doi:10.1037/vio0000198COPY  more likely to forward sexts without consent,van Oosten, J., & Vandenbosch, L. (2020). Predicting the Willingness to Engage in Non-Consensual Forwarding of Sexts: The Role of Pornography and Instrumental Notions of Sex. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(4), 1121–1132. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-01580-2COPY  and more likely to commit actual acts of sexual violence.Wright, P. J., Tokunaga, R. S., & Kraus, A. (2016). A meta-analysis of pornography consumption and actual acts of sexual aggression in general population studies. Journal of Communication, 66(1), 183-205. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12201COPY Rostad, W. L., Gittins-Stone, D., Huntington, C., Rizzo, C. J., Pearlman, D., & Orchowski, L. (2019). The association between exposure to violent pornography and teen dating violence in grade 10 high school students. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48(7), 2137-2147. doi:10.1007/s10508-019-1435-4COPY Goodson, A., Franklin, C. A., & Bouffard, L. A. (2021). Male peer support and sexual assault: The relation between high-profile, high school sports participation and sexually predatory behaviour. 27(1), 64-80. doi:10.1080/13552600.2020.1733111COPY Mikorski, R., & Szymanski, D. M. (2017). Masculine norms, peer group, pornography, Facebook, and men’s sexual objectification of women. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 18(4), 257-267. doi:10.1037/men0000058COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Fuel Sex Trafficking

Partner porn consumption and objectification

“I am no longer a sexual person or partner to him, but a sexual object. He is not really with me, not really making love to me when we have intercourse. He seems to be thinking about something or someone else—likely those porn women—or he is just inserting me to play a role in some novel sexual scenario that he saw somewhere. He is just using me as a warm body.”

This quote is from a woman who was part of an interview-based research study of women whose male partners frequently consume pornography,Bergner, R. M., & Bridges, A. J. (2002). The significance of heavy pornography involvement for romantic partners: research and clinical implications. Journal of sex & marital therapy, 28(3), 193–206. https://doi.org/10.1080/009262302760328235COPY  and is describing the experience of internalized sexual objectification—when someone starts to view themselves as an object that exists for others’ sexual pleasure. Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T.-A. (1997). Objectification Theory: Toward Understanding Women’s Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21(2), 173–206. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00108.xCOPY Koval et al., (2019). How does it feel to be treated like an object? Direct and indirect effects of exposure to sexual objectification on women's emotions in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition, 116 (6), 885-898. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000161COPY  With this in mind, it’s not surprising that research shows that feeling sexually objectified is linked to a variety of negative psychological outcomes including body shame,Miles-McLean, H., Liss, M., Erchull, M. J., Robertson, C. M., Hagerman, C., Gnoleba, M. A., . . . Papp, L. J. (2015). “Stop looking at me!” Interpersonal sexual objectification as a source of insidious trauma. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 39, 390–404. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0361684314561018COPY  eating disorders,Tylka, T. L., & Van Diest, A. M. K. (2015). You looking at her “hot” body may not be “cool” for me: Integrating male partners’ pornography use into objectification theory for women. Psychology of Women Quarterly,39, 67–84. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0361684314521784COPY  and depression.Jones, B. A., & Griffiths, K. M. (2015). Self-objectification and depression: An integrative systematic review. Journal of affective disorders, 171, 22–32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2014.09.011COPY 

Experts have found that female partners of males who consume pornography express feeling more sexually objectified as a result of their partners’ porn habits.Tylka, T. L., & Van Diest, A. M. K. (2015). You looking at her “hot” body may not be “cool” for me: Integrating male partners’ pornography use into objectification theory for women. Psychology of Women Quarterly,39, 67–84. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0361684314521784COPY Wright, P. J., & Tokunaga, R. S. (2018). Women's perceptions of their male partners' pornography consumption and relational, sexual, self, and body satisfaction: Toward a theoretical model. Annals of the International Communication Association, 42, 53–73. https://doi.org/10.1080/23808985.2017.1412802COPY  For example, studies have shown that when women know that their male partners view pornography, their concern regarding their partners’ sexual attraction toward their own body increases.Wright, P. J., & Tokunaga, R. S. (2018). Women's perceptions of their male partners' pornography consumption and relational, sexual, self, and body satisfaction: Toward a theoretical model. Annals of the International Communication Association, 42, 53–73. https://doi.org/10.1080/23808985.2017.1412802COPY  This seems to be the natural consequence of women becoming aware that their male partner is ‘‘watching’’ and “assessing” other women’s bodies, likely causing her to focus on how her partner may be ‘‘watching’’ and ‘‘assessing’’ her body. As researchers explain, “she likely self-objectifies by adopting her partner’s perspective of her own body.”Tylka, T. L., & Van Diest, A. M. K. (2015). You looking at her “hot” body may not be “cool” for me: Integrating male partners’ pornography use into objectification theory for women. Psychology of Women Quarterly,39, 67–84. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0361684314521784COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Hurt a Consumer’s Partner

The objectifying influence of pornography can also be intensified by the impossible beauty standards and lack of body diversity portrayed in mainstream porn. Two leading scholars summarized this effect, noting,

Women in pornography tend to conform to cultural beauty ideals (i.e., they are thin or curvaceously thin), with a small waist and an average-to-large bust size. For example, the average Playboy model has a body mass index of 18.0, which is underweight; a large bust-to-waist ratio; and a bra cup size between C and D. Therefore, knowing that her male partner is looking at and likely [becoming aroused by] thin/curvaceously thin women in pornography could heighten a woman’s body focus and pressure to lose weight.Tylka, T. L., & Van Diest, A. M. K. (2015). You looking at her “hot” body may not be “cool” for me: Integrating male partners’ pornography use into objectification theory for women. Psychology of Women Quarterly,39, 67–84. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0361684314521784COPY 

Putting these ideas to the test, this gender equality-informed study found that porn consumption by both past and present romantic partners can contribute to the sexual objectification of women and is negatively linked to their well-being. Specifically, this study found that previous partners’ pornography consumption predicted women’s levels of feeling sexually objectified, higher levels of body shame, and even lead to increased eating disorder symptomatology. The researchers concluded, “…these women reported feeling that their male partner transferred the objectifying treatment of women in pornography onto them.”Tylka, T. L., & Van Diest, A. M. K. (2015). You looking at her “hot” body may not be “cool” for me: Integrating male partners’ pornography use into objectification theory for women. Psychology of Women Quarterly,39, 67–84. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0361684314521784COPY 

No wonder many partners of porn consumers end up feeling depressed, anxious, and like they can never measure up to the impossible standard of porn. In porn, mistakes are edited out and flaws are Photoshopped away. Porn actors have a whole team there to make them look fantastic, and once their best performance is captured on film, it never ages. Who wants to compete with that?

Choose real connection

Obviously, porn is not an accurate representation of how everyday people look or how sex and intimacy work in real-life relationships, yet the research shows that porn can, and does, shape the way that consumers think about others and about sex. Real connection starts with seeing others as whole people with unique thoughts, feelings, dreams, struggles, and lives. Viewing people as products is harmful to individuals, relationships and ultimately society as a whole. The collective private actions of millions affect the larger culture—objectifying others privately on our screens doesn’t inspire respect and dignity in public. The private impacts the public—that’s how culture works. If we want a culture of true respect and equality, then we need to make sure we think about, talk about, and treat others as whole people—not as objects.

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