Public discourse around objectification often deals with images we see in the media, from steamy Maxim covers to gratuitously sexual Burger King ads. But how does this cultural focus on appearance make itself felt at the level of one-on-one romantic relationships?
A new study suggests that objectification within a relationship is, at best, a serious red flag. If a woman is objectified in a relationship, the research indicates, it's more likely that her male partner will sexually coerce and pressure her.
In a paper published in a recent issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly, researchers from Bridgewater State University defined "objectification" as the act of viewing a person as an object with an emphasis on their physical appearance. The two-part quantitative study gathered responses from 119 men and 162 women. Using separate questionnaires for men and women, researchers explored two key questions: What are men's experiences with objectifying their female partners? And what are women's experiences with being objectified?
"We were really measuring how much men tend to think about and find importance in how their female partner looks," Laura Ramsey, assistant professor of psychology at Bridgewater State and lead researcher for the study, told The Huffington Post. From there, Ramsey said, she and her team determined how that emphasis on appearance might influence each partner's sexual behavior.
Previous research on objectification has established that men are more likely to objectify women than the other way around (which is why Ramsey focused on heterosexual couples). But most treatments of the subject have looked at how female objectification in the media affects women as a whole, rather than specifically in their relationships. And since research shows that most sexual violence is committed by an intimate partner, Ramsey felt the need to explore the connections between objectification and sexual pressure and coercion.
For the purposes of this study, sexual pressure was defined as any situation in which "men expect sex and [believe] that it is a woman's role to provide sex for her partner," while sexual coercion was defined as any situation in which men seek sex through violence or manipulation. Researchers measured the propensity for these behaviors by asking men and women questions about their current or most recent relationships.
For the male survey, Ramsey looked at men's beliefs and behaviors around objectification and sexual pressure and coercion -- beliefs like "It's the woman's responsibility to provide for her partner sexually" and "My partner should have sex with me whenever I want to have sex," and behaviors like "I have threatened violence if my partner won't have sex with me" and "I've threatened to remove resources if my partner won't have sex with me."
The women were also asked about their relationships, but with a focus on how objectifying beliefs and behaviors affected their sexual agency and body image.
After analyzing the survey results, Ramsey found that among the men, the more they thought about the way their partner looked, the more likely they were to pressure her sexually. Additionally, the more these men focused on their partner's looks, the more they scrutinized her physically and felt shame about her appearance -- factors that also correlated with sexual pressure and coercion.
Overall, the researchers found only a moderate level of objectification and low rates of sexual coercion, but the link between these two variables was statistically significant: The men who objectified their partners were also the men who sexually pressured and coerced their partners.
As for the women, those who reported that their partners stared at their bodies frequently were more likely to believe that "it's a woman's role to satisfy her partner sexually." They were also more likely to have experienced sexual coercion in the form of violence or other behavior-controlling mechanisms. One such coercive practice is "commitment manipulation," which researchers measured by offering statements like "My partner hinted that if I loved him I would have sex with him" and asking the women how often that had happened to them.
An atmosphere of objectification also seems to inform the way women view their own bodies. The study found that women whose partners stared at their bodies frequently were more likely to feel bad about themselves and adopt a "third-person perspective" of their bodies -- meaning that they began to view themselves as objects, too. This body insecurity made the women less comfortable in front of their partners, which in turn made them less likely to refuse sex, communicate their sexual needs or actually enjoy sex.
"Objects can't speak up and assert their desires, and so [women who feel like objects] don't either," Ramsey said.
It may not come as a surprise that men who objectify their partners are also likely to engage in coercive, dehumanizing behavior. Still, Ramsey's research provides some hard data on a tricky gray area of relationships: the point at which physical attraction becomes dangerous.
When does finding your partner attractive cross over from a healthy part of a romantic relationship to harmful objectification? That, Ramsey said, can be tricky to discern, especially since previous studies have shown that appearance ranks high for both men and women when you ask them what they're looking for in a romantic partner.
"I don't think that anyone could honestly say that physical attraction isn't important for a relationship," she said. "So the question is: How do you keep it in check so that it doesn't become the most important part of the relationship?"
The first step is being aware that this type of intra-relationship body-shaming and sexual pressure exists. According to Ramsey, women should use this knowledge and try not to internalize their partner's bodily scrutiny. More importantly, she said, women should try to recognize what's really being valued in their relationship. If you feel like your partner places too much importance on your appearance, you may not be in a healthy situation. While education on the topic could allow women to leave unhealthy relationships, the most important takeaway of these findings is targeted at men.
"To a certain extent, it's difficult to control someone else's thoughts about you," Ramsey said. "At the end of the day, I think the onus is really on men to reduce the objectification of women and to recognize that thinking about women in that way could actually be harmful for the relationship."