Women Who Feel Objectified May Face A Higher Risk Of Sexual Assault

In case you needed another reason to hate catcalling.
Image taken by Mayte Torres via Getty Images

Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.

The Background

Watch one of the many catcalling videos on the Internet or a good chunk of the commercials on television, and it's clear that sexual objectification is a harsh reality for women today. And it's not just gazes and commentary from random men on the street -- objectifying messages come from people women know as well as from the media. According to researchers, sexual objectification is when women are "reduced to their sexual body parts and evaluated as instruments to be used by others."

Studies have found that these kind of messages -- from ogling to catcalling to unwanted touching -- can contribute to body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, eating disorders and depression. One particularly problematic link exists between sexual objectification and sexual victimization: Past research has found that women who feel sexually objectified are more likely to be victims of sexual assault. Furthermore, men who sexually objectify women are found to be more likely to have committed sexual assault.

In a new study, researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln decided to look into the alarming relationship between women who are sexually objectified and sexual assault in hopes of finding out why this link might exist.

The Setup

Researchers had 297 female undergraduates take an online survey. Participants reported how often they'd experienced objectification (like if they noticed someone staring at their breasts while they were talking) and unwanted sexual advances (like if they were touched or fondled against their will). They also reported their own levels of body surveillance ("the habitual monitoring of one's appearance from the perspective of an outside observer") by agreeing or disagreeing with statements like, "During the day, I think about how I look many times."

Sexual assertiveness was measured by how often participants agreed or disagreed with statements like, "I refuse to have sex if I do not want to, even if my partner insists." Participants also reported how often they'd been sexually victimized -- meaning: how frequently they'd had experiences of unwanted sexual contact, verbally coerced intercourse, attempted rape and rape.

The Findings

After analyzing the surveys, the researchers found that over one-third of the participants had experienced sexual victimization as defined by the study. Like past researchers, they found a link between experiences of objectification and sexual victimization. But they also got a little closer to the why they were searching for by identifying more specific potential links between feelings of sexual objectification and sexual assault. Body evaluation experiences ("objectifying gazes and related commentary") were associated with greater body surveillance, which was associated with decreased sexual assertiveness. It was this diminished sexual assertiveness that was associated with the increased risk of sexual victimization.

Given their findings, the researchers proposed this path: When a woman feels objectified, she may begin to judge and value her own body by its attractiveness to others, which may lead to decreased sexual assertiveness and an increased risk of sexual victimization. Keep in mind that they didn't actually find any causal mechanisms -- this is just their educated guess based on the links they found.

According to Molly Franz, co-author of the study, a woman's environment may play a role in this dynamic.

"It is certainly possible that environments that are more sexually objectifying, like dance clubs and fraternity parties, are the same environments where women are more likely to encounter sexually aggressive men," Franz told The Huffington Post.

The Takeaway

According to the study, "women who are recurrently objectified may increasingly define their bodies for the purpose of serving others," which in this sample group, was linked to a "passivity" in unwanted sexual encounters that can result in sexual victimization. In this view, sexual assault plays out when a woman's body is literally, rather than figuratively, used as an instrument by another. Considering that nearly one in five women in the U.S. has experienced rape or attempted rape, if this proposed dynamic is real, it may have a serious impact on the way sexual encounters play out.

Fixing the problem, the researchers write, lies in targeting men's behaviors, since they're "the primary party responsible for initiating unwanted sexual encounters." They suggest shifting cultural norms, particularly in university environments, by teaching young men to focus less on women's appearance, as well as promoting better communication around sex and consent.

Creating these changes, of course, hasn't proven to be so easy. While Franz emphasized that her findings don't put the onus on women to change their behavior -- sexual assault is not the victim's fault -- she said research on how assertiveness trainings could help reduce the number of sexual assaults "cannot be ignored if we want to attack this problem from all possible angles."

That said, Franz concedes that teaching women how to physically resist or to say "no" won't always prevent assault.

"The only way sexual assault can truly be prevented is if perpetrators cease unwanted sexual advances," she said.

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