I was challenged recently about my use of “objectification” as a concept, which made me realize that I wasn’t entirely certain about what it meant, which is very bad because I keep using it. So let’s talk about that.
I think “objectification” refers to a cluster-in-thingspace of behavior typically but not always directed against members of marginalized groups. “Treating people like things” is a way of describing that cluster, but kind of a vague way to describe it. I mean, if I’m driving and I treat a pedestrian walking across the street as an obstacle I ought to avoid without considering their agency and personhood, am I objectifying them?
Millbank describes ten things that make up objectification, based on the work of philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Rae Langton:
- Instrumentality: coercing or conditioning a woman to act as a tool for men’s purposes
- Denial of autonomy: taking away a woman’s autonomy and self-determination
- Inertness: restricting a woman’s agency and activity
- Fungibility: objectifying a woman (the rest of these activities) in such a way that they become interchangeable with other objectified women
- Violability: violating a woman’s boundary-integrity and enabling boundary violation
- Ownership: two completely separate issues here (though not quite treated as separate in Nussbaum’s paper); most importantly, human slavery is widespread in trafficking and other forms; also, and incomparably with human slavery, many women are treated as if men have authority over them
- Denial of subjectivity: not taking into account a person’s experiences and feelings, and treatment which suppresses, denies or makes them doubt their experiences and feelings
- Reduction to body: conditioning which restrains a person’s consciousness to their body or body parts
- Reduction to appearance: treating a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses, as well as conditioning which makes people judgethemselves primarily on their appearance
- Silencing: removing or suppressing a person’s capacity to speak, creating a context such that their speech is systematically misinterpreted/misunderstood/non-valued or conditioning them to think their speech isn’t worthwhile
The reason I think objectification is a useful concept is that those ten things tend to show up together (although of course each one can act independently). In general, if you act as though you have authority over your partner’s body (ownership), you might decide you deserve sex even when your partner doesn’t want it (violability) or that your partner shouldn’t wear short skirts because it makes you feel jealous (denial of autonomy). Raping someone is both instrumentality (treating another person as a vehicle for your orgasm) and violability (violating another’s boundaries). If you think women are only of worth if they’re sexually attractive (reduction to appearance), then you can treat equally attractive women as interchangeable (fungibility). If you gaslight someone (denial of subjectivity), you reduce their ability to speak up about their experiences (silencing). Et cetera.
What do all those things have in common? Shit, I’m not sure. It definitely seems to be A Thing, though, and I don’t need the concept to be perfectly defined in order to use it as a tool to understand the world. Are those ten the only things that could play into objectification? Probably not; the list seems pretty complete to me, but there’s probably something I’m missing.
(“Oy, Ozy, you’re a utilitarian, what if objectifying someone increases the amount of utility in the world?” To which I say: fuck yeah rule utilitarian. In general, objectifying people is bad, so we can create the “no objectifying people” rule.)
It’s not an accident that describing the traits of objectification in a really obvious way ends up sounding like it describes an abusive relationship. I think one of the key insights of radical feminism was that abuse and rape are the far end of a continuum of behavior (this is the insight that usually gets mangled into “damn feminists, think everything is rape!”). Obviously, gaslighting in an interpersonal relationship is not the same thing as sending rape threats to female bloggers is not the same thing as ignoring an insight when it comes from a woman and applauding it when it comes from a man is not the same thing as a woman not speaking up because she assumes her ideas are less relevant than the men’s, but they are all in a sense silencing a woman.
It’s important, I think, to understand objectification as a thing done “by systems and to classes” (to quote Millbank). You don‘t have to say “have vaginal intercourse or I’ll leave you,” if your partner believes that vaginal intercourse is a necessary component of having a relationship, that a relationship isn’t “real” unless you have “real sex” which is of course vaginal intercourse, and that it is bad and unreasonable to ask not to have it. They might not even recognize that not having vaginal intercourse is an option. This is, of course, violability, denial of autonomy, and ownership (plus probably half the other things on the list depending on how exactly the person enacts “vaginal intercourse is mandatory”)– but you’re not denying your partner’s autonomy. You may, in fact, fully respect your partner’s right to say no to vaginal intercourse. Even if there is not a specific objectifier, they are being objectified.
(NOTE: Not having vaginal intercourse is totally an option. You never have to engage in any sex acts you don’t want to. Vaginal intercourse is fairly popular and refusing to have it may limit the number of people who want to have sex with you, but the tradeoff is always yours to make.)
Of course, it is in the vast majority of cases individually more harmful to be objectified by a person than to be objectified by a vast social system. But the social system is the bigger problem– it affects more people, and it is one of the causes of the individual coercion. (After all, if you believe vaginal intercourse is a mandatory part of a relationship and your partner refuses it, well, they’re being unreasonable, aren’t they?)