I’ve been reminded again recently that sexual advertising offends a lot of people. To be honest, I’ve always been a little bit puzzled by this.
I hear two objections more than any other:
1) Sexual advertising objectifies people (especially women) and “dehumanizes” them.
2) Sexual advertising imposes a false sense of beauty on us, and pressures less than perfect women (and men!) to obsess too much about their looks.
First, what does it mean to “objectify” somebody? Webster says it means either “to treat as an object” or “cause to have objective reality.” Alternatively, it can mean “to give expression to (as an abstract notion, feeling, or ideal) in a form that can be experienced by others objectify differing facets of the child’s emotional experience — John Updike>” Clearly, we must be talking about the first definition, so let’s work with that. What does it mean to treat someone as an object?
What is an object? Webster has a lot to say about that question. It can be something material, perceivable by the senses. Clearly, all people are objects in this sense, so that’s probably not what we’re talking about. It can be something mental or physical toward which thought, feeling, or action is directed, as in “the object of my affection.” At first glance, maybe this isn’t what people are objecting to, either. Most people like being the object of affection and admiration.
Even so, are the models on billboards objects in this sense? I think they certainly are. When I see a male underwear model with six-pack abs, I sometimes think to myself that I am far short of that goal. Sometimes it causes me a sense of envy. Gosh, I think. If I had abs like that, women would line up to have sex with me. In reality, it’s not clear whether my sex life would be more fulfilling if I had six-pack abs, but I certainly do entertain the thought from time to time. So in a sense, I’m making that person’s body the object of my envy.
Is that bad? Is that what women are objecting to? Perhaps it is, in the sense of the second complaint I listed. I’ll return to this idea later. In the meantime, we need to hash out what it means to objectify someone in a bad way. In browsing through several dictionary sites on the web, I’ve had a hard time finding a definition that fits this use, so let’s just play around with making our own. The sense I get when someone says an ad objectifies women (or men, or whatever group is being portrayed) is that some generalization or stereotype is being emphasized to the exclusion of other traits. That is, a Victoria’s Secret model is nothing more than sexuality. In the pages of the catalog, there are no minds. There is no camaraderie. There is no love, no self-respect, and there certainly aren’t any shared goals in the context of a loving monogamous marriage.
I think this gets closer to the meaning of “objectification” in advertising. For the time being, it’s what I’m going to use. Now, let’s ask the obvious question. Is this kind of objectification bad?
If you’ve lived in the real world at all, you’ve probably known a man who objectified women. That is, he treated them as nothing more than sex toys, and didn’t invest any kind of energy into forming deep emotional bonds. (In fairness, we’ve probably all known women like that, too, but we’ll go with men for the time being.) These kind of men don’t often make good husbands, so we can say that if all men treated women that way, it would be very bad for monogamous marriage.
The thing is, all men don’t treat women that way. Most men are looking for a monogamous lover who also happens to be a great friend. Sure, they’ll take casual sex along the way while they’re searching, but the ultimate goal of most men is long term meaningful relationships. Considering the huge number of sexual ads, it’s safe to say ads don’t turn all men into objectifiers. But do they turn some men? Perhaps, but even if they do, we have to ask the question, do these men objectify because the ads are bad, or do they objectify because they were socialized poorly and don’t have healthy views of women? It’s a chicken and egg problem that probably doesn’t have a clear cut answer.
Instead of trying to find a clear answer, let’s approach it from the other angle. Do most men look at sexual advertising and still manage to have healthy relationships? Yes. They do. Perhaps we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater by blaming the existence of sexually selfish men on billboard ads. In fact, psychologists have made a very compelling argument that images are not the main cause of emotional dysfunction in men or women. One of the best indicators of relationship health in any person is the relationship health of their parents (or whoever raised them). Religion also plays a much larger role in shaping sexual identity. In America, people who think sex before marriage is inherently harmful are almost all religious, and those who aren’t have almost all come from religious backgrounds and given up the organization.
In fact, there’s a lot of new and compelling evidence that sexually vivid advertising, erotica, and even downright smutty porn are a significant part of a lot of healthy relationships. It appears that emotionally healthy people are not only not “dehumanized” by sexual advertising, they incorporate it into their own healthy lives!
Since I just used the word, “dehumanized,” let’s define it. Webster says “to deprive of human qualities, personality, or spirit.”
Hmmmm…. did you notice something there? That’s what most people mean by “objectify.” Ok, I admit I kind of snookered the reader a little bit here. “Objectification” is not really the right word for protesting sexual advertising. The real argument is that it deprives people of human qualities or personality — that it reduces them in some way. (I’m leaving out the spirit part because spirits don’t exist. Sue me.)
So, let’s ask another pointed question. Is depriving people of human qualities or personality always a bad thing? Ask yourself that question next time you get annoyed with a waiter for getting too much into your business during lunch. When you’re asking yourself why he won’t just refill your tea without talking, remember to consider whether we ought to treat every human as equally “human.”
The fact is, we dehumanize people everyday. It’s part of the lexicon of modern psychology. Servers, taxi drivers, gas station attendants, people standing next to us on the train, and any number of other people are less than “whole people” to us. Road rage is another great example. We simply don’t think of other people as entirely human when we’re insulated by our automobiles.
If we’re honest, we have to admit that humans absolutely do dehumanize other people. In fact, it’s necessary. If we had to take the time to develop deep relationships with everyone we encountered in our lives, we’d never get anything else done. Relationships take a long time.
So, we’ve taken a long route to get here, but we have to admit that dehumanizing in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. We can’t say sexual advertising is bad because it dehumanizes the models. Just to hammer the point home, realize that if you passed a supermodel on the street, you wouldn’t think of her as any more human than if she was on a billboard. She’s just another face in the crowd, just like 99% of the people you’ll ever meet.
I’ll be mercifully brief on the second objection. Does sexual advertising impose a false sense of beauty on us? In a word, yes and no. Mostly no.
Scientists have known for quite a while that humans’ perception of beauty is not arbitrary. That is, we don’t just like what society tells us to like. Across all cultures, scientists can pick out the people that will be judged most attractive by a random sampling of judges. They can do it by measuring symmetry and comparing facial features to a “cultural average.” People whose noses are average sized and very symmetrical will be judged as more attractive than people whose noses are very small or very large, but very symmetrical.
Culture certainly does shape our perceptions of beauty, but only within the bounds that already exist. To put it bluntly, there has never been a time when grossly obese people with large warts on their noses have been considered highly attractive. Yes, Titian painted “healthy” women by today’s standards — and that’s about where the outer boundary lies. With the very occasional exception, virtually every society values physically fit bodies and symmetrical features, though they have quite a bit of leeway. In America, we’ve gone from Twiggy to Marilyn Monroe to Kate Moss to Britney Spears in just a few decades.
Does sexual advertising cause people to obsess about their looks? Sure, some people. Again, though, we have to ask a pointed question. Do the people who obsess about their looks do so because of advertising or does the advertising bring out an existing insecurity? In the same way that males become sexual “users” because of their family and peers, females become obsessively looks conscious because of their family and peers. To hammer this point home, we should realize that we have female jewelry going back to the beginnings of human tool use. Before TV, there were looks-obsessed women and women who just went with the flow.
Is it possible that the information age has exacerbated the situation for certain women? Sure. Does that mean the advertising is bad, or does it mean that some women have been raised with an overly looks-conscious mental outlook? I can’t answer this definitively, but a quick scan through history tells me that men have always gone after the prettiest women, and women have always wanted to be the prettiest.
Finally, I’d like to return to the spirit of the original question. Is sexual advertising in and of itself a bad thing? I think no. Humans are products of natural selection, which is inevitably going to produce lots of 5s, a couple of 10s, and a couple of 1s. Almost everybody is average looking. Just as in any other species, the standouts are going to… well… stand out. We can’t blame them for being better looking than us. It’s genetics. Nothing else. If we’re honest, we have to admit that they’re more sexually attractive to more people than we are, but does that mean we’re dehumanized? No. It means we’re realistic.
Humans are walking sexual advertisements. If you’re in a relationship, the odds are really, really high that you are (or at least were) attracted to your mate sexually. If you hadn’t been, you wouldn’t be in a relationship. You’d be friends and nothing more. We dress up so that we’re sexually appealing. It’s just what it is.
This brings me to my last (and hopefully most convincing) point. As you’ve hopefully read and understood in my articles on human sexuality (links to follow) it is patently wrong to say that human nature is above sexuality. Sexuality is literally what makes us who we are. Were it not for sex, we wouldn’t make art and music and poetry. Sexuality isn’t the basest part of our nature. It is intrinsic to everything we are.
Freud was right even though he was horribly wrong. Everything really does come back to sex, but he just had no idea how or why. (If you’re reading this and thinking, “No, it isnt!” I’ll ask you to please read my other articles thoroughly and come back to this one.) In other words, we are all walking sexual advertisements. Even when we don’t try to be sexual, people look at us sexually. We’re human. That’s what humans do.
So next time you look at a billboard with a scantily clad woman selling something that seems completely unrelated to sex, remember… sex is what makes the world go round, and we’re all sexual advertisements. The one on the billboard just got paid for it. No biggie. Really.