Lessons from Porn: Women are Objects to be Used, Abused and Dismissed

We are unapologetically anti-porn.

It may be one of the most profitable and powerful industries in the world, and one that is embraced by otherwise like-minded people as an acceptable personal choice, but we are not afraid to state that pornography is one of the worst and most degrading forces against women today. 

Against not only women, but against men, and against real relationships, real love, and real sex. There are undeniable links between sexual assault and pornography use by the perpetrators. There are further undeniable links between pornography use and decreased sexual satisfaction, sexual function, relationship satisfaction, attraction to real-life partners, and acceptance of terribly dangerous myths about rape. Further, the pornography industry works hard to keep up a glamorous image, but behind the camera is a reality of violence, drugs, and human trafficking.

Most pornography searched for online today depicts people, but usually women, as objects for sexual gratification and consumption. It is well-known that most porn has a predominantly male perspective. The directors are usually men, and most of it is made for men. As a result, the camera often embodies the “male gaze:” It looks where a man (a stereotypical straight man, that is) would look. As Jean Kilbourne famously stated, viewing someone as an object is “almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person.”  We have no doubt that sexual objectification promoted and normalized by pornography is playing a role in the sexualized violence against women that is epidemic across the world.

For our work in particular, which deals with female body image issues, we know there are undeniable links between sexual abuse and serious body image disturbance. Sexual abuse alienates a person from his or her own body and very often leads to harmful coping mechanisms to deal with that body shame, such as disordered eating, self-harm, body anxiety and depression. As many as 60% of women treated for eating disorders have been sexually abused.

We see repeated exposure to pornography playing out in these ways for straight men and women:

(Though simplified and generalizing, and acknowledging that correlation does not equal causation, these correlations hold truth that is backed up in decades of research and countless personal experiences. Consider  as meaning “may lead to”)

For Men:

Porn consumption ⇒ objectification of women* ⇒ violence against women + and/or justification of violence against women + and/or sexual dysfunction + and/or lack of satisfaction (emotionally and physically) within real-life relationships

For Women:

Porn consumption ⇒ self-objectification ⇒ body anxiety ⇒ adoption of harmful coping mechanisms

First, let’s talk about some of the darkest effects of pornography on straight men, and, in turn, their relationships with women. Dr. Mary Anne Layden, director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program in the Dept. of Psychiatry at UPenn, was interviewed by Jonathon Van Maren here and offered some profound insight. She described feeling a call to study the damage that sexual violence did to the patients of her psychotherapy practice about 30 years ago, and realizing that she had never treated a case of sexual violence that did not involve pornography.

Men are not born rapists, but for some reason, many are increasingly justifying sexual violence. Why? Because pornography has turned the bodies of women and girls into a commodity. It is shaping the way men see women. This is a business and I think that a lot of pimps would stop doing this if there wasn’t any money involved, but it’s a business and as soon as you tell somebody it’s a product, as soon as you say, ‘This [is] something you buy,’ then this is something you can steal. Those two things are hooked … So the sexual exploitation industry, whether it’s strip clubs or prostitution or pornography, is where you buy it. Sexual violence is where you steal it – rape and child molestation and sexual harassment are where you steal it.

 

So these things are all seamlessly connected. There isn’t a way to draw a bright line of demarcation between rape and prostitution and pornography and child molestation. There are not bright lines of demarcation. The perpetrators are in a common set of beliefs, and when we look at the research, we can see some of those common beliefs, so that we know that individuals who are exposed to pornographic media have beliefs such as [thinking that] rape victims like to be raped, they don’t suffer so much when they’re raped, ‘she got what she wanted’ when she was raped, women make false accusations of rape because it isn’t really rape … no one is really traumatized by it. All of these are part of the rape myth. People who use pornography accept the rape myth to a greater degree than others. So we have a sense that pornography is teaching them to think like a rapist and then triggering them to act like rapists.

 

When you cheapen sex and you cheapen women’s bodies, when you treat people like things, there’s a consequence — and one of the consequences is sexual violence, but one the consequences is also relationship damage. There’s an interesting series of studies that actually highlights a bit of the phenomena of how this works. They were showing people just mildly sexualized pictures. They were men and women in swimsuits, men and women in their underwear, sort of relatively mild sexualized pictures and they showed them either upside right or upside down and looked at the processing in the brain, because it will display a phenomena of which part of your brain you’re using to process that picture that you see.

 

What we see with men, when people look at men, and look at them in their swimsuits or in their underwear, they’re using the part of their brain that processes humans and human faces but when we look at women in their swimsuits and their underwear we use the part of our brain that processes tools and objects and when you process a woman as a tool or an object you use. The rules that we use when we deal with tools or objects is if it’s not doing its job then throw it away, get another one. So the feminists years ago said these men are treating women as sex objects and we thought that was a metaphor. It wasn’t a metaphor. It was an actual statement of reality, that they’re using the part of their brain which they use to process objects and things and there’s a consequence in the society when you start treating sex as a product and women as a thing.”

 

Here’s where we interject to make sure this study she cited doesn’t get twisted. The images of women’s bodies in that study were just as sexualized or undressed as the images of the men’s bodies, but it was only the female bodies that were viewed as objects. This is significant, because our culture has a tendency to blame women for men perceiving them as sex objects. It isn’t their fault. It’s the way we’ve been trained to perceive women, even when they’re in the same state of undress in the same circumstances as the men. We’ve been surrounded since birth with media that sexualizes women’s bodies incessantly, depicting women as bodies to be viewed and consumed first and foremost, while men (though sometimes sexualized as well) are presented as active agents who are valued for many things aside from the appearance of their bodies. Women’s bodies are not naturally or inherently any more sexualized than men’s bodies, yet we see them that way. Blaming women for this tendency doesn’t make any sense or get us any closer to a solution. We need to take responsibility for how we see people, how we think about them, how we talk about them, how we act toward them, and then work to change it. We also need to take responsibility for the messages and media we’re taking into our brains and how they affect the way we view other people. Porn will absolutely keep our brains in object-viewing mode. If we don’t want to see people as objects and fall into the trap of thinking of them and treating them as such, then we can’t keep viewing stuff that upholds those lies. Dr. Layden continues:

The desire for love is built into us. [One of my colleagues] said, ‘The real damage is that it threatens the loss of love in a world where only love brings happiness.’ That summarizes what we are doing, that everybody is hardwired to love and be loved. That’s what feeds our hungry heart, and we have a generation who are starved and have hungry hearts and yet they are eating the sexual junk food and becoming sexually obese because they’re so starved they would eat junk food if that’s all that’s available to them.

 

And so partly we need to have people talk about the glory of good sex, the wonderfulness of good sex, of how it bonds committed couples together and helps them keep their promises to each other, that there is a thing called good sexuality that is enhancing and enlivening and is love-based, but all of this sexual junk food that is out there is not it. If I said to people, ‘I want you to eat healthy food and don’t go to McDonald’s,’ they wouldn’t call me anti-food. They would say you just want to promote healthy food and … find out if you eat McDonald’s every day for 30 days you’ll have a fatty liver. Well that’s what I want to do with sexuality. I want to promote healthy, loving, enhancing, soul-feeding sexuality, not sexual junk food.

 

I think we’ve got to educate ourselves, we’ve got to tell the truth to others, you’ve got to speak truth to authority because once you know this stuff, if you’re silent, silence is complicity.

 

We’ve got to go in to our schools and our libraries and say you’ve got to protect our children, we’ve got to say to our governments, ‘you’ve got to stop spreading permission-giving beliefs and that means don’t legalize prostitution.’ It tells men that it’s fine and more men will go to prostitutes. We’ve got to have laws against things that damage people; we’ve got to have outrage in this society when sexual violence is swept under the rug, when a professional athlete does it. We’ve got to come together and have the journalists, the lawyers, the parents to get together as a mighty team and say, ‘this society is worth saving, our children are worth saving, sexuality is sacred.’ We’ve got to do it together and so it takes a concerted effort … When I hear people say we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, I say, ’50 years ago, 60% of the people in New York City smoked; today 18% in NYC smoke.’ Put the genie back in the bottle. We can do this one as well and it’s worth doing.”

We wholeheartedly agree. We’re not going to tiptoe around this issue for fear of the trolls who will undoubtedly accuse us of being jealous, ugly, prudish religious zealots who are anti-sex (which is among the kinder things we get called). We recognize the harm done to many men and their health and their relationships by porn consumption. We also recognize the harm done to many women by men who learn damaging messages from porn about women’s worth. Women are not only hurt by porn through their relationships, but by their own exposure to the stuff as well. We recognize the harm done to women by exposure to pornography that convinces them to turn inward, to focus on the appearance of their own bodies and prioritize their sex appeal to others over their own sexual health or satisfaction.

Consider this example candidly e-mailed to us by a young woman:

Just as men and women learn to objectify each other through exposure to media that presents us in terms of our parts, women in large numbers learn to self-objectify and monitor their own appearances at the expense of all other aspects of their lives. This is an area of research we speak and write about every chance we get. It is an epidemic reality for girls and women of all ages, but it can be fought once we recognize that it is happening.

We can work against self-objectification in similar ways to how we work against objectification. Let’s do this together and heal our relationships just as we heal ourselves from the lies we’ve bought and held against ourselves and those we love.

  • Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.
  • Encourage your partner, friends and family to join you in objecting to objectification, including avoiding all forms of pornography, degrading magazines that feature women on display as ornaments, and any other media that devalues women. People have to recognize what objectification looks like in media before they can root it out of their own worldviews and interactions.
  • Speak up when you see a woman being used as a prop or a sexualized nobody in that TV show you’re watching together.
  • Point out the disparities in the numbers of women vs. men featured in any media, as well as the disparities in what those people have to look like to qualify for that screen time.
  • Watch where the camera zooms, pans and focuses on bodies of women, regardless of which gender the program or movie was intended for.
  • Listen to how the dialogue differs when it’s about women from when it’s about men.
  • Remind yourself and your partner, friends and family that regardless of what a woman looks like or what she is wearing, each individual is in control of what she/he looks at, thinks about, and does.

If someone views you as an object to be ogled or judged or acted upon, that’s on them. Not you. We are all in control of what we look at, what we think, and what we do with those thoughts. In all this talk about objectification, men are very often being sold short as helpless, weak, and hopeless in the fight to see women as humans and not as a collection of body parts to be ogled. This is a lie.

We have to quote our previous post by Nate Pyle here:

A lot of people will try and tell you that a woman should watch how she dresses so she doesn’t tempt you to look at her wrongly. Here is what I will tell you. It is a woman’s responsibility to dress herself in the morning.  It is your responsibility to look at her like a human being regardless of what she is wearing.  You will feel the temptation to blame her for your wandering eyes because of what she is wearing – or not wearing. But don’t. Don’t play the victim. You are not a helpless victim when it comes to your eyes.  You have full control over them.  Exercise that control. Train them to look her in the eyes.  Discipline yourself to see her, not her clothes or her body. The moment you play the victim you fall into the lie that you are simply an embodied reaction to external stimuli unable to determine right from wrong, human from flesh. Look right at me. That is a ridiculous lie. You are more than that.  And the woman you are looking at is more than her clothes.  She is more than her body.”

To stop viewing and treating others as objects, and to stop treating ourselves as objects, we have to acknowledge the influence of pornography and sexual objectification on our relationships, health and safety. And once we recognize that influence, we have to reject it in all its forms. We can retrain our minds to see humans, rather than just sexualized body parts. We can retrain our minds to prioritize our own health, safety and satisfaction, rather than a fixation on our sexual appeal to others. But we can’t retrain our minds when we’re allowing powerful, hugely profit-driven sources to perpetuate lies about sex and bodies and our worth. 

 

*And more rarely, self-objectification among men as well. For both gay and straight men, this is especially manifested in fixation on sexualized body ideals highlighted in pornography, such as the size of sexual organs and muscularity.

9 Reasons to Ignore Every Mascara Ad Ever and Embrace Your Own Eyelashes

When we see this mascara ad (one of HUNDREDS just like it in any media directed at women), we have a few thoughts:

 Natural extension-free, insert-free eyelashes on women are unbelievably rare in all media today, and it has exerted some serious pressure on girls and women to keep up with that normalized new standard. Eyelash-related products and services are being sold at record rates. Before you dismiss this stuff as petty, consider that this is an example of one single beauty ideal (among hundreds) that has evolved to become inescapable and unquestioned. We LOVE to question these things.

Like the sticky note says, this ad has been altered to sell many unreal ideals, and the most egregious is the LIE so many of us are buying that any mascara can make your lashes look like this! Even this magic mascara can’t create the look in this very ad! Need proof? See the disclaimer in the bottom left: “Simulation of product. Results on the lashes enhanced by lash inserts.” In other words, “This is all a lie. But we hope you don’t read this tiny print.”

Why is “LOOK-AT-ME” always the goal if you’re female? We hate that becoming an ornament to be looked at is not only the unspoken message of most advertising directed at women (for beauty products and everything else), but is often also the literal, verbalized message, like it is here. Your body is an instrument to be used for your benefit, not an ornament for others’ viewing pleasure. Thinking about what you look like a lot of the time, even while you should be concentrating on other things, is called self-objectification and it’s not a good thing. Learn how to recognize it here.

No one ever ever ever talks about men’s eyelashes or sells men anything to do with their eyelashes or asks men to think about what their eyelashes are lacking. Male and female eyelashes serve the same functions and are created equal. Just like men, you don’t need to dye, extend, amplify, paint, or modify your eyelashes in any way. You don’t. Yes, we’re living in a world where natural eyelashes are becoming a rare sight in media (and unfortunately in the world around us too), but that does not mean your natural lashes are any less awesome or fulfill their intended function any less perfectly. When we flip the script and see how unbelievably gendered the expectations of eyelashes are, we get a much-needed reality check.

We are not throwing shade on anyone with lash extensions, expensive potions, mascaras, procedures or prescriptions. We get it. Long, dark, thick lashes look fab. But we gotta talk about the reasons so many women feel so compelled to spend their money and time on those potions and procedures. And why zero men do. And why ads like this target us at every turn. And how much money these companies are making off of our desire to look like these unreal images. (Hint: it’s in the billions.)

Own your reality. Own it and rock it and show other people it’s OK to feel good about their own realities — long, thick, dark lashes or short, thin, light ones or whatever. We all need them to protect our amazing eyeballs. When you accept and feel OK about whatever you’re working with, it gives others permission to accept and feel OK about whatever they’re working with too. And that simple example can be life-changing.

Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline. OR MAYBE it’s Maybelline plus lash inserts, plus Photoshop, plus an objectifying culture that teaches us our appearances define our worth that gives this ad its power.

I’m rebelling against this endless eyelash pressure by boycotting mascara today. And maybe tomorrow. Don’t get me wrong — I love me some mascara, but what I love more is my self-worth not being determined by the products I smear on my face. If you feel less “you” when you’re not wearing certain cosmetics or lash extensions, or you use certain products and services out of fear of what others will think if you *don’t*, I challenge you to try TRY try to wean yourself off of them. It is liberating to stop depending on that stuff. Prove to yourself that you are more than a body and your reflection doesn’t define your worth by foregoing the beauty efforts and expense you think you need. You don’t need makeup or extensions to make you any more acceptable and valuable or any more YOU.

If people ask you if you’re “sick” or “tired” or “OK?” when you’re not wearing makeup, we have to learn to blame the system that has created the made-up, unnatural ideals we now see and accept as the default of normal and healthy. Wear those questions as a badge of honor for pushing back against the pressures that make our regular, natural faces unacceptable and strange while painted, modified faces go unquestioned. You could even be honest and say that out loud when someone offers a comment or question about your less made-up or naked face — tell them this is just your natural face and the alternative is actually your altered face. If the person is cool, tell them you’re working to be more comfortable with yourself minus alterations. There is no shame in this game!

Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.

For more about the Beauty Redefined Foundation and the work Lindsay and Lexie do to promote positive body image, check out our short intro video below, and don’t forget to subscribe to our new YouTube channel! 

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