Attention all women: If you’ve been told to “just deal with it” when you’ve faced sexual objectification on the street, in the workplace or anywhere else, you’ll be interested in the results of a new study.
The study, which was conducted at the University of Tennessee, asked how women respond when they are objectified sexually. And the results probably won’t surprise you — young women studied reported that they feel significant psychological distress when they’re objectified.
But Dawn Szymanski and Chandra Feltman, who published the results of their study in the journal Sex Roles, went one step further, separating the young women in the study (who responded to an online survey) into two categories: resilient women and less-resilient women. They learned that less-resilient women are even more vulnerable to sexual objectification. Furthermore, they tend to blame themselves for the objectification, causing psychological distress as they cope with the confusion and shame they experience when they are the object of sexual harassment.
In contrast, members of the resilient group showed evidence of being able to better manage stress, “rising above” the objectification and coping with the experience of being harassed. They might even see harassment and objectifying experiences as challenges, according to Szymanski, who emphasizes that clinicians need to work harder to understand the female experience of objectification.
And here’s the real kicker: Feltman and Szymanski suggest that clients be taught that their objectification is a “flawed cultural practice” and not a personal one. They suggest that less resilient women can learn from more resilient ones to learn to cope better with their harassment. And though the study’s heads rightfully suggest that our culture needs to grow in terms of its objectification, their work brings up a very real question: Does studying sexual objectification in women skirt the real issue here — harassment itself?
While it’s important to document and quantify the experiences of women who undergo rampant and demoralizing sexual objectification essentially from birth (in one study, 87 percent of female respondents reported having been the victim of harassment by a stranger), it’s time to turn the lens of scientific and cultural inquiry on the real source of the problem: a culture that objectifies and violates women every single day. Instead of suggesting that women work on their resilience skills, it makes more sense to address why men harass, why aren’t we working to curb the problem at its source?
Sadly, “just don’t harass women” doesn’t look like a strategy that’s going to gain popularity any time soon. In the meantime, here are some things we can do:
If this list looks woefully small, that’s because it is. After all, it’s addressing a problem that could be solved with some simple personal decisions. But let’s look at the tiny silver lining: the hope that more and more studies like Feltman and Szymanski will drive the point home that objectification and harassment hurt.
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