What’s up, beautiful?
These are just some of the many comments directed toward Shoshana Roberts as she walked along the streets of New York in that now-infamous “catcalling video”. These catcalls, along with the countless wolf-whistles, stares, and winks that Shoshana received, are all instances of sexual objectification.
Objectification occurs when individuals – typically women – are reduced to their body parts. They come to be valued more for how they look rather than who they are as a person. So just how often do these types of experiences occur?
The prevalence of objectification in women’s lives
According to the catcalling video, Shoshana experienced well over 100 instances of objectification over a period of ten hours. Although her example may be extreme, research concurs that these kinds of experiences are commonplace for women.
Recent estimates suggest that 84% of women first experience street harassment before the age of 17. Among Australian women, 87% experience sexual harassment in their lifetimes, with harassment ranging from catcalling and wolf-whistling to more severe forms such as groping and stalking.
Other research has focused on objectification as it occurs over shorter time frames, such as weeks or days. These studies suggest that objectifying experiences occur anywhere from once a month to more than once per day.
This data, however, is fairly dated, with the most recent study published in 2009. Further, the prevalence of the different types of objectifying behaviour, such as catcalling, ogling, and sexual remarks, is largely unknown.
Our own research
We set out to build on the existing literature and find out just how common the different forms of objectifying experiences were in the lives of young Australian women. In collaboration with researchers from Australian Catholic University, we ran a study of 81 young women across metropolitan Melbourne.
The women in our study were instructed to install an app on their smartphones. The app was programmed to beep ten times per day over a seven-day period. At each beep, participants indicated whether they had experienced an objectifying event, and the type of event they had encountered.
We found that women experienced objectification on average 3.69 times over the week, equating to more than once every two days. The most common form was the objectifying gaze (making up 55% of objectifying experiences). Catcalls and wolf-whistles were reported in 11% of women’s experiences, and sexual remarks in 10%.
Harmless or hurtful? The impact of objectifying experiences
Even if we can agree that such experiences are commonplace in women’s lives, do they actually matter? Some have argued that such behaviours are harmless, and intended to be complimentary more than critical. However, evidence for the benefits of objectification is sorely lacking.
Overwhelmingly, research suggests that objectification has a harmful effect on women. In our own study, for instance, we asked our participants at each survey how much they had been self-objectifying (that is, worrying about how they looked to others). We found that objectifying experiences were associated with increases in self-objectification, which has been linked to poor mental health.
Research demonstrates that women who report being objectified on a more frequent basis also report greater body shame as well as symptoms of disordered eating and depression. Experiencing the objectifying gaze also decreases math performance among women but not men, and can lead women to self-silence in social interactions.
Taken together, the literature suggests the effects of objectification are far from flattering.
How to respond to objectifying experiences
Objectification is common and its effects are damaging – so what can we do to stop it? One strategy is to speak out and confront objectification when it’s taking place.
Most women don’t confront those who make sexist remarks. There are a range of reasons for this, including fearing retaliation by the objectifier, or feeling pressured to be polite.
However, calling out objectification can have a positive impact on women. Studies show that women who confront harassers don’t feel the same negative effects as women who let it go. There is evidence that women who speak up against sexism feel more empowered, competent, and have higher self-esteem.
It is also important for bystanders, and men in particular, to challenge objectification when they see it. Research on prejudice suggests that people from the advantaged group – in this case, men – are typically far more persuasive when they confront prejudice than those personally affected by it.
Objectification may perhaps not be as common as that “catcalling video” suggests. However, our research shows it to be a regular feature of young women’s lives, and one that negatively impacts their wellbeing.
We need to actively challenge these instances if we want women to be recognised as “somebodies” rather than “somethings”.
Authors: Elise Holland, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Melbourne