Sexual objectification is objectification of a person. It occurs when a person is seen as a sexual object when their sexual attributes and physical attractiveness are separated from the rest of their personality and existence as an individual, and reduced to instruments of pleasure for another person. The concept of sexual objectification and, in particular, the objectification of women, is an important idea in feminist theory and psychological theories derived from feminism. Many feminists regard sexual objectification as objectionable and as playing an important role in the inequality of the sexes. Some feminists and non-feminists, however, argue that increased sexual freedom for women and gay men has led to an increase of the sexual objectification of men. Thus, the objectification of men is an important idea in masculist theory.
Historically, feminists believe women have often been valued for their physical attributes. Some feminists and psychologists argue that such sexual objectification can lead to negative psychological effects including depression and hopelessness, and can give women negative self-images because of the belief that their intelligence and competence are not being acknowledged. The precise degree to how objectification has affected women and society in general is a topic of academic debate. Such claims include: girls' understanding of the importance of appearance in society may contribute to feelings of fear, shame, and disgust that some experience during the transition from girlhood to womanhood because they sense that they are becoming more visible to society as sexual objects; and that young women are especially susceptible to objectification, as they are often taught that power, respect, and wealth can be derived from one's outward appearance.
Author Ariel Levy discusses this phenomenon in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Within her prior research, Levy followed the camera crew from the Girls Gone Wild video series, and argues that contemporary America's sexed-up culture not only objectifies women, it encourages women to objectify themselves.
In today's culture, Levy writes, the idea of a woman participating in a wet T-shirt contest or being comfortable watching explicit pornography has become a symbol of feminist strength; she says that she was surprised at how many people, both men and women, working for programs such as Girls Gone Wild told her that this new "raunchy" culture marked not the downfall of feminism but its triumph, because it proved that U.S. women have become strong enough to express their sexuality publicly.
Feminist authors Christina Hoff Sommers and Naomi Wolf write that women's sexual liberation has led many women to view men as sex objects. Research has suggested that the psychological effects of objectification on men are similar to those of women, leading to negative body image among men, as well as fears of inadequate sexual performance, leading to increased use of drugs like Viagra.
Radical feminists view objectification as playing a central role in reducing women to what they refer to as the "sex class". While some feminists view mass media in societies that they argue are patriarchal to be objectifying, they often focus on pornography as playing an egregious role in habituating men to objectify women. Other feminists, particularly those identified with sex-positive feminism, take a different view of sexual objectification and see it as a problem when it is not counterbalanced by women's sense of their own sexual subjectivity.
Some social conservatives have taken up aspects of the feminist critique of sexual objectification. In their view however, the increase in sexual objectification in Western culture is one of the negative legacies of the sexual revolution. These critics, notably Wendy Shalit, advocate a return to pre-sexual revolution standards of sexual morality, which Shalit refers to as a "return to modesty", as an antidote to sexual objectification.
Other feminists contest feminist claims about the objectification of women. Camille Paglia holds that "Turning people into sex objects is one of the specialties of our species." In her view, objectification is closely tied to (and may even be identical with) the highest human faculties toward conceptualization and aesthetics. Individualist feminist Wendy McElroy holds that the label "sex object" means nothing because inanimate objects are not sexual. She continues that women are their bodies and sexuality as well as their minds and souls.
Sexual objectification may also be considered a means of realizing a sexual fetish; in which a person is assigned, or adopts the status of a fetish object. This may provide erotic humiliation for the person so regarded. As with most BDSM-related activities, it is not considered abusive when engaged in consensually. Allen Jones' "Hat Stand and Table Sculpture", which show semi-naked women in the roles of furniture, are clear examples of the depiction of the fantasy of sexual objectification.