Justin Li

Mental Objectification


DISCLAIMER: I’m new to the discussion about objectification, and being a heterosexual, cis-gendered, upper-middle class Asian male makes me blind to a lot of things. Please let me know if I miss something obvious. Also, TRIGGER WARNING: rape is briefly mentioned as a point of comparison.

Imagine you’re a woman, walking home after work one day. You pass a local bar, where a couple people are just coming out. One of them, a young man in a T-shirt and jeans, sees you nearby and leers, “Hey Sexy...”.

You might think this is a typical scene, and maybe you’re even experienced it before (I apologize for my gender). But now imagine the scene again: you’re walking by, the young man looks at you, and leers, “Hey Intelligent...”. How would your reaction be different? I imagine this second scenario feels more acceptable, or at least weirder and less offensive, while the first one is repulsive and objectifying. The question is, why?

One answer that comes up almost immediately is that the first scenario is objectifying, while the second one isn’t. For me, objectification is not well defined enough to make this argument either way; specifically, I don’t see why we can’t have mental objectification. Consider the criteria for objectification. The above-linked Wikipedia article quotes from Martha C. Nussbaum’s paper, from which I reproduce this list of “seven ways to treat a person as a thing”:

  1. Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.
  2. Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
  3. Inertness: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
  4. Fungibility: The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type, and/or (b) with objects of other types.
  5. Violability: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
  6. Ownership: The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.
  7. Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.

To give Nussbaum credit, she refuses to say whether these criteria are necessary or sufficient. Still, all of these criteria (except for the last) applies to using someone for mental stimulation as well as using for sexual stimulation. Consider, for example, the fictional Brothel for Slaking Intellectual Lusts in Planescape: Torment. By the in-game description, the Brothel was established

to give those lustful fevers that strike the mind more avenues of expression rather than the simply carnal. Much pleasure can be had in conversation and engaging in the verbal arts with others. [...] This brothel is intended to slake the lusts of even the hardened intellectual. It is designed to stimulate the mind, to heighten one’s awareness of themselves and others, to create new ways of experiencing another person. It is for those who seek something more than the shallow physical pleasures.

More succinctly, the brothel aims to satisfy any intellectual urgings its clients might have. The “prostitutes” in this fictional brothel are objectified just as much as prostitutes in real brothels – except that it’s their minds the clients are after, not their body. (I’m not suggesting that prostitutes are inherently objectified; I’m simply saying that if sexual prostitutes are objectified by their clients – which seems likely – then the same line of argument applies to mental prostitutes.)

This discussion about objectification is technically a digression from the two scenarios presented, since whether the scenarios are examples of objectification is debatable. None the less, the discrepancy between discussions about sexual and mental objectifications is noteworthy. The latter may not be a pressing problem for feminists – I have no doubt that sexual objectification is much more prevalent than mental objectification – but the ratio should not be so great as for me to not have heard about the latter at all.

Returning to the central question then: why does “Hey sexy...” evoke a more viscerally repulsive response than “Hey intelligent...”? One major difference stands out between sex and the brain: while we could tie someone up and force them to have sex with us, we can’t do the same to make them tell us stories or argue in a debate. This objection, however, only holds superficially. While a person cannot be held helpless to engage in an argument, they can be blackmailed into doing so. The difference is therefore not a matter of consent; we can imagine that the young man in the scenarios can get what he wants either way with sufficient coercion.

There is another avenue of inquiry that leads to a dead end: that of the intellect as a more prominent definition of self. This is to say that, for most people, who they consider themselves to be is more dependent on their thought processes than on their physical appearance. If we take this hypothesis for granted, however, it would imply the theoretical orientation of someone who finds “Hey intelligent...” more repulsive than “Hey sexy...”. All this would require is that their physical appearance determines more of their sense of self than their intellectual prowess. This inverted reaction seems unlikely, and for that I dismiss this hypothesis about self-image. (Although if someone does have these beliefs, I would be very interested in talking to them.)

This leaves me with just two hypotheses (which may have been obvious to some of you from the beginning).

My first hypothesis is that “Hey sexy...” is more repulsive solely because of cultural/historical reasons. As my friend suggested, women have never been judged by their brains. Greeting a woman with “Hey sexy...” is, therefore, as loaded as it would be to greet a black person with “Hey nigger...”. In this case, the word “sexy” brings with it the historical inequality between man and woman, and therefore the objectification of the latter. “Intelligent”, on the other hand, carries no such cultural baggage, and therefore elicits less of a reaction. Interestingly, "sexy" is unique in that it is the only complimentary (if interpreted literally) adjective that may apply to oppressed groups (through its connection with women; I think this is a stretch too); we can't use "black", "queer", or "faithless" as compliments, but we can with "sexy".

My second hypothesis is that “Hey sexy...” is more repulsive because of the negative cultural connotation associated with sex. I have to admit while this hypothesis is attractive (because it’s an association people can choose to ignore), it doesn’t hold up well in cross-cultural comparisons; as far as I know, “Hey sexy...” is still repulsive regardless of which society it is uttered in. Regardless, this suggests the thought experiment of other greetings, such as “Hey violent...” or “Hey prostitute...”. Only the latter of these evokes repulsion (in my simulation of a woman), which suggests that sexuality is heavily involved, since the former is also viewed negatively in modern society. It should be noted that sexiness (as general physical attractiveness) is the only non-modifiable, positive trait

In the end, I don’t quite understand the reactions to “Hey sexy...” as compared to “Hey intelligent...”, or even a third metric such as “Hey caring...”. There’s no a priori reason that sexual objectification has more emotional impact than mental objectification, and yet this seems to be the case. Can anyone tell me what I’m missing?

PS. Maybe embodiment has something to do with it?