Cahill, A.J. 2011. Overcoming Objectification: A Carnal Ethics.

Cahill, Ann J. 2011. Overcoming Objectification: A Carnal Ethics. New York: Routledge.


Contemporary rejection of the “modern” model of the self (rational, disembodied, autonomous) – in place, an embedded and contextually situated body. Bodies as central to subjectivity, but no longer point of passive control – signifies openness and vulnerability. “If materiality is central to identity, then how can being treated like a ‘thing’ be necessarily degrading?” (ix). Anti-objectification scholars often posited a sense of respectability into their writings – as if ethical or wholesome sexual activities were signifiers of worth, autonomy – but paid little attention to issues of embodiment – focused on a dualism where ideas and experiences internal were offered credit whereas external ideas and experiences were denigrating or worse, meaningless. New press into sexual intersubjectivity – where we recognize embodiment and self as both contextualized and interlinked. “To put it another way: precisely because the human self is embodied, and precisely because the human self is intersubjective, it is unsurprising that the experience of being (or being seen as) as sex object – a bodily being whose material appearance arouses the sexual interest of another – can be enhancing to one’s sense of self” (x).

In describing derivatization: “The problem, then, is not that Western culture on the whole portrays and treats women as things. The problem is that Western culture portrays and treats women as nothing more than the projection of (allegedly) masculine desires, and so fails to recognize women’s ontological specificity” (xii).

Flash forward: “Too often, sexuality – especially feminine sexuality – is framed primarily as a site for loss and danger, and sexual ethics is overdetermined by the need for physical, psychological, and emotional protection. Intercorporeality helps to situate sexuality within a large range of embodied encounters, without which human subjectivity could not develop” (153).

Chapter One: Troubling Objectification

Objectification as privileged within sociological conceptual and canon of concern – patriarchy as an entity that robs women of self-worth, autonomy, agency, morality – objectification sourced in hypersexualized imagery, to the far reaches of reproductive technology. Critiques Simone de Beauvoir and Catharine MacKinnon – for essentializing women’s connectivity with materiality –construction of femininity is performed through compromising subjectivity – as womanhood is constructed, passivity and objectivity is pressed into feminine and female bodies. Thus, flesh becomes the shackling of women – rendering her inagent, passive, and material – rather than the active, agent male who is able to transcend his flesh and thus materiality. Simply put, these authors argue that “To be a woman is to be thing-like” (5). Objectification, here, is treating women like things, devoid of complexity, dimension, and ethical worth. “Women are objectified when their appearance is considered to be of utmost importance to their identity; when their appearance (particularly aspects of appearance that are especially socially loaded, such as weight) is constructed as open to public criticism and comment; indeed, whenever women’s bodily existence takes precedence over their subjectivity” (7).

LeMoncheck (1985) – distances self from objectification, instead choosing term “dehumanization.” By failing to recognize women as moral entities or equals, they are rendered into objects. Objects and animals (as they are non-human) cannot have self-respect, they are unable to be humiliated, traumatized. Thus, the term objectification becomes problematic. However, “one can treat a woman as sexually attractive without treating her as a sex object, by treating her as a sexually attractive moral equal or person” (LeMoncheck 1985: 29). Out of this, Cahill reasons, one can objectify/be objectified without total annihilation of all dimensions of personality/complexity – though these characteristics may not be as prominent, this process still subordinates the object. LeMoncheck’s idea of “causal objectification” – where objectification can enhance subjectivity or health (1985) – because of virgin-whore dichotomies, stigmatization of sex, sexual double standard – women’s agent sexuality is assessed with moral claims that often serve to denigrate. Thus, the problem is not within the relationship of object and subject, but more so with the gendered dynamic and penalties of sex itself.

Nussbaum’s definition – “treating one thing as another: One is treating as an object what is really not an object, what is, in fact, a human being” (1995:256-7). Objects, here, are able to be owned, and are without self-agency, or self-value. Rejects the Kantian (and MacKinnon, Dworkin) notion of egalitarian sexuality as mutual loss of autonomy, being both objectifier and objectified. Instead, sexuality and objectification can prove positive as sexual partners are able to partake and enjoy each other’s materiality – losing the “transcendent” self in the embodied, object-based experience. Langton (2009) – extending Nussbaum’s instances of objectification – interrogates the notion of “self-surrender” of Nussbaum in contexts of exploitative sex (particularly sadistic sexual assault).

Major contention here, then, is the dualisms that anti-objectification scholarship is built upon – that nature and mind are separate, that one is offered power over the other and ne’er the twixt shall they meet – Butler (1993) notes that the notion of the natural is paradoxical – materiality must come from some social element – agency is not sourced from somewhere else but from within bodies that act upon this – agency is not derived from overcoming the body, but as a co-constitution of body, bodily experiences, and self – selves are always social and contextualized, thus, are materialities. Separation of the body as object and agency as non-material, subject is based on Kantian dualisms, which are then placed in hierarchies.

Even in paradoxical adoptions of (self-) objectification, women are still able to choose, thus rendering themselves agent and non-objects… thus, women who are objectified in this sense are not objects, but merely taking on a different type of subjectivity. Those who gaze are not merely agent, but those who are gazed upon are involved in a dynamic interactions that work to construct differing subjectivities which dismantle strict object-subject paradigms — a type of intersubjectivity.

Fast forward: “To be sexually intersubjective is to be aware of one’s sexual particularity as an ongoing project, a project grounded in one’s material existence and location while simultaneously invested in and marked by the sexual particularity of others” (153).

Tolman (2002) – sexual subjectivity as the ability to feel and experience sexual pleasure, be a sexual being, exerting sexual agency and choices, holding a sexual identity, and being entitled to sexual safety.

Conversely – Levy (2005) argues that the hypersexualization of women works to desexualize women – creating a narrow form and figure of sexuality that is celebrated and recognized.

Fast forward: “Human beings are always already both subject and object; or, more to the point, their very sexual subjectivity involves being a sexual object for another subject, such that subjectivity and objectification become ultimately enmeshed and intertwined” (137).

Chapter Two: Derivatization

Offers supplantive term for objectification – derivatization – to “portray, render, understand, or approach a being solely or primarily as the reflection, projection, or expression of another being’s identity, desires, fears, etc.” (32). Women are more likely to be derivitized – thus, having their subjectivity undervalued or ignored – when subjectivities are claimed by derivatized subjects, they are condemned as rebellious, dangerous, or arrogant. Derivatization is not limited to sexual interactions, then, but can be applied to any situation when people are considered not-quite-persons (even if the not-quite-person articulates power over the derivatizer, exhibiting a stunted or muted type of subjectivity, but subjectivity nonetheless). Power dynamics between the sexes are perceived as difference, and can be bridged by dialogue; however, “The particularity of female subjectivity must be recognized and addressed in order to gain sexual equality” (33) – creating women no longer in relation to men’s lives and needs, rejecting liberalism (noted use of masculinity and codification of choice, masculine agency, rights) as a tool of emancipation. Sexually explicit materials can be emancipatory, even in graphic, objectifying detail. Oftentimes, objectification is not merely an act of existence or visual review, but a way of acting, speaking, dressing – points of agency. However, sexuality and reduction to parts can be a point of exposing complexity, narrative, and dimension (rather than pandering to banal sexual tropes).

Derivatization renders harm to those that it leaves as ontological blurs or lacking dimensionality – though usually a process extended to individuals, it can impact many. “Because the identities of individuals are abound up in membership of various sorts of social groups – genders, professions, religions, etc. – the harm effected upon an individual can also have an effect on a group, and vice versa” (48) – this perpetuates other external power dynamics as well – those of body, beauty, racism, misogyny, etc. In derivatization, women (and others) can object – though these objections may be ignored or met with indignity, they are still rejections and creation of intersubjective identities and processes.

Fast-forward: “To deritavize is to reduce the subjectivity of one entity to that of another, such that every relevant characteristic of the former only exists because of a relevant characteristic of the latter” (101). Intersubjectivity exists in multiplicity of relations, not just the reduction to one relationship or interaction. Intersubjectivity can come from the joy of helping – lending abilities to another, and having those valued – (kx) when these are extracted or exploited or under/not valued, this relationship becomes problematic.

Chapter Three: Masculine Sex Objects

“Young men are being sold images which rupture traditional icons of masculinity. They are stimulated to look at themselves – and other men – as objects of consumer desire. They are getting pleasures previously branded taboo or feminine. A new bricollage [sic] of masculinity is the noise coming from the fashion house, the marketplace, and the street” (Mort 1988:194).

Though indifference is considered to be central to masculinity (to be appealing, you mustn’t care too much – lest you be considered effeminate or sexually suspect. Men, in this, are attractive by their mere existence, sans “too much” or “too public” modification. Men’s narratives of modifications often obscure women’s long histories of modification, under discourses of “equality” – or equity, here? To invite sexual gazes, you have to care and become object to the gaze, but this also presumes that you can command, understand, and know how to “work” the gaze.

“Beautification is often, and with good reason, associated with sexual objectification: not only does one beautify to become more like a sex object, but one must objectify one’s body – treat it as a malleable, transformable entity – in order to undertake beautifying projects” (64) – however, men’s undertaking of beauty projects has distinctly different contextualization and outcomes than women’s projects. Men’s beautification does not overturn gendered systems of beautification and its mandates; however, offers emerging ground for new subjects to be objectified.

Men’s objectification is often portrayed with a sense of multidimensionality – with sexuality as central or inherent to the object’s identity. (kx^ In other cases, objectification serves to reinforce nuance, parody – a type of textual dimensionality?) – in ways, enhancing their subjectivity? Men’s objectification does not seem to be of the same ilk, harm, or outcome as the normalization and naturalization of women’s objectification. Despite potential queer marketing or readings of objectified men, alternates from Bordo’s (1999) face-off masculinity becomes a means of women situating with men’s marketing – as something other than aggressive, hostile, and invasive.

“Women can therefore coherently portrayed as subsumed by their sexuality (or, as my analysis thus far as argued, someone else’s sexuality), because women’s worth is understood to be largely limited to their sexuality” (80).

Chapter Four: Unsexed Women

To be objectified is to be viewed as less than human. Male gaze is not so much male in its origin, but more so in its effect – women can too adopt the gaze – but often it “defines and constrains women, assesses their beauty, and in doing so dehumanizes them” (84). Being rendered sexually invisible, by not being submitted to that gaze, does not permit a more robust subjectivity, but instead eliminates potential self-enhancing intersubjectivities that sexuality can bring. Difference between being unsexy and being unsexed – “profoundly outside the bounds of appropriate sexuality” (84) – overweight, disabled, religious, elderly, etc. Desexualization as a critical mode of stigmatizes the social construction of ability, participation within sex practices and wider society.

“Different worlds (that is, social/political/historical/economic contexts) structure different bodies differently, which is to say that embodied subjects have body images that are marked by factors such as race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. […] although body images are central to the functioning of the embodied subject as a unified entity, they themselves are constantly shifting, reacting to and absorbing changes in their environment. In terms of the development of the embodied sexual self, we can see that different worlds can result in body images that vary widely with regard to what body parts are invested with erotic meaning. To become a sexual being is (among other things) to develop a body image that frames the body’s sexual possibilities in discrete ways – that is, it is to come to see one’s body as sexual, and specific body parts as more saturated with sexual meanings and possibilities than others. Such a body image not only must be constructed, but is, as mentioned earlier, is always under construction, transformed by ongoing interactions and experiences (91).

Sexualizing body parts or self comes from an interaction with external and cultural meanings, one framed by systems of gender that primarily view women as products of beauty or sexual worth. Thus, desexualizing women can have a defeminizing effect- removing her of her womanhood, femininity – by not being able to be subject to a sexualizing gaze. Fetishization of unsexed bodies renders these identities or bodies as ontologically different, constructing categories of unsexualized –yet- as an exception – sexy.

Chapter Five: Objectification and/in Sex Work

Often, feminist anti-objectification literature holds a very specific revile for sex work – as it does, inf fact, have patriarchal and misogynistic ramifications. However, simply labeling sex work as a pathologized choice or that sex workers require liberation from the trade is in ways reinforcing respectability politics – classed and heterosexualized, as well as disregarding women’s “choice” to participate in these occupations. Some authors argue that it is more so the social stigma and devaluation of these fields that creates a detriment and “justification” for ill treatment – likening it to jobs such as teaching or manual labor. However, as sex work has been feminized, it has a particular implication. Can sex worker totally be rendered objects that are merely bodies, without interests or behaviors beyond that sex activity? The sex worker is cast as an object, but for use within personalized sexual play and fantasy. Objectification here, then relies on Kantian dichotomies of activity, passivity; agency, structure; etc. when in fact there is a more complicated interaction here. More so, the sex work adopts the personage of an Other, as dictated by the sexual desires and wants of the purchaser – thus, not removing subjectivity, but constructing an altered one – requiring a significant amount of control, to maintain activity yet nonsubjectivity. Though much focus has been put upon the weight of economic exchange in this interaction, only focusing on economics does not demonstrate the wide social, cultural, and personal interpretations or reasonings for sex work.

Objectification is not necessarily contrary to respect: “When being the object of sexual desire is desired, even for non-sexual reasons, and is acknowledged to bring varying forms of satisfaction or advantage to the participants, then the strangers in this economic relationship are respecting each other’s agency, subjectivity and autonomy” (Shrage 2005:60).

Chapter Sex: Sexual Violence and Objectification

Rape – its definitions, its contexts, and consequences- are all shaped by sociocultural backgrounds of the society it occurs in. Rape and other forms of sexual violence can be viewed as instances where victims are viewed as less than human, therefore targeted – for use with no consideration of her well-being, safety, or subjectivity. Additionally, victims can be viewed as sex objects – things that are considered sexually appealing and accessible to the perpetrator – this aids in constructing blame for victimship – something that is constructed through heterosexuality, sexuality, and power-based gender codes within Anglo-Western society. Becoming a sex object renders one “rapable,” here object statuses affirmed by rape acts, reaffirming subordination. However, one wanted to rape an object, one more would be more able to do so — thus, rape must acknowledge a degree of subjectivity, one based around pain, anguish, domination – a victim to match a victimizing act.

Äcts of domination are attempts to deny such intersubjectivity, to place the dominator in the place of the only self, to say to the victim: you cannot make any difference, I am totally in charge. But intersubjectivity is not so easily thrown off, as Hegel knew. The master needs the slave to be a master, and so the object can never be utterly objectified” (135). However, this does not render the intersubjectivity required of this interaction as equal, ethical, preferred. Subjectivity in rape is eclipsed, but (barring death), this will not be the only dimension to the rest of the victim’s existence as she “recovers” (hopefully).

Power relations and acts of domination render women sexual as they become passive in this exchange, helping thus to articulate abject and subordinated statuses. Can, within patriarchal societies (if women are constructed as full object, powerless, differentiated from men) resist patriarchy at all?

Conclusion: Feeling Bodies

Acknowledges shortcomings of using hegemonic, heterosexual examples, exclusively within Western mainstream culture. How does derivatization function in queer theory? Pornography and derivatization potentially as a site of expression, liberation, self-actualization? Casting and claiming sexual objects as a way to claim queer identity, partake in community, construct personal subjectivity.

Toward a positive sexual ethics:

“When the ethical harms inherent in heterosexuality as currently constructed are framed in terms of materiality – when feminism has told women that to be treated like a body is inherently degrading and dehumanizing – then the possibilities of the pleasures of bodily recognition and interaction seem dim indeed. Feminism needs to be able to explain how sexuality, as a set of dynamics central to an embodied identity, can be marked as both distinctly carnal – not opposed to the body, but emerging from and felt through the body – and at least potentially self-enhancing” (146).

“That framework – whereby those feminists who articulated the structural inequalities and harms inherent in the way (hetero)sexuality is normalized and shaped were termed “anti-sex,” whereas thoe who articulated the ways in which sexual experiences, desires, and preferences can open up radically new, even subversive, ways of living the body were termed “pro-sex” – was mired in conceptual contradictions and confusions that area only now, after two decades of more detailed and robust work on feminist philosophy of the body, becoming clear” (147). — Too often, the debate over sexuality treats sex as a thing or a context, however, sexuality is a term without form and is constructed and experienced in a myriad of ways.

Pro-sex and anti-sex reinforces certain notions of what sexuality is and how it is experienced — when, in fact, the sexuality and its surrounding relationships can look nothing like many types of sexual encounters.

FOR CULTURAL APPROPRIATION: Ahmed (2000:44) — “An analysis of strange encounters as bodily encounters suggests that the marking out of the boundary lines between bodies, through the assumption of a bodily image, involves practices and techniques of differentiation. That is, bodies become differentiated not only from each other or the other, but also through differentiating between others, who have a different function in establishing the permeability of bodily space. Here, there is no generalisable other that serves to establish the illusion of bodily integrity; rather, the body becomes imagined through being related to, and separated from, particular bodily others. Difference is not simply found in the body, but is established as a relation between bodies: this suggests that the particular body carries traces of the differences that are registered in the bodies of others.”

Thus, recognizing through the body that which is “not us” helps us to determine a sense of “us,” – articulating self and boundaried community.


Ahmed, Sara. 2000. Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. New York: Routledge.

Bordo, Susan. 1999. The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and Private. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge.

Langton, Rae. 2009. Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification: New York: Oxford University Press.

LeMoncheck, Linda. 1985. Dehumanizing Woman: Treating Persons as Sex Objects. Tototwa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld.

Levy, Ariel. 2005. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free Press.

Mort, Frank. 1988. “Boys Own? Masculinity, Style, and Popular Culture.” Pp. 193-224 in Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity, edited by Rowena Chapman and Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Nussbaum, Martha. 1995. “Objectification.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 24(4): 249-291.

Shrage, Laurie. 2005. “Exposing the Fallacies of Anti-Porn Feminism.” Feminist Theory 6(1): 45-65.

Tolman, Deborah L. 2002. Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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