Assessing Sexual Objectification of Women: Repairing the SOT

Ms. has posted part 1 of a four part series on the sexual objectification of women in images, and promises to tell us how we might respond to it.  Excellent.  I shared it on Facebook before I read it: I’m in.  The first post offers Caroline Heldman’s Sexual Objectification Test (SOT), which she constructed based on an article by Martha Nussbaum and a working paper by Rae Langton.

Image

Ian Anderson’s “Poor old sot”

The SOT proposes that the viewer ask 7 questions when evaluating an image:

Does the image…

1) show only part(s) of a sexualized person’s body?

2) present a sexualized person as a stand-in for an object?

3) show sexualized persons as interchangeable?

4) affirm the idea of violating the bodily integrity of a sexualized person who can’t consent?

5) suggest that sexual availability is the defining characteristic of the person? 

6) show a sexualized person as a commodity that can be bought and sold?

7) treat a sexualized person’s body as a canvas?

The images Heldman has selected for the piece are brilliant!  But her items?  Ouch.  Fortunately, it is not terribly difficult to clean up Heldman’s effort.

First, let’s define a dehumanizing image as one that represents a human being as either a non-homo-sapiens species or a non-sentient object.

Second, let’s define sexual objectification a process in which a subject (a viewer, in our case) (1) focuses upon a portion of one or more peoples’ flesh to the exclusion of viewing that person as a whole human being or (2) focuses upon the person’s/peoples’ willingness to sexually engage the subject (viewer).

With those definitions, I now revise Heldman’s seven questions as follows:

Does the image…
1) show only part(s) of a person’s body, primarily skin?
2) present a person as a stand-in for an object?
3) show persons as interchangeable?
4) affirm the idea of violating the bodily integrity of a person who can’t consent?
5) suggest that sexual availability is the defining characteristic of the person?
6) represent a person as a commodity that can be bought and sold?
7) treat a person’s body as a canvas?

Questions 1 and 5 are sexual objectification, but note that 2-4 and 6-7 are now dehumanizing.  Dehumanizing is a larger class than sexual objectification, and with minor revision to the questions (primarily removing the word sexualized) that is apparent.  Question 4 particularly stands out to me because it is conjures torture (if the person were detained, it would make a defensible definition of state torture).  Question 6 evokes slavery.  And recognition that sexual objectification is a subset of dehumanization helps make the connection to human rights.  That connection has rhetorical value and is not just conceptually important: it is politically valuable as well.

To return to the minor revisions I have introduced, the major weakness in Heldman’s SOT is her failure to define terms.  In particular, she needs to define sexualized.  I have suggested a slightly modified version of the SOT which I believe is not only more clear, but also makes a valuable linkage to dehumanizing imagery, and thereby the human rights movement.

In closing I confess that I read neither Nussbaum nor Langton prior to writing this post, and therefore run the risk of repeating some of their own arguments, or those they cite.

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About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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