The man at the head of Spanish football, Luis Rubiales, kissed a woman player, Jenni Hermoso, against her will. His defense for his act was that the kiss was consensual. The video showed that it wasn’t. The man then claimed he was a victim of “false feminism” and “social assassination.”
How many times has that scenario played out? How often has a man used a woman’s body for his own self-gratification without her consent? How many men, when they were called out for their selfish acts that violated a woman, tried to blame the woman?
When men act this way, it is often called “misogyny.” “Misogyny” means “hatred of women,” and I know what people are getting at when they call a man a “misogynist,” but it misses something important. Yes, men show disrespect, contempt, even rage toward women. Yes, too many men commit violent acts against women, up to and including murder. Hatred of women is real, but that’s not the core issue. Hear me out.
Hatred of women is a symptom of a deeper problem. The case of the head of Spanish football illustrates this problematic attitude. We need to talk about the reality that rampant abuse of women is still happening, and we need to talk about why it is happening. Ending violence against women requires confronting its causes.
In this article, I will discuss how men’s sexual abuse of women is caused by an underlying social attitude about women. From that attitude springs much of the behavior of men and women, including the noxious realities of sexual violence and misogyny.
Objectification of Women
As much as I champion taking people and situations individually, I think it is safe to say that there is one overriding source of men’s abuse of women. Most men are aware enough and mature enough to treat women as human beings. But far too many men view women as objects. Too many men assume that women are there to be ogled, fondled, ordered around, exploited for free labor, and in many other ways treated as servants of men’s desires. Women are too often not recognized as fully independent human beings. Instead, women are subordinated and subjugated to men. Worse, these men believe that women are objects that exist for their use, so they act toward women accordingly.
Philosophers call it “objectification,” defined as perceiving and/or treating a person as an object. There are two general levels of objectification of women. At the harsher level, women have been, and in some cultures still are, considered to be the property of men. A girl is considered the property of the father until she is married off (sometimes literally sold) to be another man’s wife. A wife is an in-house servant of the husband, tasked with domestic and child-rearing duties, as well as with providing sex, without any consideration for her own needs or wants.
To an extent, Western cultures have granted legal protections for women that have removed the most harsh forms of objectification. That does not mean that there aren’t still active forms of objectifying women. Most mistreatment of women results from mundane, largely unconscious objectification.
What does it mean to objectify a woman? Consider a vending machine. We perceive and treat it as a machine. We are trained to think that if we press the right buttons on the machine, we will get what we want. We don’t have to consider the perspectives or self-determination of a vending machine because it doesn’t possess consciousness, free will, or agency.
Men who objectify women will to varying degrees perceive and treat women as vending machines. They are trained by society to think that if they press the right buttons on the woman, they will get what they want. They don’t consider the perspectives or self-determination of women because they believe women don’t possess consciousness, free will, or agency, at least not to the level that a man does, or they believe that a man need not consider a woman as a human being.
If you think that analogy false, ask women how many times they’ve experienced a man being nice to them, complimenting their beauty, and such, only to then have the man expect sexual favors in return. If the man wants something, it’s obvious That’s only one example. Women will be able to give you many more. Men press the emotional and physical buttons on the woman and expect to receive what they want from the woman. If they don’t get what they want from the woman, they are surprised, even upset. More on that later.
The male objectification of women is largely a subconscious attitude because it comes from social training. We are all, in all human cultures, enculturated from birth that men are in many ways more important than women are. That prejudice is bad enough, but worse than seeing women as subordinate to men is the widespread attitude that women are objects to be collected and owned by men.
Women as Objects to Possess
Many men literally perceive and treat women as objects, relegating a woman to one object among others that these men collect and use. Men are raised to feel they are entitled to women’s services. Naturally, they act on that feeling of entitlement.
There is an old song, the chorus of which is the man bragging that his philosophy of life is “faster horses, younger women, older whiskey, more money” (Tom T. Hall, “Faster Horses”). Outside of country music, the male shopping list includes cars and big-screen TVs in man caves, and young women (“chicks,” “babes,” “hoes,” or whatever objectifying label is slapped on them) are included as items to be acquired and consumed.
Women are seen and possessed as either servant objects or sexual objects, perhaps both. Traditionally, women have been servant objects—wife-servant possessions that provide domestic labor. Liberating women from objectification as servants was the major goal of the first wave of feminism. That goal has largely been achieved in Western societies, but the other attitude—seeing women as sexual objects—remains entrenched in all societies. The Luis Rubiales violation of Jenni Hermoso was an example of a man seeing a woman as a sexual object. No, it doesn’t have to be rape to be sexual assault.
Sexual objectification of women is more than male fantasy—it is how men structure their world, and their culture tells them it is acceptable. The archetypal expression of women as objects is Hugh Hefner and his Playboy Club, though he hardly invented the idea of groups of costumed women walking around serving male desires—they used to call them harems. Strip clubs and “gentlemen’s” clubs are more of the same. Even supposedly high art has been used by men to objectify women sexually.
Worse, society tells men that women expect to be used, that they want to be used, and even that they enjoy it. Of course, society also tells women that they should want to be used by men.
What’s more, women are fungible—interchangeable commodities. Men at bars and clubs (and apparently Hollywood producers) look for whatever women are currently “on tap.” Women are judged by how well they conform to the cultural gender norms of sexual objects, like dogs are judged at a dog show. Men collect women like they collect any other object. Women as sexual objects are there to be displayed and consumed visually and sometimes physically by men.
Sexual objectification of women has multiple forms and degrees, but the common denominator is the notion that women are the proper objects of male sexual desire, with women’s proper purpose being to satisfy that desire. The idea that too many men have toward a date—that they can buy a woman dinner, tell her she’s pretty, and receive sex in return—is the idea of a woman as a vending machine. Put in enough money to buy an object, press the compliments button, and get the reward.
Sexual objectification of women is a social norm imposed on women that undermines their autonomy and equal social standing. This is the case even in moments when women are not being directly used as an instrument to gratify male desire. To objectify another individual is to see that person as not worth engaging with as a person. We know that we are free to use objects we possess as we see fit. When women are objectified, they are objects for our use.
This status of women as sexual objects means that women are not to be engaged with as individual persons. Women are a commodity to be bought, sold, and used. This status enables human trafficking and sexual slavery. Men see the woman as having use value but not as an individual human being. When women attempt to exercise their autonomy in opposition to their imposed social functions, they are met with stern and perhaps violent attempts to reassert their objectification. Women are to be silent and accept their subordination.
Furthermore, women are trained by society to want to be sexual objects. From an early age, women are enculturated to dress and act in ways that are appealing to men. Women are supposed to show flesh, not just at beauty pageants and nightclubs, but always. The sexualized women’s wardrobe has historically been a means of restricting women’s freedom in the workplace. In some women’s sports, women athletes are required to wear revealing uniforms that are not required of men.
The harsh reality for women is that everywhere men are present, women are objectified, and women are expected to go along with it. Jenni Hermoso is one of millions.
Objectification Leads to Misogyny
Earlier, I used the analogy of a vending machine to explain men’s objectification of women. That analogy further helps in explaining misogyny and violence against women.
That too many men think of women as vending machines explains many abusive behaviors, including why men sexually harass and abuse women. Other men think so little of women that they selfishly use women for sexual pleasure. Men will fondle, grab, kiss, and otherwise force themselves on women because they think of women as objects to pick up and use and then discard without a second thought. As objects, women are disposable.
Empowered by social norms to feel entitled, men are trained to feel they need not consider the reality of women’s consciousness, free will, or agency. When women do struggle for the recognition that they have rights or when they express their independence, male rage kicks in. When men feel they get from women what they’re “entitled” to get, men are comfortable. When women act for themselves (i.e., not simply to service men’s desires), men get uncomfortable, feel ungratified, and often get angry at women.
Some men who repeatedly don’t get what they want from women develop hatred for women in general; see “Incels,” for example. Opposition to women’s right to control their own bodies, such as the right to choose an abortion, comes from the belief that women’s bodies are servant objects that belong to men (true concern for the woman, fetus, or eventual child is not usually the case, given the usual ensuing neglect of them).
Portraying the abuse of women as caused by misogyny (hatred of women) equates it to an emotion and implies that the solution is to encourage men to just be nicer to women. But often, men confronted on their sexist behavior protest that they don’t hate women, that they “honor” women, that they treat women well. Obviously, that’s a bullshit objection, but when we change the topic of conversation from misogyny to men’s entitlement based on objectification of women, we remove those specious objections and start to deal with causes. Hatred of women, misogyny, is real, but it is a symptom.
More than complain about the misogyny, we need to fight the objectification and subordination of women that causes the misogyny. All men, and all of society, need to come to grips with the reality that we are all trained to treat women in this way, and all men need to change.
Objectification Is a Learned Behavior That Can Be Unlearned
Human society is inherently patriarchal. It always has been. It is so thoroughly entrenched in the foundations of society that some have suggested that only a complete reset of human society can fix it.
At the core of patriarchy is the assumption that women are objects for men to use. Women are often portrayed throughout culture and media as subordinate objects whose value is lessened if one actually interacts with the woman as a human being. To do so would reveal that the woman is not an object. Part of “being a man” is showing that.
The television show Mad Men portrayed only one of the most obvious messages that says to men that it is acceptable, even admirable, to objectify women—it is a symbol of male power and success. Some would say Mad Men was more about showing how things used to be, but its nostalgia for misogyny was an integral part of Mad Men since its first episode showing us a “golden age” when men were free to objectify women and don’t you guys want this, too? This is only one example. From music videos to commercials, we are constantly told that women are to be objectified.
Hatred isn’t why men reduce women to sexual objects—believing women are objects for satisfying men’s pleasure is why. Same with why men believe women should do housework and childcare—not hatred, but the belief that women are servants of men. And so on, throughout all patriarchal structures.
Openly talking about and condemning sexual abuse is the first step toward ending it. Addressing why men sexually harass and abuse women is the essential second step. Ending abuses of women requires fundamentally changing our attitudes and practices. Men need to be told what and why they are thinking and doing that’s wrong. Then they have to care enough to change.
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Jütten, T. (2016). Sexual objectification. Ethics, 127(1), 27–49. doi.org/10.1086/687331.
Langton, R. H. (2009). Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification. (1st ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 228–229.
Stock, K. (2015). Sexual objectification. Analysis, 75(2), 191–195. https://doi.org/10.1093/analys/anv014.
UN Women. Redistribute unpaid work. https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/csw61/redistribute-unpaid-work.