Getting to the Root—Objectification of Women
By Laura Cyrus
Throughout the year, Truckers Against Trafficking has presented educational blogs expounding on some of the more complex issues related to the causes of human trafficking. These Getting to the Root blogs have focused on the push or pull effects poverty, socio- and geopolitical factors (such as border insecurity, wars, etc.), marginalization, etc. have on people, moving them into becoming victims of human trafficking and exploitation.
This blog will focus on the broader issue of societal norms and the objectification of women, specifically the link between the ways our culture views and values women and the larger root causes that help to sustain exploitive relationships and situations. Whether we’re looking at the way print media portrays women, the sexualized nature of mainstream music, movies, and television shows or taking into consideration the heavily porn-addicted culture we live in, connections can be made which translate into a perfect storm for exploitation: a storm fueled by demand and dictated by cultural values.
What do we really mean when we talk about objectification? Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines objectification as the act of “treating someone as an object rather than as a person.” When you begin to think of, treat, or de-value someone as just an object, you are in a sense negating his or her worth as a human being, whether you mean to or not. When you equate a man, woman, boy, or girl as an object to fill a need or play a role, you are less likely to care for his/her mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Your concern with them revolves around the supposed “need” they, as objects, are filling for you.
This objectification plays two ways, though. First, it not only leads to the devaluation of women, but, second, it also creates a cultural climate where women and girls are being encouraged to fit a mold they were never intended to have to fill … a standard of perfection and unnatural duty that no one should have to be measured against. This objectification causes girls — from a very young age — to desire to be a certain way, to feel pressure to look and act a certain way. But where is this coming from? This cultural attitude and norm is, in part, being directed and perpetuated by the way women are portrayed in the media, specifically advertising.
In over 40 years of research, Jean Kilbourne has analyzed the disturbing way advertising media has evolved and built upon the unfortunate reality that sex sells. “Ads sell more than products. They sell values; they sell images; they sell concepts of love and sexuality, of success, and perhaps most important, of normalcy,” says Kilbourne in her TEDx Lafayette College talk[i]. Her work, gathered together in several books, movies, and presentations, is easy to follow and understand and can be best digested from her video presentation “Killing Us Softly,” or her TED talk “The Naked Truth: Advertising’s Image of Women.” I would highly suggest the reader take a few minutes and view Ms. Kilbourne’s TED talk, which is linked at the bottom of this article.
Even if we feel as though these ads aren’t affecting us or contributing to the way we view others or ourselves, research shows otherwise. A study on the effects of television consumption, body dissatisfaction, and the “thin-ideal” found that TV viewing, for one, “plays a role in perceptions of a social norm” and that “those perceptions contribute to the formation of personal attitudes and are used when making self-evaluations…[ii]” Girls feel fine about themselves until they reach a certain age and then, all the sudden, all the messages they have been intercepting, but not paying attention to, start to mean something and change the way they feel about themselves. A teen or pre-teen girl may abruptly start questioning her value, worth, and ability to understand her self-worth. This can all affect a girl’s self-esteem, which can then lead to her being more vulnerable to those people who seek to build her up or play to her insecurities in order to manipulate her. A girl may begin to see herself as either the object directly or needing to emulate the object, which she is now aware she is being overtly or subliminally told she is.
This can become especially dangerous if there are no (or limited) external, positive forces in her life. If children aren’t receiving positive affirmation and attention from the place where they’re meant to be emotionally and physically nurtured and cared for (a stable home life), they will be more apt to seek and accept attention from other places. This is what makes a master manipulator’s gifts, attention, and “love” such powerful tools in the spectrum of grooming on the road to exploitation.
But let’s get back to our discussion of linking objectification with outcomes of exploitation. Can we really make the case that objectification — specifically the images in the media we have discussed — inherently leads to the threat of sexual violence, exploitation or intimidation? Maybe not directly, but as Jean Kilbourne states, while these images may not be the cause of the problem, they “certainly normalize very dangerous attitudes.” Furthermore, research points to the fact that people under the age of 18 who have been exposed to sexualized media have an increased likelihood of engaging in forced sex, being more accepting of sexual harassment, having less progressive gender role attitudes, and being more likely to see women as sex objects[iii].
In other words, sexualized ads and media encourage boys and men to look at women and girls as sex objects and further normalize the idea that women can be seen as things rather than people. Turning a human being into a thing can be the first step toward justifying treating them “less than” human and thus allowing for indifference, if not apathy and violence.
How do these attitudes impact the demand for pornography and the attitudes men have about their “right” to have access to the purchase of sex? In the study “Men who buy sex: Who they buy and what they know,” published by Dr. Melissa Farley, et al in December 2009, 103 men who purchase commercial sex were interviewed regarding their habits, attitudes, etc. surrounding their choices.
One man interviewed about his ideas surrounding his “right” to buy sex said, “Look, men pay for women, because he can have whatever and whoever he wants. Lots of men go to prostitutes, so they can do things to them that real women would not put up with.”[iv] This speaks volumes about how cultural attitudes dictate the normalization for prostitution, its link to violence against women, etc.
Throughout our work at TAT, we have seen and tackled this phenomenon. Thankfully, though it has taken time, we have seen an exciting cultural shift in the minds of members of the trucking industry as it relates to the term “lot lizard.” We abhor this term — a particularly vulgar and vile descriptor for a prostitute that could be found on a truck stop lot — as it is not only disgustingly dehumanizing but also completely disregards the reality this prostituted person finds herself in.
We’ve been fortunate to see hearts and minds shift to understanding that perhaps not all the women found participating in prostitution — no matter where the location — are doing it by choice. Furthermore, we’ve been able to convey that even those who may claim they are truly prostituting by choice likely had very limited choices to begin with, and were actually presented with a series of situations in life that gave them very little hope or opportunity for something different. We have also found—anecdotally through our relationship with survivors and from several studies—many of the adult victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation were pulled into the life as minors. The studies suggest that between 62-100 percent of prostituted women entered the life as minors[v].
We’ve been able to see drivers and others experience a change in thinking from “I’m just going to ignore these drug-addicted, fill-in-the-blanks because I want nothing to do with them, anyway” to “No, I recognize these women/girls/boys/men as fellow human beings who deserve more than this, no matter what the circumstances are.” We’ve seen many drivers assume an attitude of being an Everyday Hero and express their willingness to take time and respond appropriately when they suspect human trafficking, because not only is this person someone’s daughter/sister/mother/friend, but she’s a person, period. They no longer look at the prostituted person as something sub-human that can easily just be ignored or pitied.
While not completely the same, objectification and dehumanization are related in that they psychologically allow someone to remove another person’s worth as a dignified human being and increase space for behaviors and actions not befit to bestow on someone you value as a true person.
As a young woman poised to become the mother to a baby girl, I’m starting to think less about how my own life, self-worth, and emotions are being affected by this cultural force. I’m now concerned with how I can best equip and empower my daughter to rise above the ding of what she hears from a highly sexualized media and culture. How can I insulate her from the dangers and reality of the objectification she may face out in the world without completely sheltering and smothering her? What about the hundreds of thousands of other little girls (and boys) out there whose parents aren’t as concerned or even present to protect against such dangerous attitudes and predators?
Below is a list of individuals and organizations doing work in this area and resources for you to get more information on how you can further understand the issue and take steps to empower yourself and your children, especially your girls. Peruse these websites, consider signing your daughter up for one of these programs (or something similar!), or learn how you can volunteer to support girls in your community.
o Specifically her book So Sexy So Soon and video Killing Us Softly 4
o There is also a great list of other Resources for Change on her website.
o Their Resources section (specifically the pages for Parents and their Talking Points sections) are chock-full of research, ideas, and tips for understanding sexual exploitation, its intersections with pornography, and how parents can help keep kids safe.
o A coalition of allies that seek to encourage truth in advertising and engage media creators, corporations, and retailers to consider the importance of supporting the empowerment of girls
o Began in New England as Girls Clubs of America in 1864 as a response to the need for support from the new working class of young women as the industrial revolution started to change the landscape of American productivity and values
o Now a nation-wide organization featuring mentoring and programing for girls, advocacy that informs local and national policymakers, and a scholarship body, among other things
o After-school empowerment programing that encourages leadership, physical and emotion health, and confidence through running clubs that can be found across the nation
[i] Kilbourne, Jean. The naked truth: Advertisings image of women. TEDx Lafayette College, [cited 12/16 2015]. Available from https://youtu.be/Uy8yLaoWybk.
[ii] Kinnally, William, and Kristen E. Van Vonderen. 2014. Body image and the role of television: Clarifying and modelling the effect of television on body dissatisfaction. Journal of Creative Communications 9 (3) (November 01): 228.
[iii] Research: Sexualized media and kids. in National Center on Sexual Expoitation [database online]. [cited 12/16 2015]. Available from http://endsexualexploitation.org/harms-to-children/.
[iv] Farley, Melissa, and Julie Bindel and Jacqueline M. Golding. 2009. Men who buy sex: Who they buy and what they know. London: Eaves. http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/Men%20Who%20Buy%20Sex1-10.pdf
[v] Hughes, Donna M. 2005. Fact sheet on domestic sex trafficking and prostitution in the united states. University of Rhode Island. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0ahUKEwiRhNSH6-_JAhUBHmMKHUXmCzwQFggjMAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.uri.edu%2Fartsci%2Fwms%2Fhughes%2Fdom_sex_traff.doc&usg=AFQjCNG1XY3ik4Tvyfblm_TR74SRG07jDw&sig2=qRAT5Qq3h_PIfhj6LtmPoQ&bvm=bv.110151844,d.cGc