Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered (1 Pet. 3:7).
We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone (1 Thess. 5:14).
God is not an egalitarian. That is not a controversial statement. Neither is saying that the strong should protect the weak. These statements border on the obvious, yet the implications of these ideas can be controversial. The sexual objectification of women, and women specifically, is a sin worthy of being looked at closely precisely because men are the stronger vessel. Objectification and sexual objectification can be perpetrated by anyone. However, because egalitarianism is false, the risk to the weaker vessel is far more significant, and the strength of the stronger vessel comes with a greater responsibility—an important and often neglected responsibility. This article seeks to define terms and show that sexual objectification is indeed an issue Christians need to take seriously. The responsibility that Christians, especially men, have regarding the sexual objectification of women will come in a follow-up article.
The sexual objectification of women is a deep-seated problem in our society. It is a product of lust, and leads to further lust, pornography, sex-trafficking, abortion, and other sins and injustices. It is a sin. It is not the sin, but it is a sin that deserves attention and clarity. Turning a blind eye to this sin, or marginalizing it to a point of insignificance, has and can lead to abuses in families and the church as well as the neglect of true victims. The Bride of Christ does not only have a right to stand firm on this issue, it has a duty to speak loudly and clearly on this. Indeed it must not just speak, but also act.
What is objectification? A dictionary definition is “the action of degrading someone to the status of a mere object.” In terms of humanity, essentially, to objectify is to dehumanize.
This is a very widespread sin and can be perpetrated in many ways. Objectification occurs when individuals or corporate bodies (organic or organized) selfishly put their own desires before other Image Bearers of God in such a way that the victim of the objectification is used as a means to an end as opposed to being seen and treated as another valuable person. This can be subtle or flagrant depending on the circumstances. It is, almost certainly, a sin of which we all have been guilty at one point or another, and to one degree or another.
One obvious example of objectification is when a pro-abort says, “It’s just a blob of tissue.” Anytime abortion occurs, the preborn are not seen as Image Bearers, but rather as disposable objects. Because of this, abortion is intrinsically objectifying.
To be sure, we all “use” others to achieve particular ends. “Use,” in this context, is in a very loose sense. We “use” the barista to get some good espresso. We “use” a friend to get some advice. We “use” a theologian to learn. I am not talking about that very generalized sort of “use.” I am talking about the use of others that denigrates people in such a way that they are explicitly or implicitly treated as merely an object. I mean the use of a person that places your desires as more vital than the person herself or himself.
For example, it is good to buy coffee from a barista. It is not good to treat the barista as merely an espresso machine. This sort of objectification can be seen when folks lash out at hourly workers in hateful and belittling ways when the customer perceives the worker as not meeting their “vital” desire for a hamburger fast enough; as if the function of making espresso is more important than the person making the drink; as if being provided cheap and unhealthy food is more important than the people working the job. That sort of behavior is not only hateful and selfish, it is dehumanizing. It is objectifying. Of course, people lash out for various reasons and mixed up reasons, but anyone who has worked in service knows exactly what I’m talking about.
When it comes to couples, romantic encounters, sexual activities, and other more or less “relational” contexts, this dynamic is also prevalent. Men use women, and women use men. This is because both men and women are sinful and selfish. That is a given, but should be stated clearly nevertheless. Men and women, however, are not the same. Men and women sin in different ways, so men and women will objectify in different ways. There will be many exceptions, but some generalizations are inevitable. There will be a lot of “what about so and so” anecdotes. That is fine. But consider what is true of society and of people in general.
The radical egalitarianism of modern feminism which teaches that there are no significant differences between men and women should be utterly rejected. Here are some reasons why.
Pornography is not just a male problem. There are many statistics regarding women viewing adult websites. However, “adult website” is a broad category. Some distinctions should be made. One distinction that should be made is between “pictorial”/video pornography and erotic chat rooms. Some surveys and reports have found that the latter (chat rooms) are utilized far more by women than image-centric adult material. The interesting thing is that although many women do go to adult websites, what is often happening is the sexual objectification of themselves and the emotional objectification of the man. Women engage in erotic chats, and the point of those chats are rarely the sexual objectification of the man, but rather the desire to feel wanted by the man. They feel wanted by the man by sexually objectifying themselves to the man, and for the man. Sometimes, there is also an economic benefit for the woman. Either the relational connection or the economic benefit is obtained by sending the men images, etc. Either way, it is a sexual objectification of self.
Both men and women engage in all manner of sexual immorality, but the how is important. How are they engaging in sexual immorality? It is very much true that some women think of men as just slabs of meat to obtain and conquer. The more common psychological desire, however, is not to simply and solely obtain the man’s body, but rather for the man to want the woman. Women are more prone relationally to objectify men and sexually objectify self, as opposed to sexually objectify men. On the other hand, the more normative sin of men is to obtain women for sexual gratification. This is sexual objectification. Both men and women are looking for a relational connection, but for different reasons. Men tend to focus on sexual gratification, while women tend to find gratification in relationship, i.e., feeling wanted and valued.
Again, I hasten to add the word “often.” There will always be exceptions. Moreover, because of the insidious influence of humanistic feminism, more women than ever imitate the sexual objectification that is most common among men. These women desire to be like men, and in doing so mirror the sins of man. Nevertheless, because I believe men and women are created with differences, men and women have strong tendencies to objectify in different ways.
The romance novel industry, which now holds a staggeringly massive print market share of 34% is often highly pornographic. The audience is also predominantly female. Yet there is no man directly victimized by objectification. It is fiction and on paper. The appeal of romance novels to almost exclusively women speaks to the stark contrast in how men and women sin sexually. The women do not sexually objectify the men in the novels so much as they revel in the idea of the man pursuing her, fighting for her, going on some sort of 18th century adventure for her (or whatever fantasy occurs). It is ultimately about the desire to feel desired.
One anecdote that I have personally heard dozens of examples of is the trend of women to text men for days or even weeks. They might flirt some, even. But the point is that it makes the woman feel desired and it gives them attention. But when the man wants to get coffee, the woman flakes or “ghosts” on the man. He was being used. Objectified. What sort? It was not objectification for sexual gratification.
Another anecdote that is widespread is very similar but with one important difference. A man and a woman will text for some time, and the man will continue to push for more sexual talk or more sexual interactions. Because the woman desires the friendship, communication, attention, and relational intimacy, she may give in. Perhaps far too much. When the man gets what he wants (sex or some sort of sexual satisfaction), he will ghost her as he moves on to find another girl. She was used, objectified, sexually.
Many of my friends and readers are abortion abolitionists. Because of this, there is a bit of knowledge on slavery and the prior abolitionism of human slavery. Of all sorts of objectification that we can think of, the literal enslavement of other human beings is about as clear as can be. As we know, slavery still exists throughout the world and in the U.S. Much of that slavery is sexual in nature. Slavery for the express purpose of the sexual gratification of “customers” and “owners.”
One statistic truly brings perspective comes from the 2016 U.N. Global Report on Trafficking of Persons. It says that 96 percent of those trafficked for sexual exploitation are women and underage girls. Ninety-six percent. Yes, some women may say things about men that objectify us. There is, after all, a small handful of films like Magic Mike in a flood of films and entertainment. However, in the plainest, clearest, and most heartbreaking, obvious indicator of sexual objectification, 96 percent of the victims of human sex trafficking are female. This alone should give us pause.
Objectification is certainly something women can do. It is something that humans do. Nevertheless, sexual objectification is not relational objectification. It is not thinking that the poor barista is a coffee maker. It is a peculiar sort of objectification that has statistically led to a monumental amount of physical, emotional, and spiritual damage—a sort of damage that is not comparable at all to the emotional distress I have felt when the girl didn’t text me back when I asked why she was okay with talking but not okay with getting coffee. It is a degree of injustice that does not even compare to when a duplicitous wife unjustly divorces a man and robs him of his wealth.
Men and women are different. Men are not more sinful than women, but they are more powerful, and that matters. The Bible is clear that women are the weaker vessels (1 Pet. 3:7), and at least part of that weakness is directly related to physicality. When we are speaking of injustice, physical capability is often deeply relevant. When we speak on behalf of the preborn, do we not highlight their defenselessness? When discussing ethics regarding sexual abuse and injustice, there is sometimes an egalitarian propensity to look at sin only in an abstract theological sense. Instead of seeing various potential dangers and injustices on behalf of the weaker vessel, there is a disposition to “flatten out” the effects of sin and how we are to treat those who are more likely to be oppressed. Yes, we are all sinners, but that spiritual reality is also coupled with physical realities—realities that make a difference.
We must boldly reject any dualism that divorces the soul from the body. We must embrace biblical truth: the physiological differences between man and woman actually matter in how we love one another and protect one another from sin and abuse. Objectification for men means we often fear rejection or being financially used. For women it more often means sexual exploitation, physical violence, and rape. It is egalitarianism to attempt to level all cases. The biblical denial of worldly egalitarianism lays the foundation for why the sexual objectification of women is a matter of justice and providing mercy.