Merriam-Webster defines objectification as “to treat as an object.” Vocabulary.com says that objectification is “when a person is treated as a thing.” What these definitions tell us is that objectification robs the objectified person of his or her humanity by reducing that person to an object or thing to be used by the one who is doing the objectifying.
Not all sexual betrayal has objectification at the heart of it, but much of it does. Whether it’s pornography, prostitution, strip clubs, chat rooms, or finding partners to hook up with on Tinder, in our culture, much of sexuality is viewed first through the lens of objectification.
Because we live in a culture where sexual objectification of women in particular is ubiquitous, it affects us in ways that we aren’t consciously aware of and don’t fully understand. One of the ways that I see the deep impact of objectification is in how betrayed partners react to sexual betrayal.
In all my many years of working with betrayed partners, I have never once had a client come into my office and, when talking about ‘the other woman,’ wonder if that person is smarter, or wittier, or more athletic, or more well-read, or more well-traveled than they are. The humanity of the affair partner is not considered. Instead, the questions that come up are:
- Is she younger than me?
- Is she prettier than me?
- Is she thinner than me?
- Does she have bigger breasts than me?
- Is she more sexually adventurous than me?
As betrayed partners, we don’t wonder about the other woman as a person, we wonder about her as a sexual object. We wonder if she is a better sexual object than we are.
Sit with that for a minute and think about it.
If we as women are honest, and I think that in the age of the #MeToo movement we need to be, we are in on the objectification of ourselves just as much as the men are. In our culture, we are all bathing all the time in a vast sea of sexual images and body parts, and because of this, we are conditioned to view our worth and value as inherently connected to our ability to be a good sexual object. We are conditioned to measure the value of other women based on their ability to be good sexual objects. We are conditioned to compare ourselves by objectifying and body-parting both ourselves and the women around us, noticing that they have smaller thighs or a tighter stomach than we do.
Because we have been taught to measure our value and our self-worth by our ability to be sexually objectified, sexual betrayal twists the knife deep into our sense of lovability and worthiness. We assume that our partner has chosen someone else because she is a better sex object than we are, and therefore we are left feeling unlovable and unworthy.
I once had a betrayed partner tell me that she didn’t believe her partner was a sex addict until she found one of his online accounts. She Sherlocked her way into his account and found that he’d had sexual conversations and communication with a whole range of women. Some were thin and small breasted, some were heavier, some were prettier, some were older, some were younger, some were blonde, some were brunette. The betrayed partner felt that because not all of the women her partner had communicated with fit her idea of what a compelling sexual object would be, he must be an addict. Why else would he do what he was doing?
This makes no sense, but it is nonetheless a window into how we as women are conditioned to think about what gives us value.
For betrayed partners, one of the biggest struggles that follows the discovery of cheating is the enormous sense of failure and shame that we were ‘not enough’ to keep our partner from straying. Often, this sense of failure and shame centers around our perception of our ability to be a good sexual object and how we feel about our bodies and our ability to be sexy and desirable.
This insecurity about our worth and value creates a deep sense of fear and threat about the women around us. We begin to see other women as potential targets for our cheating partner’s wandering eye to land on. And this in turn creates a hyper-vigilance in us that intensifies our evaluation and objectification of other women. We start to see the women around us as body parts. We evaluate them to see if they are a threat, someone our partner may decide to look at, lust after, and maybe even act out with. In so doing, we objectify them, and we objectify ourselves in comparison, inadvertently joining in the very activity that has caused us so much pain.
In my next post, we will discuss how we, as women, and especially as betrayed partners, can overcome our tendency to objectify.