Psych Central


sexual-objectificationMars and Venus

Men and women typically experience sex - both fantasy and reality - in different ways. It has long been known that when it comes to sex men tend to be visually oriented, whereas women tend to be more interested in a connection or relationship. Basically, when a man sexually admires a woman, he is usually focused on certain body parts and their potential use for him (as sexual objects). When viewing pornography, for instance, males are typically most aroused by a rapid-fire succession of images depicting concrete sexual acts and/or specific sexual body parts. Females on the other hand tend to be most aroused by sexual imagery that includes or at least infers some type of emotional connection.

Unsurprisingly, these gender differences also play out with sex addicts. In one comparative study, sex addiction treatment pioneer Patrick Carnes found that male sex addicts are far more interested than female sex addicts in activities that objectify the sex partner, such as viewing pornography, voyeurism, and anonymous sex, whereas female sex addicts are much more interested than males in romance, fantasy, exhibitionism, and activities that provide the illusion of a relationship.1 Thus, rather than objectifying their partners as men tend to do, women sex addicts are typically more interested in connecting emotionally through seduction or by playing the victim.

Not surprisingly, these gender differences play out online as well as in person. Women tend to use digital technology to interact with others via social media, traditional chat-rooms, and video chat - feeding their innate desire for communication, connection, and interaction - with men tending to favor purely sexual activities such as viewing pornography, engaging in virtual sex, and sexting. Both genders use hookup apps to set up IRL (in real life) encounters, though often at cross purposes, with women seeking connection and men seeking a purely sexual (non-intimate) experience.

Arousal Differences

Interestingly, studies show that physiological sexual arousal does not have the same meaning for women as it does for men - perhaps explaining (at least partially) the above discrepancies. For example, studies show that men display their greatest level of arousal when viewing categories of people with whom they prefer to have sex (i.e., heterosexual males looking at females), whereas women can become aroused by a much wider array of imagery. In one study in which male and female subjects were shown a variety of sexual imagery, participants' responses were measured both by what they reported they felt and by the engorgement of their sexual organs (gauged by a plethysmograph, an instrument used to register changes in the volume of an organ, in this case the enlargement of the subject's penis or clitoris). Men's responses were found to be highly category specific; they self-reported and physically displayed much higher levels of arousal to the category of individuals to whom they were most attracted. Women's responses were significantly less category specific,2 strongly suggesting there is more in play for women than just sexual body parts. In other words, men's responses to sexual stimuli are strongly influenced by the sex (and sexual body parts) of the other person/people they are looking at, while women's responses may differ significantly depending on their ability to connect emotionally (and perhaps other factors, as well).

The "Sex Industry" Responds

Pornographers, increasingly aware of the scientifically proven differences in male and female arousal patterns, are now evolving new forms of relationship-oriented erotic material designed to appeal to women. And the effort is paying off handsomely. Mommy Porn - erotica created for adult women, exemplified by the international bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey and the plethora of knock-off books - is hugely profitable. (Unsurprisingly, both reader reviews and anecdotal evidence suggest the vast majority of Fifty Shades' mostly female following is entranced not so much by the book's graphic depictions of bondage and sexual domination as by the development of the emotional relationship between the two main characters.) A similar phenomenon, aimed at a younger female demographic, is the equally successful Twilight book/film series, with its exploration of young, beautifully sculpted, emotionally flawed male figures - presented as vampires and werewolves struggling with their desire to love and/or possess a young girl.

Of course, Mommy Porn doesn't do it for all women. In fact, a growing number of women are viewing and masturbating to highly objectified hardcore pornography, just the same as men. These women are perfectly comfortable viewing men (or women) in terms of their sexual body parts, and they are very clear in the idea that when they are online they are looking for a solo sexual encounter and NOT any type of relationship. At this point, a third of all Internet porn users are women,3 up from 14 percent in 2003,4 and it is clear that many of those women are enjoying the same hardcore imagery as men. So it seems that females as well as males are taking advantage of the Internet's easy and anonymous access to an endless stream of intensely arousing hardcore pornography, regardless of whether there is an emotionally charged story attached to the imagery.

This increased access to explicit, objectified sexual material is for many women a breath of fresh air, allowing them to explore their sexual fantasies and urges in ways that until recently didn't exist. Unfortunately, as is the case with men, there are women who learn over time to use sexual objectification as a way to escape reality and dissociate from life stressors and/or deeper psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and early life abuse. For these women (and men), pornography can become a "drug of choice," used like alcohol or harder drugs as a way to self-regulate uncomfortable emotions. This behavior can easily escalate to the level of sexual addiction, eventually resulting, as all addictions do, in serious negative life consequences. In this crucial way, women's increased access to and interest in highly objectified hardcore pornography presents the same concerns as it does for men.

1P. Carnes, D. Nonemaker, and N. Skilling, "Gender Differences in Normal and Sexually-Addicted Populations," American Journal of Preventive Psychiatry and Neurology (1991) 3 : 16-23.
2M.L. Chivers, G. Rieger, E. Latty, and M. Bailey, "A Sex Difference in the Specificity of Sexual Arousal," Psychological Science (2004) 15(11) : 736-744.
3The Stats on Internet Pornography, http://thedinfographics.com/2011/12/23/internet-pornography-statistics/ (accessed Sep 27, 2012).
4M.C. Ferree, "Women and the Web: Cybersex Activity and Implications," Sexual and Relationship Therapy (2003) 18(3) : 385-393.

 


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    Last reviewed: 2 Jan 2013

APA Reference
Weiss LCSW, R. (2013). Men, Women, and Sexual Objectification. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 16, 2014, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2013/01/sexual-objectification/

 

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