Ogling or objectifying the bodies of others by staring with obvious sexual interest can be an easy habit to get into. Especially in a culture that objectifies women. It’s also something that recovering porn addicts have to work really hard at to break. But: there are plenty of non-addicts that deal with this too, so let’s break this down and figure out how to break free of this habit.
I think the first thing I want to note here is that while this activity or habit of checking people out can become almost mundane and very normal for a person, we have to realize it really is a betrayal event for our spouses. So it can be generating a lot of ongoing pain and hurt for one person while the other person is like “What? I was hardly even looking!”
Why Do Men Ogle?
Why is this such a common problem? The short answer is that our culture socializes us to look at women this way. In fact, both men and women are socialized to see women as objects to be viewed and admired[i].
Don’t believe me? Just look on Instagram…if a man or woman posts a photo of him/herself posing — it gets a ton of comments. Even though this is seen as a positive when it’s women complimenting each other…it is still objectifying. Men are taught to look at women in this way, and women are taught to think of and display themselves accordingly.
This socialization happens through advertising, films, television and all the media that almost exclusively portrays women with ideal body shapes. And they emphasize their physical appearance over their personalities and qualities as a person.
The effect of this is that men are trained to view women as sexual objects. In that context, ogling and “checking out” women becomes acceptable. We say things like “I was just looking!” to minimize and defend the behavior. And then the fact that so many people buy into this worldview is also used as a defense — as if you aren’t personally making a choice to check out other women, you’re just conforming to how everyone else acts.
But just because something is commonplace, that doesn’t in any way mean it isn’t harmful. This objectifying of women has a dehumanizing effect. A rather alarming study from 2014[ii] found that when thinking about women in terms of their physical appearance, men would use less human words to describe them, and assign fewer human traits to them than they would to men. This effect can even be seen at the neurological level: focusing on women’s bodies activates the same brain areas that are activated when looking at inanimate objects[iii].
How frightening is that? Men looking at women think of them as less human. Of course, you can only imagine the moral challenges this brings because we hold a different moral standard for what we do to an object versus what we would do to a human being.
The Effect of Ogling on Women
A common defense made is that nobody is being hurt. We are “only looking”. But the research shows that objectifying gaze has tangible, negative effects on the target of the gaze. Even the perception that one might be the target of objectification can have a negative effect. These effects include[iv]:
- Increased body shame and dissatisfaction with your own appearance
- Increased body surveillance — monitoring and worrying about your own appearance
- Internalizing the beauty standards of society and trying to live up to them
- Increased belief that looks are all that matter
- Reduced concentration, cognitive ability and performance (e.g., at work or in sports)
- Increased “self objectification” by women: thinking of themselves in more objectifying terms and being constantly preoccupied with how others will see you
- Acting less individually and more in line with expectations. For example, talking less and not standing up for yourself[v]
What is really sad is that you begin to get the picture that as you objectify people they begin to internalize that view, and begin to believe this about themselves as well. Women affected in this way actually start acting more like objects, even when the gaze is “complimentary” (making a positive impression about a woman’s appearance).
Along with this, women begin to believe that their physical attractiveness is more important than their qualities as a person. As you can imagine, this can lead to unrealistic standards of beauty which can lead to shame when they fail to live up to those unachievable standards[vi]. If beauty is all that matters, and you’ll never be as beautiful as the airbrushed models on TV and in fashion ads, what does that leave you with?
Does this happen to men? No: this was actually tested and the effects are found for women being gazed on by men, but not the other way around[vii]. This highlights our responsibility as men to break this habit and to challenge our culture about how we view and look at women. Literally.
How Ogling Affects Marriage
Of course this does have a significant impact on marriage. It really is a betrayal and this objectification can happen both through ogling or other means like porn use. Here are some documented negative effects on wives if their husbands display these objectifying attitudes[viii] :
- Sadness and negative emotions
- Increased body shame
- Internalization of unattainable beauty standards
- Reduced self esteem
- Greater likelihood of having eating disorder symptoms caused by body shame
Other researchers have found the same thing. For example, a study in 2011[ix] found that highly objectifying views in the husband predicted self-objectification in the wife. Wives will see themselves how husbands look at other women. Naturally, this impacts the marriage, creating reduced sexual satisfaction for both the husband and wife and reduced relationship satisfaction.
By the way: if you are wondering how it reduces sexual satisfaction…it reduces women’s self esteem and it reduces intimacy. Self-esteem is necessary for desire…if you’re lost in your own insecurities it is going to be hard to feel a lot of desire. Also if you feel like you are actually just part of a larger harem of women but you happen to be the one your husband has physical sex with (rather than virtual) then of course there is a reduction in intimacy that’s going to happen.
It is also really important to note that reduced sexual satisfaction does not lead to husbands engaging in more ogling or objectification in this context[x]. So a husband ogling other woman is not because he is not getting enough sex. What I mean is that withholding sex does not cause ogling. That may be used by him to justify ogling but I would challenge guys to be very careful about going down that road.
At the same time, there are some spouses in a lot of pain because sex is being withheld from them: I do not want to dismiss that pain, but just to gently challenge you to think about how you may be choosing to adjust your own moral values as a result. I’d encourage you both: if you guys have a legit sex problem, go ahead and tackle that, but don’t try to justify ogling by blaming it on your spouse.
Ogling is a Betrayal of Commitment
Don’t forget that in all of this I’ve been calling ogling out as a betrayal event.
Marital commitment is made up of three components:
- satisfaction with the relationship
- exclusivity vs. attention to alternatives
- investment in the current relationship
You can see how increased attention to other women really erodes commitment. It is a betrayal.
A few episodes ago when we looked at the dark realities of the porn industry we created a bonus guide that helps men deal with this objectification and ogling issue. So for this episode we’re coming at it from the other side.
This week our bonus guide is for wives who find themselves influenced by popular thought and although it is painful to admit — you’ve really objectified yourself as well. Not necessarily in an immoral way, but you’re noticing you spend a lot of time on body image and concerns there rather than thinking of yourself as a whole person and focusing on personal growth.
Our bonus guide for our patrons who support The Marriage Podcast for Smart People will help you begin to process the impact of self-objectificationand shift towards a healthier perspective.
What To Do About Ogling
Understand the Damage It Causes
Despite the damage ogling and objectification do to women (both the target and the wives of ogling husbands), many people are resistant to the idea that it needs to stop. Men see it as “normal” or “harmless” and in some cases even women are taught that being the object of male attention is desirable[xi].
I think this needs to be a conversation in your marriage if it is a problem. For wives, make your husbands aware of the personal impact of their ogling behavior on you. For some, that may provide motivation to change.
And I want to challenge men out there too — I am challenged by lust as much as the next guy. Character is what you are when nobody is watching — when you can ogle someone do you? I have to stay on top of this…it is an easy habit to get into and in the summer time or in a mall or going past some billboards it takes a concerted effort to bounce your eyes.
And yet, if all of us were intentional about this I believe it would actually begin to change our culture and make it a safer place for women and also safer for our marriages too.
Change How You See Women
Ogling and being drawn to look at attractive women’s bodies may be an automatic or nearly unconscious process, and so can be hard for men to stop. However, we can choose to focus instead on other aspects of women: seeing them as equal human beings rather than objects to be viewed. This is really about how you think about women now.
Over time this will make you less likely to think of women as objects and you will be able to “catch” yourself when you are drawn to start ogling. To demonstrate this effect, a study in 2014[xii] found that focusing on women’s physical appearance caused men to see them as being less competent, less warm and less capable of making moral decisions.
Seeing women as objects and seeing them as having these human qualities was incompatible. So learning to focus on these kinds of qualities in women will naturally make you less likely to look at them in an objectifying way.
It is about reminding yourself: she is a person, not an object. Even if she is objectifying herself.
There’s one other aspect of changing how you see women. This one is delicate but can be very helpful and freeing, so please pay careful attention to my language as you read.
What happens — particularly for porn and sex addicts but I think also this happens to many men — maybe even close to all men (and women too) — is you see an attractive person. Now if you are a Christian you have already been taught that the Lord Jesus said that “…everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28, ESV). I’ll talk to guys here, but gals can translate the genders: you see a very attractive woman and you notice her and then you jump right into guilt and even shame because you think you’ve committed adultery in your heart.
But the verse is very clear: looks at a woman with lustful intent.
What happens is that we end up obsessing about NOT sexualizing or NOT objectifying and then the issue becomes that we find ourselves obsessing over an attractive woman even though we’re trying to point that obsession in the right direction, morally. This still doesn’t feel healthy, right?
What I recommend is that when you see an attractive woman, acknowledge that. This is evidence that God vests beauty in His creation and one of the ways he does that is through physical beauty. Remind yourself that this is a person with a story. Notice the woman beside her: not as attractive, and just take a moment to wonder to yourself about the beauty that lies within that person: virtues of character and personhood. Again, because you know that God vests beauty in every part of His creation. And then move on.
I do not think it is wrong to acknowledge attractiveness. Even to appreciate it — briefly. You will know when you go from acknowledging and appreciating to cross the line into lustful intent. When the appreciation becomes about your own personal gratification or sexual pleasure.
At the same time, start noticing other women and men and acknowledging that every person bears the image of God and so there is some beauty in every person. In my mind, I believe that God dishes out beauty in equal proportions — I think He is fair — but that beauty takes on a thousand varieties of which physical beauty is only one facet. And not nearly as important a facet as popular media wants us to believe.
As we’ve mentioned, media such as TV, films and advertising all portray attractiveness as being the most important thing for women to aspire to, leading to objectification and ogling by men and self-objectification by women.
This could theoretically be reduced by limiting how much exposure to media you have, or by looking for media which portrays women in less objectifying terms. Fine in principle, but in reality shutting yourself off from all media isn’t really feasible.
Instead, an interesting study in 2013[xiii] suggests developing media literacy in both men and women— developing the ability to analyze the media you watch, noticing when it is objectifying women and not getting “taken in” by this view. This does help. Watching TV or films with this more analytical mindset can help men to notice when they are acting in a way that objectifies women, and can also help women to stop internalizing societies’ beauty standards.
The mental filter: surprisingly effective.
As a woman there are ways to respond to this as well.
A husband’s ogling and objectifying behavior/attitudes are most harmful to a wife when she starts to internalize these views and compares herself to outside standards of beauty.
Working to prevent this self-objectification can therefore remove most of the negative effects of ogling and objectification[xiv]. So while your husband is working on the ogling issue (or even if he isn’t ready to yet), you can minimize the damage by learning to break the mindset of objectifying yourself. Grab hold of our bonus guide for some practical ways you can get started on this right away.
[i] Daniel M. Downs, Shaan James, and Gloria Cowan, ‘Body Objectification, Self-Esteem, and Relationship Satisfaction: A Comparison of Exotic Dancers and College Women’, Sex Roles, 54.11–12 (2006), 745–52 <https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9042-y>.
[ii] Nathan A. Heflick and Jamie L. Goldenberg, ‘Seeing Eye to Body: The Literal Objectification of Women.’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23.3 (2014), 225–29 <https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721414531599>.
[iii] Heflick and Goldenberg.
[iv] Sarah J. Gervais, Theresa K. Vescio, and Jill Allen, ‘When What You See Is What You Get: The Consequences of the Objectifying Gaze for Women and Men’, Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35.1 (2011), 5–17 <https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684310386121>.
[v] Tamar Saguy and others, ‘Interacting Like a Body: Objectification Can Lead Women to Narrow Their Presence in Social Interactions’, Psychological Science, 21.2 (2010), 178–82 <https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797609357751>.
[vi] Downs, James, and Cowan.
[vii] Gervais, Vescio, and Allen.
[viii] Tracy L. Tylka and Ashley M. Kroon Van Diest, ‘You Looking at Her “Hot” Body May Not Be “Cool” for Me: Integrating Male Partners’ Pornography Use into Objectification Theory for Women’, Psychology of Women Quarterly, 39.1 (2015), 67–84 <https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684314521784>.
[ix] Eileen L. Zurbriggen, Laura R. Ramsey, and Beth K. Jaworski, ‘Self- and Partner-Objectification in Romantic Relationships: Associations with Media Consumption and Relationship Satisfaction’, Sex Roles, 64.7–8 (2011), 449–62 <https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-9933-4>.
[x] Tylka and Kroon Van Diest.
[xi] Tanjare’ McKay, ‘Female Self-Objectification: Causes, Consequences and Prevention’, McNair Scholars Research Journal, 6.1 (2013) <http://commons.emich.edu/mcnair/vol6/iss1/7>.
[xii] Heflick and Goldenberg.