That’s right; we’re all objects with different purposes for each others’ use.

In the recent debate on wolf-whistling, some commentators asserted the objectification of women; that, by vocalizing the male tendency to ‘reduce’ a woman to her body in sexually-prompted thought, we are ‘turning her’ into a sex object.

This is a common feminist thought, and I have two responses.

(1) It does not logically follow that because a man sees a woman and notices first her physical beauty, that he is thus asserting that her body is the only part of her to appreciate. It is, in such a case, simply a first impression. Had he heard her sing first, or read a report she had written first, or heard her speak first, the first impression may be based on that aspect of her instead. In the case that she simply appears in his field of vision (perhaps on a street, as is usually the case), the only aspect of her available for consideration is her physical beauty, and the kind of beauty which elicits a wolf-whistle must be sufficiently impressive in his mind to be worthy of vocalization.

(2) If by noticing physical beauty a man is ‘reducing’ a woman to a sex object, then we are all ‘reducing’ the people around us to objects every day without objection. Since the cashier at the supermarket is only useful to me to check me out so I can leave with my groceries, I am ‘turning him’ into an object which checks people out. I don’t want to get to know him as a person before using him in this way, and nobody would assert that I should have to! Similarly, I am objectifying the woman reading the news on the radio as an object which reads news to me, I am turning the waiter or waitress at the restaurant into an object which brings me dinner, I am reducing the woman driving the car in front of me into an object which moves forward to allow me to get where I’m going, etc.

If the objectification argument is valid, then I am objectifying most of the people I meet in the same way as I may objectify a woman I find beautiful; she is useful to me only as an object of sexual attraction, and most other people I meet are useful only for whatever it is I’m using them for.

Am I allowed to comment on my satisfaction with a musical performance without getting to know the performer? Can I express my enjoyment of a meal without getting to know the chef? Am I permitted to pass remark on the joy I experience driving a car without getting to know the engineers who designed it or the construction workers who built the road? It may be a provocative question, then, as to why the physical beauty of a woman cannot be enjoyed by either sex without also getting to know her ‘as a person’. Why is physical attraction a less valid objectification than any other form of objectification? The objectification of the female form in art or on television or in advertising may be objectification, but is it always objectionable?

It’s worth noting, too, that objectification is not a static quantity. A cashier is able to relate beyond his duties as a cashier. Perhaps he strikes up a conversation as he scans my groceries at the checkout. Perhaps I get to know him beyond his first ‘use’ as a cashier. I may run into the newsreader on a train, after which point her status in my life changes. I may have the time to chat with the waiter or waitress. I may crash into the car in front of me, thus turning the driver of the car into something more than a traffic object (in a particularly undesirable way). I may think that I want to get to know the physically attractive woman in art or on TV or in an advertisement better if I meet her later.

Or not. It’s my choice; it’s her choice; it’s our choice. But, as a society, we all have the freedom to establish relationships of varying levels of ‘seriousness’ without being charged with objectification. Physical beauty is only one ‘first impression’ or ‘first use’ among many aspects of other people which can be explored. I find that exciting; it’s the main reason I like people so much. But appreciating a woman’s physical beauty, or a man’s, for that matter, on first impressions does not reduce her to a ‘sex object’ any more than listening to me on the radio reduces me to an ‘entertainment object’.