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Hot or Not? A Case Study of Sexual Objectification in Online Dating9 min read

One of the biggest problems in examining objectification is that our society is built on and functions because of objectification in its broadest sense. As a financial analyst my job was defined on a piece of paper. It listed the needs I was supposed to fulfill. Was I also seen as a person? Well yes. In a way… but no.

As soon as I stopped fulfilling those needs we both agreed to, I was out of a job. I was disposable. But in this case it’s an agreed upon contract. Money exchanges hands for services rendered. Objectification is deemed okay… when it’s consensual. But objectification is not something that is easily put inside a box, nor always consented to. It bleeds outside the lines. Which leads us to…

Sexual objectification.

Sexual objectification happens to both men and women, but disproportionately to women.  Sexual objectification turns people into depersonalized objects, only there to fulfill a sexual desire or need. It happens, sometimes consensually, but more often than not without any awareness that this is what we are doing. Excessive sexual objectification within an unbalanced power dynamic removes humanity and in the worst scenario, enables the treatment of those people as second class citizens to diminish and demean. It leads to body shame. Eating disorders.  Sexual dysfunction. Sexual violence. Or worse.

But if sexual objectification is bad for one party and beneficial for the ‘objectifier’, it’s not likely to change any time soon. So does sexual objectification damage the person doing the objectifying? Yes. And I found out first hand last week.

I’m a fan of OK Cupid. My pictures are up there, for men to objectify if they so choose. It’s not as if I have a problem with people being attracted to the way I look. But I’m only going to reply to emails where the person involved has taken the time to read my profile and the questions I’ve answered. I don’t reply to the constant barrage of ‘dick pics’ I am sent because I would like to go out with more than a penis… a picture of which, in the final analysis, tells me nothing about the person it’s attached to apart from that its owner, is probably someone who would objectify me – because he already does it to himself.

It’s why I don’t reply to people who send messages like ‘I’d like to cum all over your face’ and even messages which are little more than ‘hey beautiful, your profile is interesting’ (if it was so interesting, why don’t you comment on it?). I never reply to those who haven’t filled in their profile or answered questions… because a profile picture gives me nothing else to connect with.

But before I settled on OK Cupid, I was also a member of Badoo. Badoo is a ‘friend/dating’ network which requires a bare minimum of information. No percentage match, no in depth questions just a picture and some interests. Like ‘weekend trips’ or ‘London’. Again it shows me nothing…. and everything about that person. And so when Brad and Sarah*, a couple who have opened up their relationship came to me for therapy last week, I noted with interest that they were both on Badoo (but nowhere else). Their problem, initially at least, was the fact that she had plenty of guys hit on her, but he could find no-one.

“What’s your process for selecting potential matches?” I asked.

Brad said “We look at the pictures, and then if we like them, we click on the image to find out more. Often there isn’t much more, so we send a message and then wait. But actually Sarah doesn’t have to send many messages because she gets so many, that her selection process tends to be looking at the guys who have already sent her messages and deciding whether to respond to them or not.”

Sarah concurred. “I get so many messages that I prefer to look at who has already expressed an interest as I know that anyone who’s sent me a message is more likely to respond.”

“But they send you a message based on little more than how you look,” I said.

“It’s a good start,” she replied defensively.

Sarah’s profile on Badoo is like many others. 3 pictures, some bare bone facts and about 15 interests. But the men who send her messages often do not have anything in common with her, they just like her picture. She’s hot. Sarah, flattered by their interest decides on the basis of their picture and their (usually brief) message, whether to reply. On the surface of it then, their sexual objectification has served Sarah’s purpose but doesn’t serve Brad’s. He is unable to send an interesting email because the women on Badoo give him little else to comment on than the image.  He must wait, cap in hand, to see whether his pictures are ‘hot enough’ to get a reply.

“I can see that they’ve received my message,” he said. “But then they don’t reply. Not even a ‘No thank you.’ It makes me feel pretty rejected.”

There are acts and there are consequences. When you’re a woman with a constant barrage of messages, most of which focus on your appearance, you can become dismissive and even sick of having to reply to them. It creates a greater propensity to dismiss those who have reached out. To treat them like objects. Sarah made her selection on whether she found the image attractive. She objectified the men who had objectified her.

When you belong to a dating site which gives you very few options to give a complete picture of yourself you are more likely to be objectified, because you have depersonalized yourself already. Brad’s emails got shorter and shorter because, he reasoned, the women didn’t reply very often and why waste hours crafting an email when the rate of reply is close to zero? But there was worse…

‘How do your make your evaluation of the women you send messages to?’ I asked Brad.

‘I have a scale,’ he said. ‘I need to be attracted to them physically, otherwise why would I even go out with them?’

Brad’s not a monster. He’s just a regular guy who has been taught by our society to evaluate what is ‘hot or not.’ Most of what he finds hot is unsurprisingly what the media also defines as hot.

‘What first attracted you to Sarah? I asked.

‘I saw her at a friend’s party over the other side of the room. I loved her smile, and the way she had these enormous gestures to describe what she was speaking about,’ he said.

He saw Sarah in person (and as a person). He noticed the fact that she was animated, that she had an inviting smile. They talked and connected almost immediately. In fact they already had a connection because they were friends with the same people. But Brad does not connect with women in the same way when he sees only their picture. He makes an evaluation based on a static pose and their appearance without animation. There are thousands of women on Badoo, and his choices have become relative among the pool he has to pick from. His benchmark has become fixed – anything over a ‘7’ and he’ll send a message. After a year of online dating he no longer looks at their interests, because he knows from past experience that this limits his choices. He now judges solely on appearance.

‘Did you rate Sarah compared to the other women at the party? I asked.

‘Of course not. I didn’t even notice them,’ he replied.

‘Have you ever gone out with someone from Badoo?’ I asked.

‘Yes. A girl named Joanne. We hadn’t the same interests but she thought I looked nice.’

‘And how was it?’

‘I slept with her. So there was definite sexual attraction. But I noticed that she’d put on some weight since she took those photos,’ he said.

‘Did that affect your attraction to her?’

‘Yes,’ he said in a small voice. ‘But I thought that if we hit it off, if we continued seeing each other that I would probably get over that. She was really great and you know when you fall in love, you don’t notice that stuff as much.’

In that moment I thanked Brad for being so honest. Because he only said what so many others don’t dare to say. Ranking people solely on appearance – even if later you build a bigger picture – can be damaging not only for the person who is being objectified, but for the person who objectifies. It creates expectations around what the other person should look like – and those expectations can affect our sexual attraction to the person we’ve objectified (and who has objectified themselves). This is the danger of online dating. It creates systemic sexual objectification. And yet so many people join sites like Badoo because you don’t have to answer hundreds of questions to get matches or messages. It’s easier. But more damaging.

For me, it means that people do not value themselves enough as non-sexual objects to create a profile which offers anymore than a superficial presentation of who they are. That’s fine if that’s all they want. But I’m interested in more than a sexual relationship, which is why I’ve put real work into presenting myself as a fully rounded person. I’ve filled out the profile, I’ve answered the questions. I answer the emails if they talk to me as if I am a person, not just a sexual object. I like to communicate with that person a lot before I meet them.

If you are interested in a relationship which consists of more than sexual attraction and which also therefore risks objectification (with all that this entails), you need to become aware of the fact that sexual objectification is facilitated by online dating sites and go the distance to overcome that. You should also be more interested in contacting those who have also done the work to humanize themselves. Who respect themselves enough to offer insight into the way they work and what they might be attracted to above and beyond looks. Those are the things that make a relationship. Brad’s failure rate was as a direct consequence of the way we have all ingrained sexual objectification as a way to kick off a relationship.

By my reckoning if Joanne were ever to find out that Brad was less sexually attracted to her – even initially because of his mismatched expectations – she would be insulted. And he would get the flack for it… even though they both bought into the systemic sexual objectification created by online dating sites which promote choice simply on whether you are ‘hot…or not’.

 *Case study printed with permission from Brad and Sarah. Names have been changed.

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