Apparently today’s young men are more worried about chest muscle mass than are young women about breast size.
Men, though, are much less likely to seek help in addressing body-related obsessions and dysmorphia. Deborah Schooler of Gallaudet University finds that males with body image issues often do not recognize their obsession with musculature. Since males often feel ashamed of worrying about their appearance, they instead voice concerns about other body issues like sweat and body odor. These superficially ancillary complaints, as it turns out, are raised in proportion to the objectification of the male body in the media to which a man is regularly exposed.
What is more, the objectification of males in popular culture, and the growing cultural embrace of this development, lead to a phenomenon that I call counter-objectification. Specifically, the objectification of men by women feeds the objectification of women by men. How does this occur? As Professor Tantleff-Dunn shows, many boys and young men respond with anger to images that objectify males; Sarah Murnen and her colleagues conclude similarly that male objectification feeds “sexual animosity.” The sense of sexual animosity in young males in turn correlates highly with their increased consumption of media that objectifies women; this leads to negative consequences for both males and females, such as male depression and the development of aggressive male sexuality.
Thus, many young men who feel that men are the targets of a male-objectifying culture in turn objectify women to a greater degree. Counter-objectification harms both men and women.
The Importance of Coalition
All of this points toward an important imperative: The fight for human dignity against our sexualized culture must be coalitional and cooperative. Those who worry about the sexualization of women in contemporary society must ally with those concerned about the problems facing young men today.
A society that seeks to root out one sort of objectification but promotes and even celebrates another is inherently unstable. For one of the most promising—indeed, one of the most essential—ways to combat the still rampant sexual commodification of women is to draw allies among young men, for young men are especially prone to objectify women in the media they consume. It is important therefore to make inroads among young men if we wish to reduce the incidence of objectification. But so long as the objectification of men by women is disregarded or trivialized, the step of getting men to cooperate will be difficult.
A sense among young men that the movement against sexual exploitation is hypocritical would, therefore, deeply wound that movement. The movement should not limit itself to criticizing male consumption of sexualized images of women, for the consumption of sexualized images of men by women is deeply intertwined and, in any case, objectionable on similar moral grounds.
Indeed, my experience in the classroom—over fifteen years teaching social and political theory to undergraduates—suggests that young men are suspicious of a culture that concerns itself with the problems of one sex to the exclusion of the same problems of the other. They often “tune out” when calls are made to address the very real problems confronting women today, such as their sexual objectification in contemporary culture.
To be sure, I do not mean to exonerate any man of his own contribution to the commodification of female sexuality, or of his insensitivity to the attendant problems; what I do emphasize, however, are real social trends that people working to resolve such issues should take seriously. The reason the objectification of women should be ended—and the reason why men should not participate in it—is that objectification itself is bad. If we tolerate or even celebrate the objectification of men, it will be difficult to convince men that they ought to behave differently toward women.