The Ethics of Sexual Objectification: Autonomy and Consent
Inquiry, Vol. 51, No. 4, pp. 345-364, 2008
29 Pages Posted: 3 Dec 2011 Last revised: 6 Dec 2011
Date Written: November 5, 2007
It is now a platitude that sexual objectification is wrong. As is often pointed out, however, some objectification seems morally permissible and even quite appealing — as when lovers are so inflamed by passion that they temporarily fail to attend to the complexity and humanity of their partners. Some, such as Nussbaum, have argued that what renders objectification benign is the right sort of relationship between the participants; symmetry, mutuality, and intimacy render objectification less troubling. On this line of thought, pornography, prostitution, and some kinds of casual sex are inherently morally suspect. I argue against this view: what matters is simply respect for autonomy, and whether the objectification is consensual. Intimacy, I explain, can make objectification more morally worrisome rather than less, and symmetry and mutuality are not relevant. The proper political and social context, however, is crucial, since only in its presence can consent be genuine. I defend the consent account against the objection that there is something paradoxical in consenting to objectification, and I conclude that given the right background conditions, there is nothing wrong with anonymous, one-sided, or just-for-pleasure kinds of sexual objectification.
Keywords: sexual objectification
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