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Sexual objectification as everyday trauma

By Jenn Chmielewski

*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement

Like many women, I have put up with my share of sexual harassment, subway groping, and just dealing with plain old creepy dudes. This issue is so commonplace (women have been speaking up about it for ages) that the NYC MTA actually announces now that “a crowded subway is no excuse for unlawful sexual conduct.” I’ve had a range of responses to these attacks, from a hushed and demure ‘please stop,’ to snide laughs that say ‘you have no power over me’ to verbal and physical altercations that leave me feeling grateful I got out okay. One thing that is always constant though is that afterwards, I have nights where I toss and turn, thinking about the encounter. Why did I ask him to ‘please stop’ like it was a polite request? Why couldn’t I just stand up for myself like the strong woman that I am? I wish I had been a little tougher, a little snarkier, or made a scene to put the guys in their place. Or in recalling the times I do stand up and fight back, I wonder, what if that guy had gotten angrier… what could have happened?

In the end, I usually end up feeling helpless because I know there is no good response and yet I end up wanting to know what I can do to protect myself, to feel safe and stop feeling vulnerable. There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about the ways in which young college women are demanding that the psychological impacts of rape and institutional neglect be recognized as trauma. In our past SPARK research blogs we have talked about the ways in which experiences of sexual objectification can make our brains freeze up or discourage us from making a difference through activism.

But I have been wondering lately about how experiencing sexual objectification and ogling (and fearing that it may happen) day after day may actually be a kind of trauma itself. Research has found that experiencing racism over the lifetime is a form of trauma that is harmful to mental and physical health – is sexism too? We live in a world where our bodies as women are constantly examined, scrutinized, and sometimes touched or commented on against our will. These may not always be the most violent experiences, but what do these mean for our psyches and bodies over time?

To find out, I started digging through new research and it turns out researchers Haley Miles-McLean, Miriam Liss, Mindy J. Erchull, Caitlin M. Robertson, Charlotte Hagerman, Michelle A. Gnoleba, and Leanna J. Papp[1] from the University of Mary Washington had been interested in this idea too (you know what they say about great minds…).

They wanted to see whether experiences of sexual objectification were actually related to trauma symptoms. They asked 337 adult women how often they feel their bodies being evaluated by others and how often they experience unwanted sexual advances (i.e. being grabbed or pinched in a private area against their will). They also measured body shame (i.e. feeling bad if they gain weight) and trauma symptoms (like spacing out, having nightmares, or sexual problems).

Unfortunately, they found what I expected: women who experience more evaluation of their bodies by others and women who experience more unwanted sexual advances also had more body shame and more trauma symptoms. Ultimately, although experiences of sexual harassment and objectification may not be what we normally think of as a traumatic experience (like rape or war), when they are added up over time they really have the same kinds of effects for women.

Frankly, it all leaves me feeling confused as hell. When some dude harasses me on the street, what am I supposed to do? If I don’t say anything, I’ll kick myself later for it, wishing I had done something, feeling vulnerable, like I let him win. If I do speak up, I may be seen as overly sensitive, unable to ‘take a compliment’ or a ‘joke,’ or I may become more vulnerable to violence from perpetrators. But the worst part is, no matter what I do, I wind up feeling like my body is not my own and that I am never completely safe. And that, dear reader, is what trauma feels like.

Trauma is not just when a huge awful thing happens to you. It happens when you add up weeks, months or a lifetime of smaller traumas like sexual harassment in a culture where women’s bodies are so often viewed as objects to be ogled. Despite the mansplaining that goes on to justify these kinds of violations (like from my not-friend), we need to recognize that sexual harassment can have serious consequences for our health. So let’s not blame ourselves for what happens or how we feel when we experience these violations. I may not always respond how I want to when I am harassed, but that’s not my problem and it is not my fault. It is all of our responsibilities to create the space for me (and you) to move freely and passionately in our bodies without worrying about that creepy dude.

[1] Miles-McLean, H., Liss, M., Erchull, M. J., Robertson, C. M., Hagerman, C., Gnoleba, M. A., & Papp, L. J. (2014). “Stop looking at me!” Interpersonal sexual objectification as a source of insidious trauma. Psychology of Women Quarterly.

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