Sexist Comments & Responses: Objectification

Although sexist comments and remarks are prevalent and normalized in everyday conversation, public discourse, and virtually every other social setting throughout the world, researchers at the Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP) wanted to understand how women experience these comments in Utah. This is the third of five briefs focused on the results of an extensive study on this topic (see “Study Introduction and Overview” and “Sexist Comments & Responses: Inequity and Bias” for the first two briefs in the series). The study was designed with the intent of collecting and analyzing a wide variety of sexist comments experienced by women across the state, in addition to the responses women made—or wish they had made—to such comments. The goal of this series is to educate men and women on the many forms that conscious and unconscious sexist comments can take, from egregious to more subtle statements. Additionally, we aim to equip women with the tools to confront more successfully the sexism they experience. 

Findings – Comments and Remarks 

In this study, the “Objectification” theme included comments in which women were viewed or treated more as objects than as human beings. Notably, many of the comments coded in this theme were much more explicit and vulgar than those included in this brief. Additionally, not all responses were limited strictly to sexist comments; some respondents also reported sexist situations and behaviors such as unwelcome touching, grabbing, or groping. The analysis of the responses within the Objectification theme produced seven specific categories: 

  1. Focus on physical appearance/bodies: Comments focused on women’s bodies as part of an interaction, whether positive or negative, sexual, or otherwise.  
  2. Sexual harassment: Remarks or behaviors toward women in workplace or similar settings that were sexual in nature.  
  3. Sexualizing women: Comments that focused on women as sexual objects, rather than as whole individuals.  
  4. Unwanted sexual advances: Solicitations or advances toward women that were unwelcome.  
  5. Intersectional discrimination: Comments directed at more than one dimension of an individual; for example, sexist comments that also included references to race, age, weight, religion, or other elements.
  6. Exclusion from work activities: Statements specifically related to women being excluded at work because of their gender, with the implication that women are viewed as sex objects rather than as colleagues.  
  7. Accusations of using sex to get ahead: Comments centered on the idea that women use sexuality to gain an unfair advantage. 
Focus on Physical Appearance/Bodies 

The most common category within the Objectification theme was a focus on physical appearance and bodies. Comments categorized as “Focus on Physical Appearance/Bodies” were most commonly made within the workplace.

Examples of comments: 

  • “The first time we met, he said, ‘What a surprise. I thought you’d look a lot older than you do. You’ve still got a good 10 years of sex kitten left in you!’” 
  • “A manager asked, ‘How do you keep that slim figure?’” 
  • “He said, ‘You’re getting a little fat here (grabbed the back of my arm in the triceps area). I bet you could . . . run on your lunch time.’” 
  • “He looked at me and said, ‘You? But you’re a cute, little blonde thing. You can’t be a mayor!’” 
Sexual Harassment 

The second most common category that emerged under the Objectification theme was sexual harassment. There was a fair amount of overlap between this and other categories in this theme, but these were distinguished by a workplace or similar setting in which harassment is formally recognized. 

Examples of comments: 

  • “My male manager told me an old man was probably going to sexually harass me and to not report him.” 
  • “My manager told me, ‘Part of your job is keeping me happy. Will you come away with me for the weekend?’ We were both married to other people.” 
  • “A male superior suggested that I come to the office on Halloween in costume dressed as a sexy nurse.” 
Sexualizing Women 

The third most common category that emerged from the analysis focused on sexualizing women, specifically framing women as sex objects. 

Examples of comments: 

  • “He said, ‘If you dress in clothes that are tight, you are inhibiting the ability of our men to do their jobs. You are a distraction.’” 
  • “He talked about sexual assault and said, ‘Well you can’t parade raw meat in front of a tiger and expect it not to pounce.’” 
  • “During my marriage ceremony, the officiator said, ‘What are women for?’ Everyone laughed and he said, ‘Well, we all know what women are for. But what else are they for?’” 
Unwanted Sexual Advances 

Related to the categories of sexual harassment and sexualizing women was the more specific category of “Unwanted Sexual Advances,” which included direct sexual/romantic invitations to women, ranging from subtle to aggressive. 

Examples of comments:  

  • “I was looking for a place to sit during a conference we were both attending. He and I were both members of a city council though for different cities. He patted his lap and told me I could sit there.” 
  • “A male colleague told me, ‘Those jeans look good. They’d look better draped over my dresser.’” 
Intersectional Discrimination: 

Comments in the intersectional discrimination category showed overlapping biases that focused on individual aspects of a woman’s identity rather than seeing her as a whole individual. Intersectional discrimination comments focused on gender as well as age, weight, race, religion, and sexual orientation. 

Examples of comments:  

  • “A man serving a lesbian couple said, ‘So since there is no man here, who is supposed to pay me? Who’s in charge?’” 
  • “One of our board members asked me where I was from. I told him Ogden. He then asked again, but this time asked the origins of my parents. When I replied that my father is American and my mother is Asian, he said to me that he thought Asian women were the most beautiful women in the world and then he touched my arm.” 
Exclusion from Work Activities 

While on the surface, women’s exclusion from workplace activities may not appear to be an issue of objectification, comments in this category generally exposed attitudes of those who saw female co-workers as sex objects rather than colleagues. 

Examples of comments: 

  • “When on a student selection panel, one of the faculty said he couldn’t work with a certain very highly qualified student because his wife would be jealous and suspicious of her.” 
Accusations of Using Sex to Get Ahead 

These comments were specific and egregious enough to warrant special mention. 

Examples of comments: 

  • “I had a co-worker tell me that the reason I got a promotion was because of my breast size.” 
  • “A male superior said, ‘I don’t know what happens behind closed doors with you and him to have led you to receive more resources and support than other faculty receive.’” 

Findings – Responses 

In addition to sharing sexist comments they had heard, study participants were also asked to share any response they made (or wish they had made) to the comments. Responses that were reported in the “Objectification” theme were then coded into the five broad categories: 

  1. Direct Responses: Nearly 40% of the women’s replies incorporated a direct response to the sexist comment. Some retorted with a question back to the commenter, while others provided information or education, offered a rebuttal, or used humor to respond. 
  2. No Response: Women shared that many times they were so shocked or stunned that they did not say anything in response to the sexist comment. This accounted for 38.2% of the responses. 
  3. Internal Afterthoughts: Many participants reported responses they wish they had made, once they had time to reflect. These afterthoughts ranged from clever comebacks, to providing information, to wishing they had reported the comment. 
  4. Indirect Responses: In some cases, women responded to sexist comments indirectly, by changing the subject, laughing, or even agreeing with the commenter when they did not know how else to respond. 
  5. Emotional Responses: Women also shared that they felt ashamed, embarrassed, hurt, angry, or wished someone had stood up for them in the moment. 
  6. Other Responses: In addition to the five categories of responses above, eight other types of responses emerged - discussed with others, experienced backlash, proved them wrong, reported to a superior, successful response, third-person response, unsuccessful response, and walked away. 

Conclusions and Recommendations 

This brief is the third in a series of five related to the UWLP sexist comments research study. The subsequent briefs will focus on the remaining major themes identified in the study: Stereotypes and Undervaluing Women, along with women’s responses to these comments.  

In summary, the purpose of the series is twofold: First, we hope to educate readers on the various ways that language and related behaviors can demean and disempower women, especially for those who may not realize their words are problematic. And second, by examining the types of responses women make when confronted with sexist behavior, we aim to equip women with the tools they need to better combat the sexism they experience from day to day. Speaking up against sexism can be a powerful tool for reducing gender inequity. Further, being prepared in terms of how to respond to everyday sexism can help women feel more confident in their interactions with others. By raising awareness of the widespread occurrence and damaging effects of sexist language, comments, beliefs, and behaviors, we can all help reduce the frequency of sexism in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, congregations, communities, and the state as a whole. 

To learn more about sexist comments and responses related to objectification, read the full brief.

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