Desire does not equal objectification.
Many women believe that when a man is aroused by the sight of a woman -- particularly by seeing and touching her face, hair, and body -- he reduces her in his mind to a "sex object."
Probably the most serious problem with this theory is that -- like the concept of sin -- the doctrine of objectification clouds the real issue: consent. Weighing sexual expression in terms of objectification encourages people to lump consensual and non-consensual sex acts together as being both harmful to women. It discourages people from using consent (or lack thereof) as a good measure of whether harm has been done.
Unfortunately it's difficult to debate the concept of objectification on its merits because the term "objectification" is not well-defined. There's no clear-cut criteria for determining what is objectification and what isn't. Even the notoriously ill-defined term "porn" is easier to pin down. I've seen the term "objectification" applied to any instance of a man deriving pleasure from seeing or touching a woman's body, especially if specific body parts act as a trigger for arousal. So the charge of objectification can be used to condemn a huge range of sexual expression. Yet when it comes time to demonstrate the harm, the term "objectification" contracts to cover only the most flagrant examples. Thus it becomes nearly impossible to discuss or debate the concept in any reasonable manner.
Nonetheless, I'd like to try to hold up the concept of objectification to scrutiny based on what seems to be the popular definition.
The problem with the concept of objectification is that it is not consistent with reality. Feeling aroused when presented with certain sexual cues is an involuntary biological response that has nothing whatsoever to do with a man's capacity to see women as whole people, as equals, as partners, as colleagues, etc.
Being irrational, the doctrine of objectification is counterproductive. It alienates potential allies. There are many men who respect the abilities of their female colleagues and would like to stand up for women's equality. However they are made to feel that if an image of a nude woman turns them on, then they are the enemy and not welcome to call themselves feminists. For many men, feeling aroused by the female form is a fundamental component of their sexuality that no amount of "education" can possibly change any more than prayer will change a gay person into a straight person. Feminists should be educating these men that their arousal response is normal, but that there's a time and a place for it, and they need to be careful to treat they the women they interact with in the way the women would like to be treated. Feminists should not be saying "If you masturbate in the privacy of your own home while thinking about women and/or looking at consensually produced images, then you're a misogynist!"
As much of a shame as it is to alienate potential male allies however, the real tragedy is that the doctrine of objectification also alienates many women. It is not possible to condemn male sexuality without (as a side effect) condemning the sexuality of many straight women who like to have sex with men. If a woman is aroused by showing off her own body -- and in particular is aroused by seeing the effect she has on men -- then the doctrine of objectification tells her that she's disrespecting herself by turning herself into a sex object. The problem again is that this is a perfectly ordinary arousal cue, well within the range of normal arousal cues for women. The feminist movement should be encouraging women to explore their sexuality openly, not limiting what female sexuality is allowed.
As you might guess, this issue is important to me personally because I fall into that class of women who are sometimes made to feel unwelcome at the feminist table. I've spent quite a lot of time analyzing my own sexuality, and being honest with my own desires, I have come to the realization that I am far more aroused by turning a man on -- by the thought of male desire -- than I am by looking at an image of a beautiful man. Patriarchal religionists as well as feminists who preach the doctrine of objectification would tell me that this is because I have internalized "man as subject" in my personal sexual narrative and/or that I must want to be an object and therefore don't respect myself. But in reality it doesn't mean that at all. It doesn't mean anything. It is a random arousal cue. Period.
Now I would like to quote my favorite columnist, Dan Savage:
Not all men into BDSM are chauvinist pigs. There are tons of misogynist males out there into strictly vanilla sex.[...] There's no rhyme or reason to most people's fantasies;[Note that Dan Savage's column is adult, however I encourage people who are not offended by it to go read the whole thing because I've taken this quote way out of context: here]
As I said in my feminist sexuality post I don't think that it's possible for anyone who is following my blog to seriously argue that I lack self-confidence, self-respect, or self-esteem. It pisses me off that the feminist movement would make me feel like I need to defend myself against such charges.
Personally, in my own relationships, I have never once had a problem with the question "Does he like me as a whole person? Or does he see me as just a means to get off?"
Do you want to know why?
Because "Does he find me interesting to talk to?" is absolutely the wrong question for a feminist to be asking herself. The right question is "Do I find him interesting to talk to?"
It turns out that the people I am interested in talking to are interested in talking to me.
It is because of my own self-confidence that there is no danger I will be mistaken for an object by anyone whose opinion matters.