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Sexual Objectification: A Review of Nussbaum's Account

Sexual objectification involves the dehumanization of individuals based on their sexual or ethical orientation, perpetuated by negative social schemas and stigmas that limit their equality and utility in society. Martha Nussbaum, is an influential American philosopher, professor, and public intellectual known for her extensive work in the field of ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of law. She was born on May 6, 1947, in New York City. Nussbaum has written extensively on issues such as social justice, equality, and the importance of education in cultivating a just society. She has authored numerous books, including "The Fragility of Goodness," "Women and Human Development," and " “Feminism, Virtue, and Objectification,". Throughout her career, Nussbaum presents a comprehensive account of sexual objectification, highlighting instrumentalization, denial of autonomy, denial of agency, and the rejection of sexual equality as its defining characteristics. As a repercussion, her work has had a significant impact on various academic disciplines, policy debates, and public discourse. She has received numerous awards and honors throughout her career, including the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy, which she was awarded in 2016, and continues to be an influential voice in contemporary philosophy. Therefore, this analysis aims to critically examine Nussbaum's account of sexual objectification, its strengths, weaknesses, and its alignment with other philosophical perspectives.

Figure 1. Nussbaum received the 2012 Princess of Asturias Prize in the social sciences category. (AP, 2012)

Nussbaum's Normative and Phenomenological Approach

Martha Nussbaum uses a normative and phenomenological approach to construct a definition for sexual objectification. To elaborate, on the phenomenological level, Nussbaum wants to explore what "it means to see and/or treat someone as an object" (Nussbaum, 1995, p.30), in order to amplify and emphasize the firsthand effects of sexual objectification. Moreover, on a normative level, Nussbaum aims to distinguish objectification as a non-moralized concept (p.30), as types of objectification can have positive aspects. Nussbaum formulates a distinction between positive and negative objectification, using certain criteria that promote an individual's free will. This approach symbiotically avoids undermining ethical egoism and utilitarianism, enabling criticism of instrumentalization.

Nussbaum asserts that instrumentalization is the central criterion for sexual objectification, where the objectifier treats the object as a mere tool to fulfill their own sexual desires, ultimately leading to the dehumanization of women. Similarly, denying a woman her autonomy constitutes sexual objectification, as it debases her internal and/or external autonomy. For instance, a man in a high social position blackmailing a female colleague for sex illustrates a situation where the woman possesses internal autonomy but lacks external autonomy due to job security. Nussbaum primarily focuses on the denial of external autonomy and the sexual pressure imposed by an abstract, universal social hierarchy. The restriction of a woman's external autonomy closely parallels the denial of her agency, as Nussbaum defines inertness as a key aspect of sexual objectification. Inertness involves denying women their agency, which is their basic human ability to choose and control what they want to do. Consequently, Nussbaum believes that these characteristics of sexual objectification can devalue and diminish a woman's identity, reducing her to the status of an object within an intimate relationship (Nussbaum, 1995).

Figure 2. Girl kidnapped in London and trafficked for sex (BBC, 2018)

Reinforcement of Misogyny and Negative Objectification

Furthermore, Nussbaum bases her definition of sexual objectification on instrumentalization, introducing additional elements to clarify acts of misogyny and negative objectification. Treating someone as fungible involves generalizing them based on their sexuality or race. In Nussbaum's case, sexual fungibility refers to treating someone as interchangeable with others of the same type. This aligns with Mackinnon's "imposition account,"(Mackinnon, 1987) which states that women have a "social meaning imposed" on them, defining their existence as being "sexually used" (p.28). The treatment of women as violable and ownable, and the perception of women as objects that can be owned, bought, or broken, all fall within Nussbaum and Mackinnon's definition of sexual objectification. Arguably, this stems from society's throwaway culture of instant gratification, where Langley suggests that women who are sexually objectified can, in extreme cases, be used, abused, and easily replaced. A contemporary example that illustrates the complete denial of external autonomy, fungibility, and instrumentalization is the BBC's report (2018) on Anna, a Romanian student who was "snatched off the streets," had her clothes ripped from her body, and was forced to have sex with thousands of men. This clearly demonstrates a denial of Anna's agency and subjectivity, as her identity is diluted and dehumanized to that of a mere sexual object. Nussbaum's concern with this example of instrumentalization lies in the fact that women like Anna cannot live equally and autonomously within the social hierarchy compared to men. This blatant disregard for a woman's subjectivity, experiences, emotions, and feelings exemplifies sexual objectification, as these women are expected to lack normative qualities, similar to apples or pears in a market.

Literature and Pop Culture Representations

Nussbaum (1995) redefines her concept of treating a woman as an object in a derogatory manner to represent pop culture and literature. While pornography is known for dehumanizing and objectifying women, it should be distinguished from how women are treated within interpersonal relationships. Nussbaum provides examples of writers who objectify women in literature, such as James Hankinson's (1995) pornographic novels, where he disregards women's "autonomy and subjectivity" while emphasizing the eroticism of "inertness and viability". Similarly, Playboy magazine not only celebrates and encourages the "fungibility and commodification" of women but for women to identify within these parameters. Furthermore, Nussbaum emphasizes that ethical criticisms require a set of distinctions when dealing with literature. This aligns with Wayne Booth's "threefold distinctions," (p.255) which involve the narrator/character of the text, the implied author ("the sense of life embodied in the text as a whole"), and the real-life author who may lack some qualities of the implied author. Both Nussbaum and Booth agree that ethical criticism should primarily focus on the implied author, examining what the text promotes and the desires and projects it constructs in society.

Figure 3. Hugh Hefner’s latest Playboy Club brings its post-ironic cocktail of burlesque and baroque to London’s West End (Paul Daves, 2011)

Mackinnon (1987) also argues against the pejorative attitude towards objectification within our current social paradigm, which reinforces the presence of a social schema that diminishes women's external agency and subjectivity. According to Mackinnon, even the "admiration of natural physical beauty" can devolve into a case of sexual "objectification and instrumentalization" (p.174). Similarly, Jutten (2016) claims that women are defined in our culture as objects for male sexual pleasure, as sexual objectification within politics, pop culture, and other entertainment mediums "imposes a sex object status" (p.29) that strips women of their ethical egoism. This perpetuates a dominant, male social hierarchy that treats women as second-class citizens, limiting and inhibiting a woman's telos (purpose or goal). Ultimately, Mackinnon demonstrates how this universal misogynistic zeitgeist leads to "Harmless-ness becoming harm,"(1987, p.174) undermining Nussbaum's ideal framework for interpersonal relationships.

Figure 4. WomanNotObjects Campaign video fights sexist (Time, 2016)

Positive Objectification and Contextual Justifications

Nussbaum establishes a normative case for the positive objectification of women through permissible justification and context. It is evident that certain forms of objectification are deemed bad, particularly those that involve Nussbaum's definition of instrumentalization, which entails degrading, using, and dehumanizing a woman as a mere object. However, Nussbaum presents an example to illustrate that in certain contexts, objectification may not be identified as instrumentalization if it occurs with the consent of both parties and does not cause harm. For instance, she describes a scenario where she uses her lover's stomach as a pillow with his consent and without causing him pain (1995, p.265). In this specific context of the relationship, instrumentalization is not present, and therefore, it is not identifiable as objectification that rejects external autonomy. Nussbaum argues that objectification can be "necessary or even wonderful" (p.251) for a satisfying sexual life as long as instrumentalization is absent.

Similarly, Jutten suggests that Nussbaum's definition of instrumentalization aligns with "mere" instrumentalization, which is considered the "decisive wrong-making aspect of wrongful objectification" (2016, p.31). This notion parallels "Kant's concept of dignity" (Formosa, 2014) as it is always deemed wrong to treat a human being as a "mere means to another's end". Nussbaum's phenomenological analysis highlights how a man's instrumental use of a woman can often degrade her to a mere object. Whereby such disregard contradicts Nussbaum's "capability theory", a theory that entails political liberalism to be instrumental in realizing human dignity. However, in contrast to Kant's rational view of human virtue from rationality, Nussbaum is instead, grounded in animality.

Figure 5. Immanuel Kant, Strong parallels in theories of capability with Martha Nussbaum (AKG images, n.d)

Consequently, this conception of instrumentalization becomes a non-moralized concept due to its association with morally impermissible objectification. However, Nussbaum acknowledges the possibility of tolerable objectification within the context of a relationship. She argues that mere consent is not sufficient for the permissible use of another person. Instead, she proposes a set of criteria that involve respect within the context of "intimacy, symmetry, and mutuality"(Nussbaum, 1995). By considering the perception of the individuals involved, Nussbaum suggests that this framework can lead to positive objectification. This emphasizes her phenomenological approach, which takes into account the subjective experience of the individuals in question.


In conclusion, Martha Nussbaum's account of sexual objectification provides a comprehensive understanding of its defining characteristics and impact on individuals within society. Her normative and phenomenological approach explores the firsthand effects of objectification while distinguishing between positive and negative forms. Nussbaum emphasizes instrumentalization, denial of autonomy and agency, and the rejection of sexual equality as key aspects of sexual objectification. Her work has contributed significantly to academic disciplines, policy debates, and public discourse, shedding light on the dehumanization and inequality perpetuated by objectification.

Nussbaum's analysis reveals the reinforcement of misogyny and negative objectification, highlighting the treatment of individuals as fungible and violable objects within social hierarchies. The denial of agency and subjectivity further diminishes their autonomy and identity, reducing them to mere sexual objects. Literature and pop culture representations demonstrate the derogatory treatment of women, reinforcing societal schemas that devalue their agency and subjectivity. Overall, Nussbaum's account of sexual objectification offers a valuable framework for understanding its complexities, strengths, and weaknesses. By addressing the negative impact of objectification and advocating for respectful relationships, Nussbaum's work contributes to the ongoing pursuit of social justice, equality, and human dignity.

Bibliographical References:

BBC News. (2018). I was kidnapped in London and trafficked for sex.

Mackinnon, C, A. (1987). Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Harvard University Press. Nussbaum, M, C. (2007). Feminism, Virtue, and Objectification, In R. Halwani (Ed.), Sex and Ethics: Essays on Sexuality, Virtue, and the Good Life. Palgrave MacMillan.

Nussbaum, M. C. (1995). Objectification. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 24(4), 249-291.

Jütten, T, (2016), Sexual Objectification. Ethics, 127(1), 27-49.

Formosa, P., & Mackenzie, C. (2014). Nussbaum, Kant, and the Capabilities Approach to Dignity. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 17(5), 875–892.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Kamp, M. (2018). Nussbaum received the 2012 Princess of Asturias Prize in the social sciences category. [Image],

Figure 2. BBC News. (2018). I was kidnapped in London and trafficked for sex. [Caricature]

Figure 3. The Architectural Review. (2011). Hugh Hefner’s latest Playboy Club brings its post-ironic cocktail of burlesque and baroque to London’s West End [Image],

Figure 4. Time (2016) This Video Urges the Advertising Industry to Stop Treating Women Like Objects. [Image].

Figure 5. AKG Images. (n.d.). Immanuel Kant, Strong parallels in theories of capability with Martha Nussbaum. picture-alliance/akg-images

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Joseph Norris

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