Young People Up Close

Working with adolescents

Why Boys Objectify Girls

How often do we ask small boys what they're feeling?

We condemn such talk. When a boy refers to a girl as ‘it’ rather than ‘she’, we tell him how disrespectful he’s being. When boys refer to girls, not in terms of their personalities, but in terms of their bodies, especially their sexual bodies, we say how wrong that is. How wrong, how disrespectful, how rude. The boys walk off, bristling with hostility.

The fact is that many boys don’t just objectify girls and women: they objectify everything. And they do it because they can’t bear to live with their subjective experience. It’s as if the possibility of having an internal life of their own, full of feelings and fears and doubts and private thoughts, is too much to bear. So all that internal, scary stuff gets projected out, re-created as something tangible, an object to be dismissed rather than a feeling to be experienced. This happens most obviously in bullying where one person’s anxiety about being small or weak, for example, is attributed to another person and attacked. He’s small and weak – not me!

Lenny’s life has certainly been tough. He’s experienced more than his fair share of shame and hurt. Attachments have been ripped apart. Promises have been made and repeatedly broken. He can’t bear the feelings he’s left with, so acts them out at other people’s expense. As a result, he’s forever in trouble with school and with the police. 

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Lenny can’t talk about any of this. Whenever I ask about something personal, whenever I ask how he’s feeling, he can’t say. He looks away, ashamed and angry, frustrated, not knowing where to begin. When we talk about his favourite football team, however, he comes alive. He knows everything about the players. He also knows all about the opponents, tactics, scores and scorers. He describes his team’s ups and downs, hopes and fears, the good and bad players and their performances. We speculate a lot about what the manager (the parent-figure) might be feeling, thinking, planning. Lenny’s team becomes an objectification of everything that he himself would be feeling and thinking if he ever allowed himself to feel and think anything. We can talk about football, but when I ask how things have been at home, he can’t speak.

Boys (and men) objectify girls (and women) because they can’t bear to feel their own fear, their own longing for intimacy, their own vulnerability and need for tenderness. They can relate to and control an object in ways they can’t relate to or control a feeling or a fear.

Of course we disapprove of their behaviour. We disapprove of the offensive language, the sexualisation of relationships and the treatment of girls as commodities. But we don’t always stop to think about where the behaviour is coming from. Why do boys behave in this way?

They do it because it’s the only thing they know to do when no one has ever supported them in experiencing themselves subjectively. How often do we ask small boys what they’re feeling? Rather, we ask them what they’ve been doing. How often do we ask them about their fears and sadnesses and longings? Instead, we praise their bravery, their energy, their physicality. So of course boys end up objectifying relationships and people when they themselves have been objectified from an early age.

Nick Luxmoore is a counselor at King Alfred's College, in the UK.

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