By Emma Young
In a ranking of genuinely important YouTube videos to have gone viral, this one (see above) from 2014 places high: it shows over 100 instances of harassment endured by a woman wearing a hidden camera as she walked around New York City for ten hours, including comments, stares, winks and whistles.
The video was posted in 2014 by the domestic violence activist group Hollaback! to highlight the prevalence of this kind of behaviour. As individual testimony, it was powerful. But, critics could argue, it was just one woman, on just one day. This is an argument they cannot use about the results of a new study, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, which the researchers, led by Elise Holland at the University of Melbourne in Australia, believe is the first to capture just how common sexual harassment and “objectification” is in the daily lives of young women – and to show the possible impact on how women think about themselves.
Eighty-one women living in Melbourne, with an average age of 22, first completed a number of surveys, including measures of their self-esteem and personality. They were also shown examples of what the researchers considered to be different forms of objectification, including gazes and comments.
Then the women downloaded an app to their own smartphones and they had to respond to its survey prompts for a week: these came in the form of three questions, ten times a day, at random intervals between 10am and midnight.
The first question was whether, since the last prompt, they’d been thinking about how they look to other people (rated on a scale from 0 to 100). Then, whether, since the last survey, they had been targeted by any sexually objectifying events; if they had, they could check boxes to indicate what type. And finally, whether they had witnessed anyone else being targeted by these kinds of behaviours; this included an extra option of “media image/video”, designed to capture sexual objectification in the media.
The women reported being the target of a “sexually objectifying event” on average roughly once every 2 days: 55 per cent of the events they recorded consisted of an “objectifying gaze”, while 11 per cent were cat calls or wolf whistles. Ten per cent were sexual remarks, and four per cent were “touching or fondling”. (As the researchers note, “While such severe instances of objectification may not be common everyday experiences they still occur frequently enough to have been captured in a 7-day…study with a sample of 81 women…”)
The participants also witnessed sexual objectification of another woman on average 1.35 times a day. The inclusion of a media image/video option perhaps unsurprisingly (given the way women are often portrayed in magazines and music videos) meant that the majority – roughly two thirds, in fact – of instances of witnessing objectification of other women fell into this category. But the volunteers also recorded many occasions of other women having similar experiences to their own.
Both being personally targeted and witnessing others being objectified was associated with a “substantial increase” in “self-objectification”, which can be defined as thinking about yourself as an object to be used, and the correlation was stronger when the individual was targeted themselves. This seemed to be true regardless of the women’s scores on the personality test.
There were some limitations with the work. Though the researchers did show examples of the kinds of behaviours that they considered to be “objectifying”, not all women will perceive the same gaze, for example, in the same way. The paper also provided no detail on the sexual orientation of the women and the survey prompts didn’t allow them to indicate whether the person doing the objectifying was male or female.
Also, while increases in participants’ levels of self-objectification were clearly associated with the recent experience of objectifying events (at each survey point, participants were first asked to report on their feelings of self-objectification and then whether they’d experienced any objectification since the last prompt – i.e. over the past hour or two), it’s theoretically possible that if some women were generally thinking more about themselves as objects to be used, they may have noticed more objectifying gazes, for example, than they would otherwise have done.
But the study certainly does show that while the women in this study may not have experienced sexual harassment on the same scale as recorded in the 2014 video, these kinds of events – for young women in Melbourne, at least – are very common.