The root of sexual harassment, harassment in general, violence against women and others, is seeing people as objects. We have a long history of seeing people as objects. Some examples are slavery, segregation, paying a bride’s price (money paid to the father for his daughter), and the rule of thumb, men being allowed to beat their wives with a stick that was no bigger in diameter than the diameter of the man’s thumb.
Now days we are sickened by the thought of slavery or of a man beating his wife. But not so long ago it was not illegal to do so. How was it possible to own a person? Why was it permissible for a man to beat his wife? The answer is that some people (i.e., African Americans and women) were viewed as property. Property is inherently an object.
No longer is it legal to own people or for men to beat their wives but everyday people are still being treated like objects. We treat people as objects when we use them to meet our needs or to obtain something we desire. We treat people as objects when we see them as obstacles to something we want. We treat people as objects when we see them as inferior or unimportant. We treat people as objects when we do not see or care how our actions, words, and beliefs impact them.
The differences between people and objects are: objects do not have thoughts, feelings, desires, needs, or motivations; how we treat objects does not impact our connection to ourselves or our psychological functioning, how we treat the object does not impact the object’s connection to itself or it’s functioning; and how we treat the object does not impact our relationship with it. In short the treatment of an object has no psychological impact.
People on the other hand, have thoughts, feelings, desires, needs and motivations. How we treat another person impacts not only that person, it impacts ourselves and our relationship with that person. How we treat people has a significant impact on every aspect of our lives.
Sometimes we do not realize we are treating another person as an object. Our behavior is so subtle that it is not initially clear what we are doing. For example, this morning in the grocery store a man cut me off with his shopping cart. I immediately felt angry. I did not say anything but I thought many negative thoughts and I hardened me eyes at him. In that moment was I seeing that person as an object or a human being? After some reflection I realized I saw him as an obstacle that kept me from my forward progress. Seeing him as an obstacle kept me from connecting to our shared humanity. If I had seen him as a human being, I may have still felt mildly upset but not angry. I may have been more curious about why the behavior happened and more forgiving, knowing that as humans we make mistakes. Seeing the other person as a person and not as an object does not mean we cannot feel all of the human emotions. It means that we are deeply aware of how our emotions are impacting ourselves and others and we work to express them in ways that honor our connection.
Every day we are bombarded by messages that objectify others. No matter where you look you will find some instance of people being objectified whether that is in music, movies, ads, video games, or twitter. Seeing others as objects is woven into the tapestry of our lives and it is the bedrock of abusing and harassing behavior.
In order to stop sexual harassment, we must begin to recognize the pervasive problem of objectifying others. We must challenge ourselves, our children, our family members and friends when we notice them engaging in this behavior. We must demand from ourselves and others, behavior that treats people as people and challenge any behavior that reduces people to objects.