Challenging sexual objectification through 100 vulvas

13 minutes to read
Mijke Akkermans

Feminism impacts the public sphere on many fronts, attempting to transform those areas where inequality still exists. A long-term feminist topic which holds current relevance is sexual objectification, a socially constructed phenomenon that enforces the instrumentalization of people, treating them as things or body parts rather than human beings. Whereas objectification of men does occur, women are victim to it more frequently and to a more extreme extent (Vaes et al., 2013). This adverse phenomenon is promoted by the media, mainly the pornography industry, through the depiction of women’s bodies in unrealistic ways. These representations result in a highly harmful distortion of expectations when it comes to the female body and men's behaviour towards it.

Laura Dodsworth challenges sexual objectification, specifically regarding vulvas, in the recent documentary 100 Vaginas (2019). Providing a novel, feminist perspective, she presents the intimate parts of women as an object, but transforms this objectification into an act against objectification in general, through personifying and embodying the vulvae using the experiences and stories of participants. Discussing this artistic work in relation to Nussbaum’s sexual objectification theory and additional observations by Papadaki, this essay seeks to answer how the depiction of the vulva in 100 Vaginas can both shed light on and challenge the practice of sexual objectification.

Sexual Objectification Theory

According to Nussbaum (1995), objectification entails making into a thing and treating as a thing something which is not a thing. In Objectification (1995), she indicates seven features central to her idea of treating x as an object, stating that when a human being is treated in one or more of these ways, objectification occurs. These features encompass:

  1. instrumentality, the treatment of x as a tool for personal purposes,
  2. denial of autonomy, ascribing little autonomy and self-determination to x,
  3. inertness, suggesting lack of agency and activity by x,
  4. fungibility, treating x as interchangeable with other objects of the same type and/or other types,
  5. violability, suggesting x lacks boundary-integrity, and it is permissible to break it up or break into it,
  6. ownership, treating x as being owned by another, and
  7. denial of subjectivity, denying x's experiences and feelings (Nussbaum, 1995, p. 257).

Nussbaum places most emphasis on the notion of instrumentality, which involves seeing and treating a person as an object so that their humanity is harmed or ignored. Crucially, the importance of context is central in her writing as specific ways of treating x may have different intentions and outcomes in various circumstances, and may be influenced by larger social issues of power (Nussbaum, 1995). Papadaki (2010) further elaborates on the importance of context, stating that “the difference between the occurrence or not of objectification will be made by the overall context of the human relationship’’.

Nussbaum also reflects on perspectives on sexual objectification offered by Kant, McKinnon and Dworkin, and the ways these contradict hers. For Kant, objectification involves the outright vanishing of morality and the treatment of a person as an object or a mere instrument for another’s purposes and sexual satisfaction, thus reducing the objectified’s status into a set of body parts to be misused by all. This seriously harms the individual's humanity, their rational nature and their capacity for rational choice and pursuing goals. This view constructs objectification as a purely negative phenomenon (as cited in Nussbaum, 1995).

McKinnon (1987) further argues that sexuality, a central feature for the individual, is removed through objectification. This results in loss of autonomy for the objectified, especially in the eyes of the individuality-denying objectifier who then engages in forms of abuse, solely for their own purposes (McKinnon, 1987). A woman becomes ‘’a set of bodily parts, in particular a cunt and an anus to be entered and used, with nothing of salience over and above them, not even individuality and agency’’ (as cited in Nussbaum, 1995, p. 270).

Supported by Dworkin, McKinnon underlines the influence of a hierarchical and dominant society in socialising and constructing women erotically. This includes women being taught to voluntarily be dominated and objectified, and men being told that their gender is a justification for them to violate one half of the human race which has been deprived of its humanity. According to the two feminists, only women are objectified as, within our patriarchal society, the terms gender (i.e., the social construct of being man or woman) and sex (i.e., the biologically defined quality of being male or female) are still misused. They envision man as the definite objectifier with McKinnon emphasizing women’s dehumanization and their treatment as commodities or sexual objects, specifically in pornography (1987; as cited in Nussbaum, 1995).

"Objectification is seeing and/or treating a person as an object [...] in such a way that denies this person’s humanity." (Papadaki, 2010)

Whereas these theorists regard sexual objectification as purely negative, Nussbaum differentiates herself by also recognising a benign/positive side to it. This idea suggests that objectification does not necessarily harm one’s humanity. It indicates that objectification can occur with one’s humanity simply being ignored or not acknowledged, that a person can be objectified but at the same time receive proper acknowledgement or promotion of their humanity, and that objectification does not involve treating a person as an object but merely seeing them as one (Nussbaum, 1995).

This addresses the Lawrentian concept of objectification, which holds that “objectifying attention to bodily parts is an important element in correcting the deformation and promoting genuine erotic equality’’, enabling women’s self-expression and seeing a domain of natural sexuality behind cultural constructions (as cited in Nussbaum, 1995, p. 290). Attributing independent agency to objectified body parts, it states that “being identified with her genital organs is not necessarily to be seen as dehumanized meat ripe for victimization and abuse, but […] is a reminder that the genital organs of people are not really fungible, but have their own individual character, and are in effect parts of the person, if one will really look at them closely without shame.’’ (as cited in Nussbaum, 1995, p. 267).

The inclusion of the benign/positive side broadens Nussbaum’s view far beyond Kant’s, McKinnon’s and Dworkin’s as unharmful instrumentality occurs constantly. Thus, the author leaves the judgement of objectification to people’s instinct, causing confusion and conflict. This entails the risk of the fight to end objectification being depreciated as a non-pressing issue. Considering the views of both Nussbaum and Kant and other scholars', Papadaki proposes a revised definition: “Objectification is seeing and/or treating a person as an object (following Nussbaum’s seven features), in such a way that denies this person’s humanity. A person’s humanity is denied when it is ignored/not properly acknowledged and/or when it is in some way harmed’’ (Papadaki, 2010, p. 32). Identifying unintentional ignorance as a cause for objectification, Papadaki (2010) pleads for men to be educated on the deeply problematic nature of their stereotyping, and for women to be taught that men’s objectifying attitudes are inappropriate.

Are 100 Vaginas' pictures objectifying women?

In order to grasp the ways in which sexual objectification is manifested and consequently challenged in the present day, this paper investigates the third volume of the forthcoming Bare Reality photography project by Laura Dodsworth. Whereas the first two photography books depict 100 breasts and penises in all shapes and sizes, supported by personal writings of their owners' experiences, the most recent publication represents 100 vulvas, also accompanied by such stories. The concept of this vulva edition sprouted from Dodsworth’s reading of a report on female genital mutilation, a ridiculous reference to vaginas as "front holes", and an article on very young girls seeking labiaplasty (Dodsworth, 2019).

This paper's empirical focus is on the accompanying 47-minute documentary 100 Vaginas (2019), which reveals the behind-the-scenes of Dodsworth’s vulva photography and includes personal interviews with various participants about every aspect of their vaginas, including masturbation, abuse and childbirth. In analysing the ways in which women are objectified, the paper inspects both the vulva photographs as a creative form and the content of the personal stories. The documentary's reviews and Dodsworth's statements on several respectable newspapers provide additional data to investigate whether Dodsworth's work grasps sexual objectification and whether it succeeds as an act against it.

Directed by sexual objectification theory, the analysis of the documentary will argue that the sexual objectification that occurs through this expressive form, the photographs of vulvas, exists in a positive notion. Further, focussing on the interviewees' intimate stories, it reveals how women fall victims to sexual objectification and how they deal with it. A general reflection argues that Dodsworth’s project constitutes an act against sexual objectification.

100 vulvas and sexual objectification

When considering solely the medium, the act of photography, and the way Dodsworth candidly presents vulvas, it can be argued that the women in 100 Vaginas are objectified. Within this perspective, women are identified through a body part, specifically one with heavy sexual connotations.

Furthermore, instrumentalization takes place as the women’s intimate parts are photographed for the artist's purposes in an act not initiated by themselves. It can also be argued that, within the presentation of a multitude of vulvas, the vaginas are presented as fungible and thus replaceable by any other.

However, in this claim of objectification, the notion of context, as stressed by Nussbaum, cannot be omitted. Within the frame of her theory that acknowledges two kinds of objectification, this specific case exists on the positive side since the women’s humanity is not harmed but actually acknowledged and promoted despite the act of objectification. Dodsworth elaborates this in her conscious choice of presenting the body part in a “simple, comparative and non-sexual" manner, which does not ignore the vulva’s sexual load but simply says ‘’[t]hat’s what they look like’’ (Dodsworth as cited in Harvey, 2019).

The novel and bold visuals, but more so the various participating women, “strip away the absurd normalisation of vulvas and bodies in the media whilst simultaneously normalising the female body" (Mangan, 2019).

She further mentions how this usually concealed part of women is crucial in defining our being and our intimate experiences of pleasure and pain (Ash, 2019). The initial notion of objectification, then, can be considered an act against sexual objectification itself, attempting to break taboos and remove the shame surrounding vaginas. The novel and bold visuals, but more so the various participating women, “strip away the absurd normalisation of vulvas and bodies in the media whilst simultaneously normalising the female body" (Mangan, 2019). Dodsworth further argues that the shock value of her images goes hand-in-hand with their educational value (Dodsworth as cited in Harvey, 2019).

Sexual objectification is further contextualised and manifested beyond the female body part, in the content of the personal and intimate stories told by participants who reflect on their relationship and experiences with their vaginas. As the narratives cover a variety of topics, including menstruation, virginity, childbirth, masturbation, menopause and abuse, too broad to all be discussed in this analysis, two overarching themes directly related to the participant’s discourses of sexual objectification have been selected: unrealistic bodily representations and bodily autonomy.

Unrealistic representations, vulvas and pornography

People’s ignorance regarding realistic representations of the vulva and its treatment is a recurring topic in 100 Vaginas. Inevitably, this alludes to McKinnon’s and Dworkin’s reflections on the objectifying gaze in mainstream pornography. As “there’s a world of difference in how you see vulvas in porn – and how you see them in real life" (Harvey, 2019), porn reinforces the problematic idea of the "perfect" neat and self-contained vulva aesthetic, and of looking good for other people rather than feeling good and enjoying physical pleasure(Buchanan, 2018).

One participant explains how men she has been with “basically just had the idea that there’s one type of vulva and this uniform way as to how women look down there, [and] had a slightly warped idea of how they’re supposed to be treated" (Ash, 2019). She further relates this to the wrongful treatment of women: “in porn it’s hard and intense. You don’t get taught about the mechanics of sex, and not about any sort of care, compassion or respect for each other. Through watching porn like that partners didn’t understand it is very much a two-way street and the myth of the female orgasm wasn’t even a consideration."’’

Another participant elaborates saying that “the women [in porn] are so degraded that it puts me off […] porn is very distorted and reinforces the idea that a woman’s body is not enough as it is, that it needs to be changed’’ (Ash, 2019). Revealing her personal contrasting view on sexual pleasure, another confesses "there’s something quite animalistic about not making eye contact with each other but watching these two other essentially animals fucking’’ (Ash, 2019).

Dodsworth’s approach provides a contextual and visual representation of the vulva and the clitoris, helping women to overcome the body anxiety caused by unrealistic images in porn, and educating men by showing the complexities of the female body and how it requires compassion and tenderness to be fully satisfied and respected. Through this work, Dodsworth provides the much-needed educational solution suggested by Papadaki.

Bodily autonomy

This theme directly addresses instrumentalization, the main focus in sexual objectification theory, which involves denial of autonomy and removes the objectified’s humanity and sexuality. As Kant states, when a woman is instrumentalised, she is regarded as nothing more than bodily parts present for another’s sexual pleasure.

Several of the experiences in 100 Vaginas attest to cases of ownership as a result of instrumentalization and entirely negative objectification, such as in the case of a woman who was genitally mutilated at the age of 7. Others controlled her body for the rest of her life, taking away her sexuality and womanhood “to prove to my future husband I was a virgin" (Ash, 2019). In another case, a rape victim lost her entire sense of body-confidence and self as a result of a man's abuse: “I went from being a super-confident young woman wearing low-cut tops, loved my boobs, to suddenly hating anything that was sexual about my body" (Ash, 2019). Another woman notices society’s disregard of the intrusive and intimate nature of sexual intercourse, “the privilege of being allowed in or near someone’s vagina it’s... she needs to be vulnerable, she needs to be accepting of the situation […] penetrative sex, it’s, that’s an enormous deal, that’s not a small thing. But we live in a society which doesn’t think that way, we live in a society that treats women entirely like a cockpocket" (Ash, 2019).

Taking a stand against sexual objectification and reclaiming sexual agency, some women discuss matters such as female masturbation and orgasms, topics which are generally shunned compared to the openly discussed white male equivalents.

Women are ever so dominated by the penis, they are restricted from the pleasure men know they can have, or are even unaware of their sexual abilities as they were taught to put their partner’s pleasure first (O’Connor, 2019). Upon being shown the image of her vulva, a woman exclaims, “there she is, it’s so pretty isn’t it?’’, comparing it to a pink-iced cupcake she says “the penis is this knife that’s cutting into the rose velvet layers. It’s kind of slicing through, cutting up the cake" (Ash, 2019).

Taking a stand against sexual objectification and reclaiming sexual agency, some women discuss matters such as female masturbation and orgasms, topics are generally shunned compared to the openly discussed white male equivalents (Mangan, 2019). Dodsworth influences this form of activism by adopting an intersectional representation of women through including transgenders, lesbians, black women, elderly women and gender non-conforming people, who each have different experiences related to their vulvas.

The stories about and the visibility of the usually underrepresented vulva strengthen women’s body-confidence and reveal its potential for pleasure, inspiring them to think about sensuality differently (Dodsworth as cited in Harvey, 2019). Ultimately, the documentary leads women to reconsider who has authority over their intimacies: “What if women did a sexual Brexit? And took back control? And then said to men you’re only allowed near it if you know what you’re doing. And we set up a kind of driver’s license, I think it would be useful." (Ash, 2019).

100 Vaginas and its impact

This analysis of 100 Vaginas has revealed that in very specific contexts sexual objectification can have a positive aspect as suggested by Nussbaum. The depiction of the vulva as a thing, as implemented by Dodsworth, reflects a personal sense of self and empowerment under the condition that it does no harm to one’s humanity. Rather than sexualizing women, these images hold educational value and constitute a way of breaking taboos around the physical vulva, thereby reducing body anxiety.

Further, the intimate experiences and stories related to women’s vulvas are direct expressions of womanhood. Events that affect a women’s agency over her intimate parts are inevitably tied to negative sexual objectification. Further, the socially constructed unrealistic representations of vulvas and women in mainstream porn are detrimental to how expectations and men's behaviour towards women are shaped. Instrumentalizing women as body parts that exist for the pleasure of others aligns with acts such as rape, which completely destruct a woman’s self-confidence. With her straightforward artistic endeavour and the contribution of women’s personal stories focusing on sexual objectification, Dodsworth engages in an act against it, educating men about their prejudicial stereotypes and actions, and informing women about the dangers of this behaviour and their bodies' potential. Ultimately, Dodsworth's documentary works towards empowering women to reclaim bodily and sexual authority.


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