Sexual objectification causes anxiety over personal safety: Western University-led study

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An international study led by Western University is confirming the link between experiencing sexual objectification and feeling anxious about personal safety, researchers say.

Researchers developed a tool of eight questions, focused on feelings of personal safety in an individual’s everyday environment, to help identify how anxious different people get in different situations and in what contexts that anxiety is heightened or lessened.

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“These experiences accumulate over time and create worry and concern about being harmed. Sexual objectification not only carries with it the threat of physical harm but also the violation of personal boundaries,” said Western University professor Rachel Calogero.

“This tool gives us a better understanding of the extent to which socio-cultural factors like sexual objectification end up shaping and limiting how women can safely live their lives.”

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The study, researchers say, is largely based on objectification theory. The theory was developed in the 1990s “to explain how routine and unwanted sexual objectification affects women’s psychological, emotional, and physical well-being.”

Calogero says the theory suggests that recurrent sexual objectification of women in everyday life and through the media can lead women to view themselves as sexual objects.

“Women become hyper-vigilant about their appearance and expect to be judged based on how they look, which can have a number of negative consequences over time,” she said.

“More than two decades of research supports the connection between recurrent sexual objectification and poorer mental health in women.”

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The researchers propose that in addition to increasing worry and concern over appearances, sexual objectification also increases worry and concern about personal safety because of fear over the potential for physical harm, including assault and rape.

For the study, Calogero collaborated with other researchers at Western, as well as researches at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, and the Ohio State University and Colorado College in the U.S.

In a total of five independent studies, researchers surveyed a total of 1,665 women and men in North America “using a variety of measures that have been validated to assess experiences of sexual objectification, subjective well-being, and mental health” and found more frequent experiences of sexual objectification were tied to more personal safety anxiety in women.

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They also found that more anxiety was linked to an increase in precautionary behaviours and movement restrictions to try to stay safe.

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Calogero says the findings suggest that men also experience personal safety anxiety, but not to the same degree as women.

“It would be important to examine what socio-cultural contexts and forces may be operating uniquely for men in relation to their personal safety anxiety. It is also important to note our samples were predominantly white, cisgender, heterosexual women and men, which means the findings are limited to these populations at the moment.”

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The study, Smile Pretty and Watch Your Back: Personal safety anxiety and vigilance in objectification theory, was published in September in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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Calogero expects future studies to include more diverse samples to look at how different groups experience safety anxiety.

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