Media and Sexualization: State of Empirical Research, 1995–2015 (2016)

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DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2016.1142496

L. Monique Warda*

pages 560-577

  • Published online: 15 Mar 2016


Sexually objectifying portrayals of women are a frequent occurrence in mainstream media, raising questions about the potential impact of exposure to this content on others’ impressions of women and on women’s views of themselves. The goal of this review was to synthesize empirical investigations testing effects of media sexualization. The focus was on research published in peer-reviewed, English-language journals between 1995 and 2015. A total of 109 publications that contained 135 studies were reviewed. The findings provided consistent evidence that both laboratory exposure and regular, everyday exposure to this content are directly associated with a range of consequences, including higher levels of body dissatisfaction, greater self-objectification, greater support of sexist beliefs and of adversarial sexual beliefs, and greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women. Moreover, experimental exposure to this content leads both women and men to have a diminished view of women’s competence, morality, and humanity. Limitations with the existing research approaches and measures are discussed, and suggestions for future research directions are provided.
Although mainstream media have been noted to contain a high level of sexual content (Ward, 2003; Wright, 2009), it is also the case that the media feature a particular characterization of women and of female sexuality that focuses heavily on sexual appearance, physical beauty, and sexual appeal to others. This type of presentation has been labeled objectification, sexual objectification, or sexualization. Although women can experience sexually objectifying content or treatment from many sources, including family members (e.g., Starr & Ferguson, 2012) and peers (e.g., Petersen & Hyde, 2013), much attention has focused on the role of the media. This emphasis on media is well placed, for images of sexualized women have become commonplace across media, including TV programs, music videos, and video games, and is often the dominant way that women are represented (American Psychological Association [APA], 2007).
With this study, my goal was to provide a comprehensive and systematic review of the existing empirical evidence addressing the effects of media sexualization. This issue has been taken up by scholars across several academic disciplines, including social psychology, women’s studies, communications, and developmental psychology. These fields often use different methodologies and terms, and they publish in discipline-specific journals. With this comprehensive review, I hope to expose scholars to the work being done on this issue across disciplines to expand our understanding. Although many excellent reviews have focused on one domain of effects, such as the cognitive processing of sexualized women (Heflick & Goldenberg,2014; Loughnan & Pacilli, 2014), or on objectification, in general, without a focus on the full extent of media effects (e.g., Moradi & Huang, 2008; Murnen & Smolak, 2013), my goal was to compile and summarize all published evidence of effects of media sexualization across multiple outcomes. Specifically, I examined effects of exposure to sexually objectifying media on self-objectification, body dissatisfaction, sexual health, attributions of objectified individuals, sexist attitudes and behavior, and sexual violence.
A secondary goal of this review was to offer a metalevel overview of the field. I wanted to provide a more global perspective that identifies what the field has been doing so that we see what questions and issues remain. Like the APA’s 2007 report, I hoped to document larger trends. I do not focus on identifying the strength of specific results; meta-analytic approaches are better suited for that. Instead, I focus on reviewing the approaches, samples, questions, and nature of the findings. I first explore the field’s understanding of this phenomenon, providing a historical perspective. I then offer examples concerning the prevalence of sexual objectification in the media. In the third section I review empirical evidence documenting effects of exposure to objectifying media. I include studies that address effects on how people see themselves and effects on people’s attitudes toward women in general. These studies include data from both female and male participants, and focus on the sexualization of women and sometimes men. I conclude with suggestions for future research directions.

What is Sexualization? Understanding the Phenomenon From a Historical Perspective

Concerns about media portrayals that sexually objectify women are not new and have been a prominent critique within analyses of gender and the media since the 1970s (e.g., Busby, 1975). Within this work, sexual objectification has been defined in a number of ways. According to one definition,

Sexual objectification occurs whenever people’s bodies, body parts, or sexual functions are separated out from their identity, reduced to the status of mere instruments, or regarded as if they were capable of representing them. In other words, when objectified, individuals are treated as bodies and, in particular, as bodies that exist for the use and pleasure of others. (Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998, p. 269)
To sexualize a woman, then, is to sexually objectify her, to treat her as a sexual object. From the 1970s to the late 1990s, sexual objectification in the media was seen as a part of a sexist presentation of women. Researchers studied portrayals of women as sexual objects, naive housewives, or victims. These portrayals brought up important questions: Do they lead to sexist and demeaning attitudes toward women? Does exposure to these sexist portrayals limit women’s and men’s views about women’s bodies? There were no formal measures of acceptance of sexual objectification; instead, researchers used measures assessing gender-role beliefs, feminism, or sex-role stereotyping (e.g., Lanis & Covell, 1995; Lavine, Sweeney, & Wagner, 1999; Rudman & Borgida, 1995).

This approach toward media’s sexual objectification changed in the late 1990s when new theories and new measures were introduced. Drawing on existing psychological and feminist theories, two different research teams sought to characterize and address how developing within a sexually objectifying culture may affect girls and women. One team was Nita McKinley and Janet Hyde. In 1996 they published an article that developed and validated a scale to assess objectified body consciousness (OBC), which referred to women’s experience of the body as an object and the beliefs that supported this experience. According to McKinley and Hyde (1996): 

The central tenet of OBC is that the feminine body is constructed as an object of male desire and so exists to receive the gaze of the male “other” (Spitzack, 1990). Constant self-surveillance, seeing themselves as others see them, is necessary to ensure that women comply with cultural body standards and avoid negative judgments. Women’s relationship to their bodies becomes that of object and external onlooker; they exist as objects to themselves. (p. 183)
Drawing on these notions, McKinley and Hyde (1996) developed a measure of OBC that featured three subscales: surveillance, body shame, and control beliefs.
The second research team to address women’s objectifying experiences was Barbara Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts. In 1997 this team published a theoretical article that offered objectification theory as a framework for understanding the consequences of being female in a culture that sexually objectified the female body. They argued that a critical consequence of being viewed by others in sexually objectifying ways is that, over time, individuals may come to internalize an observer’s perspective on the self, an effect labeled self-objectification: “Girls and women, according to our analysis, may to some degree come to view themselves as objects or ‘sights’ to be appreciated by others” (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997, pp. 179–180). Within this theory, the media were given a prominent role as one of many conveyors of this perspective: “The mass media’s proliferation of sexualized images of the female body is fast and thorough. Confrontations with these images, then, are virtually unavoidable in American culture” (p. 177). In subsequent work, the authors created measures of trait self-objectification via the Self-Objectification Questionnaire (SOQ) (Noll & Fredrickson, 1998) and of state self-objectification via the Twenty Statements Test (Fredrickson et al., 1998).
Although these two research teams worked independently of each other, the theoretical perspectives and measures they created helped ground this field. Both teams argue that repeated exposure to cultural experiences of objectification will gradually, over time, lead women to develop this perspective of themselves, known as having an objectified body consciousness or as self-objectification (SO). It is believed that women who live in an objectifying culture learn to perceive and appreciate themselves by their external traits (i.e., how they look) rather than by their internal traits (i.e., how they feel) (Aubrey, 2010). They are often involved in habitual body monitoring and self-surveillance. These researchers theorized that being sexually objectified and seeing oneself as a sexual object would have many consequences for women’s development. Fifteen years of research has provided considerable support for these theories, demonstrating that both higher SO and OBC are associated with disordered eating, low body esteem, depressive affect, and sexual dysfunction (for a review, see Moradi & Huang, 2008).
Armed with a new theoretical framework and new measures, research on sexual objectification has grown steadily since 1997. Most analyses have focused on the consequences of sexual objectification, investigating how SO and OBC affect women. Empirical investigations of the effects of exposure to sexually objectifying media continued in small numbers (e.g., Aubrey, 2006a; Ward, 2002) but grew exponentially after the 2007 release of the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (APA, 2007). This report was commissioned by the APA, which was concerned about the increasing sexualization of girls in society and its potential consequences. The task force was charged with examining and summarizing the best psychological evidence on this issue. The report reviewed existing empirical evidence on the prevalence of sexualization and the consequences of sexualization for girls and society, and offered recommendations for multiple stakeholders.
The APA Task Force framed sexualization as being broader than sexual objectification, and defined sexualization as occurring when “a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics; OR a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy; OR a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use; OR sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person” (APA,2007, p. 1). With this approach, the sexualization of girls and women was framed as a broad cultural phenomenon, occurring in products such as clothing and toys, in media content, and in interpersonal interactions.
With these broader definitions have come many questions the field has not yet fully addressed. One of the key questions raised is this: Is sexualization the same as self-objectification? As diverse research teams have worked to test the premises of both objectification theory and the concerns raised by the APA Task Force report, different disciplines have characterized the key terms in different ways. Within social psychology, for example, Holland and Haslam (2013) have noted that there are diverging conceptualizations of what constitutes objectification that range from a focus on appearance, to viewing a person similarly to an object, to sexualization, to denying individuals the qualities that make them human. Recent analyses indicate that these two terms are not the same; self-objectification is only one component of sexualization, which, as spelled out previously, can take one of four forms. Much of the confusion may come from the fact that objectification theory is the dominant theory used to support work on both objectification and sexualization. Moreover, in its initial theorizing (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997), objectification is sexualization or sexual objectification (Murnen & Smolak, 2013). But the two terms are not synonymous, and self-objectification is only one way in which sexualization may be manifested.
Although it may be difficult to characterize all of the elements that constitute sexualization, I would like to add some clarity on what it is not. Sexualization is not the same as sex or sexuality. It is a form of sexism. It is a narrow frame of women’s worth and value in which they are seen only as sexual body parts for others’ sexual pleasure. There is no mutuality in sexualization. One person is “using” the other for his or her own gratification, without regard for the other’s needs, interests, or desires (Murnen & Smolak, 2013). Women’s own pleasure and desires are not considered. Also, studying sexual objectification in the media is not the same as studying sexual content in the media. Media sexual content (e.g., story lines and dialogue in Sex and the City or Will & Grace) is broader than sexual objectification and encompasses a number of themes, including portrayals of courtship and sexual relationships, discussions of sexual orientation, and depictions of sexual risk and sexual health behaviors. Finally, investigating potential negative consequences of sexual objectification in the media does not imply that allmedia are problematic or that sex is problematic. Such negative consequences, if they emerge, suggest that sexism is problematic.

Prevalence of Sexual Objectification in Media Content: A Snapshot

To understand the weight of this phenomenon, we must first get a sense of its prevalence. How frequently are media consumers exposed to sexually objectifying portrayals of women? Estimates indicate that American children and adolescents spend four hours watching television and nearly eight hours consuming media each day (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010). These numbers are even higher for emerging adults, those aged 18 to 25, who are reported to spend 12 hours per day using media (Coyne, Padilla-Walker, & Howard, 2013). One prominent component of these media is the sexual objectification of women and adolescent girls. Sexually objectifying portrayals of women have been noted to appear among 45.5% of young adult female characters on prime-time television (Smith, Choueiti, Prescott, & Pieper, 2012), and among 50% of female cast members on reality programs (Flynn, Park, Morin, & Stana, 2015). Sexualization can also be seen in dialogue, with analyses indicating that verbal references to women as sex objects occur 5.9 times per hour on reality dating programs (Ferris, Smith, Greenberg, & Smith, 2007). The sexual objectification of women also occurs at high levels in music videos, where women are consistently more likely than men to be dressed provocatively (Aubrey & Frisby, 2011; Turner, 2011; Wallis, 2011; Ward, Rivadeneyra, Thomas, Day, & Epstein, 2012). Indeed, 71% of videos by female artists were found to contain at least one of four indicators of sexual objectification (Frisby & Aubrey, 2012).
The sexualization of women is also prominent in the world of advertising, with evidence that sexually objectifying portrayals of women appear in 22% of TV commercials featuring women (Messineo, 2008). Findings consistently indicate that in TV commercials women are shown in a state of undress, exhibit more sexiness, and are depicted as sexual objects more often than men. This pattern has appeared in analyses of commercials on Spanish-language programming (Fullerton & Kendrick,2000), in U.S. commercials over time (Ganahl, Kim, & Baker, 2003), and in countries around the world, such as Turkey, Bulgaria, and Japan (Arima, 2003; Ibroscheva, 2007; Nelson & Paek, 2008; Uray & Burnaz, 2003). For example, in an analysis of 254 commercials from the Philippines, more women (52.7%) than men (6.6%) were suggestively dressed (Prieler & Centeno,2013). These portrayals are especially frequent in beer commercials. Of the beer and nonbeer ads examined in one study, 75% of the beer ads and 50% of the nonbeer ads were labeled sexist, featuring women in very limited and objectifying roles (Rouner, Slater, & Domenech-Rodriguez, 2003).
Sexually objectifying portrayals of women extend outside of television to other media, such as magazines and video games. Analyses indicate that 51.8% of magazine ads feature women as sexual objects (Stankiewicz & Rosselli, 2008), and that these depictions are most common in men’s magazines (75.98% of ads), women’s magazines (55.7% of ads), and adolescent girls’ magazines (64.15% of ads). Findings over the past decades also note an increasing sexualization of girls in girls’ magazines (Graff, Murnen, & Krause, 2013), of male and female models on Rolling Stone covers (Hatton & Trautner, 2011), and of men pictured in men’s and women’s magazines (Farquhar & Wasylkiw, 2007; Pope, Olivardia, Borowiecki, & Cohane, 2001). Although video games do not feature high numbers of women, when women do appear they are highly likely to have a sexually objectifying appearance. This trend has been seen in gaming magazines (Dill & Thill, 2007; Miller & Summers, 2007), on video game covers (Burgess, Stermer, & Burgess, 2007), and during actual play of the games (e.g., Beasley & Collins Standley, 2002; Downs & Smith, 2010). For example, in their analysis of video game covers, Burgess et al. (2007) found that only 21% of human characters appearing were women. Of these women, 42.3% were physically objectified (compared to 5.8% of the men), and 49% were portrayed as “busty” or “super-busty.”
This summary offers a snapshot of the media landscape. Objectifying portrayals of women are a common feature of mainstream media and appear across multiple media formats. In some formats, such as TV programs, many women are shown, and objectification is just one of the portrayals that can be consumed. In other media formats, such as video games, few women are present, which increases the chances that youth who consume this medium will be exposed to women only in this narrow way. As Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) suggested, the power of this conceptualization of women may be in its relentlessness.

Effects of Media Sexualization

Trends in the Empirical Research

For the remaining sections of this review, I focus on empirical investigations of the effects of exposure to objectifying media. To compile articles for this review, I drew on published studies only, and studies published in English, using a time frame of 1995 to 2015. I found studies using four search engines: PsycINFO, Communication and Mass Media Complete, PubMed, and Google Scholar. I used the following three main search-term pairs: “media and objectif*,” “media and sexualization,” and “media and sexual object*.” I then substituted the following individual genres for “media” in these three search pairs: television, magazines, music videos, video games, advertising, and movies. I also conducted ancestral searches of existing articles and reviews. Although a number of excellent qualitative and quantitative articles examine preferences for and interpretations of specific sexualizing content (e.g., Cato & Carpentier, 2010), I chose to focus on studies that tested effects of media exposure via experimental or correlational means. This included studies that exposed participants to objectifying content; that tested effects of everyday media use, both regular and objectifying, on self-objectification; or that tested contributions to multiple outcomes of everyday exposure to media coded as objectifying. Therefore, a media exposure component had to be part of the study. I did not include articles that only tested contributions of self-objectification to other outcomes, or that tested internalization of media ideals without actually measuring media exposure.

Makeup of the Studies

My review of the field yielded 109 publications that contained 135 studies. As indicated in Figure 1, these studies spanned the full time frame from 1995 to 2015. However, the bulk of the studies (113 of 135, or 84%) were published in 2008 or later, after the 2007 release of the APA Task Force Report. My suspicion is that this APA report served as a catalyst and helped draw attention to the issue, in general, and to the limitations in the existing work, specifically. The 135 studies represent multiple disciplines, including social psychology, communication, women’s studies, sociology, public health, neuroscience, and developmental psychology. Indeed, the 109 publications (marked by an asterisk in the references) appeared in more than 40 different journals, indicating that interest in this issue is broad. 

Figure 1. Distribution of 135 studies over time.


Less diversity, however, is seen in the types of methodologies employed. Of the 135 studies, 98 (72.6%) were experimental designs that exposed participants to specific media content, often objectifying and nonobjectifying. Although this approach is beneficial because it is tightly controlled and because it permits statements about causality, there is often minimal external validity. The media stimuli are often still images viewed on a computer, which is a very limited perspective of media content. In addition, the media examples are selected by the researcher and may therefore not necessarily reflect content that people would choose to view on their own. The remaining studies break down in the following ways: 28 (20.7%) were cross-sectional, correlational studies that tested contributions of everyday media exposure to current attitudes, beliefs, and expectations; 5 (3.7%) studies were longitudinal correlational studies that examined contributions of regular media exposure to later attitudes, beliefs, and expectations; and 4 (3.0%) studies combined both correlational and experimental assessments.
What types of media were addressed in these analyses? Across the 135 studies, 68 studies (50.4%) focused on still visual images, such as magazine advertisements or photographs; 22 studies (16.3%) focused on video media, such as TV clips, commercials, or films. Ten studies (7.4%) focused on music media, mainly music videos. Eleven studies (8.2%) focused on video games or virtual reality. Finally, 24 studies (17.8%) looked at multiple media across these categories, often assessing some form of TV exposure, magazine use, and music video use.

In terms of the samples within these studies, the makeup represents the typical psychology study, which relies heavily on undergraduate subject pools that are predominantly White, Western, and highly educated (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan,2010). There were 137 samples within these 135 studies (two studies tested both a high school and college student sample). Descriptions of these participants are provided in Table 1. In terms of participant age, the majority of participants were undergraduates, with relatively equal numbers of adolescents (usually high school students) and adults. Only five studies tested children. Also, fitting the WEIRD label (i.e., Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) for psychology research (Henrich et al., 2010), findings indicate that all studies but one originated from Western nations, with most coming from the United States (88 studies, or 64%). Within the 88 samples from the United States, all but nine had a majority White sample (more than 55% White). The nine diverse samples were impressive but may have been a consequence of the regions where the research was conducted (e.g., Southern California, Northern California), because race was seldom a component of the hypotheses within these studies. Only one study of these nine (Gordon, 2008) looked at a homogenous ethnic minority sample. Thus, the findings in this field are based heavily on the experiences of White undergraduates in the United States. 

Table 1. Demographics of 137 Samples Within the 135 Media and Sexualization Studies

CSVPDFDisplay Table

Does Exposure to Sexually Objectifying Media Affect How People See Themselves?


The most prominent domain of research in this area has focused on whether exposure to sexually objectifying media content affects how people see themselves and their bodies. One outcome studied is self-objectification, typically measured via the SOQ or via the surveillance subscale of the Objectified Body Consciousness Scale (McKinley & Hyde, 1996). Here, the central question is this: Does exposure to media content that sexually objectifies women lead young women to perceive or treat themselves as sexual objects and to value their physical appearance over other physical attributes? I uncovered 16 studies that tested direct connections between everyday media exposure, either to specific media genres or to content identified as being high in sexual objectification, and SO among women. However, the results within these studies are not consistently strong. Some analyses did find that frequent exposure to sexually objectifying TV content is linked to higher trait SO (Aubrey,2006a; Vandenbosch, Muise, Eggermont, & Impett, 2015—two studies) and higher self-surveillance (Aubrey, 2007; Grabe & Hyde, 2009). Others found significant associations for sexually objectifying media via a combined measure of TV programs, magazines, and other media (Aubrey, 2006b; Nowatzki & Morry, 2009) or via a broader conceptualization of sexualization, that included surveillance and other measures (Ward, Seabrook, Manago, & Reed, 2016). Finally, several studies reported significant associations between heavy magazine exposure and women’s SO (Aubrey, 2007; Fardouly, Diedrichs, Vartanian, & Halliwell, 2015; Morry & Staska, 2001; Slater & Tiggemann, 2015; Vandenbosch & Eggermont, 20122015; Zurbriggen, Ramsey, & Jaworski, 2011). These patterns all support expectations of objectification theory.
At the same time, several analyses found no significant associations between exposure to sexually objectifying TV content or overall TV content and surveillance (Aubrey, 2006b Slater & Tiggemann, 2015; Tiggemann & Slater, 2015) or trait SO (Aubrey,2007; Slater & Tiggemann, 2015; Vandenbosch & Eggermont, 2012). In addition, others found no significant contributions of exposure to sexually objectifying magazines or to women’s magazines (Aubrey, 2006a; Tiggemann & Slater, 2015), of objectifying magazine and TV exposure combined (Kim, Seo, & Baek, 2013), or of total objectifying media exposure (Zurbriggen et al., 2011).
These somewhat-mixed correlational findings are strengthened by stronger experimental data from 18 studies (16 publications) demonstrating that young women exposed in the lab to sexually objectifying media content reported levels of self-objectification that are higher than students exposed to neutral or nonobjectifying media (e.g., Aubrey & Gerding, 2014; Choma, Foster, & Radford, 2007; Daniels, 2009; Ford, Woodzicka, Petit, Richardson, & Lappi, 2015; Halliwell, Malson, & Tischner, 2011; Harper & Tiggemann, 2008; for null results, see Aubrey, 2010; and Pennell & Behm-Morawitz, 2015). For example, undergraduate women who viewed six full-body images of women exhibiting a high level of body exposure expressed higher state self-objectification and fewer positive descriptions of their own bodies than women who saw images of body parts or of no bodies (Aubrey, Henson, Hopper, & Smith, 2009). Across two studies Fox, Ralston, Cooper, and Jones (2014) demonstrated that controlling a sexualized avatar in a video game triggered greater SO among undergraduate women than did controlling a nonsexualized avatar. After viewing photos of sexualized models or athletes, young women asked to describe themselves used more terms focusing on their beauty and appearance and fewer terms focusing on their physicality than women who had seen photos of performance athletes (Daniels, 2009; Smith, 2015). Moderating factors have also emerged that highlight conditions under which these effects are weaker or stronger. Notable here are contributions of participant race and type of sport depicted (Harrison & Fredrickson, 2003), of exercise status while viewing the media content (Prichard & Tiggemann, 2012), and of the trimester, age, and previous pregnancies among pregnant women exposed to this content (Hopper & Aubrey, 2011).
In addition, although most of these studies tested women, following premises of objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts,1997), there is emerging evidence that men’s media exposure is also linked with their self-objectification (Aubrey, 2006a; Aubrey, 2007; Aubrey & Taylor, 2009; Dakanalis et al., 2012; Vandenbosch & Eggermont, 2015; Zurbriggen et al., 2011) and self-sexualization (Ward et al., 2016). For example, Aubrey (2006a) reported that men’s exposure to sexually objectifying TV at Time 1 predicted an increase in trait self-objectification one year later, and that exposure to sexually objectifying magazines and TV programs each predicted an increase in men’s body surveillance. In a structural equation modeling (SEM) study, sexually objectifying media consumption (i.e., exposure to 16 sexually objectifying TV programs and 16 magazines) predicted greater self-surveillance for heterosexual and gay adult men (Dakanalis et al., 2012). However, null results are also reported, with young men’s regular exposure to fitness magazines (Morry & Staska, 2001), experimental exposure to objectifying magazine images (Michaels, Parent, & Moradi, 2013), and adolescent boys’ regular exposure to music video channels, lad magazines, or objectifying TV programs (Vandenbosch & Eggermont, 2013) each failing to predict their self-objectification. As media portrayals of sexualized men increase in prevalence (e.g., Hatton & Trautner, 2011), continued testing of these constructs among men is needed to help clarify the dynamics involved.

Body Dissatisfaction

A related concern about the possible effects of sexually objectifying media on the self is their potential to diminish viewers’ satisfaction with their own bodies and appearance. There is considerable evidence that exposure to the media’s thin ideal for women and muscular ideal for men is each associated with higher levels of body dissatisfaction, and with beliefs and behaviors reflecting a distorted approach to eating (for meta-analytic reviews, see Barlett, Vowels, & Saucier, 2008; Grabe, Ward, & Hyde, 2008; Groesz, Levine, & Murnen, 2002; Holmstrom, 2004). Might exposure to sexually objectifying media yield the same associations? This review focuses on studies that tested direct links between viewers’ exposure to sexually objectifying media and their body dissatisfaction.
Accordingly, there is substantial experimental evidence that adolescents and adults exposed to sexually objectifying images report greater body concerns and body dissatisfaction than do individuals who were not exposed to these images. This finding has appeared among studies testing undergraduate women and men, adolescents, and adults in the community, and has emerged among samples in multiple countries, including the United States, Canada, Belgium, Australia, and the Netherlands. It has also emerged across a range of media stimuli, including magazine images (Dens, De Pelsmacker, & Janssens, 2009; Farquhar & Wasylkiw, 2007; Halliwell et al., 2011; Harper & Tiggemann, 2008; Krawczyk & Thompson, 2015; Lavine et al., 1999; Mulgrew & Hennes, 2015; Mulgrew, Johnson, Lane, & Katsikitis, 2013; Smith, 2015; but see Johnson, McCreary, & Mills, 2007; and Michaels, Parent, & Moradi, 2013; for null effects among undergraduate men), magazine articles (Aubrey, 2010); music videos (Bell, Lawton, & Dittmar, 2007; Mischner, van Schie, Wigboldus, van Baaren, & Engels, 2013; Prichard & Tiggemann, 2012), film clips (Pennel & Behm-Morawitz, 2015), television commercials (Strahan et al., 2008), and images in a virtual world (Overstreet, Quinn, & Marsh, 2015). For example, undergraduate women exposed to sexually objectifying TV commercials reported basing their self-esteem more on their appearance, lower body satisfaction, and more concern with others’ perceptions of them than women who had viewed commercials without people (Strahan et al., 2008). Testing adolescent girls, Bell et al. (2007) reported that body dissatisfaction increased after viewing three sexually objectifying music videos, but not after listening to the songs from the videos or studying a list of words.
Only a few studies have looked at connections between regular consumption of sexually objectifying media, which was identified as such, and body dissatisfaction. Among the seven articles that met these criteria, the findings are somewhat mixed and often conditional. For example, Gordon (2008) found that among Black adolescent girls, greater identification with one’s favorite TV character and with less objectifying music artists each predicted attributing greater importance to being attractive. Aubrey (2007) found that, among undergraduates, exposure to magazines and TV programs rated high in sexual objectification each predicted greater body shame and greater appearance anxiety. However, all but one of these four associations disappeared once body surveillance was added to the regression equations. Findings for the other studies are more temperate, with direct effects of objectifying media on body shame or appearance concern/anxiety not emerging at all (Aubrey, 2006b Aubrey & Taylor, 2009; Dakanalis et al., 2012), or becoming nonsignificant once other variables were considered in the final model or equation (Kim et al., 2013; Slater & Tiggemann, 2015). It is difficult to imagine that this link does not exist, especially because dozens of other studies testing effects of the media’s thin ideal have found that frequent consumption of music videos or fashion magazines, genres known to be very high in sexual objectification, is linked with higher body dissatisfaction (for review, see Grabe et al., 2008). Therefore, further study of this question is warranted, testing a range of media, and with more direct calculation of sexually objectifying media consumption.

Sexual Health and Relationship Functioning

A final consequence proposed by objectification theory of exposure to sexually objectifying content is an impact on one’s sexual health and functioning. The expectation is that exposure to images of women as sexual objects may encourage women to see themselves more as sexual objects than as sexual agents, thereby diminishing healthy sexual functioning (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; McKinley & Hyde, 1996). Few studies have tested this two-step model directly, or have tested connections between exposure to sexually objectifying media and sexual functioning. Testing 384 undergraduates, Aubrey (2007) found that frequent exposure to media rated high in sexual objectification predicted greater body-image self-consciousness during sex but had no effect on sexual self-esteem. Tolman, Kim, Schooler, and Sorsoli (2007) found that for adolescent girls greater regular exposure to TV content that highlighted feminine courtship strategies, including sexualization, predicted more sexual experience but less sexual agency. More recently, Vandenbosch and Eggermont (2015) modeled connections over time between adolescents’ exposure to sexualizing magazines, their internalization of cultural appearance ideals, their valuing of appearance over competence (their measure of SO), their self-surveillance, and their engagement in three sexual behaviors. Findings confirmed aspects of this two-step model for two of three sexual behaviors. Specifically, sexualizing media exposure predicted the appearance variables, which in turn predicted experience with French kissing and with sexual intercourse.
Although objectification theory argues that objectifying content should affect women’s sexual functioning, there is evidence that men are affected too. First, findings indicate that exposure to sexually objectifying images of women is linked with young men’s feeling more discomfort with their own bodies, as indicated by higher levels of self-objectification and self-surveillance and lower body esteem (Aubrey & Taylor, 2009; Dens et al., 2009; Johnson et al., 2007; Lavine et al., 1999). Second, objectifying content contributes to men’s views about courtship and dating ideals. Viewing objectifying TV commercials has been shown to affect the level of importance adolescent boys attribute to slimness and attractiveness in picking a date (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003). Using longitudinal data, Ward, Vandenbosch, and Eggermont (2015) demonstrated that adolescent boys’ exposure to sexualizing magazines increased the importance they assigned to girls’ body size and sexual body parts. In turn, this objectification of girls was found to trigger boys’ acceptance of courtship strategies that center on appearance.
Finally, exposure to objectifying media has been shown to shape boys’ own interactions with their female partners. Aubrey and Taylor (2009) reported that undergraduate men exposed to magazine images of sexualized women expressed less confidence in their own romantic capabilities than did men without this exposure. Aubrey and Taylor argued that exposure to sexualized images of women seems to make men anxious about their own appearance, perhaps by priming concerns about whether they are attractive enough to successfully pursue women like those pictured. Zurbriggen et al. (2011) reported that men’s frequent consumption of sexually objectifying media (TV, films, magazines) was associated with greater objectification of their romantic partners, which itself was linked with lower levels of relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction, even controlling for self-objectification. Although research in this area is still emerging, these findings indicate it would be useful to explore further how exposure to objectified women affects men’s views of women and of healthy relationships.

Does Exposure to Sexually Objectifying Media Content Affect How We Perceive Women?

Cognitive Processing

The dominance of objectification theory and of notions of objectified body consciousness has narrowed analyses of effects of sexually objectifying media to self-perceptions, in other words, effects on self-objectification, body satisfaction, and mental and sexual health. However, it is also the case that exposure to this content affects how we value women, in general. In one line of studies, researchers have tested how exposure to sexualized images of women are perceived cognitively (for an excellent review of this approach, see Loughnan & Pacilli, 2014). Here the question is this: Are objectified individuals perceived via processes that are used in perceiving objects or via processes that are used in perceiving humans? To address this question, researchers use experimental paradigms in which individuals are exposed to images of sexually objectified and nonobjectified individuals who have both been altered in some way (e.g., inverted, shown only in pieces, shown with mismatched parts) and then assess differences in participants’ perceptions and processing of these images. Evidence across several studies indicates that how we cognitively perceive and process sexualized images of women aligns more with how we process objects than how we process people.
More specifically, like objects, sexualized women are perceived to be interchangeable, such that participants make more memory mistakes in matching objectified heads and bodies than nonobjectified heads and bodies (Gervais, Vescio, & Allen,2011); like objects, sexualized women are identified equally well upright and inverted (Bernard, Gervais, Allen, Campomizzi, & Klein, 2012; Bernard, Gervais, Allen, Delmee, & Klein, 2015); and women’s sexual body parts are recognized better when they are presented in isolation than in the context of the entire body, corresponding to object recognition (Gervais, Vescio, Förster, Maass, & Suitner, 2012). In addition, studies conducted using implicit association tasks demonstrate that people are less likely to associate sexualized female bodies with terms reflecting humanity and subjectivity (e.g., Puvia & Vaes, 2013). Vaes, Paladino, and Puvia (2011) demonstrated that when participants were confronted with pictures of objectified and nonobjectified women and men, objectified women were the only ones that were associated less readily with human-related words (e.g., culture, foot) than with animal words (e.g., snout, paw). Similarly, Cikara, Eberhardt, and Fiske (2010) demonstrated that young men who exhibited higher levels of hostile sexism more readily associated sexualized women with being the objects, not the agents of action, as compared to nonsexualized women. Overall, it appears that viewing sexually objectified images of women does not activate the cognitive processes typically involved when thinking about humans, and instead activates cognitive processes typically reserved for objects (Schooler, 2015).
Given these findings, researchers have begun to investigate whether there are circumstances under which sexualized women are more humanized or dehumanized. Evidence indicates that sexualized images of women are cognitively processed more like people (i.e., more humanized) when the sexualized female bodies are presented in a context that highlights the women’s warmth and competence (Bernard, Loughnan, Marchal, Godart, & Klein, 2015); when the sexualized female images are more symmetrical, like male sexualized images (Schmidt & Kistemaker, 2015); or when women perceiving the images are primed to recall times when they held power (Civile & Obhi, 2015). Sexualized women are especially likely to be dehumanized or associated with animal terms when a sex goal has been activated among men; when women report lower affinity with the objectified women; among women who are especially motivated to look attractive to men; or among women who score high on self-objectification (Puvia & Vaes, 2013; Vaes et al., 2011). Together, this group of studies demonstrates that sexualized images of women are processed cognitively in ways that are distinct from how nonsexualized images are processed, and these differences consistently frame sexualized women in less human ways.

Trait Attributions of Objectified Individuals

In addition to cognitively processing objectified individuals differently than nonobjectified individuals, is there any evidence that we make particular kinds of assumptions and judgments about them? Again, using experimental paradigms from social and cognitive psychology, researchers have found that individuals who are depicted in sexualized or objectified ways are perceived poorly. In comparison to women who are depicted either in normal or casual dress, or who are shown by face only, women who are sexualized and/or dressed in ways that emphasize their bodies are rated by others as being lower in competence, social competence, and intelligence (Glick, Larsen, Johnson, & Branstiter, 2005; Loughnan et al., 2010; Rudman & Borgida, 1995; Wookey, Graves, & Butler, 2009). In a clever demonstration of the extent of this principle, Schooler (2015) presented participants with a newspaper story about a powerful and competent university president. For some participants, this story was presented next to an advertisement featuring a sexualized woman; for others, it was placed next to a neutral advertisement. Findings indicate that men (but not women) who viewed the article paired with the sexualizing ad attributed less competence to the university president than did men in other conditions (Schooler, 2015). In addition, evidence indicates that focusing on a media personality’s appearance rather than on his/her personality while viewing clips of her or his work is linked to rating female (but not male) targets as less warm, moral, and competent (Heflick, Goldenberg, Cooper, & Puvia,2011). This effect replicated across female targets of varying occupations and statuses. It appears that being seen as sexual and nothing else is the issue, for sexualized models who are featured with a competence, such as athleticism or mathematical skill, fare better in perceptions that those who are simply sexualized. Indeed, Johnson and Gurung (2011) found that, in comparison to sexualized models shown as competent, models who were simply sexualized were rated by undergraduate women as being more promiscuous, more likely to have a short-term fling, more likely to use their bodies to get what they wanted, less capable (less determined, independent, intelligent, responsible, studious, and talented), less honest, less trustworthy, more feminine, less fit/healthy, and more shallow.
These patterns and assumptions also extend to special populations, such as children and athletes. In comparison to girls pictured in normal childlike clothes, girls pictured in clearly sexualized clothes (e.g., very short dress, leopard-print sweater, purse) are rated by male and female undergraduates as being less intelligent, competent, capable, determined, moral, and self-respecting (Graff, Murnen, & Smolak, 2012), and are attributed less agentic mental capabilities and less moral status (Holland & Haslam, 2015). Children have been shown to make some of these same assumptions about sexualized girls and rate them as more popular but less athletic, smart, and nice (Stone, Brown, & Jewell, 2015; but for alternative findings see Starr & Ferguson, 2012). Studies have also examined how female athletes are perceived when they are presented in athletic attire or in sexualized attire and poses. Findings consistently indicate that although sexualized female athletes are often rated as more attractive, desirable, or sexual than nonsexualized female athletes, the sexualized athletes are also seen as less capable, as having less athletic ability, as lower in intelligence, and as having less self-respect (Gurung & Chrouser, 2007; Harrison & Secarea, 2010; Nezlek, Krohn, Wilson, & Maruskin, 2015). Open-ended comments from adolescents and from undergraduates about the athletes pictured indicate that performance athletes draw more comments about their physicality, their sport intensity, and their role model status than do sexualized athletes (Daniels, 20092012; Daniels & Wartena, 2011). Conversely, sexualized athletes draw more comments about their appearance, beauty, and sexiness than do performance athletes. It appears that presenting athletes in sexualized ways draws attention away from their skills and performance and focuses more attention on the appearance of their bodies.
These attributions of objectified women extend beyond their competence to their general personhood. Findings indicate that images of objectified women and men are attributed less personhood; namely, they are attributed lower levels of mental states (emotions, thoughts, and intentions) and are seen as less possessing of mind and less deserving of moral status (Bongiorno, Bain, & Haslam, 2013; Holland & Haslam, 2013; Loughnan, Pina, Vasquez, & Puvia, 2013; but for an alternative perspective of these analyses see Gray, Knobe, Sheskin, Bloom, & Barrett, 2011). For example, in one study (Loughnan et al.,2010) undergraduates viewed four pictures of nonfamous individuals, two women, two men, two sexualized (woman in bikini, man shirtless), and two neutral. In comparison to the neutral targets, objectified women and men received lower mental state attributions, lower general mind attributions, lower perceived IQ, lower perceived competence, and lower moral status and patiency. Thus, this set of studies indicates that women are believed to possess fewer thoughts (reason, thinking) and fewer intentions (wishes, plans) when they are depicted sexually in comparison to when they are depicted as fully clothed (Loughnan & Pacilli, 2014).

Sexist Attitudes and Behavior

In a third set of studies testing effects on views toward women in general, researchers have investigated whether exposure to sexually objectifying images is linked to greater support of sexism or notions that objectify women. Some of the evidence is from correlational data, which indicate that more frequent consumption of or preference for specific media genres, and more involved media use (e.g., stronger identification with media characters) are both associated with stronger support of notions that characterize women as sexual objects whose main value is in their appearance (Eggermont, Beullens, & Van Den Bulck,2005; Gordon, 2008; Hust & Lei, 2008; Ward, 2002; Ward & Friedman, 2006; Ward et al., 2015). For example, Ward et al. (2015) demonstrated that adolescent boys who regularly consumed sexualizing magazines expressed greater support, six months later, of objectifying notions about women. Gordon (2008) found that among Black adolescent girls, stronger identification with objectifying music artists predicted greater support of the notion that women are sexual objects; conversely, identifying with less objectifying artists predicted less support of this notion. Data also indicate that heavier media exposure is associated with greater objectification of others, in general (Swami et al., 2010; Zurbriggen et al., 2011). As with other media effects, these links are not uniformly strong, and some null or genre-specific findings have been reported (Peter & Valkenburg, 2007; ter Bogt, Engels, Bogers, & Kloosterman, 2010).
Supporting this set of correlational data are findings from experimental data in which adolescents and undergraduates exposed to TV clips or magazine advertisements featuring sexually objectified women later offered stronger support of sexist statements or of traditional gender stereotypes than students without this exposure (e.g., Fox & Bailenson, 2009; Kistler & Lee, 2009; Lanis & Covell, 1995; MacKay & Covell, 1997; Pennel & Behm-Morawitz, 2015; Rollero, 2013; Schooler, 2015; Ward,2002; Ward & Friedman, 2006). For example, Kistler and Lee (2009) found that men exposed to five highly sexual music videos offered more support of objectification of women and traditional gender attitudes than men without this exposure; women’s attitudes were not affected. Supporting this notion in a more interactive way, Behm-Morawitz and Mastro (2009) found that undergraduates who played video games as a sexualized female character for 30 minutes expressed less favorable attitudes toward women’s cognitive abilities and physical abilities (female students only) than those who played no video games.
Employing a number of creative approaches, researchers have also demonstrated that these experimental effects of sexualizing media on gender roles extend to sexist behavior. Ford, Boxer, Armstrong, and Edel (2008) exposed male undergraduates to videos of sexist humor (which depicted women in demeaning and stereotyped roles, such as sex objects and subservient housewives) or to neutral humor. Participants were later asked to review budget cuts for various campus organizations, including women’s organizations. Men exposed to the sexist humor allocated a greater percentage of cuts to women’s organizations than did men exposed to the neutral humor. This was especially true for men higher in hostile sexism. Others have used situations where men are asked to interview a female job candidate. Here, men exposed to sexist and objectifying content asked more sexist questions and rated the candidate as lower in competence than men without this exposure (Hitlan, Pryor, Hesson-McInnis & Olson, 2009). In one of the earliest studies of this type, Rudman and Borgida (1995) demonstrated that male students who had viewed sexist and objectifying commercials asked more sexist questions of the female applicant and recalled more about her appearance and less about her background. Moreover, both the female confederate and independent observers perceived the behaviors of these “primed” men to be more sexualized. Thus, these data indicate that temporarily primed accessibility of the schema that women are sexual objects influences male undergraduates’ impressions of and behavior toward female students and toward women’s causes.

Media Sexualization and Sexual Violence

Given the dehumanizing nature of sexual objectification, one critical question emerging is whether exposure to objectifying media content is associated with greater support of violence toward women. Several mechanisms have been proposed as to why this connection might exist, with some arguing that exposure to objectifying content dehumanizes women, which increases the acceptance of violence toward them, and others arguing that exposure to this content primes masculinity norms, which increases the acceptance of violence toward women. Experimental evidence tends to support the general premise, finding increased tolerance of sexual violence among those exposed to objectifying media. Across several studies, participants, mostly undergraduates, who viewed or interacted with sexually objectified women from movies, video games, magazine ads, or music videos, later offered more tolerance of one or more of the following than participants without this exposure: sexual harassment, rape myths, child sex abuse myths, and interpersonal violence (Aubrey, Hopper, & Mbure,2011; Beck, Boys, Rose, & Beck, 2012; Dill, Brown, & Collins, 2008; Fox & Bailenson, 2009; Fox et al., 2014; Galdi, Maass, & Cadinu, 2014; Kistler & Lee, 2009; Lanis & Covell, 1995; Machia & Lamb, 2009; MacKay & Covell, 1997; Milburn, Mather, Conrad, 2000; Romero-Sanchez, Toro-García, Horvath, & Megias, 2015; Yao, Mahood, & Linz, 2009; but for null results see Sprankle, End, & Bretz, 2012; Vance, Sutter, Perrin, & Heesacker, 2015). For example, Aubrey et al. (2011) reported that undergraduate men exposed to sexually objectifying music videos expressed greater acceptance of interpersonal violence and less concern for sexual harassment than men without this exposure; effects on rape myth acceptance were not affected. In one of the few studies conducted with adolescents, Driesmans, Vandenbosch, and Eggermont (2015) found that Belgian teens who were assigned to play a video game with a sexualized female character later expressed more tolerance of rape myths and of sexual harassment than teens who played the same game with a nonsexualized character.
Findings also indicate that those exposed to sexualized images of women or to objectifying media content attribute more blame and responsibility to rape victims and offer them less empathy (Burgess & Burpo, 2012; Loughnan et al., 2013; Milburn et al., 2000). These effects have been shown to extend to child victims of bullying (Holland & Haslam, 2015) and to actual behavior, defined in specific ways. In their study, Galdi et al. (2014) defined gender harassment as choosing to select and send sexist/sexual jokes to a female chat partner. Across two studies, men primed with objectifying TV content engaged in more gender harassment than men without this exposure. Relatedly, in the virtual world, those who regularly used a more sexualized avatar reported more experiences with sexual harassment, name-calling, and obscene comments than those using less sexualized avatars (Behm-Morawitz & Schipper, 2015).
Participant gender has played a significant role in this growing literature. Although exposure to objectifying media had the same effects on women and men in some studies (e.g., Driesmans et al., 2015; MacKay & Covell, 1997), in many other studies effects emerged for men and not for women (Beck et al., 2012; Dill et al., 2008; Kistler & Lee, 2009; Lanis & Covell, 1995; Milburn et al., 2000). Indeed, in some studies, for some outcome variables, a boomerang effect occurred, such that women exposed to the sexualized images expressed lower violence-tolerant attitudes than women exposed to control images (Burgess & Burpo, 2012; Dill et al., 2008; Lanis & Covell, 1995). These findings suggest women may sometimes be offended by this content and become less, not more, accepting of violence toward women. It would be useful to explore these types of boomerang effects further. Are they caused by features of the content (e.g., perhaps it is too offensive) or by features of the particular women? It would be useful to test which types of individual difference variables (e.g., preexisting feminist beliefs; past media literacy education) lead to these boomerang effects. It would also be useful to take this work out of the laboratory and test if regular exposure to objectifying content has these effects. Dill et al. (2008) found that those with more reported long-term exposure to violent video games expressed more tolerance toward sexual harassment and toward rape-supportive attitudes. Similarly, Wright and Tokunaga (2015) demonstrated that young men’s exposure to pornography, men’s magazines, and reality TV each predicted greater objectification of women, which, in turn, predicted greater acceptance of violence against women.

Suggestions For Future Directions

Throughout the world, the media have assumed a prominent role in shaping perspectives toward gender and sexual roles. Mainstream media have become important sources of sexual information and positive examples of sexual health. At the same time, the media’s frequent sexual objectification of women has raised concern both for its impact on others’ impressions of women and on women’s views of themselves. The findings summarized here provide consistent evidence that both laboratory exposure and regular, everyday exposure to this content are directly associated with a range of consequences, including higher levels of body dissatisfaction, greater self-objectification, more stereotyped beliefs about courtship ideals, greater support of sexist beliefs and of adversarial sexual beliefs, and greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women. Moreover, experimental exposure to this content leads both women and men to have a diminished view of women’s competence, morality, and humanity. However, the evidence also indicates these connections are often complex and vary based on the genres we consume and our preexisting beliefs, identities, and experiences.
Despite the impressive set of work summarized here, it is also true that some critical questions remain. I therefore close this review by offering suggestions for future research.

Ethnic Minorities

Despite repeated reports that Black and Latino youth consume more media than their European American counterparts (Rideout et al., 2010), research examining media sexualization among these ethnic minority populations is virtually nonexistent. Only two studies among the 135 reviewed here (Gordon, 2008; Harrison & Fredrickson, 2003) had a substantial enough ethnic minority population to test effects of media sexualization separately for this group. This oversight is especially surprising given evidence that levels of sexual content and sexual objectification are especially high in certain segments of Black-oriented media, such as rap, R&B, and hip-hop videos (e.g., Aubrey & Frisby, 2011; Frisby & Aubrey, 2012). Past research on media effects on body image has indicated differential effects of Black-oriented versus mainstream media, whereby exposure to Black images was more empowering (Schooler, Ward, Merriwether, & Caruthers, 2004). Moreover, evidence indicates significant associations among Black youth between their media exposure and their acceptance of gender stereotypes (e.g., Ward, Hansbrough, & Walker, 2005). These data suggest that media exposure, in general, and exposure to minority-oriented media, in particular, may be especially prominent forces in the sexual socialization of Black and Latino youth. Research attention is needed concerning levels of exposure to objectifying media for ethnic minority youth, their interpretations of this content, and its consequences. Study is also needed of specific racialized sexual images (e.g., Jezebel).

Media Genres

More research is needed of understudied media genres, such as popular music, feature films, and reality programming. Although reality programs dominate the Nielsen ratings, we know little of how exposure to sexually objectifying content featuring reality characters affects viewers’ beliefs and assumptions. More research is also needed about contributions of social media. In the past three years, several studies have examined the prevalence and influence of sexually objectifying images that people post of themselves on social media such as Facebook and Instagram. Such studies include work by Daniels and Zurbriggen (2016), De Vries and Peter (2013), Manago, Ward, Lemm, Reed, and Seabrook (2015), and several others. Although this research domain is in its infancy, I anticipate it will grow considerably by the end of the decade. Because reality programs and social media feature “real” peers (and not actors), it is possible that exposure to their objectifying content will cull even greater social comparison and greater body shame. There are many empirical questions to test here.

Definitions of Media Exposure and Media Stimuli

We need to broaden and update how we think about and define media exposure and media stimuli. Indeed, the manner in which we consume media content has been changing. With Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming options, it is possible that media content has become more specialized to appeal to specific niche markets. As a result, is it now easier to avoid objectifying content (e.g., by watching only HGTV) than it was a decade ago? Further study is needed of current media uses patterns. We also need to include a broader range of media in our experimental work to move beyond analyses of still photographs. More study is needed that involves dynamic media stimuli. Photographs viewed on a computer screen are media in the most basic sense and do provide tight control of media elements. However, the objectifying media that we encounter in our everyday lives are often more complex, featuring enticing music, characters we love or hate, and ambiguous story lines. Efforts are needed to enhance the external validity of our media stimuli.

Potential Mediators and Moderators

Continued attention is needed of possible mediators and moderators of the effects of objectifying media content. Analyses of the consequences of self-objectification have identified many factors that might mediate links between SO and mental health outcomes. However, attention is needed to factors that mediate connections between media exposure and SO. Objectification theory, in its initial conceptualizations, offered general expectations about the pathway from media exposure to self-objectification. The theory argues that the repeated experience of sexual objectification, such as repeated exposure to objectifying content, gradually socializes women and girls to begin to view themselves as objects to be evaluated on the basis of their appearance. The general process outlined is very much a socialization story. However, as depicted in many socialization theories and models, such as theories of racial socialization (e.g., Garcia Coll et al., 1996) and sexual socialization (e.g., Ward, 2003), there are likely to be multiple steps from exposure to a socialization message to embodiment of that message. Moreover, decades of media research indicate there are multiple steps from media exposure to message embodiment. As Aubrey (2007) argued, “[B]ecause the development of body- and sexuality-related self-perceptions is complex, various cognitive and affective mediating mechanisms are likely to intervene in relations between media exposure and outcomes” (p. 2).
Researchers testing principles of objectification theory using correlational data have begun to identify several possible mediators, including internalization of cultural ideals (Morry & Staska, 2001), body self-consciousness (Aubrey, 2007), and appearance comparisons (Fardouly et al., 2015). One of the current prominent models is Vandenbosch and Eggermont’s (20122015) three-step process of self-objectification. The general premise is that the impact of media on body surveillance may work indirectly, not directly, through internalization and self-objectification. These authors argued that internalization and self-objectification, which are the cognitive components of the process of self-objectification, should precede its behavioral component, which is body surveillance. In addition to further tests of this model and of other potential mediators, work is needed testing potential moderators of media sexualization. For which women is the effect most powerful? What media factors might shape the degree to which media exposure is or is not impactful? It is possible that viewer involvement mechanisms, such as perceived realism, may play a role here.

Age and Socioeconomic Status

My analysis of the samples tested here indicates that research needs to expand outside of WEIRD (i.e., Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) undergraduates. More study is needed of individuals of lower socioeconomic status, who often consume higher levels of media (Rideout et al., 2010), and of immigrants, both in the United States and in other industrialized nations. More study is needed of the effects of media sexualization among children and preteens. This was a prominent recommendation from the APA Task Force Report (2007). Some of the new exciting work being done with sexualization and children demonstrates that sexualized girls are perceived less positively, just as sexualized women are, and that these biases are held by older children (Holland & Haslam, 2015; Stone et al., 2015).
Attention is also needed regarding how these dynamics work among middle-aged or older adults. Data indicate that body dissatisfaction is prevalent among older women, that SO occurs among older women, and that SO is linked to poor mental health among older women (for review, see Clarke & Korotchenko, 2011). However, it is unclear how media use contributes to these processes, as no studies within the 135 reviewed focused exclusively on middle-aged or older adults. It is possible that older women could be affected to the same or greater extent than younger women, because older women fall further from the culture’s narrow beauty standards that equate sexiness and beauty with youthfulness (Hine, 2011). Evidence also indicates that older female characters are underrepresented and portrayed more negatively than their male counterparts in popular media (e.g., Bazzini, McIntosh, Smith, Cook, & Harris, 1997). At the same time, it is possible that older women could be affected less than younger women by exposure to sexualized media because appearance may not have the same level of influence on older women’s sense of identity and self-esteem (Clarke & Korotchenko, 2011). Instead, older women may evaluate their bodies more on functionality than on appearance (Clarke & Korotchenko, 2011). These empirical questions remain to be tested with future research.

Effects on Sexual Health and Functioning

More research attention is needed addressing the consequences of sexually objectifying media exposure on our sexual health and functioning. Across several studies of undergraduate women, findings indicate that higher levels of self-objectification are associated with lower sexual self-esteem, sexual self-competence, sexual satisfaction, and sexual self-efficacy (Calogero & Thompson, 2009a2009b; Claudat & Warren, 2014; Ramsey & Hoyt, 2015; but for null results see Tiggemann & Williams,2012). Although these are the connections predicted by objectification theory, there is less understanding of the antecedents of these associations. To what extent is exposure to objectifying media both a direct and an indirect contributor to women’s (and men’s) sexual health and functioning?

Standardized Measure Development

Continued attention is needed in the development and theorizing of measures that accurately reflect the constructs at hand. First, there is no strong, standardized measure of individuals’ acceptance of the idea that women, in general, are sexual objects. Second, further work is needed to create and test measures that reflect diverse components of the APA’s definition of sexualization. Existing analyses have mainly tested media contributions to the SO component of self-sexualization. It is possible individual measures that address each of the components can be employed together to measure the multidimensional construct of self-sexualization. Finally, although most of the studies in this review used either the Self-Objectification Questionnaire, the self-surveillance subscale of the OBC scale, or the Twenty Statements Test, these scales are not without critique. One issue is that although each of these scales is designated as a measure of self-objectification, conceptually there is a distinction between the scales (Calogero, 2011). With the SOQ measuring the valuing of physical appearance over physical competence, and the surveillance subscale measuring chronic body monitoring, Calogero (2011) argued that these two behaviors are not the same thing and that we can not yet conclude whether the two scales represent the same or distinct underlying constructs. Second, the SOQ, in which individuals rank the importance of body attributes, has been critiqued for its artificiality, given that “people tend not to go through life rank ordering body parts” (Loughnan & Pacilli,2014, p. 314). A third concern is that although many define self-objectification as a focus on appearance over competence, the SOQ only focused on body appearance and body competence, not competence in other domains (e.g., intelligence, wit). Researchers need to be mindful not to overextend their assumptions beyond the scale’s reach.


I would like to call for a meta-analysis that investigates the strength of evidence concerning media sexualization. As stated at the outset, my goal here was not to document the strength of existing results but to provide a global perspective that helps identify what the field has been doing and what questions and issues remain. This type of review is often a useful first step. Now that patterns in the field have been identified, it would be useful for researchers to conduct meta-analyses testing how strongly exposure to sexually objectifying media affects self-objectification (approximately 44 published studies, as summarized here), body satisfaction (29 studies), evaluations of women’s morality and personhood (21 studies), sexist attitudes and behavior (23 studies), and support of sexual violence (22 studies).


I would like to encourage further study and analysis of the relevant terminology: objectification, sexual objectification, sexualization, self-objectification, and self-sexualization. As noted earlier, different fields and research teams have used these terms differently. Is there one uniform approach? Two excellent analyses to address this question were recently produced by Zurbriggen (2013) and by Gervais, Bernard, Klein, and Allen (2013), who discussed these terms and offered a broader context for their use. I encourage future researchers to acknowledge the murkiness in the field regarding these terms and to clarify at the start of their studies how they are defining them. It should not be assumed that all readers share the same conceptualizations. I hope that by being up-front with how we are using these terms we can begin to improve understanding moving forward, and can perhaps indicate areas of agreement and difference in our approaches.


The media landscape is changing, and the ways in which media are used are changing. We as researchers need to continue both to address traditional questions about the effects of objectifying media and to incorporate these exciting new ones.

Supplemental Material

Supplemental data for this article can be accessed on the publisher’s website.


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