It is a commonly held belief that it is very natural for men to look at other women with a degree of sexual interest despite their involvement in a monogamous relationship. This activity is often rationalized as “just being a guy” or some other cliché statement. I do not know if this practice is common among all humans, but it appears to be a significant part of the modern male socialization process. You are a man, you look at women who you think are attractive, and this is perfectly acceptable because it is an inherent part of your male nature.
I must admit a degree of guilt in this practice, and I too cite socialization as the root cause of this behavior. But having found myself in a committed relationship with my wife, my perspective has shifted slightly. I know from discussing the issue with her that my wife finds this behavior both hurtful and personally offensive. I feel that it is only appropriate to respond to this by making a conscious and concerted effort to refrain from “scanning the field”, so to speak.
This is challenging at times, as it has been a very natural behavior for some time, but I find that not only is it an action that can be corrected with relative ease, but that I feel a degree of satisfaction that I am able to not only act, but also to think in an ethical and moral way. Many would call this behavior uptight, ridiculous, or even “whipped.” The common cultural defense is that men who engage in this habit are “just looking” and not truly harming anyone. But is that defense valid?
In my own particular case, the answer to such a question is obvious. I am aware that my wife is hurt by this behavior. In addition, I find it personally dissatisfying to objectify other women, and I am confident that they might also feel that way if they were fully aware of the situation. There is no apparent beneficiary to such behavior, at least in my own situation, so a utilitarian assessment would suggest that it is not ethical for me to eyeball other women. But what of the defense that such behavior is harmless, that ogling or fantasizing about women is acceptable because it exists only in thought and not in action.
This too is a fallacy. If I only think about killing someone, or imagine killing them, but don’t actually complete the act of killing them, are my thoughts and fantasies morally acceptable because they are not actions? This is clearly absurd, and this line of reasoning eliminates the rationalization that it is morally acceptable to think about women as sexual objects while one is in a committed relationship because this action occurs in thought only. But what of the unattached male? Is he justified in his objectifying since he does not have to worry about the hurt caused to his significant other?
Again, the answer is no. Such actions are hurtful to those who are objectified, whether they are aware of the practice or not. In addition, thoughts develop into attitudes, and over time an attitude of objectifying women leads to a laundry list of potential victims of the accompanying behaviors. Thus, there is a strong utilitarian argument against this practice. Finally, when we think about ethics it is important to remember the importance of our intent as well as our actions.
The Buddha spoke of right thought as a key component to one’s enlightenment, and the idea that thought can be moral or immoral is significant to many Western thinkers as well. While I must concede that the thought of objectifying females is a degree below the act of doing so, it is unethical nonetheless, and the morally righteous person should make an effort to act appropriately in word, deed, and thought.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.