‘He patted his lap and told me I could sit there’: An inside look at the objectification of women in Utah

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BONN, GERMANY – MAY 29: In this photo illustration a woman at the window is looking outside on May 29, 2020 in Bonn, Germany. (Photo by Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images)

UTAH (ABC4) – Though the sexualization of women in society has been looked down upon for decades, it is still prevalent. The Utah State University Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP) recently carried out a study with the end goal of better understanding Utah women’s discomfort in objectifying situations. 

The study, which compiled a long list of quotes taken from Utah women regarding their personal experiences, was conducted in the spring of 2020 through an online survey that targeted 839 Utah women from ages 18 to 70+. Findings revealed how commonplace it can be to receive unwanted comments and behaviors like touching as a woman.  

When analyzing the results of the study, seven categories regarding objectification became prominent. These categories included:

  • Focus on physical appearance and bodies
  • Sexual harassment, including remarks on behaviors 
  • Sexualizing women as objects 
  • Unwanted sexual advances
  • Intersectional discrimination, including sexist comments that also contained references to race, age, weight, religion, or other elements
  • Exclusion from work activities with the implication that women are viewed as sex objects rather than as colleagues 
  • Accusations of women using sex to get ahead 

Susan Madsen, the founding director of the UWLP and one of three report authors, stressed the importance of providing education that indicates how language and behavior can demean and disempower women. 

“Unfortunately, many of the comments shared were much more explicit and vulgar than what we included in this report,” she said. “As difficult as it was for many of these women to share what was said to them, it is critical for us to be aware of what is happening so we can educate and help people do better, whether their comments were blatant, subtle, aggressive, or unintentional.” 

Below are some of the more provocative stories taken from the full UWLP report, along with the category the comment was organized in. 

Focus on physical appearance and bodies – “My bishop said (over the pulpit) that his pretty wife was a reward for him being a good missionary, so the young men in the ward needed to be good missionaries.” 

Sexual harassment – “A male colleague was interviewing candidates for a vacant position on his team. He told [other subordinates] that he could not consider one of the internal candidates (a female) because he would be distracted all day by her breasts.” 

Sexualizing women as objects – “He talked about sexual assault and said, ‘Well you can’t parade raw meat in front of a tiger and expect it not to pounce.’”

Unwanted sexual advances – “I was looking for a place to sit during a conference we were both attending as city council members, though from different cities. He patted his lap and told me I could sit there.” 

Intersectional discrimination – “During a deposition, opposing counsel tried to intimidate me repeatedly. At one point I made an objection to a question (totally appropriate for attorneys to do), and he stopped, looked directly at my client and said, ‘Your attorney is too young and dumb to know that she’s not allowed to object that way, but let me tell you, your attorney is wrong.’”

Exclusion from work activities – “When on a student selection panel, one of the faculty said he couldn’t work with a certain very highly qualified student because his wife would be jealous and suspicious of her.”

Accusations of using sex to get ahead – “I got the highest grade on a test in a computer science class. When I shared the good news, one of my male peers said, ‘I wish I could sleep with the professor so that I could get an A.’” 

Robbyn Scribner, UWLP research fellow, said an overarching goal of the study is to equip women with the tools they need to better combat everyday sexism.

“To help with this, participants were asked to share responses they made, or wish they had made, to the unwanted comments,” she said. 

Forty percent of participants said they clapped back with a direct response to the sexist comment. Direct responses included questioning the commentator, providing information or education on the subject of sexual harassment, offering a rebuttal, or using humor to respond.

Next, 38.2% of women reported that they were so uncomfortable, embarrassed, or shocked by the comment made they simply did not say anything in response but walked away from the situation instead. There were 110 women (20.1% of participants) that reported responses they wish they had made. These reflections ranged from clever comebacks to wishing they had reported the comment altogether.

In some cases (15.5%), women responded indirectly by changing the subject, laughing, or agreeing with the commentator. A smaller 8.1% of women stated they had emotional responses to the comment made, reporting feelings of shame, embarrassment, hurt, or anger. The remaining 36.5% of women said they reacted to the sexist comment in a different manner, such as discussing the experience with others or implementing a third party. 

“Speaking up against sexism can be a powerful force to reduce gender inequity,” said Madsen. “Being prepared to respond to everyday sexism can help women feel more confident in their interactions with others. By raising awareness, we can reduce the frequency of sexism in our homes, neighborhoods, communities, and the state as a whole.”

To read the full report, click here

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