Recent decades of exploding public and private opportunities for women have an embarrassing and worrying downside. Thoughtful women are horrified at the way commercial culture is turning young girls into sexual objects. But aren’t they missing something? What about the sexual objectification of adult women by themselves, in the name of liberation?

Commenting on this phenomenon at a recent conference in Rome, Catholic University of America law professor Helen Alvare concluded that the Christian anthropology elucidated with startling originality by Pope John Paul II 20 years ago in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women…) offers a way out of this contradiction. The following is a slightly edited excerpt from her paper.

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Even a secular observer would have to conclude that women’s cooperation, even encouragement in the objectification of their bodies today, seems a modern manifestation of the inclination which Catholics call “original sin”. Women debase themselves in pursuit of the belief that it will lead to union with a man. This is not confined to the pornography industry, or even to commercial advertising or films or television. Rather, ordinary women across the United States buy clothing designed to emphasize or expose the parts of their bodies associated with sex. I have often joked with my husband that I might have to institute a “no cleavage before 9am” rule with my female students, so much do their low cut shirts distract the male students in my morning classes. Many women often also debase themselves with their speech, or by exposing themselves to media which gradually desensitises them to the proposal that women are beautiful, sexualised objects for consumption.

The push for women’s to become such objects starts early in their lives, with sleazy dolls and clothes offered to small girls, and movies aimed at children essentially conveying the message that beauty is the ticket to wealth and happiness. A particularly heavy dose of such messages is served at a particularly formative time of a woman’s life: her adolescence, when a girl’s beauty is emerging in its adult form. A plethora of magazines, movies, and even sexual education courses, invites adolescent girls to see themselves as bodies only. Mothers regularly cooperate with these trends, sending their daughters to school functions wearing completely unacceptable clothing.

During the late 20th century feminists had a golden opportunity — not easily recreated — to address women’s needs in the world. As the decades passed, it became clear these women were too easily derailed by the “dream of power,” too disdainful of God to reach ordinary folk, too fearful of acknowledging common sense, and too willing even to harm the vulnerable, notably through abortion. As a result, their organized influence waned tremendously.

A further disturbing aspect of women’s conniving in their own objectification is the involvement of prominent strains of feminism who insist that they are striking a blow for women’s freedom by identifying freedom with undisciplined sexuality. This is a particularly true of the Western feminism of the late 20th century, which is still influential today. On the one hand, one can see how strong was the temptation to break women out of the limited roles assigned to them in earlier times, and to give them the “upper hand” over men; marriage and motherhood were constantly portrayed as lesser vocations suited to lesser intelligences. But this type of feminist response was and remains fundamentally flawed for three reasons.

First, the notion of freedom it promotes is at odds with human nature and aspirations. Freedom characterized by individualism, and the rejection of truth, solidarity and transcendence is no real freedom. The histories of individuals and of nations confirm this.

Second, it drew upon the worst features of male behaviour for its prescriptions. The feminist woman was urged to be a sexually adventurous, marriage-and-children-spurning, money-and-career-driven, creature. In other words, feminism urged women to imitate the male “version” of original sin — domination — to attain equality and happiness.

Third, it constituted a tremendous opportunity cost for women. During the late 20th century feminists had a golden opportunity — not easily recreated — to address women’s needs in the world. As the decades passed, it became clear these women were too easily derailed by the “dream of power,” too disdainful of God to reach ordinary folk, too fearful of acknowledging common sense, and too willing even to harm the vulnerable, notably through abortion. As a result, their organized influence waned tremendously. The longing for women’s equality and dignity lives on, but more in the hearts of individual women than in a larger group likely more capable of demanding some of the structural changes women need.

Women as consumer objects in family law

The view of women as consumer objects has, oddly, come to be institutionalised not only in US media and commerce, but also more and more in the law concerning, sex, marriage and the family. I say “oddly” because this development has coincided with the strengthening of laws protecting women against rape, include rape within marriage and in the context of “date rape”. There has also occurred the strengthening of laws protecting women against “sexual harassment” and “stalking” and “domestic violence”. Apparently, however, and due likely to deep misunderstandings about the nature of “freedom”, advocates for women do not understand that there is such a thing as good versus bad choices in the context of “consensual” sexual relationships too, not just non-consensual ones. Thus have certain influential feminists helped enact laws about sex, marriage and families affirming the objectification of women as consumer objects. Some of the following family law trends are among the most important in this regard.

First, was the move to “no-fault” divorce. This was urged on the claim that marriage is inherently a state of subjection for women, who ought to be able to escape it quickly and easily. Not surprisingly, this was followed by a massive increase in the divorce rate as men traded older women for younger, and also as women decided that the union they craved was not sufficiently satisfying, and began to file for divorce more often than men.

A second example is the call for legal recognition of any type of grouping that wishes to call itself a family, even cohabitants, who explicitly reject a definitive commitment to one another. Many female scholars lead this effort. At the same time, though, sociologists and economists are amply documenting how such relationships are characterized by the partners’ lower levels of practical care for one another and even for their own children. This is associated with the fact that persons in uncommitted sexual relationships are “testing” and measuring one another for suitability, versus seeking long-term communion.

A third area of the law in which the objectification of women has become institutionalised concerns assisted reproductive technologies. US law in particular has left it nearly completely to the market to sort out the purchase and sale of women’s eggs and wombs. (It defers similarly to the market regarding male sperm.) This is not because the risks and harms to women are unknown. Risky hormonal injections over several weeks, coaxing a woman’s ovaries to produce 10 or more eggs in a single month’s cycle are common features of egg donation. Surrogate motherhood, under certain conditions, is also legal in Canada and the US. While “paid surrogacy” is legally forbidden in Canada and some US states, this does not stop those involved from treating the mother in the manner of a consumer object. For one thing, individuals regularly find ways around the law to actually pay the surrogate for her egg or womb or both. Second, women’s appearances, accomplishments, and past gestational successes are touted to make them attractive “products” for buyers. Finally, participants often insist that love and generosity are the primary motivations, but it is impossible to discount the role played by large sums of money, or to discount the regular stories about poor women from second or third world countries offering their eggs and wombs to rich westerners in exchange for money badly needed by their families.

It should be noted that the objectification of women in North American law has particularly harmful effects upon poor women. Wealthier women, feminists and cultural icons assure the public that the “good life” and “female empowerment” includes adorning and exposing your body for the benefit of the male populace. Poor women — often with few other options given their lesser education and their dysfunctional family situations — grasp more often at this proffered shortcut to acceptance, admiration and “love”, however brief. In an important and deeply troubling article, leading American sociologist Andrew Cherlin described the phenomenon of the “deinstitutionalisation of marriage” among poor women. They tend to see marriage not as an institution with its own realities and rules to aspire to, but rather as a “thing” to be achieved which includes: obtaining a more or less enforceable trust from a man, alongside access to a certain level of wedding celebration, house, furniture and car. The results of this sort of “marriage-as-consumer-item” thinking are devastating. The women who adopt this view are far more likely to rear a child out of wedlock, remain on welfare, cohabit, suffer abuse at the hands of a boyfriend, have an abortion, never marry, or if they marry, divorce.

Every one of these laws finds female as well as male “experts” who argue that the law empowers women — to leave unsatisfying marriages, undertake a sexual relationship with the person of their choice, or earn money from reproductive materials and capacities. In every case, however, the “experts” have misunderstood or ignored the nature of persons, particularly female persons, and the overarching purposes of human life. A Christian anthropology, particularly as developed by Pope John Paul II, does not fail to grasp these matters. It does so, too, in a way that may be persuasive beyond the bounds of the Catholic faith.

A modern Catholic response

Catholic tradition has a great deal to offer in response to the intertwined phenomena of the objectification of women and consumerism. This has been particularly true over the last 30 years, beginning with John Paul II’s Theology of the Body series, and continuing with Mulieris Dignitatem and other important documents. These papal reflections appeared at a time when the weaknesses and even corruption of earlier feminist proposals were becoming more evident. Through them the Church offers a way of hope and a way of life bound to appeal to our human nature. It is also a way of dignity, not only for women, but for men as well, with its foundations in a full-throated anthropology of the human person, combined with uncanny and persuasive readings of the signs the times.

In the first place it affirms the surpassing dignity of human beings in the world; they are above all other creation, and all man-made things in the world. As John Paul II is fond of repeating, man is the “only being which God has willed for his own sake.” All else in the world is subject to the human person, who in turn is charged with responsible stewardship. Consumerism, which values things as much as or more than people, stands against this fundamental truth.

A second aspect is this: the human being striving toward self-realization will not find it by amassing riches for herself, but only through a “sincere gift of self”, through existing “for others” as a “gift”. The person who makes this freely willed gift is a “subject” who decides for herself. Both males and females are meant to exist “mutually, ‘one for the other'”. This entire description of the meaning and the path of life stands in stark opposition to the way of objectification, which insists that you exist to gratify me — not mutually, not even voluntarily on your part, and often only at the most base physical level.

Third, this way affirms that there is meaning in God’s having created the human race both male and female. One aspect of this is that women have a particular “genius”, an “eternal originality”, gifts for living that they demonstrate especially well or easily. Objectifying women obscures or completely hides this truth. It can also make it impossible to see the gifts women hold in common with men — their equal creation in God’s image and likeness, with reason and free will. It destroys appreciation for women’s particular gifts for attention to and care for other persons, especially the most vulnerable. It is predictable, then, that if a woman is understood merely as an “object” to “own” (even if beautiful and desirable) this can lead to the crushing of her instincts to care for another person. When she fails to receive love, her own capacity to give love can be deformed, and replace with selfishness, pride, vanity and greed.

A fourth and final aspect of the “way” offered by modern Christianity is its frank reading of the presence of original sin in the women’s modern situation. John Paul II tells us in Mulieris Dignitatem that as a result of original sin, each sex can fail to see God’s image in the other. The male/female relationship will be quite prone to disturbance, with the male seeking to “dominate” and the woman to abase herself to obtain union with the man. Alternatively, the woman might react by “appropriating to [herself] male characteristics” in order to resist or even turn the table.

Here is a reading of the human heart that resonates with the facts on the ground in North America, and is bound to strike men and women of today as all too true. In response to centuries of oppression, individual women and prominent movements opted to attempt to dominate men. Witness women perpetrating pornography, selling themselves to the highest-bidding photographer, movie maker, magazine, advertiser or boyfriend. Witness women’s increased willingness to hold men to standards and judgments nearly impossible to satisfy, leading to serial cohabitation, the high percentage of wife-initiated divorces, and deliberate decisions to bear children with no father in the picture, save as a source of child support.

It is true that many women have spoken up against these trends. But long term change depends on going below the surface to achieve a through understanding of the sources of women’s dignity. The implications of a two-sexed humanity; the purpose of sexual relationships and the value of people over things are among topics that must be pursued. Otherwise we will continue to exist in a society in which a woman feels that her “freedom” demands both zealous legal protection from sexual harassment at work, and the protected right to sell her pornographic image online. We won’t really be moving beyond the notion of freedom as “whatever Lola wants…”

Helen Alvare is an Associate Professor in the Columbus School of Law, Catholic University of America, Washington DC, where she teaches Family Law and Catholic Social Thought, among other things.

Helen M. Alvaré is a law professor at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, where she teaches and writes in the areas of family law, and law and religion. She is also a Senior Fellow...