Sexualization occurs when we assign a sexual character or quality to someone or something other than ourselves. Usually, it’s another person that we’re sexualizing. Instead of seeing them as a holistic human being, we view them as a sexual object from which or with whom we might derive or experience sexual pleasure. Rather than getting to know who that person really is, we idealize them sexually and sometimes romantically, assigning to them all the physical and psychological traits we find attractive in another person, regardless of reality. And then we lust after and obsess about them – physically, sexually, and emotionally.
All adolescent and adult human beings engage in this behavior. It’s part of who we are. In fact, we’re evolutionarily wired to sexualize. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t mate and reproduce, and our species would cease to exist. That said, sexualization can at times run off the rails and create problems in our lives. Most often, problems start to arise if/when we start to sexualize our feelings.
When I say that we ‘sexualize our feelings,’ I don’t mean that literally. What I mean is that we have an uncomfortable thought or feeling and we sexualize another person as a way of distracting ourselves from that thought or feeling. In this respect, sexualizing our feelings is the same eating our feelings. We experience some form of emotional discomfort that we’d rather not feel, so we engage in a pleasurable activity of some sort (eating, drinking, drugging, gambling, spending, video gaming, sexualizing, and the like) to distract ourselves and psychologically escape.
When we sexualize our feelings, we use sexual arousal and sexual fantasy to self-soothe or dissociate. Sexualization becomes a psychological coping mechanism. It may even become our go-to coping skill. Whenever we’re physically or emotionally uncomfortable, we sexualize the world around us and our discomfort fades, though only for a short while.
Typically, we learn to use sexualization as a form of emotional regulation in childhood, particularly if we experienced childhood trauma. This trauma could be anything from neglect to emotional abuse to physical abuse to spiritual abuse to sexual abuse to whatever else you can think of. If, as children, we don’t have healthy people that we can turn to for consistent and meaningful support, we look elsewhere. Most often, we turn to food, reading, video games, addictive substances, gambling, or sexual fantasy. Anything that gets us out of our heads, so to speak.
And sexualization as a means of emotional escape works, too. A girl gets bullied at school but feels that she cannot trust her parents to respond with appropriate support, so she goes to her room and fantasizes about the boy she has a crush on. A boy does poorly on a test or in a team tryout and doesn’t think his parents will respond with appropriate support, so he sneaks into the garage and looks at porn on his iPhone. This use of sexualization as a coping skill can begin even before puberty if the child has been exposed to pornography, experimented sexually with friends, or experienced sexual abuse.
Over time, sexualization can become the individual’s surefire way to escape emotional distress, turned to time and time again to alleviate any and all forms of emotional discomfort until suddenly it’s habitual – a compulsion over which the individual no longer has control. This is when sexualizing our feelings becomes a serious problem. We cross the line from healthy sexualization to sexualizing people and experiences as a way to control depression, anxiety, stress, unresolved early-life trauma, and unmet emotional needs.
When that happens, our lives can become more focused on sexual fantasy than on reality. Basically, we turn other people into sexual objects because that makes them safer. It takes away the power they have to hurt us if we were to turn to them for emotional or psychological support. When we lead with sex, we feel more in control and less vulnerable. If all we’re looking for is sex, they can’t fail to meet our other, deeper needs because we never give them the chance to meet (or fail to meet) those needs.
Unfortunately, as we continually sexualize our feelings, we lose touch with the world and the actual people in it. We lose our ability to connect and be intimate in meaningful ways. Instead of being a part of, we become apart from. Worst of all, we do not get our deeper needs to feel loved, supported, and connected met. We avoid even trying to get those needs met. And that makes us, deep down, feel even worse about ourselves.
Sexualizing our feelings is not productive. Nor is eating our feelings. Nor is drinking, drugging, spending, gambling, or gaming to avoid our feelings. The healthy thing to do with our feelings is to feel them and share them with safe, empathetic, supportive people. Whether that occurs in the therapy space, in a 12-step meeting, in some other support group, with a close friend, with a romantic partner, with a spiritual guide, or with someone else, it needs to happen. Otherwise, we will continue to escape our feelings through sexualization (and other escapist behaviors), and we will not ever feel validated, wanted, loved, and truly connected.