On Looking at Girls
By Jimmy Akin
A reader writes:
This is regarding “looking at girls”.
Is this treating a girl as an object? Am I wrong in doing this? Is it sinful?
In this context, treating someone “as an object” mean improperly treating a person as an instrument of sexual gratification and thus not properly recognizing the dignity of the person. There are also other ways one can (non-sexually) “object”-ify a person, e.g., treating a spouse as merely a means of getting certain tasks done (breadwinning, household management, whatever). In general, treating someone merely as a means to an end and not respecting the fundamental dignity of the person results in the objectification of that person. Sexual objectification is just one species in a larger genus.
But you know what doesn’t belong to this genus? Recognizing a person’s good points.
If someone is beautiful or handsome or smart or prudent or a good breadwinner or a good household manager or a good square dance caller or has any other good points, it’s fine to recognize and appreciate those facts. If they are manifest, it would even be contrary to reason not to do so. So recognizing and appreciating the beauty of the human form–in general or in a specific case–is not a sin.
At least you couldn’t guess it from the statues and paintings that the folks at the Vatican have all over the place. They sure seem to be on board with this idea. I mean, just look at the Sistine Chapel! Just look at the Last Judgment! And this is where they elect popes!
So it seems to me that one is on pretty safe ground saying that it’s okay and not-automatically-objectifying if you recognize and appreciate physical beauty or any other good attribute that a person has.
It becomes objectifying if you reduce the person’s worth to just their good or useful qualities. Of course, in the area of appreciating physical beauty–especially of the opposite sex–we have to be careful.
It’s one thing to be looking at a marble statue of a nude woman.
It’s another to be looking at a color photograph of a nude woman.
It’s another yet to be looking at a real live nude woman.
These represent different levels of moral risk, and the greater the peril, the more stringent efforts must be taken to avoid it or escape from it. Because people are different and subject to different levels of temptation, they will have to determine based on their own self-knowledge and personal history what situations are too dangerous for them to allow themselves to be in.
For some–particularly males at a particular stage of life–even looking at artistic representations of nudes may be too much. As normal in risk management–which is what avoiding temptation is, since it’s not possible to completely eliminate the risk of temptation (given the mind’s ability to produce temptation on its own)–one must avoid two extremes: under-estimating the risk that a situation poses and over-estimating it.
For most people the laxist approach is the greater danger, which is why Jesus told us to seek the narrow path. For other people, particularly those subject to scrupulous tendencies, the rigorist approach is a danger. Neither approach is what we are called to.
What one must do is evaluate the risk a particular course of action poses for one and act accordingly. In some cases temptation will arise despite one’s efforts. That’s the nature of risk. As long as the risk isn’t zero–and it never is in this life–sometimes temptation will arise.
The thing to do when that happens is relax, ignore the temptation, and move on to something else. The “relax” part is important, because if one allows oneself to become anxious about temptation then it only reinforces the temptation. Temptation is deprived of its power if you refuse to get anxious about it and simply move on.
Because I’m not the reader, I can’t say precisely what courses of action are too risky in his case, but I can say that it’s not sinful to simply recognize and appreciate beauty. (As opposed to dwelling on or studiously contemplating the details of a particular person’s physical form, which is going to increase risk.) I can say that it is not sinful to be exposed to any and all levels of non-zero risk. (Zero risk of temptation is impossible in this life.)
And I can say that if he tries to instantly avert his eyes from every single pretty girl he sees then he will foster an anxiety about temptation that will actually feed the temptation he is seeking to minimize. The better thing to do is avoid situations that are known to be dangerous (i.e., that pose a significant risk of significant temptation) and to otherwise relax and move on when temptation does appear.