Sexualizing others (or lusting as it is more commonly known) occurs when we assign a sexual character or quality to someone other than ourselves. Most often, when we sexualize other people, it means that in that moment we are viewing them as a sexual object and not as a whole person. Lust is sexual objectification, pure and simple. Lust is seeing someone through the lens of body parts and sexualized fantasy rather than as a whole person that you care about beyond the sexual realm.
To sexualize someone in your head in this way is actually a normal and healthy trait for all humans (yes, even the monogamous married ones). It is natural, even if you’re already in a relationship, to sometimes project onto others your desires and needs and to fantasize about how someone might meet those desires and needs. And this is unlikely to be problematic as long as you don’t act on these thoughts without thinking them through. So, if you’re in a relationship, taking in-the-moment action based on lust is probably a bad idea.
Would it surprise you if I said that we are evolutionarily wired to sexualize? Yes, even the most loving and committed partner-focused people are wired to keep lusting. Lacking strong sexual attraction and the desire to carry it out throughout the time we are fertile would mean no mating and little human reproduction, which would be bad for the continuation of our species. That said, lust can at times run off the rails and create problems in our lives. Thus, the rest of this blog.
Many of the problems with sexualization arise when we sexualize our feelings. But what does it mean to sexualize our feelings? How does that differ from healthy arousal?
Sexualizing feelings appears to be rooted in early attachment trauma. Early in life, some people learn to use sexual fantasy and experience as a form of emotional coping, self-soothing, and self-regulation. When such people experience strong stressors or uncomfortable feelings, they use sexualization and sexual fantasy to cope. In this respect, the concept of sexualizing our feelings is very similar to the concept of eating our feelings. When experiencing intolerable dysregulation and emotional discomfort, individuals may turn toward dissociation via pleasurable sexual fantasies (sometimes acted upon, sometimes not) simply to feel better. For them, highly rewarding and pleasurable sexual fantasies serve the psychological function of emotional escape.
When we sexualize our feelings (or eat over them), we use dissociative and/or arousing fantasies to self-soothe and distract the mind. Sexualization of feelings is a psychological coping mechanism.
Typically, sexualization as a coping skill is learned in childhood and linked to early-life attachment trauma. When children don’t have reliably healthy caregivers who teach them to emotionally self-regulate in healthy ways, they look elsewhere, and their options may include lust and sexual fantasy. For such people, lust offers more than the momentary thrill of arousal. It also offers a secondary gain of self-regulation and emotional distraction.
And it works, too! The girl who gets bullied at school about her weight but doesn’t have an experience that says her caregivers will respond with useful support may go to her room and fantasize and masturbate about the boy she has a crush on, which makes her feel better. The man struggling to pay the bills for his growing family who loses a job may go to a massage parlor or strip club rather than talking it out with a friend. This does not mean these individuals are ‘bad’ or that something is wrong with them, it simply means they need more effective ways to cope.
Lust becomes a problem when we cross the line from momentary sexual attraction to sexualizing people and experiences as a way to control depression, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, unresolved early-life trauma, and unmet adult-life needs. In other words, lust becomes a problem when we use it to ‘control’ our feelings and therefore our interactions with and connections to other people. When this happens, life can become more focused on sexual fantasy than on reality. And boy is that a potential problem for anyone who seeks or commits to a monogamous relationship.
Unfortunately, people who utilize sexual desire and fantasy as a primary coping mechanism can lose touch with the real world and the actual people in it. They can lose their ability to connect and be intimate in meaningful ways. Instead of being a part of, they become apart from. Worst of all, they do not get their deeper needs to feel loved, supported, and connected met. They may avoid even trying to get those needs met. And that makes them, deep down, feel even worse about themselves.
Over time, acting upon our naturally occurring and healthy sexual feelings as a way to ameliorate internal stressors can be unproductive and highly problematic. Even those who sexualize others to feel a sense of control over them (a la #MeToo perpetrators) are using fantasy to cope with their feelings in potentially unhealthy ways. Healthy people learn to emotionally lean into other people for comfort, not objects, fantasies, or behaviors. Healthy people create and maintain meaningful families, friendships, and communities of support, and they turn to those people when they are feeling emotionally dysregulated. And guess what? By making themselves vulnerable and leaning into these supportive connections, they invariably feel better.
Unfortunately, not everyone learns that skill in their early life. Countless people learn, thanks to childhood caregivers who cannot consistently be relied upon to provide needed emotional support, that they must self-soothe and emotionally regulate in other ways. Some turn to food or substances, while others choose to sexualize. And over time, especially if lust becomes a go-to coping skill, what worked initially can create serious life problems.