Thursday, February 21, 2008

Come on baby, won't you show some class? (more on primate sexuality)

You can't do a complete analysis of women's sexual choices without talking about class. Social class, that is; economic class.

Imagine what it would be like if we lived in a world where there weren't an effective way of preventing (heterosexual) intercourse from resulting in pregnancy. Imagine also that children's survival and success depended largely on their parents' long-term investment of both time and resources. Then imagine that there were dramatic differences from one male to the next in terms of the amount of resources they could offer. How would you expect women to behave?

Naturally you would expect most women to try to choose the best mate possible and to avoid mating indiscriminately. Still, women's behavior would logically vary by class. A woman who could expect to get a well-off man as a committed mate would have a strong incentive to please him by making it very, very clear that she's not sexually available to other men. Women whose prospects fall on the low end of the economic spectrum would have less incentive to make fidelity a priority -- in fact they (and by extension their offspring) might actually benefit if they opportunistically go from mate to mate.

Since privileged women are the ones with the greatest chance of attracting (economically) successful mates, we would expect to see sexual unavailability as the mark of being "high class" (for women) and open promiscuity as being the mark of being "low class."

Notice that (in this scenario) higher class women benefit from trashing sexually available women. Higher class women (and their offspring) are better off if their mates aren't directing their time and resources towards side dalliances. So privileged women have an incentive to promote the idea that promiscuous women are trashy and not worth one's time.

Men also benefit from publicly trashing sexy women (even if their private behavior is different). A high class man can please (or attract) a high class mate by making it clear he's not tempted by cheap sex. They also help convince their female relatives (sisters, daughters) to maintain a high class (less sexual) appearance to improve their chances of keeping prosperity in the family.

Is this the world we live in? Not exactly, but it's close.

For the reasons outlined above, humans have a natural prejudice towards seeing openly sexual women as inferior and less-valuable. Humans also have a tendency to come up with justifications for their innate prejudices (see my second discrimination against homosexuals article). Traditionally, the human prejudice against female sexuality has been expressed in terms of God and sin. Unfortunately, the hatred privileged women feel towards openly sexual women has also been dignified with secular feminist terminology, calling sexual women "objectified" (see Questioning Objectification) and claiming that promiscuous women lack "self-respect" and "self-worth." This last one is cruelly backwards as a "feminist theory" since feminists should be the last ones who would tell girls that their worth is based on their chastity and virginity (and corresponding marital prospects). (Here's a good example to illustrate how the twin doctrines of "objectification" and "sin" go hand-in-hand to condemn women and female sexuality.)

Now let's look at the modern situation.

Modern contraceptives have largely divorced sex from reproduction, and as a result the romantic/sexual aspect of our culture has changed in a fascinating way. For the long-term, most people (male and female) naturally want to be in a long-term committed relationship -- this is closely related to the human trait of feeling "in love." Humans are remarkably adaptable, and contraceptive use has caused males' romantic/sexual responses in our modern culture to evolve to some degree, but not as much as one might expect. Here's what I mean: A typical man is viscerally horrified at the thought of his mate being with another man sexually -- even though these days it's less likely to lead to raising another male's offspring. On the other hand, the preference for virginal, inexperienced females (as long-term mates) has proven far more malleable, to the point where many modern men actually prefer to marry a sexually experienced woman (see virginity: once an asset, now a liability).

At the same time, women's economic advances mean that women have greater power to set the terms and expectations for their own behavior and for their mates' behavior (see my post on gay marriage), or even to choose not to take on a long-term mate at all. So we finally have the opportunity to free ourselves from the ancient and medieval notion that a woman is "degraded" (reduced in value or class) by displaying her sexuality and engaging in casual sex. Parts of the feminist movement have embraced this positive development even though classist ideas (such as labeling heterosexual sex as "objectification" and "sin") unfortunately still persist in some feminist circles.

The irony of the feminist dogma of "objectification" is not just that it bashes women and female sexuality. Also, in reality women benefit when it becomes commonplace to display the female body in a sexual way. Allow me to explain:

In humans -- as with other great apes -- male sexual arousal is usually triggered by visual cues. The other great apes, however, can't control whether they're giving off visual sexual cues or not: a female chimpanzee has a red swelling if and only if she's in estrus, and there's nothing she can do about it. Since humans are at once highly social and largely monogamous, we've evolved a remarkable trait: human females can choose to display sexual cues or hide them at will (through the use of clothing, among other things).

Modesty is relative to culture (see topless on the beach). There exist cultures in which young women are generally prohibited from going out in public and where those few women who do appear in public must be covered in baggy clothing from head to toe. Traditionalists often believe that this is a good way to decrease men's inclination to view women as sex objects. This is an error. The real effect is exactly the opposite. Males are going to feel a certain amount of sexual desire no matter what. Taking the most obvious displays of female sexuality out of the public square merely changes the arousal triggers. It creates a situation where the mere presence of a woman -- even completely covered -- is sexually arousing. It takes away women's power to control whether they're giving off sexual cues or not.

Our society is a much happier place. Males, from a young age, are exposed to arousing images of women. This conditions them to require a fairly active display of sexuality (make-up and revealing clothing) before feeling aroused by the sight of a woman. I know many people will disagree and cite as an example some creepy guy they saw leering at every woman who passes. But as an obsessive people-watcher who has spent many years living downtown in more than one country, I can tell you that that guy is the exception. The overwhelming majority of men just interact with too many women on a daily basis to be aroused by every one of them. Let's face reality: a guy who fantisizes about having sex with every single woman he encounters wouldn't be able to function in society. It's because of this that the creepy, leering guy is the exception -- condemned by all -- instead of representing the expected male behavoir.

As a woman in a male-dominated field, I have a tremendous appreciation for how our modern society allows women to be seen as sexual on their own terms. On my own time I can put on a mini-dress or a bikini and enjoy the reactions I get. At work, I can dress in a professional way and expect that my male colleagues will treat me the same as one of the guys. This is because our culture allows for a huge range in terms of how much sexuality a woman can display.

So when I see a sexy woman in a bikini or less -- in real life or in the press -- do I want to degrade her by calling her stupid, exploited, and "objectified"? Not on your life!!! As a feminist, I have great respect for women who choose to display their sexuality, just as I respect the women who prefer rein it in a bit. That's what feminism is about: increasing women's choices.

22 comments:

Ordinary Girl said...

Great article, CL.

I think the only time when I feel uncomfortable is when a female chooses to show her sexuality in an inappropriate situation. I'm not sure if I should feel uncomfortable, but here's a couple of examples.

In a business situation you wouldn't choose to wear a bikini because it's inappropriate. But why is it inappropriate? Because you're goal shouldn't be attracting a mate, but concentrating on the job you're doing. I suppose that's part of why there's a dress code in place at most companies.

Once a woman has chosen a mate, is it inappropriate for her to show her sexuality to other men, at least while she's in a committed relationship. While I don't find a bikini at the beach inappropriate, I might at a shopping center. I suppose there's an idea of tastefulness that's still ingrained and I'm not sure how I feel about it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Ordinary Girl!!!

Exactly. There are definitely situations where a display of sexuality is not appropriate. But it's a question of "there's a time and a place" not a question of "arousing a man by displaying your body is inherently degrading."

Lessie said...

Hi Chanson. I see your point to an extent, however, being still deeply embedded in Mormon culture, I also meet men who think that they are entitled to sex even when women don't want it. They also think that all women are there for their viewing pleasure and that they are entitled to be aroused (however, women who feel the same way are condemned as sluts etc.).

Something that I've been thinking of in terms of modesty is that just because I'm showing my shoulders, midriff, or thighs doesn't mean I'm being sexual. I think the way we reveal parts of our bodies also sends the signal as to whether we're trying to be sexual or not. There's body language, push-up bras, thigh-highs, that clearly send sexual messages, but there are also your general tank tops, bikinis, and things that simply let the body be what it is (with some support).

Am I making sense? I know what I'm trying to say, but I'm not articulating it very well.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Lessie!!!

I know exactly what you're talking about. You want to be able to dress for your comfort -- even if it means bearing your shoulders or whatever -- and not have it be seen as a sexual signal. This is exactly what I'm talking about.

Men who are used to seeing women completely naked are that much less likely to see casual dress as an attempt to seduce. Imagine some guy from a puritan country who never sees women except occasionally in a neck-to-toe sack -- and how he'd react to seeing you in shorts -- compared to how the guys you know react.

King Aardvark said...

I must say, I'm disappointed in this post, CL.

From the title, I was sure it was going to be about chimps (and not just one line of chimpiness). Way to get my hopes up.

Interesting post though. I never thought about sexual display in that way before.

(Of course, being your typical heterosexual guy means that my typical thoughts about sexual display are "Boobieeees! Weeeeeeeee!" which isn't very helpful in any way).

Lessie said...

Yes, I think I see more clearly what you were trying to say. It's funny though that I'm still battling the social constructs that were taught to me when I was LDS. My husband and I watched a movie last night that certainly stepped outside the bounds we would have normally gone just a few months ago. I found it funny that while I'm in theory okay with nudity etc. I was still somewhat taken aback by it in reality. It's hard overcoming a lifetime of fear of bodies.

Beat Dad said...

As my wife pointed out to me early on in our relationship; "It may not be appropriate for me to look at other men when I am with you, but, if I am subtle enough you won't notice."

She more or less said this to me once when we were walking down a crowded street and, rather blatantly, watched as a very attractive Latin guy walked by.

So, maybe it was not appropriate, and it is not appropriate ,for me to do the same when she is around. But being human ,and given to ogle when we see someone attractive, we will do it, but subtly.

On another note; clothing or lack there of is not always a turn on; most of the time it is an energy or look, or just the shape of someones face or body that is attractive. So whether or not you are going in public trying to attract someone, does not matter.

You may be just as attractive in your business suit as you are in dirty sweats and a t-shirt.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey King Aardvark!!!

Yeah, I should write some more posts about gorillas and chimpanzees. Every time I write about primate sexuality, I always end up talking mostly about humans... ;^)

Hey Lessie!!!

I wouldn't say that whatever the church teaches about sex one should necessarily do the opposite. It's good that you're exploring your own feelings, responses, and boundaries at your own pace.

Hey Beat Dad!!!

There's a lot of gray area for married couples in terms of how much it's okay to respond to external sexual stimuli. I think it's important for both partners to make an effort to be considerate and understanding towards one another (understanding about the fact that some sexual response to other people is normal, considerate about not focusing too much attention on fansaties about other people if your agreement is monogamy). What rules and guidelines that boils down to in practice will vary from couple to couple.

Also, it's true that I'm attractive in a businss suit. ;^) But not distracting in quite the same way as if I were to go to work in a bikini. People wouldn't respond in quite the same way, and that's normal.

Tom Clark said...

Wow Chanson, I never cease to be amazed at the depth of your understanding of social issues. The whole concept of feminism has perpetually baffled me and yet here in a few sentences you've shed some amazing light on the subject.

I can't speak to a lot of the things you've addressed here but I do know that there are certain biological mandates extant in humans and the more we do battle with those mandates or the more we attempt to sublimate them, the more fucked up we get.

I think it's important to look at the biological mandates and forge contemporary attitudes that at least have some hope of being in harmony with them.

For example, I think it's critical that young men and women be allowed to explore their bodies freely during puberty and that they be allowed to determine for themselves (without parental involvement) to what degree they will self-pleasure. (Sex with others is a different story for obvious reasons.)

So many of our societal norms seem to have evolved out of the urge to control others. I see a lot of kids who are growing up "out of the church" as opposed to those of us who grew up completely influenced by it, making choices for themselves that seem to be so much healthier and smarter and more grounded in their individual realities. I'm encouraged by that.

Compared to where we were 20 or 30 years ago, wow, we seem to be making some serious progress! I look at openly sexual women, like Jackie Bissett for example, and am moved by them rather than being put-off by them. I think one of the most beautiful things about a woman is the strength she shows from a sexual and/or sensual place.

What I find to be a major turn-off are women who make a big show of their prudishness. Gag me - it's so false.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hi Tom!!!

Glad you like my article!!! I completely agree that it's important to look at the biological mandates and forge contemporary attitudes that at least have some hope of being in harmony with them. I'm fascinated by trying to understand humans and how they work. And you're completely right that so many of our societal norms seem to have evolved out of the urge to control others. That's one of the irritating facts of human cultural behavior that I'm interested in analyzing.

That's basically the situation when some feminists label certain sex acts "objectification." I don't think prudery is always fake -- I'm convinced there are many women who only want to express their sexuality in the context of a loving, intimate relationship -- and that's fine, I don't have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when those women project their sexuality on other women and assume that a woman whose sexual responses are different must be broken.

I personally feel liberated by rejecting the belief that having sex with a man degrades or diminishes me in any way.

If other women don't feel liberated by the same thing, that's fine. But don't try to judge and diagnose me or tell me that being a woman makes me incompetent to make good choices about my own body (whether you agree with the traditional account that it's because of women's natural inferiority or whether you believe the new "radical feminist" reasoning that it's the "brainwashing by the patriarchy" that makes women's own choices meaningless if they're too sexual).

These narrow-minded people have developed a theory that if a man is aroused by the sight of any part of a woman's body, then he's reducing her to a "sex object" in his mind. How do these feminists know that's what he's thinking? Are they in his head with him? And how precisely does this cause the man to harm the woman? They don't say because it's all vague and unprovable claims about how it will make him more sexist, mixed with claims that have been proven false like the belief it increases the man's propensity to rape.

To women who are distressed by the thought of a woman stripping for a man -- and the thought of a man enjoying it -- I say the same thing as I say to people who are distressed at the thought of gay sex: If you don't like it, then don't do it. But don't sit around obsessing about other people's sex lives if you find it repulsive to you.

Beat Dad said...

Fascinating story about Testosterone on this American Life. Especially the one from a former woman.

http://w
ww.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=220

Lessie said...

If you're still following this thread Chanson, I have a question for you. How do you feel about prostitution? In some ways, I feel like it should be legalized to protect the women who may be being abused by pimps, johns, etc. But part of me also wonders if those women are aware that they are more than their sexuality? I just hate to think that a woman would pick sex worker as her career simply because she didn't feel like she had any other talents or options. Of course, I realize that the money in places like Nevada where prostitution is regulated, is pretty good, so there's a whole other aspect. But anyway, I'm curious about your thoughts on it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wayne!!!

That looks cool!!!

Here's the link. Is there a transcript available? I'm not really an audio person, but it sounds interesting -- particularly the episide about getting one's testosterone tested. I suspect I'd test as having a high testosterone level for a woman. Even though I don't have masculine physical characteristics (aside from being fairly tall: 5'8"), sometimes I feel like I'm a straight man trapped in the body and mind of a straight woman. I'm sure that sounds insane, but it fits. Imagining gay sex (either gender) leaves me going "meh" -- only a straight scenario turns me on, and every time I've fallen passionately in love (many times in my life) the object has been male. Yet when I picture an erotic scenario in my mind, weirdly I identify with the male perspective. I don't know why, but I find that I can completely relate to voracious male sexual desire, but the sweet romantic scenes that women are supposed to like don't interest me at all...

Hey Lessie!!!

I read all of my comments, even those on posts that are very old. And I almost always think about the feedback I get and then post a response myself. My husband jokingly asked me what I'll do when my blog ges so popular that I can't respond to every comment, but I almost hope that never happens. The two-way communication aspect is what I love most about blogging.

Regarding prostitution: Overall, I think legalization it the best solution.

As I said above, I recognize that there are women who see sexuality as incredibly intimate and would feel deeply traumatized by a life of prostitution. I don't want to trivialize their pain. For women in this situation, the best way to help them is to make sure that other options exists by making social justice a priority (go Obama!!! ;^) ). Also, legalizing prostitution helps by giving women legal protection and legal recourse if they're being abused.

The next thing I'd say is that there are some people for whom this occupation isn't the epitome of horrifying shame. It's not purely unskilled labor -- building a loyal clientele takes knowledge, experience, and effort. So naturally some people in the sex industry are proud of their work and deserve to be. The belief that this is the most horrifying thing that could every befall any woman degrades them far more than the occupation itself does.

PhillyChief said...

Great post.

As to the prostitution/degradation thing, I've heard that with exotic dancers as well. Anyone who has experienced such a club will tell you the ones degrading themselves are us men. The women are in absolute control and perhaps this is also why cultures (especially the muslim cultures) have such strict guidelines for women's attire. It's the feeling of not having control or being at the mercy of a woman due to her appearance that's unsavory to some men.

Going back to OG's point, I've seen this played out in business meetings where some women dress to show off certain assets. Why? It helps close a deal. Once again, gaining control from attire, so perhaps at least one motivation for business attire guidelines is to level the playing field.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Philly Chief!!!

That's a very interesting observation. I think it's true that a lot of the shame and restrictions placed on women are due to the fact that many men aren't comfortable with the effect on them...

Jewish Atheist said...

Very interesting and insightful!

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks JA!!!

C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. Sorry to have sent this back through the RSS -- there was an error in one of the links.

By the way, did anyone catch where the title of this post came from? From writing this, I've had this song stuck in my head for week now:

Come on baby, won't you show some class?
Why ya wanna move so fast?
We don't have to take our clothes off
to have a good time, oh no.
We could dance and party all night
and drink some cherry wine, uh-huh.


This song annoyed the hell out of me as a teenager. I remember one time we were on some sort of LDS young women's trip (I think we were going to girls' camp or something), and the other girls were singing this over and over. Interestingly, the adult leaders heartily encouraged them even though drinking any kind of wine is a big-time sin for Mormons. But the adults were so happy to see the girls getting into the anti-sex message that they were willing to be lenient about praising the lesser sin of drinking.

For myself, while listening to them singing this song, I was thinking "True, fair enough. But we don't have to keep them on to have a good time either..." ;^)

Jane said...

CL: I'm late to posting and I apologize, it's been on my list of to-dos for a while. I think you and I are using "objectification" in different ways, and I completely agree with you that constant exposure to women helps men (and lesbians) deal with arousal on an on-going basis. But much as you indicate that sexual fidelity is a class-based luxury, so are some forms of promiscuity. Cameron Diaz' (to choose a PWW at random) decision to pose for playboy and the decision of women at my local strip club to perform are two separate and unequal decisions about each woman's display of sexuality. The first is in a position to choose who sees her naked form, who pays (and how much is paid) for it use, and equally, who does not. The second is only rarely in a similar position: to choose who sees her nakedness and how much is paid for it. So while I agree with you that the former's self-objectification may be in the greater service of society, the latter's self-objectification is still very much a class-based and often unwilling act.

Feminism may well do a disservice to many women in many ways, but until every stripper and prostitute chooses those occupations freely and without class-submission, I don't think that it will have done its duty: to advance women of all classes and races.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Jane!!!

I agree with you that we should be advancing the cause of women of all classes and races. As I said above, I recognize that there are women who see sexuality as incredibly intimate and would feel deeply traumatized by a life of prostitution. I don't want to trivialize their pain. For women in this situation, the best way to help them is to make sure that other options exists by making social justice a priority.

It is important to keep in mind that a whole lot of women (and men) are forced by economic necessity into lots of degrading and dangerous jobs: scrubbing other people's floors and toilets, transient fruit-picking, sweat shops, etc. Those jobs which are unsafe because of lack of regulation should be brought up to code by legal means.

But to single out the sex industry, to suppress it and denounce it -- above all other types of labor -- is not feminist. Why not denounce the practice of having people come in and scrub one's house (a job I'd find far more degrading than being a stripper, but that's just me...)? It's because of the belief that there's something inherently degrading about a woman using her sexuality freely -- it marks a woman as trash for life, thus all women should be protected from it at all costs. That is exactly the attitude I am fighting against. It degrades all of the women of the sex industry (and limits their future choices) regardless of where they fall on the I love/hate this job spectrum.

And it is indeed a spectrum. The women of the sex industry are humans, and they should be though of as such. As with any other job, there are a whole lot of complex factors involved in taking it. It isn't just a question of "two types of whores" those (like Cameron Diaz) who do it because they're rich and can do whatever they please, and those who are slaves weeping nightly for their lost virtue. The example of Cameron Diaz (and even Paris Hilton) demonstrates that when women don't have to answer to society's stigmas and can do whetever they want to, many of them choose this of their own volition. Why should that be true of poor or middle class women any less than rich women, when given the option of using their body however they see fit without worry that society will toss them on the trash bin for it? Famous starlets who pose for porn benefit the average working girl (of the sex industry) by elevating the status of this job, making it easier to move on from such a job because it's seen as no big deal to have this in your past (as opposed to having it be the scarlet letter that marks the rest of your life).

Jane said...

I have to admit that I've never come across an argument against sex-work that brings up non-sexual "degrading" work. You're absolutely correct: there's a cultural assumption inherent that says "sex is bad!!!". One that I have to admit I don't feel personally, but obviously buy into culturally. I shall have to let this one steep for a bit.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Jane!!!

I think it's instructive to compare sex work with the types of jobs performed by undocumented (illegal) immigrants (such as migrant fruit-picking, housecleaning, nannying). Such jobs can legitimately be seen as degrading for many people who have the skills and talents to do more prestigious jobs but are forced into these jobs by economic necessity. And since the workers are undocumented, they are routinely exploited by their employers.

It seems clear (to me at least) that the way to help such people is not to wipe out these industries entirely (leaving them with one less opportunity for income for themselves and their families), but rather (1) to see to it that as many other opportunities as possible are available, and (2) to fix the laws to prevent employers from harming and cheating their employees.

In the case of undocumented immigrants, exactly how to fix the laws is a hotly debated question at the moment, but there's a lot of agreement that the current situation is broken and needs to be changed. With the sex industry it's a no brainer: make it legal and regulated so a prostitute can call the cops when someone harms her without worrying that she'll be the one thrown in jail.