Saturday, March 31, 2007

At the risk of beating a dead horse...

To clarify my Questioning Objectification post, I'd like to emphasize that I think it is very bad for sexuality to be imposed upon women in an inappropriate context. My point is that it is far easier to tackle inappropriate sexual treatment if you're holding in your other hand a clear model of what constitutes appropriate sexual expression.

Men can understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Just because it's okay for a given man to fondle his wife or girlfriend in the privacy of their bedroom, he will not immediately assume that means it's okay for him to fondle strangers on the bus. The fact that it's okay to stare at an image on a screen won't make a man automatically assume that it's okay to stare at a colleague's chest at work or to make unwanted comments about the bodies of platonic friends.

Much of our culture gives young guys the following message: "The morality police don't want you looking at sexy women at all," with the accompanying flip-side message "but, hey, it's a guy thing..."

Feminists who view sexuality in terms of objectification are promoting exactly the same message. Behaviors that should be denounced as harassment are held up as some sort of proof that sexuality is fundamentally about men using women, as if harassment were an inseparable component of male sexuality.

But when a woman chooses to step up on stage and deliberately promotes her sex-appeal as part of her act, there's a big difference between seeking out such fare as part of one's leisure entertainment versus imposing sexual attention on women who don't want it. Feminists should be the vanguard of emphasizing this distinction.

Now the attentive feminist will be pointing out that the consent of the performer alone is not always a sufficient measure of whether a sexualized image is appropriate. For example, in the media it's often a problem that a man in a non-sexual role is expected to look stately and wise, whereas a woman in the same role is required to look young and beautiful. This disparity shows up in newscasters as well as in the portrayal of parents in sitcoms (as I discussed here). Such cases can be analyzed and treated more effectively based on a rational theory of expecting the media to present a balanced and realistic portrayal of women as whole people -- a portrayal that includes sexuality as well as including females who are interesting and esteemed for qualities other than beauty. We'll never get anywhere on such problems if we base our feminist analysis on the irrational and utterly worthless theory that displays of sexuality degrade women and place them in an inferior position.


JulieAnn said...

'Beating a dead horse'? Are you being wontonly suggestive with me?! LOL
I don't think people can understand appropriate behavior unless it's modeled for them and there is a standard. Our society creates new standards all the time. I can't even tell you how much I was sexually harassed in school, at work, when I was in my teens and twenties. Now, if I had a boss who slapped my ass, I could sue. It would never happen.

You state that "it's okay to stare at an image on a screen" but that won't make a person automatically be inappropriate out of that milieu. I humbly disagree with that statement. Too many studies have been done to support the idea that viewing sexualized images of women changes men's view on the whole about women. It's a mixed bag of mixed messages with mixed drinks and mixed signals...and that's just in the bar scene. (!!)

I agree that society gives these conflicting messages, but the bottom line is that sex has been demonized so that we can't accept that women can be sexy and intelligent and good mothers and good has been repressed and then explodes in our faces, inappropriately, every day.
Let's blame the Christians. LOL

I don't have any answers; I only have questions, but like you, I see how the backlash of feminism is doing more harm than good in this arena.


C. L. Hanson said...

It's true that the images and messages people are exposed to in popular culture affect people's attitudes. For example, when women denounce erotic/nude images as an attack on women, it promotes the idea that the women who choose to perform such roles aren't regular women, they're somehow broken or incapable of making adult decisions about how they would like to use their own bodies. That attitude -- that either you're a healthy woman or you're openly sexual, but not both -- is limiting and degrading to women.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why "sexy" so often seems to mean "cool" when applied to men and "scantily clad" when applied to women.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Lavode!!!

True, that is an interesting question and a fruitful direction for analysis since I dhon't think it has a simple one-liner answer.

First there's the question of the word (and concept of) sexy being applied to things which are positive and exciting but not obviously sexual triggers (think chimanzees in Gombe copulating as a reaction to finding a new food source). Then there's the question of what men find sexy vs. what women find sexy with its whole corresponding field of study as to how much of the difference is nature and how much is nurture. Finally, of course, the question of public discourse being weighted to the male perspective. And there are undoubtedly other ways to look at this question as well.