August 29, 2008

“A woman is a sex object when she wants to be”

Posted in empowerment, entitlement, objectification, sexual politics at 12:57 am by LB

So, again, I haven’t been writing like I’d like to.  Classes start next week and I am very busy prepping for those.  I hope to start posting more than once a week within the next month.  I was browsing through the new edited book Men Speak Out, and I came across this provocative snippet from one of the articles that is quite pertinent to the themes of this blog, so I thought I’d share.  From “Trying To Be Sexy and Anti-Sexist….At Exactly the Same Time” by Andrew Boyd:

And that seems to be the basic rule: A woman is a sex object when she wants to be.  Not when I want her to be one, not when the culture wants her to be one, but when she wants to be one.  When she chooses to be a sex object, she is deliberately adopting a limited part of who she is.  She’s playing a role and she’s looking for someone to play with.

That seems pretty in-line with much of what I write here.  It’s so simply, and so obvious, yet so opposed to our cultural ideology of women’s sexuality.  This is the response to those who don’t get it when they say, “well, what’s so wrong with appreciating sexy women?” when they watch they watch beach volleyball at the Olympics to check out the ladies’ butts, or by consistently recognizing first the desirability of businesswomen and female politicians.  This is what’s so troubling about Playboy drawing attention to the female bloggers they deem to be “sexy” as worth reading, or offering them cash to pose nude (since I guess they’re not truly useful to modern men until/unless they’re nekkid, since the next logical thing after discovering an interesting and intelligent woman who’s decent looking is to request–and expect–to see her naked).  This is what’s so wrong with photographing a woman’s body in public, sexualizing it, and distributing it all over the internets.

It’s not that there’s something inherently “wrong” with seeing women’s physical sexiness as desirable and beautiful.  But denying her agency by imposing it on her when she wishes to be a whole human being, or even more, when she’s “deliberately adopting”, as Boyd phrases it, another part of her person that is not her sexuality (say, in politics, acting, art, sport, etc.), is where the “wrong” lies.  Part of what’s so fucked up is that sexuality has become synonymous with female personhood and value that we–as people and as a culture–seem utterly incapable of separating them.  Indeed, often we as women cannot separate them either, or many times even when we can, we know that it is to our social advantage not to.  The recent Olympics is simply an obvious case-in-point.

14 Comments »

  1. arctic_jay said,

    “It’s not that there’s something inherently ‘wrong’ with seeing women’s physical sexiness as desirable and beautiful.  But denying her agency by imposing it on her when she wishes to be a whole human being, or even more, when she’s ‘deliberately adopting’, as Boyd phrases it, another part of her person that is not her sexuality (say, in politics, acting, art, sport, etc.), is where the ‘wrong’ lies.”

    This is an extremely problematic statement. Having agency means having the ability to act in order to produce a desired effect. The problem lies in the fact that the outcomes intended by the agency sought by the women in the situations you mentioned directly involve the agency of other people. What need’s to be determined is who has a greater right to their agency. In your examples of the businesswomen or female politician, you highlight not their business or political actions per se, but the representations of their personhood engendered by these actions and the intended interpretations of these representations: action as expression; the outcome of this agency therefore is the intended perceptions of others. However, people have sovereignty over their own subjectivity (perception). They do not have sovereignty over the subjectivities of others. Autonomous agency is the only kind of action that is bound by moral limits. The agency you seek trespasses against something that is sovereign to another person-their subjectivity-and therefore you have no right to it.

  2. christopher said,

    eeh.. i think i wanna make a point similar to arctic_jay’s. basically, many men and women (mainly men perhaps) find it hard to turn off their sexual appreciation of others at will. sorry. presented with the right stimuli a man can get a hard-on even if his house is on fire :P

  3. laura said,

    “what need’s to be determined is who has a greater right to their agency” – if so, why does the woman have to lose?

    what you seem to be saying, arctic_jay, is that women can’t tell men what to think about them. if they subjectively perceive the woman as a sex object, it’s their right to do so. and that’s a horrible (yet typical) statement to make. maybe i got it wrong and you could clarify?

    the hardon-dilemma is a different story. it’s one thing if guy starts to bulge at the sight of an attractive woman, it’s another thing to e.g. comment on a politicians boobs after she gave a speech. i don’t really buy the “we can’t help it” argument, but let’s just say it’s true. in that case, men should at least have the decency to try and ignore their attraction if the situation isn’t appropriate. one may not be able to control what’s going on down-under, but it should be possible for anyone with half a brain to suppress verbal (or other) manifestations of arousal. besides, often it’s not even “sexual appreciation” that is the problem but situations in which a woman’s sexuality is used to somehow lessen the value of her non-sexual actions.

  4. earlgreyrooibos said,

    Wow, I started Men Speak Out earlier this week and I read the first half of the essay (the part you’re citing here) over breakfast this morning. I can’t wait to read the second half; I’m really interested in seeing his discussion of the “paying for dinner” idea.

    Anyway, I thought the first half of the essay was brilliant (and I thought it worked really well with the preceding essays in that section). Because you see him feeling this involuntary attraction to a woman, but you also see him taking responsibility for those feelings and trying to make them fit into a feminist paradigm. It seems to me that arctic_jay and christopher recognize that the first half happens, but don’t want to take responsibility for mediating that attraction with respect.

  5. arctic_jay said,

    “[I]f so, why does the woman have to lose?”

    Firstly, I’m not going to continue the sexist framing that this is a man versus woman issue; it is not. But to answer your question, the “woman [has] to lose” because an ethic valuing the individual’s right to their own personhood must grant them sovereignty over their own subjectivity. It’s a fundamental right, and, ironically, it’s the one appealed to in Lindabeth’s argument.

    “[I]f they subjectively perceive the woman as a sex object, it’s their right to do so. and that’s a horrible (yet typical) statement to make.”

    That is what I’m saying, and it is far from horrible; it is respecting an individual’s right to one of the primary aspects of their personhood. That you find it so is what I find horrifying, and I pray it isn’t typical.

    “It seems to me that arctic_jay and christopher recognize that the first half happens, but don’t want to take responsibility for mediating that attraction with respect.”

    It’s erroneous to state that someone has a responsibility of any sort to anyone regarding perceptions that are within their absolute right to have.

    “eeh.. i think i wanna make a point similar to arctic_jay’s. basically, many men and women (mainly men perhaps) find it hard to turn off their sexual appreciation of others at will.”

    This is not related to my point at all. Even if it was easy, they would still be under no obligation to perceive someone a certain way.

  6. Renee said,

    Socially we exist with the idea that womens bodies are meant to be consumed. Even sexually our pleasure takes second place to that of a man. This speaks loudly about which bodies we have chosen to value. That we might be whole beings outside of our sexual desires is counter to patriarchys goals. We are meant to be subsumed with the idea that goal is to compete for the attentions of men thereby ignoring our true desires. If men are always the center of every conversation or action we will never unite to create a more women centric world. This is why you will consistently find in womens spaces a colluder or an MRA whining what about the men.

  7. christopher said,

    just want to make it clear that i don’t agree with arctic_jay, who seems to suggest it’s wrong to try to change the opinions of people who are backward or downright antisocial. i was just saying sometimes it’s really hard.

  8. lindabeth said,

    The article I quote from is from someone who supports women’s sexual autonomy and her right to sexual-self-definition, one who is anti-sexist yet finds himself struggling with objectifying women nonetheless, in part due to the ways our sexualities come into being within a particular social context (namely one that defines women’s sexuality as something to be performed for and consumed by men, and one that endorses approaching women in public life as most importantly, a thing to be evaluated for her sexual value), and in part due to the reality that there are times where women want to be a sexual object, in a sense. As he aptly states, sexual “objectness” is one aspect of a woman’s “self,” one that she may sometimes want to embrace purposefully.

    His realization is a realization of how to manage this struggle. It’s an acknowledgment that women’s sexuality belongs to her and should be defined by her. That part of being anti-sexist and pro-positive sex is that he must refrain from determining women as sexual objects and instead leave that determining up to her. When she does not determine this, approach her as a multi-faceted human being, who does not from the first serve to fulfill and confirm one’s own (male) sexuality by appropriating hers out-of-context and for his benefit.

    In other words, his brilliant yet simple epiphany comes from a place that already advocates for women’s full personhood, that already understands that women’s sexuality has overwhelmingly been cast in terms of phallocentric, male sexual pleasure and has been a significant piece of the patriarchal puzzle, that desires women’s right to her own sexuality.

    Arctic_jay, your suggestion does not come from this place. Yours comes from a place that argues for and seemingly advocates for one’s right to be sexist. Clearly, this man’s statement will not convince those who already see women as objects, as valuable only in being sexually desirable or available, and the like, regardless of whether they recognize that they think this way or not.

    Your counter-argument of sorts is as logical as saying that people have a right to think racist thoughts, that this is part of advocating for people’s “agency.” Of course technically they do. It’s impossible nor desirable to legislate what happens in people’s heads. It is, however, desirable to advocate change toward a more equitable and equal society, if for no other reason than what goes on in people’s heads manifests itself in society as racism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia, etc.

    Of course a man can say that he has a right to be sexist and to constantly objectify women. But isn’t that really beside the point? And isn’t that irrelevant to this really provocative point about how sex-positive individuals, who support a real “sexual liberation,” who may or may not claim to be feminist or profeminist, provides a relaly great place to start?

    It’s really odd that you come on a feminist blog and basically argue for a man’s right to be a sexist (because, of course, sexist people don’t behave in sexist ways, right?). Yeah, I guess it is. But so what?

  9. Nanella said,

    Well said, and I’m always grateful for a heads-up on new and intriguing feminist reads. Not to mention, it’s always refreshing to read essays and commentary from the enlightened male pro-feminist faction. Would that they could all be equally as enlightened.

    My take on sexual objectification, and the salient point of the argument that I believe Arctic_Jay and Christopher are missing, is that there is a distinct difference between perception and behavior. First, A quick digression: Christopher, there is nothing inherently “male” about having a healthy sexual appetite; libido varies from individual to individual and is gender neutral in that respect. Some women can’t stop thinking about sex, some have no interest in it, and most fall somewhere in between on that spectrum. The exact same thing can be said of men. It’s insulting to men to collectively refer to them as slavering sex maniacs that have no control over their behavior. I certainly have a much higher opinion of men than that.

    Ok, now the difference between perception and behavior. I happen to be one of those women with a very healthy sex drive who could be aroused by the appropriate stimuli even if my house was on fire ;-) Whenever I’m out and about and catch sight of a magnificent male specimen, my knee-jerk response is to drink him in through my eyes, lingering on all delectable points from head to toe, but instead I opt to look away and continue about my business. It isn’t easy, it feels like I’m physically struggling against a powerful magnetic force that wants to pull my attention back to the breath-taking Adonis. I manage to resist it, and I accomplish this feat successfully and consistently, even while my hormones are going into overdrive, because I am still the one in charge of this body’s actions, I still maintain absolute control over my faculties. I control my behavior, it doesn’t control me. The gorgeous gentleman who crossed my path didn’t ask to be turned into a sex object, he didn’t consent to be my eye candy for the day. I can’t control the instantaneous hormonal reaction that results from that first glimpse, but I can control what happens next, I can choose to give him my respect by refusing to objectify him. And that’s exactly what I do.

  10. arctic_jay said,

    “As he aptly states, sexual “objectness” is one aspect of a woman’s “self,” one that she may sometimes want to embrace purposefully.”

    A woman, or a man, is able to self-identify as a sex object whether or not others are perceiving her in an equivalent way. This is why your claim that woman are not being granted their autonomy or agency is so strange. They have claim to their own perceptions, but they don’t have claim to the perceptions of others. That’s how it should be.

    “It’s an acknowledgment that women’s sexuality belongs to her and should be defined by her.”

    Sexuality is experiential in nature and exists within an individual’s subjectivity. Any definition is only truly applicable at a personal level. If a woman defines herself, temporarily or not, as a sex object, that act of defining is of importance only to herself and those who choose to accept that definition, as accepting a definition is an act that primarily affects one’s perception, which the perceiver has the sole right to. Also, a man who is in the situation of being sexually attracted to a woman is not defining that woman’s sexuality, but experiencing his own sexuality. Even if he defined a woman as “sexy” in a higher cognitive way, he would not be defining the woman for herself, but for himself. His reaction to the woman and how he labels is a part of his sexuality, not hers. In the same way, the many women who project their homoerotic fantasies on male celebrities in slash fiction writing are defining their own sexualities, not theirs.

    “That part of being anti-sexist and pro-positive sex is that he must refrain from determining women as sexual objects and instead leave that determining up to her.”

    Both have the right to determine it for themselves.

    “And isn’t that irrelevant to this really provocative point about how sex-positive individuals, who support a real “sexual liberation,” who may or may not claim to be feminist or profeminist, provides a relaly great place to start?”

    It’s odd to claim that what your advocating is sexual liberation when what you’re really advocating is sexual repression, and on the level of personal subjectivity no less.

    “It’s really odd that you come on a feminist blog and basically argue for a man’s right to be a sexist (because, of course, sexist people don’t behave in sexist ways, right?). Yeah, I guess it is. But so what?”

    I didn’t argue for a man’s right to be sexist as their is nothing inherently sexist about a man regarding a woman sexual when she is not simultaneously assuming the role of sex object. Anyway, when I read your post it seemed to me that you were arguing your point on ethical or normative grounds, especially since you were appealing to a woman’s right to her own agency. That’s why I made the argument that one has far greater sovereignty over their own subjectivity then they do over the subjectivities of others. It’s important to make that point if you were making an moral case, as it would show that it is fallacious to claim that women have a moral claim to the type of agency you are advocating. If you were not make a moral case and simple stating a preference for a certain type of social interaction, then, yes, there’s really no point of debating. But if you are just stating a preference, then it would be just as apt for me to ask, “so what?”

  11. arctic_jay said,

    “My take on sexual objectification, and the salient point of the argument that I believe Arctic_Jay and Christopher are missing, is that there is a distinct difference between perception and behavior.”

    I did not “miss” this. An argument was made against the perceiving of woman as sexual objects, not just behavior relating to that perception.

    “It isn’t easy, it feels like I’m physically struggling against a powerful magnetic force that wants to pull my attention back to the breath-taking Adonis. I manage to resist it, and I accomplish this feat successfully and consistently, even while my hormones are going into overdrive, because I am still the one in charge of this body’s actions, I still maintain absolute control over my faculties.”

    What if you came across a man who was more beautiful than any you’ve seen before? Or a man twice as beautiful as that? It seems unlikely you’d be able to look away. When something is a struggle, that’s an indication that a task is only barely within one’s abilities to accomplish it. Someone with absolute control over something does not struggle.

  12. Nanella said,

    “I did not “miss” this. An argument was made against the perceiving of woman as sexual objects, not just behavior relating to that perception.”

    No, nowhere in the original post did Lindabeth express the POV that perceived sexual attractiveness is the problem. She did, however, list specific *actions* that relegate a woman to sex object status, thereby diminishing a woman’s value as a human being. Photographing random women and sexualizing the photos without the subject’s consent = action/behavior. Playboy ranking female bloggers’ worth according to perceived sexiness and trying to entice them to take their clothes off = action. Assessing the fuckability of female candidates in the media = action. Sexualized photos of female Olympian athletes in MSM = action. Scoping out Olympians’ buttocks = action.

    Objectification is always a choice on the part of the would-be objectifier, even if the appropriate non-objectifying course of action is as simple as turning your head when accidentally viewing a naked woman who hadn’t shucked her clothes expressly for your viewing pleasure and didn’t offer a personal invitation to admire her body.

    “What if you came across a man who was more beautiful than any you’ve seen before? Or a man twice as beautiful as that? It seems unlikely you’d be able to look away.”

    I’m 99.9% certain that, thanks to the modern miracle that is the internet and my former porn addiction, I have seen the male physique in its most spectacular and awe-inspiring state. Besides, I’ve yet to see a scrap of scientific evidence confirming that sexual arousal causes an impairment in cognitive functioning. You can be momentarily dumbstruck by the sight of a gorgeous person, but what happens next in your personal narrative is entirely up to you. You’re telling me that if someone held a gun to your head and said they’d blow your brains out if you so much as glanced in the direction of a beautiful naked women dancing directly in front of you, you couldn’t manage to keep your eyes averted to save your life? I imagine you’d survive that encounter.

    “Someone with absolute control over something does not struggle.”

    Control is attaining mastery over something or someone, it does not denote the absolute vanquishing of oppositional forces. One definition of “control” (from Dictionary.com) is just that: To hold in restraint; check. A dam controls the flow of water, but that doesn’t mean the water ceases to push against it.

  13. arctic_jay said,

    “Assessing the fuckability of female candidates in the media = action.”

    Assessing is a type of mental process. If you consider mental processes to be actions and action to be equivalent to behavior, then you’re left with the conclusion that thinking is a type of behavior. This is obviously not what is typically meant by behavior.

    “No, nowhere in the original post did Lindabeth express the POV that perceived sexual attractiveness is the problem. She did, however, list specific *actions* that relegate a woman to sex object status, thereby diminishing a woman’s value as a human being.”

    It wasn’t the behavior per se that Lindabeth was criticizing as the exact same behavior can be appropriate or inappropriate depending on the agent’s intent. Two men watching beach volleyball and focusing on the same body parts are enacting the same behavior. The man doing so out of admiration for their athletic abilities is not being sexist, while the man doing so for the purposes of sexual gratification is. That this argument is being made is evident in Lindabeth’s point about “defining,” and in the fact that she didn’t make a distinction between perception and behavior in her response to my response, the way you did.

    “I imagine you’d survive that encounter.”

    Well, seeing as I don’t find women’s bodies particularly appealing, I imagine I’d survive as well. But, your example supports my position. Most people would survive, but only because survival instincts are usually stronger than sexual instincts. The question is is will power always stronger than base instincts? The position that people have complete autonomy in the face of their desires is not one taken by any philosophy of autonomy I’m aware of, especially feminist ones. Most would say that a drug addict, for example, is not always making an autonomous choice when they shoot up, since their higher order desires are often to not want to want to get high, yet weaker than wanting to get high. Take your porn addiction; were you able to quit immediately, or did it take time and effort? Do you ever relapse?

    “Control is attaining mastery over something or someone, it does not denote the absolute vanquishing of oppositional forces.”

    You forgot your modifier there. Absolute means not subject to limitation. Absolute control means having an unlimited ability to restrain oneself from certain actions. Therefore any desire would minute in comparison to the ability to restrain it. Again, one would not struggle if one had absolute control.

  14. Lemur said,

    Jay, are you seriously saying it’s ok to NOT ONLY look at women’s bodies, but say and do things that indicate your percepetion of these women as sexualized, even when they’re trying not to be? And the media’s spoken/written assessment of female candidates isn’t only mental, it’s public. Are you really saying it’s ok to comment on Palin’s boobs, or that all those gratituous ass-shots of the women’s volleyball players are ok? That’s objectification. The thoughts in one’s head can’t be controlled absolutely. But whether or not you ogle some woman who isn’t expressly inviting you to ogle her IS controllable.
    So? Do you think it’s okay to turn a woman into a sex object or not?


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