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Comes Naturally #5

Comes Naturally issues: 1-25 / 26-50 / 51-75 / 76-100 / 101-125 / 126-150 / 151-175

On Sexual Objectification

Objectification 101: How Can So Much Misunderstanding Derive from a Simple Double Entendre?

I've been wanting to spin some thoughts on "The Sexual Objectification of Women" for a while now, so I guess I'm glad that Layne's last column gives me an appropriate excuse. As Spectator's Rational Editor knows very well, and the rest of you need to know also, aside from being my editor Layne is also my good friend. He is a man with a warm heart, an inquiring mind, an unrelenting class consciousness, and a keen, twinkling eye for the quirks and nuances of human nature and behavior. Layne and I come from somewhat different perspectives around such things as feminism and gender issues, and the sparks we have generated pushing off against our differences have delighted both of us across many a beer or a decaf latte'. So it's in this spirit that I say that his last column left me feeling vaguely exasperated, like I had just come through a time warp (1958) or a culture warp (men from Mars; women from Venus; me from where?). What's a smart guy like you doing in an attitude like this? I wondered. And I also sighed for the thousandth time about how hard it is for women and men to understand to each other about these super-charged sex and sex role issues.

To be fair, I need to take the weight of this issue off of Layne and put it back on the shoulders of my fellow feminists where it belongs. If the feminists who first raised the issue of sexual objectification can't stay clear on what they're talking about, how can anyone else be clear, especially those supposedly strange creatures with dicks between their thighs?

At the risk of immersing myself in one of those forever quagmires (like the Bosnia-Herzegovina, Israeli-Arab, or Mars-Venus Wars), here's a notso -humble shot at clarification:

Once upon a time, when feminism was young, innovative, and almost unbearable brilliant, sexual objectification of women (not the fun kind) meant, quite simply, the absence of female subjectivity in sex. Women were sexually objectified when sex was defined essentially in male terms -- where sex focused on male pleasure and energy so strongly that women's desires, wants and needs were rendered irrelevant. Sexual objectification of women meant reducing women to sexual non-beings, to receptacles for male sexuality, body parts, or fluids.

Maybe this sounds absurdly grim and caricatured as a vision of sexual reality, but I dare say that even now, 25 years into the new feminism and the so-called sexual revolution, this is only a slightly simplified description of what a great deal of sex is all about. The man wants; the woman gives the man what he wants. Many, many men are still ridiculously ignorant about what women want or like in sex, what turns them on, what gives them pleasure, physically or emotionally. Maybe men just haven't been reading all the information women have generated on this subject in the last 25 years. Maybe they just don't want to share sexual center stage with anyone else. But the male-centered attitude is still pervasive, and needless to say upsetting to any woman with a clear sense of her own sexuality and a reluctance to give herself up in the name of being accommodating.

Now this kind of sexual discounting needs to be distinguished from what also gets called sexual objectification, which is women as objects of male sexual desire. Being the object of desire (male or female) -- whether that be around nice tits, nice hair, nice belief systems, nice attitude, nice Mercedes, nice batting eyelashes, nice razor-sharp tongue, or nice form with a whip -- need have nothing to do with sexual objectification in its original sense. Sometimes the two go together; sometimes not at all. The issue is not whether it's ok to be turned on about this or that about a woman or her body, but whether women stop being entitled to full subject status in the sexual connection. We talking two people here, or a man and a thing? Two-way energy flow, or all him to her?

Unfortunately, with the progressive fuzzification of feminist thinking and rhetoric, this double-take on the word object has taken all the anger women feel at being ignored as sexual subjects and directed it toward the very idea of women as objects of male sexual desire. The result is that men like Layne, in the process of defending their right to their desire, and to including women's bodies as enjoyable aspects of that desire, dismiss the issue of sexual objectification as a silly, or boring, pre-occupation of a bunch of up-tight asexual political authoritarians.

The experience of being sexually objectified (in its original, dehumanizing sense) is so foreign to men that men have a hard time understanding what that experience is like. I remember a television ad from several years ago-- I think it was for Arrow shirts. It showed a young executive type -- suit, tie, Arrow shirt -- being interviewed, ogled and admired by a bevy of panting women reporters. The camera angle points up at the man from about knee height and down from over the heads of the women in the audience. The guy is beaming from all the adulation and attention -- smiling, squaring his shoulders, strutting a little. Finally one of the reporters asks how it feels to be sexually objectified. "Great!" he answers, supposedly sending us all out to buy Arrow shirts in order to get in on the joy of objectification.

This kind of objectification -- being the object of desire -- is indeed something that most men would like to have a whole lot more of in their lives. This is a big part of why we are so attracted to pornography -- because it lets us imagine ourselves being lusted after by the very sorts of women we most lust for ourselves.

The experience of being sexually objectified in the original feminist sense of the term, however, has none of this sales (or sex) appeal. How many men would want to be with partners who just used their cocks to get off with, not just occasionally but most all the time? How many men would want sexual partners who rarely thought or cared about what they wanted, who assumed that they were interested, most of all, in their partners' pleasure? "Did I come? Well, no, but just knowing that I turn you on makes me so happy that I don't really care." Or: "Just watching you get excited makes me so excited that I come whether you pay attention to me or not." Not too likely.

Now if a woman enjoys giving pleasure to her partner, enjoys being emotionally or physically dominated, enjoys being submissive, or passive, or coy, or teasey, or wearing red lipstick and five-inch heels -- and if her partner also gets off on that scene -- then everybody's happy and it doesn't matter whether Andrea Dworkin or John Stoltenberg of Layne or I understand or share their inclinations. Our bodies, ourselves -- right? A woman's right to choose. I'm not trying to say that one form of turn-on is good while another is bad. The feminists went off course when they shifted from advocating women's right to their own desires, pleasure, and satisfaction, to dictating the correct and incorrect things for women to want in sex. The heart of feminism -- my feminism, the early feminism, before feminism became confused with know-nothing anger toward men -- is about women having control over their lives (= power), having choices -- not about substituting one system of sexual orthodoxy for another.

But Layne, the question of "making women into objects, focusing on body parts while completely leaving out personalities, intelligence and individual feelings" is a different issue, and not so easily dismissed as "boring." If "the record is stuck in a groove" on this one it's because there has been so little movement on this issue over the years.

Nice tits? Sure. We all like nice tits. Maybe we even have some individuality in what we think of as "nice tits." But being pleased with someone's tits and reducing them to nice tits on legs are two different things.

Again, let's turn the issue around, genderwise. Some people tell me (I hope I can say this without seeming weird) that I have a nice ass. That's fine with me. That's more than fine with me. But if all anyone could think of or look at while they were talking to me was my ass, that would get very old in a hurry.

And it's not just a question of whether a guy is so retrograde that he drools out loud over someone's tits or has the smarts to keep his drooling to himself. The fuck-up, if you want to call it that, is not a question of strategy, but of attitude toward the person you find sexually attractive. We all need to learn more about how to be attracted to someone and keep them present as sexual subjects, as independent sexual beings. It's one thing to be attracted to a person with nice tits; it's something else again to just be attracted to tits. And I dare say that the guy who's pretending to carry on a conversation with a person while his brain's just going "tits, tits, tits" isn't going to be interesting or attractive to the woman behind the tits for very long.

Objectification 201: Subtlety and Nuance

There's also a second level in the objectification issue, more subtle and more difficult. Let's agree that it's fine for women to be objects of sexual desire, and fine for part of that magnetism to be how they look. But if being objects of (male) desire is all that women are supposed to be, or the one available way for women to get attention, positive energy, appreciation, or power, that raises other questions. I'd be the last to go neo-feminist simple-minded and say that the overwhelming emphasis on women's sexual desirability and appearance reduces all male-to-female sexual attraction to the patriarchal subordination of women. But the empowerment of women by fulfilling male images of desirable sex objects is definitely a double-edged sword.

There is real basis for a thoughtful feminist critique of Madonna, for example. Yes, Madonna is being revolutionary by operating in the arena of male-directed sexual desirability on her own terms, but at the same time she confirms the traditional notion that women must exploit (and manipulate) their sexual desirability to get what they want from men. I say half a revolutionary is better than none, but I sympathize with those who would like to see Madonna challenge aspects of the sexual status quo that she seems happy to leave intact.

So, dear Layne, god yes, admire nice tits all you want. You're right: there's no way, given who we are, not to notice nice tits (not to mention nice cunts, asses, legs, mouths, eyes, hair, backs, bellies, and faces). Let's be up front and honest about this, rather than sweeping these feelings under some supposedly politically correct, polite, or proper rug. I wouldn't dream of taking away anyone's fantasies, not even the blood and guts you review in Redeemer magazine.

Suck 'em, bite 'em, touch 'em, squeeze 'em, dream about 'em, whatever you want. Get into it, but get beyond it too. Tunnel-vision tit-focus isn't necessarily degrading, but it does have a way of getting simply boring. And if it's not shallow, it's definitely narrow. I mean, do the sexiest women you know all have nice tits? Do the most interesting women you know all have nice tits? Do the most sexually interesting women you know all have nice tits? If so, I dare say you're missing some amazing people and experiences.

Objectification 301: Field Study and Thesis

Let me second Carol Queen's enthusiasm about Linda Serbu's performance piece, So You Want to Be a Stripper. It's inspiring to see people who do stigmatized sexual work speaking more and more in their own voices about their lives and their experiences. I was reminded of Catherine Harrison's recent play, Permission, which was a similar insider's look at sex work -- in that case, the world of the professional dominatrix.

Serbu's collage of backstage vignettes and on-stage performance pieces is effective in presenting her somewhat grim perspective on the world of stripping and lap dancing. She has a broad sympathy for the dilemmas of various dancer "types" as they work through their feelings about themselves and their work. She also has an apparently universal disdain for the men who attend the theatres, all of whom were portrayed as one form or another of losers or jerks. By the end of the play I found myself wondering if the dancers I know are simply oddballs in that world -- women who see both their work and the men in the audience in essentially positive terms.

Whatever helps us see sex workers -- strippers, lap dancers, prostitutes, dominatrices -- in real rather than stereotypical terms is a great step forward. Tim Keefe's book, Some of My Best Friends Are Naked, hot off the press with intelligent, in-depth interviews with dancers from the Lusty Lady, and some older books like A Vindication of the Rights of Whores (Gail Pheterson), Good Girls, Bad Girls (Laurie Bell), and Sex Work (Fre'de'rique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander), also offer real understanding about both the people involved in sex work and the nature of the work itself.

Spectator, March 5, 1993

Copyright © 1993 David Steinberg

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