Ass, boobs, abs, you name it we love it. It is a rare day (in Australia at least) where you do not see at least a couple of dozen sexy body parts during your day-to-day activities; billboard advertisements, magazines, news websites, people on the street, sex is everywhere. And that’s even before you take into account our efforts to actually track these things down – given approximately 25% of all internet traffic is related to porn, the odds are good that you participate in sexual media actively as well as passively.
While the vast majority of this sexiness is pretty uncontroversial in and of itself, the overwhelming trend to sex things up has been noted as having some nasty cultural side effects. For teenagers in particular, the endless bombardment of sexualised, photoshopped out the wazoo images, sends some pretty bizarre messages about what is normal – measuring yourself again underwear models or porn stars isn’t going to flatter 99.99% of the general public and depression, reckless behaviour and some pretty shitty life goals can very easily follow.
The phenomenon is known as ‘objectification’ in feminist circles and it’s a pretty big deal, since it’s seen as a great example of women being oppressed on a cultural level. After all, why bother fighting to keep women down when you can just convince people that being a second-class citizen is just normal?
By portraying women as sexy objects (or a collection of sexy body parts that happen to be connected), you’re effectively sending the message that the women involved exist for a specific purpose: sex. No big complexities, no character flaws (or character at all for that matter), or needs to take into consideration – just a thing to be used and discarded when no longer needed.
Nothing sexier than getting alcohol on your lady bits. Feel that burn!
Oh and gents, just in case you were feeling left out at this point the same is totally true for you as well – the impossible standards you’re expected to conform to are just a little different:
This is not to say that these sort of images go out to deliberately degrade women/men, or are even intended to send a message at all. Nor do the people seeing them automatically start behaving like arseholes ‘because the ad told me to’. But what these sorts of images definitely do is create a constant background noise that contributes to what we all consider ‘normal’. And when it comes to influencing human behaviour, you should never ever underestimate the power of ‘normal’.
Hey guys, let’s all mock these people for enjoying something we don’t understand!
This video lays it out the whole argument against objectification pretty clearly. Do a quick experiment with me: have a watch and see how it makes you feel.
Enjoy that? Did you find it satisfying, compelling and/or convincing? No? Me neither.
Why? Well it might have something to do with the two massive holes in the entire theory of sexual objectification – holes that feminists have generally failed badly at recognising, let alone addressing.
There is nothing wrong with sex
One of the longest running feminist messages has been that female sexuality should be embraced and celebrated. Women should be free and comfortable with going out, having sex with whoever they want, whenever they want, how they want and expect that their needs be met by their partner(s) – you know, in exactly the same way men feel free to do already.
(Please note: when discussing these big issues, ‘men’ and ‘women’ are used collectively and generally. I am VERY aware that there are exceptions on both sides to the above statement, but we’re talking trends here, not individuals. If you still feel the need to tell me your specific anecdote about how these stereotypes aren’t fair, please read this first)
But feminists get into trouble when this ‘sex positive’ message runs into the ‘objectification is bad’ message – how can objectification be a bad thing when it involves embracing a person’s sexuality? And conversely, how can the free expressions of sexuality be a good thing when it allows and encourages others to sexually objectify our bodies?
This conflict came to a head a few years ago with Slut Walk; a series of global protests in reaction against an extremely stupid statement by a campus security officer that women should “avoid dressing like sluts” to prevent rape. Women everywhere marched in opposition to these idiotic statements, often dressing very sexually in public to make the point that state of dress doesn’t cause rape – rapists do.
Surprisingly this caused quite a bit of backlash from other feminists. Why? Because by parading themselves publically in sexy clothes, it was argued that the protestors were actually portraying themselves as sexual objects – sending the exact opposite message to what they intended. The shit subsequently hit the fan in no uncertain terms.
The big flaw in this aversion to sexual objectification is that it describes the vast majority of sexual attraction of all time, ever.
This is not so much a cultural norm as it is pure biology – it’s no surprise that the things we generally find sexy also happen to indicate good breeding genetics. Large breasts for lactation, fit bodies for health, pleasant smells indicate good immune system compatibility, and yes, ‘dat ass’ is a great indicator that you can breed without breaking in the process.
But even ignoring these influences, sexual objectification of others just is a flat-out necessity. Even in the most loving an intimate of relationships, it is bluntly impossible to be aroused by the entirety of a person – no matter how attractive, how wonderful and how mature, every single person will have flaws and characteristics you find unappealing or a downright turn-off. Even Leonardo DiCaprio and/or Jenifer Lawrence poop, and I doubt they’re attractive in the process.
Force yourself to consider every single part of a person during sex is going to end badly. For one thing it’s going to make it hard to concentrate on the fun parts.
Even if you somehow manage to ignore the physical and focus on other qualities like stability, respectfulness, a good sense of humour, guess what – you’re still objectifying the person in question, you’re just choosing different qualities to focus on.
Hell this happens all the time, every day. My barista may well be a highly developed individual with complex needs that he deserves to have understood, but its 8am, I’m on 5 hours of sleep (we’ll get to that in another post) and I don’t have the emotional energy to give a shit. For my purposes, he is a thing that dispenses coffee and occasionally says something nice. And let’s be frank; he’d likely be a bit creeped out if I tried. For his purposes, I am a thing that makes orders, pays money, takes coffee and also happens to perform a one-person zombie apocalypse every morning.
We’re doing it to ourselves
The other major hole in the objectification debate is right there on show in the video. Apparently the irony of objecting to sexual objectification while wearing lipstick and a low-neckline was kinda lost on the presenter.
This is not to argue that she shouldn’t wear whatever she wants, but it definitely begs the question why she chose to wear that outfit to make this video. Didn’t she notice that arguing we shouldn’t portray people as a collection of sexy parts, while at the same time wearing clothes/makeup specifically designed to draw attention to those parts, sends a bit of a mixed message?
Yeah, yeah, she wasn’t dressing for anyone else, she was dressing for herself, right? Bullshit buddy. I could spend hours on this topic alone, but suffice to say that there is literally no other reason other than appearances to wear such an impractical garment and/or smear red paste on your mouth. And while I’m sure that she indeed does find her outfit aesthetically pleasing herself, this doesn’t change the fact that those preferences came from somewhere in the first place – that is, the exact same cultural norms that she objects to in the video. Fashion does not exist without an audience (or at least the concept of one).
The exact same point applies to pretty much every example of objectification out there – no one is forcing people to be models. No one is forcing women to take jobs that blatantly present them as sexual objects, and no one is forcing men to portray ridiculous physical standards as the norm.
The awful truth is that no matter how horrifically stereotypical, sexist or flat out demeaning the portrayal, someone agreed to be portrayed like that (or took the cash and didn’t ask any questions, which is essentially the same thing – another topic for another post). Sure this doesn’t mean it’s not wrong to make these portrayals, but when another major tenant of feminist is that women (and men, though it rarely needs saying) be given the freedom to make their own decisions, how then can we complain when they choose to use their bodies to make a dollar?
Freedom brings with it the responsibility to make good quality choices, but we’re talking about a large scale cultural phenomenon here. Is it reasonable to ask a specific actress not to participate in a specific sexual (but not hateful) ad campaign because it might contribute to a massive sociological trend? And indeed, even if that ad does contribute to that trend, whose fault is that? The person making the ad or the audience that perceives it that way?
Booty is in the eye of the beholder (sorry, couldn’t resist)
So where does this all leave us? Objectification sets nasty norms that have been proven to lead to social problems, but at the same time it’s something that everyone participates in whether they like it or not. It does in fact compose a significant part of a healthy sexuality.
Are we ‘sex positive’ or ‘pro-respect’ feminists? How can we reconcile this massive contradiction in core feminist theory?
Well happily the answer is pretty straight forward; it all comes down to how we see things.
Objectification is a core part of our sexuality, and even if we agreed that was a bad thing, there is literally no chance of it ever going away. Boobs, ass and abs are awesome and will forever be awesome.
But all the negative effects of our focus on these bits, at the exclusion of the rest of us, can be eliminated by focussing not just on what we see, but on how we understand what we see.
Sure sexual objectification in media, websites and advertising may well set a poor standard for how we treat each other, but that doesn’t mean we need to accept that standard – indeed given the unprecedented level of sex available for our viewing pleasure these days, the gradually improving attitudes towards gender equality in most countries prove this is pretty much the rule rather than the exception.
In much the same way that I can read a racist website and be in no way influenced to agree with it, so too can we all enjoy sexualised images and not walk away seeing other people as objects for our sexual gratification. And happily the methods for achieving this are also the same methods that help us fight racism, bigotry and other forms of idiocy: education, critical thinking, being well informed and open to changing our ideas.
Fight the powers that be
That’s all very well for us, but probably not that helpful since if you’re reading this, odds are you’re not a sexist pig in the first place. And there will always be plenty of people out there who will jump on the first excuse to be an arsehole, so us being great individuals is not going to be enough.
Well happily there’s something we can do about the broader culture as well: stop buying into bullshit.
Is a company advertising their product with a floating pair of disembodied tits? Don’t buy that product and mock those that do.
Someone purchasing Ax or Lynx body spray because ‘the chicks in the ad are hot as’? Laugh at this person.
Is the porn site you’re on frequently describing the men or women in their videos as sluts, bitches, whores, animals or fags? Find a better site (there is no shortage).
These may seem like tiny pointless statements, but this is how cultures are changed – one interpersonal interaction at a time. You can scream your opinion from the rooftops all you want, but nothing influences a person like the opinions of their peers.
And then we can all enjoy dat ass, confident in the knowledge that the owner of said ass enjoys it as much as we do.