Why I Am Not a Feminist - and You Shouldn't Be Either part 2: The Objectionable Concept of Objectification

From eatingdisordersfacts.org
          Feminists theorize that one of the ways men subjugate women is by objectifying them. The idea is that a man, as part of the wider male conspiracy, makes a point of letting girls and young women know they’re constantly being ogled by people who are evaluating them and comparing them to other women—based solely on their physical features. Even compliments can contribute to this heightened awareness and concern for appearance, since they let women know what aspects of their persons are attention-worthy. The most heinous example of objectification is the casual dismissal of a woman’s ideas in the workplace and the substitution of some remark about her appearance in place of the serious consideration her idea deserves.

            Or maybe the most heinous example of objectification is the parading of impossibly attractive actresses and dangerously thin models all over the media landscape, setting the standards of beauty so high young women can never even hope to compete. In Hollywood, directors are fond of lovingly sweeping their cameras over their favorite parts of a female’s anatomy to let every young woman viewing the films know precisely what men find most appealing. The lustful male gaze is thus a powerful tool of oppression because it causes women to feel self-conscious and insecure—or so the feminist theory suggests (or, rather, one of the feminist theories).

            Looking through the  ever-looming feminist lens at statistics about how much more common self-esteem issues and eating disorders are among girls has a predictable impact on how we view boys. “Inevitably, boys are resented,” writes Christina Hoff Sommers in her book The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men, setting them up to be

seen both as the unfairly privileged gender and as obstacles on the path to gender justice for girls. There is an understandable dialectic: the more girls are portrayed as diminished, the more boys are regarded as needing to be taken down a notch and reduced in importance. (23-4) (excerpt)

The effect on young boys of being taught this theory of oppression by objectification must be akin to the effect of Catholic preachings about the fallen state of man and the danger to their souls of succumbing to the temptations of carnal desire. At some point, they’re going to start experiencing that desire, they’re not going to be able to do anything about it, and it’s going to make them feel pretty guilty. It’s a bit similar as well to what young homosexuals must experience growing up with families who believe attraction toward members of the same sex is sinful and unnatural.

            Men look at women and assess their attractiveness. They even get aroused merely from the sight of women who have certain features. Movie-makers and marketers know all about men’s fondness for checking out women. I’m not going to cite any of the research from the field of evolutionary psychology that explores whether or not men’s passion for beautiful women is something that occurs reliably in diverse cultures, or whether or not there are certain features that are considered beautiful by men all over the world. I’m not going to recite the logic of natural selection as it pertains to mate selection and the relative cost of reproduction. You can find that stuff anywhere, and you’ve probably already got some response to it worked out.

I’m going to do my best to explain why objectification can’t be a valid theory and doesn’t in any way establish the need for any social and political movement pitting the genders against each other at as purely practical a level as I can manage.

Objectification goes wrong before even getting beyond the term itself. Men aren’t—humans aren’t—with a few rare exceptions, attracted to or sexually aroused by objects. By being attracted to or sexually aroused by a woman, a man is in fact acknowledging her humanity. We humans are physical beings, and sex is a physical act. It stands to reason that in assessing a potential sexual partner’s compatibility, we focus a great deal on physical attributes. We have to distinguish humans from objects obviously, and we have to have some other criteria on which to base our decisions about who to couple with. For one thing, we need a way to figure out whether the prospective partner is mature enough for sex—so features signaling sexual maturity tend to be seen as attractive. And, since most people prefer to couple with members of one sex over the other, features signaling that membership will also tend to be seen as attractive.

Individualist feminist (there’s got to be a better term) Wendy McElroy, in a defense of pornography, points out the flaw in thinking of objectification as automatically and invariably degrading, using logic very similar to mine:

The assumed degradation is often linked to the 'objectification'   
of women: that is, porn converts them into sexual objects. What 
does this mean? If taken literally, it means nothing because 
objects don't have sexuality; only beings do. But to say that porn 
portrays women as 'sexual beings' makes for poor rhetoric. 
Usually, the term 'sex objects' means showing women as 'body 
parts', reducing them to physical objects. What is wrong with 
this? Women are as much their bodies as they are their minds or 
souls. No one gets upset if you present women as 'brains' or as 
'spiritual beings'. If I concentrated on a woman's sense of humor 
to the exclusion of her other characteristics, is this degrading? 
Why is it degrading to focus on her sexuality?

Few women, as far as I know, complain about being treated as sexual beings by men they happen to be attracted to. The trouble arises when they’re treated that way when it’s inappropriate, as in the work situation I’ve described. The problem in such situations—and of course I agree it’s a problem—isn’t that the woman is seen as an object; it’s not even that she’s being recognized as attractive; it’s that someone is refusing to see her as more than merely a sexual being.

            But why do men have to be so obsessed with sex? And why does it seem like a woman’s role as a sexual being takes precedence over her other roles so frequently? Practically speaking, if two people who don’t know each other are going to begin a physical relationship, at least one of them must be motivated to pursue and get to know the other. Since the pursuer doesn’t yet know anything about the pursued, all there is to go on is physical appearance. Think about this for a second or two and you’ll come to a realization most women take for granted and, as long as it’s not in the context of a discussion about gender oppression, freely admit: Being the one who is the most motivated to pursue a relationship puts you at a disadvantage. An attractive woman has the power to accept or reject overtures from any of her suitors—and the more attractive she is the more of them she’ll have to choose from.
From CDC

           It’s just as legitimate to look at the numbers of women who suffer from eating disorders or undergo risky surgeries to improve their looks as evidence of an intense desire on the part of females to have the upper hand over men. The problem young girls face is the same problem young boys face—competition for attractive partners is unavoidable. Judging from suicide statistics, the consequences of this competition are even direr for the boys. The explanation for girls’ increasing self-consciousness and their more readily resorting to more extreme measures is probably the simple fact that media technology has opened the world up to everyone like never before, so that now the standards of beauty are determined by a contest with a much larger pool of contestants—not to mention the technological wonders of digital alteration.

            All the panic notwithstanding, this wider field of competition may actually be a societal boon. Some people of both genders harm themselves trying to be thin or athletic. At the same time, though, the obesity epidemic is doing even more harm. It’s easy to find stats and figures on anorexia, but how many people, after seeing a Victoria’s Secret model or that Twilight kid with his shredded abs, simply forgo that extra helping they were tempted to devour? And the competition extends beyond the realm of physical appearance. We don’t usually complain about how the work of geniuses makes it difficult for us to say anything interesting—even though we have to assume many first dates end in disappointment owing to lackluster conversation. What’s so special about attractiveness that it calls for protection from high standards? (This is not to say that there aren't plenty of other good reasons not to watch crap TV and read glitzy crap magazines.)

            Even if women admit that they like sex and that male attention is flattering, most of them will still attest to having experienced unwanted or inappropriate sexual attention or commentary at some point. While a lot of the time their complaints about this issue are probably bragging in disguise, that at least sometimes male attention can be downright scary or just outrageously inappropriate is undeniable. Still, women have to keep in mind that men like to tease their friends, often aggressively, and the point at which intimate liberty-taking shades into something more malicious is often ambiguous.

            And if you think a workplace dominated by females would be some kind of peaceful utopia, you probably haven’t spent much time around groups of women. If a man has a problem with you, he’s much more likely to tell you directly. Women, on the other hand, are much more likely to smile to your face and then attack your reputation when your back is turned. This is one of those patterns that emerge reliably across cultures; psychologists call it indirect aggression. I’m citing it because it’s not about beauty standards or male desire—and because it underscores the point that when a man makes some comment about a woman’s "proper role" it’s an act of aggression perpetrated by an individual, not an act of political or economic oppression for which the entire gender is guilty.
From shortsupport.org 1
            Those perpetrators are also much more likely to be at the bottom of the workplace hierarchy than they are at the top. Studies of natural hierarchy formation find that self-sacrifice and altruism are key determiners of status. There is also strong evidence that people resort to aggression primarily to compensate for low status. Although unwanted sexual advances aren’t acts of aggression, a rejected man’s effort to save face can certainly be frightening. The important thing to keep in mind, though, is that even these face-saving measures aren’t politically motivated. The guy’s not belittling the woman from a position of power; his position is in fact pitiable. (I'll even make a prediction: the guy who's bugging you--he's short isn't he?)

            What do neuroscientists and psychologists say about the nature of men’s lustful gazes? A small preliminary imaging study presented at an AAAS meeting in Chicago by Susan Fiske seemed to offer some support for the idea of objectification. When men were put in scanners and allowed to look at pictures of women, the region of the brain that motivates and manages male conspiracies lit up like a Christmas tree--sorry, couldn't help myself. Here is the claim Fiske actually made: 

            I’m not saying that they literally think these photographs of 
            women are photographs of tools per se, or photographs of 
            non-humans, but what the brain imaging data allow us to do   
            is to look at it as scientific metaphor. That is, they are  
            reacting to these photographs as people react to objects.   
            (Quoted here)

However, Fiske goes on to say that when she matched the scans with surveys of attitudes she discovered that “the hostile sexists were likely to deactivate the part of the brain that thinks about other people’s intentions.” So along with the part of the brain associated with using tools, people who aren’t “hostile sexists” actually do think about naked people’s intentions. This finding has actually been replicated.

            The most comprehensive study to date on how people’s attitudes are affected by viewing pictures of scantily clad women and men concludes that while seeing skin does in fact lead to a diminishment in assessments of agency, it leads to an increase in assessments of a capacity to experience either pleasure or pain. The authors write: 

            To the extent that this modified framework concerning    
            perceptions of the mind and body turns out to be correct, it is 
            inaccurate to describe the body focus as inducing  
            “objectification.” People who seem especially embodied are 
            not treated as mere physical objects but, instead, like 
            nonhuman animals, as beings who are less capable of 
            thinking or reasoning but who may be even more capable of 
            desires, sensations, emotions, and passions. (12)

Looking at other humans like they’re animals isn’t much better than looking at them like objects—but the study was of people looking at pictures of individuals they’d never met. Assuming a capacity for desires, sensations, emotions, and passions is, at least in my opinion, a really good start considering the pictures are of naked people in sexually suggestive poses; people with more clothes were perceived to be more like robots. (So show more skin to hide your agendas, as if you didn't already know.) The authors not only take issue with the term objectification; they also failed to discover any justification for thinking the changes that occur in attitudes toward strangers based on how much skin they’re showing are only experienced by men:

Objectification is often discussed in terms of men objectifying women …, but we found that both men and women strip agency and confer experience to both men and women when a bodily focus is induced. (11)

This study’s findings dovetail almost perfectly with those of a study that found men who watch a moderate amount of pornography demonstrate less sexist attitudes in general, but when sexism does emerge in relation to porn it tends toward so-called "benevolent sexism," the supposedly paternalistic, protective, and worshipful variety (the measures for which are shot through with dubious feminist assumptions).

            Benevolent or not, men's feelings toward women in porn are probably the starkest proof that objectification is a nonsensical idea: if men were aroused by objects or instruments, the women in x-rated videos would be passive and inert as often as they are active and enthusiastic. I don't have any numbers to cite on this but I'd say most men, by far, cringe at the thought of taking pleasure without reciprocating. Advocates of objectification theory seem to worry that someone will sneak up behind a man and slap him on the back while he's looking at a woman as a sexual being, causing his mind to get stuck that way. I can't be the only man who on more than one occasion has had sex with one woman only to drive to work a short time afterward and speak to other women in a purely professional capacity. Guys looking at porn and then going to work--got to be happening millions of times a day. People shift modes all the time.
            The study that questions the term objectification is titled “More Than a Body: Mind Perception and the Nature of Objectification.” Tellingly, when Peircarlo Valdesolo reported on it for Scientific American, the headline read “How Our Brains Turn Women Into Objects.” In my future post on the hysteria (yes, I’m using this term with a sexist etymology ironically) over the “gendering” of children, I’m going to point out how this flagship publication for popular science seems to be bowing to pressure to be more feminist-friendly. Valdesolo, to be fair, did include a subheading: “There is, it turns out, more than one kind of ‘objectification’.” Those quotation marks notwithstanding, I still have to object—no, in fact, there aren’t any kinds of objectification. (A later “60-Second Mind” podcast has a much more accurate title and subheading: “How We View Half-Naked Men and Women: Research finds that scantily-clad women and men are judged in similar ways.”)

            Make no mistake, those hostile sexists are out there. But not all of them are men. Some people, women and men, are hell-bent on plunging this country back into the dark ages and on dispelling all the evolution craziness that gets taught in schools, all the global warming crap, all the godlessness. These people are sure to belittle and disparage anyone, woman or man, with more liberal or libertarian leanings (and we them). Make no mistake on the point too that while mixing up objectification and attraction is wrong and offensive, there are acts that really do deny the humanity and sovereignty of women and men. In America, we can be glad that it's overwhelmingly more likely for the most disadvantaged people to be either the perpetrators or the victims of such acts. I believe, nonetheless, that by targeting the forces behind their disadvantage we can and should be doing more to prevent such acts.

           The stats on part 1 of Why I Am Not a Feminist: Earnings are still blowing up. But the comments have stopped coming in. Please let me know what you think. Feel free as well to share this post with anyone you think can tear it apart.
Read part 3: Engendering Gender Madness
Read my response to commenters.