Sunday, July 24, 2011

Objectification: why not?

(Written for some folks on facebook.)

What does it even mean? Well, to objectify someone is to treat them as an object, rather than a subject. A subject has the capacity for subjective values, preferences, emotions, and beliefs that matter; an object does not.

In this culture, men are most frequently objectified as sources of money and (particularly in Mormonism) decision makers. This happens when men are expected to financially support and "preside over" a family without any regard to their actual preferences. It also happens when their ability to make money is considered the most important or only important thing about them. When this happens, a man might as well be a money making robot--or an ATM. An object.

Correspondingly, women are most frequently objectified as providers of sexual pleasure. Women's bodies are routinely described as the most important or only important part of them.

So what's wrong with that? I'm not going to pretend to be arbiter of objective morality. My problem with you objectifying women is that it makes me uncomfortable. Very likely, it makes other people uncomfortable too. From my perspective, there are three possible explanations for your behavior:

1. You don't realize that it bothers people
2. You are aware, but you feel that it has benefits which outweigh the discomfort it causes
3. You are aware, and you're just a jerk

I'm hoping/guessing it's number one.

One reason it bothers me is that I don't really understand why you're doing it. Let's say you post in a facebook group that you are only attracted to slender, blond (white), tanned women with great muscle definition, stunning faces, and b or c-cup breasts. After the first 45 seconds of feeling sorry for you--since you're clearly unable to experience the pleasure I do when viewing a much wider variety of bodies--I start wondering why you've told me this. If this just came up once in awhile, I'd think to myself, "Whatever. I guess he needs to out himself as an anorexiabarbiephile. Sometimes we all just have that kind of day; poor kid must need a hug." However, it seems like there are guys who feel the need to talk about this almost constantly, and it seems to extend significantly beyond simply sharing "this is the kind of body I'm sexually attracted to."

The case-by-case standard which I prefer to use when deciding whether to sexually objectify someone or not is this: What would the person who that body belongs to (subjectively) prefer? When I sit there and stare at my boyfriend's ass/arms/shoulders/face/whatever, thinking nothing whatever about his sexy brain, I can be fairly certain that his sexy brain is down with that. When you sit there talking about whether the sister missionaries on temple square are "doable" or not, I can be fairly certain they would not be down with that. And so can you.

"But wait!" you say. "We aren't actually doing anything. We're just talking, many miles at a distance. This doesn't impact them at all."

And the answer to that is. . . well. . . sort of. Because when you talk in this way--when you go on about who is hot and who isn't and which body parts should look like what--when you are so obviously willing to ignore the preferences of both the women you're talking about and the women who are in the room with you--you leave me with the impression that you are used to sizing up every woman you meet as a sexual object, and that her functionality as a sexual object is often more important to you than her subjective preferences.

I feel threatened by this. Objects are vulnerable. If an object doesn't live up to your needs and expectations, you can do pretty much whatever you want with it, and that's just fine. I have a friend, for instance, who takes great joy in smashing his old crockery pieces against a cement wall. At the very least, you're likely to discard objects that aren't satisfying. I feel threatened because there's absolutely no way that I'll be an adequate sexual object* in your world. It's like loosing a contest I never wanted to enter before I'm allowed to talk to you. If I had to pass the "are you a good sexual object?" test before you ever get around to considering my other qualities, you would never even see me as a human being.

And I feel frustrated because there's no place for me in that conversation. Since I'm not interested in objectifying others with you, and I'm not interested in being objectified, that leaves me. . . not interested. It leaves me on the sidelines, worrying about what the takeaway message is for the younger and less confident women in the room, and whether this is a healthy place for them to be.

I get that you, rightly, don't want to be demonized for having a sexual interest in bodies. I get that you are almost certainly not ever going to do any physical harm to me. I sympathize deeply with your desire to bring some freedom and openness to your sexuality. I just think there are better ways to do that.

*Ironically, while it is objectively/statistically the case that the average college dude would rather date a skinny heroin addict than me, focusing on the ideal female body is likely to make any woman--even a woman who actually does look like a supermodel--feel inadequate. Or at least, that's what this book told me.

Friday, July 22, 2011

How do I ask out a woman without being creepy?

This post is adapted from some comments I made on a feminist blog in response to complaints about men asking this question.

I think the problem is that a lot of men, despite their privilege, feel intimidated and dis-empowered by the dating scene. It is a legitimate human behavior to seek companionship and love. When guys want to know how to express their interest in me without being threatening, invasive, or objectifying, I'm glad they're asking. I want companionship and love too, and I want it from people who care about not being creepy.

Here's the relevant thing most men don't know about being a woman: for nearly all of us, personal safety is a constant concern, and unknown men automatically register as a potential threat. To illustrate this, let me describe two exercises from rape crisis team training. In one exercise, we divided the white board in half. On the first half, the men brainstormed all the things they did to protect their physical safety. After several minutes, they had listed maybe three or four things; they would wear seat-belts, try to be aware of their surroundings, maybe avoid some neighborhoods at night. On the second half, the women brainstormed the things they did for their safety; this half of the board was covered. We carry our keys like a weapon when we're out walking; we study martial arts; we check the backseat of our car for strangers every single time we drive. We double check our locks and carry whistles or weapons. Some of us don't go out alone at night, and there are some places we never go alone at all. We are careful about what we wear, and where our drink is, and who we associate with. Do all women do all these things all the time? Of course not. But trying to avoid getting raped is, on average, a far more substantial part of the female experience than most men realize.

In the other exercise, the instructor picked a male volunteer and a female volunteer. She set them at opposite sides of the room, and asked them to walk towards each other. When they got close, the female volunteer blushed and ducked out of the way. We tried it again. . . and again. . . and again; the results were virtually always the same. Now, this was a truly kind and decent guy; he was donating thirty hours of his life to learn how to spend more of his time comforting the families of rape survivors while they waited for their loved ones in the hospital. Plus, he was cute, and nice, and had a great sense of humor. On top of this, it's hard to imagine a safer situation. However, he was a male and bigger than us--and that was enough to make him physically intimidating.

Obviously there are circumstances where picking up on someone is never appropriate. However, I think "you don't ever ask women out or tell them that they're pretty" is a totally counterproductive thing to say. It's better to explain that:

(1) Non-creepiness is all about letting her have the power in the situation--the power to leave, the power not to have to deal with physical threats, the power to avoid social or professional reprisals, the power of being listened to and respected like an actual human being--in short, the power to say no without inconvenience or harm of any kind

(2) Certain situations--approaching her while she's alone, at night, after drinking, in an elevator, in an isolated area, in a professional situation, etc.--carry implicit threats that men often aren't consciously aware of. . . and becoming aware of these implicit coercions can help them to be better men, and more attractive to boot

(3) If there isn't a situation where you are sure she feels/is safe and powerful about being asked, don't ask her out. This is the feminist way.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

on happy memories

Yesterday morning I finished reading this book. It had several ideas I think I can use, though I do wish the whole thing were better annotated--there are a couple of references I need to write the author and ask for.

An interesting snippet:

"One piece of wisdom that didn't resonate with me initially was the importance of keeping happy memories vivid. But as I mulled over this principle, I realized the tremendous value of mementos that help prompt positive memories. Studies show that recalling happy times helps boost happiness in the present. When people reminisce, they focus on positive memories, with the result that the past amplifies the positive and minimizes the negative. However, because people remember events better when they fit with their present mood, happy people remember happy events better, and depressed people remember sad events better. Depressed people have just as many nice experiences as other people--they just don't recall them as well." -p.101

I'm sure this isn't universally true--I believe that situational depression exists--but making a point of good memories seems like a really good idea. Scrap-books seem like a stressful hobby, but Elizabeth Gilbert apparently keeps a record of the happiest moment of each day, which I may try.

Yesterday's moment: Sitting around with Logan and Dan at the end of movie night, after everyone else had gone, enjoying the company of two close friends who I adore and feeling the evening had been a success. Which it totally was. The conversation*, the movie, and the company were interesting, the food was decent, and I think I managed not to mortally offend anybody. That's a good evening in my book. :)

*may have managed to change my opinion on gonzo-docs. . . we'll see, I need to ruminate. Once I manage to not feel so threatened, it feels really good to let some new ideas in.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

I got dumped by Shakesville today.

I made a couple of comments (in clear and direct response to other commenters) that I thought were respectful, insightful, well written and well thought out. For this I was accused of bad faith, and twice chastised--the second without time to respond to the first-- for derailing the thread. I left a last post apologizing, stating that my intentions were good, that I'd read the comment policy and hadn't intended to violate it, and that I did not feel welcome and would not be troubling them further with my presence. This post was replaced by a moderator post which said that new readers were welcome, mentioned the "required reading*" and (again) that my post was off topic.

I get--I truly get--the need to have sheltered discussion spaces for groups whose ideas are so poorly mishandled in mainstream discourse. I'm just not used to thinking of myself as the flaming bastion of patriarchy who needs to be excluded. Perhaps even more than this, it was a shock to realize that a blog I tend to think of as particularly reasonable has a de-facto censorship policy that doesn't make sense. I don't mean "doesn't make sense" like "we will delete your shit if we feel like it and that's how it is," which can work out beautifully. I mean "doesn't make sense" like "lacks any internal coherency." What would be so off topic about an apology post that it would need to be removed, while another post clearly in response to it and the two preceding accusations of off-topic-ness--surely no more on topic--would stay?***

None of this matters very much, except that I am by my own standard very oversensitive about some things. Being excluded from groups of people I like, respect, and was trying to be nice to is definitely one of them. I went to the bathroom and cried for awhile before making the apology/leaving post. When I got back I happened across a page that was extremely critical of Shakesville and their censorship practices. I read that for an hour or two, which made me feel a lot better and gave me an education about the stupid drama goes down between factions of the moderate left, both historically and now.**

I still feel unsettled because it would have been a fantastic time to step it up, to practice some qualities I want to develop--resilience, adaptability, independence, healthy emotional coping, and the ability to bridge communication between groups. . . but I didn't. At least, not as well as I'd have liked. And I'm not sure how I could have done better.

*I confess, I only skimmed their "feminism 101" document, which was pretty good but not what I felt like reading at the moment. I guess I assumed my college course on and longtime obsession with the topic would fill in somehow?

** I suspect the radical left is even worse, when there's a radical left to speak of. . .

***On further reflection, this is clearly emotional defensiveness; it does make sense in that context. Which is a valid context, though it is nicer when people are clear about what they're doing. Now I just need to learn how to deal with it. . .

Sunday, July 3, 2011

True Blood Season 1:

It's better in French. I still can't defend this as good storytelling, exactly, but it has charms. Everyone has a gorgeous voice in the dub, and in an L2 you can't tell how terrible the screenwriting was. The part of your brain that was bored/horrified/disappointed when you listened to it in English is now busy trying to decipher. It makes the visuals easier to enjoy, and I get more fluent while I relax.

Of course, one musn't forget the things that made it popular in the first place: awesome characters, sex, violence, a delightfully self-aware sense of humor, and pretty monsters with fangs. The monsters, I think--and the violence--are a thing we do to make real violence less frightening.* Based on the increasing popularity of monster stories since I started reading them, I'm guessing it's a need a lot of us have. If any of y'all know a convenient source of Anita Blake or Hollows equivalents in French, let me know. :)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

sovereign power. . .

simply produces the obedient social subject it needs. Such a notion of the production of the subject by power, the complete alienation of the citizen and the worker, and the total colonization of the lifeworld has been hypothesized since the 1960s by many authors as the defining characteristic of "late capitalism." The Frankfurt School, the Situtationists, and various critics of technology and communication have focused on the fact that power in capitalist societies is becoming totalitarian through the production of docile subjects.

To a certain extent the nightmares of such authors correspond to the the dreams of the strategists of full-spectrum dominance. Just as the capitalist yearns for a labor force of obedient worker-monkeys, military administrators imagine an army of efficient and reliable robot soldiers along with a perfectly controlled, obedient population. These nightmares and dreams, however, are not real. Dominance, no matter how multidimensional, can never be complete and is always contradicted by resistance.

-Multitude, pp 53-54

I wonder, true or false: is "power in capitalist societies becoming totalitarian through the production of docile subjects?"