Friday, 12 June 2009

all i want is the ability to opt out

yeah, so um, ms enid threw down the gauntlet, and put forward a very interesting post, about which there has been some very interesting discussion. and i did say that i'd think about it and provide a response. let me say that i'm feeling a little squeamish about that, and the source of of my squeamishness most likely lies in the fact that when feminists put up arguments against porn, there seems to be quite a vocal opposition to it.

and it's not really surprising that this is the case. because if there's one thing we know about a patriarchal (or any other kind of) society, it is that it rewards those who uphold its values. those who play along nicely fare much, much better than those who challenge the status quo. that is the context in which feminists work, and i don't believe that this discussion can happen outside of that context. that's why i'm feeling shaky about putting this post up.

also, i know ms enid is one very clever and totally amazing woman, and going head-to-head in a debate with her is enough to make anyone shake in their shoes! i don't know that i'm entirely up to the task, but i'll give it a try.

the whole discussions began with filament magazine, and whether or not the hand mirror should have hosted an interview on this blog. to which i responded thusly:

i read emma's post and wasn't too impressed with this new magazine. yes, it's trying to do something different, but it's still doing it in a society that's strongly objectifying women & my own personal belief is that you don't solve the problem by doing the same thing to men, no matter how "tastefully" it's done nor how much you supposedly treat the person as a whole human being by writing up a nice article about them.

ms enid's first response (and i'm eagerly awaiting part 2) is to discuss objectification and porn outside of any social context. to discuss porn as stand-alone concepts. i'm agree with some of the commentors on that post - porn can't be divorced from social context. because it is our socialisation and our environment that determines whether or not we objectify, when we objectify, where we objectify, and how we objectify others.

when i read ms enid saying "objectification is perfectly fine",
it takes me straight back to one gordon gecko standing up and saying "greed is good". and he provided all the nice, rational and very logical sounding reasons for why greed is good. he totally believed it, and because greed is something we feel guilty about even though we still totally want to indulge in it, we take on board the message so that we can keep on being greedy without having to feel guilty about the harm it might cause others. if we're being self-serving, it's for the greater good after all! it's an argument we're seduced by because we're so desperate to be seduced.

now, i'm not equating ms enid's arguments with mr gecko's, i'm just saying that they take me to the same place. and i can just see myself trying to argue with mr gecko without having anything coherent to say, except "but, but, but... that's just so wrong. i can't explain why it is, but it just is". it's exactly the same way i feel about objectification, it's just wrong to divorce someone from their humanity, to treat them as an object without feelings, desires, dreams and all the other aspects that make us human. it's wrong even if the person consents to it, because in dehumanising themselves they not only dehumanise the objectifier, they also serve to dehumanise others who are perceived to be in the same group as themselves.

that it's wrong is a moral judgement. and i have no problem with that. we make moral judgements all the time. that's why we have laws. every statute is a moral judgement of one kind or another, because it restricts a particular behaviour. we are happy to make moral judgements about things that have no legal context as well, eg many of us believe that telling a lie is wrong, cheating on your spouse is wrong, etc. so i see no reason for suspending all moral judgement when it comes to matters of porn. that makes no sense at all.

so, what i've established after so many words is that i think objectification is wrong. that's my view, and if you don't like it, that's too bad. it's not going to be changing any time soon & it certainly won't be changed by watching "the right kind of porn".

a couple of things flow from the fact that i think it's wrong. first is that i don't want to be objectified. i don't give anyone the right to objectify me without my consent. to which you say "there's no way you can police that, there's no way you can stop people objectifying you because you have no control over their thoughts". that is correct, i have no control and do not want to have control over their thoughts. what i can do is make it more difficult for them to objectify me. one of the ways i do that is by the way i dress. another way is by making it clear where and when i can that i don't consent to being objectified. yet another way is to be an activist in this area and challenge prevailing views. maybe i won't entirely solve the problem, but i can and will do my best to minimise it as it relates to me.

the problem i see with the "objectification is morally fine" argument posed by ms enid is that she does not limit it in any way. ergo, if our cultural norm is that objectification is fine all the time, where does the person who doesn't want to be objectified go? for example, i don't see why i should have to be objectified in my workplace; i want to be judged on my skills and performance. but under the "objectification is fine" model, i get no choice about that and have to face the consequences of objectification whether or not i like it. under this model, the only way to avoid objectification is to not have a job. and similarly the argument goes for any other sphere i move in. ultimately, the only way i can avoid being objectified is by shutting myself in a room and never meeting anyone. i don't accept that as fair.

next you'll say to me that this is just how human beings are, and we can't change our nature. just accept that this is the way of the world because there really isn't anything you can do about it. to which i say phooey - well, i'd more likely say f**k off, but i'm trying to be polite here. if i accepted that argument, then i'd never have done a lot of the things i do. it's because i challenge many of the prevailing norms and expectations of certain parts of my community that i am able to do what i do. i have had to fight every inch of the way for certain freedoms that many of you take for granted. so many times, i'm told about my feminine nature, and told what sphere i should restrict myself to, and told that this is just the way God made the world.

well i've never accepted that argument, and i never will. don't bother saying "that's just the way it is" to me, because i know that humans evolve and people who are willing to agitate and take a lot of flak can change the way things are. there is nothing that is set in concrete. any aspect of culture, environment or humanity is subject to change. i dont' have to accept that men are naturally violent and that's the way things are. i don't have to accept that men will sexually harass me and i should just harden up and tell them to f**k off. i don't have to take any of the evpsych or venus/mars nonsense as if it's some kind of gospel truth. i don't have to accept that men generally have a higher sex drive than women. and i don't have to accept that objectification will happen to me and i am powerless against it.

if ms enid were to at least posit that objectification should happen in certain spheres, so that people who don't want to be part of it they can opt out, well that's an argument i could live with. if you were to say "if you go to to such and such place, you're going to encounter people who are in to objectification. so if you don't want to be part of that whole scene, just don't go to said place". at least then, i'd feel like i had some safe spaces left to me. but the way the argument has been presented, there is no room for safe space. that's not good enough.

another thing flowing from my belief that objectification is wrong is that i don't want to participate in the objection of others. which means that i don't want to be looking at images which objectify, i don't want to be watching films, tv, or looking at magazines which objectify. i don't want to be looking at live people to objectify them. i want to be able to have that choice to not objectify.

yesterday, i was driving down the main street of hamilton, on the way to picking up my child from school. in front of a me was a vehicle with a covered trailer attached to it, and the trailer was covered with pictures of nude women as it advertising some kind of strip joint. i had no choice. if i didn't want to cause an accident, i had to look at that image. last year a similar incident on the road with real-life strippers driving pillion on a motorbike with very little on, and i was left without any choice but to look. they might be quite happy to be doing what they were doing, but i want the choice to not have to look at it.

increasingly, i'm feeling that the choice is being taken away from me. there are increasingly fewer public places where i can avoid images that i disagree with, and that bothers me. those who think objectification is good also seem to think that they have the right to impose that objectification on others whereever and whenever they choose. should i dare to complain, i'm immediately faced some pretty harsh negative consequences.

it's ok, i've almost run out of words now. i just want to throw in the fact that i'm little impressed with president wahid's justification for ogling ms bardot. it's like the whole erotica/porn division, of which i think there is none. it's just an attempt by individuals to elevate what they're doing as being somehow above what everyone else is doing, because supposedly they're doing it with "taste". i have more respect for people like ms enid, who are honest about what they're doing & are unapologetic rather than people who want to convince you that they're doing something else altogether.


Tidge said...

I agree that there is far too much essentially forced public objectification, especially of women. I empathise with the feeling that it is practically impossible to walk or drive somewhere without having objectified womens bodies and body parts being shoved in your face. Some days I can handle it, and other days, it really gets me down.

However, I still think that objectification is a much more nuanced issue than you are admitting to. Seeing as I seem to be seeing pictures of Johnny Depp everywhere I look in the last few days, I'll use that as an example. While by all accounts he sounds like an interesting and lovely fellow, I would be lying if I said that my reaction to pictures of him are anything other than "Damn, he's fine" and "Man, I wish I had my own island". I don't know what your type is, but I think you'd be hard pressed to say you have never looked at a picture of a man you found attractive just for ogle-factor. And likewise, ogling women is OK, to a certain extent. I find it pretty difficult to loook at a picture of Angelina Jolie without thinking "Dear God, that woman is so ridiculously beautiful I can hardly believe she is human." However, I do think that this kind of objectification becomes problematic when it is unequally distributed towards women due to certain social patterns, and when it manifests itself in certain ways. Perhaps what I am getting at is that it's not the objectification, to me, it's how we are objectifying. This encompasses my belief that it is possible to totally or partially objectify someone, and that partially objectifying people, especially in the case of sexual/physical attraction, is basically unavoidable. If I don't find you to be a physically attractive object to me, as well as being a fascinating subject/person, then we are just going to be friends, and not lovers, basically.

OK. I'll shut up now. I find this subject really fascinating though, and am enjoying the discussion.

Anna said...

Anjum, this is a fab post, and I hope commentators will appreciate the spirit of generosity you've offered it with.

Porn isn't a spectrum, but if it was I'd class myself as mildly 'pro'. However, something I think is sometimes lost in the porn debate is the effect of individuals' actions on the collective. Porn has a context, and women apprehend it from a variety of perspectives, influenced by our body image, cultural and religious beliefs, experiences of sexual violence and a bunch of other stuff. I can completely accept that something which might appeal to me personally could be confronting to other women, and I think I have a responsibility as a feminist to at least consider other women's feelings without dismissing them is being the products of a flawed social context. I don't think that means avoiding rigourous debate - more just admitting the pragmatic reality of women's lives means what appeals to some can harm others.

I don't have a problem with sexual objectification as such, but context is everything. If I choose to view myself in a purely sexual light, and let my partner do the same, good for me. But like you, I want to be able to be regarded and taken seriously as a 'whole' person in most contexts.

The irony of it all is that I don't find what is supposed to be purely sexual objectification very sexual. I'm never attracted to blokes on a physical basis only - I'm at least as interested in their brains and the quality of their character. The one and only specimen of porn produced for women I've ever seen was laughable!

Hugh said...

Anjum, what I would ask you is this - do you feel that the availability of pornography contributes to this pervasive climate of objectification? If so, how? And, to get more abstract, is it possible for images intended to arouse to be available without so contributing?

katy said...

Great post! There is much in there that I agree with.

stargazer said...

I don't know what your type is, but I think you'd be hard pressed to say you have never looked at a picture of a man you found attractive just for ogle-factor.

tidge, i think you might be missing the point. i'm not saying that i've never objectified anyone in my life. the point is that if i objectify someone, it has to be because it's something i consciously chose to do. not because it's something that is forced on me, because there are no safe publice spaces available to me. that's what "having the ability to opt out" means.

hugh, i've already written several hundred words for you to read. if you have any thoughts on about any of it, then feel free to put those up. but please don't ask me for more.

The Bewildering Case of Ms Enid Tak-Entity said...

Well, I left a lot of space for the interpretation of 'objectification', and obviously Anjum, you've taken the easy one to attack, as is your prerogative. I think this speaks to a certain lack of engagement however, in the basic concept I was putting forward.

First three Googled definitions of 'objectify':
1. exteriorize: make external or objective, or give reality to; "language externalizes our thoughts"
2. depersonalize: make impersonal or present as an object; "Will computers depersonalize human interactions?"; "Pornography objectifies women"
3. Objectification is the process by which abstract concepts are treated as if they were concrete things or physical objects. In this sense the term is synonym to reification.

There cannot be a subject in a sentence without an object. You cannot be subjective without objectifying. However much anyone wants to experience something 'together' and 'jointly' with someone, if you are subjectivising your experience, objectifying is just the companion to that. It is difficult to avoid having a target for our thoughts. Is this a problem inherent to the cultural dualism of our language structures, and our psychologies? Probably. But is it a basic physical outcrop of the nature of looking, perceiving, engaging? I think so too.

Dude, the act of objectifying is not going away. Do you really think I'd bother arguing the point with you that our society is saturated with demeaning sexual objectification of women? It's good that you have the opportunity here to address your feelings about it. But that is not what I was talking about, and surely you know that. It is just easier for you not pretend that it was.

I believe I was setting the premise that the act of objectifying, that basic way that humans perceive and bump up against the outside world, and indeed, against each other, is not by its nature to blame for the demeaning of women. It's a human tic that needs to be incorporated into a humanist approach. There is a difference between the various interpreted acts of 'objectifying' and the simple act of 'turning someone into a dehumanised object'. Dehumanising through objectification occurs. Not all objectification is an act of dehumanising.

Obviously, I am trying to 'unload' the words 'pornography' and 'objectification' to see whether there is utility in doing so, to see if doing so allows for an emancipatory space for thinking about and making these acts. I get the feeling you have such a cringe factor about both of those words, due to accumulated fatigue with the patriarchy (fair enough) that you can't engage with that process. Oh well.

The Bewildering Case of Ms Enid Tak-Entity said...

...oops, crucial typo:

easier for you *to* pretend that it was.

stargazer said...

I think this speaks to a certain lack of engagement however, in the basic concept I was putting forward.

well, i never did say that i was going to engage with that, and i'm not particularly interested in doing so. you defined what you wanted to talk about on your post and that's fine. but it wasn't what i wanted to talk about nor the way i wanted to talk about it, which is also fine. so yes, there is going to be a significant lack of engagement in the way you would like to engage or on the issues you would rather discuss. as you kindly acknowledge, that is my prerogative. for now, i've pretty given as much as i want to this post, except to repeat what i've already said at length in my post. i know the act of objectifying will never go away. i just want to have the choice to not participate in it.

and to anna and kate, sorry for not mentioning sooner that i appreciate your comments.

Anna said...

Just to throw a big crazy feminist spanner in the the term we want 'objectification', or is it more helpful to talk about 'the gaze'? I don't know whether object/subject division is a universal linguistic construction - it sounds like something that snuck out of Descartes. And I think that the idea of the gaze can capture the cultural dimension of the whole business, which can be elided by the object/subject bizzo. I'm thinking, for instance, of Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman, aka the Hottentot Venus. That's a clear example of the gaze that brings out the power imbalance and exploitation, esp the racialised element of the pornographic intent. It's worth pointing out too that during that period of history, the ability to reproduce the gaze on a massive level (factory production of all sorts) was being created through technology. It was an era of perving, and the technical ability to perv was in the hands of colonising nations, and being used against other folks in a way that upheld the injustices of colonialism.

Anonymous said...

I am interested in buying some of these clothes that make it more difficult for people to objectify you.

Are they the same clothes that stop people from wanting to rape you?

Please tell me where these clothes are available for purchase. They would be handy for the next time I walk past a building site.

Anna said...

Anon, Anjum hasn't made any suggestion of victim-blaming here. I understand the point you're making, but I'd appreciate it if you could cut back on the sarcasm. This is a topic which can be upsetting (particularly for the author, who's put her views out there for debate), so commenting in a way that's respectful of others is good.