Some readers (especially those that know me) might think I'm sporadically a little nutty on this sort of topic over the last few years. Yeah, maybe. I can admit that and I'm totally shameless about it. Because, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people, I think it's all worth saying.
Sites like Everyday Feminism are doing a great job making progressive gender ideas palatable for the masses. But I'm more interested in getting down to the nit and gritty and not pandering to a lowest common denominator. Nor am I interested in making people feel all warm and fuzzy about the Patriarchy and its influence. If you've got some patriarchal-shame, get good with it so it doesn't stop you from being able to see the world in a new light. Say "enough already", be free, and start imagining new paradigms. Shame is useless and only stops us from evolving.
There's no shame in being sexual. It's innate and wonderful to be gifted with such amazing potential for connection and pleasure. But how that sexual nature manifests is largely due to cultural influences. Humans are not born knowing how to be sexual adults. We learn it from our environments like we do most everything else.
The major evidence for this is how sexual mores have changed over time and vary by culture. All it takes is a small amount of research (thank you Google) to find out that women were once thought of as the more "over sexed" gender while today that label is thrown onto males. Whoa. How'd that happen? Did women have more testosterone back in those days? Did men have less? Did we evolve as a species? Aren't we told that according to Darwinist evolution, males are supposed to be the promiscuous, cheating, over-sexed monkey-men who can't get enough of sex, porn, and Rosy Redpalm? Tell that to the Ancient Greeks or even the Puritans.
We can also observe other cultures - like tribal people - who don't possess the same nudity taboos or sexually repressed ideas that Westerners do. If breasts were something men were innately wired to ogle and get automatic hard-ons over, I don't think the human race would've made it this far. "Hunt for food? Build some shelter? Screw that! Titties everywhere! I need some alone time."
Every sexual idea or practice is basically made up by culture. Period. From gender norms to myths of sexual appetites, it's all a bunch of hooey. Hell, less than a hundred years ago pink was a color for boys and powder blue was for girls. Thanks to some retailers trying to sell baby clothes that all changed.
How about we think outside our proverbial patriarchal boxes for a second. In our current paradigm, sex is very phalli-centric. This means it begins with a male erection and ends with male ejaculation. Right? Right. 'Cause patriarchy. And women have been the class seen as subordinate to males, thought of as male property, etc. for a few thousands years or so right? Uh huh. Again, 'cause patriarchy. So what do you suppose would happen if we didn't have the "cause patriarchy" factor? We'll get back to that but try giving that question a good think over for now.
Let's move on to tackling some of the most common responses/excuses for stereotypical, hetero-normative objectification from some not so common angles and see what happens. Oh, but before we go on it needs to be made clear that we're not talking about "all men" and "all women". We're talking about men as a class and women as a class. This is an important distinction that helps us not overly personalize these topics and lose sight of the real issues.
Men Are Objectified Too.
Yup. And two wrongs don't make a right. Also, we can talk more about this when sexism isn't a thing anymore and women aren't sexually exploited every second by pornography, prostitution, strip clubs, human trafficking, Victoria's Secret, etc. - all for the enjoyment/entertainment of men. 'Cause patriarchy.
Women Like It Or They Wouldn't Wear Short Skirts, Little Blouses, Bikinis, Etc.
I don't give a shit what Cameron Diaz says. Just like males are taught to ogle women in order to feel more like "real" men, girls are taught to want to be ogled in order to feel more like "real" women.
I've actually witnessed this in a younger woman who was so distraught that my husband wouldn't ogle her that she competed with me for his gaze constantly. To get his attention her voice would go up a notch higher, she'd play with her hair, she'd consistently check to see if he was looking at her rear. All because he had yet to give her the once over she needed to feel worthy. I'm sure I've done similar things before but standing outside of the situation and observing it was a real eye opener.
Anyway, women objectify themselves (which can often lead to eating disorders and general body dysmorphia) and other women too. It's a vicious, dehumanizing cycle that really boils down to the fact that we place value on individuals based on the wrong factors. By wrong I mean harmful. Because that's exactly what objectification is. The gif below is from the TED Talk "The Sexy Lie" by Caroline Heldman. Highly recommended.
It's Biology. It's Instinct. It's Natural. Men Are Visual Creatures.
Firstly, we're all visual creatures unless we're visually impaired. This argument is just ridiculously over simplified and used as an excuse for the continuation of learned objectification behaviors. It also puts certain expectations on men to participate in objectifying behaviors in order to be "real" men. Because if you don't get a big happy looking at girl-butts and boobs you must be gay *gasp* or otherwise effeminate. 'Cause patriarchy.
Lori Rose wrote an article titled "Objectification is Not Your Sexuality" that sums up what I think about this pretty quickly. To quote her, "It's time we cleared something up: Sexual objectification is not related to or a part of sex. Full stop."
As mentioned above, sexual expression is learned and conditioned by culture. Because males are taught from an early age to objectify women doesn't mean it's an in-born sexual expression that all males are burdened with.
One more time. Objectification of women through the male gaze is learned. It's not hardwired into our very elastic and malleable brains. It's not human nature. You don't have to do it. It's not you.
What's Wrong With Attraction?
Um, nothing. Nothing at all. But attraction - or more clearly the ways in which we express attraction - are not behaviors that are set in stone by our DNA. Also, the physical attributes we're attracted to change with culture and time period. From a plump belly to small penises (yes, once upon a time smaller was better) whatever we call "attractive" is completely mutable based on environmental influences. It's not in any way necessary nor innate to look a woman over like a prize steer in order to denote attraction to her or to even experience that attraction in the first place.
And how about realizing real attraction from manufactured attraction? Here's what I mean. We've all had that moment where someone we thought was gorgeous and perfect starts talking to us and all of a sudden whatever spark was there dies out in an instant. Maybe it's incompatible chemistry. Maybe their just too dimwitted. Maybe they spit when they talk. Whatever. Something changes and they don't look that great anymore.
We've also all had those times when someone we thought looked a bit average or lackluster becomes the only vision we want to see or think about because getting to know them made them uber attractive to us. Being with someone, experiencing them, appreciating them... maybe even loving them... that's real attraction. That's more than made up status-creating standards for appearances.
It's Appreciating Beauty.
Bullshit. Appreciating something gives it value. Objectification takes that value away and replaces it with the viewers own self-gratifying agenda. Instead of seeing a person, there is only an object that has the capacity to be viewed and used as a means to an end.
Why is it assumed that women exist in the world to be appreciated by the gaze of others anyway? What's that about? Women are not sunsets or flowers or whatever. They're whole people. And, as far as I'm concerned, if you're not recognizing the full humanity of another person, you aren't appreciating them at all. See more of my (censored) comments on this at my Facebook page.
And let's really talk about what this form of "appreciating beauty" is all about. According to patriarchy, men need it, women can give it and thus women have power over men. Since women being powerful in a patriarchy is unacceptable (because that weakens the male class and makes them vulnerable) men need to find a way to take that power back. Men "appreciate the beauty" of women because they have been taught that images of women can give them orgasms and imagined power that can calm their feelings of inadequacy. I know it's awkward but it's still true.
Women are seen as walking orgasms. Your average guy can stare at a bunch of women on the street then go home and imagine he's giving it to each of them in succession. He's in essence found a way to possess images of those women without their consent and use them for his I'm-bored-so-why-not-boners. Now he's got power over them instead of the other way around. Because the last thing men are supposed to be or feel is powerless or vulnerable. That's not what the patriarchy promises.
As I mentioned in my censored comments, this is thought of as normal male sexual expression in our society. When in reality this behavior is a coping mechanism employed by men to reaffirm their patriarchal male identity that becomes what psychologists call a paraphilia or fetish. Just because women are the most common or "normal" fetish object doesn't negate the purpose the fetish serves in the mind of the fetishist. The fact that so many men have a hard time giving up ogling and objectification is further evidence of the compulsive nature and fetish-like quality of the way women are viewed.
Patriarchal society says that "real" men want to have sex with lots of women, all day, every day. Most women will do but the super hot ones are especially coveted as a precious commodity. Because "real" men, powerful men have hot girls on their arms. The rest of the average guys (or commonly termed beta-males... ick) can only jerk off imagining those hotties. Because they're not good enough. Because they're not man enough. So objectification will have to do for the regular dudes who can't live up to the unrealistic, survival-of-the-fittest, he-who-wins-gets-to-screw-them-all mentality. Because patriarchy promised them hot girls one way or another. And they feel entitled to those hot girls.
It's really a very innocent response when we look at it this way. After all, most men and women don't see the patriarchal box they've been metaphorically taped into and they simply don't know any better to see the harms. However, none of it is truly innocuous and once someone knows better, there can no longer be excuses made for not changing the behavior. Because the way men feel it is their birthright to view women as objects they are deserving of possessing leads to a whole host of human issues ranging from divorce to rape culture to the recent Isla Vista murders. See Caroline Heldman's TED Talk for the specific ways objectification and self-objectification harm women and girls.
Without the 'Cause Patriarchy Factor
It's really not that hard to stop making people into things when we realize things are of no real value to us as human beings who desperately desire meaningful connection to all of creation.
I know this all sounds a bit strange. I mean, once upon a time I had no idea how to express my sexuality outside of the patriarchal norms of being looked at and seen as an object. And I'm sure many men out there can't begin to imagine what their sexuality is if it isn't tied up with objectifying activities like girl watching, strip clubs, porn, etc. I get it. It's what we all learned and it's what we all know.
But I now realize there are other ways of being sexual, other ways of thinking about sex, about men, about women that allow our humanity to stay intact. Objectification removes empathy for others and erodes our capacity for compassion. We are capable of so much more than what we've been given as a blueprint and we have great capacity to change. But it's going to take time and each of us as individuals needs to accept responsibility. To start, let's tell ourselves a new story about sex, about beauty, and about attraction.
Sex can be about a whole lot more than pleasing the male member or otherwise stroking the patriarchal male ego (pun intended). It can be a whole body experience full of sensuality and connection. Because being sensual has been seen as a feminine trait it denotes weakness and vulnerability that men are usually taught to avoid. But it doesn't have to be that way.
Attraction is about more than appearances. There are many layers and facets to each individual that can stir attraction. There is a difference between what we've been sold as "attractive" and what we really respond to deeply in our daily lives. Making these distinctions is one of the first steps to reclaiming our sexual responses as our own and not the creation of patriarchal media and advertising.
Beauty as we commonly define it is an inconsistent, made up compilation of status symbol creating attributes that change from time to time and culture to culture. If you think someone is sexy, chances are you were told they were sexy by the society you live in. If you see someone who fits this mold and have the urge to objectify them, you could say to yourself:
"She conforms to conventional beauty standards that I've been taught to create a sexual fetish of by the patriarchy in order to quell my deep fears of inadequacy. But I recognize that she is a whole person who doesn't need my eyes or anyone else's to validate her existence. Because her humanity is what really makes her beautiful. And my humanity is what makes me beautiful. I don't want to lose any of it by dehumanizing another in the act of objectification. I desire connection with real people not things."
While this was at times tongue and cheek, I am quite serious about coming to an understanding of human sexuality outside of our current influences. I welcome your questions and comments on this and similar topics as we all try to navigate new waters in a world that is moving away from patriarchal paradigms and shifting towards cooperation and partnership.