Object Lessons in (Non-)Sexist Behavior

Better to be looked over than overlooked?

Discussions about sexism, feminism, rape culture, what-not, have been raging, rhetoric gets as heated as opinions get strong – but there’s a fundamental disconnect.

It’s not even that the diversity of behaviors and perceptions of actual people in actual situations gets overlooked when talk is of groupings such as “men” and “women,” as if they all shared absolutely the same characteristics, and interpretation and judgment of their behaviors is done from one single perspective presented as absolute fact.

The most fundamental disconnect is that we are all (apparent as) our bodies, first of all, and our behaviors, secondly, but the discussion tries to have us be nothing but our minds, removed from our being-as-body, perceiving via the body, and perceiving-as-body, but rather virtualized into nothing but social roles and personalities that are finally supposed to conform to an equally as ideal (not just as perceived-to-be-good, but also as nothing-but-ideas) kind of behavior.

All very much philosophical, “academese” so far, so let’s get concrete.

Case in point: how men supposedly objectify women.

The argument goes that men often (or only?) see nothing but women’s bodies, consider them as objects, robbing women of their individual personality and agency, and therefore feeling free to act accordingly. Hence, men need to learn to see women as the individuals they are and to stop the objectification.

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“Hey guys, I was flicking through a copy of Sci America the other day and picked up on a crazy new idea called sexual dimorphism. Pretty soon it’s going to be all the rage. Lets get in there first!,” as Paula Wright, @sexyisntsexist joked about these photos

Leaving aside the generalizing that is done by potentially implying that all men see, and act towards, women like that, the problem is that we are visual and sexual animals. We cannot, especially when we are not directly interacting but only seeing a person from afar, let alone only seeing pictures, see the full person, personality and all. We can only see the body, and there will be a reaction to that object of perception and its features. Nice curves are appealing, even arousing.

Those are just common predispositions within the male sex based on biological differences between men and women, with men more visually oriented – and in fact, even women highly attuned to visual cues presented by their peers, and led into intra-gender competition by them.

It’s not as if women were entirely devoid of such ‘object’ perception, thought, and feeling, either.

The latest male teenie star, the one or the other actor praised for his good looks or causing weak knees thanks to his muscular body is an object of lusty looks and erotic fantasizing by women, just as men may go see a movie for an actress – but of course, it does seem to be less common among females than among males to be strongly ‘moved’ by sexy images alone, and it certainly is less common among women – so far – to be as vocal about it as men tend to be… though this has been changing among some groups. It’s nothing but an anecdote, but I was wolf-whistled at in Riga

“Genitals disassociated from the body just aren’t sexy…”

The problem is not this objectification, which it may be impossible for us to avoid, it is the focus on this mental process and its endless discussion to the detriment of action where it really counts: actual behavior.

Just as it may be natural for us to see others at a remove as nothing much more than objects, so it should be normal for us to switch to seeing people we actually interact with as the individual persons they are. This, in fact, may well be why it hurts so much when a comment is made about nothing but (a) “nice ass” or “nice tits” (or, for that matter, a  “big nose,” as happens to the ‘Western’ foreigner in China quite a bit).
A wolf whistle or a shout of “Ey, bella donna” (“beautiful woman”) could at least be interpreted as a compliment referring to the whole person’s good looks (and presentation of a good figure). They approach direct interaction, even if they are not yet social and interactive enough to entirely qualify, though, and thus move into not-good territory.

When it comes to actual interaction between persons, whether it’s a professional meeting, a conversation, or flirting, then, it is truly the time where continuing objectification seeing the other as nothing but an object for the gratification of one’s own urges is very wrong.

At that point, though, an inability to make that switch, also and especially when it comes to (possible) sexual relations, approaches the level of sociopathy. Or, it may be a sign of a culture gone seriously wrong, into the (at least tacit) assumption that men have to get (and always want) sex and women to be there for them, no matter what they say. (Of course, this is a normative statement quite devoid of the cultural relativism I would normally want to follow, but I’ll freely admit to considering myself feminist – or let’s just call it human – enough to think that this should not happen.)

All the worse when women join that game and think they’ve freed themselves:

“Women said universally that hookups could not exist without alcohol, because they were for the most part too uncomfortable to pair off with men they did not know well without being drunk.”

No, actually I still think it’s worse when men fail to understand that strength and power alone aren’t masculine; it also takes self-control and consensus. Life’s not just about sex, and certainly not about taking it.

For men, not unlike, but probably more than, women, to see persons of the opposite gender (or of the same, if so inclined) as sexy is just normal, though, just as it is for both women and men to be, among other things, sexual beings.

Any way, proper behavior as a human being should include respect for the other and his/her wishes, an understanding of and for the way we are – which is not just one way, asexual or oversexualized, controlled or controlling, but complicated.

Let’s start by quitting all the talk about “men” and “women” as uniform groups and focus on the individuals we are dealing with, whether the issue at hand is one of gender or of culture.

 

[Update: While I was writing this, new research into objectification came to my attention – and it’s fascinating. Apparently, according to that, we don’t actually objectify quite the way it was conceived to happen, as seeing an ‘other’ just as a piece of meat. Rather, a focus on the body – as it happens when we see nude bodies – makes us attribute more of the feeling mind and less consciousness/cognition to that person. Which is not good when we want to interact with said person in ordinary social interaction, but may actually be a good idea when it comes to intimate physical contact – with consent, of course.]

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