Wednesday, September 27, 2006

On objectification and objections to it

There's some interesting discussion in the blogosphere recently on the problematic concept of sexual objectification.

Renegade Evolution ventures into the fray with some thoughts on just what "objectification" means to her, when its problematic, and when it isn't. Also, what kinds of stereotypes (another form of objectification, really) both feminists and men who patronize sex workers have as a result of the objectification of "whores".

Also notable about this discussion is the participation of an anonymous radfem, saying to RE, based on the how she dresses and the fact that she's a stripper – yes, in fact, you are the enemy. Her childish denunciation of RE for being conventionally attractive and therefore in some way hurting other women sums up in a nutshell why radical feminism sucks so badly.

Anthony Kennerson follows up by reposting some of Nina Hartley's writing on objectification.

RE's post on her own blog is a followup to a post she made on one of the Livejournal feminist communities about the demonization of conventionally attractive women. Unfortunately, many of the responses that followed were simply variations on "skinny white women have it coming because they're privileged / you're just defensive about the challenge to your undue privilege". Which seems to be the standard refrain for any criticism of any kind of pettiness that emerges out of identity politics.

Amber Rhea has a post similarly critiquing the new meme of "real women" and how conventionally attractive women are in some way are not "real women".

A few months back, Belledame wrote a series of posts that were an in-depth analysis of the concept of objectification, both in feminism and in broader philosophy. (And it is important to remember that sexual objectification is a subset of the larger phenomenon of objectification.) She leaves many of the basic feminist assumptions on sexual objectification unchallenged and personally, I find many of these assumptions questionable. However, her analysis is nonetheless very good.

For my part, it bugs me more than a little that so little effort is made in feminist philosophy to differentiate between the social phenomenon of sexual objectification and the interpersonal phenomenon of sexual attraction. (Even if the two are in some ways related.) While I think it may very well be the intention of many radical feminists to moralistically censure the very idea of sexual attraction based on visual/physical cues, but that's hardly the view of all feminists. Also, there seems to be an underlying assumption on the part of many feminists that male sexual objectification by necessity denies female sexual subjectivity, which seems to me to be giving men way too much power.

Discussion of objectification also raises other questions – Is all objectification negative? If so, what do you do with not just pornography, but most artwork? (Since most works of art say more about the artist's view of the artistic subject than the subject's subjectivity – got that?) Is a completely non-objectifying art or a non-objectifying sexuality even possible or desirable?

Obviously, "sexual objectification" and "the objectification of women" are concepts in serious need of clarification, and hopefully, these discussions will go some way towards that end.

Oh yeah, and I can't post about this without throwing in one of my favorite quotes from Lisa "Suckdog" Carver: "On The Ricki Lake Show, audience members are always standing up to shriek self-righteously that old cliche, as if they had just invented it: 'ITS WHAT'S ON THE INSIDE THAT COUNTS!'  Well, what about the outside, doesn't it get any credit?"


I almost forgot to include Petitpoussin. She recently posted on the topic of "Youth and Beauty" and problems associated with the links between the two concepts. (I argue in the discussion that I'm not sure the topics can be unlinked.) She also has an earlier post on "Sex Blogs" in which the discussion turns to social standards of beauty.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A comic interlude

A cute take on interpersonal sexual politics by Sophie Crumb, from Belly Button #1. (More here and here.) Sex roles aren't always what you'd expect, and Sophie points this out better than I can.

(Click on the picture to enlarge.)

Monday, September 11, 2006


"9/11 changed everything" – George W. Bush (?)

"The more things change, the more they stay the same." – Alphonse Karr

Perhaps more coherent thoughts later.

In the meantime Belledame and Anthony Kennerson have a good posts on the subject.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Utne "Porn Culture" articles

I was browsing over the magazine rack again recently and came across the latest issue of Utne. I don't usually have a very high opinion of this "best of the alternative press" magazine, but I'll usually thumb through it when I see it. This issue had a "Porn Culture" section that looked interesting. I was going to go to a library and copy the whole thing, but later found that the whole issue is online.

The articles are kind of disappointing and I don't find that most of them get beyond the "Porn Debate 101" level of analysis. An article by Julie Hanus points out that porn is now more available than ever and has influenced the larger culture in all kinds of ways. (Yes, and?) An article from Dissent against censorship more or less holds that "rough sex" videos like Forced Entry are the price we pay to be able to read works like Lolita. (True enough, but not exactly a defense of pornography.) The antiporn side is covered in an article by Charles Foran called "Damage on Parade" that essentially rehashes the recent books by Ariel Levy and [gag] Pamela Paul to come to the conclusion that porn is BAD BAD BAD. Foran cites the usual litany of accusations about the supposed effect of porn on relationships, apparently believing that viewers of porn are inherently incapable of maintaining any kind of sane, healthy perspective about their sexuality or that of women.

I also noted this passage:

Paul cites a 1998 study that concludes that two-thirds of prostitutes suffer from symptoms identical to those of posttraumatic stress disorder-twice the percentage that was found among American soldiers returning from the war in Vietnam. "There is something twisted about using a predominantly sexually traumatized group of people as our erotic role models," she writes. "It's like using a bunch of shark attack victims as our lifeguards."

The above-mentioned study, of course, is one of Melissa Farley's studies, and like so many of her studies, surveyed San Francisco street prostitutes. The above statement from Pamela Paul shows how much Farley's studies of the most marginalized and disempowered sex workers are generalized as being typical of all sex workers under all circumstances.

The issue also has an interview with feminist porn filmmaker Candida Royalle. I found a lot of what she had to somewhat problematic and raising enough issues of its own that I'll post about it separately.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

An actual post about something other than sex

Greta Christina has been on kind of a roll lately, with a very good post taking on the subject of new-agey science-bashing. Its a good defense of science and reason from somebody who's had her share of psychedelic experiences and been profoundly affected by them, but refuses to give way to the kind of New Age irrationalism that many "experienced" (in the Jimi Hendrix sense) people unfortunately give in to. (She also has an earlier post on the same topic that's worth reading.)

Like me, Christina lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. While the Bay Area is one of the most progressive (and sex-positive) places in North America, there is a certain smug mentality that one encounters here that can be very frustrating. We think of ourselves as more enlightened than xtian fundamentalist hotspots like Kansas or South Dakota, but the Bay Area has its share of New Age irrationalists and political fundamentalists who can be just as wacky as any six-day creationist. (Berkeley is a notorious hot spot for this, though at least a few people have a sense of humor about it.)

(Don't even get me started on class issues in the SF Bay Area – for all the professed left/liberalism and rhetoric about "diversity" around here, this is probably one of the hardest places in the US to live if you're at all poorer than upper middle class – economically speaking, the SF Bay Area is up there with New York City as one of America's worst gated communities.)

In the responses to Greta's column, I wrote about some of my experiences with New Age types and my thoughts on this kind of irrationalism:

I haven't read any of Morford above and beyond the columns you've presented, so I don't know what he normally writes about, but his mentality toward science is highly frustrating.

As a scientist (studying the taxonomy of Psilocybe mushrooms, no less) living in the Bay Area, I run into this "New Age" mentality a lot.

I remember talking to somebody a year back about medicinal and toxic plants – she expressed quite matter-of-factly that for any poisonous plant or mushroom, there will be another plant growing nearby that is its specific antidote. When I said I thought this idea was nonsense and could think of plenty of examples to the contrary, she seemed a bit offended. She defended the idea not on its merits, but on the fact that she'd learned it from a medicinal plant guru (forgot his name) who was supposed to be incredibly knowledgeable. When I come across this kind of "fashionable nonsense" among apparently educated people here, I think that perhaps the "progressive" parts of the country like the Bay Area really aren't that far ahead of supposed bastions of ignorance like Kansas. People here just pick different anti-intellectual poisons.

They seem to think that somehow science, and reason and logic in general, are in some way detrimental to an appreciation of the wonder of the universe or some kind of sense of holism. These people really seems to want shortcuts to knowledge, and seem to think there can be an understanding of the whole without understanding of the parts. In fact, they dismiss understanding of the parts as "reductionism", without understanding that both reductionism and holism are vital parts of science.

Daniel Dennett calls this a "skyhook" mentality, a kind of "greedy holism" that demands a grand understanding of the whole without building on an understanding of the parts. Admittedly, its opposite, "greedy reductionism", the idea that you completely understand a phenomenon when you really only understand a small part of it, is a real problem with some scientists. The "gay gene" hypothesis and much of evolutionary psychology are examples of this.

Of course the error that "new age" types make is that they reduce all of science to the caricature of greedy reductionism and use this straw man to defend their own deeply problematic greedy holism.