objectification

I have been finding out more about the issue of objectification. This is a theory that feminists use to try to ban prostitution, erotic dancing and pornography. They say that these things objectify women and are harmful. I could not find much on the subject before, and my recent discoveries have been interesting and often amusing to me. My opinion hasn't changed since I wrote on this subject previously, but I have learned much.

I have learned that there are different types of feminist. Radical feminists are the ones who seem to dominate the media, but there are also sex-positive feminists who don't believe in banning things. In the early 1980s there was an intense debate between feminists called the Feminist Sex Wars. Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin were the two feminists who introduced the theory of objectification into feminism. The philosopher Immanuel Kant invented it. The theory was elaborated by Martha Nussbaum and then by Rae Langton.

Nussbaum believes that sexual objectification can be a good thing. It is benign or positive when it is compatible with equality, respect and consent. She identified seven features that are involved in the idea of treating a person as an object. Langton added three more. These ten features are of great interest to me because four out of the ten show that radical feminists objectify sex workers. These are the relevant features.
  • denial of autonomy: the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination
  • inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity
  • denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account
  • silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak
Radical feminists are dismissive of the opinions and choices of sex workers. They say that sex workers can't make up their own minds because they are subject to social conditioning and are in effect brainwashed, or that they must be emotionally disturbed. They say that their choice is not a real choice, that the choice has to be made for them by people with superior intellect who are capable of seeing through social influences.

Radical feminists believe that it is they who can make these choices, even though feminists are in a minority in society and radical feminists are only one type of feminist. They think that they, and people who agree with them, are the only ones who can see clearly through the mist of social brainwashing. Far from having superior understanding, they use the word 'objectification' like a magic mantra to discredit anything they don't like, without even understanding what it means.

The denial of autonomy, inertness, denial of subjectivity and silencing mean that it is radical feminists who are objectifying sex workers and any woman who works in the sex industry. I'm not including Martha Nussbaum among this type of feminist because although she did more than any other feminist author to develop the idea of objectification she believes that prostitution should be decriminalized both for sex workers and their clients. Objectification shouldn't be used as a reason for making buying or selling sex illegal.

MacKinnon and Dworkin believe that all heterosexual relationships objectify women. Before that Immanuel Kant believed that any sexual activity outside of marriage objectifies women. I believe that we can trace the concept back to Christianity.

The Christian Church has always believed that sex is extremely important, that sex is different from any other activity that people enjoy, and that there is something sinister and predatory about sexual feelings. If you don't accept these attitudes, then the whole concept of objectification, whether in the MacKinnon/Dworkin sense or the Kant sense, has no meaning at all.

Why separate sex from any other activity? If I go on holiday and invite a stranger to have sex with me then I am objectifying her. If I invite her to a game of tennis then I'm not. Why? Because people think that people are degraded or dehumanised by sex. I don't believe that. People have always had sex with strangers and always will; you can't change that, the only thing you can do is make people feel guilty or that they're not living up to an ideal. That can only make them unhappy.

If a man has a sexual attraction towards a woman outside of a relationship, it doesn't mean that he is incapable of appreciating her other qualities such as intelligence or humour. It doesn't mean that he is treating her as less than human, or that he thinks that this is all she's good for. Men's sexual feelings aren't by nature predatory.

The most highly prized and highly paid sex workers have always been the courtesans, the ones who could have an intelligent conversation on a number of subjects and who had other social skills or the ability to play a musical instrument. So to say that men treat women as objects when they have sex with them is far from the truth.

I don't believe that I objectify other people, or if I do then I might objectify any one of the people who I meet during the day who offer a service, whether it be taxi drivers, shop assistants or waiters. If I treat these people with respect, and respect their opinions and choices, I believe that I am not objectifying them.

The radical feminists, far from being more clear-sighted than the rest of us, are people who have been unable to negate the influence of Christianity in their attitude to sex. They have a distorted view of the world that leads them to accept and propagate false statistics about prostitution and pornography. They cannot make the world a better place, if they gain influence and power they can only harm society.

The 3 contradictions within the theory of objectification
  1. Martha Nussbaum identified seven features that characterise objectification. The first of these is 'the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier's purposes'. We treat people as tools for our purposes all the time. If we pay a taxi driver, shop assistant or a waiter then we are using people as tools for our purposes. If we invite a stranger to play a game of tennis with us with no intention of forming a friendship then we are using him or her as a tool for our purpose. Yet people who believe in the theory of objectification only want to use the theory in connection with sex. There's no logic in this, it's just that they seem to have negative attitutes to sex. They think sex outside the context of a relationship is predatory.
  2. People in relationships often treat people as tools for their purposes. One person in a relationship might want marriage or for them to move in together or children. The other person might have no interest in that. Frequently the first person might try to make the second person emotionally dependent on them then give them an ultimatum. If someone moves from partner to partner hoping to find one who will give them what they want this would seem to be 'the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects' (number 4 on the list). If you're have been having sex with someone for a while you may believe you have a right to a relationship. It's as if sex is being exchanged for a relationship. It's like prostitution but it's not an honest transaction because of the hidden agenda.
  3. The other five features of objectification are about taking other people's opinions and choices seriously. However, if someone in a relationship has made a life choice that they don't want to marry and have children, their choice is dismissed as being 'afraid of intimacy' or 'commitment-phobic'. Similarly, the choices of sex workers are dismissed as unimportant.
It doesn't make sense to establish a theory of using people for our purposes and then only using that theory for sexual relations. It doesn't make sense to say that marriage or long-term relationships are the antidote to objectification when it is clear that objectification occurs as much within relationships as without, and arguably more so. It doesn't make sense to say we must all take other people's opinions and choices seriously but then dismiss those of people who want something different from the norm.

After hearing Julie Bindel talking about Third-wave feminism on Woman's Hour I tried to find something about it. I found this on wikipedia.
Also considered part of the third wave is sex-positivity, a celebration of sexuality as a positive aspect of life, with broader definitions of what sex means and what oppression and empowerment may imply in the context of sex. For example, many third-wave feminists have reconsidered the opposition to pornography and sex work of the second wave, and challenge existing beliefs that participants in pornography and sex work are always being exploited.

I have also been finding out more about Immanuel Kant. He was sexist, antisemitic and racist. It seems that he was a social conservative who used his intellect to try to justify his prejudices. His theory of objectification is used to try to censor and to ban pornography, erotic dancing and sex work. People today are using the theory of objectification to try to justify intellectually their negative feelings about sexual desire, and in particular men's sexual desire. It doesn't have any intellectual credibility and has no place in a modern liberal society.

This is how Kant explains how marriage is the only way to prevent objectification.
‘… if I yield myself completely to another and obtain the person of the other in return, I win myself back; I have given myself up as the property of another, but in turn I take that other as my property, and so win myself back again in winning the person whose property I have become’ (Kant Lectures on Ethics).
If that sounds like nonsense, that is because it is nonsense. For radical feminists such as Dworkin and MacKinnon, not even marriage can overcome objectification because they believe that objectification is present in all heterosexual relationships.

I found this page which says much the same thing as I believe. After showing Kant's ideas about sex 'Sexuality ... exposes mankind to the danger of equality with the beasts' the author concludes with this paragraph.
"MacKinnon’s attack on pornography is only plausible if we accept her Kantian assumptions about the unique efficacy of sex to dehumanize and degrade others by turning them into objects. This is why pornography is MacKinnon’s target of attack, and not sexist literature in general. On this issue, MacKinnon finds company with Christian conservatives who analyse sexual desire in terms of animalistic and dangerous urges of the flesh and who, as Kant (1963: 163–4) says, seek ‘to suppress and extirpate it’. In other words, anti-porn feminists’ agendas overlap with those of Christian conservatives, not simply because they share the goal of suppressing pornography, but because they share some of the same underlying assumptions about the uniquely dehumanizing power of sexual desire and its expression. But, if we reject conservative Christian views about sex and Kant’s secular version of it, then we have little reason to regard pornography, and other forms of commerce in sex, as degrading to women and threatening to their equality."

If you look at the development of attitudes towards sex in Europe over the centuries, for a long time sex was regarded as something degrading and dehumanizing and only acceptable if it was for the purpose of procreation within marriage. This changed, however, and sex became acceptable in marriage even without the possibility of conception because then it was about love and not just animal lust. This is how Immanuel Kant thought of it. Then people started thinking it was OK in a relationship even if the two people weren't married.

People still believed that sex by itself was degrading and dehumanizing and was only acceptable when it could be in the context of a long-term relationship. Sex with strangers for fun was frowned on, although that didn't stop most people doing it, it just made some people feel guilty. Radical Feminists tend towards this point of view which to me seems very old fashioned.

Men don't have a sexual attraction to objects. They aren't sexually attracted to teapots or cardboard boxes. They often have an aesthetic attraction towards objects though. They can find objects beautiful. So if a man finds a woman beautiful, is he not then treating her like an object? Is he not objectifying her? Why not? If people are drawing or painting a woman and they don't even want to know her name let alone appreciate her other qualities are they not treating her like an object?

It would make more sense to say that someone looking at the Mona Lisa and admiring her beauty is objectifying her. If he or she was not interested in her personality. Was she a philanthropist? Did she have a good sense of humour? Was she interested in the arts? Or science? Was she kind to animals? Few people care. Yet we teach children to admire beauty in people and objects. We turn people into statues. We see faces and hands and thus treat people as 'collection of body parts'.

It's not sexual feelings that dehumanize and degrade people. It's an unwillingness to use reason and knowledge. What makes us different from the animals is not that we can have relationships - lots of animals form pair bonds - but that we can think. People who choose not to use reason demean themselves and us all. We can use our intelligence to overcome our prejudices or we can try to justify them. If we use our intelligence to try to find justification for our prejudices then we are no better than the animals. The concept of objectification is an attempt by some people to find an intellectual justification for their negative attitudes towards sexuality.

In this final section of this page I want to use quotations to show that I'm not misrepresenting or exaggerating what objectification theorists really believed and what some feminists still believe. I want to answer three questions. Did MacKinnon and Dworkin really believe that all heterosexual sex is objectifying? Did all of the objectification theorists really believe that casual sex is objectifying? Do radical feminists really want to ban pornography, erotic dancing and prostitution?

Did MacKinnon and Dworkin really believe that all heterosexual sex is objectifying?
These two paragraphs come from Sexual Objectification: From Kant to Contemporary Feminism by
Evangelia Papadaki. I have emboldened what I think to be most important.
"Kant’s solution to the problem of sexual objectification was straightforward. People, both men and women, should avoid engaging in problematic sexual relationships such as concubinage and prostitution. Exercise of sexuality is, for Kant, only allowed within monogamous marriage. Within this context, the two spouses are obliged by law to surrender their whole persons (bodies and selves) completely to one another, each allowing the other to own his or her person wholly. This way, Kant thought, neither of the two parties is in danger of losing his or her person and getting objectified.

For MacKinnon and Dworkin, however, who see objectification as a much more widespread and pervasive phenomenon, Kant’s suggested solution to the problem is clearly inappropriate. Within our societies of gender hierarchy, objectification is inevitably present within all sexual relationships between men (who are by definition the objectifiers) and women (who are by definition the objectified). Marriage, or any other heterosexual relationship for that matter, is clearly not regarded as an exception by the feminists in question. Within marriage, a woman is nothing more than an object for her husband’s use and abuse. To use Dworkin’s pessimistic language: ‘Wife beating and marital rape are predicated on the conviction that a man’s ownership of his wife licences whatever he wishes to do to her: her body belongs to him to use for his own release, to beat, to impregnate’ (Dworkin, 1989, 34). Marriage, then, for feminists like MacKinnon and Dworkin, is yet another relationship in which women suffer their objectified fate."
Did all of the objectification theorists really believe that casual sex is objectifying?
Kant's theory condemns all sex outside of marriage, and MacKinnon and Dworkin's version condemns all heterosexual sex. So definitely no casual sex allowed with them, at least not between men and women.

Nussbaum and Langton however are ambiguous. Nussbaum has stated that prostitution should be legalized for both buyers and sellers. So that's all I need to know for the purpose of this blog, which is about prostitution.

However, there are many people who have enjoyed casual sex and yet would condemn what I do, which is to pay for sex. They may want to use the theory of objectification to criticize me. If I can show that the theory condemns what they do as much as it condemns what I do then that criticism is invalid.

People who don't accept casual sex will still be able to criticize what I do, but they are fewer in number and they will be social conservatives of different types whose opinion I am happy to ignore. Of course, I don't think that casual sex is objectifying because I don't believe in the theory of objectification.

I got these two paragraphs from the book Sex from Plato to Paglia: M-Z edited by Alan Sobla. I have emboldened what I think to be most important.

The possibility of engaging in sex work or other job-related self-objectification that might not be morally abominable suggests that our judgments about objectification can be context-sensitive and that objectification comes in degrees or has different types (for a catalog of the various senses or types of "objectification," see Nussbaum, 257 ff.). This is why Avedon Carol and Nettie Pollard argue that the use of the term "objectification" in the late twentieth century went overboard, beyond its original feminist political meaning. Whereas the term originally referred to evaluating women in virtue merely of their sexual functions or sexuality and to projecting male fantasies or idealized versions of women onto real women, the term was eventually robbed of its politics and began to mean (with a derogatory connotation) finding women physically or sexually attractive and admiring them for their physical or sexual attributes. Under this redefinition, finding a feature of a woman or man physically or sexually compelling is to devalue that person. (See also LeMoncheck on the moral distinction between treating a person as a sex object and considering a person only as an object of sexual attraction; "What's Wrong," 138-39.) Carol and Pollard argue that one defect of the redefinition is that it facilitates inappropriate attitudes of "paternalistic protectiveness toward women and children" (47). Some objectification is unquestionably bad. But other behavior that is objectifying might not be bad, and it might not even be objectifying in any interesting sense. It could be, instead, a healthy appreciation of the other person. 
Indeed. Martha Nussbaum argues that in the context of a mutually respectful relationship, sexual objectification is morally permissible and in some ways wonderful. In part, Nussbaum grounds this view in her reading of D. H. Lawrence's (1885-1930) Lady Chatterley 's Lover (1928), in which both Oliver Mellors and Constance Chatterley become identified with and see each other in terms of their sexual organs. Because this objectification is reciprocal and occurs in a context of mutual respect, it is not disgraceful. The lovers only sometimes objectify each other, but otherwise their relationship is replete with equal respect and regard, which implies that Oliver and Constance have avoided Kantian moral objections. Further, the immersion of the pair in their bodies adds tremendously to their enjoying each other sexually, so that objectification is not merely permissible but "wonderful" (275, 277). By contrast, Playboy exemplifies unacceptable objectification, for Nussbaum, since it "encourages the idea that an easy satisfaction can be had in (an) uncomplicated way, without the difficulties attendant on recognizing women's subjectivity and autonomy in a more full-blooded way" (284). It seems to follow from Nussbaum's account that casual sex, or sexual activity that occurs between two people before they have established a relationship replete with equal respect and regard, would be morally wrong, since the specific "narrative" context that makes objectification permissible is absent (see Soble). Of course, many would agree here with Nussbaum, and many would reject her view as too restrictive.
What the above passage is saying is that Martha Nussbaum believes, like previous objectification theorists, that casual sex is morally wrong. It is also saying that not only does the theory not make much sense, but that people aren't even using it in its correct sense. They are using it to mean men having a sexual attraction to women is objectifying them. It's giving people a reason to hate other people. A man might have an attraction to a woman, he might think she's pretty or cute, or it might be a sexual attraction, but any way a woman thinks she has the right to hate a man, as if a man's feelings are evil. It's giving social conservatives the ability to continue their anti-sex beliefs. Some psychologists are starting to use the theory as if it had any kind of intellectual credibility, which it doesn't.

Do radical feminists really want to ban pornography, erotic dancing and prostitution?
In Iceland pornography, erotic dancing and prostitution are banned. This is since a feminist government came to power. Influential modern feminist Caitlin Moran applauds this and stated "Men don’t HAVE to see tits and fannies. They won’t DIE if they don’t have access to a local strip joint."  Although curiously she doesn't seem to mind burlesque (even though men - and women - don't HAVE to see burlesque). She likes the quote from Gudrun Jonsdottir “I guess the men of Iceland will have to get used to the idea that women are not for sale".

They guess wrongly. If Iceland is anything like Sweden there is just as much prostitution as there has always been. If Iceland is like Sweden then I guess the women of Iceland will have to get used to getting evicted for earning money through sex work or getting arrested if they choose to work together for safety.

As I've said many times before, I have never bought a woman. The idea that men are buying women or buying their bodies is a silly old fashioned idea. Caitlin Moran says words are important, she hates the word 'pussy' and prefers 'cunt'. Yet she likes the cliche 'women are not for sale'.

Caitlin Moran is outside of the liberal consensus. Like so many other feminists she's quite happy to (try to) ban things she doesn't like. She doesn't accept that people have the right to live their lives the way they choose as long as they don't harm others.

From How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran.
"In 2010, Iceland — with a lesbian prime minister, and a parliament which is 50 per cent female — became the first country in the world to outlaw strip clubs for feminist, rather than religious, reasons. 
'I guess the men of Iceland will have to get used to the idea that women are not for sale,' Gudrun jonsdottir, who campaigned for the law change, said. 
I don't think that's an idea that will do men, their bank balances or the women they come across anything but good. Men don't HAVE to see tits and fannies. They won't DIE if they don't have access to a local strip joint. Tits aren't, like, Vitamin D or something. Let's take our women off the poles." 
Moran said on Desert Island Discs "Liberal, absolutely, yes, I believe everybody should be just allowed to do what they want as long as they're not hurting anyone else". She's not a liberal though, she thinks that prostitution and stripping should be banned, as in Iceland. And she doesn't even bother to come up with a false statistic to try to show that they harm people (like the false statistic that rapes increased in Camden after lap-dancing clubs opened). Just this crap about 'women are not for sale' and 'Let's take our women off the poles'. That's what they said about prostitution, that it was buying women or their bodies. It was a crap idea then, now they're using it to condemn stripping too.

Instead of 'Let's take our women off the poles' we should be saying 'Let's recognize women's autonomy and allow them to decide for themselves if they want to be erotic dancers'. By making the decision for women instead of allowing them to make it for themselves - by the denial of their autonomy - radical feminists such as Moran objectify women.

It might be for secular, rather than religious, reasons, but just as Kant was trying to find a secular justification for the negative attitudes to sex that existed in his Christian society, so too her ideas are an attempted secular justification for attitudes that originate with religion.

1 comment:

Marcus said...

I've read quite a few of your articles today. Very helpful. Especially this one. The analysis of how radical feminists objectify sex workers is particularly useful. Thanks.