“Objectification”: You Keep Saying That Word …
When I started my blog, I made a pact with myself that I would not use it to attack other people’s blogs. I therefore will not include a link in this post to some of the things that have riled me up in this latest contraception controversy. Instead, I will observe generally that religious conservatives are copiously misusing the term “objectification” in an attempt to mask their fear of and contempt for female sexuality and sex in general. Specifically, a spurious charge is made that the ability to have sex “without consequences” leads to women being objectified.
I should note that objectification, in general, is one of the most misunderstood concepts in modern political and social discourse. Through basic intellectual laziness, people — especially people hostile to women’s equality — have come to equate objectification with lust. This is the infuriating “logic” behind the claim that the birth control pill leads to objectification: that men will get to have sex with women purely for pleasure. This highly traditionalist view presumes that male desire in and of itself is degrading to a woman, and that any sexual expression is by its very nature a painful sacrifice. Marriage and motherhood, therefore, are the only things that allow a woman to save face, as it were, against the humiliation of a man’s lust for her body. Religious conservatives ominously warn that the availability of birth control leads to men having sex for pleasure, and they fully expect women to be scared by this. And when women don’t get scared, they, of course, bemoan the sorry state of morals in our society.
Many were outraged when Rick Santorum opined that sex for pleasure is meaningless, even with one’s spouse. Yet, what he said incorporates a pervasive cultural narrative. Lots of movies, fairy tales and classical fiction romanticize the agony of childbirth and death from labor. In history, the most perfect love affair was one where the woman gave her beloved an heir — and then gave him no more trouble.
Even apart from the subject of child birth, there is an old and strong literary tradition in which the price a woman pays for consummating love, is death, or at the very least disgrace and poverty. I am thinking specifically of 19th-century Russian literature and particularly Ivan Bunin, who incorporated this theme into virtually every one of his works; the only female character he created who leaves her married lover in order to start her own family gets utterly savaged as a heartless, worthless succubus.
In short, in the eyes of a traditionalist, sex can never be meaningful or loving unless it puts the woman’s very life in danger, or at the very least, significantly damages it in several respects. The Young Dying Woman is a cherished cultural trope. Is it any wonder, then, that conservatives in Congress are pushing through legislation that would allow an employer to deny any type of coverage for any reason? In their view, a woman allowed to live for ten minutes without fear or anxiety is a woman “objectified”.
Few things in this world are as beautiful and life-affirming as desire. If we just embrace what we feel without anger, resentment or guilt, if we allow ourselves joy without anxiously analyzing whether something is more sexual than “spiritual”, if we stop obsessing over distinctions between love and not-really-love, if we no longer let the want of social endorsement drive us to passionate and self-destructive excesses, mutual sexual desire is perhaps the most sublime thing we can experience. It is sublime even if the contact is fleeting, even if it does not lead to a heavy mortgage in the suburbs, and weekends spent shopping at Home Depot with half a dozen rugrats in tow.
Male desire does not objectify women; failure to acknowledge women’s agency objectifies women. The best way to understand what objectification really means is to put it in grammatical terms: the subject acts, the object is acted upon. To be objectified means to be viewed strictly as a passive recipient of someone else’s actions or feelings. Any statement that purports to “respect” women, yet casts them as mere benign canvasses for their husbands and lovers to project their dreams, fears and desires upon, is an exercise in objectification. An attitude that combines desire with the understanding that women too, are sexual actors, is not objectification, no matter how lustful it is.
Certainly, in a traditionalist culture that views women as dangerous subordinates, objectification can take on sexual forms. In our day and age, still, movie scenes that explicitly depict rape or sexual exploitation are considered less offensive than scenes depicting a woman having an orgasm (scroll down to #3). In sex scenes that do show up in mainstream cinema, the male orgasm is the logical end of sexual activity, and women are rarely depicted as truly enjoying themselves. Women in such scenes are also rarely shown moving. In films where women are depicted on top, such characters are almost without exception whores or villains, and the encounter is portrayed in a negative light. All this shows that as a culture, we are still not comfortable with women being in any other role in sex, except as a passive recipient. Admittedly, there is always a difference between what people like to do in their bedrooms and what they would consider acceptable in entertainment, even porn, but that only goes to show that it’s wrong to equate desire and joyful sex with objectification. Which is why even very explicit movies or fiction do not necessarily objectify women, whereas even the most “respectable” romance can be guilty of that sin.
Most importantly, however, objectification is not limited to sex. Religious conservatives routinely argue that a woman’s proper role is that of a “helpmeet”, living exclusively to bear and raise children and to promote her husband’s career. That view as well, denies women agency by limiting their existence to a vicarious life through menfolk. If a woman is purely a means to an end, she is objectified, regardless whether that end is an orgasm or a well-run household.
The reason that religious conservatives have such bizarre views on this subject is that they seem to be cognitively incapable of imagining women as anything other than used and acted upon — the only difference being in the purpose. This is why they make the incredible argument that using a woman as a masturbation tool is objectification, but using her as an incubator isn’t.
One of the niftiest examples of non-sexual objectification from last week is the fact that on every single cable news channel where the subject of contraception coverage for women was discussed male commentators outnumbered female ones. Overall, men discussing this issue on cable networks outnumbered women almost 2:1. On Fox’s Business network, 10 of the 11 participants were men. To be clear — it’s not as if I think men have nothing of value to say on issues of women’s health and welfare; quite the contrary. But the fact remains that this is primarily a women’s issue, and having men dominate its discussion treats women as an object of study existing outside of society, as a problem to be solved, rather than as people who comprise half of the population. With Fox’s set-up, it is clear that the lone female commentator was a “token woman”, whose role was to provide “balance”, while the men provided substance.
Objectification is telling women their sex lives are meaningless without marriage and motherhood. Objectification is shaming women as “selfish” for not wanting to flush twenty years of hard work down the toilet in order to make steak, vacuum carpets and keep the baby from being a nuisance to its father. Objectification is telling women that it’s not natural for them to enjoy sex, or that male desire is fundamentally insulting to them as individuals. Objectification is reducing women to the inflexible role of assistants and care-takers. Objectification is pushing women to the outskirts of the discussion of an issue that directly impacts women’s health and well-being.
Having sex for fun with both parties enthusiastically consenting? That’s not objectification. Wanting to have sex with a woman without fear of unintended pregnancy? Nope, not objectification either.
And of course, nothing is farther from objectification than men and women actually having control over their reproduction — and ultimately, over their destinies.