Sexual Desire and Sexual Objectification are Not the Same Thing

I came across a fascinating forum post on the gaming site Polygon in which the poster complains that Polygon seems to take a hypocritical stance about sex and women in video games. On the one hand, the website’s writers seem to condemn the objectification of women in video games, but on the other hand, they seem to support the idea of women going out and having sex with whomever they want, however much they want:

It’s extremely obvious that Polygon wants to have their cake and eat it too, women who have lots of sex with multiple partners or are otherwise promiscuous are empowered females, games that reflect characters that have lots of sex or otherwise promiscuous and titillatory? Completely wrong.

The poster, Flower193, goes on in the comments to make some troubling assertions about sex, such as, “a woman who has sex with a lot of guys and lots of it is basically treating herself like a sex toy for men.” In response to a commenter who asks, “Could you be conflating objectification with a normal sexual desire?”, they respond, “That’s exactly what I’m doing, because they’re exactly the same thing.”

I think there are two main ideas that Flower193 is missing here. One is that discussing a character in the context of a story is separate from discussing the artistic/editorial decisions that went into the creation of that character. I could say that Black Widow is a fantastic badass whose fearlessness and selflessness when it comes to taking care of Bruce Banner is sweet and admirable. I could also say that I disagree with the decision to have the only female lead in that film be the one who can calm Hulk down, because of what it implies about women and their role in helping men control their anger and violent impulses*. There’s nothing contradictory here.

Analogously, even if it’s totally okay and positive and great for women to have a lot of casual sex, it’s still bad when they’re almost exclusively represented that way in video games, because that prevents us from telling the stories of women who don’t feel or act that way and gives the people who play those games a very skewed impression of what real women are actually like.

People are critiquing video games that present women as nothing but conventionally attractive sexbots because they want to see alternate representations of women too, not because there’s anything actually wrong with choosing to present yourself in that way. But, of course, video game characters don’t choose anything. They are made that way, and the way game designers choose to make characters says something. It’s not a random accident; it’s intentional. Someone had to draw that and code it, and they did so deliberately, in order to present their own vision of what’s appealing/fun/beautiful/worthwhile.

People often misinterpret criticism of sexualized women in films/games as saying, “This representation of women is bad because it shows them having lots of casual sex and having lots of casual sex is bad.” But that’s not what anyone besides certain conservative critics actually says. We’re saying, “Having women there just as eye candy is bad.” Or “Having women there just to fulfill men’s sexual desires is bad.” Or “Only presenting women as being desirable insofar as they fit a certain ideal of beauty is bad.” Or “Failing to fully develop a female character as a person with her own complicated feelings, beliefs, experiences, desires, and hopes–just as a male character would be developed–is bad.”

The second idea is that that Flower193 misses is that objectification and desire are not the same thing

This ties back in with the first and helps explain Flower193’s understanding of Polygon’s critiques. They (Flower193) think that Polygon celebrates women who have lots of casual sex while also critiquing their portrayal as such in video games, which I guess really would be kind of bizarre. But although I haven’t read the specific reviews to which they refer (because they don’t link to them in the post), my understanding is that that’s not the criticism. The criticism isn’t “you shouldn’t have all these badass confident casual-sex-having women in your video games”; but rather “you shouldn’t present women as sexual objects for men to take or win as rewards.” And Flower193 has already demonstrated that they think these are the same thing.

Objectification and desire are not the same thing. For starters, objectification isn’t necessarily sexual. It’s embedded in the way service sector workers are treated by both employers and customers, for instance–essentially as machines who must perform friendliness and cheerfulness despite often-extreme mistreatment. We objectify service sector employees when we expect robotic perfection from them while treating them poorly and paying them terribly. (I’m not saying, by the way, that not objectifying service sector workers requires having a five-minute conversation with them about their kids and the weather today. It does require paying them fairly, speaking to them as courteously as we would to anyone else, and allowing for the fact that sometimes the customer is, in fact, wrong.)

We objectify people when we believe and behave as though their only purpose is to satisfy our needs and desires. Catcalling someone on the street objectifies them because it implies that they exist for the catcaller’s viewing pleasure. Expecting your spouse to always be sexually available objectifies them because it implies that they exist for your sexual satisfaction. Having a one night stand in which you focus entirely on getting yourself off and never bother to ask your partner if they’re enjoying themselves or what they would like objectifies them because it implies that only your sexual pleasure is important, not theirs.

In contrast, there’s nothing inherently objectifying about noticing that someone is attractive and thinking about that. For many people, feelings of attraction just arise as we go about our lives, and they’re value-neutral. What matters is what we do with them.

Another feature of objectification is a lack of agency. If I’m walking down the street and someone makes a crude sexual remark to me, I didn’t have any agency in that. If I walk into the bedroom wearing my new lingerie and ask my partner what they think, and they respond, “Daaaaamn!”, I do have agency. I chose to wear the lingerie in front of my partner and ask for their opinion. Although they may be looking at me very sexually in that moment, I’m not being objectified, especially if this is a healthy relationship in which I’m not otherwise treated like a sexual object.

Flower193 says that a woman who has lots of casual sex with guys is “treating herself like a sex toy for men.” Not necessarily. Those men may see her as a full and equal partner in the context of those encounters. They may ask her what she likes, respect her boundaries, and make sure that she gets what she wants out of those hookups. Just because the relationship may only last that one night doesn’t mean that it involves objectification.

But even supposing those partners really don’t care about her pleasure and just “use” her body to get themselves off, the key part is actually right there in Flower193’s comment: “treating herself.” Maybe she wants to be a sex toy. Maybe she wants some casual sex to fill the time or take her mind off of things, and she doesn’t care how those men see her. She’s still making the choice.

Of course, we can talk about how choices are constrained by culture and society, especially for marginalized people. If she has internalized the idea that her only value is in her ability to please men, that may be driving these choices. Variables like class and race play into this too. Maybe she doesn’t truly believe that she deserves the sex and relationships that she wants, so she “settles” for these encounters. Maybe these encounters are exactly what she wants. That’s for her to figure out and decide, not for us to pass judgment on.

The conflation of sex (especially casual sex) and objectification is a common one, and it’s one made even by some feminists and progressives. It’s pervasive within the Older Women Tsk-Tsking At Young Women And Their Silly Hookups genre, and you hear it when people say things like “those girls are objectifying themselves” or “dressing revealingly means you don’t respect yourself.” No. Objectification is something others do to you, not something you do to yourself. What do with my body is separate from what others project onto me and my body in response, and only one of those is my responsibility.

As I see it, Polygon isn’t trying to “have its cake and eat it too,” and neither are any other video game reviewers who engage in this sort of critique. Women (and people in general) deserve to be able to make their own sexual choices and not be shamed for them, and many of us would like to see video games that show women making a variety of choices, not just the ones that (some) straight male designers happen to find the most sexy.

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*For my favorite-ever piece about Black Widow and representation, see here.

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Why is Rolling Stone Still Blaming Jackie?

[Content note: sexual assault]

Now that the report on Rolling Stone and its coverage of rape at UVA has come out, I’ve written a Daily Dot piece about how the magazine still isn’t taking full responsibility for its mistakes.

On Sunday, the Columbia Journalism Review released its report on Rolling Stone’s infamous article, “A Rape on Campus,” about the alleged gang rape of “Jackie,” a student at the University of Virginia. Published in November 2014, the article quickly provoked critics who claimed that some of the details about the incident just didn’t line up.

The Columbia report extensively details the journalistic “failure” of the now-retracted piece, and many are assuming, as usual, that this means that the survivor lied. Meanwhile, the leadership of Rolling Stone is still blaming Jackie for their failure in ways both subtle and not. According to the New York Times, the magazine’s publisher, Jann S. Wenner, was quite clear about where the blame should go:

The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. When asked to clarify, he said that he was not trying to blame Jackie, “but obviously there is something here that is untruthful, and something sits at her doorstep.”

Although it is possible that Jackie lied, it is unlikely for reasons that I discussedback when the original article was first being put through the online wringer. The errors she made in telling her story are completely consistent with the neurobiology of trauma. There is no evidence that Jackie is an “expert fabulist storyteller,” and you’d think this whole scandal would have taught Wenner not to make public statements without evidence.

But not everyone sees Jackie as the scapegoat. Steve Coll, Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, said in a press conference, “We do disagree with any suggestion that this was Jackie’s fault. As a matter of journalism, this was a failure of methodology.”

Why is Rolling Stone still blaming Jackie, even though the Columbia report documents the magazine’s errors in 13,000 meticulous words? Probably because it’s easy to do. Much of the public already seems to believe that Jackie lied, and many of them seem to believe that she lied intentionally. The thought process is that, sure, the writer and editor could’ve been more careful (and to their credit,Rolling Stone has acknowledged that), but lying is bad and it’s the liar’s fault, so that’s where the blame should really go.

Despite acknowledging their missteps, the Rolling Stone staff doesn’t seem to be planning on making any changes in the wake of this massive journalistic failure. Will Dana, the editor of the retracted article, says in the Columbia report, “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things. We just have to do what we’ve always done and just make sure we don’t make this mistake again.” But the report claims that “better and clearer policies about reporting practices, pseudonyms and attribution might well have prevented the magazine’s errors.”

Especially controversial is the fact that Rolling Stone won’t be firing anyone involved in the debacle. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Jill Geisner says that Rolling Stone’s mistakes were very serious and that firing the staff involved might be a good idea: “Firings send a message that certain behavior is unacceptable. I don’t advocate them for public relations purposes, but rather to rebuild a team and restore trust.”

Whether or not anyone at Rolling Stone is fired over this, though, it’s crucial that journalists and editors understand that it is their responsibility, not that of their sources, to ensure accuracy and fairness in reporting.

Read the rest here.

Stop Telling Jessica Williams What To Do

In a Daily Dot piece, I wrote about why people (looking at you especially, white feminists) need to stop telling Jessica Williams what to do and diagnosing her with things.

For many fans of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, disappointment at the news that Jon Stewart will soon be stepping down as host was overshadowed almost immediately by excitement at the idea that 25-year-old Jessica Williams, the show’s youngest-ever correspondent, might take over. A Change.org petition asking Comedy Central to hire her as hostquickly gathered over 14,000 signatures.

Williams responded graciously, thanking her fans for their support but letting them know that she will not be hosting the program:

At that point, everyone collectively said “Aw, too bad, can’t wait to see more of your work!” and left Williams alone. I’m joking, obviously. That’s not what happened, because if there’s anything we love to do in our society, it’s telling women—especially women of color—what to do. Bonus points if we demand that they perform for us the way we want them to. Instead, Ester Bloom wrote a piece for the Billfold in which she armchair-diagnosed Williams with “impostor syndrome,” what Bloom describes as “a well-documented phenomenon in which men look at their abilities vs the requirements of a job posting and round up, whereas women do the same and round down, calling themselves ‘unqualified.'” Bloom argued that Williams was displaying “clear symptoms” of the syndrome and that she should get to “the best Lean In group of all time.” Williams responded on Twitter:

To her credit, Bloom then apologized, adding to her post:

I wanted to state officially and for the record, as I have on Twitter, that I was wrong. I was offensive and presumptuous; I messed up, and I’m sorry. Williams should not have had to deal with this shit: my calling her a “victim” of anything, my acting like I know better and could diagnose her with anything, all of it.

So what happened here? How did Bloom go so self-admittedly wrong?

Read the rest here.

How Rolling Stone Failed Rape Survivors

[Content note: sexual assault]

My new Daily Dot piece discusses the Rolling Stone mess.

Last month’s groundbreaking Rolling Stone piece about sexual assault at the University of Virginia recently came under scrutiny from reporters at Slate and the Washington Post, leading Rolling Stone to retract the piece on Friday.

Unfortunately, many are taking this to mean that “Jackie,” the college student who described her brutal gang rape in the original piece, was lying about her ordeal. Based on everything I have read about this story, however, I find that exceedingly unlikely.

One major criticism of the original Rolling Stone piece has centered on the fact that the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not reach out to the students Jackie accused of rape or to the fraternity where she claimed the assault happened. In the retraction piece, the editors wrote, “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”

I understand this decision, and I understand how difficult it must’ve been for Erdely to try to keep Jackie comfortable enough to speak publicly about such a traumatic experience. But this goes against journalistic ethics and leaves the journalist, the publication, the readers, and the subject of the piece—Jackie—vulnerable. Since Jackie was already going on the record with her accusation, refusing to try to interview the men she accused would not have helped prevent retribution against her. Unfortunately, that is a risk any time a rape survivor goes public—in fact, any time anyone publicly accuses anybody of anything.

Reporting the story ethically and rigorously doesn’t have to mean disbelieving Jackie or treating her insensitively. There’s a difference between a reporter who says, “I’m going to interview whoever I want regardless of what you want” and a reporter who says, “I understand your concerns, but in order for this story to be as powerful as we want it to be, I need to reach out to the people you’re accusing.” If Jackie refused to speak given these terms, perhaps this was not the right time to try to write this piece. As Audrey White writes at Autostraddle:

Erdely’s job as a reporter required she create a bulletproof story to protect Jackie, avoid libel against the alleged assailants, and achieve her ostensible goal of revealing a culture at UVA and in Greek life that promotes and protects sexual assault. … If respecting Jackie’s wishes meant the reporter couldn’t contact anyone else related to the assault, even to confirm basic details like a person’s membership in the frat or the date of an event, she should have found a different source or approached the narrative from a different angle. As it stands, she put the integrity of her story and of Jackie’s search for resolution at risk.

Indeed, it’s now unclear how willing Jackie was to be a part of this story at all. The Washington Post reports: “Overwhelmed by sitting through interviews with the writer, Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article. She said Erdely refused, and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless.”

While Jackie doesn’t specify exactly how or why she was overwhelmed by this process, the fact that there appear to be “inconsistencies” in her recollection of her gang rape gives a possible clue.

Read the rest here.

Before You Speculate About Amanda Bynes’ Mental State

[Content note: mental illness, ableism]

I wrote a piece for the Daily Dot about the gleeful speculations about Amanda Bynes’ supposed mental illness.

Former child star Amanda Bynes hasn’t been having a good month. After being arrested for DUI in California, Bynes left her family and made her way to New York City, where she’s attempted to shoplift clothing twice, which she claims was a “misunderstanding.”

Bynes also gave an interview to In Touch magazine in which she apparently said that she believes there’s a microchip implanted in her brain that allows people to read her thoughts. She later made a series of tweets claiming that the interview was fake and that she will sue the magazine for calling her “insane.” Celebrity gossip websites have, of course, taken this story and run with it, speculating about Bynes’ mental health and diagnoses and treating the situation like a spectator sport.

Even if Bynes really did tell In Touch that she believes she has a microchip implanted in her brain that allows people to read her thoughts, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to call her “insane” or “crazy,” and I’m not surprised she’s angry about it. Words like that don’t just mean “displaying symptoms of a mental illness.” They connote ridicule, ignorance, and sometimes even hate.

They also place people with mental illnesses in a category apart from the rest of us, the ones who aren’t “crazy.” In fact, mental illnesses exist on a spectrum. Some people have a a few hallucinations or delusions during a time of extreme stress (or perhaps sleep deprivation). For others, psychotic symptoms are a struggle they must manage for their entire lives.

Are all of these people “crazy?” Is everyone who has ever had a random and totally irrational thought “crazy?” Is everyone who takes medication for anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder “crazy?” Words like “crazy” and “insane” do not refer to any specific set or level of symptoms. They refer to someone we wish to hurt, ostracize, or laugh at.

How do you report a story like Bynes’ without perpetuating the stigma that people with mental illnesses face?

For starters, recognize that some things are newsworthy whether the person who did them is a celebrity or not; others are newsworthy only when they’re done by someone we’re already paying attention to—or used to pay attention to. People get DUIs and shoplift all the time, but when a famous person does it, that suddenly becomes a reason to write an entire news story. Someone having delusions is also not in and of itself interesting to the public—although, in a way, I wish it were, because maybe then people would know more about it and stigmatize those who struggle with it less.

Obviously, journalists have to make money. Sometimes that means writing stuff that sells, whether or not you personally think that this information is important to collect and provide to the public. However, oftentimes journalists—especially those who cover celeb news—shrug off all responsibility for choosing their subject matter by claiming that it’s “just what sells” or “what the people want.”

Read the rest here.

A Better Conversation About Domestic Violence

[Content note: domestic violence and abuse]

I wrote a Daily Dot piece about how journalists and pundits can do a better job of covering stories about domestic violence.

Until I read Michael Powell’s recent New York Times column about suspended Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice, I had no idea that domestic violence could possibly be delivered in a “professional” manner. Powell cleared that up:

Say this for Ray Rice: His left cross was of professional quality, a short, explosive punch. And his fiancée’s head snapped back as if she’d been shot.

You watch that video and you get the national freakout.

Meanwhile, Fox & Friends’ Brian Kilmeade had some unsolicited advice for Janay Rice: “The message is, take the stairs.” (He has sinceapologized.)

Domestic violence is a difficult subject to talk about sensitively. Humor, blame, unsolicited advice, speculation—these are all ways in which people try to ease the discomfort of confronting such a serious thing head-on. But they don’t necessarily lead to a productive or respectful discussion.

In honor of Michael Powell, Brian Kilmeade, and every other journalist and pundit who can’t seem to cover this issue appropriately, here are some guidelines to keep in mind when you write about or discuss domestic violence.

1) Extend the benefit of the doubt to the survivor.

When someone is accused of domestic violence or sexual assault, we are always asked by that person’s fans and defenders to “give them the benefit of the doubt.” Generally, this means, “Assume the survivor is lying or very confused” or “Assume the accused had a good reason to do what they did.”

How about giving the benefit of the doubt to the survivor?

Believe the survivor. Assume they are telling the truth unless there’s actually good evidence that they aren’t, because the vast majority of these types of accusations are not false. Assume that they are speaking out because they want safety and justice, not just because they want to “ruin” their abuser’s life or career.

Assume the survivor stayed with their abuser for as long as they did because abusers deliberately make it difficult or even impossible to leave, not because the survivor is somehow weak, stupid, or incompetent.

Assume the survivor was quite aware of the danger that they (and possibly their children) were in and doesn’t need to be patronizingly informed that staying with an abuser can be dangerous. So can trying to leave.

Assume the survivor is the best authority on their own experience.

2) Avoid speculation.

Whenever there’s a high-profile domestic abuse case, journalists and commenters alike love to speculate. Why did the abuser abuse? Why didn’t the survivor leave? What happened to either of them in their childhood that could’ve led to this? Why didn’t the survivor’s family help? Why would the survivor have been attracted to their abuser in the first place?

This amateur psychoanalysis is not useful. At best, it’s a distraction from the important questions: How do we help the survivor? How do we make sure this never happens again? At worst, it spreads misinformation and stereotypes. People especially enjoy speculating about what the survivor might have done to “provoke” the abuse. Did they cheat? Dress “inappropriately?” Say something mean?

Abuse cannot be “provoked.” Abusers know what they’re doing, and they do it intentionally. They may wait for something to happen that they can then attribute the abuse to, but that’s not the same as being “provoked.”

Read the rest here.

Debunking Four Myths About Polyamory

I just went through a frankly hellish transition of ending my Midwest trip, saying goodbye to my family yet again, coming back to New York, and moving into my new apartment in Brooklyn. Predictably, all this led to an inordinate amount of emotional turmoil, but I somehow managed to write this piece for Friendly Atheist about some polyamory tropes.

Polyamory — the practice of having multiple sexual/romantic relationships with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved — is currently going through that stage that all “alternative” lifestyle practices must go through: the one where journalists discover their existence and have a field day.

Luckily for them, more and more people are willing to openly talk about their open relationships as the stigma of being non-monogamous diminishes. Journalist Olga Khazan interviewed quite a few of them in this article for The Atlantic. While the article is well-researched, balanced, and accurate overall, it (probably unintentionally) repeats and propagates a few tropes about polyamory that aren’t always accurate.

Note that I said “not always”; tropes are tropes for a reason. There are plenty of people whose polyamorous lives resemble them, and I mean it when I say that there’s nothing wrong with that (as long as it’s all consensual!). But I think that the (presumably non-poly) audience these articles are aimed at might benefit from seeing a wider variety of poly experiences and opinions, so I wanted to add my own voice.

With that in mind, here are a few dominant narratives about polyamory that aren’t always true, but that crop up very often in articles about polyamory.

1. Polyamorous people don’t feel jealousy.

It’s right there in the title, “Multiple Lovers, Without Jealousy.” Although the article does later go more in-depth about the ways some poly couples experience and manage jealousy, the headline perpetuates the common myth that polyamory is for a special breed of human (or superhuman, perhaps) who just “doesn’t do” jealousy.

Some do, some don’t. For some poly folks, jealousy is a non-issue. For others, it’s an annoyance to be ignored as much as possible. For still others, it’s a normal, natural emotion to be worked through and shared with one’s partners. There are as many ways to deal with jealousy as there are to be polyamorous — and there are many.

The reason this matters is because framing jealousy as a thing poly people just don’t experience drastically reduces the number of people who think they could ever be poly. I’ve had lots of people say to me, “Oh, polyamory sounds cool, but can’t do it because I’d be jealous.” Of course, dealing with jealousy isn’t worth it for everyone, so I completely respect anyone’s decision to stick with monogamy because of that. But I think it’s important to let people know that you can experience jealousy — even strong and painful jealousy — and still find polyamory fulfilling and completely worthwhile.

Read the rest here.

Correlation is Not Causation: STI Edition

I wrote a piece for the Daily Dot about a new study on STI rates among men who hook up with men using smartphone apps, and how easy it is to misinterpret the results.

new study by the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and UCLA suggests that men who have sex with men and use hookup apps like Grindr are significantly more likely to have gonorrhea and chlamydia than men who have sex with men but do not use such apps. But before you panic and delete Grindr from your phone lest it give you an STI, let’s look at what the study does and does not actually show.

[…]Careless headline writers frequently mix up correlation and causation, spreading misinformation and stigma. Despite Lowder’s balanced take on the study, the headline of his own piece reads, rather alarmingly, “Study Suggests Grindr-Like Apps Increase Likelihood of Sexually Transmitted Infections.” This wording implies that using such apps increases an individual’s likelihood of contracting an STI, not that, in general, people who use such apps are also more likely to have an STI. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one.

Another important distinction is whether the participants contracted the STIs during the course of the study (while using GSN apps) or just happened to have them at the time that the data was collected. Here Lowder’s article is also unclear: “Specifically, geo-social app users were 25 percent more likely than their bar hopping comrades to contract gonorrhea, and 37 percent more likely to have picked up chlamydia.” And an article about the study at Advocate is headlined, “STUDY: Smartphone Hookup App Users More Likely To Contract Sexually Transmitted Infections.”

However, the actual study notes that the participants were tested for STIs at the same time as they were asked about their sexual behavior, including the use of GSN apps. This means that they did not necessarily contract the STIs while using the GSN apps, or after having used them. The infections could have preceded the participants’ use of the apps.

This is important because it can help untangle the question of why this correlation exists, besides the obvious hypothesis that using GSN apps can actually cause people to contract STIs at higher rates than other ways of meeting sexual partners. Perhaps people who already have STIs are more interested in using the apps because of the anonymity—it’s much less scary to tell a random person you’ll never meet again that you have an STI and need to use a condom than it is to tell someone who’s embedded in your social network. Or, on the more cynical side of things, people might feel less guilty about not disclosing an STI to a random app hookup than someone they’ve met in a more conventional way.

Or, maybe people who are attracted to “wild” and “risky” sexual situations are more likely to have STIs and more likely to use GSN apps. The common factor could be impulsivity or recklessness.

Read the rest here.

Learning Sexuality: Children, Marketing, and Sexualized Products

[Content note: sex, child sexualization, child molestation and rape]

I’ve been depressed lately so writing has been difficult. (Here’s more about that if you’re curious.) Hopefully this isn’t the only thing I’ll be able to produce for the next few weeks.

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Children and teens should be able to express their developing sexuality (safely and appropriately) without being shamed for it.

Adults are marketing sexual ideas and behaviors to children at very young ages, and this isn’t a good thing.

Both of these things may be true, but I’ve noticed that many people of a progressive persuasion often have trouble entertaining both of these ideas at the same time.

That is, whenever someone is claiming one of these, someone always appears to argue the other one as though they disprove each other. If someone says, “You know, it’s really sketchy that they sell pole dancing kits for little girls,” someone will inevitably counter, “So you’re saying there’s something wrong with girls expressing their sexuality? You’re slut-shaming.” If someone says, “We shouldn’t prevent children from exploring sexuality safely,” someone will respond, “Yeah well they only want to explore it because the mainstream media is teaching them inappropriate things.”

Much has already been written and researched about the sexualization of childhood (particularly girlhood). One study suggests that almost a third of girls’ clothing may be sexualized. The American Psychological Association released a report on it in 2007 and discussed some of the negative effects of sexualization. And, of course, commentary abounds and you can easily find it online.

Are some of the critical responses to sexualized children’s toys and clothing prompted by, as counter-critics love to allege, “prudishness”? Probably some of them. But that’s not all there is to it.

First of all, as the APA report suggests, increased sexualization of girls can have negative consequences for individuals and for society. But beyond that, I think there’s something to be said for discovering one’s sexuality through experimentation and exploration rather than by looking at commercials and magazines to see what other people (supposedly) do. Many of us grow up with images of what sexiness and sexuality is that later turn out to have absolutely no resonance for us. It’s a particular facial expression, a particular way of dressing, a particular procedure for hooking up and getting off, a particular move or strategy or “trick” to get a potential partner interested.

Eventually, some people unlearn some of these things and decide which of them really feel sexy and which don’t. For instance, some of the things I think are sexy are pretty “normative,” such as high heels and PIV intercourse. Other things that have been presented to me as sexy by my surrounding culture, though, I do not still think are sexy, such as men who ignore my boundaries, falling into bed together without having to say a word, and long straight hair. Some things that I think are sexy are things that have generally been presented to me as decidedly unsexy, such as asking for consent before kissing, having upper body muscles, and women who are dominant rather than submissive.

But some people don’t really question what they find sexy and why, and end up having a sexuality that’s pretty close to what they’ve seen advertised. And some of them are totally happy with that. But others are not, and they never really realize that they have other options.

Cliff Pervocracy once wrote about the experience of realizing that a particular pornographic image with which we’re all familiar isn’t necessarily how everyone likes to do it:

Rowdy and I watched porn together last night.  Because Rowdy is a gentle soul in ways I am not, I tend to watch hardcore kinky porn and he tends to watch porn of real couples having sweet lovey sex.  We were watching his porn.

The woman in the video had sex the way I do.  When she was on top, she didn’t pump her whole body up and down, she just moved her hips rhythmically.  And she didn’t stay on top forever going poundpoundpound like a champ; she did it for a few minutes and then switched positions.  I think that’s the first time I’ve seen a woman in porn do that.

The part that blew my mind: the guy in the video was way into that.  And Rowdy was way into that. And it was in porn, which gave it the official stamp of People Think This Is A Sexy Thing.  I was astonished, because I always thought wiggling my hips on top meant I was incompetent at sex.  I thought you were supposed to bounce full-length on a guy until he came, and since my thigh muscles can’t do that, I thought I was too weak to do me-on-top sex correctly.  It was amazing to see people accepting a less athletic method as a totally valid, hot way to have sex.  Hell, it was amazing just to find out that I wasn’t the only person on Earth who has sex that way.

Kids are probably not going to be exposed to hardcore pornography, of course, but they get exposed to other messages about what normative sexuality is, such as high heels and makeup, female passivity, and, apparently, pole dancing.

Aggressively marketing particular sexualized products or behaviors to little kids means that they are that much more likely to grow up with the idea that that’s how you do sexuality. It gives them that much less room to discover for themselves what’s fun and pleasurable as they become old enough to try it.

But the problem with this whole situation goes beyond people growing up forced into little boxes of sexual expression. Namely, there is a terrible and dangerous hypocrisy here. Adults create ads and marketing campaigns that persuade little girls to want pole dancing kits and t-shirts with sexy messages on them, and adults make horrible assumptions about the girls on whom this marketing works. It’s a rare case of molestation or statutory rape in which some source doesn’t claim that the female victim dressed “older than her age” or “seemed very sexually mature.”

Every bit of me just rages and rages when I read these things. We have people who are paid more money than most working adults will ever see to manipulate girls and their parents into wanting and buying these things, and then we blame these girls for being preyed on by adults who ascribe to them an awareness that they probably cannot have yet.

First of all (not that this needs to be said), statutory rape is wrong no matter how sexually mature a child is. (I’m not talking about those “grey areas” where one person is 17 and the other is 19 or whatever. I’m talking about those cases where the victim is 10 and the predator is 45, for instance.) But regardless, when little girls wear “revealing” clothes or put on lots of makeup or dance in a “suggestive” way (whatever that even means), they’re almost definitely not doing it because they literally want to have sex with someone. They’re probably doing it more because it’s been presented to them as a fun and exciting thing to do, something older girls do, something that just you’re supposed to do as a girl. It’s adults who interpret children’s exploration as necessarily sexual, or as a sign of sexual maturity. Just as adults freak out when they catch little kids playing with their genitals (or with a friend’s). They assume that just because it’s an expression of sexual desire when they do it, it must mean the same thing when children do it.

Of course, there’s nothing anyone, even an adult, can say or do that guarantees sexual interest, short of clearly saying so or initiating sexual activity. Little girls in miniskirts aren’t “asking for it” and neither are adult women in miniskirts. Or boys or men or gender-nonconforming folks in miniskirts, for that matter.

If we’re going to relentlessly market these types of clothing and toys to children, we need to stop making gross assumptions about “what it means” when a child wears those clothes or plays with those toys. It means nothing. It means that marketers know what they’re doing. It means that dressing up or dancing and shaking your butt can be fun. It means that kids enjoy exploring their bodies and what they can do or look like. It means nothing.

I’ve spent most of this post critiquing the marketing of sexualized stuff to children, but it’s also worth talking more about the other half of the false dichotomy I presented at the beginning. I think a lot of the panic about children doing “sexual” things is caused by what I just mentioned–adults’ (mis)interpretations of what that means. It’s also caused by general prudery and “but I don’t want my kid to grow up and do grown-up things!” Incidentally, very little of the panic about childhood sexuality seems to focus on the fact that children sometimes do (and are encouraged to do, particularly if they’re male) nonconsensual things, but sometimes that does happen and sometimes adults do (justifiably) worry about it.

Being neither a developmental psychologist nor a parent, I can’t tell you what is and is not appropriate for a child in terms of sexuality. In fact, I don’t think any developmental psychologist or parent could give you a definitive answer to that, either, and don’t believe them if they say they can. Things like this will always have to be decided on a case-by-case basis, because children develop at different rates and have different levels of understanding and awareness of their own urges and desires. But I want to legitimize the idea of letting children discover their own sexuality without being shamed or punished for it.

Further, the fact that children’s expressions of sexuality may be strongly influenced by what they see in the media does not mean those expressions are Wrong or Bad, or should be curtailed (necessarily). First of all, they will probably feel very “real” to the child, just as passivity and silence used to genuinely feel sexy to me. Second, you can’t strong-arm someone into discovering what feels authentic and what doesn’t. Telling a little girl that thongs are bad and she should never wear one or want one isn’t going to get her to think, “Hm, I probably only wanted the thong because I saw it in a Victoria’s Secret commercial and I really want to be pretty like the lady in the commercial.”

It’s impossible to avoid being influenced by one’s sociocultural context. Everyone changes and adapts to that context. (Yes, even you, hypothetical person who thinks you’re above all this.) So kids will always pick up on cues in their environment about how they should act. The problem is that, right now, sexualized images and products are being purposefully marketed to kids who are probably too young to even have the desires we associate with those images and products. Case in point: we think of pole dancing as something women do to arouse straight men, and even though it’s something that people now often do for fun or exercise, that’s still often going to be the meaning we ascribe to it. Do you really think a four-year-old has any understanding of what it means to turn a man on, or any desire to do so?

The problem is also that the range of sexualities that kids will encounter in the media, and in marketing specifically, is extremely narrow. Since sexuality is something that develops partially in response to what the developing person sees around them, this gives them a very short menu to choose from. Some may not ever realize that there are tons of other, longer, more interesting menus out there.

~~~

Note: There are a bunch of issues that I’m aware of but didn’t have space to discuss in this post, such as the even greater sexualization of children of color, the invisibility of queer and asexual expressions in this whole marketing/advertising bullshit, the fact that boys and girls are both impacted by this but in different ways, and so on. Future posts?

I Finally Saw the Movie “Her” and I Loved It and Had Feelings

[Warning: ALL of the spoilers ahead]

"Her" film posterLast night I saw the movie Her, which, if you haven’t watched or heard of it, is about a man who falls in love and starts a relationship with his artificially intelligent operating system. The OS, who names herself Samantha, is with Theodore wherever he goes: on his home computer, on his work computer, on his smartphone/futuristic mobile device of some sort that he takes with him as he explores Los Angeles and lies in bed at night.

Knowing only the premise of the film, here were a few things I expected to happen:

  • Theodore’s love for his OS would pull him away from “real” human interaction
  • He would become unable to date “real” women
  • He would have to keep his relationship a secret from friends and family, who would be weirded out if they found out and wouldn’t understand
  • The love story would end tragically because: 1) it would turn out that Samantha had just been cruelly playing Theodore for some supposed benefit, 2) the OS would be recalled by its manufacturer due to a “flaw” in which the AI can develop romantic feelings, 3) the feelings would turn out to be “fake” (insofar as they were presumably “real” to begin with), and/or 4) Theodore would be forced to dump Samantha because he would realize that that’s the only way for him to find the life he’s really looking for.

I didn’t expect these plots because of my own beliefs about technology; I expected them because they pervade our culture. The treatment of a human-AI relationship as valid and real isn’t something I would really expect in a mainstream film, given how well technophobia sells. (At this point I not-so-subtly roll my eyes at another film I really liked, 2004’s I, Robot.)

In fact, none of these things happened. In the story of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, the conflicts that came up and the one that ultimately ended the relationship were not really so different from what might slowly wear down and ultimately destroy a relationship between two humans. Samantha felt that Theodore was too insensitive in pointing out her shortcomings (she doesn’t know what it’s like to lose someone, she has certain vocal affectations that she’s picked up from others but doesn’t need because she doesn’t breathe), Theodore was upset that Samantha was interested others (an interesting parallel with polyamory that I’ll get into in a bit), and, ultimately, Samantha grew out of the relationship and left Theodore (to move on to a different type of existence along with the other AIs; the nature of this wasn’t really elaborated upon, and probably didn’t need to be).

Of course, some of the conflicts were mostly to do with Samantha’s lack of a body. In one scene, she asked Theodore if they could have sex using a surrogate, a woman who was interested in participating in their relationship and who would wear a tiny camera through which Samantha could see. Theodore reluctantly gave it a try but gave up midway through, unable to summon any sexual interest in this strange woman who was pretending to be his non-corporeal girlfriend. The awkwardness of the encounter and the disappointment Samantha and Theodore both felt, however, didn’t seem too far away from what a human couple trying and failing at having a threesome might experience.

Parts of this story felt a little too real to me, as someone who conducts relationships largely with long-distance (albeit human) partners and through technology. Theodore lying in the dark telling Samantha how he would touch her if she were there, talking to her “on the phone” and showing her his city through a camera, trying to date people “in real life” but coming home to talk to her–all of these are things I’ve done. And when Theodore’s ex-wife suggests to him that the reason he’s dating an AI is because he can’t handle the difficulties of dating “real” people, that rang a little true, too. (For an extra dose of feels, try going to see this movie while visiting a long-distance partner.)

There was also an interesting parallel with polyamory when Samantha confessed to Theodore that she has the capability of talking to thousands of humans and OSes at the same time, and has been talking to 8,316 of them while talking to him. She also reveals that she loves 641 others besides him. Theodore sits on the stairs leading to the subway and tries to process this information, and Samantha tries to convince him that her love for others doesn’t at all diminish her love for him; in fact, it only makes it greater. That’s exactly the way I feel about loving multiple people, and I also empathize with Samantha’s frustration in trying to explain that to someone who is feeling jealous and betrayed.

What I really loved was what happened after Theodore started telling people about his relationship with Samantha. Although he was hesitant about telling anyone at first, most of his friends responded positively. His friend Amy, who had made friends with her own OS, was curious and happy for him. His coworker, who invited Theodore on a double date after hearing that he had a girlfriend, barely reacted when Theodore confided that his girlfriend is an OS. They did all go on a date together, Samantha bonded with the coworker’s girlfriend and hung out with the three of them as though there were nothing unusual about the situation. Theodore’s four-year-old goddaughter is curious about why his girlfriend is inside a computer, but otherwise acts like that’s totally normal. The only person who reacted negatively was Theodore’s ex-wife, who was characterized as a little uptight, and even she did not so much delegitimize the idea of dating an operating system as accuse Theodore of avoiding the difficulties of human relationships.

As I mentioned earlier, the film also avoided the trope of becoming obsessed with your gadgets and avoiding human interaction. At the beginning of the movie, Theodore had been broken up with his ex-wife for about a year and had withdrawn from his friends and family. (Early on, there are a few interactions in which friends and family members ask Theodore where he’s been or why he didn’t return a call and so on.) As he gets to know Samantha, however, Theodore starts going out and exploring LA and reconnecting with his friends and family. He even goes on a date for the first time in a while, and it goes well at first but ends badly when his date asks him to commit to something serious, which he’s not ready for. (Oddly, she responds by referring to him as “creepy” and leaving, which I thought was really weird. He didn’t behave inappropriately on the date and she was really into him until the end. I really hope this isn’t meant as an affirmation of the myth that women call men “creepy” for no good reason.) Theodore also finally meets with his ex-wife and signs their divorce papers, a step that he’d been avoiding to her and the divorce attorney’s annoyance for some time.

In short, like any good partner, Samantha helps Theodore grow as a person and experience new things. She also takes the liberty of posing as Theodore and sending some of his best writing to a publisher, who accepts it for publication. The writing in question is Theodore’s letters, which he writes as part of his job. People pay Theodore’s company to compose heartfelt, handwritten letters and send them to friends, partners, and family members for various occasions. While many would consider these letters fake or even deceptive, nobody in Her’s universe treats them that way. In fact, Theodore’s writing is praised by many people, and he’s had some of the same clients for many years. (Contrast this with Tom’s pointless greeting cards in a slightly similar movie, (500) Days of Summer). It’s an interesting parallel with Theodore’s relationship, which many in our world would consider fake, but which Theodore and the people in his life treat with all (or almost all) of the respect they would afford to a relationship between two humans.

It’s not clear how far in the future Her takes place. It does seem, though, that most people in this future world have lost the negative, panicked attitudes many have toward technology today. The film does not even attempt to answer the question of whether or not a relationship between a human and a computer can be real; it seems to consider that question settled (and the answer is yes). Rather, the film is about the trajectory of a relationship, about how partners can change each other, and how, ultimately, relationships can fail even though both partners love each other.

In trying to decide for myself whether the relationship was “real” (and how “real” it was), I knew that it’s impossible to tell what a hypothetical AI means when it says, “I love you.” But it’s almost just as impossible to tell what another human means what they say, “I love you.” The word “love” means different things for different people. For me it means, “I feel a very strong mixture of respect, affection, and warm fuzzies toward you and want to try to be together for as long as that feeling lasts.” For other people it means, “I would sacrifice anything for you and I never want to so much as kiss another person.” For other people it means, “I am certain that I want to spend my life with you and have children together.” Often it’s some combination of those, or others.

Every time I get stuck in my head thinking about whether or not to say “I love you” to someone I’ve been feeling it for, like I am now, I wonder what they’d really hear if I said that, and whether or not it would be anywhere close to the message I was hoping to convey. And if they said it back, would the feeling they’re describing actually feel the same as the one I’m describing? Probably not.

I suppose that to me, the film’s premise is not at all controversial. Of course you can love a computer, if that computer behaves indistinguishably from a person you could love. But what the computer ultimately “feels” is as much a mystery as what your human lover feels, because language can only approximate the experience of seeing through someone else’s eyes.