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.


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


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[blogathon] Against Pokemon-Style Polyamory

This is the sixth post in my SSA blogathon. Don’t forget to donate!

When I first started exploring and getting into polyamory about a year ago, one of the things that appealed to me about it was this idea of having “different partners” for “different needs.” It made a lot of sense to me and seemed like a rational, ethical justification for dating multiple people with everyone’s knowledge and consent.

You’ll see this rationale repeated and defended in various books and articles about polyamory, and it generally goes something like this: we all have various needs and desires when it comes to sexual/romantic relationships. Often, one person can’t possibly fulfill all of these needs and desires for you. Maybe you have a particular kink that the person you love just isn’t interested in. Maybe you thrive on the excitement of casual sex or brief relationships but still want to have a long-term, serious relationship. So you look for different partners to fulfill your different needs, and the fact that a given partner can’t be everything you want in a partner doesn’t have to prevent you from being seriously, passionately, and healthily involved with this person.

So yeah, that all sounds good in theory. But in practice, it has started giving me an uncomfy feeling over the past year. I couldn’t put my finger on why until I read this great post on Tumblr:

The idea that we should look to a single person to fulfill all our needs offends me, but so does this notion that we each have some exact checklist of needs, and that the path to fulfillment is assembling just the right combination of partners.

Someone reblogged it and added this: “People aren’t Pokemon where you are trying to build a team. Or trying to collect them either :B”

And suddenly, there it was. All of my discomfort perfectly articulated. What I’d encountered was Pokemon-Style Polyamory–the idea that polyamory is about assembling some ideal collection of partners to conveniently fulfill all of one’s needs and desires.

Looks like a pretty strong team!

Looks like a pretty strong team!

There are a number of problems with this idea. First of all, it might not be practically possible. While it’s often said that polyamory requires a lot of self-awareness–which is true–being able to literally make a list of all your “needs” might not be feasible for most people. For people with very specific sexual preferences, it’s possible to be like, “I need a partner who’s willing to Dom me,” or “I need a partner with whom I can explore [X Fetish].” But sexual/romantic relationships are rarely this simple.

Further, except in the case of specific sexual preferences or relationship configurations, how exactly does one shop around for a partner who fits their specifications? Suppose I really love cooking with a partner, but my primary partner doesn’t really like doing that (this isn’t true, he totally loves doing that). Am I really going to go on OkCupid and specify that I’m looking for a partner with whom to go on dates, have sex, and cook meals? While I could certainly do that, the likelihood that anyone else out there is looking for that specific thing is pretty low, and unlikely to work–because most people want more from a partner than just someone to sleep with and cook meals with.

Or to make it even more abstract: suppose my partner’s not the best at listening when I’m going through something difficult that I’d like to talk about (also false, but suppose). How do I go about finding a partner for the specific purpose of being a good listener (and also being, well, a partner)?

So there are at least a few practical challenges to such an approach. I’m not saying it wouldn’t work; just that it would be pretty hard to make it work. I’m sure it’s been done.

The more important challenge to this view, though, is an ethical one. Ultimately, what rubs me the wrong way about this approach to polyamory is that it feels objectifying. Rather than looking for partners in order to be close to people, have fun with them, build lives with them, have a single fantastic night with them, etc., you’re looking for partners to “fulfill” particular “needs.” You’re kind of treating them like objects.

That’s not to say that the end result could never be a mutually satisfying, respectful partnership in which you see each other holistically rather than just as means to ends. But it’s an instrumental view of sex and dating. “I need this, so I will do this to get it.”

Personally, if someone wanted to date or hook up with me because of a specific trait that I have that fulfills one of their needs–say, that I’m a good listener or am willing to do X or Y in bed or like going on dates that involve concerts and museums–I would probably say no. I would feel objectified. I want to be seen as a whole person, as the sum of all of my traits, not just as a way to fulfill a particular need that someone has.

(Of course, many poly folks might say that not being limited to one person–or seeing more than one person–is a “need” that they have, so they are poly in order to fulfill that need. I think that’s a different sort of justification, though.)

Although this view had once appealed to me, when I read that Tumblr post I immediately realized that this is not why I’m poly. I’m not poly because I have different “needs” that I must assemble an optimal set of partners in order to fulfill. I’m poly because I love more than one person at a time. I dream of more than one person at a time. I want more than one person at a time. And it feels awful to limit myself to just one when the world is so full of people to love, and life is so short and so ultimately meaningless unless we create that meaning for ourselves.

I want to emphasize that if this works for you and your partners and nobody feels used or objectified (unless they want to feel that way), go for it. It’s not my place to tell anyone how to set up their relationships. I don’t think this approach is Bad or Wrong. I just think that this is an approach worthy of thinking carefully about and being cautious about, especially if this is how we explain and promote polyamory to others.


Extra moderation note: I am not interested in debating whether or not polyamory is healthy/natural/”moral”/feasible. If you want to argue about that, you can do it elsewhere. Because if you tell me that polyamory is unhealthy or never works, you are literally denying my lived experience and that of many friends and colleagues. Not cool. For some people, polyamory is unhealthy and doesn’t work; for others, monogamy is unhealthy and doesn’t work.


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HoboJacket’s Casual Classism: Ethical Humor and Objectifying the Homeless

Elite college students being snobby and idiotic isn’t really newsworthy, but a group of MIT students went above and beyond the standard this past week.

The students thought it’d be funny to give local homeless people jackets from Caltech, MIT’s rival, in order to “show the true value of a Caltech degree.” And then, to practice their coding skills, they actually made a website called HoboJacket where you can donate to do just that.

In a way, it’s a brilliant idea. The students get to practice valuable skills and diss a rival school while simultaneously performing a nominally charitable act. And then, just as Tucker Max did with his solipsistic Planned Parenthood donation, they and their defenders can claim that anyone who disagrees with any part of their methods doesn’t really care about the homeless, puts ideology before practicality, and, worst of all, can’t take a joke.

The criticism, of course, was plentiful. The students literally used homeless people as props to make a (fairly inane and classist) point, and while the joke was supposed to be at Caltech students’ expense, what it really accomplishes is objectifying homeless people. As Laura Beck at Jezebel wrote, “Being homeless already carries enough social shame, it doesn’t need your help. The barb at the end of the particular stick you’ve built is that homeless people are gross and dirty and making them wear clothes with rivals logos somehow degrades the logo.”

This, of course, is where a certain type of liberal comes out and protests that “Yeah well at least it’s getting them jackets/what are you complaining about/would you rather they went without clothes/if that’s what it takes to get people to donate then that’s just how it works.”

Raising money is hard. Duh. Sometimes gimmicks are necessary. Sometimes these gimmicks will be controversial. However, I believe that ethical humor is humor that punches up, not down, and I believe that if you can’t do something ethically, you shouldn’t be doing it. Leave it to someone who can.

And nevertheless, many non-profits and charities are able to solicit donations without exploiting existing social inequalities. If you really believe that you need to use marginalized people as props to attract attention to your cause because “that’s just how it works,” that probably says more about you than it does about the psychology of charitable giving.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that we objectify and dehumanize the homeless. A research study that I was coincidentally assigned to present in one of my neuroscience classes yesterday comes to this conclusion*. The researchers scanned people’s brains with an fMRI machine as they looked at photos of different types of people–the elderly, the rich, the disabled, the homeless. Only for homeless people and drug addicts did the medial prefrontal cortex–a part of the brain that activates when analyzing people as opposed to objects–fail to activate.

Before you rush to give this some sort of evolutionary explanation, remember the way our brain functions is not set in stone by genetics and biology. We are probably not born viewing homeless people as any different from other kinds of people. That’s something we learn, and that’s something to which the brain adapts. And even if we were born that way, the cool thing about being a sentient being is that you can choose to override the signals your brain sends you. That’s why people can choose to be celibate, go on hunger strikes, become doctors and treat sick people, and overcome “natural” fears like snakes and heights.

My point in discussing this study is not to excuse the MIT students’ actions by claiming that they were compelled to do what they did because that’s the way their brains function. Rather, it’s to show that this is not an “isolated incident,” as people love to claim when someone does something insensitive and awful. The objectification of homeless people is real and supported by evidence, so casting this as a silly college prank is inaccurate and socially irresponsible.

Although the students initially dismissed criticism of their project by comparing it to Facebook’s origins as a tool to objectify women (an overly ambitious comparison, I’d say), they eventually understood what they did wrong, apologized, and took the site down. Honestly, that’s great, and they deserve credit for listening to their critics.

But I still wanted to write about this because, as I mentioned, it’s not an isolated incident. This particular type of prank might be, but the prejudice inherent in it is not. It’s worth discussing. It sheds light on how we view the homeless, which should in turn inform how we attempt to help them.

Of course, in my view, donating clothing to homeless people is kind and important but does not address the roots of the problem. The problem, unfortunately, is structural, and we can’t really talk about homelessness without talking about the pervasive economic inequality that our society has.

*Harris, L.T. & Fiske, S.T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups. Psychological Science, 17(10), 847-53.

Save the People, Not the Boobies: The Ethics of Breast Cancer Awareness

Few ad campaigns make me as misanthropic as the breast cancer awareness ones I’ve been seeing at an especially high volume for the past month:

There’s also this video (NSFW).

I hate these campaigns for many reasons. First of all, they make breast cancer all about boobs. Yes, it has “breast” in the name, but reducing an illness as complex and life-shattering as breast cancer into a cutesy “save the boobies!” campaign seems callous and inappropriate.

I’m not sure everyone would even agree that the prospect of losing your breasts is the worst thing about breast cancer, and yet that’s what these campaigns almost universally target. It’s not the “boobies” or “ta-tas” that need to be saved–it’s the human beings who have breast cancer.

It’s even worse when the campaigns are created by and/or targeted at men and involve that hint-hint-nudge-nudge assumption that men should care about breast cancer because men love tits. Never mind that men can get breast cancer too, and never mind that men care about breast cancer not (just) because they care about boobs, but also because they care about their friends, girlfriends, wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and etc. who might get breast cancer, or who already have.

Campaigns like these also completely ignore women who have chosen (or been forced to) undergo mastectomies. If breast cancer research and awareness is all about “saving the boobies,” does losing your breasts mean you’ve lost the fight?

This preoccupation with breasts is probably what inspires awful ads like this one by the Cancer Patients Aid Association, an Indian NGO:

The text at the bottom reads, “One out of every eight women develops breast cancer in her lifetime. Early detection helps recovery. Get yourself examined before it’s too late.” So there you have it. If you get a mastectomy, you’re “making yourself ugly.”

This is all to say nothing of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the hypocrisy and reactionism of which should by now be well-known. (Incidentally, the former Komen executive who was responsible for that move was not content with merely that; she just had to write a book-length screed against Planned Parenthood, as well.) This unethical organization seems to be the beneficiary of most (if not all) of the sexualized ads I’ve seen. I still refuse to give them a single cent, which is difficult given how easy it is to accidentally pick up one of those pink-ribbon-branded products at the grocery store.

On the bright side, this is a great opportunity to explain what feminists mean when we prattle on about “objectification” and “sexualization,” which are closely related concepts that often (but not always) occur together. Objectification is the reduction of a person to their body parts (usually the sexual ones; hence the frequent co-occurence of objectification and sexualization). An advertisement that objectifies women might show, for instance, a single female leg in front of a flashy car, or a woman lying in a martini glass–literally like an object to be consumed. Sometimes men are objectified too, but that seems to be rarer. Ads that objectify people often don’t show their faces (or eyes), thus making them seem less like people and more like bodies.

Sexualization, meanwhile, is when a person (again, usually a woman) is represented in such a way as to arouse the viewer or otherwise connote sex when the actual purpose of the representation has nothing to do with sex at all. You wouldn’t call pornography “sexualization” because the purpose of pornography is to depict sexual acts and to be arousing. But when an advertisement designed to sell cars or alcohol–or solicit donations for breast cancer research–portrays women in a sexual way, that’s sexualization.

The objectification and sexualization of women in the media has a great deal of negative effects, both on an individual level–for the people who view them–and on a cultural level. Check out the work of Jean Kilbourne if that interests you.

However, I am not a marketing expert. If I were, and if I were charged with designing an ad campaign that elicits as much attention and donations for breast cancer research as possible, there’s a good chance I would feel compelled to create an ad like this, because there’s a good chance that this is the kind of ad that works best.

Hence the misanthropy I mentioned earlier. Marketing people know what they’re doing. If this is really the best way to get people to pay attention to this important cause, I would say that not using ads like these is even more unethical than using them–at least until we shift our culture enough that we don’t need them anymore. But that still means that we’re choosing the lesser of two evils. I would rather more money went to breast cancer research than less, but I would also rather we stopped reducing women to their erogenous zones in our media.

After all, I don’t agree with this rubbish that men are “programmed” or “hardwired” by biology to be obsessed with breasts, at least not to the level that our society seems to think they are. As I already discussed when I wrote about public breastfeeding, the sexualization of breasts is not universal to all cultures and time periods. Even if “sex sells,” breasts don’t necessarily have to always be part of “sex,” and I think it would be beneficial to our society if they were not.

For the record, whether straight men’s love of boobs is entirely biological or not, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon public policy or trivialize serious illnesses. Besides, you can totally be an awesome (male) feminist and a boob enthusiast at the same time.

Edit: Here’s a great article that basically makes my point for me.