A recently excellent TED talk by Caroline Heldman about sexual objectification is a must-view. It will just take you thirteen minutes of your time, and I guarantee every minute is informative–things you should know, if you don’t already (and don’t assume you do). She correctly defines and identifies a real problem, identifies from empirical and scientific findings why it’s bad, and lays out what you can do about it, and everything she suggests is doable without much expense (the only resources required: just your attention and concern, and what it motivates you to say and think and do) except one thing, which is producing better art, advertising and media yourself (which we need not all do: that’s a recommendation for artists, marketers, and media people).
To watch that video, and read yet another disgusting example of how the women in our own movement are being treated, see Rebecca Watson’s post on it (Reminder: I Am an Object). Her post is short but to the point and she gives the evidence of what she’s talking about (in her case, something far worse than what Heldman is talking about, but on the same arc). Why so many men in our movement (and even some women) are not taking this seriously as a problem to speak out against and fight I don’t know. Anyway, the Heldman video is embedded at the end of her post, so if you don’t care about the latest harassment of Rebecca Watson, you can just skip to the end and watch Heldman (or click on her picture here above). Indeed I dare you to.
In the meantime, I have more to say on this subject as an atheist, a humanist, a feminist, and a philosopher…
Atheists, especially organized and active atheists, often make the point that we care more about the welfare of humanity than theists, that unlike them, we have (or certainly can have) sensible, empirical, rational ideas of what actually are the problems facing society and what to do about them. Our abandonment of gods and dogmas is precisely what qualifies us to speak out on social issues, because we aren’t deluded into guessing the mind of some imaginary being or interpreting ancient primitive texts to discern his will, or using either to justify and maintain outdated morals and attitudes. That’s what makes atheists different from almost all theists in society.
And that’s why atheists of all people should make themselves heard on issues like this. We have a distinctive perspective, born from a freedom from gods and spirits and dogmas that theists cannot claim to have. In this particular case, unless we choose to act just like religionists, we can have rational and reasonable and evidence-based scientific, philosophical and moral discussions about sexual objectification. We can notice it, analyze it, observe what effects it has, and decide whether we like those effects or not, and whether we’d have a more enjoyable and better world if we changed it (and then, how we can change it).
For example, we don’t have to just analyze and talk about sexual objectification (as the negative side of the use and promotion of sexuality and sexism) as something to be against (though we should), but we can also, at the same time or on its own, analyze and talk about what I shall call sexual subjectification (as the positive side of human sexuality and eroticism) as something to be for. Sexual subjectification also sexualizes its subject (whether women or men) but in ways opposite those listed by Heldman: it represents the whole person, as an actor with a will and desires of their own, it does not dehumanize the subject (Heldman criteria 1, 2, 6 and 7) or negate their individuality (criteria 3, 6 and 7) or gratuitously eroticize their lack of consent (criteria 4), or treat them as only a source of sexual gratification (criteria 5 and 6), as if they were not a thinking, complex agent with their own will who can also be, and should also be, a chooser and recipient of sexual gratification, an actual or potential equal partner in deciding and pursuing sexual pleasure (including the most basic sexual pleasure of viewing or enjoying the company of beautiful people without any actual sex expected or occurring).
Erotica and porn is thus not by definition sexually objectifying. It can be. But it doesn’t have to be. And good porn and erotica isn’t. It sexually subjectifies instead. It communicates, through its art, that women are human beings, in all the same respects as a man, and contextualizes their sexuality in those terms, rather than depicting women as mere pleasurebots for men. Even kink that fetishizes nonconsential sex can (and should) humanize its victims and thus sexually subjectify them (see On Writing Kink). Sexual objectification is not empowering; it is quite the opposite. It is dehumanizing and disempowering (in all the ways Heldman surveys). Sexual subjectification, however, can be empowering, of women generally (as it is of men), and of the sexualized subject specifically (even in unexpected ways, as I discussed before of Sasha Grey, in Sexy Sex Sex!! (for Cash on the Barrel)).
This is why it shouldn’t be the case that if a woman wants to sexually subjectify herself (like, pose for erotic photos for the benefit of her fans, or work as a porn star), she should not then be assumed to be a sexual object. Yet even many atheists in our movement have done this, arguing that (or acting as if) the moment any atheist woman poses for erotica or (God forbid! — and yes, I am using that phrase with deliberate irony) does porn, she is no longer a person worthy of respect but is to be derided and belittled and treated as a sexual object, and then blamed for it (as if her own empowering sexual subjectification morally warranted her sexual objectification and abuse). Honestly? See Greta Christina’s remarks in #mencallmethings: “whore” and Why I Probably Won’t Do Porn Again: Sexism and Being a Woman on the Internet for real perspective on this.
We know this non sequitur is overtly sexist, and often misogynistic, because it generally doesn’t happen to men. All the shit said to Greta Christina and Rebecca Watson and Jen McCreight for posing in erotic art has never been said to me. Even though I did the same thing they did. Evidently no one cares if men sexually subjectify themselves for the entertainment of their fans. No one assumes that that then negates his value as a human being, reduces him to a sexual object and nullifies the value of anything he says or does. Yet that is how women are treated for it. By their own peers. Think about it.
The thing is, it’s atheists of all people who should know better. It’s supposed to be the irrational, superstitious, sex-fearing theists who can’t make logical distinctions and thus oppose all sexualization, all porn and erotica, all nudity and sexual liberty. They are clearly wrong, and their fear and loathing of sexuality (female sexuality especially) drives their socially harmful efforts at censorship and thought control, and shaming and harassment. Why on earth would atheists do the same thing? Shouldn’t we be the ones speaking out against attitudes like that? And, you know, not the ones perpetuating them?
I’m reminded of the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (which all atheists should see, because it documents how Christians actually exercise real power over the American movie industry and thus control what you are allowed or likely to see in cinema, all behind closed doors and often not even noticed) and one story it tells in particular: how the film Boys Don’t Cry [now also available in HD] had to edit itself to cowtow to Christians in the Motion Picture Association of America who would not give it a marketable rating unless they deleted a consensual sex scene depicting female pleasure (even though the brutal rape scenes, ending in murder, were totally fine). The director had to fight them, even though having no actual leverage over them, and eventually persuaded them to allow the good sex scene, as long as the woman’s orgasm didn’t go on for too long (it was thus edited down to mollify the MPAA). This is all kinds of fucked up. And it’s certainly the sort of thing atheists should be up in arms about.
But these kinds of attitudes about depictions of sex and sexuality should be the failings of theists that atheists gleefully and persistently point out. They should not be the failings of atheists, too. We should be fine with positive depictions and uses of sexuality. We should, with our responses and comments, be actively empowering the women (and men) who engage in such things or appreciate them. We should not be attacking them and attempting to objectify and dehumanize them. Insofar as any atheists do that, the rest of us in the atheist movement should be outspoken and clear in condemning it. Every bit as much as we would be if Christians were the ones doing this to us.
But even beyond what’s going on in our own house, sexual objectification is a real problem to care about generally. To have your eyes opened to all the subtle ways sexual objectification in art, marketing, and media is everywhere, and what you can do about it, and why you should care, watch Caroline Heldman’s TED talk.
She’s pretty much 100% right. My only nitpick would be that I don’t agree with her closing statement against women using make-up to beautify themselves. The basic feminist analysis Greta Christina performs on high heels in High Heels and Feminism is entirely adaptable to all beautifying clothing and cosmetics. Even though I don’t think Heldman meant to suggest a blanket rejection of the practice (only the promotion of a general social acceptance of women when they don’t wear make-up, in other words ending the pressure on them to always do so, a sentiment I entirely agree with: see what happens when women do or don’t wear makeup), her way of making the statement could be mistaken for such by the inattentive.
That the practice of wearing makeup is presently gender specified is not in itself an indication of sexism (any more than skirts are), as one will remember men used to wear makeup, too. Not only in many distant periods of history (why, even the Founding Fathers wore wigs with cute curls and bows and pony tails, and that was then as manly as ever). Men in makeup was still cool even as recently as the 1980s, and even now there is a masculine way to wear makeup evidenced in the rock, punk, goth, and ink cultures. I would even experiment with it myself if it were more generally done and not falsely associated with midlife crises or regarded as unseemly for an academic–an example of sexism negatively affecting men and restricting their freedom, sexism that is still entirely generated by other men (since most women I know would not make such assumptions about me if I wore eyeliner).
Thus, makeup is no evil. But the pressure to wear it can be. Likewise, being (or making yourself) beautiful or attractive and enjoying the results is no evil. But requiring a woman to be beautiful or attractive in order to like her or take her seriously can be. And reducing her to nothing but her appearance definitely is. And above all, the social impact of the widespread objectification of women (as well as of men) is not something to be complacent about.
And that’s one atheist’s perspective on the issue of sexual objectification and why we should care about it and do something about it, and why we mustn’t do what the theists do, and oppose or vilify or punish sexual subjectification along with it.
Special comments policy: Besides my usual comments policy, any comment on this post that says or implies (or even so much as contains a remark that says or implies) that we should ignore sexual objectification as a problem because there are other problems to worry about will be deleted without ever being posted. You should know that’s a fallacy, and why it’s a fallacy, and if you don’t, you are the worst skeptic on earth, committed to irrationality or incapable of reasoning. I don’t care what such people have to say. So I will not let you say it on my webpage.