I have a very simple request to put out there for pundits, journalists, scientists, etc: If you’re going to argue with “feminists”, could you take the time to bother quoting even just one who has the argument you claim they have? Paul Bloom is a researcher who wrote a piece for the NY Times arguing against the contention that feeling lust for or even just seeing someone naked necessarily means you objectify and demean them. He feels that this argument needs to be made because of all those terrible “feminists” with their terrible talk about “objectification” and wah.
Many contemporary feminists agree that sexual desire, particularly when elicited by pornographic images, can lead to “objectification.” The objectifier (typically a man) thinks of the target of his desire (typically a woman) as a mere thing, lacking autonomy, individuality and subjective experience.
It’s an argument that should immediately raise a red flag because it’s based on an assumption—that feminists believe that only men feel sexual desire—that is so obviously false that it’s laughable. But hey, let’s go with it. Surely he can find some quotes from feminists stating that sexual desire in and of itself—and not sexism—is the problem. For instance, uh, Immanuel Kant.
In 1780, Immanuel Kant wrote that “sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite.” And after that appetite is sated? The loved one, Kant explained, “is cast aside as one casts away a lemon which has been sucked dry.”
Okay, well, not a feminist. Maybe that famous feminist….Kingsley Amis?
The real worry that people have with pornography — and with lust more generally — is that the targets of the arousal are seen as losing certain uniquely human traits. They are thought of as lower-status beings, stripped of dignity, more like animals than people. This attitude is well expressed by the misogynist hero of the Kingsley Amis novel “One Fat Englishman” who says that his sexual aim is “to convert a creature who is cool, dry, calm, articulate, independent, purposeful into a creature who is the opposite of these: to demonstrate to an animal which is pretending not to be an animal that it is an animal.”
Oh wait, he fully admits that not only is this not Kingsley Amis’s opinion, necessarily, but it’s the opinion of a fictional misogynist, which is, last I checked, the opposite ideology of feminism.
Then there’s that well-known feminist scholar….Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe once described sex as “the opposite of love.” This seems too harsh.
Okay, yeah, no that reads like the complaint of someone who really was treated like a sex object, and it’s kind of annoying to see Monroe’s experiences brushed aside so easily by a man who has not even the faintest clue what it must be like to have been Monroe.
So the evidence that feminists are arguing that sex itself leads to objectification and degradation are quotes from an 18th century philosopher, a mid-century novelist’s misogynist character, and a woman who was notoriously misused by a string of sexist men her whole life. In other words, the opinion that sex degrades women seems to come not from feminists—you know, those ladies who fight for abortion rights and contraception and all that jazz—but from sexists. The anti-porn feminist argument has, even in its most extreme form, never been that sex necessarily degrades women, but that sex is contextualized by a sexist society as degrading to women, and porn is simply an expression of that sexist belief. And that if we could end sexism, then sexual objectification would go along with it, leaving sex to simply exist as a way to have fun and express affections instead of a way to put women in their place. Yes, even Andrea Dworkin’s notorious book Intercourse, with its notoriously over-the-top language, doesn’t posit that intercourse necessarily is degrading, but in our current society, it’s constructed as a conquest of a woman and that is the problem. How it’s constructed. Not the act itself.
I’m sure there are feminists out there who are just anti-sex prudes who think that women’s bodies are disgusting and need to be covered up for that reason. They’re not particularly powerful feminists, and I can’t think of any, but man, if you’re going to argue against them, at least find some to quote. That alone would help.
Bloom spends the entire article arguing against the belief that nudity itself is degrading without taking even a single moment to acknowledge the only people in modern society that actually express that belief, i.e. religious fundamentalists. Because of this, his arguments tend to make very little sense at all. He talks about how “people” may be better at understanding the humanity of naked people, as if the arguments around modesty weren’t deeply gendered, with only one sex being told to cover their hair or their ankles or their cleavage because the other sex supposedly can’t see you as human while also being reminded you have female body parts. I have no doubt that the research Bloom has done and reports on does show that people are much, much better at humanizing naked people than religious fundamentalists believe. They’re just less fun to argue against than a bunch of strawfeminists.
Bloom explains one of the tests that his group ran:
ALONG with a team of psychologists and philosophers (with the psychologist Kurt Gray as the lead author), I published a study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that looked at the effect of viewing naked bodies. We went hard-core, drawing our images from a book by the photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders called “XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits.” This collection was perfect for our purposes, as it had two side-by-side photographs of each attractive individual, with the same lighting, posture and expression — but in one photograph the person was fully dressed, in the other naked.
We showed the pictures to our subjects and asked questions about these individuals — about the extent to which they were seen as purposeful agents, with the capacity for self-control, moral action and planning, and about the extent to which they were seen as experiencing beings, capable of feeling pain, pleasure, fear, rage, joy and desire. Consistent with the objectification view, naked people were thought of as having less agency. But contrary to this view, they were also thought of as being enhanced experiencers, capable of stronger feelings and greater emotional responses.
Luckily for us, we can actually find the photographs his team showed. A number of things jump out at me. The first is that these pictures don’t meet the feminist definition of objectification, because the subjects, whether clothed or naked, are all in non-objectified poses. (After all, the pose is the same in both pictures.) They are standing tall, directly looking at the camera, with their heads held high. Even though you can see their naked bodies, the eye is drawn to the their faces, because the subjects are making eye contact with you. It’s pretty much the polar opposite of the kind of imagery that anti-porn feminists objected to, where women’s body parts are shown without the context of their body or, if you do see their faces, they are in submissive or even degrading poses. No one is tied up in these pictures and there isn’t anyone spitting on them or ejaculating in their faces or calling them “whores” or “sluts”. The pictures do prove that you can be naked without losing your dignity, absolutely. But as far as I know, no feminists are saying otherwise.
It’s also worth noting half the pictures are of men, which again points to how Bloom is pointedly ignoring the role that gender and sexism play in our cultural understandings of what nudity means. Indeed, the pictures of the naked women in this series feel more subversive than the pictures of the men because there’s so much imagery of naked women out there where they are submissive or their face isn’t in the picture, or—when it comes to crime shows on TV—they’re dead. The naked men in the series just look like naked men. The pictures of the women have a, dare I say, feminist feel, as if they’re a “fuck you” response to the typical imagery we have regarding women’s naked bodies.
It seems to me Bloom and his team would construct even better studies if they were responding to actual arguments made by real people in the real world—those religious fundamentalists come to mind—than the strawfeminists in their head. Generally, science works better if it’s testing reality instead of fantasies. So, while I support showing that nudity and sexuality is a complex subject through psychological research, I highly recommend, going forward, that it be done in response to real people for better results.