Monday, December 2, 2013

The Sexual Objectification of Women

Without knowing what the scientists were trying to prove or to disprove, examine the following experiment. It was conducted by Yale professor Paul Bloom, in conjunction with other psychologists and some philosophers.

The team took images from Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ book of photographs XXX: 30 Porn Star Portraits, and showed them to student test subjects. In thebook each porn star is shot clothed and naked. The shots are full-frontal, as the saying goes, but they are neither erotic nor pornographic.

One assumes that the test subjects knew that they were looking at photos of porn stars. One can only wonder how much of their reactions were based on their knowledge of what the people did for work. One does not know how they would have reacted if they had been looking at pictures of people who were not in the business of having sex on camera. And one does not know how much of a difference it would have made to the photos if the photographer had been shooting average citizens, people who would have been uncomfortable posing naked in front of a camera.

Since the pictures were not intended to elicit sexual arousal, it is fair to say that the test subjects were responding to the difference between having and not having a sense of shame.

People who parade around naked, who expose themselves for public view are normally considered to be shameless. They have less “face” than do people who dress appropriately and have a weaker sense of decorum, dignity and shame.

If that’s all you knew, you would expect that the student subjects would feel more respect for people clothed. And you would also expect that they would feel somewhat more sensitive to those who are naked. When faced with another person’s shame, we normally try to look away or to cover it up.

Anyway, Bloom summarizes the research:

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.

We are not surprised that the study shows that we associate a sense of shame with ethical behavior. People who have more face are generally considered to be more responsible than those who have lost face.

The students also assume, correctly, that people who are shameless have stronger feelings and emotions. In some places this would suggest that they are thin-skinned. Having dispensed with society’s rules of propriety and decorum they lose the ability to temper their emotions. Letting it all hang out does not just refer to the external genitalia. Again, this is a valuable point.

Whether we really needed a test to show that porn stars would receive more respect if they kept their clothes on, the results ought not to be controversial.

Unfortunately, this was not what the test was about. Bloom and his colleagues were trying to discern whether pornographic images objectify women. If people— presumably male people— are exposed to pornographic images of women— in a way that differs markedly from the images used in the Yale experiment— will they be less likely to see women, in general, as moral agents or responsible professionals.

We know that women tend to dislike, even to despise pornography. One might say that they dislike the fact that pornography cheapens something that they hold dear. By rejecting pornography women are asserting their own sense of self-respect and their own moral character.

Bloom seems to believe that an overexposed body is going to distract people from seeing you as a mind, but, truthfully, it is impossible to look directly at anyone’s mind. We might deduce something about an individual by looking at his appearance and behavior, but there is no such thing as a pure human mind. Pure minds are angels.

It is better to limit ourselves to the notion that shamelessness bespeaks weak character and strong emotions. It is not about anyone’s pure mind but whether I can trust you to act morally, and vice versa.

Be that as it may, when we try to conceptualize the issue of female sexual objectification, we face some interesting problems.

If pornography shows women in undignified postures because it is depicting them as pure objects of lust, is the same true when a porn star poses for an artist?

Whatever we say about pornography, can we say the same about the pictures in the Victoria’s Secret storefronts?  Granted those women are not naked, but surely they are not dressed professionally.

And, when a woman goes out and dresses up in order to entice male interest, is she thereby undermining her professionalism and telling men that she is not a moral agent? Or, is she exercising her moral agency in choosing the way she presents herself at a cocktail party?

Here I would raise two issues.

First, the study seems to assume that the behavior of an extremely small subset of women reflects on all women. In truth, most women make an effort to distinguish themselves from porn stars and other women of ill-repute.

But, does looking at porn cause a man to disrespect women who have nothing to do with the business. It’s one thing to say that you have less respect for porn stars because they behave shamelessly, but it is not self-evident that you will therefore disrespect women who behave respectfully.

If a man is assumed not to be able to distinguish between Jenna Haze and a dignified woman, isn’t he being taxed with a lack of moral discernment?

Second, the Yale study does not seem to distinguish between looking at the images of men, dressed or naked, and looking at the image of women, dressed or naked. Nor does it, in Bloom’s Times summary identify the gender of the participating student subjects.

If a test subject is watching a porn movie in which a man and a woman are doing whatever they do in porn movies, will he naturally feel greater respect for the man than he will for the woman? If pornography objectifies women does it also objectify men? And why is it, as a rule that society shows more respect toward female porn stars than toward the men who are in the business?

The terms of the study assume that men are more likely to objectify women, thus to use them merely for sexual pleasure than vice versa. I will leave it to others to discern whether this flagrant instance of a difference between the sexes is natural or cultural.

As a general rule, all ethical systems disparage using people for one’s pleasure or one’s purposes. But then, is it acceptable for Jack to use Jill for his sexual gratification if she agrees to be used? And is it acceptable for Jack to use Jill if he allows Jill to use him for her own sexual pleasure?

There is also Martha Nussbaum’s caveat: it is not always bad to be used as an object. If, Nussbaum said, you adjust your seat in order to place another person’s body between you and the sun—thus, shielding your eyes--  you are not necessarily doing something wrong.

This is true, but of limited value. In Nussbaum’s case the way you position yourself has no direct effect on the other person. When you use another person for your sexual pleasure, it does.

I will mention in passing a point that the authors do not raise. If objectification is a bad thing, why do we naturally assume that it is such a good thing to be a subject? Being a moral agent is certainly a good thing; and, being a respectable, responsible human being is certainly a good thing.

Yet, by definition, being a subject involves being subjected to someone—like being a subject of the crown. How did it happen that we have come to associate moral agency with subjection--  hardly a very good position.

To define his terms, Bloom extracts a salient passage from the works of Immanuel Kant. This is strange indeed: Kant was never known for his proficiency as a seducer. One cannot imagine that Kant would be an authority on sexual matters. Bloom’s description confirms our suspicions:

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.”

This tells us that Kant should have stuck with philosophy. He has merely offered a vulgar caricature of sexual experience.

One suspects that he was suffering from severely limited experience. Any woman who feels that she is being cast away like a lemon after having been used for her partner’s sexual gratification will surely exercise her moral agency and refuse his next entreaty.

We would do better in analyzing these issues if we granted women more moral agency. Surely, it would be better than treating them as indirect victims of the actions of porn stars.


Leo G said...

I believe it was one of your posts that was aboot the girls at some university, that said that they just don't have time for a relationship, so preferred to just screw. One of the girls went so far as to state that she didn't even like her FWB, and would only screw him in his place so that she didn't have dirty sheets!

As Rollo has said (paraphrasing) "modern women want to be objectified, not related to"

Sam L. said...

What about nudists? Different from porn stars. As I've read, many nudists seen on nude beaches are not the ones you'd enjoy seeing nude.

Also, my wife enjoys being the object of my affections.

Anonymous said...

The wide, instant availability of video porn has changed the way young people look at each other. This is not the old porn of dirty magazines where one had to use some adolescent imagination to make the page come alive in his mind. No, vIdeo makes it different, as it pleads for the viewer to observe and imitate the illusion of power/dominance and glamor of subjugation (compete with screaming and bad music). The cultural results are terrible for young men, and devastating for young women. How do you put the genie back in the bottle? I don't know. But I do know that the ubiquitous access to the glowing box is, on balance, not a good thing for human freedom nor dignity. As I've said before in channeling St. Augustine, we are created to love people and use things. Instead, we love things and use people. And we wonder why young people seem so jaded, alienated and depressed? Yeesh.