Monday, December 13, 2010

Sex and Sexism

From an article about women in video games.
 I used to be a little puzzled by the connection between sex and sexism.  Discussions of sexism often bring together several different things, things like discrimination against women, treating women in a way that is degrading or demeaning, and treating women as objects of sexual desire.

When I was young, it puzzled me that the first two would get put in together with the third.  It seemed obvious to me that discrimination against women and treating them in a degrading or demeaning way was wrong, and really bad.  Indeed, it was because this seemed obvious to me, and because I could see both things happening all the time, that I've always considered myself a feminist.

But being treated as the object of sexual desire?  What's so bad about that?  Don't people want to be considered attractive? Of course, for either sex, it can be annoying when someone you don't especially like starts hitting on you, and of course, it's awful when people just won't stop pestering you and it becomes harassment.  But just being the object of sexual desire?  How is that a problem?  The question always seemed most puzzling when I considered the way men are always clamoring to be the object of sexual desire.  How could what's good for them suck for us? 

Not surprisingly, as I grew older and learned more about life, I came to understand that the connection between sex and sexism has to do not such much with "being treated as an object of sexual desire" but rather "being treated only as an object of sexual desire."  That is, being treated as if your only possible worth or value comes in how sexually attractive you are, and in your worth as a possible sex object.  If you're sexually attractive, this sucks, because you can't get men to engage with you respectfully as a whole person.  If you're not sexually attractive, it sucks even more, because you can't get men to engage with you respectfully at all. 

Obviously not everyone contributes to a state of affairs in which women are treated only as sexual objects, but the people who do have various methods.  Men who never talk to you except to hit on you, men who remind you of your sexual status at every turn, and people of either sex who comment only on the attractiveness of women and not their other qualities all help sustain a world in which women have trouble being considered as whole persons.  Even just flirting, if that's the only kind of interaction you have, helps bring about such a situation.

By the way, if you're the sort of person who wonders, "Why do women get so indignant when they're whistled at -- it's a gesture of appreciation!" this is part of the answer.  Yeah, sometimes it's a gesture of appreciation.  But often it comes with a jumble of mixed signals, a mixture in which "this is the only way you matter - so ha!" comes through loud and clear.  Actually, in my experience, there is a fine gradation of such signals, determined by tone, context, and facial expression, that determines the extent to which the intended message is mixed up this way. 

Now, there's a more complicated way that people can send the only-sex-objects message, and that's treating a woman as a sex object in a context in which she's primarily there in a non-sex-object way -- for example, when she's your colleague.  The idea is that if you treat a woman as a possible sex partner in a context in which she's there to do her job, you're sending the implicit message that the job isn't the important thing, where the sex-partner thing is.  This is how flirting can have so many different aspects to so many people.  Is it harmless fun between equals? Or is it reinforcing a sexist status quo?

What to do about these problems?  It would be possible to aim for a kind of desexualization of interactions, creating clearer no-flirting zones and the like.  But I think there's another possibility, suggested by reflection on men.  Men can be sexual objects without only being sexual objects.  How so?  Well, there are two things.  First, there's an overwhelming sense in which men are always treated as more-than-sexual objects.  Cultural artefacts of all kinds -- movies, TV, news, etc. -- constantly reinforce the image of men as having multiple kinds of worth and value.  Second, and perhaps relatedly, it's pretty easy for men to be both the objects of sexual desire and valued colleagues, researchers, workers, dads, politicians, people with opinions, etc. etc.  Indeed, an attractive guy is often an attractive guy because he's some of these things.

This suggests a crucial role for a state of mind in which a woman can be an object of sexual attraction and lots of other things all at the same time.  I used to be optimistic that we could create a world in which such a state of mind would predominate, and thus, just like men, women could be sexually attractive and engage in mutual flirting, and still, at the same time, be treated as and valued as full persons in their own right.  And if the woman isn't one you want to flirt with, fine - you can still value her in all the other ways.

As time goes on my optimism gets more tempered.  We've still got a constant barrage of movies in which women are only around to have pretty hair and make the sandwiches, we've still got men who, instead of flirting with women, sexually harass them as a way of bringing them down a notch or two, and we've still got a shocking disregard for women who are not physically attractive in the conventional ways.  We've still got women's sports leagues that can only exist if the women wear the right kind of sexualized clothing.  And there is a troubling correlation between sexualizing women and being sexist.  It would be nice if places like Italy were bastions both of romance and of feminism, but it doesn't seem to be happening.

All of these put pressure on the solution of getting people to recognize and value women multidimensionally.  Not so easy after all.  I hope it's obvious, though, that women are not going to suddenly become happy to be considered only sex objects.   That is just not happening.  So this would mean more of the other solution:  desexualization and more flirting-free zones.

Maybe that is for the best but it seems a little sad.  I mean, most people in the twenty-first century spend all their time at work as it is, and that's where they meet everyone they know.  No flirting, no asking out your coworkers, no little compliments on someone's new hairstyle or snazzy high heels ... I'd be sorry to see all these things completely lost and forbidden.  Hopefully we can mix in a little of the first solution.

So, the connection between sex and sexism lies not in simply treating women as objects of sexual interest, but in the the sexist attitude conveyed by treating women as only, or primarily, of value as sexual objects. What I'm suggesting is that unless we can move toward multidimensional valuing, we'll be heading for desexualization instead. 

You know how they say, "If you want peace, work for justice?" 

Well, if you want sex, work for feminism.

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