Monday, September 12, 2011

What Is Wrong With Girls Going Wild?

There's a lot of disagreement about women's sexuality.  But one thing tends to bring people together, and that is a belief that when young women take off their clothes, kiss one another, and go back to the Girls Gone Wild tour bus for further fun, something has gone wrong.

Men call them sluts; feminists call them manipulated by a sexist debauched culture.  The TV show Arrested Development calls them "Girls With Low Self-Esteem." 

But what exactly is it that is regrettable?  These women are choosing to participate, they seem to be having a good time, and they don't seem coerced.  Indeed, it's often noted how small any material rewards are:  they get a cap or a T-shirt or something.  

I think one standard thoughtful response to this question is something like this.  What's regrettable is that these women are "objectifying" themselves, or permitting themselves to be objectified.  Even though they are choosing to participate, they're being objectified because they're giving sexual pleasure to other people, via their bodies, and not getting any "authentic" sexual pleasure for themselves.

Insofar as it is "sexy" or "fun" for them, it must be because of the attention, and not because of something they're getting for themselves.  Whatever they are getting out of it is other-directed, rather than self-directed. 

But it seems to me there's something not quite right about this.

One part I really can't run with is that there's a problem with other-directedness.  Because when you move away from the sexual domain and into other domains, being other-directed is often a good thing not a bad thing.  Suppose I want to throw you a party, and I become really focused on wanting you to have a good time.  Imagine I feel like your having a good time will make me have a good time -- indeed, that I could not have a good time without your having a good time.

If this is just a party and not my whole way of life, there's obviously nothing weird about that.  My enjoyment follows from your enjoyment, my preference is not for some thing, but for you to have a certain set of feelings and experiences.  If anything, we'd say that's an excellent part of human interactions.  If we go out to dinner once a week and I can't really have fun unless you are having fun, that's a nice thing not a regrettable thing.

In the New York Times discussion of women's sexuality a couple of years ago, one of the researchers talks about how much she thinks women's desire is "narcissistic" in the sense that women desire to be desired.  I don't know if that's right, but if it is even a little, then the women who participate in GGW can certainly be acting on their own "authentic" desires -- those desires just happen to be desires about the desires of others.

But having other-directed desires is not narcissistic!  Why not say, "generous," or "other-directed" or any of the million other nice ways to describe people who are concerned with other people's feelings?

There definitely is something regrettable when women's desires are only other-directed, and social and cultural pressures tell women they ought to have other-directed sexual desires -- to be sexy, rather than to feel sexual desire and pleasure.  And this is true about our world, and it is bad.

Like, this Salon article about sex from the economic point of view basically makes an assumption that women's sexual desires don't even exist -- women just have sex to get other stuff.  Jeez, people.

And so, insofar as things like GGW foster and promote this vision of women's sexuality, that is bad.

I think that is right, and I think it's important.  But it's not the same as saying that other-directed desires are second-rate, or bad, or inauthentic, or rooted in low self-esteem.  Ideally, in sex everyone would have a mix of other-directed desires and self-directed desires. 

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