Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What is a "sex object"?

(Originally posted by Pat on 6/16/10)

I apologize for my long hiatus from blogging. I have been working on my newest book, The Science of Morality, and the queries and proposals thereof. I have now submitted to 10 literary agencies and eagerly await responses. I've also been suffering from some personal issues, but as this is the SSA blog and not my personal blog, I will not elaborate upon them here.
I return today to the philosophy of feminism, to challenge a fundamental assumption of much feminist criticism, particularly anti-porn and anti-sex feminism. This is the concept of the "sex object"; heterosexual men are quite frequently accused of treating women as such "sex objects",  and this is immediately agreed to be true and bad.
But what is a "sex object", anyway? (NSFW Warning: All text, but sexually explicit.)

I think it is an oxymoron! Fundamentally, one cannot have sex with an object---genital stimulation with an inanimate object is masturbation, not sex. On the most obvious definition, the paradigmatic "sex object" would be a vibrator. This seems to be the meaning intended by concerns that pornography (etc.) "objectifies" women.
But wanting to have sex with her---indeed, for most of the men I know, wanting to satisfy her sexually---cannot constitute making a woman an "object"! I don't want to have sex with objects! I don't want to satisfy objects sexually! I'm not even sure the concept is coherent, much less desirable.
Now, perhaps some pornography does in fact treat women as if they were objects to be used as one might use a vibrator; but this is not the porn that I and most men watch. One of the most popular genres of pornography is videos of women masturbating to orgasm; why would men want to see that, if they hate women and want to use them as toys? Why would we be so excited by the idea of a woman enjoying herself sexually if we thought of her as a toy to be used and thrown away?
A good example of an object people enjoy watching is food; and it's true, porn and food commercials are rather similar in style. But no one wants to see the hamburger enjoying itself; no one wants to see ecstasy in the chicken's face. Indeed, if a food commercial showed live animals, most omnivores would lose their appetite. We don't want to think of food as sentient.
But we do want to think of women as sentient; a woman's sentience is critical to porn's sensuality. At least the majority of men as far as I can tell are excited not only by the chance to see breasts and vulva (though surely that as well), but also by the chance to see women excited and pleasured sexually. We want the girl to cum and shout in ecstasy as she does; we want to be that big, hard cock that satisfies her. Indeed, I for one am a little disturbed by the frequency of obviously fake orgasms in mainstream porn; it's clear these women aren't really enjoying it, and that is a real turnoff for me. I also prefer the rare cases where a man ejaculates inside a woman's vagina instead of all over her face; it seems much more natural and much more mutual.
A more reasonable definition would be to consider the word "object" in "sex object" as a notion akin to the "object of a preposition" or the "object of the game"---as the recipient or target of some action. On this definition, a woman might well be the object of sex, since men will often desire to have sex with her, thereby making her some kind of target of action.
And here I guess there is some vaguely misogynist notion that sex is something men do to women rather than something men and women do together; as Steven Pinker noted in The Stuff of Thought, our verb constructions reflect the fact that the most polite ideas about sex are as a mutual and ill-specified activity ("making love", "being intimate", "having sex"), while the least polite are a transitive action with implications of pressure and impact ("fucking", "screwing", "boinking") that invariably take a female object.
Yet there are perfectly transitive things people can do to me that I would very much enjoy and participate in mutually (consider the verbs "kiss", "hug", "love", "trust", and for that matter, "fellate"); so the mere fact that women are viewed as an "object" in the grammatical sense need not say anything degrading about women. It may just be a fact that in most heterosexual couplings it is the male who takes control and authority, and the female who prefers a more passive and submissive role. No doubt there are many egalitarian relationships and role-reversals as well, but this is also true grammatically: I've definitely heard the constructions "she fucked him" and "they fucked".
Really I don't think the concept of "sex objects" adds anything useful to feminist discourse. It is an easy epithet to throw about, because even the most feminist straight man must admit he sometimes wants to bend a woman over a bed and shove his penis inside her. But what the epithet ignores is the fact that plenty of straight women want men to do that to them! (Perhaps not enough, alas. But I digress.) Sex in romance novels is notoriously rough in fact---I fear that feminist fears of male sexual assertiveness have in fact left many women unsatisfied. Women have sex drives as well, and it would be degrading to women to deny this.
An even worse, but related, problem arises among radical feminists who argue that "all sex is rape". This is incredibly degrading to women---it suggests that any woman with healthy sexual desire is somehow complicit in a mass conspiracy of violence, that women's sex organs are incapable of pleasure or usefulness, and merely present a target for male violence. It also degrades real rape victims, who find that their great suffering has been ignored and conflated with some "male oppression" so abstract that one can voluntarily engage in a pleasurable and mutual activity and still find that it is "oppression". If all sex is rape, then rape is necessary to propagate the human species, and so rape must not be so bad.
But no, rape is bad; and rape is bad because it abuses sex. In rape a woman really is treated like a sex toy---like an object---rather than like a person. Men who rape can scarcely even be rational; whatever they get out that experience could be had more easily and more morally with a Fleshlight or a skillful hand. A man who rapes to get sex clearly doesn't understand what sex is about. He may feel a desire to have sex with someone rather than just masturbate, but he doesn't really get why that desire makes sense. He is like a chess player who gets tired of playing the computer, so he plays a real person---and then cheats, just so he can win. He doesn't see that the game is really about social activity and test of skill, not winning at any cost---he doesn't get the point.  (There could be something evolutionary here however: In some circumstances it might benefit one's genes to rape. It does not benefit one's happiness however.)
On the other hand, we must not go so far as some sex-positive feminists and deny that rape has anything to do with sex. Rape is a sexual act. It isn't just violence, and it certainly isn't violence motivated by some sort of abstract hatred of women. Jack the Ripper might have abstractly wanted to hurt women (but as he primarily targeted prostitutes, even this is unlikely); but the typical rapist is lonely, horny, and frustrated. Often he refuses to masturbate on some sort of twisted religious norm, and somehow thinks that rape is a viable alternative. He probably doesn't respect women very much; but his goal is most definitely not to hurt as many women as he can---his goal is to get off by any means necessary. He may even think that being able to rape a woman proves his masculinity and sexual prowess, when of course the fact that he had to rape proves just the opposite.
There are misogynist men in the world. It's difficult to say exactly how many; but they surely do exist. Feminism has historically played a crucial role in resisting these men, and should continue to do so today. But feminism is not served by accusations that sex and porn inherently constitute misogyny, for these are activities that nearly all men and indeed nearly all women enjoy. (Women generally prefer written pornography, while men prefer visual pornography; this is interesting in terms of neuroscience, but the general point is that both men and women enjoy both actual sexuality and depicted sexuality.) It does not degrade a woman to desire her sexually---indeed it may well uplift her, for it views her as a more complete person. It is not to reduce her to vulva, but rather to include her vulva in part of one's characterization of who she is. One who never desired or experienced sex would be, I dare say, something less than a fully flourishing human being. Sex is fundamental to our constitution as evolved sentients. Removing sex from the equation would be like removing friendship or removing language; it would take away an essential part of what it is to be human.
There is some pornography that really does treat women as objects to be used and abused;  but this is most certainly not an essential part of pornography qua pornography, and is in fact quite opposed to sex qua sex. Even fantasies of abuse and coercion are fantasies, and hence voluntary; so, by indulging a woman in her fantasies of abuse one really is giving her exactly what she wants---and therefore not abusing her at all. Marxist-feminists can say all they want that this this "false consciousness" (if that means anything at all), but when people actually enjoy something, I think they have a right to do it so long as no one else is harmed.
In short, accusations of treating women as  "sex objects" are either trivial (the object of sex) or nearly always untrue (inanimate objects used for sex). They hurt only because the two meanings can be conflated; yet what they hurt the most is the essential project of feminism.

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