Friday, November 14, 2014

Women as "objects of assessment"

I'll start with a question. Is there a moral difference between the case where a person takes a photograph of a naked woman without her knowing and shows the photo to others and the case where a person hacks into a woman's phone and takes a copy of a photo she took of herself and shows it to others?

Having asked it, I now admit that I am certain there is a difference but I'm not sure precisely how it should be articulated. It feels different somehow but I can't think of any valid reason we would treat the cases differently. If you do either, it seems to me, you should end up in jail.

Another way of putting it might be that violating a woman's privacy is wrong even if she participates in the objectification of her own body. But that is a weird thing to say. Did anyone ever say that a woman participating in the objectification of her own body should lose her privacy rights? Well, yes but the people who do are jerks. And yet we act as if it did make some sort of difference; it does seem to change something.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, whose work is very much worth your time, raises a concern about Christian writing about sexuality that seeks to argue "that living the Christian life is not incompatible with experiencing sexual pleasure or contentment, but actually leads to those things in a more thorough, authentic sense".
This is a totally respectable goal. Yet it’s worth questioning if it isn’t inflected with a pair of less respectable intentions. In contemporary culture, for example, sexual chastity is construed as a feminine quality, leading folks like Driscoll to try to reclaim a more masculine, virile edge for the faith; secondly, noble motives can quickly lapse into the lascivious when the right subject is at hand. None of these pieces read precisely like Penthouse Forum letters, but it’s sometimes more a matter of where they draw the line on the narrative than how it would play out given its logical conclusion. These points are, I think, enough reason to contemplate the best argumentative tactics before pressing on with essays like these.
Bruenig wants to have a sexual ethics where, as she puts it later in her piece "maintains the same sexual expectations of men and women ...". Therefore she worries that Christian men writing about sex in positive terms for them are going to end up by effectively writing about the enjoyment of women's bodies.
But even with the best of intentions, the register of pieces in this stream tends to have unintended impacts on women readers. If the Christian publishing sphere is imagined as a literary, online representation of the Church community itself, then these articles are the equivalent of the winks and glances and whistles women get every day, combined with the vaguely lewd remarks one overhears that produce a slightly disconcerting tenor. Women, in other words, are used to being viewed as automatically sexual regardless of how we might want to engage; the very fact of our being women and present seems to occasion, quite uncomfortably, grounds for considering female sexuality. It’s an unsettling experience to enter into a space or conversation expecting to learn or discuss and instead find the topic of your most personal anatomy and experience up for consideration.
Women are viewed as automatically sexual regardless of how they might want to engage? Yes, they are. Is this likely to change? No, it isn't.

It could change. It's not ontologically necessary. What it would take for it to change, however, is that women stop participating in the public sexual presentation of themselves as objects of assessment. Men might not like this but they'd eventually go along.

Now, you could worry that, should such a solidarity spring up among women, that a few women would cave into the pressure of a concentrated male campaign against such solidarity. But that's to misstate the problem because the vast majority of women participate quite willing to various degrees in the objectification of their own bodies. Most of this participation falls well short of Beyoncé, "but it’s sometimes more a matter of where they draw the line on the narrative than how it would play out given its logical conclusion." Does that top enhance your breasts? The temptation is to say, "Yes, but in a restrained and tasteful way." But that is precisely the line of argument that Bruenig rules out for men here and, on her terms, we should rule it out just as vigorously for women.

She's on better grounds further down the essay when she argues that
We therefore stray a little, it seems, when we turn personal marital sexual narratives into public arguments for the superiority of an ethic that would suggest such things should remain at least somewhat private and unknown to others.
Saying "personal marital sexual narratives" implicitly admits, whether Bruenig sees the point herself or not, that where you draw the line on the narrative is the ethical consideration that matters and that wishing that women could treat sexual engagement as some sort of magic bullet is an argument that, while valid, could only apply in a social context radically different from the one we live in. Some feminists would here say, exactly! But the rest of us are willing, however grudgingly, to live in a social context where, as my wife once said, when a man compliments a woman on the top she is wearing, he usually means her breasts. Some women treat such remarks as compliments, others have trained themselves not to notice and some others would prefer that men not mention their clothing for this reason. Most women, however, wear body-enhancing clothing in public and are content with social manners that say, "nice top" is acceptable and anything beyond that should be private and unknown to others.

The solution that will "work", although far from perfectly, is a return to manners. An ethical solution, in the deep sense that a writer like Bruenig conceives of ethics, isn't possible. Of course, to go to manners might seem to be turning the clock back to a darker era. There two answers to that. The first is that modern manners need not be identical to old manners. The second is that earlier eras were not as relentlessly dark as we imagine and the current era has its very dark corners too.

I suppose women could get together and collectively act so as to change the culture such that it is not nearly always the case that their "most personal anatomy and experience up for consideration". If such a thing ever happens, we'll have another discussion. 

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