Friday, March 15, 2013

A little light culture: What posing nude tells us about "equality" pt 1

I have done it myself. There are a bunch of paintings of me nude out there somewhere. Assuming any have survived that is. Perhaps the parents of some fine arts graduate from my college days have dutifully kept all of their son or (more likely) daughters paintings from school. I did it mostly because I had this gigantic crush on a woman named Katrijn and I needed an excuse to hang around the art department so I could talk to her. (It worked but that isn't a story for the blog.)

Anyway, I thought about my experience when reading a couple of recent pieces by women about their experience posing nude. (I'll only discuss one of these today.)

This quote from Slate's Emily Yoffe , for example, struck me:
I stood there, suppressing a strong desire to giggle (fortunately, the students suppressed their giggles, too) as I tried to think of appropriate poses—something neither sultry nor stiff. I began doing yogalike twists, but with my being undressed and all, I was afraid it had the feeling of yoga porn.
On the one hand, you can see how that would be a issue, especially for a woman.And that is the issue: "especially for a woman". You can't avoid that.

On the other hand, one is tempted to rudely say, "What part of 'naked woman equals suggestion of sex' do you not understand?" Not necessarily actual sex but there is a definite sexual overtone that is always there when a woman gets naked. It's usually there when she's dressed too.

It can't not be there. I can see why that can feel terribly unfair. The reverse is not the case. Several hundred women and men did paintings of me with no clothes on once upon a time, and it was a time in my life when I was very fit, and, as I remember, only about three paintings had any erotic feeling about them. And in each case it was added by the artists. Unless he is unusually well endowed or has an erection there is nothing necessarily erotic about a naked man.

Is the reverse the case? Are paintings and photographs of naked women erotic only because the viewer or artist puts it there? No. Sex is always implied. Don't just take my word for it. Here is Marta Meana, professor of psychology at UNLV, as quoted by the New York Times:
“The female body,” she said, “looks the same whether aroused or not. The male, without an erection, is announcing a lack of arousal. The female body always holds the promise, the suggestion of sex” — a suggestion that sends a charge through both men and women. 
She means that quite literally, by the way. If you connect heterosexual female test subjects to plethysmographs to measure sexual arousal and show them pictures of naked women, they respond by getting sexually aroused.

And here we run up against a real problem for modern political thought. Ever since Brown vs Board of Education we have regarded the notion of "different but equal" as bogus. In the popular understanding* of Brown vs Board of Education, the court over-turned previous judgements that said that it was okay to provide different schools for blacks and whites provided the schools were "equal" on the, very sound, grounds that the schools offered were not, in fact, equal. But is it necessarily the case that different can never be equal? And what do you do when "different" is built into the very facts of life?

That is what happens with sexuality: the if we want women and men to be equal, the only way to achieve it is through different but equal arrangements. One of the big differences is that we always see women in a sexual way. I know women, particularly women of a feminist bent, who really don't like this. For example, I once met a female clergy-person who took great umbrage at being told that she was attractive. "I wish," she told me, "that my sexuality didn't have to come into it." "It" in this case meaning her role as clergy. I didn't want to get her angrier than she already was so I didn't say what I was thinking which was: Too bad, because it always will.

It's not fair, of course. Anyone who has taught or raised kids through puberty will have seen cases of girls who were simply crushed when they went from childhood to person of sexual interest. Past a certain age, women will always be evaluated sexually in ways that men are not. Until they aren't, at which point, as a woman I know once ruefully put it, "You become invisible".

And there is nothing much you can do about it. This because, as Catholic moral theologians put it, you can compel obedience but you can't compel assent. You can insist that men and women restrain their sexual impulses but you can't make them not have those impulses in the first place.

More to come ...

* I have no idea if this is actually an accurate reflection of what the court said but for my purposes here it doesn't matter for it very clearly is the lesson that the popular political culture has taken from it.

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