I was trying to avoid it, but several of my readers have asked me to comment on the ongoing internet shitstorm over at Common Sense Atheism. In preface, I have to say that I will probably upset some of my readers. I apologize in advance for that, but I will not apologize for what I will say because I believe it to be the truth, and my version of morality does not include a clause for sugar coating the truth when it offends certain people. At least not in any kind of categorically imperative way.
In a nutshell, here’s what happened. Right around the time I was posting my own article on sexy atheists, Luke at Common Sense Atheism was posting his own, which you can see has been taken down due in large part to this change of heart by the author. Since then, there has been an ongoing discussion of hyper-sexualization of women, objectification, and “The Patriarchy.” Rather than weigh in on Luke’s article, I have decided to simply lay out my views on these three subjects.
Last night, I had a discussion with a social scientist about these topics. To be honest, I left more frustrated than when I had begun, since it seemed like we were talking past each other the whole time. The problem from my point of view comes from the following claim:
It is wrong to make lists of sexy atheist women because that objectifies women and harms all women by contributing to the power of The Patriarchy.
I have a lot of problems with this statement as read. For one thing, I can’t even begin to agree or disagree because it’s so vague as to be meaningless. What is this awful Patriarchy? How does looking at sexy atheist women contribute to it? Why is objectification wrong?
By the end of the discussion, we had come to a tentative agreement on a beginning definition: The Patriarchy is the cultural norm in which men have significantly more money, workplace power, and thus a disproportionately large influence on women’s ability to choose their own course in life. It’s hard to argue against this as a description of American culture. But I do have a problem with automatically labeling The Patriarchy as an inherently bad model which must be eradicated.
Before you start throwing burning bras in my direction, I’m not suggesting that I prefer women to remain barefoot, pregnant, and silent. Far from it. I consider myself a “personist,” by which I mean that I am in favor of elevating both men and women to new levels of self-actualization and happiness. However, I see several rather daunting facts of history and biology that seem to argue against The Patriarchy as an inherent evil.
- I’m unaware of a single example of a significant post-agricultural matriarchal society. That is, a society in which females held consistent economic, social, and political advantage over men. When we examine other aspects of human nature and find them to be ubiquitous, we label them as innate. Yet we are extremely reticent to do so with The Patriarchy.
- Biology. Plain and simple. Men and women think and feel differently, and no amount of wishing and hoping can change that. Because we came through the gauntlet of female selection, men are significantly better adapted to and desirous of cut-throat competition and other behaviors which are well suited to gaining and maintaining cultural dominance.
- The realities of “equality.” As I said, men and women aren’t equal. However, when we begin thinking in terms of egalitarianism and plurality, we have to come up with ways to make as many playing fields as level as possible. Unfortunately, there are (I believe) real limits to the concessions that can be made by either sex, regardless of how much they might want to make more. In other words, women’s ability to join in the workforce in exactly equal capacity as men is limited by their desire to have and raise children. As much as many feminists might want to see a society in which men and women shared childrearing equally, I do not believe it’s possible, since far more women than men are emotionally driven to care for their children. That’s strongly hard-wired, and I think it can only be modified to a certain degree.
To put it simply, I don’t believe it’s possible for humans to create a stable and psychologically functional society in which there is not some socio-economic advantage to being male.
Again, let me return to my big disclaimer: I do not believe this means we ought to accept male dominance as an automatic good thing, nor do I believe that we shouldn’t strive to create a society in which women who want to can achieve many or most of their individual socioeconomic goals. What I am saying is that regardless of how nice it might sound, human society is biologically determined not to be exactly equal. There will always be discrepancies. But I do believe there are ways to keep these discrepancies from turning into full-fledged repression, suppression, and absolute power.
There can be little doubt that in some ways, America is hyper-sexualized. Makeup, cosmetic surgery, digital enhancement, and unrealistic casting of “normal people” in TV and movies definitely contributes to distorted evaluations of beauty. The ubiquity of porn gives men lots of false impressions about what constitutes good sex. Some people argue that our focus on sexuality has given us a distorted sense of what constitutes a mating relationship. (I’m not so sure I agree with that notion.)
There’s a problem with this observation, though. You see, humans are part of the system of competition which has cursed all of evolution — the ever-escalating arms race. Humans aren’t designed for efficiency. They’re designed for beating their rivals at any cost. Makeup, cosmetic surgery, and other “artificial” enhancements are part of an arms race — being escalated by women — for the affection of men.
So we have a problem with drawing a line. We cannot expect women to stop competing for men. If you’re a woman, prove it to yourself sometime. Volunteer to completely avoid any enhancements. Don’t wear any makeup. No jewelry. No heels. No form fitting outfits or low cut shirts. No pantie hose. You can keep your hair clean, but no special styling. Just brush it and let it lie. Go to work, out to the bar, to parties, to your friend’s house. Everywhere.
Absurd, right? But where is the line? Should you wear makeup, jewelry, and nice clothes but draw the line at high heels? Or push-up bras? Or teeth-whitening toothpaste?
The problem is that all of these beauty aids are part of the normal, natural system in which women compete for the attention of men. Unless everybody stops using any enhancement, then the women who enhance will always win. Completely suppressing competition doesn’t work.
However, there’s a good parallel between economics and beauty. The objectively best model for an economy may be somewhat elusive, but we know roughly where it lives. It is somewhere between socialism and capitalism, where human competition can be expressed and society is allowed to stratify, but where the power of exponential growth is limited to prevent disproportionately large income gaps and corporate monopolies.
So it is with sexualization. Women need to be sexualized by men for society to work. Women need to attract men so they can have babies so that there’s another generation, and like it or not, men always have and always will choose their mates largely because of beauty. If you’re a man, you can prove it to yourself. Decide to completely ignore physical beauty in women and search for a partner based entirely on “inner beauty.” Convince your penis to get equally aroused for both of these women:
Of course, individual men can make the conscious decision to marry an ugly woman with bad breath, and follow through with it, but what are the chances of convincing every man to do so, and counting on all of them to follow through without “cheating?”
Zero, of course. Because culture is the manifestation of intraspecies cooperation and competition, and it’s unworkable to try to take one of these out of the equation. Can you honestly imagine a society in which people’s mates were arbitrarily attractive or unattractive? It’s patently absurd.
Sexualization must occur. It is part of who we are. However, like economies, there are certainly ways to control runaway sexualization. We could, for instance, put legal limits on the styles of clothing available for adolescents and teenagers. No Paris Hilton Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playsets for girls under 18. We could pass regulations regarding the content of ads. Hell, if we wanted to, we could have affirmative action for casting actors. For every woman with a .7 hip to waist ratio, you have to cast two with .8 or above in major roles.
The question becomes how much of our own competitive advantage we are willing to give up to reduce the negative impact of sexualization on women. Go too far towards non-sexualization and uniformity, and very bad things happen:
Go too far in the other direction, and bad things happen:
So to summarize, I think it’s obvious that men must view women sexually, and women must try to make themselves sexually attractive. So by itself, an accusation of sexualization is not equivalent to a value of morally bad. In fact, I think the only way to go is to assume that it can be good, bad, or neutral, and demand further cause-effect correlation before making any judgment of an individual case of sexualization.
Finally, the crux of the matter. Lists of sexy atheists are wrong because they objectify women. Let me put it as plainly as possible. WRONG. Lists of sexy atheists may be wrong, but they are not wrong because of objectification.
Unfortunately, some words have become catch-alls for societal ills when they are in fact scientifically and morally neutral. Objectification is simply the process of treating a concept as if it is a thing. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has broken it down into seven categories:
Instrumentality – if the thing is treated as a tool for one’s own purposes;
Denial of autonomy – if the thing is treated as if lacking in agency or self-determination;
Inertness – if the thing is treated as if lacking in agency;
Ownership – if the thing is treated as if owned by another;
Fungibility – if the thing is treated as if interchangeable;
Violability – if the thing is treated as if permissible to smash;
denial of subjectivity – if the thing is treated as if there is no need to show concern for the ‘object’s’ feelings and experiences.
The thing is, each of these types of objectification is both necessary and healthy in human society. If we did not objectify other people, we would have to treat everybody as if they were intimately connected to us. Objectification is one of the principle methods for creating appropriate social boundaries. Imagine having to walk through Walmart and individually hug and greet every single employee, ask them how their day was going, and offer to help them with their work if they were a little behind! Absurd!
It is entirely appropriate to objectify celebrities, actors, waiters, mailmen, and Victoria’s Secret models. We honestly don’t care a thing about Shiraz Tal.
Shiraz Tal does not exist to us. What exists is an attractive dark skinned, dark haired woman in lingerie. She is a representation of what we would like to look like if we were wearing the same clothes. She is interchangeable with any other underwear model of similar appearance.
But similarly, these people don’t matter to us, either:
They are a generic Grandfather and Granddaughter, eating breakfast together and staying healthy. They are objects. And they can’t possibly be anything more to us unless we interact with them in a more meaningful way.
So a claim of objectification is not sufficient for a moral value judgment. End of story.
Putting it All Together
So here’s the problem. We are biologically different, men and women. We have different goals, emotions, and patterns of thought. We are better at some tasks and worse at others. There will always be differences in society that reflect these differences. The goal of progressives should be to find a middle ground where these differences are not allowed to run amok and lead to legal repression, but where the basic biological drives are respected and channeled into psychologically healthy outlets as often as possible.
To those who claim that any list of sexy women is harmful, you have a challenge in front of you. (And I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m saying the burden of proof applies, even when we feel very emotionally confident in our position. Especially when we feel very emotionally confident!)
- You must connect some dots. You cannot simply label it as objectification or sexualization and declare victory. Both of these are societally and biologically functional, and do not necessarily constitute a societal ill.
- You must not fall victim to all or nothing thinking. Neither sexualization nor objectification can be removed from human nature or society. You must find a way to quantify these phenomena and demonstrate them as some sort of scale, in which “oversexualization” is a matter of degree in relation to appropriate and functional sexualization.
- You must realize that in sexual competition, nothing happens in a vacuum. It may not feel good as a woman to be a “victim” of sexual preference and “beauty discrimination,” but the consequence of removing female sexuality from society is de-masculinizing men, which is no healthier than hyper-sexualizing women.
I’m sorry that this has gotten very long-winded, but I find that in very sensitive topics like this, it’s important to cover as many bases as possible. Let me wrap things up with one of my favorite sayings: “In life, we can often get anything we want, but we can never get everything we want.” In order to get something, we must give something up. Choosing involves closing off options. Sexualization and objectification are part of “The Patriarchy,” which is how humans form societies. We can limit the power of The Patriarchy in many ways, and move towards effective (if not equal) egalitarianism. But the farther we move towards enforcing strict gender equality, the more we move away from human sexuality, which — let’s face it — we all like. As long as men enjoy beautiful women (and they always will), women will always want to be beautiful for men (and they always will.) Finding the line between hypersexualization and normal sexualization is very difficult, and I don’t claim to know where it is. But I refuse to jump on the bandwagon and condemn anything that depicts women as sexual objects.