Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Distortions of Dignity

Leah at Unequally Yoked has a post about various feminists responding to the way some comic artists distort the feminine form to amp up sexual attributes, generally at the expense of anatomical realities. Whether or not you want to follow all her links, I'm in favor of people casting a critical eye on any medium which glorifies pornification: the exaggeration of one trait or characteristic for the purpose of sexualizing it.

Leah applauds these initiatives, not just because they encourage objectification, but because
I’m glad that people like Albers, Girl in Four Colors, and Escher Girls are speaking up and making it easier for guys who intend to be nice guys to notice when the culture is leading them astray.
I think there's a lot to admire about the work of calling attention to the ways in which the culture encourages an overtly sexualized view of women, but the phrasing here, "making it easier for guys who intend to be nice guys to notice when the culture is leading them astray", troubles me. I've noticed this formulation in several discussions lately: "I know you think you're good guys, and you want to be nice, but you just need to be set straight". It seems to me to be, in attitude, very much related to the equally problematic assertions I've seen men make in discussions of modesty: "I know that even nice girls don't realize how much they distract men by their clothing/body language/etc., so let me set you straight." Both of these are not only really patronizing statements, but also set up relationships between men and women that either set the sexes in opposition, or put repentant offenders into the position of being useful idiots trying to placate an offended constituency: "Oh gosh, I'm so sorry I didn't realize how the culture was making me sexualize these poor women! Gee, I didn't know that the way I dressed was making these poor men sin! You're so right!"

A man shouldn't not sexualize women because he wants someone to think of him as a "nice guy"; he shouldn't do it because it's wrong and degrading. A woman shouldn't dress modestly because men are too weak to control themselves; she should dress modestly because she is inherently worthy of respect. I cannot force you to think virtuously, but I can behave virtuously myself.

This is an important moral distinction because choices not based on what is right and good often just channel bad behaviors into other areas. Simply eliminating unrealistically sexy drawings of women won't automatically mean that illustrators believe that women have an inherent dignity and deserve to be depicted as more than a collection of variously shaped attributes and a sultry glance. It doesn't mean that suddenly men who had been consuming these images will begin to treat their wives or girlfriends or co-workers or internet interlocutors as the image of God. The images are a symptom of the problem, not the cause -- people don't have less regard for the dignity of others because they are inundated with sexy images; they create and consume sexy images because they already lack that regard.

Of the comic illustrations, Leah says
What these illustrations are eroticizing is the absence of a woman’s consent to be interacted with sexually. They’re promoting her own interest and pleasure as irrelevant to the man’s enjoyment, instead of amplifying it as lover and beloved both will the other’s good.  
I would actually take this a step farther. The problem with with pornifying women in any context is not that the woman does not consent. "Consent" does not equal "good". Women and men consent daily to affairs, to make or watch pornography, to degrade themselves for money or the enjoyment of others. And these things are wrong -- no consent ameliorates that. For that matter, the harm done by a sexualized comic image is not that the image can't consent -- that's ludicrous -- but that the illustrator, in creating, and viewer, in partaking, are making harmful moral choices which have consequences in how they then think about and treat other people.


Darwin said...

It strikes me that part of the problem here is that much of modern society has lost the ability to say that something is wrong for any reason other than "lack of consent". This gets one into odd problems like, "How can pornified drawings be exploitive, since there's no real character to exploit?"

Leah said...

I'd agree that consent is necessary, but not sufficient.

My comment about guys trying to be nice specifically followed this anecdote:

When I asked a male friend of mine what he thought about Hard To Get, he told me: “Well, you know, there is a right and a wrong way to play Hard To Get.”
“Enlighten me!”
“It’s fine if she’s all Oh, I don’t know…I’ve been hurt before…let’s take it slow. But I hate when she lays it on too thick. Not just ‘hard’ to get—impossible to get!”
“You mean, when she’s really saying No?”
“Yeah! It really pisses me off. I’m a nice guy, so why does she have to be such a bitch?”

The guy intends to be nice, but doesn't know what framework to express attraction in appropriately. It's not a problem of just sexualizing someone or dressing modestly, it's a problem of not having a good way to ask people out and understand how to parse the response.

mrsdarwin said...

Yes, and here's the next paragraph from that article:

My friend played by the rules, fought hard for a woman’s attention, and thus felt entitled to his “prize.” His reaction to being “cheated” was to label the woman who refused her consent a “bitch.” Were he to say this to her directly, it would be a verbal assault. Were he to forcefully push on to get what he felt he had “earned,” it would be rape.

She's a bitch for not wanting to sleep with him?Sounds like a pretty distorted definition of "nice" to me. He's entitled to his prize? He deserves his sex for being a "nice guy"? That mentality is not merely the result of having a poor framework within which to express attraction, societal messages be damned. That's the result of actually not viewing the other person as worthy enough of dignity not to be cast into prefab relationship roles.

Is playing hard to get a bad relationship model? Hell yes, times over. "Playing" anything is a bad relationship model. When women think men owe them a chase, when men think that women owe them sex, there is a fundamental disconnect between the idea of "man" or "woman" and "this particular man or woman here before me". And people's ideas of how to treat another particular person ("bitch!") will spill over into how they view humanity in general ("what does it matter if I like to look at cartoons that just happen to look like oversexed women? they're not real!").

Clare said...

Porn is definitely wrong for reasons beside consent, but I think there is a very real way in which pornified images eroticize female sexual non-participation specifically.

I was thinking about this today regarding cutesy 40s pinup images. The vast majority of them seem to be caught in a moment of surprise, mild alarm, or accidental exposure.

Porn and fornication are both obviously serious sins against human dignity and human sexuality, but porn teaches men to engage with women as passive consumptibles in a way that real life illicit encounters between consenting adults, while still deeply wrong, do not.

Darwin said...

I have to admit, I couldn't really figure out how to take the "hard to get" anecdote quoted above. The point seemed to be that women need to signal more clearly to guys and guys need to be more honest in reading women's signals as to whether they are saying "yes" or "no", but the anecdote itself didn't sound much to me like a "nice guy" who was bad at reading signals, it sounded like a smalltime psychopath who got angry whenever anyone didn't say "yes" to him because he saw other people as only existing for his use.

As Clare says, I can certainly see how porn creates an idea of "women exist for your pleasure" rather than "women are human beings" way of thinking. Though at least in the circles from which the anecdote originates, it also kind of sounds like use has become the operative mode for a lot of real-world relationships. Which one is causing the other is probably hard to say.

I'm never sure how seriously to take some of these "what does the way these things are drawn" efforts. I think there's clearly a point when drawings go from "attractive" to "intended to feed fantasies in which women exist only for your satisfaction" though I don't know if I could deliniate that point with a bright line. At the same time, some of the commentary on these issues strikes me as a bit silly and one sided. For instance, some of my more earnest friends on Facebook were passing around a variant on the Avengers movie poster that was supposed to show how silly it would look if all the male characters were posed like Black Widow. The thing it seemed to miss was that while Black Widow was posed (and doubtless re-shaped a little) to conform to an exaggerated idea of female attractiveness, characters like Hawkeye, Thor and Captain America were clearly posed in order to present an exaggerated view of masculine physical ideals. Ditto with some of the attempts to crop photos of male Olympic athletes to look as if they focused on the same things as photos of female contestants in Beach Volleyball. I'm not sure that examples like that so much have to do with pornification and lack of consent as they do with a certain brand of gender activism being uncomfortable with the fact that male and female images and physical ideals are different.

Kristin said...

I agree that consensual != moral, but how can you explain that to someone who believes that people can do whatever they want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone? For example, if someone isn't religious or spiritual, why would they believe that consensual premarital sex or pornography is wrong? "Sure, pornography can warp a person's understanding of human relationships, but that doesn't always happen. And as long as that warped perception doesn't spill into real life interactions, there's no harm done, right? Lots of people watch pornography, but most of them don't treat women like objects."

As a Catholic, I have a hard time explaining sexual morality without citing a religious source or natural law as I understand it.

Matthew Lickona said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew Lickona said...

You might suggest that while fiction tells falsehoods in order to illustrate some truth about humanity, porn just lies about humanity in order to satisfy an animal appetite. I'm not suggesting that animal appetites are bad, just that one ought to pause before lying for their sake. I dunno. Maybe a starting place.

Darwin said...


I think Matthew provides a good approach.

I would probably frame the issue in terms of using versus loving. Sex is meant to express love rather than simply to use someone for our own satisfaction.

There are two obvious responses to this:

1) Who says that sex can only be loving within marriage?

2) How is it using if both sides are getting what they want and aren't asking for more commitment (which would cover the porn example: porn actor gets paid, porn user gets to watch, each is getting what they "want".)

Both of these end up opening up a whole series of follow-up issues. 1) gets you into the question of whether the level of commitment that should be present in sex is equivalent of marriage. 2) gets into the question of whether consent automatically makes something right.

Tony said...

I heard once that God wants us to love people and use things, and the source of all sin is loving things and using people.

We are conditioned by society to do just that. Young girls are encouraged to sexualize themselves by the fashions they are sold, young men are encouraged to consider the young girls a sexual object, and all this to sell stuff.

This was one of the reasons that I pushed so hard for the red confirmation gowns for both the boys and the girls.

Young girls and boys need to be taught that they give themselves to their future husband or wife, and nobody else. That is the gift they bring to the marriage bed. They might screw up, but as with any sin, avoiding the near occasion and a firm resolve to never do it again, they can give the gift of purity to their spouse.

Clare said...

Re the Avengers thing: the real problem is that the male physical ideal is not nearly as sexualized as the female ideal.

Male attractiveness is presented as strength, as the whole body, as the ability to act on the world. Female attractiveness lies in the thrusting forth of their nether regions, painful physical contortions, and the photographic slicing up of their bodies to the reduction of a single titillating part.

And yes, I think that is a serious problem.

But then, I am one of those pesky gender activists.

Clare said...

Sexulized and constricting/painful/ reductive, I should say. These are often often intersecting but not identical problems.