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Monday, March 11, 2013

My Experience At A Feminist Conference: On Censorship, Objectification, & What It Means For Me

I'm writing this as I sit and wait for my flight, watching planes take off over the mountains of Salt Lake City. This would be a serene moment, if it were not for the rumbling of my upset stomach after eating McDonalds for breakfast. As if I don't already know better. Anyways, I am heading home after spending a wonderful five days at the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) conference, where I presented my project, "Sexism, Strippers, and Slut-Shaming," as part of a symposium. I was fortunate to spend time with former professors and colleagues that I haven't seen since leaving Connecticut. I was pleasantly surprised with Salt Lake City. My stereotypes were in full force when the plane touched down, and the woman who sat behind me rambling about the evils of welfare did not help. In reality, the city wasn't the scary Republican hellhole that I had imagined. We enjoyed good shopping (maybe too much shopping?), food (I tried Lebanese AND Himalayan food!), and of course several thought-provoking lectures as part of AWP.

The conversations that were had in these feminist spaces were stimulating, but not always comfortable. I found myself constantly vacillating between "Yes, I'm a feminist" and "No, my ideals don't fit with traditional feminist ideology, so therefore, I am not a feminist." The topic of violence in the media came up over dinner conversation, which led to a discussion of Rhianna and Chris Brown's newly rekindled romance. The knee-jerk reaction always being the same; "they're terrible, he's an abuser, she hasn't made any public statements that would help young women, they're setting a bad example, her lyrics are glorifying violence against women." At least one of these statements was my own, and I'm not disputing the validity of any of them. I'm not interested in having that sort of discussion or writing about it. That's not what this is about. This is about the proposed solutions. Just as many radical feminists (ahem, Gail Dines) would love to see porn censored, there are feminists who would like to see this couple, and their music, disappear. I will admit that I became defensive during the discussion, reminding everyone that shame and censorship DO NOT WORK.

Other points of interest- do her lyrics really glorify what happened to her? Who are we to judge her words, her art? Who the fuck cares what she's glorifying/not glorifying; in a community that values free speech, shouldn't this woman be allowed to express herself, and her pain, in whatever medium she chooses? Whose responsibility is it to make sure that young "impressionable" women don't hear these messages? What about starting in the home, and with education? The same could be said of porn. Porn is not meant to be used as sex education, and if it is, then we have a problem in homes and school systems. Why are we relying on media (that is supposed to be consumed by adults) to teach our kids about sex and relationships?

Back to Rhianna- it made me feel uncomfortable that she never released a public statement in regards to getting back together with Brown. I would have been more comfortable if she had said something along the lines of "What he did was terrible, but he is seeking treatment" or any variations of this. Let's look at how my statement began, shall we? "I would have been more comfortable." Well, art/music/writing isn't about making me, or anyone else, "more comfortable." If you don't like it, go out and create something that you do like. Don't censor, create something better. After all, does the removal of potentially harmful things ever actually work? Well, the war on drugs was a great success, so, perhaps.

Quick point on Brown- yes, he abused her. Does this mean he will always be an abuser? Fuck no. How could I have training and experience in the field of clinical psychology and have the nerve to assert that an abuser will never change? Is it likely? Is it easy? No, no. However, there's a danger when we begin to make blanket statements such as "once an abuser, always an abuser," when we assume that there is no room for improvement, no room for growth. These were statements and sentiments that I heard expressed various times throughout the conference, and it scared me.

Now, there's nothing wrong with discussions these issues. In fact, I think we should be talking about this topic; how it makes us feel, what we believe is the public perception, what young women and men are learning from these highly publicized romantic relationships. Unfortunately, in feminist spaces, I have noticed the conversation veer towards censorship far too many times. Just as it has done about porn, and about portrayals of violence in media. When we begin to censor, where do we draw the line?  Honestly, the whole idea frightens me; it scares the shit out of me.

Now, switching gears. One of the highlights of the trip was a conversation that I had with a fantastic feminist professor whom with I had previously worked. We discussed our views on pornography, sex work, and the objectification of women. We also discussed the hierarchy that exists within sex work, and I was the first to say that as as young white women, I am part of the privileged end of the continuum. There is no doubt about it. I have good height/weight proportions, white skin, and am in my 20's. There is no fucking way I am facing the same adversity as a minority status sex worker in her 40's. Or, I could have just left off the age, let's leave it at "minority sex worker." It's an intersection of age, gender, sexual orientation, class, race, and to  pretend that it's not is just ignorance, period. What does this really mean in terms of choice? What do I do with this knowledge and how can I still do good work within the community? Well, that's a conversation for another day, and one in which I look forward to having with others at the Desiree Alliance conference. My chat with this professor primed me for many NECESSARY conversations in the future. But, back to objectification. It's her belief that pornography, and the constant images of "sexy" women that serve as nothing more than jerk-off material, perpetuate a culture in which women's bodies are used and discarded. We agreed on the terms of objectification, but not on the implications. I am objectifying myself, there's no doubt about it. Do I feel good about this objectification, and am I making a choice to do it? Yes, and yes. It was a refreshing discussion, because unlike so many other feminists that I have talked to, her response was "and that's your choice, and it's okay. But, in regards to this issue, you're not a feminist." Would you believe that I actually felt liberated when she said this? I'm not a feminist, and that's okay. No judgment, no shaming, no chastising. I am making a choice, and that's okay. It also doesn't mean that I can't hold feminist ideals in other arenas, it doesn't need to be so black and white. Honestly, one of the most thought-provoking conversations that I have had in a long while.

Perhaps this objectification does have a negative impact on culture and the way in which women view themselves. Just as perhaps violent media and song lyrics have a negative impact, but again, what's the solution? We come full circle. It's not censorship; it's not pulling all porn off the internet; it's not telling sex workers to stop objectifying themselves; it's not telling Rhianna that she needs to stop expressing herself. Or that she needs to make a public apology, just to make US feel better about HER trauma.

I feel the  need to end this article by saying that I wrote this much as I would write an entry in my journal. These are only my views, and they're expressed (perhaps not as eloquently as they could have been) after five days at a conference. I wanted to share some of my thoughts and insights, and that's it. Pick them apart and bitch at me all you want, but they're still only MY views, and I'm allowed to have them.. Thanks for reading.


  1. What a glorious few days to re-connect with you, Christina. I was SO proud to stand there with you at our symposium and share ALL our activist work in all their forms. Despite ways we have come to it or views that might differ, it all just doesn't matter to me. The important thing is your passion to help women, in your case women who are sex workers--a maligned and negatively stereotyped group to which people feel it is okay that violence be done to them. Regardless of the type of feminism or whatever ideology you hold, committing violence to another human being is wrong. I love your passion and advocacy. I don't care how you identify yourself. As Rumi said (roughly), "there are many paths to the same destination". I see your destination and I'm with you on the journey.

    1. Thank you Mala! I couldn't agree more :) We all have that common ground, and thank goodness for that. Thank you for being such an inspiration to myself & other students. I hope to present again at AWP next year!

  2. "Objectification" is a faulty criterion. We are all objectified, and we all objectify others, every day. There's a fellow I see five days a week; he delivers and picks up my UPS packages. To me, he is not a beautiful unique snowflake of dreams, ideas, philosophies, ambitions and desires; he is my UPS guy. And that's okay. Within this totally consensual and mutually beneficial context, we each get exactly what we need and expect out of our relationship. The same goes for my butcher, my dry cleaner, et al.

    The use of objectification theory in Feminism highlights the fact that the hang up is about SEX, and particularly MALE SEXUAL DESIRE, and not about objectification in any sense of the word. After all, the human body already IS an object; it is not transformed to one by the desire lurking behind the eyes of its observer.

    Furthermore, pictoral representations, themselves, lack the ability to "objectify" anyone. They are pictures. Lust, contempt and hatred, like beauty, reside in the eye of the beholder. Contrary to Feminist complaints, there is no such thing as "sexualized images" only sexualized observers, i.e., those who find the images sexually appealing and arousing.

    In a commentary concerning the Feminist hubbub about a video of Australian hurdler Michelle Jenneke, "in which thousands of viewers declared her the 'sexiest hurdler ever'”, writer Maggie McNeill noted that the complaints boiled down to "bleating about 'objectification' and moaning, 'Why do men sexualize everything about women?'"

    McNeill went on to point out that the problem these women seem to have "is not that men find any particular female characteristic or set of characteristics attractive; it’s the fact that sexual attraction exists at all. In the dark little holes they use for minds, human beings 'should' relate to each other by arbitrary, egalitarian, gender-neutral criteria, with the most valued being 'intelligence'. Their emphasis on this rather dubious measure of personal worth derives from the fact that they imagine themselves to possess it in greater degree than others, a belief which is disproven by their rejection of reason and objective fact and their failure to recognize that if their parents had regarded 'PIV' (their ludicrous term for coitus) with the same disgust they do, they wouldn’t be here to calculate the relative proportions of dolls, subject advertising to 'feminist analysis' or bloviate about the 'male gaze.'"

    As McNeill explains elsewhere, "The word 'objectification' derives from the concept of a 'sex object.' But sexual desire is transitive; it requires an object. The word 'object' in the phrase 'sex object' is therefore used in the sense of 'object of the preposition' or 'object of one’s affection,' not in the sense of 'inanimate object.' Women ARE sex objects for heterosexual men, and anyone who doesn’t like it needs to take it up with Nature (and find another way for us to reproduce)."

  3. Therefore, AG, "objectification" (as used to describe representations of women) does NOT "have a negative impact on culture and the way in which women view themselves" because the represenatations to which you refer are secondary, and dependent upon, a predicate impulse; they do not, in and of themselves, "objectify" anyone. Nor do you "objectify" yourself by participation.

    Heterosexual men do not desire women because they see a particular sexy picture; hetero men are drawn to (or responsive to) particular sexy pictures because they desire women. It is women who are the objects of hetero male desire -- that is why they are attracted to visual representations of them. Women were the objects of their desire BEFORE they saw the images, making it impossible that the images themselves "objectified" women (or that the women objectified themselves). And even if the man had never before seen THIS woman, the image is merely the representation -- the mode by which he observes the woman who has become the object of his pre-existing desire.

    1. But do you not think it is possible that being repeatedly shown pictures of one particular body type, sexual experience, etc. might alter the collective desires in a culture? 200 years ago (and in other cultures to this day, like in Senegal), a little extra weight is considered sexy. In our culture, not so much. Is that just because U.S. white guys are genetically born with a mind that only likes teeny tiny white women with huge breasts? I doubt it. More likely, the images we see regularly in our culture actually DO play a role in defining what we are attracted to in our brains.

    2. To say that any culture is shown "one type" of image repeatedly is misleading. In the world of porn alone, you can find almost anything and any body type that you desire. Same goes for sexual experience, so if you're trying to characterize the sex industry with that description, it's incorrect.

      But, even if it's just a general statement, I'd say this- yes, of course it has an influence. We see images, we are exposed to media, these things have influence. It would be silly to deny that. And so, what is your point? Go back to my article for my answer to this- the solution is not censorship. Censor a certain body type or sexual experience? Wow- how wrong does THAT sound?

      If you're just making the general statement that the images we see regularly have an effect, I would agree. Unfortunately, that argument usually leads down a bullshit path, much like the one that I sometimes hear from radical feminists.

    3. I would add that, regardless of whether or not the images in question have some influence or effect -- be it positive, negative or neutral -- this has nothing to do with "objectification" theory. Furthermore, human beings are complex creatures, and not simply machines to be programmed by “society” or “the Patriarchy."

      In addition, culture is also about catharsis: the experience that releases the audience from the necessity to act out what they watch.

    4. I was intending to respond to sentences like this one: "Heterosexual men do not desire women because they see a particular sexy picture; hetero men are drawn to (or responsive to) particular sexy pictures because they desire women."

      To me, the key word there is "particular." Of course men want to look at women in a general sense, but how do you know what draws a man to a "particular" picture or style of pictures? Let me start by saying that I do agree that men are attracted to women, even if they have not watched porn. So let's just say we agree there that porn did not somehow create our most basic sexual instincts.

      But taken as a whole, I felt the implication of the entire commentary by Mr. Whiteacre was essentially that porn has no influence on the way men view women as objects or not. However, I have encountered a decent amount of general evidence that what we see most regularly does affect what we view as normal (our expectations for a partner's body type or performance, for example), so why is it not also possible that it affects what we view as object versus not?

      Mr. Whiteacre points out that our bodies are already objects, so no image can be the thing that makes the body into an object. And of course, I agree that my body is factually an object, regardless of whether I have ever been portrayed in a photo or film. But the key to the idea of objectification is that we are not MERELY physical objects. We are objects, but we are ALSO much more. Not objectifying someone has nothing to do with claiming that person's physical body is not an object. The word objectification is more commonly understood, I think, to refer to the idea of seeing a person as ONLY an object to be used, at the exclusion of seeing the "so much more" part of who they are. So yes, an image does not make my body an object, but with that definition of objectification in mind, an image can affect whether I am viewed as body only (the object part of me) or as a whole person (object + so much more).

      With regards to Ms. Page's response, of course we see a variety of images in our culture. I was using hyperbole when I referred to seeing only "one type" of image; I was alluding to the idea that there are some more predominant themes of imagery in the media and other themes/images that are noticeably absent from popular media. And I think the content of those themes does influence even our instinctive desires at some level.

      Ultimately, my comment was meant to suggest that we be more open to the idea that objectification is a real thing and that our culture really does feel the effects of the images we see, rather than saying we need to completely close that door and assume there is nothing more to learn about objectification and images.

    5. p.s. I did not suggest censorship. I know no one likes to hear this, but I see problems for which I do not actually know the solution. So I was not intending to express views either in favor or against censorship; rather, I wanted to highlight some issues I think about. Note that I was more responding to Mr. Whiteacre's claims about images than to the original article. Thanks! :-)

    6. Well, hopefully you now have one less issue to think about. There is nothing more to learn about "objectification." It's a dead end. Furthermore, the "effect" of images is not dependent upon this theory of objectification. An image of a wholly inanimate object also has an effect. That's what art is all about: affecting its observer.

      Images have an effect, but images do not objectify. People objectify -- in person in real life, and via art.

      I also addressed the "there's so much more to people" argument with the example of my UPS delivery man. There is no doubt more to him, but I'm doing nothing wrong if I don't care to find out what it might be. Our relationship is perfect, and perfectly acceptible, as is. The same goes for a portrait of La Gioconda, or a centerfold in Hustler Magazine. I have no duty to give a flip about their dreams, desires, or deepest thoughts. They are merely the objects of my gaze, or my need (utilitarian, inspirational, masturbatory, or whatever). We ALL do this every day, and it is in turn done to all of us. This phenomenon is not unique to sex appeal or any other basis. Humans objectify.

      When one ventures out in the world, one subjects oneself to the scrutiny and the subjective judgements of others. That's life. Some people will want to know you, some won't. Neither is right or wrong, they're either intrigued or they're not -- based upon their own criteria (a standard to which they are entitled). Different societies may have different standards of beauty, or desirability, or "worth," but again, this is wholly separate from and independent of "objectification" theory.

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    8. Couldn't agree more. Of course there's "so much more" to people. But, in certain (and actually, most!) instances, I don't care to find out. When I watch porn, I understand that these women and men aren't just robots. They have lives, kids, hobbies, etc. However, that has nothing to do with the service that they are providing. It has nothing to do with their job.

      It also goes both ways. Do you think that the provider really gives a shit about the lives, hobbies, interests of the consumer? I work as a performer, and I generally couldn't care less about this. Similarly, when I was a bartender, I didn't want to get to know my patrons. I wanted to serve them booze and food, do my job well, and get their money. I wasn't dying to be understood. That was not the job.

  4. I always come down on the side of free speech. Rihanna is an artist and she is free to write lyrics and make music as she wants to express herself. And, apparently, there are many that enjoy support her work. Whether is not she got back together with Chris Brown is her decision. What others think of it is their own problem - not Rihannas. She does not need anyone else's permission and probably does not care so much what others think. If you do not like her music then don't buy it. If you do not like Rihanna (or Chris Brown) then don't support them. If you do not think that she is a good role model then don't look to her as a role model. Likewise, if you take issue with porn then don't buy it or change the channel. OTHERS are not obligated to restrict their speech to suit YOUR sensibilities. That is what freedom of speech is about.

  5. I would add the sex-positive feminists believe that as women they should have the right and ability to express their sexuality in the way they want without without negative social consequences. So the professor that you are speaking with represents only one view, i.e. the sex-negative view, of feminism. I remind you that prior to today's puritanical version of feminism, back in the 60s women were burning their bras and exploring sexuality outside of marriage. It's not about "objectifying women." Its about being free to explore and enjoy (and even profit if you want) from your own sexuality. All levels of sex workers - whether socially advantaged or not - would benefit from this view and likewise would benefit from decriminalization.

  6. "The word objectification is more commonly understood, I think, to refer to the idea of seeing a person as ONLY an object to be used, at the exclusion of seeing the "so much more" part of who they are"

    I appluad Mr. Whiteacre for saying something I've long thought, the body its self is an object at basic level, made from dna, hormones, ammo acids, and so on and on a deeper level electrons and so on.

    I will say looking at Ms. Campell's defination of objectification, that if one uses that defination that Sexual Objectification is a minor problem in comparsion to Class Objectification. I've quoted the above comment, because that just how my phone copies and pastes thing.

    Seeing people as objects to be simply exploited and not seeing them as a person as well is actually a good way to describe how many of those in the upper class, the 1 percent see those who work for them in the lower classes. This is why many from this class can cut pensions, cut wages, lay off people to employ temperary forgien workers and so on, its because they do not see them as people, they see them as expenses, they see them as resources, they see them as automatons who they can collectively squeeze for as much value at the least possible cost.

    They don't see the person who now has to figure out how to deal to old age now that the Pension has been leveled, they don't see the mother crying at night because has to tell her child he gets no birthday because her wages just got cut, they don't see the person who died because it was more profitable to cut safety standards, or so on, because contray to a few TV shows, the employees are just numbers on a blackboard or laptop to them. Things to be downsized and discarded.

    To be fair there exceptions and they deserve to be applauded, such as the founder of Cosco, amoung a rare few others.

  7. This site remind me of a woman here in Norway. She's the strongest voice for sex workers here. Her name is Hege Grostad. She's a stripper, but she recently told the media that she sells sex too, and she loves it. Problem is, it's illegal to buy sex in Norway. So all her customers is breaking the law. She does pay taxes for her work, although she doesn't have to as profiting from someone prostitution is illegal (part of the Norwegian law in the "pimp paragraph" 4.7 §202). So if she choose not to, and the government try to force her, she could sue them and would have the law on her side, so she would probably win.

    Anyway, when she openly told the media that she sells sex, she suddenly got a lot of attention. Someone mentioned how her potential future children would react when they found out their mother used to sell sex and she answered this:
    "Those who are so incredibly worried about my potential future children, should try to address the stigma challenge quickly."

    She also took a pole with her and gave a show to a group of feminists who where demonstrating against strip clubs. They wanted to ban strip clubs and she did this:

    She's a Mensa member, she knows how to speak for herself, she's brave and she won't let anyone stop her from doing what she wants. I think that's awesome!