Friday, August 6, 2010

"Don't intellectually objectify me!"

One of my favourite authors is the philosopher Robert Pirsig, creator of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. I never met Robert Pirsig, and while he is a person in his own right, with his own emotions and desires and fears, I know him only through his intellectual output.

That is: he is an intellectual object to me, an instrument towards my intellectual stimulation.

When I visit a supermarket I commercially objectify the shop staff, treating them mainly as means to satisfy my own demand for groceries. I treat them with courtesy of course, try to acknowledge their shared humanity for a second with a smile, but our relationship is brief, shallow and professional. I use them to buy food, they use me to pay their wages.

Almost all professional relationships are based on the objectification of both partners, as either ignores the full personal potential of the other. This is taken for granted and so long as it is accompanied with a little polite thanks there is no controversy.

Sex, though, is different. The sexual objectification of individuals, even when they specifically choose professional careers as sexual objects, is seen as shameful and abusive:

In the socio-psychic phenomenon of the “sexual objectification” of girls and women, massively manufactured by certain media and the majority of pornography, woman is represented, perceived, assumed and treated (by the innumerable viewers), in reality, as a sexually materialized object ready to be exploited (like a disposable toy) exclusively as a means to produce sexual gratification, but not at all as an end in herself i.e., a human subject with her own sexual will and human dignity.

The academic who wrote this is treated by readers as an intellectually materialised object ready to be exploited (like a disposable toy) exclusively as a means to produce intellectual gratification but not at all as an end in herself. After all, we readers simply use what she has learned and don't care much about her human dignity, her physical strengths or her personality.

For some reason the intellectual objectification of academics, the commercial objectification of shop staff, the artistic objectification of actors and physical objectification of sports stars are all accepted and enjoyed, but not the sexual objectification of porn stars or Hollywood sex symbols.

Why? A hundred years ago there was strong religious and social opposition to this: socially acceptable sex was contained within marriage and the commercialisation of sex was believed sinful. Today this is no longer so. Men and women meet and have sex with one another outside marriage, yet there lingers this attitude that sex is exceptional, that the sexual relationship should not be a professional one. You can sell your mind, your labour, your artistry, but not your body.

In Lila Pirsig describes sitting in a cinema as a young science student, watching a comedy movie:
In one scene the dumb-cluck girlfriend came home from a dance and met Priscilla Lane and Richard Powell who were standing arm in arm - blue-eyed, radiant and beautiful - and they asked her, 'How was the dance?'

She said, 'Awful. I danced every dance with a chemistry professor.'

He remembered how the audience tittered.

'Have you ever danced with a chemistry professor?' the dumb-cluck girlfriend asked. The audience laughed. 'Ohhhwww, my feet!' she groaned.

The audience howled with laughter.

Except one. He sat there, his face burning, and finished the movie with the same kind of stunned depression he felt now, a feeling of dislocation and paralysis, devoured for a moment by this other pattern that made himself and everything he believed in worthless and comic.
The joke there was that a scientist, at the pinnacle of intellectual achievement, was presumed to be socially and physically awkward: he was denied his full humanity as a social and sexual being, and dismissed as an intellectual object. I bring this up because some might argue that the sexual objectification of women happens even when women choose careers in intellectual or artistic professions, i.e. women are sexually objectified even when they don't want to be. But this stuff happens all the time. Pirsig was intelligent, and chose a highly intellectual education, but he had never agreed to be viewed as an intellectual object devoid of personal needs: the butt of the joke, the sexless asocial outcast.

Why is sex the exception? Is it because people believe sex is sacred and inappropriate for trade? If so, why does the attitude towards commercial sex differ from private one night stands between strangers, when both male and female offer themselves as sexual objects?

Or is it because sex is seen as dirty and inferior? In that case the man is admonished because he objectifies her only for her sex, rather than for her intellect or labour. The woman is only a prostitute, using only her sexual skills rather than her interpersonal or intellectual skills. This is the confusing situation when people applaud female tennis players for their sports skills but chastise them if they use their sexual attractiveness to sell advertising. Why? Tennis stars work hard to get those bodies but they are admired only if they use the body for the non-sexual entertainment of sport.

To summarise, I don't understand why a sexual service is deemed worthless and shameful, while an intellectual, artistic or physical service is celebrated and prestigious. Not everyone can become a sex symbol. Why that lacks dignity but, say, sweeping rubbish off the streets doesn't, I do not know.

Any thoughts? I post this more as a question than editorial, I haven't entirely thought it through yet. Why is it not acceptable to sexually objectify people, but it is acceptable to objectify them in other ways?


  1. "This is the confusing situation when people applaud female tennis players for their sports skills but chastise them if they use their sexual attractiveness to sell advertising. Why? Tennis stars work hard to get those bodies but they are admired only if they use the body for the non-sexual entertainment of sport."

    I suppose the concern here is that women are so often sexually objectified that when tennis stars use their sexual attractiveness to sell advertising they are reinforcing a sense that female identity is closely associated with image and sex.

    When I was growing up, masculinity was not remotely associated with image or sexual attractiveness. Even this may have been too far in the opposite direction: my sense of identity was so little tied in with looking good that it took me a long time to figure out how to not look just appalling!

    However as a teenager I certainly didn't feel that males were being encouraged into more challenging careers than females. I think the teachers encouraged us all to just do our best as individuals; the real pressure came from other teenagers. In my school there was a strong anti-academic pressure among my male peers: boys were expected to get into construction so interest in any subject but sports and woodwork was mocked.

    The girls did not face this pressure much; completely contrary to the feminist narrative that higher expectations are reserved for men, in my school girls could show interest in anything without facing the crushing peer pressure experienced by the boys. Science and higher maths classes were dominated by females.

  2. That's interesting. You went to a mixed school? I went to a boys school and didn't find this anti-academic atmosphere you are talking about. The real intelligent nerdy types were by no means encouraged by their peers to be that way but being a dumbass was not a good idea either. While being the class clown might have got a laugh he was more laughed at than laughed with.

    This became more pronounced as we approached Leaving Cert. I remember quality classes especially with certain teachers. During maths and history my class was especially focused most of the time. The lads had no interest of going into construction after school but in going into college.

    Maybe that was just my class but I can't see why this wouldn't have been a general trend. We were all from relatively similar economic/family backgrounds. And it was just your average church run school with about 800-900 students when I was there.

    Now why was there such a difference between our schools? Was it because your was mixed and mine wasn't it (a place where egos may come more to the fore vying for female attention)? Or was it, and I'd say this is a large part of the reason, because my school was in a large urban area (where the opportunities available with a good education are more obvious) while yours was in a more rural area (wasn't it?)

    This is well away from the point of your post. Interesting stuff though by the way. Love Pirsig. Lila - favourite book.

  3. Absolutely David - in college when I remarked in a project about sexual equality on this male anti-academic experience in school, my lecturer simply commented: "Really?" Yes, really! This was particularly strong for the first few years in school, later we grew a bit more mature and this eased off.

    (I guess this had more to do with the small town, west of Ireland location than the mixed status of the school.)

    But generally it was a big social mistake to volunteer anything in class, particularly for the boys. You could be good at football, good at woodwork, anything else risked being singled out and mocked. And 14-year-old boys aren't usually so good with being mocked :P

    My school was a lot smaller than yours, only about 250 boys and girls. Of my class I think we had two boys doing honours maths for Leaving Cert and about six or seven girls.

    If anything expectations were lower for boys. Many of them were disruptive and disinterested; the girls were more likely to go to college and usually showed more interest in class.

    As for my post, I'm not confident about these ideas since they have only just occurred to me. I'll need to think it through a bit more.

  4. Prefessional objectivication has not always been as accepted as it is these days. In fact, it is quite a modern attitude. One of the spearheads of marxism, for example, was that in modern factories people became so much objectified that their identity would become lost. This idea is beautifully depicted in Charly Chaplins 'Modern Times' by the way.

    One reason why sexual objectification looked down upon and intellectual/professional objectification is not, is that there is little prestige in being a sexual object. People like to be objectified for their achievements. Not so much for opening their legs.
    Why the difference? Because writing a great book, for example, takes a lot of work and a unique skillset. Having sex... well, most people seem to manage that.

    The thing with objectification is that people like to be judged on their person and not so much on only one aspect of their being. With 'intellectual objectification' people won't mind so much because they probably identify themselves a lot with their intellectual achievements. A prostitute will probably try to seperate her identity from her profession as it is a low-prestige and looked down upon job in our, or any, society.

  5. Good point about the Marxist concern with objectification, Matthijs. (Did Durkheim talk about this too? I have a vague feeling he discussed the feeling of disconnect created by industrialisation where workers were producing only a small part of a final product and felt no pride in it - not sure though!)

    "Because writing a great book, for example, takes a lot of work and a unique skillset. Having sex... well, most people seem to manage that."

    True, but almost any idiot can sweep the streets or do some other simple manual labour, yet this lacks the outrage aimed at those who sell sex. Also can't there be levels of skill at sex too? I imagine one prostitute may genuinely be proud of his/her abilites in sex. Porn actors could be proud of their fit bodies too. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't earn much if I sold my body :P

    I wonder if this concern with sex is actually a hangover from religious prudishness.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.