Monthly Archives: July 2012
Feminist, Andrea Dworkin, had feared that easy access to internet porn would turbocharge women’s objectification and turn men into wild, raping beasts. But it looks like internet porn too often has the opposite effect, deadening male libido in relation to real women, with men who over-consume finding fewer women “porn-worthy.”
This is what author, Naomi Wolf, noticed when students talked about their sex lives during her speaking tours of college campuses.
Others have made similar findings.
Pamela Paul interviewed over one hundred people, mostly men, in her research for Pornified, and found that porn-worthiness was a common concern among those who over-indulged.
One young man talked of his change in perspective.
My standards changed. Women who are otherwise good looking but aren’t as overtly sexy as the women in porn don’t appeal to me as much anymore. I find that I look more for women who have the attributes I see in porn. I want bigger breasts, longer hair, curvier bodies in general.
I find that when I’m out at a party or bar I catch myself sizing up women. I would say to myself, wait a second. This isn’t a supermarket. You shouldn’t treat her like she’s some piece of meat. Don’t pass her up just because her boobs aren’t that big.
Paul went on to cite a 2004 Elle-MSNBC.com poll which found that one in 10 men admitted he had become more critical of his partner’s body with exposure to porn.
Meanwhile, 51% of Americans believe that pornography raises men’s expectations of how women should look.
Many of the college women Wolf spoke to complained that they couldn’t compete, and they knew it.
Men, she said, learn about sex from porn but find that it is not helpful in teaching them how to relate to real women. She ended with this observation:
Mostly, when I ask about loneliness, a deep, sad silence descends on audiences of young men and young women alike. They know they are lonely together, even when conjoined, and that this imagery is a big part of that loneliness. What they don’t know is how to get out, how to find each other again erotically, face-to-face.
You’re never going to have this revolution happen unless there’s also a sexual revolution.
That was Bill Maher’s verdict on the push for Democracy in Egypt as he discussed the matter on his show, Real Time with Bill Maher.
Pro-feminist, Tavis Smiley, agreed that women need to be treated better. Yet he inserted a different spin: “When we have these conversations about how they treat women, as if we treat women better in our country, it demonizes Muslim men.”
The most well-meaning among us, men like Smiley, work hard to respect other cultures. Yet sometimes we need to discern whether powerful elements of a society are harming less powerful targets. And really, is pointing out a need for improvement “demonization”?
Mr. Smiley is a-okay in my book, and I appreciate his aim here. Yet there is plenty of room for change in cultures that (depending upon the country or province) stone women for being victims of rape, beat women for leaving home without a male relative, keep girls out of school, forbid women from driving, make divorce difficult for women but easy for men, remove battered women from shelters, and cut women’s genitals – leaving them in pain, crippled, or dead.
It’s a sad turn of events when early Islam did so much to improve women’s rights in the world. The Koran gave women the right to work, inherit and own property. Female infanticide and slavery were abolished. Women were given the right to consent to marry. Protections against abuse became instituted.
Today Islamic scholars like Dr. Jamal Badawi work to support women’s rights. Meanwhile, large majorities favor legal, political and professional freedoms for women in North Africa and many countries in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world, according to a 2007 Gallup poll. In fact, the Islamic culture of West Sumatra, Indonesia is one of the most peace-loving, egalitarian places on the planet.
Islam isn’t the problem. Neither are Muslim men.
Still, problems abound. Yet Smiley seems more concerned with ethnocentrism than sexism, given his desire to cut off conversation. Why do the “isms” that affect men seem more important? And did women have equal power to create the cultures that oppress them?
When ethnocentrism and sexism are at odds, which worries should prevail? Cultural relativism – don’t judge one culture from the perspective of another – is a good guide most of the time. But what if someone is being harmed? When people are killed for reasons other than self-defense, when they are crippled physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually, those circumstances must trump all others.
Must we worry more about offending those who create cultures that harm women than freeing women who are harmed by them?
Meanwhile, Islamic feminists complain that Western women can be too fearful of offending ethnic sensitivities to back their feminist sisters.
Now, is lecture the best way to handle this? Dialogue is better. Other cultures have perspectives that can benefit us, too. Perhaps we can learn from each other.
Love Tavis. But he insists we cannot criticize until we perfect ourselves. We’ll never be perfect. Still, we must fight oppression wherever it is found, here and there, to whatever degree we find it. Tolerating intolerance is not progressive.
I’m on vacation. This was originally posted on February 25, 2011
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Unprecedented East Coast heat has prompted Moira Johnston to go topless in New York. Why drown in a hot, puddley bra when you can rip off your top, as so many men do when temperatures rise?
Moira also wants to raise awareness that, “It’s legal for woman to be topless anywhere a guy can be without a shirt since 1992 here in New York State.”
Jamie Peck gave it a try and found the only objectors were those worried about children, which she ponders:
Personally, I think that viewing a bare breast as inherently sexual and hence corrupting of innocence is silly; I’d much rather my hypothetical kid see women of all shapes enjoying the outdoors and being comfortable with their bodies than, say, two fully clothed people dry humping on a bench.
Plenty of men would love this, and judging from the crowd Moira attracts, many do.
But what would happen if women did go topless? All of them, in mass, for a long time?
Men would probably be disappointed as the breast fetish faded away. After all, it doesn’t exist in places where women walk around topless all the time, like tribal societies. And it withered in Europe and Australia in the 80s when breasts were bared in magazine and TV ads, and on billboards, and where women went topless on the beach.
The woman who reported this piece for Stuff appears to be Australian, and she can relate:
Why do we still treat bare breasts as such objects of scandal?
I must admit it’s always puzzled me. Growing up, as I did, in the ’80s, my template for adult womanhood was that it was perfectly natural – nay, expected – to whip ‘em out in summer.
We’d turn up to the beach, three or four families or so, stake out a spot, and then the mums and aunts and friends would roll their one-pieces down and pour on the Reef. Consequently my approach to beachgoing is similarly au naturel.
So freeing. And some feminists recommend this breast baring to de-objectify them.
On the downside, women would probably still be judged, and some might feel pressured to uncover when they’d rather not — the inverse of some Arab women who feel pressured to cover when they’d rather not.
My wife, who teaches at a local university, had an interesting conversation with one of her students. He’s a cosmetic surgeon, one of the very few in southern Portugal who does breast augmentations.
“I’m curious,” said my wife. “What size do most women ask for when they have an augmentation?”
“In Portugal? A B-cup,” he replied.
“A B-cup? That’s all? I’d have thought women who were paying for larger breasts would want something a little more…sizeable.”
“No, a B-cup is the average here, and in Europe. But if you go to the United States, it’s a different story.”
“What do American women ask for?”
“A D-cup,” he said. “The difference between Europe and the US is two cup sizes.”
Interesting to see the law of unintended (or intended) consequences in action.
Lately I’ve been asking why women don’t get so excited by naked men, why women are often uncomfortable with male nudity on stage and screen or in print, and why these nude men can seem “gay” to the women who gaze at them.
Elizabeth Hall Magill has been asking the same questions over at Yo Mama. And she’s wondering how women can better appreciate the male form, without objectifying them. Here’s an excerpt from one of her posts.
So—where does that leave a woman’s gaze?
Neither here nor there.
And yet, we have eyes. We gaze. And we like what we see.
As I pondered this issue, I realized something: perhaps men posing sexually seem homosexual not only because we are used to the male gaze. Perhaps it is also because we are used to the female pose. And here we encounter a difference between media (artful or otherwise) and life: real sexiness is rarely posed. It just happens. But in “sexy” pictures of women, the women are aware of the gaze and arranging themselves for it. So, when a man does the same thing, we read him as feminized. And when a man strips for a woman, he can be seen as “performing” something generally feminine, and therefore we define it as insincere, the object of a joke. Not true eroticism.
In one of my favorite essays of all time, Looking at Women, Scott Russell Sanders says:
When I return to the street with the ancient legacy of longing coiled in my DNA, and the residues from a thousand generations of patriarchs silting my brain, I encounter women whose presence strikes me like a slap of wind in the face. I must prepare a gaze that is worthy of their splendor.
This is how I feel about men. And I bet I’m not the only one.
We’re all conditioned to ignore the fact that women feel this way about men. How many times a week do you think a man checks out his wife as she reaches into the refrigerator to get something from that bottom drawer, or reaches high above her head for a rarely-used dish? How many times a week does he check out the women walking by him on the sidewalk, riding a bike in the gym, or sitting in the next office? Magazines love to make little pie charts telling us about how often the male brain does these things. I’ve never seen a pie chart telling me how often the female brain does similar things.
Men get things from the refrigerator or the top shelf, and often look damn good doing it. They walk on the sidewalk, ride bikes, and work right next to us, looking good all the while. And women notice.
What we need is more women noticing themselves as they notice men. Thinking about how they feel when the tide of desire leaves and returns, leaves and returns. And owning that tide.
And then we need women talking about it—not giggling, not blushing, not encouraging men to mock the idea of their own desirability. Somebody ought to talk about it so often and so loudly that a pie chart becomes inevitable, cause we just know women are thinking about sex so dang much that we better measure it.
After that, we need female photographers and directors, tons of them, taking pictures of and telling stories about men being men. Holding babies in the middle of the night, shirtless and vulnerable and full of fatherly love and strength. Squatting in the middle of a road, looking at a rock (clothed, as squatting naked in the middle of the road is unnatural and possibly unsafe). Running on treadmills, making copies in the office while wearing snazzy ties, washing the dirt off their hands after a day working outside, laughing with their friends, kicking a tire and making dinner and coming home at the end of a long day. We need to see men being men through the eyes of women, not men posing as the objects of female desire. And we should see them in all their shapes and colors—in all their splendor.
You know what I think?
I think men would totally get being sexy in this way, and I think they would love it. They wouldn’t feel like objects, they wouldn’t feel feminized, they wouldn’t pose or feel goofy. They’d be themselves, and they’d be damn glad that the women they’ve been checking out all this time are checking them right back.
Which means the female gaze would no longer be marginalized, masculinized, or mocked. It would be honest, and it would be powerful—as powerful as desire itself.
When I was 20, exactly 20 years ago this past October 25th, I was abducted, raped, and shot twice by two teenagers on a car-jacking spree. I did not get pregnant, thank goodness. But if I had, and something like Initiative 26 had been in place, I would have been forced, by the state of Mississippi, to bear that child. Giving birth might have killed me physically (the gunshot wound to my lower back was life-threatening), if not emotionally.
That’s from Cristen Hemmins, who became a political activist in Mississippi with Initiative 26 (the “Personhood Initiative”). If that law had passed a woman would not have been able to get an abortion even in cases of rape, incest, or if her life were endangered. Miscarriage could have become a police investigation. And at least some (possibly all) forms of contraception would have become illegal.
Now Cristen is fighting to keep the last abortion clinic in the state open as a new law — ostensibly protecting women’s health – requires providers to have admitting privileges to a local hospital.
She says this standard is both unreachable (the clinic has had no luck getting the hospital to send the necessary forms) and medically unnecessary.
“Medically unnecessary” is an understatement. It is dangerous.
If women must save money to travel out of state, they risk having the procedure when the pregnancy is further along and more dangerous.
Others will resort to back alley abortionists or use coat hangers on themselves.
This is healthier than current Mississippi law?
Dr. Douglas Laube, board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, wrote a letter to the editor warning that the law will harm women. He says that doctors in his organization, “know that when women seeking abortion are denied safe, legal procedures, they look for other ways to end their pregnancies.”
In fact, before Roe v. Wade doctors were at the forefront of the movement to make abortion legal, having seen too many women die.
But Mississippi State Rep. Bubba Carpenter doesn’t give a hoot:
They’re like, “Well, the poor pitiful women that can’t afford to go out of state are just going to start doing them at home with a coat hanger.” That’s what we’ve heard over and over and over. But hey–you have to have moral values.
So these Mississippi pro-lifers are fine with a law that will cause young women to die.
I am obsessed with objectification and desire, and that movie offers the rare turning of tables to see what’s on the other side.
In this table-turning do women experience men in the way that men typically experience them? I’ve already suggested that the answer is no.
However, we’re seeing chinks in the armor.
In “Magic Mike” women’s desire is acknowledged and catered to as the camera hones in on glutes and abs to accommodate the female gaze… and as Matthew McConaughey bends over to give us a full-moon shot.
All this in a place with “no men allowed.” Not formally, as Joanna Schroeder over at the GoodMenProject points out, but because most men don’t want to be there. But that “all-estrogen” space can feel empowering.
And for once women are calling the shots (or feel like they are) demanding, “Take it all off!” and letting ‘em know what they like: “Yeahhh honey, do it again!”
Only problem is that objectification is damaging. When women or men are objectified their looks and their sexuality become their worth – in their own minds and in the minds of others.
Those who objectify themselves are prone to body shame, low self-esteem, depression, eating disorders and sexual dysfunction. They even have more difficulty navigating everyday life because they’re so distracted by how their body looks.
And the objectified are treated like “things,” meant to serve others’ desires. They are things that lack thought or emotion, so they are not offered empathy. And when they age and lose their sex appeal they are worth nothing at all.
Do we really want to turn others into objects? (Keep in mind that it is possible to be sexy without being a sex object.)
But looking closer we see the table is only half-turned: women are also objectified, even in this film. While not revealing any male body parts that are prohibited on a public beach, the film hones in on naked breasts from time to time. One of the strippers even passes his wife around and encourages the guys to fondle her breasts because “she loves it.”
Meanwhile, the simulated sex on stage often mimics male pleasure, with women’s heads shoved against cocks and men humping women’s faces or behinds. How about a little clitoral action?
And in a movie that promises to take us out of our boxes we end up right back inside the virgin/whore dichotomy as Magic Mike chooses between the sexually adventurous Joanna and the virginal Brooke. No surprise, really, who triumphs.
So things have changed and they’ve stayed the same, which provokes the question: Where do we want to go?
Last week I considered the lack of excitement. Turns out, women don’t get too turned on by male nudity, at all. When sex researcher, Meredith Chivers, wired women up and showed them sexual images, straight women experienced no arousal — physically or subjectively — when looking at fit naked guys working out. Another time women watched a nude man walking and the only thing that aroused them less were bonobos, an ape species, having sex.
Is it because the male body simply isn’t sexually exciting?
Probably not, since gay men did get aroused looking at nude men.
Why are gay men turned on by male nudity when straight women aren’t? There are various possibilities. And it’s not that women just aren’t visual, after all, women were more aroused by a nude woman exercising than by a nude man. And, some women enjoy porn.
The fact that gay culture celebrates and eroticizes the male body in a way that straight culture does not could play a role.
And then there’s repression. Men are rarely slut-shamed for being sexual. On the other hand, gays are too often taunted as fags or queers. Still, research on men and women who have lived in repressive cultures, like Victorian England, find men less affected (perhaps because they are also less repressed). But even gay men are less affected than lesbians by homophobia-induced repression (even though homophobia is more strongly directed at gay men). Maybe because the male sex drive is stronger, due in part to higher levels of testosterone, while twice as much of their brain is taken up with sex.
Meanwhile, men’s bodies give them better feedback than women’s do. When blood rushes to the penis a man knows it. He feels very excited. But when blood rushes to a woman’s vagina, she can be clueless. Again, this difference may be biological, or due to greater female repression, or because men are less affected by repression, or all of the above. Indiana University researchers believe that women are less responsive for both anatomical and psychosocial reasons.
We don’t have the definitive answer on why gay men get aroused by male strippers when straight women don’t so much, but here’s a little food for thought to munch on.
Few young women have good body image. The trouble starts early, thanks to Photoshopped pics in magazines like Seventeen — or even grown-up fare like Cosmo, or your typical billboard — all creating impossible standards that even models cannot achieve.
This is especially a problem for young women who are just beginning to develop a sense of themselves, and whose self-esteem is too often based on their looks.
Even Penelope Cruz knows the agony, having felt insecure as a young woman. Angry now, she says:
I would close down all those teenage magazines that encourage young girls to diet. Who says that to be pretty you have to be thin? Some people look better thin and some don’t. There is almost a standard being created where only thin is acceptable. The influence of those magazines on girls as young as 13 is horrific.
Consequently, too many young women starve or go under the knife in anxious attempts to feel good about themselves. But you can’t compete with Photoshop.
Fourteen-year-old Julie Bluhm knows this. She knows that girls her age are not all slim with glowing skin and shiny hair. And she tired of her friends’ endless rants about their “imperfections.”
And so she began an online petition on Change.org asking Seventeen to use at least one unretouched spread in each issue.
In her “David meets Goliath” moment Julie won – at least a few points. After collecting more than 84,000 signatures, Seventeen published an eight-point “Body Peace Treaty” promising to “celebrate every kind of beauty,” and pledging not to retouch girls’ bodies or faces, instead showing “real girls as they really are.”
Julie won a battle, but necessarily the war. As Ms. points out:
The letter overtly confirms that Seventeen will continue to retouch photos. And (the editor) still claims that Seventeen “never has never will” alter its models’ bodies–a statement that contradicts the very accusation Bluhm (and her 85,000 supporters) made with her petition.
At the least, Julie has gotten a conversation going that has clued many young women into knowing that things are not always what they seem, and learning that they need not strive to meet the nutty body ideals sent down by the gods of media — and the money to be made by offering helpful “fixes” after making women feel bad about themselves.
Goal one has been achieved: be empowered, don’t just take it.
Now we must work on goal two: critiquing looks as the major source of self-esteem.
The typical atmosphere in such an establishment isn’t one of arousal and longing, the kind that reliably fills the air in a female strip club. As far as I can tell, female patrons are typically cracking up, shielding their eyes in mock horror or cartoonishly objectifying male dancers as a performance for their friends.
Her observations come by way of the new movie, Magic Mike, which gets a lot right, she says, but shows male stripping as it mostly is: “goofball, absurd and sometimes repulsive,” which is how she describes her own first – and last — male strip show outing:
Onstage was an overly tanned dark-and-handsome type dressed like a race car driver. He slowly unzipped his onesie while popping his knee to the throbbing techno music, which was accented by sounds of a car engine revving. Once naked, he took his flaccid penis in his hand, stretched it out as far as he could and let go; it snapped back to his body and flopped around as he wiggled his eyebrows at the crowd.
And so she asks why these strip shows are libido-killers and offers her thoughts. On some points we overlap, on others we don’t (for instance, I think evolutionary psych is full of crap). Here are my own musings:
Some of what I’ve written before applies here. For instance, male bodies aren’t sexualized in our culture. Since I’ve discussed this in pieces like, “Men: Erotic Objects of Women’s Gaze,” or “Women Seeing Women as Sexier than Men.” I won’t dwell on the point. But whether out of homophobia or because women have only recently become involved in creating media, literature, art, or anything else that could eroticize the male form, we see few sexualized images of men. So lusting after men isn’t something that women learn to do.
Some say women are just more erotic, yet breasts are only sensualized in places where they are either hidden or selectively hidden and revealed. The U.S. is so obsessed by the secreted breast that even women can develop a fetish. There’s no biological reason for that.
Repressed sexuality may also make it more difficult for women to respond to the visual. I don’t have data on this other than personal experience and talking with other women about it, but a few of us were better able to respond to visual stimulation when we were very young and less repressed.
Forces of repression? I’ve discussed this before (so see refs), but it arises as women are told that sex is bad – for them – and slut-shamed, from being the ones who get screwed and f’d, from being told not to touch themselves (males are more likely to figure out pleasure sources due to differences in anatomy), and from sexual abuse.
Making matters worse, when men do show skin they can look “gay.” This seems to occur because women are so used to nudity being meant for the male gaze that they come to see nude males through male eyes, too. That’s jarring, not a turn-on.
Men doing women-things (stripping) might be jarring, too.
Another problem is that straight women get more aroused by being desired than by desiring men. (Being desired by men they’re interested in, not by any ol’ guy.) Probably due to culture. While women don’t learn to see men as sex objects, they do come to see themselves that way. So in a convoluted form they can become aroused by experiencing how men are experiencing them. Yet another factor preventing women from desiring men in a fetished way.
And then floppiness could add to the problem, erasing any fantasy of being desired by the stripper. Flaccidity – at least on a twenty-something — communicates that he’s just not that into you. (Maybe a male strip clubber’s fantasy is helped when no obvious bodily sign tells him that the female stripper’s not into him.) But standing at attention might not work with a whole houseful of ladies anyway, since he’s still not necessarily into you.
Also, even if the stripper were erect, women may still have the same reaction that they have to strange men who flash or sext them: repulsion, trauma or laughter.
Yes, women have a very different reaction to the male member on a stranger than the men they love.
There are plenty of reasons why women think men look sexier fully clothed.
But why do gay men find male strippers sexy when straight women don’t? I’ll visit that question next week.