What happens when you beat a sex object? Or hang her? Or rape her? Or hogtie and torture her?
Pop culture is filled with images of women as objects. It’s also filled with images of women as abused objects. But then, the two go hand in hand: Objects have no feelings to empathize with, no lives of their own to interrupt or worry about. They can exist just for sadistic pleasure.
Oddly, I’m not seeking to shame anyone who gets aroused by these images. People tend to unconsciously absorb their culture like a sponge – we all do. Even my women’s studies students and the feminist blogs I read register a taste for this stuff. No surprise that so many find it sexy, our society is so filled with these images.
At the same time, I’m not dismissing the issue. Whether you want to participate or fight it, at least have eyes open and look at the downside.
When I was a little girl I got a children’s book from the library. In one story a woman was punished: She was stripped, placed in a kettle-like contraption with spikes to poke her, and driven through the town in humiliation. That’s my first memory of sexualized abuse.
My second encounter was flipping TV stations as a child, and seeing a man throw a woman over his knee to spank her. Apparently, if I’d flipped through a magazine I could have seen an ad with the same image.
When I got older the Rolling Stones promoted their “Black and Blue” album with a picture of a woman bound and bruised.
At the movies women are killed – in sexy bras and panties – in popular horror flicks. In tamer fare, Scarlett started out resisting Rhett, but ended up enjoying a night of passion as “no” turned to “yes.” In the soaps, Luke raped Laura and they fell in love.
Devo’s “Whip It” showed a man whipping the clothes off a mannequin. The red hat from this video is now in the Smithsonian.
In magazines and billboards we are bombarded with ads depicting violence against women.
Romance novels and erotic tales tell stories of women who are abducted and raped and who fall in love with their captors. Mainstream movies like 9-1/2 Weeks and The Secretary depict women enjoying abuse at their lovers’ hands. Justine Timberlake slapped Janet Jackson around at the Super Bowl before ripping off her bodice. More recently Megan Fox gets beat up in a popular video that you can view over and over again. In the background Eminem mouths “I’m in flight high of a love drunk from the hate,” to which Rihanna replies, “I like the way it hurts.” And then there’s the porn world full of “no’s” turning to “yes.” Or “no” remaining “no,” but that’s sexy, too.
On a feminist website, one woman described the joys of being a sex slave avatar to a dominant man in the virtual world of “Second Life.” Another explained the appeal with the help of a poor understanding of evolutionary psychology: Through evolution, she explained, women have come to want male domination in their relationships.
That’s not really what evolutionary psych says (and I have issues with that field, anyway). How would craving your own abuse, or even domination, be adaptive? Pain is meant to warn us to stop doing something. Women’s genes don’t crave poor treatment. If they did, we’d find eroticized violence in every culture, but we don’t. Egalitarian societies like those of the American Indian (before contact with patriarchy) did not sexualize abused women.
Here are two big problems with eroticizing male dominance and women’s pain: First, women and men can both come to crave the abuse of women in real life. Second, when we make male dominance seem sexy, we become more accepting of male dominance.
Neither of these aid the fight for equality, justice or human rights.
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“Dear Bitches, I mean witches.”
So began Duke’s Alpha Delta Phi’s e-mailed invitation to their Halloween party. It continues just as charmingly:
“The Brothers of Alpha Delta Phi know what true fear is. Fear is having someone say ‘I love you.’ … Fear is riding the C1 with Helen Keller at the helm (not because shes deaf and blind, but because she is a woman). Fear is waking up with no wallet, phone, keys, or front tooth next to a girl who you could generously deem a 3.”
Not to be outdone, Duke’s Sigma Nu frat offered their own enticement:
“Whether your dressing up as a slutty nurse, a slutty doctor, a slutty schoolgirl, or just a total slut, we invite you to find shelter in the confines of Partners D.”
Ummm, how appealing! (And I don’t just mean their grammar and spelling.)
Someone had the sense to print out the invites and scrawl handwritten messages: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” “Is this why you came to Duke?” and then wallpaper the campus.
Strangely, sorority sisters interviewed took it all in stride as “boys-will-be-boys.”
“Honestly, when I first received those e-mails I didn’t think anything of it,” said Emily Fausch, of Delta Delta Delta sorority. “This is the kind of thing I’ve come to expect from fraternities. In my heart, I know it’s a problem but I’ve really gotten used to it. I don’t take it too seriously. I think that college boys will be college boys.”
Now, not all fraternities are created equal. Some actually work to be respectful toward women. But at many frats, women are routinely degraded in attempts to create a sense of male superiority and “manhood” by putting women down, according to sociologist, Michael Kimmel.
But why do women so often support their own disgrace by continuing to fraternize with the frats? This woman’s comment that she’s simply gotten used to it is telling.
We live in a society that sees women as lesser-than, and which sexualizes male dominance. Both lay the groundwork for accepting ill treatment.
A few quick examples: Man, brother, and guy encompass women, but woman, sister, and gal don’t encompass men. So man becomes primary, and woman secondary. A woman marries and becomes Mrs. Leonard Smith. A man never becomes Mrs. Emily Struthers. Unless it’s an insult. Send a card from the family? Likely dad’s name goes first, then mom’s, then the children in order of appearance. Men tend to feel insulted taking the secondary spot. Women are just used to it.
We sexualize male dominance when Rhett takes Scarlett up the stairs for a night of marital rape and Scarlett cheerfully awakens the next morning. Or when Rihanna sings about enjoying mistreatment from her man, while Eminem celebrates abusing women. Watching women enjoy humiliation in porn or mainstream movies like The Secretary also eroticizes male dominance. The list goes on.
Continually treated as secondary, second-rate treatment becomes taken-for-granted, invisible. The women are used to it. It seems natural. Sometimes even sexy.
As too many frat brothers intensify the world of insult, women acclimate to the higher level shame.
All this teaches women to accept attitudes and behavior that regard them as second-class.
A college roommate of mine dated a frat boy who treated her like dirt. She defended him to all of us who cared about her. She had certainly learned to accept her own humiliation.
“Eminem and Rihanna Collaborate to Address Domestic Violence,” reads one headline.
The phrase “address domestic violence” rings of efforts to decrease it.
Is that the message of “Love the Way You Lie”?
Just gonna stand there
And watch me burn
But that’s alright
Because I like
The way it hurts
Eminem joins, mouthing these words:
As long as the wrong feels right
It’s like I’m in flight
High of a love
Drunk from the hate
Rihanna’s lines are jarring since she broke up with Chris Brown after a brutal beating. She had said she wanted to be a good role model for girls and young women. These lyrics send a very different message.
Eminem’s words fit his history of domestic brutality. In concerts past he sent an inflated doll resembling his wife into his audiences to be batted around. In 2008 he told Esquire, “I’m a T-shirt guy now. But wifebeaters won’t go out of style, not as long as bitches keep mouthing off.”
Megan Fox plays the sexy battered lead in the music video, where frames shift from abuse to making love, and back again. The video has had nearly 20,000,000 hits on YouTube.
All involved seem to want it both ways. Eminem and Rihanna said they wanted to start a conversation, while Megan Fox donated her salary from the shoot to Sojourn House, which helps abused women.
But the overall effect romanticizes violence against women.
That makes sexism feel sexy.
Unfortunately, that makes both women and men more accepting of it.
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Apparently, Mel Gibson isn’t the only one who feels that his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva “f—ing deserved it” when he hit her. Here’s one guys remark on the matter, posted to the MTV website: “Damn, it is going to be a pleasure to finally see oksana in prison. The ***** is a natural for it! If she pays attention, the inmates there will give her, her final training in how to be an effective porn star. Ah just luvly, the world is unfolding as it should, obviously!”
Written for shock value? Wouldn’t surprise me. But the comment reminded me that now and again a student of mine will defend a batterer when we discuss domestic violence in the Psychology of Women course that I teach.
When the subject of Chris Brown was brought up one day, a student I’ll call Ed opined, “Well, Rihanna deserved it.”
I asked what made him think so.
“He told her to get in the car like four times, but she wouldn’t do it.”
To which I responded, “Four times? Oh, now I totally get it.”
“Well, maybe it was five or six times.”
Tapping my forehead with the palm of my hand, I exclaimed, “So Chris Brown beat Rihanna until she was bloody because she wouldn’t get in the car. Oh, now it all makes sense to me. Thanks for explaining!” Sarcasm in the classroom may not be a recommended method, but he did get the point – after a while.
Continuing I asked whether he would beat his dog or his child bloody if either of them refused to get in a car after being asked five times. No?
Turning to the broader context I added, “From what I understand Rihanna had discovered that a young woman had offered herself up for a booty call via text message, so she was pretty upset. Do you think someone would be more upset that their companion wouldn’t get in a car – after being asked five times – or if they learned their lover planned a sexual tryst with someone else later that evening?”
”And, why should Rihanna get in the car just because Chris told her to?”
While most of my students got the point, Ed didn’t until I asked, “What if the situation had been reversed? What if Chris Brown had discovered that Rihanna was expecting loving from someone else that night? How do you think he’d react?”
Another student gave a quick glance before shouting out, “Probably the same way – by beating her.”
Was Ed speaking in jest, like the MTV commenter cited above? Sadly, my sense is that even in this day in age, some young people still feel it makes sense for men to “discipline” women, and that women sometimes deserve to be hit.