The Prudes’ Progress: Re-membering Feminist Desire, Part IV – Resisting Objectification, Be-coming Subjects (1/2)

This is the fourth part in an eight-part series of articles, The Prudes’ Progress, about non-objectifying, woman-identified sexuality based on ideas of equality and whole-personhood, in the tradition of lesbian feminism. For the first article in the series, which includes a table of contents, please click here. The articles don’t have to be read in order and contain many backwards and forwards links so you can follow them in whatever way is most useful for you, although forward links won’t work until the relevant article is available.

The Fourth Progression: Subjectification

Remembering Mary Daly’s definition of a fetish as a necrophilic way of relating, one towards an object, disembodied body part or objectified person which is not able to relate back or whose ability to relate back is limited, we can understand instrumental sexuality as a subject-object relationship between a person and an object. Feminist desire, however, is a subject-subject relationship, between two human beings. In order to have this kind of relationship we need to see ourselves and others as subjects and our partners need to do the same, in other words, we all need to learn to see all women as fully human.

Quoting from Sandra Lee Bartky’s Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression, Evangelia Papadaki writes that:

“In the regime of institutionalised heterosexuality woman must make herself ‘object and prey’ for the man… Woman lives her body as seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal Other” (Bartky 1990, 73). This leads women to objectify their own persons. Bartky argues that the woman “[takes] toward her own person the attitude of the man. She will then take erotic satisfaction in her physical self, revelling in her body as a beautiful object to be gazed at and decorated”.

Evangelia Papadaki, Feminist Perspectives on Objectification

As women we are expected to be (are made into) a fetish object through the processes of objectification. But because the viewpoint of sexual value is the male viewpoint, we are simultaneously expected to see ourselves through the male viewpoint as the fetish and become aroused by the way in which the male viewpoint consumes us.

And when experiencing sexual pleasure with other women, we’re expected to exist either as object (enjoying our treatment as fetish) or subject (enjoying her as a fetish) or in a fluid sense of movement between the two: when it’s so-called “my” turn I’m object, she’s subject, and when it’s “her” turn, we exchange roles. So, women and men are expected to become aroused by the same pornography, which shows fetishised representations of women being used sexually. This, in a patriarchy, is what passes for sexuality for women and men: women getting fucked.

Since objectification is one of the main processes which twists our sexuality, this is going to be one of the most detailed Progressions, because objectification isn’t simple to unwind. The process of subjectification isn’t just the reverse of the process of objectification. It’s the cultivation of a way of Be-ing which treats ourselves and others as fully human. But because processes of objectification exist, they’re the barriers within this Progression.

Because processes of objectification are powerful, we shouldn’t assume that we can immediately negate or destroy them (though, of course, they must also be destroyed!). We must find ways around, through and outside of these barriers. Returning to Nussbaum and Langton’s ten criteria for objectification, we can reinterpret each criterion as a barrier to subjectification, and suggest a value or process which helps us in a positive movement towards treating ourselves and others as fully human.

Because processes of objectification are complex and exist across society, it’s impossible to describe how to deconstruct them all. Instead, for each process, I’ve given one counter-Movement which is incompatible with that process, in the form of, “objectification process becomes counter-Movement“. If the counter-Movement is easy, that’s a sign that you may not be being restrained by that process. If the counter-Movement is difficult, it may be an indication that the particular process of objectification it relates to is something which affects you, and it may suggest that you need to look to other counter-Movements beyond the one I’ve listed here.

  1. Instrumentality becomes Self-sufficiency and mutual aid: As we try to exist in a world in which survival is based on domination and the use of others as tools, our own strength is rarely enough and mutual aid is vital. In rejecting instrumentality, our first resources are our Selves, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of saying that because we refuse to use others as tools to meet our perceived needs, we no longer have any need for others. We should always seek a basic strength and Self-sufficiency (from the second Progression), but it belongs alongside a love of others and a willingness to be helped by those who love us (from the third Progression). This is different to the false Liberal idea of “self-sufficiency”, which is only available to those who are able to use a sufficient number of others as tools, i.e. who are sufficiently high up various hierarchies of domination.

    Instrumentality has a special meaning within white-dominated feminist spaces based on the long history of how white women have used women of colour and especially Black women as emotional support and political ammunition. For example, expectations of Black women to do emotional work for white women, the tasks assigned to women of colour to “adapt” white feminism for other women of colour and to act as “race liaison” for feminist groups (so that white women can ignore race), the ways in which hypothetical (rarely actual: they might disagree!) Black women are deployed in arguments by white women (“nobody would do this [actually very common racist act] so why is sexism OK?”) and the ways in which white women derive physical self-esteem from making racist comparisons between our bodies and Black women’s bodies.

    So Self-sufficiency is also about white women not shoring ourselves up using racism. We can see this in the arguments that women want “equality” to men – bell hooks has pertinently asked, “which men?” (Feminist Theory: from margin to center). White women shouldn’t be satisfied by the thought of “exchanging” our position as dominated women for the position of white dominators of women (perhaps even men) of colour. As women looking for an end to dominance we should demand an end to all systems of dominance whatever our role in those systems. And mutual aid must be two-directional, both politically (white women must be involved in the struggle to end racist domination) but also interpersonally (white women must take on at least our fair share of work, including emotional work, in women’s spaces).

    We shouldn’t pretend that we can even approach this state without massive global change: in minority world Western nations, any apparent self-sufficiency will always be based on the forced labour of others. But we can develop a worldview which desires both true knowledge of our reliance on others as tools and to reduce that coercive use of others. Communities, friendships and relationships based on not using each other as tools may be able to help us come closer to this, and creating spaces of safety is discussed later in this Progress.

  2. Denial of autonomy becomes empowerment: I’m not sure about you, but to me “empowerment” has almost started to sound like a dirty word. But JASS’s Feminist Movement Builders’ Dictionary (hosted here) has a definition I love:

    A process involving a range of activities from individual self-assertion to collective mobilization and resistance aimed at upending systemic forces and power dynamics that work to marginalize women and other disadvantaged groups. Empowerment begins when individuals recognize the systemic forces of inequality that influence their lives and consciously act to change existing power relationships.

    Empowerment isn’t just about agreeing that women should have autonomy (or making statements that we do); it’s about changing the systems which limit our choices and place pressure on the choices we have left. Autonomy is what exists when there’s not a systematic destruction of autonomy, including destructive belief systems which treat women as having no autonomy, because belief plus power can shape reality.

    Some women’s liberationists encouraged women to believe that their individual achievements of success, money, and power (especially in spheres historically dominated by men) advance feminist movement. These women need to know their success has little impact on the social status of women collectively and does not lessen the severity of sexist oppression or eliminate male domination… Individual achievements advance feminist movement if they serve the interests of collective feminist struggle as well as satisfying individual aspirations.

    bell hooks, Feminist Theory: from margin to center (South End Press, 1984), p92

    There’s nothing wrong with individual women feeling good about ourselves or even feeling powerful, if feeling powerful means “being able to get our needs met”. And sometimes individual women’s discoveries of what makes them feel powerful can inform other women, for example, ways of relating to men which give her more freedom. But collective womanpower is about having the ability to get our needs met even when patriarchy doesn’t want to meet our needs, or before that, having the space to decide on what our needs are for ourselves, free of external pressure. Empowerment is a process which creates autonomy, “a solid base of strength”:

    When we’re truly autonomous we can deal with other kinds of people, a multiplicity of issues, and with differences, because we have formed a solid base of strength with those with whom we share identity and/or political commitment.

    Barbara Smith, Introduction to Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983), pp. xl-xli

    Many of the other processes of objectification are forms of destruction of autonomy, especially violation and silencing, and they’re addressed specifically below. But in addition to destroying systems of coercion (kinda a long-term goal), empowerment is also about creating environments in which women can act autonomously and about value systems which think that women acting autonomously is a good thing. Because autonomy is limited by inequality, these environments will never achieve full autonomy for women, but they may give us a taste.

  3. Inertness becomes movement: At its simplest, inertness is not moving. Maybe some of us have had lovers who didn’t move much during sex, or maybe we’ve been those lovers. Inertness and instrumentality make up a pair of constraints on women’s physical behaviour during sex: we are expected – and/or we expect these things from our partners – either to be inert or to do what our partner wants us to do, after the fashion of a particularly sophisticated sex instrument/toy. But feminist desire is not a desire for an inactive partner to whom we can “do things” (or a desire to be that partner) but to joyously act together. Some level of response to stimuli is one of the descriptive characteristics of life over inert matter and feminist desire is biophilic, a love of she who lives.

    Some people have a restricted range of physical movement or may not be capable of any physical movement, or may find some or all physical movement uncomfortable during sex, or generally. In this case the language of intertness/movement is different. The person whose lover is disabled and moves less (or not at all) should be aware that her own meanings of intertness/movement won’t map perfectly onto her lover’s, and that her lover may express her own meanings through different words/symbols/actions. For example, what I’ve called inertness/movement may map onto silence/vocalisation, or no/yes, or tension/relaxation (or the other way around!). Either way the focus should be on the acts which convey meanings of non-responsiveness, disinterest, responsiveness and interest, not on a particular attachment to physical movement.

    By focusing on the message sent by inertness (or by non-response/disinterest) we can unpack a little what’s going on with inertness in sex. For some women it may be an attempt to avoid the slut stigma of wanting sex “too much” (defined as: wanting more sex than at least one man – or other person with power over us – would like us to want). For another it may be a way to escape unwanted associations, regain control or concentrate on a specific fantasy scenario. For others it may be very pleasurable “me time” which is hard-won from the reluctance conditioned into many women to accept pleasure, and inertness on the physical plane may be sexual movement on another. The significant questions are: Are all Selves present? And is this a be-ing/be-ing experience of sex or doer/done-to?

    On a metaphorical level, movement is also about Progress: a Move-ing partner is a partner who is not remaining spiritually or intellectually still. Patriarchy fears women who Move, because it’s always afraid that we might move out of the place made for us. Or it’s afraid that our movement will make it impossible to consider us the decorations it would like us to be, much as an unexpected movement in a previously still room can startle a man who thought he was alone. A Progressing Prude is a Move-ing woman, but there are also many other forms of Movement. It’s good to sometimes remember that a UK feminism once called itself the Women’s Liberation Movement, and meant it. And so feminist desire is also felt for and by women who Move, who continuously Be-come.

  4. Fungibility (interchangeability) becomes antipornography: What? Isn’t that a bit of a leap? Well, because we’re mapping out a Progress, not travelling as the crow flies, we can afford to occasionally simplify our path by navigating not by grid reference but by prominent nearby landmarks. And pornography is about as prominent as they get.

    There are many definitions of pornography out there but the one I’ll use in this point is my own, “the sexualisation of an oppressed class as they are seen by the oppressors, not as they are”. If a type of material is dear to you (say, if you produce it) and it doesn’t fit this definition, feel free not to consider it included, even if you use the word “pornography” to describe it (though I wish you wouldn’t, it forces me to write sentences like this one). Defined this way, pornography is not just a type of sexual product from a particular industry, but a society-wide process which is done in many ways, including but not limited to the production, distribution and viewing of images and videos, as well as conversations, sexual interactions and acts of sexual fantasy. It’s probably a bad definition to use as a basis of civil law but it’s a good one for understanding what pornography does.

    As far as I’m concerned, there are 1000 reasons to be antiporn and the first 990 of them are about the treatment of women within the pornographic sex industry (this shouldn’t need to be said, but if you are a woman within the mainstream pornographic sex industry and you don’t have a problem with your treatment, I’m glad, but hopefully we can all agree that many women are badly treated). Fighting for women not to be seen as interchangeable is one reason to be against pornography but there are even more important reasons to be in that fight. However, it’s difficult to imagine how the current ways in which women are seen as interchangeable can be dismantled without dismantling pornography as a social force. This is one of many places in which attempting to re-member feminist desire brings us into important conflict with much wider problems.

    In this counter-Movement I focus attention on how pornography normalises and reduces the ways that women are seen and even think of ourselves as simple, interchangeable archetypes, and how we have to get past this pornsick way of seeing in order to see women and know our-Selves as individuals. This feature of pornography is closely linked to the process of commoditization in mass capitalist markets, a comparison made by blogger Literata:

    Porn is a lot like fast food, when you think about it. As some wag observed, “fast food” is neither “fast” nor “food.” It’s sort of like food, except taken down to the lowest common denominator, commoditized into unrecognizability, ridiculously cheap and available on demand, so available that it’s starting to replace a significant amount of “real” food for a number of people. Fast food’s race to the bottom, driven by capitalism, all too often feeds on exploiting its employees. And fast food, in its own little niche, thrives on creating experiences that tap directly in to our tastes and preferences, then exaggerate those preferences to the point of ridiculousness.

    Pornography is a two way process of the sexualisation of women (and more) by the white supremacist capitalist (and necessarily cissexist) patriarchy. Among many other things, pornography reduces women to pornotypes, shorthand representations in the language of pornography, such as the pornotype for “bisexual woman”. The pornotype of “bisexual woman” isn’t the same as “woman attracted to more than one sex/gender”. Instead it’s the sexualised majority view of bisexual women, described by Shiri Eisner in an excerpt from her upcoming book on bisexuality, Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution (quote may differ from final text):

    Bisexual women are presented in hypersexualized [“presented as excessively sexual”] contexts, as sexual objects for the hegemonic [“according to what those in power think about it, how they talk about it or define it”] straight male gaze, while directly or covertly appealing to a quasi-pornographic fantasy of a (2 females and 1 male) threesome, and while also reassuring us that these women are not really bisexual, but are rather simply behaving so for the satisfaction of the presumed male spectator.

    Shiri Eisner, Hot sexy bi babes: media depictions of bisexual women (April 2012)

    To those viewing bisexual women through the pornotype, they’re interchangable, as Jess (a bisexual woman) writes in Attack of the Unicorn Hunters, a post about the common experience of young bisexual cissexual women in being invited to join an existing F/M couple:

    I have many issues with this ideal. My biggest problem with it is that it’s blatantly objectifying. This kind of attitude is all about trying to put another person (almost always a woman) into a box you’ve created for her. It’s not about the person as an individual. It’s all about using somebody as fulfilment for your fantasy. I don’t feel special or wanted when a couple has clearly spammed their generic message out to every cute bisexual woman within a three-hundred-mile radius. When I know they’ve just seen the picture and possibly read as far as “female/21/bisexual/same continent.”

    I describe pornography as a two-way process because as it objectifies us and makes us interchangeable, it also a) creates the social norms under which women’s interchangeability makes it easy to use women in pornography and b) contributes to our objectification, which is what is sexy, which is what is then depicted in the pornography. Put another way, pornography enables objectification which enables pornography, all going around in a circle. As individuals we can’t break the industrial machine (although concerted antipornography activism by feminists is vital for this and many other reasons) but we can resist in some ways at our own level.

    This isn’t as simple as not watching particular videos on the Internet, although I do think it’s essential to stop consuming material which is so clearly pornographic. As a sexualised depiction of oppressed people, pornotypes are everywhere, in advertisements, in the way we talk about women, even in the design of our clothes. Pornotypes are so well established in the social subconscious that the male gaze (which is not limited to men) is a kind of pornovision, which looks at women and sees pornotypes.

    I don’t want to make a simplistic argument here that, for example, men are unable to see bisexual women as anything other than pornotypical, and that this is the justification for their treatment of bisexual women as if they’d stepped out of the pages of pornography. Unlike many antifeminists I think that men are as a rule more intelligent than that. But because pornovision is the default way of seeing women, not seeing women in that way requires a choice, which I think many men and many other people are unwilling to make.

    As Progressing Prudes we must make that choice. When faced with the mainstream pornography industry’s standards of pubic hair and symmetry and uniformity of vulvas (or certain specific representations of transsexual women’s genitalia), we need to ensure that we look at our own bodies and those of other women in a way which sees the natural variance of women’s bodies as normal, not as deviance from pornotypical standards. We’re faced with anything from the glossed, identikit stereotypes of “professional appearance” for women, to the kind of stereotypes which allowed supporters of Dominique Strauss-Kahn to paint the hotel worker he raped as lascivious and culpable. And blogs such as the excellent Eschergirls document the strange uniformity in drawings of female characters, for example the notorious “boobs and butt” pose.

    Somehow in this mirror maze of false images we need to find ourselves, our friends and our lovers. Through pornovision we and other women all appear as discrete seXXXy pornotypes and are interchangeable within those types, one pornographically-constructed-unicorn being as good as another. Its opposite is wimminsight (here I use the spelling “wimmin” to refer to human beings who have been designated as women and to distinguish us clearly from female pornotypes), with which when we look at a woman, including ourselves, we see a human being in one of the political situations of “woman” (e.g. “white disabled cissexual woman”, “Black transsexual woman”, etc.).

    Wimminsight can take effort. In a pornsick society, women may have altered our appearance to match pornographic subtypes out of self-defence or in an attempt to be acknowledged as human beings (a patriarchal reversal: pornotypes are precisely not representations of human beings as human beings but of sex objects). It may even become part of our identity. Wimminsight is XXX-ray vision, seeing through pornotypical meanings to the humans beneath them. For example, a woman in high heels is not essentially deer-like, naturally presented for the male gaze; she’s a human being, high heels or not. Wimminsight is multiply dis-covering, not just finding women under pornotypes but also between and outside them in the case of women who are erased, not obscured, by pornovision.

    I’m explicitly using the metaphor of ‘sight’ here due to the way that pornotypes exist substantially on a visual level. Pornotypes also exist on a non-visual level (e.g. within sexual stereotypes of “natural submissiveness” or “dirt”), and in this case ‘sight’ also applies non-visually, and is better described as ‘perception’. I recognise the limitations that using visual language for those aspects of pornotypes and wimminsight may have for partially-sighted and non-sighted people, but I didn’t want to use the falsely generic ‘wimminperception’ when a large part of my emphasis is – and I hope appropriately – on vision and imagery, pornography’s secondary medium after ‘ideas’.

    This is just one counter-Movement. A wider treatment of wimminsight and women’s fungibility would also take into account other ways in which women were made interchangeable to the mainstream such as racist ways of seeing/treating people, noted by Audre Lorde (speaking in a North American context):

    Within this country where racial difference creates a constant, if unspoken, distortion of vision, Black women have on one hand always been highly visible, and so, on the other hand, have been rendered invisible through the depersonalization of racism.

    Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action (Quality Paperback Book Club collected edition, 1993), p42

    By fighting pornography at a political level (the level of feminist politics) and by cultivating wimminsight, we fight for the right to women to exist as individuals – as, in fact, wimmin – and learn to discern our own individual Selves and those of other women beneath the thick layers of pornographic (un)realities which obscure us.

  5. Violability becomes consentfulness: I’ve written widely on sexual consent before (part one, part two), but here I want to go further and talk about the idea of consentfulness. I define consentfulness as a mood and a quality that exists when people are consentminded, when we practise consentmindfulness. This is an appropriate way to think of the subject for the small minority of people who have a deep, genuine concern for nonviolation even at the so-called “cost” of “not getting what they want”. Those phrases are placed in quotes because within a framework of feminist desire, one doesn’t aim to want to “get”, and acknowledging a mismatch of desire or expectations isn’t and shouldn’t be seen as “costly”.

    Being consentminded – the opposite of being rapeminded – is about wanting, at all times, others to be able to have full control over their own boundaries and not to feel violated. Consentmindfulness combines a deep respect for others’ boundaries, the knowledge that boundaries can be intensely individual, and an understanding that respect for boundaries is an activity not just an attitude. It’s a “safety first” approach, not, “shoot first and ask questions later, if at all”.

    Like the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, a consentminded person needs to be present (not distracted, or existing in a fantasy world) and engaged with others. To engage with others means recognising their subjectivity and not treating them like objects, and this is where consentfulness relates to objectification and subjectification. Meaningful consent is not possible between a subject and an object because objects assert no boundaries, and so feminist desire is also impossible.

    This is why Nussbaum listed “violability” as a key characteristic of an object, but more clearly it’s why violation is a key practice of objectification; it’s a kind of terrorism, or, as Susan Brownmiller famously put it in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, “[rape] is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear”.

    Consent in the popular imagination has typically been about final boundaries – boundaries which, if violated, make all other consent meaningless. For many people, the final boundary is the body. Treating the body as a final boundary means having complete say over what touches and especially what happens inside one’s own body (a practice analysed by Andrea Dworkin in her book Intercourse, where she treats the institution of intercourse under patriarchy as a ritualised, culturally compulsory crossing of that boundary and explores its awful consequences for women and society).

    The ability to leave a situation may also be a final boundary. The final boundary is a little like the right to strike in the workplace; without a right to strike, eventually all other rights can be eroded. Perhaps the situations of workers and cissexual women as cissexual women overlap in the statement, “Abortion is a woman’s right to strike”, made by Zoë Fairbairns in A Living Income In Their Own Right for Women or Men Who Care for Dependents at Home collected in No Turning Back: Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement 1975-1980 (The Women’s Press, 1981), p9; although I’d modify Fairbairns’ argument to include pre-emptive abortion, i.e. refusal of intercourse, potentially reproductive or otherwise. To take away someone’s control over her body or to make it impossible for her to leave a situation, is a violation of her final boundary.

    Popular conversations about consent have all been about these lines, so it took spending time with feminists who work with abuse for me to understand that this is almost a red herring. Of course, the final boundary is absolutely critical, and yes, there are people who come out of nowhere and suddenly violate that boundary without warning. But feminists have been repeating for decades that most abuse and rape is perpetrated by family, partners and acquaintances, and these perpetrators typically operate by cultivating an atmosphere of violation, destroying consentfulness bit by bit until they can cross the final boundary almost at will.

    They are helped by a culture of violation – more commonly called rape culture – and it’s this that the value of consentfulness stands against. (Some activists have been popularising the phrase “consent culture”, but I won’t use that here – it’s too closely bound to sex and in particular too often used within BDSM spaces to be useful here.) Because we live in a violation culture, in which violation is normalised, a lot of everyday things – big and small – are also violations.

    Consentmindfulness and mutual subjectivity are essential, because a consentminded person must learn what our own common little violating behaviours are and what all the little violations are for each person we interact with. At this point I’m only writing to those who are acting in good faith and who are genuinely Progressing Prudes. The rapeminded are perfectly capable of performing a kind of Consent Theatre, where they show all the trappings of popular understandings of consent but none of the substance. Consentmindfulness, or rather, the apparent performance of consentmindfulness, is meaningless when performed in bad faith or when taking place over unacknowledged or unnegotiable power imbalances. Those who genuinely value consentfulness will, in those situations, not downplay its difficulty and often impossibility.

    Prudes (and other Hags) must learn to flush out the rapeminded by creating an environment within which the rapeminded are unable to perfectly camouflage themselves. This is the collective meaning of consentmindfulness, the maintenance of a community atmosphere which don’t give violators their oxygen.

The next part of the series covers this Progression’s remaining five counter-Movements to objectification, from Freedom through to Decentering Privileged Voices.

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