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This post has been floating around in my “Drafts” folder for a while, and I’ve been starting and stopping it because I couldn’t really get to a good explanation of what sexual objectification is, but lucky for me the discussion has cropped up elsewhere (Skepchick brought it to my attention) and a TED Talk does the hard work for me about why sexual objectification is a problem.

The Sexy Lie: Caroline Heldman at TEDxYouth@SanDiego

So that’s the resource I am directing you to, and if you have problems with the analysis in this resource, please address them at the YouTube site. I didn’t make the video and don’t want to argue about it. If you think have a better resource for people about sexual objectification, leave a link in the comment section.

But then I hear things like this: “I’m not sexually objectifying her–she’s sexually objectifying herself!” and that’s a misunderstanding I want to clear up. Women do not sexually objectify themselves. Women make choices for themselves that may result in other people sexually objectifying them (homework: read up on the “Patriarchal Bargain”), but that is not their responsibility if someone else sexually objectifies them. The responsibility for sexual objectification falls on the person doing the objectifying. And this is a lot of what feels like talking in circles, so let me try to make it clearer with examples from grammar class and sentence construction.

Remember the lessons about how it’s not a complete sentence if there’s not a subject and a predicate? Well, the subject is the part of the sentence that is doing the action. Objects are the part of speech that have actions performed to them, with no input. The action affects them–they do not affect it.

She (subject) bought (action) the book (object).
The dog (subject) ate (action) his barf (object).
The car (subject) hit (action) the garage wall (object) at what I swear was essentially zero miles per hour.
He (subject) objectified (action) her (object).

But! But! But! they say. But, but, she was in a low-cut blouse! She WANTED to be sexually objectified. I did it, yes, but she did it to herself, first. This is a misunderstanding of what has happened. Once more for emphasis: A woman does not sexually objectify herself. She is the subject of the sentence that is her life, not the object..

She (subject) wore (action) sexy clothes (object).

When a woman is being sexually objectified, someone else’s sexual dreams/goals/desires are being projected onto her. These dreams/goals/desires have everything to do with the subject of that sentence and nothing to do with the woman being gazed at or objectified. It’s all in the subject’s head. All of it. The woman is a stand-in for what he (almost always a he) wants in this (metaphorical) sentence, and her dreams/goals/desires are totally irrelevant. She doesn’t matter beyond the point of what she can deliver to him for is own purposes.

What gets overlooked so often is that the woman has made decisions and has dreams/goals/desires of her own. There is a chance that her dreams/goals/desires overlap with the man objectifying her, but that still doesn’t mean she’s an object. She decided to wear those clothes in order to portray an image that suits her purposes. She has agency. She is acting. She is hoping to gain some personal benefit with her actions, and she has used her brain to think up a strategy that will help her meet her goals.

So this woman wearing sexy clothes to a bar? She is probably seeking a certain kind of attention that she wants (woman as subject). She’s not there to make the bar more fun for you by giving you something to look at (woman as object). This woman working as an underwear model? She is probably trying to earn a living and garner some security using skills and assets she worked hard to gain (woman as subject). She’s not there so you can jerk off to the catalog she appears in (woman as object). You want to have fun by seeing women in sexy clothes or jerk off to pictures of them in their underwear? Fine. Be the subject of your life! But don’t make the HUGE mistake of forgetting that you only have these women around performing these actions that you find personally beneficial because they had something to gain from the interaction. They aren’t there to serve you; they are serving themselves. They don’t dress or undress to make your life better; they are making their own life better.

Women are subjects, not objects. If you forget that… if you forget all that context in which women are making decisions that help them navigate a world that is structured to diminish their agency… if you fail to see them as people doing their best to get by just like you are… if you persist in assuming that women with goals that coincidentally match yours were working to meet your goals and not their own… you are developing bad habits and causing great harm.

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I’m fond of starting my posts with a hypothetical scenario for demonstration purposes, so let’s have another one here.

Short Version
Woman: I am making a complaint about sexism and misogyny in skepticism.
Man: I am making a disproportionate response.

Long Version
I am noticing more and more often in reading the blogs (and probably in following the videos, although I don’t generally participate in the videosphere but have heard plenty about it) that whenever a woman makes a pretty straightforward point about sexism, there are predictably people–usually men, but not always–who show up to shut her down by flooding her with words. Written words, spoken words, short statements by lots of other people saying the same kind of thing… you’ve seen it. A woman makes a point that is met with a disproportionate response so often that you can almost bank on the inverse relationship between worthiness of the response and its word count. It’s like some sort of Feminist Godwin’s Law without Nazis: The longer the blog comment, the less likely the commenter has anything productive to contribute or is even directly engaging in the point.

Let’s get the exception out of the way so we don’t have to play gotcha in the comments section. Here is an example of a proportionate response:

Woman: I am writing a 1500-word blog post about sexism I have experienced.
Man: I am writing a 1500-word blog post in response to your blog post about sexism you have experienced.

But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about protesting too much, which takes many forms:

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I’m certainly not the first person to suggest that perhaps all this sturm und drang regarding the proper place of feminist ideals within the skeptical movement is just the rabble-rousing of an angry fringe. It’s not really insightful to suggest that the bulk of skeptics–the true skeptics, who are very concerned with accomplishing skeptical goals–find the all the hullabaloo about “calling out” sexism and “hijacking the movement” with “personal grudges” and generally “behaving like spoiled children who don’t know how good they have it in this world” to be a huge distraction–HUGE!–that prevents them from getting their skeptical work done. It’s definitely been suggested explicitly to me that I’m making mountains out of molehills, and I don’t speak for all women in the skeptical movement and that my Handy Guide isn’t very applicable to the skeptical community because it presents my specific beefs about what I personally don’t like as universal issues, and that the best thing for skeptics to do is let me ramble on without engaging me until I wear myself out, and then just sweep it all into the dustbin.

These arguments could be making some very good points. It is entirely possible that my quirky sense of injustice is unique to me and has no bearing on anything else. I’m just finding trouble where I want to, out of boredom or delusion or a highly Westernized sense of middle class woman entitlement or plain old cantankerousness, and if there are so many fewer active women in the skeptical movement than men, it’s for reasons entirely different than the ones I give that require solutions entirely different than the ones I suggest. Such as Ladybrains! and Who cares what the gender balance is? I care about ideas!

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This post was inspired by something I read that I cannot track down exactly, but got close. I am almost certain I read it at the A Radical Transfeminist blog, and this blog post here comes pretty close, so I’m sticking with it for now. If I stumble across what I am imagining I read before, again I’ll update the link.

For some reason, which could be related to the insidious pervasiveness of the patriarchy if you are feminist/political minded or could be related to the purported benevolent cluelessness and social awkwardness that seems to plague so many members of the skeptical community, women’s failure to provide consent is often perceived as confusing. A woman’s “no” is considered more of a negotiation point than a refusal or as inauthentic or as irrelevant, in a wide variety of contexts (and I’ve expanded on this point previously and do not feel like recapping here).

Gaining consent from a woman is also a point of confusion that frequently becomes a point of contention down the line. Consent for Behavior A or Context A is treated like Consent for All Future Behaviors or All Contexts, and the fact that a woman has provided consent in one situation seems to override all subsequent failures to provide consent, and the situation reverts to No Doesn’t Mean No (see above). What is not understood is that consent is temporary and highly context specific, and must be gained each time you want a woman to do something. Let’s run some scenarios to better make this point.

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Let’s go from the specific to the universal today.

The Skeptics Guide to the Universe is a podcast and panel of skeptics “dedicated to promoting critical thinking, reason, and the public understanding of science through online and other media.” I don’t know about the demographics of the listening audience, but a cursory stroll through the discussion board audience via threads on the forum reveals that by far the majority of posters are men. A stroll through the blogosphere reveals that there are far more skeptics who are men than women, to the point that the conversation frequently revolves around how to involve more women. (Hence this blog.) A recent uproar reveals that it is such a point of concern that too few women have registered for The Amazing Meeting 2012 that the president of the hosting organization (James Randi Educational Foundation) attributed this decline to women bloggers discussing the unfriendly environment women encounter in real-life and online communities. In fact, one specific woman blogger, Rebecca Watson–SGU panelist and podcaster–was named as especially responsible and she has decided to sit out this event to make a point.

Because it must be the women warning other women about potential opportunities for personal and online harassment who scare the women away (and maybe it is) and not at all the fault of the people (usually men) harassing women in person and online. Or the behavior of skeptical leaders big and small that sets the tone for what kind of behaviors general members can engage in, how they will be tolerated, and what women can expect.

For example, the moderators of the SGU Forums feel free to fight against the women who are trying to make skepticism a more welcoming place for women, and so the forum itself has become a place where people can go to fight women who are trying to reduce misogyny and sexism in the skeptical community. And you get gems of threads like this one…

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There are rumblings. There is hand-wringing. There is lamenting and gnashing of teeth, and skeptics who proudly wear the badges of Can’t Herd This Cat and Rugged Individualist and Keep Your Politics out of My Skepticism and Not a Member of a Monolith and Groupthink Not Welcome Here are doing a lot of active worrying about the impending disaster of skeptical women finding new ways to practice their craft. And new places. And eschewing the old ones.

The gist of the complaints that occur whenever a woman says that she’ll be sitting out something skeptical (event, product, forum, et cetera) to make a point (which, by the way, is perfectly rational) include:

  • She is being divisive! (She, by the way, is not.) If we don’t stand together, we’ll all fall apart!
  • She’s just looking for something to complain about.
  • She should expect these things to happen.
  • Assume she’s lying unless she provides proof.
  • I’m getting awfully tired of always hearing about women’s perspectives all the time.
  • Feminism is unscientific and out of place in skepticism.
  • She should focus on things that really matter.
  • And she’s being so divisive!

Well, color me cognitively dissonant!

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It’s hard work pulling off a conference, of any kind. Even the “cushier” conferences for membership groups (like the PYAH–Put Your Acronym Here) have to take into account that people often pay their own way and must be convinced that attending an event will be worth their while. Hence the struggle/search (some PYAHs have an easier time than others) for big names in the field that will draw a crowd (and money), and build/maintain momentum for the conference as a Can’t Miss Event and help propel attendance in subsequent years.

It’s tricky. I get that. I’ve helped with that at a tiny company that put on an annual large event. You want to get the big names, but you also want to get the big new names, and you have to balance what you can charge for things against what you have to pay for people, and it’s a lot to put together. You also want people to get excited about who’s coming to speak, and they’re often the people who’ve generated a buzz in recent times. And we all know what they say about buzz: Buzz means controversy, somewhere, somehow.

OK. So I’m the only one to say it that way. But you know. If people are talking, it’s because they are saying things to each other, about a speaker, about a book, about an interview, about something that gives a lot of people lots to talk about, which has to include disagreement because people only like agreeing out loud for so long. So you get this of-the-moment notable person to come to your event, and everyone is excited, and they all buy the tickets to hear the keynote speech the very first morning. Victory is yours!

Unless…

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Turns out that women can take a joke. Almost all of them (because who wants to speak in absolutes, right?) have a sense of humor, and even most of the ones who don’t can identify a joke on paper and in situ, either by careful (if speedy) grammatical analysis or by gauging the reactions of the people around them. In fact, sometimes women joke with each other, in public, in front of people, even in front of men. There is plenty, plenty of evidence that belies the common complaint that women don’t have a sense of humor, or can’t take a joke. And yet, this unsupported factoid has legs within the skeptical movement, and trots itself out every time a woman complains about a sexist or misogynist joke appearing in the skeptical discourse and asks people to cut it out.

Defensiveness ensues. And accusations, and lots of things, all revolving around the topics of It Is Perfectly Fine to Tell This Joke and I Don’t Really Mean It It’s Just to Be Funny and How Can You Not See That It’s a Joke? Let’s pick these apart one by one.

How Can You Not See That It’s a Joke?
Women can tell that it’s a joke. (See first paragraph.) But pretending that they can’t is a deflection strategy that enables men to criticize women for their behavior instead of taking responsibility for their own. The thing is that the women just don’t think the joke is funny. Their reasons for not thinking a sexist joke is funny include (but are not limited to) that they are hurt or embarrassed by jokes at their expense, that sexist jokes told in an environment of mostly men perpetuate harmful stereotypes about women, and that dismissing a woman as having no sense of humor is just another way to silence her (by shaming her, by inventing a flaw and then criticizing her for having it, usually in front of a group).

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It’s true. Nobody has the right to not be offended. All those sexist images and word choices and explanations for gender differences that women in the skeptical movement point to as offensive when they are asked why they are so mad about stuff… well, nobody promised those women that they could go through life–particularly not through life in the skeptical community–without being offended. There’s not some kind of Orwellian Freedom From guarantee going on that they’ll never have to experience unpleasantness or have their feelings hurt. It’s ridiculous to even suggest such a thing. They don’t want to be offended, well, that’s part of life. And if they choose to interpret images and statements as offensive, well, they’ve done that to themselves. They are responsible for their own reactions.

And it’s also true that the people who create the “offensive” (because offensiveness is subjective, right? so the scare quotes are necessary) content are perfectly within their rights to express themselves however they want to express themselves, and that the freedom of expression sometimes mean that people get mad, but that just because someone might be upset by what you say doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say it. I mean, fine art! And Jonathan Swift! Jonathan Swift offended all kinds of people, but he was doing important social commentary, and he’s part of the literary canon now, and if he didn’t write because he was nervous about hurting people’s feelings, well, Irish people and oppressive English people and colonialism. And maybe if you can’t handle being offended–if being offended is causing huge problems of your own making for you–you should probably just leave skepticism altogether, because thick skin and shit just got real and tensions inherent to public discourse and stuff.

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True story: Sometimes people make mistakes because they actually don’t know any better.

True story: Sometimes people are sexist towards women and don’t even know it, because they’ve never learned what constitutes treating women with respect as a person (vs. treating women with the “respect due to them as ladies” or somesuch), and sometimes that sexist behavior causes a whole host of problems with real consequences, as in actual damage done to women in the long or short term.

Women often call out this behavior when it happens, in hopes of averting those negative effects, or at least in hopes of averting them in the future. And often, when women call out this behavior and go so far as to say that the behavior needs to stop, people (usually men) swarm out of the woodwork to explain and defend the people who committed the sexist act.

Not because the sexist act is defensible, no–of course not! And not because they personally would ever commit such an act–how dare you suggest that they are sexist! Outrageous! No. They come out of the woodwork to help the women understand why they’ve been victimized by sexism, so women can learn what unfortunate social environments or upbringings cause men to behave in sexist ways and so women can be more sympathetic to those poor sexists who don’t know any better, or because these guys feel sorry for these other guys, and want to give a brother a break and because these women are making it hard for them to do that. There are all kinds of things about sexism that men come out of the woodwork to explain, and all of it adds up to one stinking pile of Excuses.

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