October 16, 2006

Just in case you forgot

Bob Herbert takes us on a whirlwind tour of the pervasiveness of misogyny and the objectification of women in our society. Even for someone like me, someone who takes the time every day to read about the injustices suffered by women both here and around the world, it really is shocking to step back and see how much continuity there is between `risque' ads in mainstream magazines and hate crimes targetting women.

At the bottom of it all is pornography. I should stop and clarify that. Pornography is not the root cause of misogyny in our culture; it's the primary symptom. In that respect, my analysis runs in precisely the opposite direction from Dworkin, MacKinnon, and plenty of other prominent, contemporary feminists (though certainly nowhere near all of them). Furthermore, I don't think banning or restricting the sale of pornography (as though that were even feasible) is any solution.

I should also say that I don't mean all pornography. Like prostitution or lap dances, I see nothing wrong with an exchange of money for sexual tittilation per se. Nor do I think that, in these exchanges, an attitude of disrespect and objectification is necessarily transmitted or supported. However, such an attitude can be transmitted and supported, and we have to question how much consent is really involved in each case (eg, is she doing that because it's part of a career she enjoys, or is there a kid at home who'd starve if she didn't?). Clearly the sex industry as it exists today is in an appalling state, and that alone ought to cause us pause before consuming any of its `products'.

But even if the sex industry was cleaned up overnight, it seems that the pervasiveness of pornography through our society is still of some concern. And now that I've explained what I don't mean, I'll explain what I do mean, though still indirectly.

Perhaps using the term `pornography' is misleading, because it seems this term refers to two distinct types of media. On the one hand, pornography is media designed to tittilate the viewer/consumer sexually or erotically. My claim (not really argued for) above was that pornography in this sense is not necessary morally problematic per se, and yes, you should still take note of the qualifiers. On the other hand, pornography is media that portrays persons as objects for sexual use.

There are two things to note here: the second kind of pornography is morally objectionable, and is logically independent of the first kind. Contra Kant, one can be tittilated or sexually aroused while still regarding the object of arousal as a person in her own right, even if she's a stranger and you know nothing about her other than the acts she's performing in front of the camera. And contra Dworkin, I would suggest that this distinction between the two uses of pornography is even viable in our present cultural climate.

The problem, then, with pornography is that this distinction is almost never made, and the overwhelming majority of pornography is quite explicitly designed to tittilate by annihilating the agency of the women it portrays. It next seems to immediately follow that the vast majority of pornography is actually rape -- at least, rape according to the feminist understanding, as a sexual act symbolizing the annihilation of the victim's agency.

Combine that realization with the realization that so many of our media portrayals of women are designed to tittilate by removing their agency -- by portraying them as sexual objects for men's use -- and the conclusion seems as inevitable as it is horrifying: we live in a culture where the portrayal of rape is as mundane and unremarkable as this week's specials at the supermarket.

And, remember, I said this was a symptom. How much more disturbing must the underlying pathology be?

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