Sexual objects

A few months ago now, two events coincided. I went to a Sikh event in Bristol, which meant conforming to certain dress requirements, i.e. head covered (which I’d remembered and brought a long silky scarf with me), and no flesh on display (I slipped up a bit on this, it was summer, I was wearing a dress and sandals, so I ended up feeling rather self-conscious about my bare legs throughout the ceremony). As tradition dictated I sat on the floor on the left, with the women, while the men sat in rows on the right.

Also that week – I think the night before – there was a ‘Slutwalk’ in Bristol. I couldn’t attend as I had a party meeting, and was in two minds whether I should or not. The idea behind Slutwalk is that women should feel free to dress how they want, without being seen as “asking for it”, triggered I think by yet another male judge’s comments at a rape trial? There was some debate at the time as to whether Slutwalk was the best way to protest about this, with some participants dressing how they’d normally do to walk down the street and others dressing up as ‘sluts’. Some thought that ‘reclaiming’ the word slut and adopting the stereotypical attire of sexual objects was unhelpful, and that it detracted from the point being made that women wearing ‘normal’ mini-skirts, tight tops, skinny jeans, high heels, etc should not be seen as willing targets for unwelcome male predators.

During the meal at the Sikh event – there’s always food – I’d got into a conversation with a member of the community who was expressing his dismay at the sexualised culture of today and its impact on young women. He was I suppose being old-fashioned in his views, but he wasn’t being misogynistic; his concerns about the pressures on today’s teenagers, and the dangers they were exposing themselves to were valid, although he was perhaps rather judgmental about young women’s choices and not judgmental enough about the way young men – and not so young men – behave. He’d have been horrified by Slutwalk.

In a way there’s some common ground. In Luton a decade or so ago there was a graffiti campaign in Bury Park, the predominantly Asian area of the town, where billboards featuring undressed women in provocative poses were spray-painted over or ripped down. It caused controversy at the time, about whether ‘the Muslims’ were seeking to impose their values on the rest of the town. And yet it could so easily have been feminist campaigners doing the same thing.

The big difference of course is that the anti-billboards campaign was led by men, and a feminist campaign against them would have been led by women. And women (or male feminists) protesting about the objectification of women isn’t the same thing as men (or women of similar views) thinking that women displaying some flesh is indecent. But the Sikhs at the temple and the Muslims who defaced the posters would say that their concern is about ensuring respect for women, as would the Slutwalk campaigners. They’d all, to take another example, be opposed to a restaurant like Hooters, a branch of which opened in Bristol a year or two ago.

I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this. I’m just throwing it out there for discussion…. Is it possible to reconcile these two viewpoints and have a shared agenda promoting women’s rights? And how should a feminist respond when cultural practices don’t match her own beliefs? I’ve been to other events, at mosques, where most of the women are in a different room, but the non-Muslim women, by virtue of being special guests and usually there to say a few words, are in the same room as the men. This makes me uncomfortable, but then again, as an atheist, so does attending Christian religious services or events such as Remembrance Sunday and having to join in with the prayers and hymn-singing – but if that’s the only way you can show your respect to the war dead then that’s what you do.

So is it about respecting others’ beliefs or is it about compromising your own? Is it hypocritical? Should I, as an MP, be making a stand? Or would that be disrespectful? Doesn’t representing a constituency of diverse interests mean you have to put personal views aside to an extent and take people and civic traditions as you find them?

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  • Simon  On January 2, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    A lot rests on what we mean by respect I suppose. Treating something with respect, or acting respectfully does not have the same intrinsic meaning as ‘respecting’ something. The internal and the external characters differ in that sense. I think it’s perfectly right, if something is legal and respectful in and of itself, to reciprocally treat it with respect and act respectfully, to do so is not the same as to respect it as a ‘good thing’. But tact and decency in society often mean not picking a fight simply because you can.

    Debates such as that are best preserved for appropriate social forums, or where the other party has signaled a willingness to debate the issues. Certainly an MP has a duty, in so far as it is legal and proper, to try to represent all their constituents, whether they are of the same party, position or cultural predisposition I think.

    Even so, I for one am deeply troubled, speaking as a man so far as I am able to, by the sexual objectification of women– even of men in some degree–, and of the internalisation of these norms which has taken place in recent decades. This is not to say the net trade-off has been a bad one, or that any such trend is universal in character. Still, we sometimes surrender our own power by accepting that because our culture exists in a given state in the present moment, that validates it as being a part of the spectrum of choices of our generation, genuinely and independently made.

    In fact we have to work constantly to define what is or is not desirable, acceptable or appropriate, not merely in a cultural, personal or familial sense, but in terms or such public act as regulation of advertising– the use of sexual desire to bypass rationality as a means to selling goods, and indeed, the promise of self esteem– or such gems as ‘page 3 girls’. This engenders a necessary issue of free speech, of course, but now is precisely the time where we consider the just and proper limits which go alongside that freedom, in terms of social and democratic choice, and social responsibility.

    Really enjoyed the post, apologies for the lengthy reply.

  • gaverne  On January 2, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    I think this quite a conundrum as it throws up questions of gender,culture and religion.

    I think the thing to look at in these cases is the intention and objectives behind peoples views.

    When a woman tears down a poster of a scantily clad woman it is probably because she is opposing the objectification of women and probably wants women to control her own sexuality.

    However, when some men oppose scantily clad women it is not because they oppose women being sex objects or because they believe women should be independent…rather they believe a woman should be owned by one man or men who claim to protect her innocence but not her independence eg her dad, uncles, brothers.

    Such attitudes do not belong to one community…they cut across all communities and are one of the many manifestations of sexism because they dont express a wish for womens liberation but to control womens sexuality.

    This needs to be said because sometimes these ideas are ascribed to sikh and muslim communities when in truth these attitudes exist in most placs in the world (unfortunately).

    The other danger is to think you can appropiate sexist words like slut and use them to fight sexism.

    A similar argument was used when the n word was used in rap in the 1990s…however it is clear that 50 cents use of the word has not increased the respect for black people or young black men.

    It simply is gleefully picked by racists who feel empowered to use the n word because they hear it on the radio.

    Likewise whilst i support the aims of the slutwalk movement i dont think it is helpful when a woman goes around calling herself a slut.

    It only liberates the sexists to use the word…however, i must repeat the fact women are marching against rape, even if they use language i dont like, is positive. It forces a debate on a serious issue.

    I think that the best way is to say we want a society where women can control their sexuality without a man telling them how they can or cannot dress or live in fear of being raped…not haviing scantily clothed women helps contribute to a healthier society as almost separates womens sexuality from real, living women.

    To the kind of person who wants woman to cover up i would ask him why he is obsessed with what women are wearing? What gives him the right to say how much or how little they should wear.

    If he says it is encouraging rape then he needs to be told that women are raped even in societies where they cover up…the problem is not women but the way men are encouraged to see women as sex objects,that is the problem.

    For the kind of woman that would demand to march under a slutwalk banner i would say i am 100 percent with you against rape but using a word that is saturated with sexism won’t defeat sexism or rape…I would tell her or him if you look back in history equality has moved forward when groups have rejected labels or words that are designed to buttress their servile status.

    Phew that is a long contribution! This is not an easy question but i am glad you raised it.

    • Simon  On January 2, 2012 at 10:02 pm

      At the risk of totally outstaying my welcome I’d like to further agree with just about everything gaverne said. There is some research on these topics as well, I won’t begin to make the claim to know enough to speak definitively on the conclusions, everyone, clearly myself included should strongly consider doing the research thoroughly, but I understand that how women dress is not a proven causal factor, though it may correlate, in rape. There are a lot of arguments backed by data as what type of men commit rape, and what trends exist within those populations.

      I think it is worthwhile to consider how sex is used, and why, for much the same reason we might look at incentives in terms of the operation of markets or in tactical voting, not to dehumanise it, but for greater insight. It is used, cynically, for a number of purposes within society and it’s entirely legitimate and important to consider these structures and their operation.

      I tend to agree that slutwalks make me uneasy, I don’t think for one moment they are intended to trivialise a serious issue or to concede to objectification, clearly that is the opposite of the point held in mind. Even so, ‘reclamation’ is, as said more eloquently above, to a degree, merely incorporation and repetition of something whose negative meaning is not lost. It is reflective of the internalisation of stereotypes and norms which are very much negative, and is interpreted in an unhelpful way by a lot of people in the public.

  • Ethan  On January 3, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    I don’t think that any amount of walking around the street wearing what you like will solve anything. I think the guy who made the comment should bring himself up to date with modern society and realise that everyone is equal, whatever they wear and that it was wrong for him to assume the female asked for it.

  • Razvan Constantinescu  On January 3, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    …and there is of course the matter of taste which of course is subjective and personal and I guess developped up to a point. I personally feel that the Asian dress is more pleasing to my eye than the ostentatiously provocative uber-sexi outfits. Nothing to do with puritanism or gender categorisation. It goes without question that people of all creeds and genders should wear absolutely whatever they please. I don’t speculate on people’s thought processes using the length of their skirts or trausers as a starting point. I just like it or not without any psychoanalysis thrown in for good measure. As for using the word slut to fight sexism, I find the approach similar to using the word nigger to fight racism: I don’t like it and I question it’s effectiveness.

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