No Objection to Objectification

A relatively minor news story grabbed my attention this week. Or rather, I noticed it briefly, and then kept remembering it as I found a lot of examples of the hypocrisy that underpins the supposedly civilized society we find in modern Britain.

Perhaps that last comment is not fair. A society is not hypocritical just because its members contain opposing views. The people who make up our society often do hold opposing views. Whether you can call society hypocritical comes down to whether you think society, as a whole, does a good job of reconciling and managing the differences of opinion between its members. A positive way to do so is to recognize that not everybody can be right, and to be clear why a decision may favour one opinion over another. A negative outcome seeks to keep everyone placated, without making a proper decision. It will be interesting to see how British society copes with yet another debate surrounding the greatest of taboo topics: sexuality.

The story that kicked things off was that campaigners and local government leaders had been pushing for a change in the way lapdancing clubs are licensed. See here for the story, as presented by the Guardian, Daily Mail and ITN. Like most people would have, I read the story (in my case, on msn) and did not pay it great mind. In short, when you cut through the waffle, we have some people who do not like the idea of lapdancing clubs at all. They would like to get rid of them completely, but they have no realistic hope of that at present, so their current objective is to make it harder for lapdancing clubs to obtain a license. For councilors, always wary of pleasing the minority of people who actually bother to vote in local elections, taking a stand does them no harm. Their powers would be increased and they can tell local NIMBYs that they are doing everything they can for them. In the end, it is a minor issue, because even with the emotive choice of words selected by campaigners, who talk of “floodgates” and being “powerless to stop the spread” there are only 300 lapdancing clubs in the country. That makes them small beans in the big scheme of things, even when you consider the number has doubled in recent years. Here comes some miscellaneous UK stats to put UK lapdancing into perspective: 1 lapdancing club for every 90,000 adult men; 1 lapdancing club for every 1.7 people who sleep rough in the UK, 1 lapdancing club for every 4 people murdered last year; 1 lapdancing club for every 3,000 burglaries last year. You can probably infer what I think council leaders should be spending their time worrying about.

The reason why the story stuck in my mind was that the people who were pushing for the change were described as campaigners for women’s rights. Which women are the ones who need more rights? Presumably not the women who want to make money from lapdancing. For the remainder of the day, I saw example after example of women exercising their rights. My friend flicked the television to an unedifying “documentary” about gold-diggers (the people who exploit other people to get money, not the ones who rush to the Klondike carrying a pickaxe) that was shown on Virgin 1. For several minutes I was subjected to an “interview” with a woman boasting of how much money she made as a professional escort. Apparently, one evening she made UK£10,000 from a single punter. She also revealed how much time and effort went on regular maintenance of her looks (nails, hair, Winehouse-like cakes of make-up) and on one-off enhancements (lips and boobs) in order to augment her earning power. All of which is her right, I suppose. Afterwards, Davina McCall spent the whole of Big Brother eviction night brushing the hair out of her eyes. That long, lustrous hair so prominently featured in ads for Garnier’s haircare products. Doubtless it was just a coincidence, but if not, that is her right. After that, we saw Kylie Minogue dancing in a tight-fitting outfit and towering boots, as is her right. Bored with television dross, I flicked back to browsing about the lapdance licensing story on the internet. On the Daily Mail’s site I noticed a story from their “Femail” column, highlighted alongside the story about lapdancing laws. It was about former swimmer Sharron Davies wearing revealing outfits that showed off her boobs and legs whilst presenting the Olympics on the BBC. As is her right. Below that, the next highlighted story was about a woman who acted beyond her rights. That was about a Thai woman who murdered her older British husband for his money. Nevertheless, it was an example of a woman who did what she wanted to do.

The thing about women’s rights is that they are a convenient fiction. There are no women’s rights. There are rights. Human rights. In a tiny fraction of circumstances, there may be very particular ways in which human rights need to be interpreted or applied specifically for one gender. An example is the practice of female genital mutilation. The point I am making is that female genital mutilation is not exactly the same, and does not happen in the same way, as male genital mutilation, but the rights of the human being are essentially just the same. It would be intellectually untenable to be against female genital mutilation whilst in favour of male genital mutilation. People have all sorts of rights. The right to shelter. The right to treatment for mental illness. Of course, I pick those examples to make a point. In Britain, far more men sleep rough than women. In Britain, far more men commit suicide than women. But that does not mean homelessness or suicide are “men’s rights” issues. Even if far fewer women are homeless, and far fewer women commit suicide, their suffering as individuals is the same, and rights are the same for all people, not just a gender.

We are not living in the 19th Century any more. Modern-day Pankhursts miss the point. They are wrong to try to borrow her clothes and dress themselves up in the language of women’s rights. Trying to restrict lapdancing clubs is not like trying to give women equality with men. One woman may feel liberated if free to live in a town without a lapdancing club. Another woman may feel her right has been constrained – her right to use her body as a source of income. One woman may find the thought of writhing naked across a strange man to be disgusting. Another may consider it lucrative. In a society, we need to find a compromise between the rights, and conflicting goals and priorities, of these women. Casting the debate in terms of “women’s rights”, as if this was simplistic battle of the sexes where women are underdogs, trying to free themselves from the subjugation of men, is no longer appropriate. The human rights of women must be weighed on both sides of this debate.

One of the groups that supports the change in the law is called Object. After reading their material, and what was said by their Director in the press, I considered pulling it apart. Their arguments were weak and tenuous. The presentation of data to support them was confused and contradictory. One of the key arguments in this particular case was that lapdancing clubs are places where sexual activity takes place, and so should not be licensed like a cafe. That is a reasonable argument. However, the purpose is to exploit some already fuzzy logic in how cafes, and other establishments, are licensed. Why cafes need to be licensed like bars and restaurants – places that sell alcohol – is beyond me. If you say to me, would I treat a cafe, a bar, and a lapdancing club all the same, I would say no. That is what the current legislation does. The campaigners say that lapdancing needs to be treated differently. I would say they should all be treated differently. In my opinion, cafes should enjoy the most liberal licensing arrangements, and places that sell alcohol should have the most stringent licensing arrangements. Lapdancing clubs, if they do not sell alcohol, belong somewhere in the middle. For all the posturing about the dangers of lapdancing clubs, it is not lapdancing that is behind a wave of violence on our streets, anti-social behaviour in the small hours, and no-go zones in our town centres. It is alcohol. Yet, following the absurd logic of this debate, the government is being asked to clamp down on lapdancing because the selling of lapdancing needs to be more restricted than the selling of coffee. Whilst I agree with that, it is absurd to claim to fight for women’s rights by fighting lapdancing, whilst turning a blind eye to the impact of alcohol on our society, and on women in particular. Lapdancing poses less of a danger to women, than the dangers that come with alcohol. I sympathize with any woman who feels insecure when near to a place that sells sexual titillation. But in terms of risk, the same woman should worry more when near places that sell alcohol. Drunkenness increases the chances of the abuse of women far more than trivial sexplay.

Of course, no sane “women’s rights” organization would campaign to further limit the sale of alcohol, just because pissed-up louts might roll out of a bar, ready to grope, hassle and persecute any women outside. That is because those louts may also be groping, hassling and persecuting the women inside. And that is because women still choose to go inside anyway. Despite all the risks heightened by alcohol – as imbibed not just by the abuser, but also by the victim – women still go to those bars and put themselves at risk. That is their right. They balance the enjoyment they hope to get against the risks, and still decide to go. That is what living in a free society is all about. And that is why demolishing the arguments of groups like Object is unnecessary. Every day, the vast majority of women are already undermining their cause far more effectively than I could with a few words. They do so by the choices they make. Limiting some lapdancing clubs may inhibit the earnings of some women who may otherwise be struggling to get by in life. That makes them soft targets for campaigners, who convince and console themselves the dancers must have all been coerced and denying their right to work as lapdancers is actually in their best interests. These campaigners dare not take on the bigger players. They will never take on big money-spinners like the breweries and their distribution chains. They will never take on high-profile figures like Sharron Davies, or Paris Hilton, or Davina McCall, who have their own reasons to flaunt their bodies and beauty, and in doing so, contribute to the sexual objectification of women. They will never take on a single woman who does any of the normal, ordinary, commonplace things that most women do to objectify themselves in a sexual way. Lipstick. Cosmetic surgery. Diet milkshakes. Wonderbras. Working out. Boob tubes. Miniskirts. Women have fought hard for the right to objectify themselves and their bodies. If they choose to do so, that is their right.

The reason for the name “Object” is the group is against the objectification of women. I almost feel sorry for them. They must see themselves as fighting some imagined cabal of sexist capitalist exploiters of women (who doubtless are also predominantly male). In reality, they are fighting everyone. Which makes them unlikely to win. We all, men and women, objectify people all the time, in countless ways. Not every human relationship is going to be deep. Most of them will be utterly superficial. We just forget that they are relationships, because the encounters may be so trivial. At the supermarket, we objectify the check-out staff. They are the means to an end when it comes to paying for our shopping. We do not see them as fully-rounded people. The same happens to our bus driver. Or to our waiter. Or to our dentist. Even if we make conversation, it is superficial. We see them at best in a very limited way. Did the bus driver brake too sharply, did the dentist make my teeth white, was the check-out girl polite. We do not think about their emotional needs, their backgrounds, their hopes for the future. I was objectified at 7.20am this morning, when the postman kept banging on the door even though I was asleep. He needed a signature, so kept banging (for a parcel that turned out to be wrongly addressed). I was the object to give him a signature. At 9am something similar happened. Then the postman did not wait for me to get to the door. Presumably I was the object slowing down his busy delivery round. So he went, leaving a card asking me to collect a letter that really was intended for me this time. And when I went to collect it, and it was not there, my interaction with the man behind the window was perfectly polite, perfectly perfunctory. Nobody was expecting to walk out with a new best friend.

The same applies with sexuality. Human beings are animals as well. We have our peacock attributes, our mating rituals, our visual and olfactory signaling systems. There is no requirement to be best friends with someone in order to fuck them. If people want to screw a stranger, that is up to them, not me. If they do so, they objectified each other sexually. There is no pretense they really knew each other. Knowing someone’s personality inside and out is not a mandatory precursor to sexual attraction. It rather works the other way – you tend to assume positive personality traits to people you fancy. In order to get your pick of the most fanciable people, you make yourself fanciable, by willingly objectifying yourself. Women resort to push-up bras, eye shadow and cleavage. Men’s gambits are more confused and varied these days, some emulating the female approach of obsessing about beauty and clothes, others going for more traditional status symbols like cars and watches. All of us draw a line somewhere. You can spend a lifetime with someone and still not know everything about them. If you intend to reproduce, that means getting into bed with someone based on only a finite amount of information. Objectification is a fancy way of saying you reduce someone to the key attributes you selfishly look for. Does the bus driver miss my stop. Did the dentist cure my toothache. Does that girl at the bar have nice tits. Does the guy pay for the drinks. Campaigning against sexual objectification is as hopeless as Canute commanding the tide not to come in. Objectification is part of human behaviour, sexual and otherwise.

We are all objects all the time, in countless ways. Sartre distinguished things that exist in themselves, or en-soi, and that exist for themselves, or pour-soi. In his existentialist philosophy, human beings are pour-soi. We are conscious of ourselves as the authors of our own lives. We make our choices. By doing so, we decide who we are. In contrast, the en-soi is just a physical reality – material that has no purpose in itself. To borrow from Sartre’s terminology, to complain about objectification is to complain that we treat a person as an en-soi, and not a pour-soi. We recognize their physical reality, but not their nature as a person. Sartre also talks about being-for-others (être-pour-autrui), by which he refers to how a person stops being for themselves, and instead be for other people. We can choose to objectify ourselves and subjugate our existence to their experience of us. We can also choose to objectify others, and make that choice part of our being. Cutting through the tangle of French philosophic words, we can all understand the truth that Sartre was alluding to. We understand the existence of human beings differently to the way we understand objects… for the most part. However, not even Sartre was a philosopher all of the time, as can be attested by his vigorous and varied sex life. Sometimes we see ourselves through our own eyes, and look at the choices we make. Sometimes we look at another person’s body and see it as a physical object, without seeing anything else. Sometimes we look at our own bodies and see them through the minds of on-lookers, imagined or real. Objectification is something that takes place more or less all the time, in many different ways. Some people are more inclined to it, others less. Some people will focus on objectifying others, some objectify themselves. Objectification can be deep, unpleasant and permanent, like the way torturers objectify the tortured, or it can be casual, in the way we coolly treat bodycounts in far-off wars as mere statistics. People who speak a different language die somewhere we have never been, and we objectify them. People who speak the same language die somewhere in front of a video camera, and we objectify them less. In the same way, a photo on a billboard, or the way a friend dresses, or the way a stranger dresses, or a fictional story in a novel, can elicit a sexual response. That response is objective, not an action of love. That does not make the response wrong, or any less natural.

We can fight our sexuality. Men and women do seem to have differences in what they want from a sexual partner, and act differently as a result. However, in our imaginations we often exaggerate the extent of gender differences for all sorts of reasons. Generalizations are not helpful, as they only encourage the constraint of liberties that may be enjoyed by some at no harm to the rest of us. If Max Mosely wants to be spanked by prostitutes, and they are willing to spank him, and nobody else is able to watch, we should keep our grubby little eyes and minds out of his private life. Trying to turn it into some high-minded debate about the rights of public people to have fetishes about fascism is just an absurd excuse to profit from prurience. I am glad the judge saw it that way too. By the same token, those prostitutes objectified Max Mosely as a walking wallet twice over: first by taking the payment he consented to make for their services, and second by selling secret recordings he did not consent to. Women’s right activists wear photochromic sunglasses when they look at human behaviour. When they look at men, the world is pitch black. When looking at women, it is rose-tinted. Women are not just helpless victims, and may objectify sex just like men. Sometimes their goal will be to enjoy sex, and there is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes they have another goal, like the Thai woman who bludgeoned her husband to death. He suspected she was trying to kill him, but did not want to live in a world without her. She suffered no such soppy sentimentality. She calculated that her good looks and relative youth would attract the older, richer mate. Then she calculated how best to kill her husband in order to free herself of his company but retain his wealth.

On this earth, we do have a society which has reached the logical conclusion on how to prevent the sexual objectification of women, whether they like it or not. That conclusion is not friendly to the rights of women. Saudi Arabia’s puritanical strain of Wahabi Islam precludes any opportunity to objectify women as sex objects. Not only do you not see women in lapdancing clubs in Saudi Arabia, you do not see women in Saudi Arabia. You see black shrouded figures which you understand are women underneath. To reduce temptation further, the opportunities to talk or make eye contact with women are extremely limited, not least by very strong conventions. Separate visiting hours for men and women for many facilities, and the vigilant religious police act as further safeguards. Presumably nobody in Object wants this solution for women’s rights, yet their manifesto is negatively against sexual objectification, with no balancing messages about women’s rights to use their bodies as they please. That makes their manifesto too simplistic to reflect the full spectrum of women’s rights. Their scathing criticism of mass media does not extend to complaining about the lazy way journalists reproduced the rantings of the leader of this group without any proper analysis. According to its website, Object has hundreds of members and thousands receive its newsletter. In other words, they probably have no more than 3 members per every lapdancing club in Britain. For Object to act as if it speaks on behalf of all women is more than pompous. A genuine and unbiased survey of women would find many of them to be gladly, willingly objectifying themselves most days, if not every day. Making the connection between Object and the Saudi brand of Islam may seem extreme, but Object are no less extreme in their views than the Wahabi Muslims. Both are prepared to impose their opinions about sexuality by denying people choices about how they behave. The loss of our freedom does not occur all at once, but one step at a time. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and well-intentioned people may blunder their way along it without realizing where they are going. Extreme minority viewpoints, like that of Object, should not be reproduced in the mainstream press as if they represented a mainstream point of view. Extremists are not people in other countries with different religions. Extremists are people in this country and elsewhere who are strongly motivated to impose their view of right and wrong on everyone else, with no regard to the consequences or alternative points of view.

We are all here because of sex. Sex is not just a part of life, it is the start of life. Different people have different attitudes to sexuality. What sexual encounters we permit, and what we prohibit, is a test of our ability to reach civilized compromises in society. It is not hard to understand why lapdancing clubs may face a powerful coalition of forces that oppose to them. Many citizens in our country still have attitudes to sexuality that would have been the norm in the 19th Century, where women should be chaste and chased, and not use their bodies for personal gratification and gain. Many people are NIMBYs, as likely to complain at having a refuge for beaten women located down the road as they would if a lapdancing club were built there. A voter motivated by a single issue enjoys the same number of votes as a voter who tries to balance many considerations in reaching the right decision. Governments need to satisfy the people who vote, not the ones who do not, if they want to stay in power. The mass media makes most money if it sells sex and gives a platform for would-be censors at the same time, so long as they are not the ones censored at the end of the day. Lapdancing clubs are small businesses, on the verges of polite society and automatically assumed to be semi-criminal or disreputable by many people who would never venture inside and have no genuine knowledge of them. It is very easy to be lazily opposed to lapdancing clubs, and doubtless every day there are hundreds of ways that the girls working in them are demeaned and taken advantage of. In the end, those women have a choice to work there or not. That is a right. That right should not be affected by any personal emotions we have about sexuality. A coalition of prudes and misguided activists may well motivate a change in the law, a reduction in lapdancing clubs, and they may even go on to further successes in their mission to harass, obstruct and ultimately close these businesses. Whether they do not, they should not be allowed to take ownership of the bankrupt concept that they are fighting for women’s rights, as if rights should be determined according to gender. Our rights include the right to objectify ourselves. That right is genuine and true for women as for men. The women who exercise that right deserve their rights to be respected, and not denigrated because of any confused or outdated sense of distaste about how they make a living. Women have the right to say yes, as well as no, whatever their fellow women may think or feel about that. Those are the rights of women and all of us. “Women’s rights” is a disguise, used to justify why some people, men and women, would exert their will over other people, men and women. That disguise should be torn from their backs, revealing the naked reality of what lies underneath.

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