Sunday, January 6, 2013

Secret Agent Woman

Jennifer Shewmaker, a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University, has a blog post blaming the Steubenville rape case in part on objectification of women. You should go read it, but first read about the Steubenville matter if you haven't already. I have some theories about what would possess teenagers to create videos of themselves mocking a fellow student for getting repeatedly sexually assaulted at a party and then post the videos online, but they're half-baked. And right now I want to talk about the aspect Shewmaker focuses on.

First, I agree that objectification does contribute to this, but a "me too" isn't good enough here. "Objectification" has become to pat a word, too cliche. It's not wrong, but it's so commonly used that I think the meaning has been largely sucked out of it and people's eyes tend to glaze over when they see it. And I say this having written about objectification and the problems with it multiple times before, each time cringing a little internally while thinking about how the word, a very important word, has become a slogan.

So let's focus instead on the opposite of sexual objectification-- sexual agency. Or just, you know, agency to start.

An agent is a being with a will, desires, motivations, and responsibility. An agent does things for reasons, and can be blamed or praised when those things are wrong or right, respectively. In order to be a fully realized agent, you need to be capable, adult, mature.

An agent, when it comes to legality, is someone who can be party to a contract. We do not hold a person to a contract if important information was withheld from him or her in the contract's arrangement (that would be fraud), or if the person him/herself was for some reason not mentally competent to enter into such an agreement, because these are factors that diminish agency. They make a person less capable of making an informed, responsible decision. And it's wrong to deceive people into doing things against their best interest (that's taking advantage of them), and it's wrong to blame people for behavior that either wasn't immoral or over which they had little or no control, or both.

When a child or someone with a severe mental disability does something bad, we temper our judgment according to their diminished agency. When an animal does something bad, we blame it scarcely at all. Children, the mentally disabled, and animals are placed in the care of rational, caring adults, fully-realized agents, who make decisions for them. Even though they are not fully-realized agents-- especially because of this-- we consider it wrong to abuse them. Though they are not moral agents, they are moral patients-- beings we should treat morally, even though they may not be able to treat us in that same manner.

There are men who think that women are like children, the mentally disabled, or animals in this regard. No, they probably don't think in terms of moral agents and moral patients, but to them the only people who can be fully responsible, mature actors are adult men. To this sort of person, sexually assaulting a woman is wrong-- but primarily because it goes against the interests of whatever man is in charge of her, her husband or her father. A woman's sexual "purity" (scare quotes here because having sex is not like dropping a bit of black paint into a can of white, or a fly into a pitcher of milk) is a commodity, the strength of which determines her value to these men. In that regard she hovers somewhere between child/mentally disabled person and animal, because children/the mentally disabled aren't expected to provide a service, whereas animals often are. It would be more accurate to say, actually, that they are used for something-- dogs for hunting or sniffing out drugs, horses for pulling carts, various livestock for eating, and so on. Women are used, to this mindset, for sex and baby-making. If they can no longer be used for these functions or nobody wants to use them for these functions, they are irrelevant. As Tina Fey said, "crazy" is a woman who keeps talking when nobody wants to fuck her.

To this mindset, rape is only as wrong as theft-- and it's theft not at her expense, but at the expense of another man. If no man is in charge of a woman, or if she's been "used" too much, If you take someone's dog and beat it with a stick, you're in serious trouble. If you take a stray dog and do the same thing, not nearly as big a deal.

A study performed earlier this year indicated that people, male and female, literally see women as more like objects and men as more like people. Of the images that Shewmaker used to accompany her blog post on objectification of women, the worst one to me is an ad depicting a woman in her underwear lying on a bed, with a Playstation controller lying nearby, its cord leading directly into her belly button. With this, you can control the woman, haha. The caption reads "Keep on dreaming of a better world." Of all depictions of woman-as-sexbot in media-- and there are so many the idea is well past cliche at this point-- that's certainly one of the clunkiest. Congratulations, Che Men's Magazine-- you're even lousy at sexism!

But even so, even in spite of these, I find it easier to focus not on how women are turned into objects, but how they're denied having agency. It seems more accessible to take what a man is generally considered to be, and then examine what is subtracted for a woman ("How do you write women so well?" "I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability"). And then look at the ramifications.

There are people, and then there are women. 
There are two kinds of people: men and women.
There are people, and amongst them are men and women.

Yes, that's better.


  1. This is excellent and reminds me of object-relational developmental theory, the psychoanalytic field pioneered by Melanie Klein. Your post became the impetus for a discussion with my partner and what follows is where we went with it. She's got more extensive post-doc analytic training than I, but we both comfortably speak the language. I hope I can explain what we discussed in reasonably understandable terms.

    In an object relations theory, primary caregiver attachments, typically to women, assume at the outset the status of object or really part-object to the infant. These part-objects are tension-alleviating and gratifying functions that aren't integrated into a more whole notion of a person with a conscious, experiencing inner life, which also means there is absence of a will or agency in the caregiver.

    Frustrations begin to introduce the idea of a separate other-agency, but that agency, by virtue of its frustrating qualities, becomes a bad part-object that the infant rages at and seeks to destroy or totally control. So woman as a collection of unintegrated good and bad part-objects might be thought of as the default position in psychological development. This is where some of the language of Klein arises (e.g., good breast and bad breast).

    You could also think of this state of affairs as the most primitive form of narcissism, that is, narcissism that isn't compensatory a la the insecure person needing to believe in their own greatness. This most primitive narcissism is actually a mental life in which relatively whole others don't exist, while an aggrandized sense of power and personal agency is simply a given in the mind of the infant and toddler.

    In the more recent language of the mental life, we begin life without much in the way of theory of mind. And as theory of mind is developing, it isn't a given that it will assume a substantial empathic capacity. For some people, there is a strong pull backward toward the earliest state of affairs when one's own personal agency/feelings/desires were everything and the other was a collection of part-objects without an internal life.

    We discussed this in the case in rape: a woman's sexuality is a part-object in the mind of a rapist. Her will, her inner life, is the enemy--a frustrating, partial bad object to be immobilized or destroyed.

    If all of this has relevance to the Steubenville case, that fool on the video declaring the thorough deadness of the victim may have been reveling in the destruction of all the frustrating part-object functions of the victim, leaving only a gratifying part-object function. This is about as developmentally primitive as one can get, which is how I view rape—as a very primitive act—one that is psychologically murderous. This may be a way to understand rape with the intent to murder in some cases. The hate for the bad-object functions compels the murder. In the last, such a victim was only a gratifying part-object function for the rapist-murderer.

    Perhaps when athletes are themselves the objects of adoration/worship, their relational lives are pulled back toward that time of infinitely powerful personal agency and the other was merely a set of part-object functions that are either pleasing or hated. Why put such an attack on video, flaunt it on twitter and Facebook? Exhibitionism, flaunting grandiosity, seems to be a part of the package of primitive narcissism. SEE ME! I AM THE GREATEST! In the case of a team, a frat, a gang of males: SEE US! WE ARE THE GREATEST!