Pornography, soap operas, and objectification


Will Baude considers and rejects the arguments of Catherine MacKinnon and Melinda Vadas that pornography leads to actual treatment of women as objects. (I think it treats the actual women who were photographed as objects, but I assume he's ignoring that fact, probably because he thinks they consented to being photographed nude, though this response does underestimate the difficulty of determining consent or coercion.) The main idea he resists is that pornography is sex between people and things (pieces of paper). But if I treat things (paper) as women, then won�t I also treat women as things?

Baude says we don�t use pieces of paper as artillery when we read about military history. We don�t use a CD of Figaro as an abandoned wife when identifying with the plight of the Countess. Even if that was what was going on, he says, the parallel conclusion is that we�ll start using abandoned wives and cannons as pieces of paper. He�s right to say that the argument sounds really silly when you think about it this way.

I want to suggest that there�s something deeper to the argument that won�t allow these ridiculous conclusions. The sexual drive is a strong component of what motivates someone. It ideally involves relational interaction to a significant degree, and it�s (among other things) a kind of communication. MacKinnon and Vadas are suggesting that pornography removes these elements from the sexual equation and therefore creates a strong correlation between sexual excitement and pleasure on one hand and the absence of a two-way enjoyment and interaction on the other. Children who grow up with pornographic imagery as a sexual outlet can develop a sense that the pleasure goes along with the body they�ve been looking at without a clear sense of the relational and communicative aspects. This increases the likelihood of treating someone as just a means to sexual pleasure and therefore as a mere object. This could work on a much smaller scale than what the person could easily detect, just leading to a greater likelihood of sometimes seeing women as mere sex objects. I suspect this happens far more often and even more insidiously than we realize.

As for the analogies he gives, what follows isn�t as silly as it sounds. I don�t see how reading military history is treating a piece of paper as a piece of artillery. It�s a means of learning about and thinking about military history, just as pornography is a means of thinking about, and perhaps enjoying some of the physical pleasures of, sex. It doesn�t involve treating pieces of paper as cannons or treating cannons as pieces of paper, although I suppose it might lead to treating cannons and other military realities in a more removed way. As for Figaro, fiction does have some of the problems of pornography. After all, porn is a species of fiction. Someone might read a good Terry Brooks novel and treat that fantasy world as an object of interest, thinking about what it would be like to be involved in the story. The person�s desires and emotional responses while reading might be tied up with what�s going on in the book. A little more strongly, the story might even be a way to leave aside a boring life to experience some of the more exciting emotions that the characters in the story experience. My sense is that many people watch soap operas for exactly this sort of reason. Now I don't want to see anyone coming back with the claim that people don�t seek relationships just so they can experience certain emotions learned by proxy by watching soaps and teen movies. That�s exactly what happens with your average teenage relationship.

Update: Baude responds by saying that my argument requires saying that even fantasizing about someone is wrong because it objectifies someone. I agree that it has that conclusion, but I don't see why he would expect me to find that result dissatisfying. I already suggested something even stronger with the soap opera example. I do think it's generally wrong to fantasize about someone for exactly this reason. The mutual ownership that comes with marriage (in the Christian view, anyway) avoids the charge of objectification in the same way the desire to use my car is not like coveting my neighbor's car. Sexual longing for someone who willingly belongs to you (and to whom you willingly belong) is the only kind of fantasizing I can see being allowed by this argument, but that seems to me to be the right result.


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