Everyone and their dog has had their say on Page 3 of late, and I’m happy to take a back seat on that one. That probably tells you everything you need to know about my position on the question. Nonetheless I couldn’t resist following the unfolding carnage debate with interest. One issue it has raised is the question of objectification, the very nature of which was challenged on the MoronWatch blog on the topic.
I’d already been mulling over the concept when the Guardian ran Decca Aitkenhead’s interview with feminist Kat Banyard today. Among many baffling and befuddled claims from interviewer and interviewee alike (already brutally eviscerated by my friend jemima101), Banyard discussed the pressing question of Dove soap adverts, and referred to “an entire culture of objectification.”
If you’ve ever attempted to discuss or debate objectification you’ve probably found it a frustrating task. It seems to mean slightly different things to different people, or different things to the same person. It sometimes seems to mean different things to the same person in the same bloody sentence. Objectification, it seems, can mean whatever you want it to mean.
A couple of years ago I started to read back at feminist theory to get a better grasp, and really struggled. Somewhere between Immanuel Kant, Melanie Klein and Andrea Dworkin the trail went cold. Then last year I whooped with delight when I found a couple of papers by feminist philosopher Lina Papadaki which provided the best overviews I’ve seen of the links between Kant’s theory of objectification and modern feminism. As you might expect, they’re hard to wrap your head around, but this one from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is the easier, and you can get a good grasp by skipping from the introduction to the conclusion if your brain’s already full.
In non-traditional fashion, I’ll give you the conclusion first:
“Undoubtedly, objectification is a concept difficult to define… since it turns out to be ‘slippery’ and ‘multiple’ (Nussbaum 1995, 251). How to best define objectification, and whether this notion should be restricted to describe the morally objectionable, or expanded to cover benign and/or positive aspects of the way we see and treat each other in our daily lives is an ongoing debate.”
Objectification can mean whatever you want it to mean. I think I just said that.
In her introduction, Papadaki lays out seven features that Martha Nussbaum claimed are involved in the idea of treating a person as an object:
- instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes;
- denial of autonomy: the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination;
- inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity;
- fungibility: the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects;
- violability: the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity;
- ownership: the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold);
- denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.
Rae Langton has added three more features to Nussbaum’s list:
- reduction to body: the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts;
- reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses;
- silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak.
I find this list incredibly useful. Most obviously, it displays the vast diversity of meaning which can be attached to the word. Langton’s three look to me closest to the usual feminist definitions of (specifically) sexual objectification, but Nussbaum’s original seven better capture the economic elements of commodification and reification which typically accompany feminist references to objectification. They also perhaps illustrate how and why feminists use the term objectification so much in respect of prostitution and other forms of sex work beyond visual pornography and nude modelling.
Looking at Nussbaum’s list, I don’t doubtthat there are some people in the sex industry, as either consumers, clients or profiteers, who view sex workers in those terms. But what I find striking is that they offer a much more accurate description of how anti-porn/anti-SW advocates (whether feminist, religious or social conservative) portray sex workers.
- The treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes? Check. This is self-identifying feminist Tanya Gold on a beauty pageant: “Miss University 2008 – an inter-British higher education slagfest where girls answered questions such as, “What Sex and the City character do you most relate to?” At that point I wanted to strip them of their degrees – and their over-moisturised heads – and use them as battering rams. Or tampons.”
- The treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination? Check. Too many instances to list, but here’s Sheila Jeffreys: “Prostitution is not about or for women, but for men. It does not, therefore, matter whether women claim the right or choice to be prostituted or whether they see themselves as victims of men’s abuse.”
- The treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity? Check. Jeffreys again: “Anti-prostitution campaigners use the term prostituted women instead of prostitutes. This is a deliberate political decision and is meant to symbolize the lack of choice women have over being used in prostitution.”
- The treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects? Check. Jane Anthony: “one class of women is granted status as wives or girlfriends at the expense of another class, whores, who are reduced to sperm receptacles for numerous men.”
- The treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity. Check. Every time a sex worker has been involuntarily ‘saved’ from others or from him/herself, their integrity boundaries have been violated. See the real consequences of the Olympic sex trade clampdown, Operation Pentameter, or the brilliant open letter circulating about the arrest of sex workers in Ontario, Canada.
- The treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold). These are too numerous to need listing, but every time someone uses the phrase “selling her (or his) body,” as opposed to selling sexual services, the sex worker is being reduced to a possession rather than an agent.
- The treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account. Where to begin? Perhaps here, with Glasgow Sex Worker’s account of a meeting with members of the Scottish Parliament.
I don’t for a moment present this as some kind of killer argument against the various anti-prostitution and anti-porn campaigns. There are plenty of writers and campaigners who want to reform or further criminalise the sex industry, or to restrain the spread of pornography and sexual materials, who do not resort to the crude demonization, dehumanisation and, yes, objectification of sex workers above. I should also acknowledge that there are plenty of sex industry advocates (whether amateur or professional) who employ degrading, demeaning and misogynistic language themselves.
Barring some utopian revolution, the sex industry is not going away any time soon and that means debates about the sex industry are not going away either. It is necessary and important that the debate continues. Personally I think the debate would be more constructive if, in condemning the objectification and dehumanisation of sex workers, we could all refrain from doing the precise same thing ourselves.