comment post: unfinished thoughts on non-consensual sexualization

Regular readers of this blog may remember that over the past year or so I've been haunting the conservative Family Scholars Blog hosted by the Institute for American Values (IAV) think tank founded by David Blankenhorn, sometime high-profile opponent of same-sex marriage. In part, I follow the blog because my smart and funny friend Fannie is one of their guest bloggers. I am also deeply interested in the worldview of people whose understanding of how the world works, and what values will increase the well-being of humanity, are so different from my own.

Last week, I found myself sucked into a comment thread at the FSB wrestling with the subject of what I'll call "non-consensual sexualization." My working definition of non-consensual sexualization is public expressions which frame another person's appearance, presence, or actions in a sexual light without their participation or consent. You might also call this plain old "sexual objectification." I'm using my phrase here because I think it's important to highlight the non-consensual part of what's going on here.

(because I won't post naked pictures of myself online*,
have this lovely view from Montague Book Mill instead)
I've been thinking about non-consensual sexualization a lot recently due to feminist discussions of the internet phenomenon of revenge porn and also because of the question I got on Twitter about the ethics of real-person fan fiction (RPF), particularly RPF that is sexually-explicit (see my extended response at the end of this post). Both of these situations -- revenge porn and RPF -- involve taking people the creators know in real life (either in person or through media of some sort) and sexualizing those individuals. With revenge porn the intent is malicious and generally misogynist: to humiliate the subject by way of sexually-explicit images or sexually-explicit chatter. With RPF the intent is usually enthusiastic on the part of the creator: they're engaged in the act of fantasizing about the individuals (usually celebrities of some sort or another) engaged in generally positive sexual situations and relationships.

At the level of private thoughts, sexualization of others is something that many of us engage in every day when we take note of another person's gorgeous hands or sexy ass. When we enjoy the chemistry between actors in a television show, or admire the outfit of a passerby on the street. When we harbor a crush on our political science professor in college or wake up from a really hot dream about this kid we sat behind in first period English (or watched shyly across the room in Sunday school). I think of sexualization as the mental-emotional process of considering another individual in a sexual light. This can be actively desiring (if we imagine that person as someone we'd like to be sexually intimate with) or passively admiring (if they're either out of reach -- your favorite actress --or not someone you'd actually want to have a sexual relationship with, say someone not the gender of person you are oriented toward). This type of sexualization seems, to me, no-one elses' business. Our own interiority is a private sandbox for self- and world-exploration, the ultimate safe space.

However. Once we make private thoughts public, social responsibility comes into play. Which is where the FSB comment thread re-enters the discussion. Barry, the author of the original post, recounted an incident in which a (male) classmate at a swimming class commented to Barry in an aside on the (female) instructor's body as it appeared in a swimsuit. Barry was uncomfortable about the comment and later mentioned his discomfort to his classmate, who apologized for his remark. The point of Barry's original post was that speaking up about a comment you find troubling can sometimes be less dramatic than you fear.

Many women, myself included, thanked Barry for speaking up in this instance and holding another man accountable for the way he was sexualizing the female instructor of the class without her consent, creating a situation where the man's classmates (and potentially the instructor, if she had heard) would feel uncomfortable.

Yet several frequent (male) FSB commenters insisted that Barry -- and by extension those of us supporting him -- were basically taking all the fun out of (hetero)sexual flirtation and OMG thought police!! For example, Kevin offered:
Barry’s heart, as always, is in the right place: a public place, safe and welcoming for anyone who wants to be a part of it. And having the courage to object to someone’s unseemly behavior. But this sexy gal is also in a position of power, itself a safe space: presumably she can kick anybody out of the class she wants.
While Hector has other concerns:
If men refrained from admiring good looking women, I wonder how you think people would ever date or marry each other.
When a number of us pushed back against this reading, suggesting that there was a difference between thinking someone is sexy and saying someone is sexy in an non-appropriate context, these commenters dug in even harder, again refusing to understand the distinction between thinking and speaking:
So he’s not even allowed to THINK something about this instructor?? I’m glad the thought police have arrived! “That way” was compliment, by the way. ... Elsewhere in the pool, a woman whispered to another, “OK, I get it, this instructor chick is a babe. So she has to wear the skimpiest bathing suit around, in case we didn’t notice?!” ... Is that comment ok, or should the other woman voice her objection. ...This is hilarious! 
 Note how Kevin (above) assumes that I (the person he is responding to here) will not object to the two women sniping about the instructor's "skimpy" bathing suit, when in fact I would suggest that such body snarking is in the same class of inappropriate behavior as the presumed "compliment" of the man at the center of this discussion. Both types of speech create a social climate within the class whereby the instructor's physical appearance and bodily presence are seen as relevant to the teaching of swimming technique. Both comments sexualize and objectify the instructor in a situation where she is not authorizing that way of interacting with her.

As I said in the comment thread, we're not talking here about a request that the teacher move to a new location where all of the students can see her demonstrate a movement. That would be a comment relevant to the activity of the class. The teacher's perceived level of hotness is not relevant to her ability to teach her students how to swim. And to bring that evaluation into the class is rude. It's an example of non-consensual sexualization, and something which women and sexual minorities in particular experience every day.

While I was putting this post together, this TEDx talk on the gendered nature of sexual objectification came across my dash that explores the broader political implications of widespread, non-consensual sexual objectification:

(Yes: While it happens less frequently, straight cis white guys can also be non-consensually sexualized. For example, exhibit A: Romney/Ryan slash from the 2012 election cycle YES IT EXISTS.)

I don't have a major conclusion to this post, so I'm gonna throw it out to y'all: What are your thoughts on the ethics of sexualizing others? What does it look like to recognize our sexual interest in other people without treating them like sex objects? And -- perhaps most importantly -- how to we model a culture of sexual subjectivity and mutually-consensual pleasure for all in ways that encourage men like Kevin and Hector to re-think their notions of what constitutes wanted, sexualized attention?**

I look forward to your thoughts!

*I have some lovely photographs of my naked self which I've taken over the years in celebration of my bodily presence in the world. I've often thought of sharing them online, but I won't because of the way women who share visual images of their nakedness are punished socially and professionally for that level of self-disclosure. That self-censorship is one example of the pervasive sexual policing women (more acutely than men) face for publicly acknowledging their unapologetic corporeality.

**I mean, I managed to successfully express my sexual interest in the subject of my affection and panty-dampening desire without treating her like a hot commodity that I'm entitled to consume publicly without her active enjoyment and participation. So I'm totally a believer in the "it's possible" but I'm not sure how to help the unbelievers see the light here.


  1. I like an idea brought up in the comment threads regarding this issue over at my blog, where a commenter pointed people in the direction of considering what a "compliment" is. For instance, is said about someone present, rather than to that person? Does it make the person being complimented feel good or bad about themselves, or possibly unsafe?

    I also agree with you that women making snipey comments about another person's looks is in a similar category of objectification (an occurrence Kevin fabricated in this situation, as it didn't even happen, but anyway...) It's frustrating that Kevin would just assume that we would think something is only unacceptable if a man does it.

    Anyway, nice post :-)

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Fannie, and yes! I think the point you make is an excellent one -- that point of view matters in assessing what, in fact, constitutes a compliment. It's like the go-around we often have with people on FSB about what constitutes bigoted behavior. Intent only counts for so much, and so regardless of what the man in the pool intended (or what someone who says something prejudiced against gay folks intends), if it's experienced as creepy or threatening then that's actually a key factor in assessing the situation. What's the effect of what you say, regardless of intent.

      I think men with Kevin's perspective about harassment assume it's a gendered thing -- in part because in popular culture we often talk about sexual harassment as something men (as a group) perpetrate against women (as a group). Statistically speaking, this may be true. But hopefully moving forward feminists can help foster a conversation that casts the net wider than that, and recognizes that body shaming, body snarking, body policing, and gender policing can happen within genders and across genders in many directions, and all of those acts are harmful (and from my perspective anti-feminist).

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post, Anna. But I have a hard time coming up with answers to your closing questions! Especially "What does it look like to recognize our sexual interest in other people without treating them like sex objects?": um, like, how is that even a question? It looks like attraction and affection and desire between people who care about consent and who generally respect other humans, is what! But of course you're right, it *is* a question in our culture, and that's a chasm I have a hard time bridging ...

    1. Hah! Yes, this: "um, like, how is that even a question?" ... I totally agree! It can be really hard to have conversations with people about these issues when my experience differs so markedly from theirs. And, obviously, no one's MAKING me have these conversations. I wouldn't be dating guys for whom this was the default approach. But, as you say, when you have a significant part of the population who are steeped in the "men are from mars, women are from venus" type oppositional framework, it's very difficult to translate notions of affection and desire between two people who are approaching one another as whole human beings! They haven't been taught the habit of humanization.