Shaun Tan, with his flippant use of word “objectification” (“For more objectification”), is right on exactly one count: that the way we talk about sexual objectification of women has become too detached and ambiguous for its full impact to be felt.
To start, let us remind ourselves of what objectification of women really means. It means that the appearance of female candidates for public office is discussed more often than their ideas in the media. It means that young girls, seeking to make themselves valuable in the eyes of their society, starve themselves to shape their bodies into unrealistic images of what is valued as sexually attractive. It means that women who live or work in major urban areas can expect to experience street harassment on a daily basis because men value their appearance more than their right to reasonable peace of mind. It means that sexually active women can never be completely sure if a potential partner will value a “no” more than he values them as sexual objects to be used for pleasure.
However, by dismissing the negative effects of sexual objectification, Tan not only encourages expectation of catcalling — he justifies it. After all, if, as Tan opines, female sexuality is a thing of aesthetic beauty meant to be enjoyed, expressing appreciation of that beauty ought to be regarded as a positive good.
Of course, as any woman who has ever been profoundly creeped out by an unwanted public sexual proposal can tell you, the effects of this verbal harassment are far from morally neutral. When we explicitly value women for their appeal as erotic objects, we never do so in a way that values or respects the woman in question’s sexual desires.
Beyond being degrading to women, the culture of objectification that Tan speaks of is inimical to the humanist values our university claims to promote. In society at large, but especially in an institution that seeks to provide a humanistic education, objectification of any sort cannot be tolerated.
We need not interact with the people who work in our dining halls in the same way that we interact with our sisters or our childhood best friends; that would be an unreasonable expectation. It is not, however, in the realm of the absurd to treat the people who work in our dining halls as though they have lives and act as fully human subjects in their own lives. We don’t need intimate relationships to prove our essential humanity; anyone who values another person can take no other reasonable position.
Objectification negates this basic tenet of humanism; it defines the worth of human beings as relative to their perceived utility. The sexual objectification of women is particularly pernicious. Instead of anything the female half of humanity creates, it values the sexual excitement the idealized female body incites in the male body. That is what the word objectification means.
I suspect that Tan does not believe this; however, his column’s defiant and contrarian reclaiming of the word incites people, particularly men, to not take the consequences of this idea seriously. His is an attitude that the Yale community, if it is as firmly attached to humanist values as it claims to be, simply cannot tolerate.
The opposite of objectification is not, as Tan seems to argue, the suppression of women’s sexuality. The culture we ought to be striving for is one based on respect. Tan hopes for a world where female sexuality can be “displayed and appreciated as shamelessly as every other form of aesthetics.” In doing so, he betrays the fundamental gap in understanding of the proper function of sexuality in our lives. As a feminist, I believe that female sexuality should be enjoyed and respected for its own sake, for women’s sake, and not for the pleasure of outside observers.
By rejecting objectification, we are not striving to go back to a pre-Sexual Revolution understanding of sexual relations. Rather, what we who rail against the sexual objectification of women seek is a community where all people’s sexualities can be enacted and respected for what they are: sexual subjects, not objects.