2015-08-18

Not Sexy At All Is The New Sexy

Sexual objectification is a spectrum, not a binary. Everyone, everywhere, at some point wants to be sexually objectified.

That might be an inflammatory way to put it, but I'm trying to make a point. Obviously, no one in their right mind wants to be thought of as "good for absolutely nothing, except sex," and that is the typical connotation attached to the phrase "sexual objectification." A great many attractive people - most of them women - struggle to be taken seriously on every other level due to the pervasive sexual objectification they are forced to endure. Clearly, and unequivocally, this is a bad thing.

But sex is a beautiful, normal, natural, positive part of the human experience. If you're anything like most of us mammals, you will at some point want to be viewed sexually by someone.

Like I said, it's not a binary thing. As with any other part of your identity - who you are, at your very core - you cannot simply stop being that person just because you're at work, or whatever. That doesn't mean everyone should interpret your business memos "sexually" (whatever that means), but it does mean that if you have any sexuality at all in your personality, it will sometimes make itself known to other people, whether that's what you intended, or not.

Furthermore, as adults, most of us choose to intend it now and again. This gives us some control over how we interact with the rest of the mammals out there. We don't always make sex a part of what we're doing, of course, but we do so on occasion.

This is all very obvious and uninteresting, but it's important that I start off today's post with that explication.

The Offense

ABC News reports that an Alabama Sorority's recruitment video - posted to YouTube, but evidently since removed (but re-uploaded here) - came under fire for being "unempowering." Actually, it's worse than that. The University of Alabama itself gave a stern criticism of the video, according to ABC:
In a statement, the University of Alabama said the video “is not reflective of UA's expectations for student organizations to be responsible digital citizens.”
Welcome to the new normal, in which a sorority's every action must reflect the university's "expectations" "to be responsible digital citizens." Personally, I struggle to understand what exactly comprises "being a responsible digital citizen."

Some things seem obvious, such as not "cyber-bullying" anyone, not hacking, protecting the sensitive or potentially sensitive personal information of others, protecting minors and sensitive people from potentially objectionable material (don't goatse me, bro), and perhaps even practicing "netiquette."

The sorority, however, appears not to have violated any of those expectations. Instead, they put together a recruitment video in which the members of their sorority were made to look as physically appealing as possible. There was no nudity in the video. Based on the clips in the ABC News video, they don't seem to have violated the university's dress code while on university property. No overtly sexual acts are depicted in the video. They simply dressed up in flirty outfits and frolicked around a bit, in order to portray the image that (1) sorority members are pretty, and (2) sorority members have a lot of fun.

Why else would a young woman want to join a sorority?

In this case, the offense appears to be the mere suggestion of elite sexuality, no different than anything you'd see on daytime TV. "We're pretty, and we have a lot of fun," they seem to say. "Come join us."

That's cause for uproar?

The Unempowered

One "A.L. Bailey, a writer, magazine copy editor, and online editor who lives in Hoover," had this to say about the video:
No, it's not a slick Playboy Playmate or Girls Gone Wild video. It's a sorority recruiting tool gaining on 500,000 views in its first week on YouTube. It's a parade of white girls and blonde hair dye, coordinated clothing, bikinis and daisy dukes, glitter and kisses, bouncing bodies, euphoric hand-holding and hugging, gratuitous booty shots, and matching aviator sunglasses. It's all so racially and aesthetically homogeneous and forced, so hyper-feminine, so reductive and objectifying, so Stepford Wives: College Edition. It's all so ... unempowering.
Unempowering is an interesting word choice here. If one wanted to make the argument that such a video takes power away from women, one would use the word disempowering. But saying that the video is disempowering is a strong claim against a video made independently by women, intended to appeal to women, and posted on a forum that requires women to voluntarily seek it out in order to watch it. One might say, "That message was meant for me, but failed to resonate," but one probably couldn't argue that "The video took away my power as an individual."

Instead, Bailey says the video is unempowering. I had never heard that word, so I looked it up, and what it means is (and I quote) "Not empowering."

I agree - the video is not empowering. Should it be? Bailey - by virtue of the fact that he or she chose to criticize the video for being "not empowering" - seems to think so. But why?

"Yes, sororities are known for being pretty and flirty;" she writes, "they aren't bastions of feminist ideologies. But perhaps they shouldn't completely sabotage them either."

Again, this is a fascinating word choice. To sabotage anyone - feminist or otherwise - would be unambiguously disempowering. But Bailey doesn't accuse the sorority of sabotaging any person, but rather sabotaging an ideology

And how does this sabotage occur? By portraying the actual members of an actual sorority as being every bit as sexy, flirty, and fun as they actually are. 

Bailey Opens The Kimono

It seems so strange to me. Why would anyone think the sort of thoughts contained in A.L. Bailey's article? 

Bailey tries to relate the video to current popular examples of misogyny:
Just last week during the GOP debate, Megyn Kelly of Fox News called out Donald Trump for dismissing women with misogynous insults. Mere hours later, he proved her point by taking to Twitter to call her a "bimbo." He also proved the point that women, in 2015, must still work diligently to be taken seriously. The continued fight for equal pay, the prevalence of women not being in charge of their own healthcare issues, and the ever-increasing number of women who are still coming out against Bill Cosby after decades of fearful silence show that we are not yet taken seriously.
None of this has anything to do with the video. But Bailey continues:
Meanwhile, these young women, with all their flouncing and hair-flipping, are making it so terribly difficult for anyone to take them seriously, now or in the future. The video lacks any mention of core ideals or service and philanthropy efforts. It lacks substance but boasts bodies. It's the kind of thing that subconsciously educates young men on how to perceive, and subsequently treat, women in their lives. It's the kind of thing I never want my young daughters to see or emulate.
These two paragraphs appear back-to-back in the article. The implication is that sex-positive videos of women "subconsciously educate" man viewers to insult female journalists or become (alleged) serial rapists.

Think about it: Bailey argues that videos such as these - featuring no nudity or sexual activity whatsoever, in which the most salacious thing that appears to occur is that a young woman blows a handful of glitter into the air - result in young men becoming rapists.

No, really, think about it. That's Bailey's argument. I haven't mischaracterized it.

In what I imagine was intended to be Bailey's emotional climax, he or she presents a series of characterizations of her own about the 72 young sorority members in the video. "That's 72 women," he or she writes, "who surely must be worth more than their appearances," "...who will potentially launch careers..." "...who could be a united front for empowerment..."

"And that's 72 women who will want to be taken seriously rather than be called bimbos--"

Oh. Now I get it.

Sex As Emotional Maturity

When I burst on the scene in the early 1990s, one of the things that made me notorious was my attack on the date-rape rhetoric of the time.... [M]y statements on the topic, such as my 1991 op-ed in New York Newsday, caused a firestorm. I wasn’t automatically kowtowing to the standard rhetoric that men are at fault for everything and women are utterly blameless. I said that my 1960s generation of women had won the right to sexual freedom–but with rights came personal responsibility. People went crazy! There was this absurd polarization where men were portrayed as demons and women as frail, innocent virgins. It was so Victorian! And there was also a big fight about pornography, which I strongly supported. In the 1990s, pro-sex feminism finally arose and took power. It was an entire wing of feminism that had been suppressed by the Gloria Steinem power structure–by Ms. Magazine and NOW– since the 1970s. It had been forced underground, but it started to emerge in San Francisco with the pro-sex and lipstick lesbians in the mid to late 1980s, but it got no national attention. Then all of a sudden, there was this big wave in the early 1990s. I became one of the outspoken figures of it after “Sexual Personae” was published in 1990. My views had always been suppressed, and I had had a lot of difficulty getting published–“Sexual Personae” had been rejected by seven publishers and five agents. So we fought those fights, but by the late 1990s, the controversies subsided, because my wing of pro-sex feminism had won!
What I remember about the 1990s is less about the state of the feminist power structure, and more about the kind of entertainment that was out there. Madonna and Prince - with their extremely sexy imagery - were hitting their peak popularity. At the movie theaters, so-called "erotic thrillers" were huge hits. (Think about movies such as Basic Instinct, Wild Orchid, Angel Heart, and so on.) Even on the small screen, the early 90s saw the birth of series like Red Shoe Diaries. Dr. Ruth became a household name. Late that decade, MTV's "Love Line" would do it all over again with Dr. Drew.

To put it simply, there was a lot of sex going on in popular culture. Generation X had come of age and by all appearances wasn't a particularly squeamish generation when it came to erotica. No one was scandalized, marginalized, "unempowered," or "triggered" by any of this. Or at least, to a much lesser degree than in previous generations. It was a cultural phenomenon. Society had evolved into something more "pro-sex," as Paglia might put it.

Meanwhile, I was living out my life in the extremely conservative local culture of suburban Utah, where sex seemed particularly verboten. Anything that hinted at a person's sexuality - from shorts deemed "too short," to strapless blouses, to locker room comments - was quickly maligned. The impact of this was that young women did their hair and makeup like old ladies, and young men tried to act as somberly and wholesomely as possible. They'd go on "dates," but without any sort of mere conversational outlet for any aspect of their sexual identity, they would be forced into a bizarrely saccharine cutesiness. For example, laser tag was a common dating activity. Unchaperoned dancing? Not so much.

Perhaps it was coming of age at a time and place where I gained exposure to both a minor sexual revolution and severe emotional sexual repression gave me some added insight into this, or perhaps I'm just making too much of it. In any case, what I concluded from my experience is that sex isn't just a part of a person's identity, it's a vitally important way through which we interact with the world.

You can't just sweep it under the rug. You can't just demand that young women strike it from the repertoire of their self-expression in an endless social crusade to gain "a united front for empowerment." You have to embrace what is a vital part of the human experience.

And if you don't? Well, here's what Camille Paglia thinks:
[INTERVIEWER]: I wanted to ask you about that. If Emma Sulkowicz were a student of yours, in an art class you were teaching, how would you grade her work? 
[PAGLIA]: [laughs] I’d give her a D! I call it “mattress feminism.” Perpetually lugging around your bad memories–never evolving or moving on! It’s like a parody of the worst aspects of that kind of grievance-oriented feminism. I called my feminism “Amazon feminism” or “street-smart feminism,” where you remain vigilant, learn how to defend yourself, and take responsibility for the choices you make. If something bad happens, you learn from it. You become stronger and move on. But hauling a mattress around on campus? Columbia, one of the great Ivy League schools with a tremendous history of scholarship, utterly disgraced itself in how it handled that case. It enabled this protracted masochistic exercise where a young woman trapped herself in her own bad memories and publicly labeled herself as a victim, which will now be her identity forever. This isn’t feminism–which should empower women, not cripple them. 
...To go around exhibiting and foregrounding your wounds is a classic neurotic symptom. But people are so lacking now in basic Freudian consciousness–because Freud got thrown out of mainstream feminism by Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem and company. So no one sees the pathology in all this.... I prophesied this in a piece I wrote... called “The Nursery-School Campus”. ...I was arguing that the obsessive focus by American academe with students’ emotional well-being was not what European universities have ever been concerned with. European universities don’t have this consumer-oriented view that they have to make their students enjoy themselves and feel good about themselves, with everything driven by self-esteem. Now we have people emerging with Ivy League degrees who have no idea how little they know about history or literature. Their minds are shockingly untrained. They’ve been treated as fragile emotional beings throughout their schooling. The situation is worsening year by year, as teachers have to watch what they say and give trigger warnings, because God forbid that American students should have to confront the brutal realities of human life. 
Meanwhile, while all of this nursery-school enabling is going on, we have the entire world veering towards ISIS–with barbaric decapitations and gay guys being thrown off roofs and stoned to death. All the harsh realities of human history are erupting, and this young generation is going to be utterly unprepared to deal with it. The nation is eventually going to be endangered by the inability of several generations of young people to make political decisions about a real world that they do not understand. The primitive realities of human life are exploding out there!

Coda

I spent some time trying to Google "A.L. Bailey" in hopes of finding out more about his or her perspective, and to learn more about what he or she had written. I couldn't find any other article penned by an A.L. Bailey. I couldn't find a public profile or LinkedIn page. In fact, I couldn't find anyone named A. Bailey listed in the city of Hoover, Alabama, where his or her op-ed's byline indicates he or she lives.

I don't fault someone for using a professional pseudonym, but when someone makes such strong claims, I expect more than a single, anonymous article launched against a few dozen college girls whose only crime was to embrace a natural, normal part of who they are. 

Someone is repressing young women, and it's not who Bailey thinks it is.