Monday, 30 June 2008


Agent of Desire recently posited an experiment (which I discussed briefly in the last post) where women should take of the trappings of femininity and go out into the world as ‘sex agents’, looking to objectify men. She suggests:

Consciously look the men on the carriage and analyse how attracted you feel to them. This will feel quite predatory, almost as though you are looking through the sight of a gun. You may well have a lot of resistance to this as you don't want to treat others in a way you don't want to be treated, but don't worry for now - this is your theraputic exercise. [...] Really indulge in your own sexually preditory nature and enjoy feeling the power of choice this gives you. This is a power men enjoy the feeling of daily, even if it is delusional. As a woman, it is not a delusion because you are female and men aren't naturally as selective as women when it comes to sex, because nature gave you the power of choice over them because you are the one with the womb.
The basis for Agent of Desire’s experiment is that women ‘in nature’ should be the objectifiers, because men are not particularly selective about who they mate with, and women carry huge risks (pregnancy) through having sex and so should be the selective mate. She argues that men have conspired to remove women’s right to objectify men and have reversed the natural order. Her experiment is meant to give power back to women.

Now, there are some obvious problems with this post. First, is the notion that all women perform a particular type of femininity (discussed in the post below), and, second, this post is very heteronormative. But, in other ways, I think that she is right that for heterosexual women to engage so actively in objectification is quite a challenging thing to do and so might be an ‘interesting’ experiment, in the way that ‘new’ experiences are.

But, the experiment actually raised some much bigger questions for me about the nature of desire. As feminists, we are usually happy to recognise that gender and sexuality are both constructions, but, when it comes to desire, we fall back on a narrative that claims desire is ‘natural’, ‘innate’, ‘biological’. After-all, the purpose of the human race is to have babies, or something like that. As a result, we never fully condemn objectification. Time and again, I have seen feminists telling men that they are allowed to objectify women, but just not overtly, or, perhaps, not without permission. (And this is despite the fact that we will all agree that not all women want babies, that not all women want to have sex with men (or for that matter vice versa), and that rape sure as hell isn’t about sex drive). But, heaven forbid, we suggest that people can’t get their jollies through looking at hawt bod (with permission and in an unexploitative context).

Ultimately, the problem is that we have is an inability to reconceptualise desire. And I think as feminists we really need to. Reclaiming objectification for women is problematic for just the reason’s Agent of Desire promotes it. Objectification is predatory; it promotes an unequal power relationship between the viewer and viewed, and it removes the humanity of the ‘object’. Do we really want to be introducing inequality into our personal lives, even if we are in the seat of power? Does a good sex life have to require the removal of one partner’s humanity?

Can we learn to appreciate the physical body without objectifying it?


Agent of Desire said...

I have also commented on your previous post, but I want to offer a defence here.

The purpose of my website is not about women finding sexual agency through objectifying others, its saying that female sexual agency has been so maimed and mangled by patriarchy, that we don't even know what female desire looks like.

I want to raise the question 'what is female sexuality?'- all I have been able to say so far is what it isn't. I know it isn't what men think it is and I want women to discuss this with earnestness. I wanted to open up the site as a forum for discussion on the topic. Its only through discussing it without male mediation that we can find out the truth of the matter. That means we can only do it without prejudiced statisticians and scientists.

I would really appreciate it if you posted your thoughts and misgivings in the forum itself, so the site can be a starting point for some of these debates!

Feminist Avatar said...

I did find your experiment an interesting idea, if problematic. I was going to leave a comment at your site but it asked me to set up an account and I have to shamefacedly say I couldn't be bothered figuring out how to do this. Plus, I have been wanting to write this post for a while- your article just made me do it now as it got me thinking on this again. So thank you for that.

butterflywings said...

I have to say, I balked at the idea that "women are selective and men will have sex with anyone".
Sounds like the worst kind of evo psych misogyny to me.

I think most people of both sexes are actually quite selective (since being so surely maximises the genetic quality of the offpsring?). It's just that contemporary western society makes women the moral gatekeepers and men the pursuers.

I agree with agent of desire re: female sexuality. That said, male sexuality is defined by patriarchy too.

Hmmm. A thought-provoking discussion.

butterflywings said...

Also - yes, I do think it is possible to appreciate someone's body without objectifying them. I wouldn't take offence at a man appreciating my appearance, and expect to be able to do the same. I wouldn't like them to openly stare, leer, make comments, or check out the next ten women they see and keep a mental scorecard (pretty much what men are supposed to do in this society).

There is a difference between actual, real, natural sexuality and the artificial one constructed by patriarchy - as agent of desire points out when she says we don't really know what female sexuality is.

Rape isn't about sex drive, I agree totally - but I think the problem is that for men, power and sex are intertwined. As agent of desire describes - objectifying someone is a powerful feeling - men are raised in a society that tells them they are sex-seeking missiles and must constantly be looking at "hawt" women or they are a big sissy. Little wonder they conflate sex and power. Hmmm.