Monday, October 04, 2010

The Social Script of Objectifying Men

I find the story of the Duke "fuck list" to be very interesting, in a perverse sort of way. I admit my first reaction was very similar to the one I had after the Larry Craig scandal broke -- that is, how many women are looking at the list and saying "been there!" I feel like this list shows up in every other issue of Maxim, no?
One of the things I've noticed about dominant social views on sexuality is that men really believe that a zone of sexual inviolability surrounds them and get really angry when it's penetrated. They want, at all times, to be in complete control of any sexual event or happenstance that involves them--but they don't seem to believe that women deserve the same courtesy. So when there is even the slightest risk of breaching a man's sexual perimeters (e.g., a gay man coming on to you in the bathroom), we erect all sorts of social and legal barriers to block it. Some jurisdictions seem to allow or at least condone violent assaults by heterosexual men being hit on by a gay man at a bar. And as Senator Craig's case shows, even something as tenuous as possibly signaling a sexual proposition of another man in a public place can get you arrested. Stacking that sort of treatment up against the yawning silence we give to the massive amount of street harassment women (especially urban women) face is mind-blowing.

These things seem to only become "problems" when the victims are men. What makes this list so shocking is that it makes men into women -- that is, casts them in the social script typically reserved for women. They stand passive and naked, judged solely on the amount of sexual pleasure they gave to this woman, and (horrors upon horrors!) some of them didn't make the grade. At the risk of hyperbole, that never happens in the American public sphere. And while I certainly understand why it would be disconcerting to be cast into that spotlight, once we get past the gender-inversion, it's hardly uncommon.

My second thought was that there is simply no winning position for women in this sort of scenario, whereas for guys there's at least something of a mixed bag. There are basically three roles one can play: the list writer, at the top of list, or at the bottom. If you're the guy whose at the bottom, well, yeah, that sucks pretty unambiguously. If you're a guy at the top, though, that's a little awkward, but also kind of a badge of pride. And if you're the guy who wrote the list -- well, you'll probably be seen as a cad. But you're also a stud who banged 13 ladies (hells to the yeah!). Again, at least a mixed blessing. By contrast, a female writer of this list is a slut, a woman who tops this list is a slut, and a woman who is at the nadir is either a frigid bitch or an untalented slut. Yeah, that's no-win.

Finally, I'm curious about the social meaning of this designation for the guys involved. As a society we have basically no experience with this sort of naked sexual objectification of the male body. It just doesn't happen. So if this list becomes a top 10 google hit for these guys in the future, what's the likely result? We don't know if we're supposed to be sympathetic, or high-five them, or shun them, or mock them, or what (for women in analogous situations of course, the answer is shame and shun). I think our collective confusion will result in it being effectively ignored.

This, I think, goes back to my old post, Second Thing We Do, Objectify All The Men. Because men aren't in a situation where, as a class, their moral subjectivity is unrecognized, recognition of their objectivity is considerably less threatening.

This doesn't mean that this list didn't cause a lot of pain and embarrassment, or that we shouldn't be attentive to it. But it does illuminate some deeper issues of sexual inequality that are clearly, I think, more intense (and more ignored) when the victims are women.


N. Friedman said...

Most people prefer to control their reputations, in sexual matters in particular but also more generally. So, I can only imagine that, apart from those at the top of the list, most of the guys on the Duke list would probably prefer not to be ranked.

That said, I rather doubt that there is much expectation of privacy in the Duke case. People tend to talk about their adventures, girls to their girl friends and guys to other guys. Guys certainly tend to rank women and to brag about such matters. So, it is difficult for me to think that privacy is much of an issue here.

I also do not see this as a big women's issue. I think that is a bit of a stretch, if that is what you are indicating. And, a woman's reputation does, in fact, have protection in the law - as in the law of defamation, among other places. The problem is that the scope of reputation to be defamed has changed while defamation law has not changed quite as much.

In this case, of course, it is guys who are having their reputations impacted. Of course, were this in the old days, a girl who has many adventures risks her reputation. I rather doubt anyone in this story has much of a case - although, no doubt, a good lawyer could find some wrong somewhere. All good clean fun for lawyers.

sonicfrog said...

I think the most shocking thing about this whole story is... You read Maxim... Really???????

joe said...

AFAIK Maxim makes list of celebrities and models who obligingly enough pose for pictorials. There's a lot to be said about what kind of culture we're living in where that kind of exposure is seen as desirable or necessary to stay bankable as a star. But it's not really a comparable list.

Also, the thesis here would have better support if the existence of such a list had become a huge media event. I haven't seen much of that; seems like it's largely been confined to Jezebel and some blogs responding to Jezebel.

Jack said...

I can't think of a comparable thing many women have to endure (not that many men endure this either, these things are pretty rare). Maxim publishing a list of the 50 "hottest" actresses really doesn't compare (and for that matter, these same lists exist for men). Obviously, women are objectified more than men. But the issue here really isn't objectification, it's privacy.

PG said...

Huge media event yet?

Agreed that the Maxim comparison is inapt.