sex, dating, & relationships

Agency, Objectivity, and a Vision of Sexual Justice: Part One

Let’s “sketch a vision of a just world seductive enough to compete with the allures of the present one.”

These are the words with which Nancy Bauer ended her recent New York Times piece, “Lady Power.”

I agree; this is our call: To promote a sex positive culture, a place in which everyone’s integrity and agency and sexuality are validated and celebrated in consensual, pleasurable and diverse ways. This vision of justice sure has seduced me! Has it got you yet?

I found many gems in Bauer’s piece, and I also disagreed with some aspects. She discusses Lady Gaga, college hookups, and Simone de Beauvoir — all fascinating, if not controversial, topics. Some highlights:

• Lady Gaga uses her position as a sexualized female pop star to critique feminine sexuality and celebrity. Bauer asks, where is the line between self empowerment and self objectification?

•Bauer uses the same question to analyze an infamous college-campus phenomenon: For women, is hooking up an act of wielding power or a naïve giving-in to self objectification? Numerous bloggers have written extensively on this topic. I certainly have opinions of my own — and I’d love to hear yours, too.

• I do take issue with some ways in which Bauer critiques hooking up. First of all, she contrasts Lady Gaga with “real young women” who “feel torn” after a hookup. Is Lady Gaga not real? Not torn? If I’m not torn, am I not real? How do I get to be real? I’m concerned that this tone erases the complexity of the story. Some college women hook up and do not express feeling torn. Where are their voices?

• The philosophy that Bauer brings in towards the end of her piece sheds light on the impact of gender socialization. We experience tension between ourselves as subjects and ourselves as objects. To cheaply resolve this tension, men get to be subjects and women objects, particularly when it comes to sex. However, Beauvoir “thought that truly successful erotic encounters positively demand that we be ‘in-itself-for-itself,’ with one another, mutually recognizing ourselves and our partners as both subjects and objects.” So, “successful” sex requires that we surpass gender stereotypes.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m all for promoting sex in which everyone involved can claim both subjectivity and objectivity. But where does that leave hooking up? Can a one night hookup be mutually positive and affirming? Can an objectifying hookup also be empowering? I need room for individual agency in my vision of sexual justice. But I also need for objectification to be recognized and named. What do you think? What do you need?

I’m eager for your responses to Bauer’s words and mine, and I will write more myself on this topic soon.

Published by Mimi Arbeit

applied developmental scientist, antifascist community organizer, sexuality educator