Object Lesson

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Arguing against feminists (but which feminists? more on that in a moment), Ann Friedman defends objectification within relationships:

Within a healthy relationship or sexual interaction, a little objectification is a good thing. Often, it’s a necessary thing. Even the most ardent feminist sometimes wants to feel physically appreciated and desired in a way that is separate from her other qualities. Without a little bit of objectification, every sexual encounter would essentially be gentle lovemaking with lots of eye contact. The sort of eye contact that’s deep and meaningful enough to convey complex messages like, “You really killed it at work this week, you make me laugh, and I love your hot bod.” It’s a nice sentiment, sure, but not exactly a headboard-banging night. Sometimes you just want to get laid.

Especially when you’re several years deep into a relationship, a bit of remove is often essential to getting it up. It can be hard to feel sexy when you’re thinking about the financial stress you’re under, or a parent’s illness, or your partner’s work, or any of the multifaceted aspects of your daily relationship. Focusing on bodies can provide a welcome disconnect. “There has to be an ‘other’ for there to be sexiness,” psychologist Marta Meana told Macleans last year.

All of that sounds reasonable enough, if not as contrarian as Friedman’s making it out to be. She opens her piece by declaring that there’s a feminist consensus that objectification is “bad.” But is there? There is, as she notes, some new research on men who “excessively” objectify their female partners. Fair enough, but who’s arguing against a sensible amount of physical admiration? There’s a feminist consensus, I suppose, that it’s bad to be treated as a sexual object in an inappropriate setting – that is, by your professor or boss, or by a man who’s traveled the length of a public bus just to let you know that he thinks you’d be prettier if you smiled.

And there’s certainly dissent among feminists when it comes to pornography. While I – a feminist, not speaking for all-the-feminists – agree with Dan Savage that the wife in the first letter here sounds… troubled, he might have at least acknowledged that there are ethical concerns about how a good amount of porn is produced, and that even a woman without tremendous “DTMFA”-worthy insecurities might be, I don’t know, miffed, if she really thought about how she stacked up, so to speak, against the women her partner looks at on the internet. But where’s the feminist who, if called beautiful or hot by her male partner, would cry sexism and run for the hills?

Friedman, then, is completely right about the value of objectification within relationships. I disagree only with her assessment of how much of an aberration that position could possibly be within feminism today.