“Like watching a car crash”

Posted: April 15, 2012 by Jender in feminism isn't philosophy

My college recently hosted an undergraduate conference. One of our female students gave a paper on self-objectification in Beauvoir. There was a professor from across town attending whom she had never met before. Dr. X responded to the student’s paper in the Q&A session. The gist of his response was that there is a self-identified feminist in his department and he doesn’t understand why she complains about objectification as a women’s problem because it seems that men are objectified as much as if not more than women in pornography, which he enjoys to watch and has since childhood. “Are you calling me sexist?”, he implies. No other professors from his department were present so I suppose he felt safe telling us this without consequences. The paper was not about pornography. It was about how objectification uniquely affects feminine ideas of the self, implying that he hadn’t listened to her argument. Visibly uncomfortable, the student described portrayals of women versus men in pornography (camera angles, use of force, facials, etc.) and suggested that these differences might signify differences in how we value these people. These can be seen in pretty vanilla pornography, but forced the student admit to watching pornography to a room of her professors and peers to properly respond all the same.

Watching this play out felt like watching a car crash that I was powerless to stop. To clarify, I do think philosophy needs frank conversations about sexuality that respects subjective experiences. I also get that people tend to personalize conversations about sexuality because they affect us in the most intimate parts of ourselves. But I wonder when responding to abstract arguments with your own experience stops being constructive and becomes unfair. If these experiences are brought to the table, those who bring them should reflect on gender/status differentials in that space and how they might shape the conversation they’re able to have within it. It is hard enough to call abstract ideas unethical, so framing these conversations personally makes this almost impossible.

His response also picked on a specific female faculty member who is both new to his department and extremely talented in feminist philosophy. He seemed to use this an an opportunity to vent about her in a way he would not had she been present. Responding to basic feminist arguments so incredulously makes me wonder how seriously he takes her work. This also scares me for my own future as a feminist philosopher. I will hopefully operate under the assumption that my colleagues respect me. Now I have to silently hope that they don’t publicly undermine me to strangers as well, but maybe I should be thankful to learn this lesson second-hand.

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