Is there Such a Thing as “Good” Sexual Objectification? (Part Two)

Let’s recall Marino’s argument:

  1. One can consent to objectification in the weak instrumental use.
  2. Consent is the morally significant feature that makes objectification permissible.
  3. Weak instrumental use is characteristic of the best sexual objectification.
  4. Therefore, consent should be the morally significant feature that makes sexual objectification permissible.
  5. If consent should be the morally significant feature that makes sexual objectification permissible, then the standard view is wrong and the libertarian view is correct.
  6. Therefore, the standard view is wrong and the libertarian view is correct.

In part one, I analyzed premise 1.  In this post, I’ll be analyzing premises 2 and 3.

Not my image

Not my image

With premise 2., why is consent the morally significant feature that makes objectification permissible, even in its weak form?  Again, if we look at the differences between strong and weak objectification, the key feature of what makes weak objectification permissible is consent, and what makes strong objectification impermissible is lack of consent.  What makes sex objectification moral, then, is simply respecting autonomy.

Here’s a possible concern: in a sexist society, consent cannot be genuine consent; choices are rather “adaptive preferences” reflecting deformed desires—they are choices made in response to the pressures of non-ideal surroundings, rather than choices that express one’s own self.  Sure, consent is a very important feature for sexual engagement, but the how and the why of consent needs to be taken into account.  For example, one may consent to prostitution or pornography not because this agreement was a full an expression of one’s self, but perhaps because of economic hardships, or one was externally coerced into the practice.  Can one, then, still consent in a genuine way?  Marino argues yes, and that the background factors of the political and social equality should be examined to see if the people involved did indeed have genuine consent.  If people are simply taken advantage of because of the political or social pressures, then sexism and inequality make sexual use morally problematic since consent would be impossible.  Moreover, Marino continues, in these cases, choices would be adaptive preferences, i.e. peoples’ preferences in deprived circumstances are formed (or perhaps reformed…or even deformed) in response to their restricted options.  In an obscure passage, Marino writes: “as long as background conditions are right, there is nothing wrong with one-sided, anonymous, or just-for-sexual-pleasure objectification” (p. 358).  But what, exactly, are the “right” background conditions?  How do these relate to adaptive preferences?  She offers a footnote saying that another article is devoted to this question, an article, which as of this post, is under review.  Perhaps I’ll analyze that article when it comes out.  But if the background conditions are “right,” it seems that the standard argument is inconsistent.  The wrongness of consenting to being used derives from sexism and inequality, not the objectification.  However, premise 2 needs to be strengthened and Marino’s work may just provide that justification.

Defending premise 3 is also going to be large task.  Marino argues that weak instrumental use can be morally benign even in cases of sexual morality, because one can still respect the person’s permissions while ignoring their full range of their wishes and desires.  We can add one more row to the instrumental use table from part one where the first column is strong instrumental use (which is immoral) and the second column is weak instrumental use (which can be moral):

Sex Instrumental Use

At first blush, it seems that weak instrumental use in the sexual realm is morally suspect.  But the situation is contextual and there are many different cases where it could be applied.  Suppose this was a one-sided casual sex encounter.  Sure, it could be applied to cases where A is simply self-centered and isn’t concerned with B’s desires and wishes.  But this case is just one example.  It would also cover the example where the partners have mismatched desires, yet they both still consent.  It can also cover cases in which A is so lost in the throes of passion that A temporarily forgets or ignores B’s desires and wishes.  Simply put, the sex could be a way to feel closer.  Or perhaps one of them uses sex as a way that could lead to romance even if this thought isn’t even on the other’s mind.  Or maybe people have sex just for the glamour and attention from simply engaging in casual sex.  (Thanks to Dr. Marino for helping me clarify “one-sided casual sex” by corresponding through email.)  Whatever the reasons are, weak instrumental use also covers cases where A and B use each other to stimulate body parts sexually.  Marino concludes that respecting autonomy, rather than use, is the morally significant feature.  This is where the background comes into play that Marino will discuss in a future work.

Defenders of the standard view will argue that it isn’t consent that makes weak objectification permissible; rather, it’s the people involved in the relationship.  These people must know each other and be familiar with each other’s likes, dislikes, bodies, and sexual predilections.

Marino responds with a bold claim: When it comes to sexual relations, people often point to the context of the relationship to see if the sexual act was consensual.  She argues against a typical trope within the standard view, which I call the relationship significance view:

The Relationship Significance View: consent to weak objectification can be permissible only if the relationship is significant, meaning that the people involved must have a type of relationship—symmetry, mutuality, and intimacy.  Otherwise, consent to weak objectification is morally suspect.

This is Marino’s the bold claim: not only is the context minimally significant, but the type of relationship doesn’t matter.  Rather, the only condition needed is respect for the person’s autonomy.  Respecting one’s autonomy in an abstract Kantian sense, which means the relationship context, is not needed; rather the background context, which is the social and political context, is needed to get genuine consent.  Thus making the Relationship Significance View false.

But why is the Relationship Significance View false?  In order to see why, let’s take a look at a defense of this view, which is the major support for the Standard View.  Marino uses Martha Nussbaum’s classic article, “Objectification” in order to argue that intimacy, symmetry, and mutuality cannot be factors to determine the moral status of sexual objectification.

Nussbaum’s Position

Nussbaum finds some moments of sexual objectification morally permissible, but also admirable. One can become sexually awakened and be fully expressive in a new way.   Moreover, using a person sexually is not necessarily bad as long as it’s done in the right way and in the right context.  Nussbaum mentions using her lover’s stomach as a pillow is acceptable as long as the rest of the relationship is one where the lovers treat each other as human the rest of the time, and the other doesn’t mind being used as a temporary pillow.  It is when the people involved are mutually and symmetrically objectifying each other within the context of mutual respect.  Thus, there can be “good” objectification.  “Bad” objectification, on the other hand, involves instrumental use and denying the other’s autonomy.  So why is treating one’s lover’s stomach as a pillow “good” objectification whereas other times, it is “bad” objectification?  Nussbaum’s answer is because the lovers involved know each other, or what Nussbaum calls a “narrative history.”  This is where I mentioned the people involved have a sense of familiarity with each other’s nuances, history, and certain foibles that no one else can get.  The people can push each other’s buttons and turn each other on because they both have experienced what it means to be sexual with each other.

Nussbaum therefore has three criteria of “good” objectification which defends the Relationship Significance View:

Symmetry: the people involved use each other in a roughly comparable way.

Mutuality: each person’s use of the other is linked together.

Intimacy: the people involved have a “narrative history” where the people involved are familiar with each other through their shared sexual experiences and sexual understanding of each other.

If this is interpretation is correct, then Nussbaum’s view leads to the standard view.

Just to recap, Nussbaum’s view entails both “good” and “bad” objectification.

  • “Good” Objectification: objectification can be good if in the context of a respectful relationship which incorporates symmetry, mutuality, and intimacy.  Thus, “good” objectification can only happen in certain relationships when relationships are significant, hence the Relationship Significance View
  • “Bad” Objectification: objectification is bad when one is being treated as a mere means and denial of autonomy.

This is where Marino comes in.  She argues that:

  • “Good Objectification” incorporates respecting autonomy.
  • “Bad Objectification” incorporates denial of autonomy.

To do this, Marino must show that instrumentality can be bad even in cases of a symmetrical, mutual, and intimate relationship, and still show that one can respect the other’s autonomy.

Recall that Nussbaum’s example for instrumentality as “good” objectification is using her lover’s stomach as a pillow.  The reason why the objectification is “good,” according to Nussbaum, is because the it’s in the context of a relationship and the lover is tacitly consenting.  In other words, there is intimacy involved.  To counter this, Marino needs an example where there is intimacy, instrumentality, and the lover tacitly consents, yet the objectification is “bad.”  Here is Marino’s example:

Consider, for example, a wife whose husband is affectionate and helpful, and who explains to her, in the most loving way, that what he needs in life is a helpmate, a partner in life, and what he really needs help with in life is typing: he needs someone to type his manuscript. Imagine this wife is a great typist, but feels the work is beneath her talents—a poor use of her time. If this happens in the context of a happy relationship, it is easy to imagine that it would feel cold and unloving to say ‘‘No’’—that one would be almost unable not to say ‘‘Yes’’ to such a request. And yet it is easy to imagine that the request might feel manipulative, and that the wife would feel herself instrumentally used in a way she did not enjoy or want. Being in relationships puts complicated demands on the participants, demands that are sometimes welcome and sometimes not. It would be easier to refuse such a request in almost any other context.  (p. 350)

The last sentence is striking.  Because of their intimate relationship and their “narrative history,” saying “no” is harder to do than it would be with a complete stranger.  When it comes to intimate relationships, consent is trickier.  Sometimes, when intimate partners ask us to do something and we don’t feel like doing it, it’s harder to say “no” because it just sounds un-intimate.  Indeed, being part of a relationship means that partners will do things that they may not want to do.  I’m sure you can think of other examples, but the point is that having an intimate connection with someone makes the obligations more demanding.  As Marino puts it, “the complexities of intimate relationships ensure that the participants are involved in a web of interwoven requests, demands, and favors.”  Thus, “intimacy may make use more morally troubling rather than less” (p. 350-351).

Here, I’d like to expand on Marino’s point.  The “narrative history,” or “intimacy” as Marino puts it, can constrain someone’s ability to fully say “yes” or “no” to the activity.  We can even see this in non-romantic relationships.  If a friend asks me to do a favor for him, I have a harder time saying “no” than if a complete stranger asked me for a favor.  For example, if a friend asked me to help him move, saying “no” is harder than it would be if I said “no” to a stranger.  In the same way, the friend may be using me to help him move, so I’m being objectified through the instrumental route, but is this a bad thing?  Presumably not.  That is, as long as the friend also treats me as an end as well.

However, because of the familiarity, knowledge, and closeness of the friendship, consent becomes tricky.  Bring this back to intimate romantic relationships, weak instrumental use is more morally troubling in the contexts of intimacy than strangers.  Think about asking your intimate partner to do something and you respect the other’s autonomy, but fail to consider the desires and wishes.  This is odd in the context of intimacy, even upsetting.  Yet, we sort of expect this from strangers.  Say I’m in a coffee shop writing this post, and a stranger next to me asks if I can watch his stuff while he uses the bathroom.  I’m instrumentally being used in a weak sense.  I consent to it, but the stranger has no concern for my desires or wishes.  In the sexual realm, being a selfish partner is worse when it comes from an intimate, yet we sort of expect this type of behavior from a stranger.  Here, we have an example where I’m treated as an instrument, there is no mutual, symmetrical, or intimate connection between the stranger and I, yet (I believe) that stranger does not deny my autonomy.  Thus, the criterion of intimacy from Nussbaum is flawed.  Because symmetry and mutuality are linked with intimacy, symmetry and mutuality will also fall apart.

And yet, Marino discusses how it is easier to say “no” to strangers than it is to intimate partners.  I think that’s true.  But what about saying “yes?”  It seems harder to say “yes” to strangers than to intimates.  Suppose you enjoy a sexual act that isn’t typical.  Because you and your intimate partner have a “narrative history,” saying “yes” to his or her sexual requests seems easier than if a stranger made this same request.  However, it seems easier to say “no” to a stranger than to an intimate.  Here’s a table to show this:

Yes and NoWe can see that consenting to intimates or strangers varies.  Marino focuses on saying “no;” I would like to see what saying “yes” means in terms of intimates and strangers.  This is tangental however.

To bring this post to a conclusion, Marino’s focus is critiquing the standard view.  She just needs to give an example a mutual, intimate, and symmetrical relationship where it is considered bad objectification, and she does just that.  Moreover, think of what other possibilities would entail if Nussbaum is correct: using my partner’s stomach as a pillow would be “good” objectification, but using a stranger’s stomach as a pillow would be “bad” objectification.  Why?  Because the stranger and I don’t have a “narrative history.”  There is no intimacy between us.  If no one thinks it’s possible to ask a stranger’s stomach as a pillow, consider apps and various websites where you can ask strangers to simply cuddle with you.  If Nussbaum is consistent, private cuddling sessions would be “bad” objectification.

In the next and final post of this topic, I’ll analyze the remaining premises and give some final thoughts as a whole.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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2 Responses to Is there Such a Thing as “Good” Sexual Objectification? (Part Two)

  1. Pingback: Is there Such a Thing as “Good” Sexual Objectification? (Part Three) | Shaun Miller's Ideas

  2. Pingback: Particular Interests of Mine | Shaun Miller's Ideas

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