Sexual Objectivity vs. Sexual Empowerment

If you look here, the author tries to make a distinction between sexual objectification and sexual empowerment. The claim is about power and who has the power. While I think power plays a role, I don’t think objectification and empowerment are mutually exclusive.


From the link above

After all, sexual objectification is a metaphysical claim: one can be objectified whether one realizes it or not. The nature of sexual objectification is complex, but the usual go to for the philosophy of sexual objectification is Martha Nussbaum’s analysis. You can see what the list is here along with Rae Langton’s additions. Notice with this list, one can be objectified without realizing it. And because of the social structures and historical institutions, it is typically women who have been objectified in the past. Thus, sexual objectification is a metaphysical component.

Sexual empowerment, on the other hand, is a psychological claim. To be sexually empowered is to feel in control of one’s sexual expression. I don’t think it makes sense to say that one is empowered but doesn’t know it. To be empowered means to psychologically take charge of one’s sexuality and to control it in whatever way one wishes.

With this analysis, it seems that one can be sexually objectified and feel sexually empowered. One can feel like one is in charge of one’s sexuality, but really is being objectified.

So there are two directions here: One, the common consensus is that sexual objectification is bad, so there must be ways to mitigate sexual objectification. And two, sexual empowerment is good, so there must be ways to uplift people’s empowerment and embrace their sexuality which can help with their sexual well-being.

Starting with the first, I am in line with Patricia Marino’s article on the ethics of objectification. I did a three-part analysis which you can see here, but the short run is that sexual objectification is morally wrong in a strong sense, but not in a weak sense. See the link to give an analysis and explanation as to why. Thus, following Marino, I would say that sexual objectification isn’t morally wrong if done in a weak way. Now if it’s in the strong sense, then that needs to be corrected and the way to correct this is to call out the other person and show why it’s morally wrong.

With the second, uplifting people’s sexual empowerment seems a bit tougher. It’s easier to say what you shouldn’t do. But to give prescriptions to uplift yourself, to help you flourish, to achieve well-being is harder because they can vary from person to person, especially in the sexual domain. There are many routes to gain sexual empowerment, but perhaps one way is to build self-confidence and shame resiliency so that you build up a shield against those who may shame you. The other route is more exploratory where you have to be somewhat adventurous, risky, and maybe even step outside the comfort zones a bit just to see what really empowers you. You may discover, or even invent various activities, desires, wants, or preferences that can make you feel more like you. That’s empowerment!

For something to be empowering entails that when I am doing an activity, I am not only agreeing to the activity, but the activity makes me more self-directed, controlled, powerful, and perhaps even confident in my life.  Usually when people say they are sex positive, they often mean that sex ought to be empowering, that sex is a way to have control over one’s sexuality rather than following the dictates of society’s standards.  When people do an action that is not the norm, but the participants involved have critically reflected on the activity and are enthused about doing the activity where doing the activity helps one have self-direction, control, power, and perhaps confident in that action, then that action can be empowering to that individual.

Empowerment is also a complex topic, but briefly, I would suggest that Zoë Peterson’s view is correct: empowerment comes in degrees rather than all-or-none.  Empowerment is multidimensional: one can be empowered in time t1 under context x, but not quite empowered at time t2 under context y.  No one is completely empowered in the same way no one is completely flourished; just like well-being, empowerment is a lifelong goal that we all approach.  With this in mind, one can see what sort of sex-positive sexual ethic could look like.  Embracing one’s sexuality is not only empowerment, but is also a form of maximizing one’s autonomy.

I also take empowerment as an outcome of substantive autonomy, but I will have to save that for another post.

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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