Consent, and the Objectification of Women — Part II
Considerable controversy stirred otherwise calm waters following my last posting. Unfortunately, I learned I hurt one person extremely dear to me; I received another critique from a colleague. Luckily, it was helpful and less guilt provoking.
I address these two reactions, weaving in the importance of dialogue to the concepts of objectification and consent along the way.
You can find the last post here:
I begin with an apology to my awesome, dear one who I hurt by misrepresenting the interaction which involved her. I narrated how I had been accused of participating in “rape culture” after I said, to an attractive woman walking in front of our car, something like:
Wow, what a good looking woman.
In truth, I said something more provocative. I commented on the woman’s likely intention to draw attention to herself. In doing so, I inferred something about the woman’s subjectivity. I passed beyond the fairly clear zone of the gaze.
In my view, I still remained shy of involvement in rape culture. However, I acknowledge venturing into a dangerous, potentially violative zone with my remark. Making inferences about any other person’s subjectivity is dangerous—even for a guy like me who does it for a living.
The resultant dialogue, including my unmitigated apology, exemplifies one of the few concepts from the field of psychoanalysis I still find palatable:
The idea of disruption and repair.
In the course of human interactions, we inevitably hurt other people; others will inevitably hurt us. Except for willful mistreatment–an entirely different matter–these misunderstandings are best cleared up through discussion.
In writing these posts, I intend to provoke.
I certainly do not intend to hurt.
I write them fairly quickly—to share ideas, to educate, or to simply explore topics of concern to me. Sometimes it serves as a public journal of sorts in which I share reflections on life, living, politics, philosophy, and psychoanalysis.
I recounted the conversation as a vehicle for discussing objectification and consent, quickly transitioned into more controversial realms, and forgot about the misrepresentation.
It was an error.
I now understand how it harmed another.
I expect the disruption will be rapidly repaired. Perhaps further dialogue will be required for the incident to pass into memory.
It may linger as a regret on my part; it may linger as a hurtful memory of hers.
Time will tell.
Meanwhile, the remark by my colleague invites further dissection of the subtleties of objectification and consent. She pointed out that my gazing at the attractive woman was one behavior. My subsequent description of my reaction—in this case an inference as well as an observation—represented a second, distinct one.
Because I lean towards the provocative in general, I likely intended to elicit reactions in those in the car with me. Perhaps this relates to a desire for attention on my part; perhaps it relates to a yearning for stimulation. These theories offer potential explanations, not excuses.
In any event, I clearly did not think through the reaction of the other parties in the car.
The episode reminds me of a quip made by French psychoanalyst and philosopher, Jacques Lacan:
Speech is a demand.
You say something in front of another.
The other must respond.
Even if she or he chooses to remain silent, the uttered word elicits a reaction. It demands a response. In speaking, I was, in a sense, making a demand on the other passengers.
Should I have remained silent?
As we live our lives in the interpersonal aquarium in which we swim, we are constantly struggling to find a balance between care for self and care for other.
On the one hand, if we feel excessively fearful of hurting others, we may feel constricted, inhibited, constrained in behaving in any way, even in speaking.
On the other, if we lose our sensitivity to others, we may hurt them.
The dynamism involved in achieving the balance between self- and other-care requires the development of another, crucial life skill:
The capacity for open and honest dialogue.
If not for the courage of my dear one to speak her hurt, I would not have known I injured her, I would not have apologized, and we would not be on the way to perhaps an even closer relationship.
My colleague’s pointing out the difference between my gaze and my verbalization–of making a speech demand—helped me consider, even if retrospectively, the impact of my in-car proclamation.
Both dialogues informed me.
The concept of dialogue also relates closely to consent. Towards the end of the last post, I shared my propensity to use words like love, dear, darling, as terms of endearment. Firstly, I would only use these words with a person, male or female, with whom I feel close. Secondly, I would immediately stop if the person expressed discomfort. I would apologize, make an internal note, and avoid using the term-of-endearment again.
The complexities of human interaction, of intimacy, of dialogue and consent are, quite literally, endless.
On a simpler note, and offering respite from discomfort, no one (yet) objects to the idea of normal objectification, of the gaze. Simple looking at others, the normal kind of objectification, will always remain straightforward. It is a private, internal experience for the viewer. The complications of objectification, consent, and dialogue become relevant primarily in the interpersonal world–the murky realm of inter-subjectivity–where things rapidly and exponentially become complicated.
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP