Saturday, October 21, 2017
Consent, and The Objectification of Women
While Harvey Weinstein’s obnoxious, infamous behavior still dominates the the media, perhaps we global citizens can benefit from considering the concept of consent and objectification.
A recent situation involving my youngest daughter, age 27, offers one recent, somewhat dramatic example.
I use it to guide the ensuing discussion.
During mid-July, both daughters arrived in Los Angeles—a rare and welcome visit by both. They brought one boyfriend and one husband, also welcome. I drove the entire family to Old Pasadena for drinks and dinner. Just as I pulled into my office building parking lot, I stopped the car to allow a scantily clad young woman to cross the sidewalk in front of me.
“Wow, what a good looking woman,” I said.
“Dad, you’re talking like your part of rape culture,” my youngest replied.
After enduring a wave of guilt and shame, followed by a briefer ripple of irritation, I pondered the question.
Is it ok to notice attractive persons?
Why would we not look at a tall, muscular, handsome young man dressed in jeans and a T-shirt?
Wouldn’t a suntanned firefighter in uniform with dark auburn hair, muscular arms and legs, and proud chest grab our attention?
And what about the woman-in-question who, as I recall, wore spiked heels, a micro-skirt, a tight blouse, and a cute cowboy hat?
Before answering these questions, I explore the interpersonal, and legal, concept of consent.
The capacity for consent requires a basic human competency. You cannot obtain consent from an intoxicated person, a severely mentally ill one, a child, or anyone with significant cognitive, emotional, or developmental impairment.
Legally, consent requires the capacity for reason and deliberation. It requires consenting parties to possess and exercise sufficient mental capacity to make intelligent decisions. They should make decisions clearly, with sound mind, and demonstrate it verbally or in writing.
Consent assumes a power to act unaffected by fraud, duress, or other forms of interpersonal manipulation.
In the specific example I use here, the additional concept of objectification proves relevant.
When I looked at the young woman, I objectified her. I perceived her as a thing, an object.
However, objectification, at least to some extent, is inevitable.
Human beings cannot not objectify.
For example, we objectify when we drive along a street and notice the architecture, the trees and plants, the automobiles and other features of the scenery passing by.
In like manner, we notice the people on the sidewalks, in their cars, and in the courtyards of buildings. We objectify them because we know nothing of their subjective experience. We have no relationship with them.
They are objects to us; we are objects to them.
Returning finally to the guilt-, shame-, and irritation-invoking example, I took a quick glance at the beautiful woman.
Yes, I objectified.
How could I not?
What behaviors cross over the line?
If I stared at the woman, that would be a problem.
Worse would be leering at her. Perhaps still worse, I would be misbehaving had I shouted out:
You look pretty!
Where’d ya get the hat?
Then, arguably, I have engaged her in an interpersonal behavior without her consent.
Using John Stuart Mill’s basic concept of moral philosophy, which holds that individual liberty ends at the tip of your neighbor’s nose, I believe objectification begins with behaviors beyond the simply looking.
Once exceeding that passive act, an engagement occurs. It includes staring, leering, or commenting, certainly. Once clear overt behaviors occur, like verbal suggestions, whistling, or touching, well, then you have entered a clear realm of violative engagement.
You likely have committed a battery.
Common law considers battery to consist of two distinct behaviors:
- Causing any harm or injury to the victim, whether a scratch or a bullet wound. Please note: Actual injury is not required to meet the legal criteria. Or,
- Any interpersonal behavior such as shouting, spitting, or touching another person in a way they find offensive. Touching encompasses not only contacts with the body, but anything closely associated with victims. Knocking persons hats off their heads, or glasses from their hands, constitutes battery. Further, the act need not be intentional.
The perpetrator must have the intent to commit the battery. Specific battery refers to knowing the battery would harm; general battery occurs when the assailant was substantially certain the behavior would harm or offend.
Intent is not negated if the aim of the contact was to joke or tease. Also, the victim need not be aware of the battery when it occurs. If the victim is sleeping or unconscious, he or she can still be battered.
Submission cannot be construed as a form of consent, and does not negate battery. In the case of any kind of sexual assault then, the victim by definition has not consented to the behavior. Whether they have acquiesced to some threat, resisted the behavior, or been physically overpowered, victims have still been battered.
(Assault is a whole different albeit overlapping matter I will not pursue now.)
I find it disturbing that, in our time of extreme political correctness, the very act of looking at another can be construed as battery.
It is not.
We cannot help but do it.
Being a terrifically hysteric male, I consider it a shame that we men need to watch ourselves when even using words like “darling” or “love.”
I adore using the word, love.
Would you mind passing the sugar, love?
Love, would you be interested in seeing the new exhibit of Picasso’s work at LACMA?
(The act of looking at art represents the sine qua none of objectification; we are all objectifying the art work, even the artist him or herself.)
I find myself fearing assassination again, yet another manifestation of the over-reaction to these themes in our contemporary culture.
I understand I should not tell my part-time assistant she looks pretty, even if she does, or that one of my suite mates is wearing a particularly attractive blouse, even if she is.
What’s the take away?
Look if someone grabs your attention, but look with care and consideration. Make sure you don’t stare or leer, and of course don’t touch without specific consent. These are fine, helpful rules with which Mr. Mill would have agreed.
Let’s not go too far, though.
Did you enjoy this posting, love?
Mill, J.S. (1959/2002). On Liberty. New York: Dover.
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP