Category Archives: Uncategorized

On Subjects and Objects

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Laci Green, from her video on objectification

Lately I’ve been mulling over some thoughts on the subject-object dichotomy that feminists talk about sometimes, and I think there’s a grain of truth to it. While I disagree with many of the ways feminists characterize it (particularly that it is unilaterally harmful), there is definitely a binary paradigm of actor and object by which we view men and women respectively, and this is true within both feminist and traditionalist gender philosophies.

Men are viewed as agents, as actors: assertive, capable, and often dangerous. They are viewed as protectors and providers, and sometimes even as heroes, or as the perpetrators of violent crime. Men are the ones, as the perception goes, who make the first move in the dating scene, negotiate shrewdly in business, rush into burning buildings, and violently harm others. In positive and negative ways, men act.

Women, conversely, are viewed as victims. Women are definitely objectified, but not sexually. We are objectified by the idea that women are leaves on the wind, that our fate is to be guided by social norms, controlled by tradition and society, and victimized by violence. Women are acted upon.

Thus it is easy for us to garner sympathy by describing the ways in which we perceive we are acted upon. When we are or believe we are victims of violence, mistreatment, systemic disadvantage, or bad luck, we are viewed as the sympathetic protagonists of a story of struggle. People are willing to listen to our complaints, come to our aid, and rally behind us. The other side of this coin is that we are ignored, apologized for, or minimized whenever we act as harmful agents (either toward ourselves or others). When we commit acts of violence or mistreatment, when we make mistakes or otherwise fail to act responsibly or respectfully, we are told it isn’t our fault, and our victims are swept under the rug. When we fail to express a lack of consent in sexual situations or attempt to negotiate for better pay or a higher position, we are seen as victims of socialization and cultural pressures, rather than individuals who made choices. When we act violently against another person (especially if that person is male), we are excused, presumed to have acted in self defense, or dismissed as though our actions have been minimally harmful.

If we put our hand on a hot stove, we are victims of that stove’s mistreatment. If we put someone else’s hand on the stove, we are victims of the stove’s coercion (and this plays out regularly in courts when women are charged with a violent crime).

A man’s identity, however, is tied up in his agency. He has responsibilities as a man, and he is seen as less of a man if he does not fulfill them, including providing for his family, sacrificing for his loved ones, and the competent execution of his life goals. As such, it is not part of the general conceptualization of men to be the victim of violence or systemic disadvantage. When men are victims of these, they are ignored or explained away. Men themselves will often acknowledge, for example, that as males they are more likely to be victimized by violence, but will still argue that violence against women is worse or more of a problem. This is because of the strange cognitive dissonance that happens when someone who conceptualizes himself as an agent or actor is acted upon by forces outside his control. Usually he is assumed to have done something wrong or stupid to earn the event that happened to him (such as in the case of violence victimization or the gender gap in criminal justice), or to have sought it out or enjoyed it (such as in sexual assault). He is seen as having failed to fulfill his responsibilities as an agent, or questioned for complaining at all. As such, most of mainstream society is reticent to accept that men can be legitimate victims. Or if they are, they are victims by virtue of other factors (such as the black victims of racist violence, who are seen by their colour but never by their gender, unless they are female).

If a man puts his hand on a hot stove, he is blamed for his foolishness and expected to learn from the mistake. If someone else puts his hand on a hot stove, he is likewise blamed for his inaction to prevent the harm that is done to him (such as the many male victims of partner violence who are asked, “why didn’t you fight back?”).

A woman’s identity, on the other hand, is often tied up in her victimhood or reception of action (especially for feminist women, but again, this is not specific to the feminist worldview). She isn’t seen as less of a woman if she demonstrates competence or agency, but she is inundated with ubiquitous messages about her victimhood, and her supposed inability to transcend that victimhood. In stories, the villain is identified by his willingness to harm her, and the hero by the sacrifices he makes to protect or rescue her. In real life, she is told even by those who purport to empower her that she will meet barriers in almost every part of life erected by those who actively seek to prevent her success. She is taught that the world will place her into an unfair role from which she will be unable to deviate, as though her personal choice to do something different were immaterial or unable to be actualized. She is told that she is likely to be harmed by others, regularly showered in skewed statistics about violence that, if she believes them, will make her fear for her safety whenever she is in public. She is taught to carry keys between her fingers and cover her glass in bars, but ultimately that if someone means to do her harm, there is little she can do about it. She is taught to be afraid of those pesky actors, men, who are very likely to harm her just by their natures.

Feminist advocates will assert that she needs a social movement to overcome gendered expectations (such as that to shave her legs or become a mother), as though she lacks the ability as an individual to choose her own behaviours, aesthetics, and pursuits. They will tell her that she cannot overcome the existence of sexist assumptions without sweeping policy changes and ubiquitous social campaigns. She is taught that real, insuperable harm is done to her by men finding her attractive, catcallers, magazine ads, and beauty standards, reducing her to hollow, childlike puppet to the culture, media, and beliefs of those around her. Meanwhile, a traditionalist father will threaten to sit on the stoop with a shotgun to scare off any men who come knocking, presuming their ill intent and her inability to consent, effectively deny consent, or ensure her own safety.

Apart from this, not only is she ignored or excused when she acts in a way that harms herself or others, but she is generally conceptualized as someone who cannot or does not act, not in positive or negative ways, not to prevent herself from being harmed, not to harm others, and not to move forward and be successful on her own merits. She is a non-agent, and as such it is practical or even necessary that she be afraid, vigilant, and protected and supported by others. But of course, because of this perception, she is protected and supported by others, even when she doesn’t need to be.

Obviously both of these perceptions, reinforced in a host of ways by feminism and more traditional viewpoints, are harmful to both men and women. But in many cases, as Warren Farrell puts it, “men’s greatest weakness is their facade of strength, and women’s greatest strength is their facade of weakness.”

Of course, each side has its own privileges as well. Agents are given the respect of presumed competence and autonomy. Women are, quite rightfully, tired of being infantilized. They should be treated as beings who are capable of directing their own destinies, as men are, rather than frightened with fear narratives and patronized with social campaigns. Conversely, victims are afforded empathy, compassion, and the willingness to help (and they are subject to lesser consequences for harmful or foolish actions). While an excess of victimization leads to infantilization, fear mongering, and a lack of respect, a dearth of it leaves real victims without the help they need. Sometimes men need help from others, and it’s a real tragedy that we are so reticent to acknowledge this, let alone provide that help.

It would benefit all of us to consider both sides of this coin and the harms we perpetuate when we, feminists, traditionalists, and everything in between, promote this binary narrative of subjects and objects. The world is not divided into male actors and female victims. Men and women can act and be acted upon, and we would do well to remember this as we wade through all the false statistics, skewed definitions, and popular wisdom describing men and women as centuries-old stereotypes of human beings.

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Victim Blaming vs. Empowerment

Put on your seatbelts, kiddies, because this is going to be controversial.

Obviously we’re all aware that we shouldn’t blame victims of crime or suggest that they deserved what happened to them.  That would be shitty.  But a lot of folks take this basic ethical principle to an extreme and use it to slam anyone who makes reasonable suggestions about how to avoid crime.  We’ve all heard “Don’t tell me how not to get raped — tell rapists not to rape!”

Unfortunately, we live in a world where people do rape, murder, assault, and steal from others.  Crime happens.  Some people are shitty human beings, and there is just no avoiding that fact.  So do we pretend to live in the idealized word we’re working toward to the detriment of anyone too ignorant to know how to protect themselves, or do we provide solid advice for reasonable precautions against crime?  I think we can all agree the latter is best.  Choosing to leave my front door wide open because people shouldn’t steal would be downright idiotic and divorced from reality.  There’s nothing wrong with suggesting I lock my door, or keep an eye on my drink at a bar, or avoid bad parts of town at night.  Telling me not to do those things because people shouldn’t take advantage of me might actually result in people taking advantage of me, if I take your advice, couldn’t it?

But I’m going to take that a  step further (and this is the part you may disagree with me).  About a month ago I was robbed.  My house was broken into and everything of value that I owned was taken.  This was understandably pretty devastating, and I experienced all the feelings of fear, violation, and a lack of control that come with being the recipient of this type of crime.  It sucked.  So I started trying to make sense of what had happened.  I tried to determine how the person got in, and discovered that my back door was unlocked.  I had apparently forgotten to lock it.

This realization actually filled me with relief.  Stay with me, now.  The realization that it was likely that something I had done had led to the break-in meant that I could choose not to do it in the future in order to avoid another break-in.  It wasn’t a broken window, or a lock picking, or anything else that was completely out of my hands.  I wasn’t helpless to prevent my home from being invaded.  I was, in fact, partially responsible for what had happened.

Realizing the part I played in my own victimization helped me to feel safer and more in control in my life.  It made my home feel secure to me again.  Sure, I felt like a idiot, but everyone makes mistakes, and I know better than to beat myself up too much.  Far more important was the sense of control and security I regained by acknowledging my mistake and taking responsibility for it, thereby acknowledging that my actions can and do determine if my home is safe. My safety is up to me.

So let’s really crank up the controversy here.  I apply this same principle to my abusive relationship.  I wasn’t kidnapped from my bed at night, or kept with my ex at gunpoint.  I made a long list of choices, some of which I knew were bad choices as I was making them.  Red flags appeared over and over, and I chose to ignore them.  He got jealous and uncomfortable when I so much as talked to my friends, and I chose to try to work with him to get him more comfortable, rather than running the hell away.  He called me dozens of times a day after I left him the first time, and rather than acknowledging that this was creepy stalky behaviour, I agreed to give him a second chance.  The first time he hit me I decided to forgive him.  And the second.  And the third… I had so many opportunities to GTFO, and I chose not to.

Sure, there are always circumstantial and psychological factors in these kinds of things.  Nothing exists in a vacuum.  But the point stands that choices were made.  I chose to be with him.  I chose to stay after things got nasty.  I chose not to call the police, even after the many times he called my bluff and continued to berate me and slam me into things.  I chose not to have him arrested and charged when I was asked privately, point blank, by the cop I talked to when I fled to a nearby station, bruised and crying.  I made a laundry list of bad decisions that perpetuated my position in a bad situation, that made my bad situation increasingly worse.  But I also chose to leave the relationship when I had finally had enough, because the ability to guide myself and my life was in my hands all along.  I am a person with agency.

And you know what?  Realizing all the things I did that led to my circumstances, good and bad, has been one of the most empowering things I’ve done.  As Henley said in his poem, I am still the master of my fate.  I still have agency and control.  I won’t be treated like that again because I won’t allow it.  I know this because I recognize that the first time around I did allow it. Having recognized my role in my own victimization, I will move forward to a better life with the lessons I’ve learned, and I feel stronger, smarter, and safer for having learned them.  Like the kid who touches the hot stove, I was burned and won’t do it again.

None of this is to say that I “asked for it” or that I deserved to be abused.  I was young and dumb, and that’s not a crime.  This isn’t about blaming myself (though sometimes I do, which is wrong but natural).  This is about acknowledging the part I played to regain a sense of control and agency, to regain my dignity as an autonomous human being whose actions affect her reality.  To tell me I was a helpless victim to his inevitable violence is to strip me of that, to infantilize me, to call my will ineffectual, to deny me my humanity and autonomy.

So no, you shouldn’t blame the victim.  But there is no harm at all in tracing back your steps to find where you went wrong.

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