Wednesday, December 04, 2013

the ways of lust

NYTimes | In 1780, Immanuel Kant wrote that “sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite.” And after that appetite is sated? The loved one, Kant explained, “is cast aside as one casts away a lemon which has been sucked dry.” 

Many contemporary feminists agree that sexual desire, particularly when elicited by pornographic images, can lead to “objectification.” The objectifier (typically a man) thinks of the target of his desire (typically a woman) as a mere thing, lacking autonomy, individuality and subjective experience. 

This idea has some laboratory support. Studies have found that viewing people’s bodies, as opposed to their faces, makes us judge those people as less intelligent, less ambitious, less competent and less likable. One neuroimaging experiment found that, for men, viewing pictures of sexualized women induced lowered activity in brain regions associated with thinking about other people’s minds.
The objectification thesis also sits well with another idea that many psychologists, including myself, have defended, which is that we are all common-sense dualists. Even if you are a staunch science-minded atheist, in everyday life you still think of people as immaterial conscious beings — we inhabit fleshy bodies, but we are not ourselves physical. To see someone as a body is in opposition to thinking of her as a mind, then, and hence a heightened focus on someone’s body tends to strip away her personhood. 

But this analysis is too simple. It’s not literally true that women in pornography are thought of as inanimate and unfeeling objects; if they were, then they would just as effectively be depicted as unconscious or unresponsive, as opposed to (as is more often the case) aroused and compliant. Also, as the philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Leslie Green have pointed out, being treated as an object isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Imagine that you are sitting outside on a sunny day, and you move behind someone so that she blocks the sun from your eyes. You have used her as an object, but it’s hard to see that you’ve done something wrong. 

The real worry that people have with pornography — and with lust more generally — is that the targets of the arousal are seen as losing certain uniquely human traits. They are thought of as lower-status beings, stripped of dignity, more like animals than people. This attitude is well expressed by the misogynist hero of the Kingsley Amis novel “One Fat Englishman” who says that his sexual aim is “to convert a creature who is cool, dry, calm, articulate, independent, purposeful into a creature who is the opposite of these: to demonstrate to an animal which is pretending not to be an animal that it is an animal.”