I'm a bit sleepy, here in my office early on a Thursday morning. I had a pre-dawn breakfast with my friend Steve, and the three cups of coffee I consumed are helping me to join the living. I've got three lectures today: a discussion, based on this book by Lynn Phillips, of the competing "love hurts" and "love conquers all" discourses in my women's studies class at 8:50AM; a lecture on Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age at 10:25; and Napoleon's Russian campaign and eventual downfall at 1:00PM. And I still have many, many midterms to grade.
I've been reading through the 90+ comments below Monday's post on Tough Bunnies. The thread moved on to issues of dress and the visual nature of men's sexuality, and a couple of comments caught my attention.
Gonzman writes: There is no right not to be looked at - or a right not to be ignored. There is no right not to be admired - or a right not to inspire repulsion.
Well, he's right. But I'm not nearly as concerned with "rights" as I am with ethics and responsibility. Many of the men and women commenting in the thread raise the point that women send signals to men with the way that they dress; some (particularly the MRAs) point out that women ought not to be surprised by the fact that men will make certain judgments about them based upon their clothing choices.
But while there is no right not to be looked at, I'm not sure that means that it is always right to look! I've made it very clear that as a man doing pro-feminist work, my primary concern is on helping men to transform their thinking and their behavior. This does not mean that I think that women are blameless victims, misunderstood angels, exploited and helpless little girls. I'm perfectly aware that many women do use their sexuality quite consciously, often with an intense desire for attention and validation. I've written about women and clothing before, and invite readers who have not done so to check out my post on the subject "Sisterhood is Easier in Winter." I do not absolve all girls and women from responsibility, not by any means.
But because my concern is with boys and men, I'm adamant about insisting that the counterpart of "there is no right not to be looked at" must be "it is not always right to look." I'm tired of the right-wing rhetoric in praise of female modesty and conservative dress, not because I am an enemy of modesty but because I loathe the perpetuating of the myth of male weakness that undergirds the discussion! As a man, particularly as a pro-feminist Christian man of faith, I reject the implication that I am visually helpless before a bare midriff or a miniskirt. The assumption that if girls and women wear revealing clothes, they deserve the penetrating gazes they receive is rooted in a notion that male sexuality is simply too powerful a force to be subject to self-discipline. Modesty theory assumes male vulnerability and fragility, and thus makes women into their brothers' keepers, protecting us from ourselves by dressing demurely.
But while modest dress is perhaps desirable, Scripture is very clear that male lust is something men must be expected to control. I argue that we men are called, like Job, to make a covenant with our eyes not to "look lustfully" at girls and women. That responsibility to avert our gaze is not abrogated when a woman wears revealing clothing. Our responsibility to avert our gaze is not contingent upon whether or not the woman in question wants to be looked at; the responsibility not to objectify is ours regardless of whether or not we are being invited to gaze and lust.
I realize I'm taking an unpopular position. Secular feminists are usually uncomfortable with my hostility to lust. Mythago suggests that I'm taking the position that "lust is some kind of evil cancer whose mere touch destroys any aesthetic or intellectual value a thing may have." I'll admit that I do take Matthew 5:27-28 very seriously. I don't think we can lust for someone without consequences for ourselves and for those around us. Lust is never truly idle, I believe -- it is the desire to appropriate, if only in fantasy, something for ourselves that is not ours to have. Lust is distinct from sexual desire for one's partner or spouse, precisely because with one's partner, that desire is a reflection of a commitment that already exists. Though we are all prone to lust as part of our human nature, that does not mean that we cannot, through effort and prayer and mutual support, channel our visual sexuality entirely towards our primary relationship. I believe it can be accomplished without shame and guilt.
Of course, I lose most right-wing social conservatives by suggesting that the primary onus ought to lie with the one who is lusting, not with the one who is the object of lust. While I am not encouraging immodest dress, ultimately the struggle against objectification can't hinge on what other folks are wearing. To put it in economic terms, I'm not interested in cutting off the supply of visually stimulating bodies and images, I'm interested only in addressing the demand. I'm anti-porn, as my readers know -- but I have no interest in lifting a finger towards the goal of getting laws passed to ban porn. My hatred of porn rests comfortably with my zealous belief that porn is protected by the First Amendment. And while I don't think that low-riding jeans with high-riding thongs is a particularly enlightened fashion choice, I'm not interested in expending any energy railing against contemporary dress. To paraphrase Paul, all things ought to be legal, but that doesn't give us the right to do them: "Everything is permissible for me"—but I will not be mastered by anything. Whether the woman in front of me is in a thong or a burka, what I do with my eyes and my thoughts is all on me, 100%.
Look, I'm aware that women and girls lust too. I'm not suggesting that we can create a society where none of us ever gazes at another person with a fleeting sensation of desire. But lust is about more than passing desire, lust is a conscious choice to not only look for a moment, but to continue to look. It's the difference between an "appreciative glance" and a "penetrating gaze." I don't think it's a tortuous and artificial distinction, either. I think it's straightforward and practical, and with discipline, easily applied. And let me be clear that my goal is not to create a de-sexualized, guilt-ridden society! My goal is a world where men and boys, women and girls, interact with each other as loving members of the human community, with a sense of responsibility for each other and a commitment to love and protect each other. I want a world where young women can feel validated and seen, not because of their physical desirability but because of their essential worth as human beings.
So I'm sure I've alienated secular feminists with my hostility to lust, MRAs with my insistence that men hold themselves accountable, and social conservatives with my conviction that overcoming lust is only about addressing demand, and not at all about supply.
Anyone I haven't annoyed?