What You Need to Know about Artists Consenting to Sexual Objectification

What You Need to Know about Artists Consenting to Sexual Objectification July 8, 2016

If you consent to being sexually objectified, guess what… it means you’re not actually an object!

An image of Milo Moiré. CC license from Wikimedia.
An image of Milo Moiré. CC license from Wikimedia.

A friend linked me to this article about a performance artist whose tactics are, hm, limited in scope at best. That piece is titled No, letting creepy men grope your objectified body will not combat objectification.

I’m cool with snark most days. Really, I am. Perhaps I overuse it at times. But this author’s tone completely rubbed me the wrong way, even though I agree with many (but not all) of her points.

The fuss is over Swiss performance artist Milo Moiré, who wore a mirrored box* over her breasts and invited strangers to grope her.


See also: Why Do Women Wear Revealing Clothes? Part 2


The article author, Meghan Murphy, writes things like:

Inviting men (and a couple of women) to grope your literally objectified body parts does not equate to “sexuality.” Objectification, in fact, has nothing to do with women’s sexuality. The fact that so many women believe that displaying their sexualized body parts for the public does equal “female sexuality” precisely explains why this kind of “art” or “protest” does not effect change so much as it reinforces the status quo.

In a patriarchal culture, this kind of art does absolutely enforce the status quo, wherein women’s bodies exist for men’s pleasure. I’m not contesting that. Some women have started to equate being viewed as sexy and admired, perhaps to the point of objectifcation, as an outlet for their sexuality, though, and it’d be a separate discussion as to whether it’s healthy/good, but it IS happening.

But then Murphy wrote:

Watching this video of man after disgusting man grope her (with permission, though, so it’s not creepy!) actually made me want to vomit, but I forced myself to watch in an effort to understand her purpose.

Calling the men “disgusting” or “creepy” who took advantage of the display to touch her when she was consenting to it? That’s just like kicking someone when they’re down. We can’t start training people to pay attention to consent and then rebuke them for literally having consent when they touch someone. After all, obscuring consent is a widely-utilized religious and cultural mechanism that enables rape culture (and it’s being taught in abstinence-only sex ed, ugh).

Is it disturbing that sexuality is such a one-way street in the contemporary West, where women’s bodies are seen as vehicles of pleasure for men? Of course it is. Is Moiré’s work the height of clever feminist protest that problematizes while simultaneously critiquing these issues? Perhaps not. But does that justify calling her shallow, implying that she can’t actually give consent to be touched, and then demonizing everyone who takes her at her word – which is what we’ve been bloody asking for! – when she says she wants to be touched? HELL NO.

As I wrote in It’s Not Okay to Judge Consensual Sex Acts, I’m getting tired of putting on my sex educator/sex positivity hat and having to step in and say “at the end of the day, consensual sexual exploration, no matter how strange or distasteful it seems, is okay by very definition of it being consensual. And I’m sick of seeing it be stigmatized.”

If someone had transgressed the artist’s boundaries, even though her actions appeared objectifying, that still wouldn’t mean she was asking for it. Putting yourself out there in sexified attire, or even close to nudity, or even having people touch you in certain ways but not others, doesn’t mean you deserve a boundary transgression.

So when I see art that goes against the grain, yeah, I wanna have a conversation about it, but I don’t necessarily want to imply that the people involve are incapable of giving consent. Weird-ass performance art is, in fact, one of the reasons why women might wear revealing clothing and thus defensible from my point of view. It’s kinda a bummer that this artist ultimately made it about men’s experiences more than women’s, at least from the media I’ve seen around it. I’d like to see more multifaceted explorations of women’s sexuality (and men’s, yes, but that’s gotten waaaaay more cultural airtime than women’s in general), and anything that gets the conversation about sexuality started is probably a win.

At the same time, I do get fed up with seeing women’s bodies and sexuality being objectified, even if it’s by choice, or since we’ve been conditioned to associate that with desirability. It’s a bummer of a paradox – choose to be objectified! that’ll make you sexy and desirable! (to the people who aren’t being objectified) – and I hope that we can explore better alternatives in the future. In the meantime, though, I’m not gonna pile the shame on those working with the tools they’ve been given.

 

*Was I the only person who upon seeing this description went straight to Dick in a Box? I’d be down for some feminist parody of that already-parodic skit, but alas, I don’t think that’s what was going on here.

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