Do you breed in captivity?

Consuming documented prostitution (AKA “pornography”) means consuming the sexuality of strangers as a commodity. It is neither natural nor universal, but a social institution with concrete history. In addition to the advanced technology it requires for mass reproduction, it depends on specific forms of material and cultural power relations. To allow some people to achieve sexual gratification in the privacy of their home, without any social costs, the participants in pornographic videos suffer significant social and emotional costs, losing their right to privacy for good.

A pro-feminist male friend of mine tended to agree with my negative view on documented prostitution but said  that “then again, I read somewhere that when a few individuals of a rare kind of animal in a zoo wouldn’t procreate, the zoo personnel showed them videos of other individuals of their kind mate, and that caused them to procreate.  So, I guess that being aroused by seeing videos of individuals of your kind mate is natural”.

My friend gave me a wonderful metaphor to think about pornography and human sexuality. The animals in the zoo are locked in a cage. Either they were hunted down or born in captivity. They are deprived both of the stimuli of their natural habitat, and of the possibility to freely encounter and engage with other individuals of their kind. They are probably under continuous stress caused by being displayed to the enjoyment of people.

Whose captives are we that we have become dependent on seeing a video of strangers mate in order to stimulate and satisfy our sexual desires?

Our sexuality is not the most significant issue at stake. Our ability to truly encounter the Other and forge an ethical relationship with him or her is also at risk.  Following the research conducted by my friend and colleague, Dr. Sara Cohen Shabot, into the ethics of Simone de Beauvoir (you can read two relevant articles of her  here and here), I believe that when we encounter another human being, each of us has a responsibility to engage in an active struggle to free both himself or herself and the Other. We cannot meet the person whose sexuality has been commodifized for us, let alone strive to free him or her. In fact, by consuming pornography, we actively learn to dissociate sexual gratification from the responsibility of encountering the Other as equal and independent.

The force of a flickering light-bulb

I want to feel that I truly inhabit my body. But I only experience it very rarely. When I move or execute movements automatically I’m as far from inhabiting my body as one can be. So maybe expressing doubt, indecisiveness, pondering – through the body – is one mode of inhabiting it.

This occurs in situations when you’re not sure what to do with your body or part of it. Or if you are trying to change some form of bodily habit, a former way of moving, adapt yourself to something new. Your movement is tentative, faltering. Your muscle tonus oscillates, tenderly changing, from one moment to another, like a flickering light bulb.

Regardless of your will, you now express something new with your body. It is precisely the indecisiveness and doubt that communicates this fact to you and others. You make an effort; moored in time and space, because you lack confidence and authority.

This experience is inextricably bound to imagining new ways of inhabiting ones’ body, and to a genuine willingness to change. This experience needs to be sheltered to take place. Aggression, humiliation, pressure, social or physical, dictation will strangle it like putting a glass over a little flame. When it comes to human sexuality, I believe that the spread and force of symbolical and material erotization of violence, and more broadly, of hierarchy and power relations ( along with the accompanying construction of human sexuality as genital penetration) suffocates this potential mode of inhabiting one’s body through sexuality. By definition, this mode of sexuality or eroticism, would not lend itself to commercialization or consumption.

The male and female breasts- part two

My post “The male and female breasts” is my most read post. I hope that this reflects the strong argument and clear style, rather than the photograph of a male and female breast on the top of the post.

I have encountered three broad types of disagreement with my position:

  1. Some say that women’s breasts (and not men’s breasts) have always been sexualized in all human societies, and this is evidence that there is something inherently sexual in the former and not in the latter. This claim is factually wrong. In many human societies women’s breasts are not more sexualized than men’s, and women are not expected to cover them (for example, certain African tribes).
  2. Others contend that women’s breasts are larger than men, and there are more ways to “play” with them, hence they are more sexual. But this is not true for many men: I recently read an article stating that about 50% of men have a condition of enlargement of fat tissues in their breasts, called Gynecomastia. Many men who work out at the gym have, at least by my impression, breasts that are just as large as the average woman’s breasts, only theirs are made of muscle and not fat. Moreover, if it was the size of the organ that sexualized it, then men’s sex organs should have been considered more sexual than women’s, which is not the case.
  3. Finally, there the argument that women’s breasts change and develop more during puberty and therefore signal sexual maturity. This widespread notion is also inaccurate. Men’s breasts change and develop just as dramatically during puberty- both body fat and muscle increase and body hair develops. Also, as many feminist authors have noted, “child-like” femininity (signaling weakness and immaturity) is celebrated and sexualized in Western contemporary society. If it were indeed signs of maturity that were sexualized, then an excess of thick, black, public hair should have been celebrated as the epitome of feminine sexuality.

So I stand by my original argument. The fetishization and objectification of women’s breasts is neither necessary nor universal. You will have no luck searching for its rationale in the domain of biology. As women, we would be better off without this fetishization. Perhaps there is room for another posy about the advantages men get from the fact that such a central and big part of their body is not sexualized and objectified.

The male and female breasts

Image

My view of the body is a variant of the social constructivist approach. I don’t deny the power and significance of the organic-material body and biology. I do, however, believe that the experience, interpretation and definition of biological events can only take shape through cultural schemas modulated by the social position of individuals in society.

Many have written about the construction of human sexuality as the domain of the secretive and the forbidden. In Western contemporary society, the human body is clothed and treated as a secret. That is why exposure of certain body parts in specific contexts is arousing. Normally, children’s bodies are not socially constructed as sexual; that is why there are fewer restrictions on children’s bodily exposure.

This interplay of concealment and exposure is at the heart of the differential treatment of male and female breast in Western contemporary societies. As the image above serve to illustrate, biologically speaking, the male and female breasts are not that different. I hope no one would seriously claim that the fact that the bulge is mainly of fat in one case, and mainly of muscle in the second, makes any difference in the two breasts’ potential to elicit arousal. What is dramatically different is that only the female breast is sexually objectified.

Sexual objectification is also evident in the differential treatment of male and female breasts in the martial arts. In some competitions in certain martial arts, men are forbidden to wear a shirt underneath the gi, and women are forbidden not to wear a shirt. In the popular MMA competitions, all men fight bare chested. I assume that the bare chest of men has the same biological potential to elicit arousal in humans that are attracted to men, as the potential of the bare female chest to elicit arousal in humans that are attracted to women. So I can see two possible interpretations of the social legitimacy of presenting the bare male chest in non-sexual settings:

 1.  Either society/culture represses and denies the potential of the bare male chest to elicit arousal, and hence represses the desire for men (just as society emphasizes the (often) male desire for the female body); OR

2.  Society overwrites the potential of the bare male chest to elicit desire by systematically excluding it from the concealment/exposure game (to which the female breast is subjugated and in the name of which it is commercialized and exploited ), sending the message (to those who are attracted to men): don’t make a fuss.

I believe that it is  in the interest of women that we demand to exclude greater parts of our bodies from the cultural concealment/exposure game.

Why am I so interested in bodies?

I research the sociology of the body because bodies are immensely complex and deeply fascinating phenomena. Our body anchors us in time and space, it is the only vehicle through which we can track the passage of time, and the marks of time are permanently inscribed on it in turn.

In a way, we are bodies, but we also have bodies. Through the body we are alive and present, and some of us invest great resources in the project of continuously shaping and adorning our bodies. This reflects the special ontological status of the body as both the object of our perception and the condition that enables our perception, as noted by Merleau-Ponty.

Our society reduces human bodies to the mere objects of sexuality or medicine (or the combination of both). We are allowed to engage with our bodies, with the bodies of others, to communicate and touch other bodies mainly within these two frameworks. And these frameworks are heavily gendered. I believe that this is one of the major factors behind the alienation from our bodies and the reinforcement of the mind/body split in the current era.

The reduction to sexuality and medicine also reflects and contributes to the body’s role as a major vehicle of social oppression and control. Our culture, instead of encouraging us to cultivate and develop the infinite potentialities of experience, to think of and engage with our bodies and other bodies, channels us into a narrow, increasingly violent and sad terrain of (already) known options. My research, in the fields of fat studies, of medical sociology and embodiment in the martial arts, seeks to analyze and develop new and alternative ways to experience, experiment and change our bodies and the way we live them.