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The ethics of attraction

June 10, 2009

Trying to increase dialogue about body positivity, a friend of mine hosted a discussion called “The ethics of attraction: Is objectification ever okay?” It addressed an issue that she had been dealing with: what do you do if you support body positivity, but aren’t attracted to people of certain body types? Should you feel guilty? Should you try to change?

I didn’t realize before this discussion how common it was to have those feelings of guilt trying to reconcile your feminism with your personal desires. For a long time I was really uncomfortable with the fact that I tend to prefer that guys take the lead in relationships. I worried that allowing this sturcture of dominance/submission to play out in my own relationships, I was perpetuating norms that were anti-feminist. There is a great post up on The Frisky about this topic, in which a woman reconciles her desire to be spanked with her feminism. By the end of the discussion I had come to a shaky conclusion: as long as we recognize that the bodies we’re attracted to aren’t the only bodies that are attractive we can acknowledge our physical desires without perpetuating negative cultural norms. It seemed like such a neat and tidy answer, one that I could live with.

But I am still not sure if I’m fully comfortable with this conclusion. Surely, there is a line where someone’s sexual attraction is not okay. I feel comfortable saying that being turned on by committing sexual violence is NOT OKAY. So what about the idea of sexual violence? Are so-called “rape fantasies” ethical? Where is there the line where we can say that a sexual desire is NOT OKAY?

I think we see sexual desire as purely physical, natural, maybe even uncontrollable. But I haven’t found that for myself. Over the past 6 months I have become really passionate about sexual violence prevention, and through the course of doing Happy Bodies my critical thinking about body and sex positivity has increased. And I’ve changed. Looking at 25 Things About my Sexuality last week, I realized how different my answers would be now from before I started working on these issues. The way I feel about my body has changed, the way I feel about my sexuality has changed, and who I’m attracted to has changed.

Earlier this term I wrote about this post that asked, “What if you refuse to be seduced by violence?”. And I wasn’t ready to say then that we should stifle certain desires. But I HAVE noticed that as I’ve gotten more invested in these issues my attraction to aggressive men has seriously decreased. (And it’s not that my sex drive has decreased, in fact, I think it has increased, because I have lost a lot of those internalized feelings of shame about female sexuality.) Some of this change seems more under my control, like how I find men who actively work for sexual violence prevention, call other men out on sexist comments or can do gender analyses of historical texts way sexier. But even in terms of physical desire, I am way less inclined towards aggressive men or turned on by those traditional behaviors involved in the “hook-up” culture than I once was. My political views have become so much a part of me that my sexual desires have changed.

And I don’t think it’s unique to have your political views affect attraction. For example, Jill wrote a great post about Porn which sparked a lot of discussion of how porn could be made using feminist ideals. I know I’m not the only one who thinks porn is great abstractly, but is not interested at all in the popular porn industry. It’s not just that I don’t want to support an industry abuses and mistreats women and their bodies, but I also am not turned on by it.

So where does that leave us for the ethics of attraction? Have your sexual desires changed along with your politics? What can we reasonably expect of ourselves and others in terms of sexual attraction?

For more discussion, see my continuation post.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. janebejane permalink
    June 11, 2009 12:06 PM

    Over the last six months to a year I have overcome the worst bout of depression I have ever suffered, a lot of which centered around body image. Like a lot of women in their early twenties, I wasn’t prepared for my emaciated figure I’d starved myself into during high school to disappear when I began college. My weight gain was the result of a lot of things, but I had thought myself enormous in high school, so when I got even bigger, it was totally unacceptable. I gained forty pounds in a very short amount of time, and in the last four years have lost it, gained it, and lost it over and over again. I’m now at a healthy in-between weight which I am satisfied with, and I’m okay with looking like a curvaceous adult woman now, rather than a teenaged boy.

    These body image issues had a huge impact on my sex life. I felt undeserving of sexual pleasure during my heaviest weights, even though I had a very loving and kind boyfriend who found me very attractive. I knew these negative ideas were coming directly from media and cultural ideals, and yet they were so ingrained in my mind since I was a child, I couldn’t shake them. Even worse – I began to hold my very loving boyfriend to the same stringent ideals. I was constantly pestering him about his weight and felt my attraction to him grow weaker and weaker as I viewed the ideal person as being thinner and thinner.

    Like I said, in the last year, I’ve overcome many of these things. And, like you said – I have felt my definition of attractiveness expand. Because I’m viewing my body in a more realistic way, I find myself being kinder and more accepting of sturdy men as well. I’m find that I’m a real woman who happens to be attracted to real men and there is nothing wrong with that. It sounds easy, but for me it was so difficult to separate real life and what we see in the media. Now that I’ve figured that one out, I am much happier.

  2. Ashley permalink
    June 11, 2009 12:15 PM

    This is really great and I think about these kinds of things a lot, especially in terms of sexual desire. Like for me, I’m a naturally dominant person sexually, it’s just how I am. But I do have submissive desires sometimes, sometimes I like to get off to submissive fantasies. I feel like with sexual desires and roles within a relationship it should be the same way as anything else in the relationship; there should be a balance of things and very constant, very open dialogue about what’s going on within the fantasies and how they might be affecting other aspects of the relationship. As long as there’s a healthy amount of conversation and never an unfair shift in power (because there’s a big difference between power play and actually trying to have power over a person and a situation) and continual discussion about the fantasies it’s easy to reconcile these kinds of desires with feminism.

    It’s interesting what you brought about about desires and what you’re physically attracted to changing. For me though, since I’ve been into these kinds of issues and topics since I was really young I’ve always found the kind of typical, aggressive male behavior to be really unattractive. Learning and studying understanding more about it all just kind of solidifies that. This reminds me of something I started writing awhile ago about womens’ sexual desires and what they mean in regards to feminism and the patriarchy and should some women look to change their desires. Maybe I should finish writing it.

    Anyway, great post!

  3. June 11, 2009 1:03 PM

    I think part of the problem has to do with what you say about porn in theory and in practice.

    The main problem with objectification is how skewed it gets. If we lived in a cultural vacuum, in a totally equal society, there’d be nothing wrong with objectification, because we wouldn’t always objectify, and it wouldn’t always be one group of people objectifying another group. We would all be individuals just making individual choices.

    Going back to the porn example, it might actually be okay to have a few porn movies that objectified or demeaned women if most porn movies were fully consensual and treated both men and women equally, and if there were also just as many porn movies that objectified or demeaned men. As we all know, that’s not the case.

    If a cultural force pushes on you, it’s difficult to honestly assess how you would act otherwise. With a cultural push to be feminine, to submit to men, to be passive, you really have only two choices—push back and be the opposite, or succumb and fulfill the stereotype. It’s very difficult to tread that thin line. And if you do succumb, you don’t know if that’s because you would honestly be submissive in a cultural vacuum or if it’s because you are actually succumbing to that cultural force.

  4. June 15, 2009 12:26 AM

    well, as to your rape fantasies comment-as someone who has participated, what makes it a fantasy is the ethics involved-a fantasy is only done with someone you agree to do it with. a rape fantasy is nothing like an actual rape(at least so far as I know, I’m lucky enough not to have been raped). all parties involved know this. the fantasy isn’t inherently ethical or unethical, but how you do it is. My political views have changed my attraction patterns a bit, but really more, getting what I thought I wanted and seeing the reality changed it more. I actually really don’t think that trying to completely change your attraction patterns works well in practice-it doesn’t seem to do much for “ex gays” That said, obviously there will be change with time and life experience. My reasonable expectations are mostly-realize that your(my) desires aren’t universal, and try to minimize harm. for example-you talk about violence. consensual and mutually enjoyable BDSM is a non-harmful version of that desire and ethical. abuse isn’t. The desire itself isn’t immoral, though there are/can be some that there is no ethical way to act on.

    • Becky permalink
      June 16, 2009 11:01 PM

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, kb. BDSM is an activity I have never participated in and don’t think I know enough about it, so thanks for speaking from personal experience. I did not want to take a firm stance on the ethics of attraction yet, and I’m sorry if you felt like I was condemning your safe, consensual sexual practices.

      For me personally, I am just really angry about sexual violence, and the fact that perpetrators can gain pleasure by violence against another body I find repulsive. Therefore, any conflation of sex and violence or violence and pleasure still really worries me. I know that I personally, would never be comfortable with sexual activity that involved violence or any sort of rape fantasy. I think you are right to point out the difference between desire and how it is actually acted out. It just worries me that as long as these desires are there, they won’t always be acted on consensually.

      • June 17, 2009 5:55 PM

        I didn’t feel like you were condemning per se, but I do feel that it’s actually really important to keep ethics in the realm of actions, rather than thoughts. Actions can be controlled. And you’re right,worrying that desire won’t be acted out consensually is true of any desire that involves more than one person. I mean, even if the fantasy is as theoretically benign as “wanting to make them moan with pleasure”, not everyone wants to play. And I absolutely respect your discomfort doing anything that could involve any type of rape fantasy. Though, seeing other comments, is that what you meant by attraction? other people here seem to be thinking more along physical characteristics lines, which I think would be a very different debate.

      • Becky permalink
        June 21, 2009 3:31 AM

        I think I was trying to cover a wide range of attractions in my post, but most specifically sexual desires. What I find most interesting about this topic is the way that it doesn’t completely conform to the thought/action divide. Getting turned on by something is pretty uncontrollable by thought (although I’m arguing that your ideals can shape it, or have for me) and your body does take certain actions, again pretty uncontrollable, when you’re aroused. Obviously you control how that arousal impacts your actions towards others, but I was talking specifically about the ethics around this arousal (maybe I should have titled it more clearly).

        I do still think there is a difference between being aroused by a rape fantasy versus what you call a more “theoretically benign” fantasy, although I don’t think that divide necessarily has to be ethical vs. unethical. Taken simply as desires, never to be acted out, or only acted out consensually, they are all benign – but we have to take into account the cultural context. And the American context is one where every two minutes, someone is sexually assaulted; and it hurts, and dehumanizes, and carries a lasting negative effect long after the event. And since this is the context in which informs these desires – in which the idea is first introduced, the desire manifested, and possibly acted upon – that’s why I am taking pause to consider the ethics: Would people have rape fantasies if they grew up in a culture without sexual violence? Would sexual violence be eliminated if these desires were eliminated? Or is the issue too wrapped up in systems of power for discussions of desire to be relevant?

  5. June 16, 2009 5:27 PM

    This is especially interesting to me because I just wrote a post along really similar lines, except dealing with racism and attraction.

    I too have noticed my desires have changed and evolved over the years. I used to get off a lot more to more submissive fantasies, now they’re more egalitarian. When I look at differing beauty norms around the world it seems pretty obvious that what we are attracted to; race, gender, body type, are heavily influenced by socialization. And that does suggest that aesthetic preferences could be consciously altered.

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