What’s the difference between sexism and sexual liberation?

It’s been discussed before and it will be discussed again, but recently I’ve been thinking a lot about embedded sexism, particularly int he media. I recently had a conversation about this advertisement with some friends, and did some in-depth research on American Apparel’s sexual atmosphere. All of this, combined with conversations with friends, has led me to believe that sexual liberation and sexism are becoming mixed up in one another. Often something that is quite objectifying, sexist and demeaning, is considered acceptable by the younger generation because we tend to have an “anything goes as long as it’s consensual” attitude. Consent is important, but there is more to sexual interaction than consent.

The first experience I had with sexism this week was when I was having lunch with some friends of a friend and the Guinness advertisement was brought up. I tried not to be the “crazy feminist” and get mad, but I was directly asked my opinion so I said I thought it was sexist and objectifying. The reaction I got was unexpected. One person literally could not understand how it was objectifying even after I explained why (it treats a woman as an object to enjoy with friends, on the same level as a beer. And it uses a woman as a coffee table, literally an object). He seemed to find it highly amusing and thought that I was overreacting. I think that many young feminists have this experience: you notice something is sexist or objectifying, and other people your age can’t understand what the fuss is. It’s frustrating, and it certainly upset me to see that as a society, we find it acceptable to pass a woman around like a piece of meat. Apparently young men today don’t understand the concept of objectification, even when it’s staring them straight in the face. In this case, even when adults are consenting, there are certain practices that are unhealthy, objectifying or disrespectful. Sometimes people don’t know how to do what’s healthy for them. And society should speak up and tell those people who take advantage of naive or ignorant people NOT TO. In this case, while a woman may have consented to this sort of activity, we should still teach men not to treat women like an object (with the exception of BDSM in which the power dynamic is accepted by both parties and can be stopped at any time). Trying to defend objectification under the guise of “sexual liberation” is destructive.

And then I went to the ethics bowl and had to research and ponder the ethics of the case of American Apparel’s CEO, Charney. What disturbed me most about the case was that Charney saw nothing whatsoever wrong with his behaviors, and in fact thought that he was being forward thinking and liberating. Once again, it seems that men view objectification as forward thinking or freeing in some manner. Charney asserts that those people who find his practices offensive are actually repressed in some way. I think that this is one of the sneakiest ways of being sexist. Guilting or shaming someone into sex or sexual activities is just as bad as shaming someone for engaging in sexual activities. Hiring or firing someone based on sexual favors or appearance is most certainly objectifying and disrespectful. Being open about sexuality is one thing, but forcing sexuality or coercing others into being sexual is another. Most of the actions of American Apparel seem to fall under the second category, but they name it as the first.

Overall, I think that young people need to be careful about the appeal of the term “liberated”. It sounds good at first glance, but we need to make sure we’re honestly looking at behaviors to see if they are harmful or objectifying to the people involved. If they are, they can be as liberated as they want, but they are still wrong.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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