Objectification, or You are Really Bad at Root Cause Analysis

Caveat: This post is discussing sexism. It’s going to use a lot of gender-binary language. I’m sorry about that, but I have a distinct point I’m trying to prove, and the statistics gathered which support this are all in terms of men-v-women, and well. Also this is focused on the United States, because that’s the context that I can speak from, confidently. And while this post is going to focus primarily on sexism, please understand that it can translate just as easily to any other -ism we see. You can replace the statistics, but the core point holds.

Normally I try to keep it geeky here, but this came at a personal request, so sure. It’s an important topic, and something a lot of people Don’t Get.

Here’s an argument I hear a lot: “Sexism doesn’t really exist. It’s about people being awful to other people. That’s the real problem.”

I’m going to be up front: if you think the “real problem” is people universally being horrible to one another, and don’t understand the underlying problems of sexism/racism/etc-ism, you are really shitty at root-cause analysis.

So I’m an engineer by trade. This is what I am paid to do. I write software all day, erryday. One of the skills I posses is a certain tenacity when it comes to bug-fixing, where I refuse to stop at a band-aid, where I will dig into the architecture until I find the source issue, and fix it in such a way that I resolve the core issue and do not break other things in the process. Related to this is my ability to observe and analyze whole systems, to understand the interactions between them, and to spot potential problems in those interactions, all while keeping a clear idea of the end goal, of making the system useful, of making things clear for the user.

Being an engineer, I look at the world with an engineering mindset. The world we live in is not a collection of discrete, independent components. Everything relies on everything else. And because the world we live in is so incredibly complex, it can be challenging to see how anything impacts anything else, and to understand the real problems we face.

So let’s talk about real problems.

1 in 6 women in the United States is a survivor of sexual assault. Contrast this to the statistics for men: 1 in 33. Only 3% of rapists will ever spend a single day in prison. (RAINN)

Women earn less than men, across the board. Whether the stat you get is 77 cents to every dollar or 81 cents to every dollar, it doesn’t matter, there is a wage gap based on gender. (wiki) And those stats get worse when you consider race: black women earn 69 cents to the dollar, and Hispanic women earn 59 cents to the dollar. (infoplease)

“But although women make up over half of America’s labor force, as of 2009, only 12 Fortune 500 companies and 25 Fortune 1000 companies have women CEOs or presidents.” (infoplease)

Women are sexually assaulted at significantly higher rates than men are. Women are paid less (despite currently being the percentage-majority graduating from higher education). Women struggle to reach positions of power in the professional and political world. I could keep going, but I feel like this gives you an idea of real, actual problems.

You may be wondering how this could possibly relate to objectification. These are real-world problems with gender lines, but none of them appear to have anything to do with treating another human being as a sex object, except maybe the rape one, right?

To which I will say: you suck at understanding system interactions.

Imagine we live in a world where the above problems don’t exist. There is no significant divide between men and women in terms of sexual assault, of leadership, of wages earned, of media representation, anything. Your CEO is just as likely to be a man as a woman. Women earn the same as men, on average. Women are no more likely to be the victim of sexual assault than men are. Let’s pretend this is the world we live in.

If this were the world, then objectification would be the same, both ways. It would be just as dehumanizing to objectify men as it is to objectify women, because men and women are coming at the problem on equal footing. There is no inherent power balance going on here.

However, this is not the world we live in. And everything has context.

There is a pervasive thrum in media of women as an object to behold. Women are used to sell products to other women as well as men. Women are “booth babes,” not men. Women are the prize for men at the end of the film. They are to be seen, and not heard, and certainly not followed or respected.

A woman is something to be possessed, to be claimed as a prize at the end of the journey. She is an object, a reward, and little else. Why pay her more? She’s just there to look pretty. She can’t do the same work as a man, and whatever, she’s probably just going to get pregnant and quit anyway. And don’t even think about putting her in power, she doesn’t belong there, what would she even do with it. And if you want to have sex with her, well damn, go have sex with her, that’s your right. If she doesn’t want it, well, get her a little drunk, get the bitch to loosen up, amirite? All she’s good for.

These aren’t conscious thoughts most people have. These are unconscious biases. And this is, in fact, the world we live in. Women being objectified so pervasively translates to unconscious bias, which translates to real-world bias. Sexism’s language has become more coded and less obvious, but it’s still there. You just need to dig at the root cause.

When a man objectifies a woman, he does it in the context of being more financially secure than her, of being in professional and political power over her, of being statistically more likely to perpetrate sexual violence against her. When a man looks at a woman as an object and not a person, he is coming from a position where this is an actionable perspective. If a woman is not human, she doesn’t deserve to be treated as one.

When a woman objectifies a man, she does it in the context of being less financially secure, of having less power, of being more likely to be victimized. It isn’t necessarily “all right” for a woman to objectify a man, but there are not real-world ramifications for men as there are for women.

It is not the same. It is not “people being horrible to people.” Not when the results are this imbalanced.

To the people who claim that sexism isn’t the real problem, it’s just people being awful: when you see this, when you see these problems, when you see that women are paid less, treated as less, respected less, that there are fewer women are in power, in leadership roles, when you see this world we live in with its very real problems, this long history of abuse, erasure, imbalance, all this inescapable context… how can you think anything divided on gender lines is going to be equal?

What about this do you not understand?

One thought on “Objectification, or You are Really Bad at Root Cause Analysis

  1. Jeff B says:

    I'd say that it's actually true that people need to be universally nice and equal among one another (as much as any other idealist platitude), but I agree that it's a huge oversight to ignore the centuries of context therein, and how real the existing problems still are for modern women. The solution is superficially the same, but the cause is much more nuanced.

    I'd say that it's a bit of an overreach to say "When a man objectifies a woman, he does it in the context of being more financially secure than her, of being in professional and political power over her, of being statistically more likely to perpetrate sexual violence against her". There are plenty of powerless men who objectify powerful/successful women all the time, and as a straight (half-)white male I don't represent those three demographics in every action I take. It may be a fine statement to make in the abstract, but I find it breaks down when I try to apply it to the reality I see.

    I'd also posit that what you see is a self-reinforcing cycle. Women are worth less than men, so let's pay them less. But wait, why are we paying them less? Oh, their work must be worth less. Silly thing, but it explains a lot. Hopefully it's a cycle that breaks soon.

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