Saturday, August 08, 2009

It's all about boobs

In the great spirit of one blog post inspiring another, Sophist asking if it's really such a big deal if he looks at women's breasts inspired Chally to write a magnificent post explaining why it is, which inspired me to write about my reaction to Chally's words.

Chally's post is a great description of why ogling isn't just appreciation of beauty, and I agree with Mim that it makes excellent reading for any young men even remotely attracted to women. However, I don't feel it like May does. It doesn't resonate with me emotionally, as much as I know it is the answer to Sophist's question. But why? I pretty much am the "white, heterosexual, middle-class, able, thin, cis woman" in the description (well, except for the thin, I'm pretty much in between and was definitely labelled fat as a kid), so why doesn't it describe me?

I think there are two main reasons, the first is that I have been lucky enough to grow up with minimal contact with misogyny. It's not that I've never been touched by misogyny and violence, just that it was the exception and not the norm. I am not a person who constantly modifies her behaviour in order to avoid becoming a victim. I don't think twice about walking around by myself late at night or many other things that lots of other women report. This doesn't make me brave or stupid, it just means that unless someone actively says "that's dangerous for you" it never even occurs to me. In the same way that I won't ever internalise racism directed at me the way people who grow up as the persecuted minority often do, I won't ever internalise the misogyny that I experience.

The second is that there is a fair bit of female superiority complex in my family. My maternal grandmother regarded men as useful for only a limited number of activities, in need of looking after and possibly also somewhat deserving of women's pity. Which is not to say she didn't like men, she just knew that women were clearly the superior beings. I wouldn't say my mother exactly inherited that attitude (hi Mum!), but I would say that when I see a guy ogling my breasts, what I feel is the emotional equivalent of patting him on the head. It reinforces my feeling of strength and control, rather than diminishing it.

So what is the point of my experience? Well, firstly, I don't think I'm alone. I suspect that some of the women that agree with Sophist that it's no biggie for him to look at their boobs feel much like I do. It's a bit sad for him, but doesn't have much impact on them.

Secondly, the background that I have has also lead me to focus on the way boys are limited and infantilised by the patriarchal standards (see also the attitude that men should just bonk anything with ovaries unless explicitly told to stop), rather than on the impact on women.

Thirdly, I think there is real benefit in acknowledging that just because there are women like me doesn't mean that Chally's description doesn't apply to lots and lots of women. And more significantly, it is unlikely that the latter group will have a friendly conversation with Sophist and other guys like him regarding their experience. Most guys selectively hear from the people like me. And while we're busy patronising them, we're not educating them, we are continuing the attitude that men are just too hopeless to control their biological urges. I don't believe that, I believe that men are capable of being just as sensitive and intelligent as women, and that as a society we have to start demanding it of them. So Sophist, to you I say: I have very strong biological drives too. I often find my internal dialogue starting sentences with the words "If I had another baby..." and then the rational part of my brain tromples all over that voice with a phrase along the lines of "NO FUCKING WAY". If I can manage to control my biological imperatives, so can you.

Finally, the two positions tell us something about how we can raise both our daughters and our sons so that Chally's description resonates with far fewer people in the future. If we teach our kids that objectifying behaviour is pathetic and infantile, and that women are just as strong as men, even if in slightly different ways, and we are lucky enough to protect them from close contact with misogyny, the oppressive effects of ambient misogyny can minimised and we get another generation closer to removing it altogether.

I do know it isn't this simple, but I also know that it is possible in the society that I have grown up in to avoid internalising the misogyny and I want to make sure as many girls grow up with that same outcome as I can.


  1. Yeah, I've definately given this matter a lot of thought. I'm still torn on the issue. For example, I woudn't call my looking 'oggling.' I tried to get some of the ladies who replied to my little essay to get rid of that word, not even because it was inacurate, but so that we could find really specific ways of describing the action. So, while I am perfectly capable of not staring at a girls breasts, I see no reason to feel any shame for letting my eyes wander over them briefly. And not mid conversation, mind you, because I am also perfectly capable of listening to someone without needing to satisfy each impolte little urge (see various forms of scratching/farting for further example).

    But I've really appreciated your take on it. I think my girlfriend has some similar feelings. She was a model, and lived in Australia for years where being topless with her mates was the norm out on the beaches and boat. So maybe I've just been especially spoiled by this lovely lady.

    So,my thanks for your taking the time to consider the matter from a few more sides than some did.

  2. Despite the care of the OP in describing how she didn't think her reaction was necessarily typical or in any way better than the reaction of women who feel more like the poster at Zero at the Bone, you have used her post to take a verbal slap at people who find any form of visual attention distressing and discount them as insufficiently considerate of your opinion.

    It's hard to take you at your word that you are just putting ideas out there and trying for some self-examination when you appear to be so invested in denigrating your more confrontational interlocutors.

  3. @Sophist:
    I didn't consider this from another side, my view is not in opposition to "some". I did write it, to some extent, to acknowledge that you (and others) might well have got through life only hearing from people with my experience.

    However, it comes down to a very simple argument. There exist women for whom any sort of looking (irrespective of what you call it, and however brief) beyond seeing is deeply distressing. Therefore, either you don't look at any breasts (unless you know their owner well enough to have had a genuine conversation about this) or you are almost certainly causing some women distress.

    The reason other people haven't addressed my experience or that of your girlfriend is that it is irrelevant to that argument.

    If you indeed, haven't ever realised previously that there are a large number of women who feel like that (and I don't think I realised it until pretty recently, so I'm not condemning you for that), it might take a while to digest it and the ramifications for you. However, don't fight against the people telling you the way it actually is. They are showing you a great deal of respect by taking the time to explain it, you should probably return the favour while you process the revelations.