Sunday, January 31, 2010

Wanna Grow Up to Be, Be a Debaser?

When I was fifteen years old, I spent the summer with some cousins on a lake near Orofino, Idaho. The lake was clean and warm, the sand hot and white. I loved the sultry summer days, the feeling of the sun on my Midwestern skin. I loved spending time with my older cousin, Nikki, who was both significantly less bookish and more worldly than I. One night, Nikki and I went into Orofino, where we were invited to a party. I was excited—Nikki taught me how to dress, wear makeup, hold myself. She loaned me some clothes. I looked like what I was to about to become, a slightly older version of Lolita. At the party, I overheard something fairly disconcerting. Not entirely accurate to say I overheard: the news was broadcast. A young woman, a girl, I suppose, was drunk and giving blow-jobs for beer in the back room. I never forgot this moment.

What does it mean to be just an object? What does it mean to be not fully human? There’s little question that the girl in the back room was being treated as an object rather than a subject, but clear-cut cases like that are the exception, however dishearteningly frequent an exception they may be. The trickier situations involve our day to day interactions with people we don’t yet know, or don’t know well, or perhaps know altogether too well. They involve the complicated realm where the other person is both subject and object. I’ve been frustrated, in the past, by the men who would ask me out without knowing the first thing about me, beyond how I look. Men I met on buses, in coffee shops, in bars. But I’ve also had to admit to the unfairness of this frustration: you can tell a great deal about me based on how I dress, the bright pink color I’ve dyed my hair, how I carry myself, the books I’m constantly reading on the bus. But more than this, I have to admit to being “guilty” of the same behavior: I’ve asked out men I don’t know before, and I imagine I’d do it again if the spirit moved me. Does this mean I think of them as sex objects? I’m pretty sure I don’t.

There’s a rather loathsome old saying which pretty much sums up the problem: “The average woman would rather have beauty than brains, because the average man can see better than he can think.” This, I think, is insulting to everyone involved. This is why my frustration troubles me: it marks a potential failure to treat myself and other people with respect. I’m not saying that other people are always deserving of my respect—the man who spends the entire conversation staring at my tits has forfeited his right to my respect. Likewise the man on the bus who persists in trying to engage me in conversation after I’ve made it clear I prefer to be left alone. But, again, irritating as they are, these are the exceptions. The fact that they’re exceptions certainly doesn’t render them less worthy of attention—we always have the right to demand that we be treated with dignity and respect. But my concern here is that the exceptions not color the rest of our experiences, not keep us from recognizing the possibility for real, meaningful interactions between human beings.

This is, I think, an important conversation to have—how do we treat one another? How do we want to be treated? What are the pitfalls of interactions between men and women? Gender (and the specter of sex) certainly complicates these interactions, rendering them fraught in a unique way. Again, these questions aren’t rhetorical: I really do want to know what people think about this. How do we navigate our anxieties about being treated as objects, about treating others as objects? The object is the means to an end, something to use to reach gratification. The girl in the back room basically became, for the men who used her—and men were moving in and out of that space with some regularity—just a collection of body parts. A mouth for sucking cock, hair to hold while guiding her head back and forth until they reached their climax, cum shot, I imagine, down her throat or on her face.

I think about this girl. I worry about her, because I’ve known her. Hell, I’ve been her. Maybe nothing quite so public, but intentional black-out drinking leading to sex with strangers is pretty much in the same camp. Why would I want to be treated this way? Honestly, I don’t know. But I’m not getting any closer to an answer by staying silent. None of us are.