New York City, NY

Telling the Difference Between Flattery or Objectification

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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Down the block from my now closed NYC psychotherapy office was a pizzeria. A few years ago, it was a haven for pornography and peep shows. During that time my male clients in recovery from sex addiction altered their route when arriving for sessions, to avoid being triggered by the sexually explicit images luring them into the shop. My female clients were presented with a different quandary. They found themselves ogled and harangued by carnal remarks and lewd propositions from the men who patronized this establishment.

The resounding concern of these women pertained to a larger social issue; feeling threatened by objectification perpetrated by lecherous men. What was deemed desired male attention, and what constituted disrespectful objectification varied from woman to woman. Nevertheless the common denominator in determining when a line was crossed was the woman’s experience of disempowerment and dehumanization. Essentially it came down to feeling afraid.

Author and former political advisor Naomi Wolf wrote in her book The Beauty Myth, “Beauty provokes harassment, the law says, but it looks through men’s eyes when deciding what provokes it.”

Unlike academic and social critic Camille Paglia who asserts that sexual objectification is a natural creative impulse, Wolf implies that men are acculturated to sexualize women as a means to assert control.

Hence, Wolf contends that the laws designed to protect women are not attuned to the female experience. Instead the laws are intended to sustain a patriarchal stance of domination.

Paglia suggests our innate aggressive proclivities seek cathartic expression through our sexuality. Yet modulating our biological programming often goes awry, largely due to cultural influences.

The power ascribed to men in labor and political spheres establishes a hierarchical foundation of dominance. This construct promulgates an ideology in which success is measured by power over others. In the realm of sexuality this takes the form of prey-predator dynamics.

When natural libidinal behavior morphs into an abuse of power, the fine lines between traditional mating practices and coercion becomes obscured. In America where a sexual assault occurs every 73 seconds (Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2018) male aggression against females is rampant and representative of what feminists refer to as rape culture.

The term rape culture connotes a tolerance and normalization of sexual violence, thus promulgating its continuation.

Author Susan Brownmiller wrote in Against Our Will, “Rape is a historical condition that underlies all aspects of male-female relationships. It is a crime not of lust but of violence and power. The threat, use and cultural acceptance of sexual force is a pervasive process of intimidation that affects all women.”

From seemingly innocuous cat calls, to countless ads of one dimensional semi-clad female images, and assaults against woman’s physical safety and reproductive freedom, it is clear that we live in a climate of strategic oppression. Sexual identities and behavior are profoundly influenced by this cultural ambiance of well established domination.

Tragically, subjugation is complete when the oppressed fail to recognize their own enslavement. While the reality of sexism is no secret, most men and women are simply too confused to distinguish between objectification and admiration.

Whereas objectivity negates a person’s sense of agency, boundaries, and overall humanity, admiration emanates from respect and deference to one’s worth.

Unfortunately cultural conditioning has resulted in desensitization to these differences. Women often feel strangely privileged and flattered, albeit simultaneously uncomfortable and even fearful, with intimidating, sexually explicit remarks randomly dispensed by arbitrary men. This state of dissonance encourages women to disconnect from their personal sense of agency, and to succumb to societal mandates.

By conforming and accommodating assigned roles, women collude in misogyny. Female worth becomes linked with physical ideals of perfection that often result in eating disorders and invasive cosmetic procedures. Women viciously pit themselves against one another in competitive pursuit of a sought after mate.

Whore/Madonna double standards are emulated. Mothers and homemakers are deemed inferior, while career women are condemned as selfish bitches. Actualizing intellectual, emotional, and spiritual potentials sadly become remote concerns, when fulfilling a superficial image of the feminine ideal takes precedence.

When women conspire with a misogynistic ideology, gender empowerment for both men and women suffer. Bringing into consciousness the insidious traps of masculine superiority and female inferiority is a critical pre-requisite to constructive inclusive dialogue.

Embracing one’s feminine nature means supporting female diversity and championing what distinguishes women from men. At the same time, it also means respecting, and giving due accolades to the inherent capacities evident in men.

In the words of Bob Dylan, “Now, each of us has his own special gift / And you know this was meant to be true / And if you don’t underestimate me / I won’t underestimate you”

Only by agreeing to work together can we remind ourselves, and each other what truly flatters and what demeans.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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