This is a large, three-part article. It has to be, because this is a complex subject. In this first section I'll look at feminism and why it is - perhaps surprisingly - not actually incompatible with objectifying women; in the second part I'll examine what this means in practise; and in the third part will be a case study of the trigger for this article : shirtstorm.
1) What the heck is this "feminism", anyway ?
There are definitely mixed messages coming from the feminists. That's because feminism is an ideology, not a religion or political movement. Still, sometimes I can sympathise with Principle Skinner :
Don't worry, Seymour, there's an easy way out of this quagmire. In my view, "treated equally" really means with "equal respect". People are individuals and generally want to be treated differently from one another (perhaps less a case of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", and more a case of "do unto others as they would have you do unto them"*), but no-one wants to be treated like dirt. Everyone want to be valued equally, like-for-like. Treat people as individuals and don't generalise based on their gender - it's that simple.
* Well within reason. Just because someone wants a bribe doesn't entitle them to one.
"Equal respect" directly implies a meritocracy where everyone is allowed to compete equally based solely on ability. All other things being equal, everyone's opinion is equally important. But that's really all it says. It doesn't directly say anything about cheerleading, fashion modelling, the pornography industry, or heck, even the virtues of prostitution as a career choice. Rather what it says is quite simply that if these things are deemed acceptable for one gender, they must also be acceptable for the other. It does not actually say whether or not they are acceptable for any gender in the first place - that's society's choice. Feminism, as some wise individual wrote, is about elevating women, not taking men down.
Incidentally, this doesn't imply that we must demand equal numbers of men and women in the same jobs (though it most certainly does dictate equal pay for the same work). I strongly suspect that when we eventually do establish a society of truly equal respect, this is what will happen, even in careers where men and women are each currently tiny minorities - but I don't actually care about whether we have a precise 50-50 balance in all vocations. It's the opportunity that matters to me, not the end result.
Now, I sincerely hope that anyone reading this will have agreed that equal opportunities and equal pay for men and women are fundamentally Good Things (if we can't agree on that, I don't think we can be friends). It doesn't matter whether you look like Brad Pitt, Scarlett Johansson, or the back end of a bus - or whether you're a raging heterosexual, as gay as Dale Winton or as liberal as Captain Jack Harkness : your success in life should be determined by ability. Nothing else matters, except of course whether or not you treat others with the same amount of respect that they treat you.
Does this mean everyone should be treated in exactly the same way in all situations by everyone else ? Of course not, any more than you would go around assuming that everyone is an expert in neuroscience or has the same passionate hatred of elephants. And that leads us on to the area where so many people, both men and women, seem frightfully confused about feminism : sexuality.
Few people, if any at all, would complain about the following set of images :
Yet people most assuredly do complain about images like these :
Why is that ? Is there anything intrinsically different about the two sets of images beyond the genders displayed ? I would argue "no". I never heard anyone complain that the first images are in any way demeaning or that they treat men like objects for female gratification. Nor does it in any way disturb me that such images exist and that women enjoy them (indeed, certain female friends of mine have described, with consummate tact, the man in the first image as inducing a "lady boner"). Why should it ? Men and women find members of the opposite sex attractive, and as a short, scrawny yet slightly flabby nerd I don't feel in any way diminished by the use of uber-muscular young men as sex objects for women. More on that in part two.
Yet these are precisely the sort of complaints that are made about the second set of images. But it's not the images themselves that makes these complaints valid (for that, we must take a wider view). Image for image, it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to say whether one is treating one gender more respectfully than the other. Remember, if we're assuming "equality" to mean "equal respect", the actual way in which we treat the genders is not important : the only thing that matters is that if we objectify one gender, we also allow objectification of the other*.
* I suppose in principle "equal respect" could mean "zero respect for both genders", but this trivial to dismiss. No-one wants to live in a world where the only thing that matters is how attractive everyone is... well probably not, anyway.
Now I have to make a very important point before we proceed any further. I am going to use the term "objectify" to mean, "to ignore all other qualities besides physical attractiveness". This is not the same as the way some people use the term, which is more like "to assume that a person has no other qualities besides physical attractiveness". Unfortunately the difference between the two is considered so subtle there isn't even a good alternative English word, but in fact it isn't subtle at all - it's critical. That should become more obvious as we go on, if it isn't already. But please, dear reader, do keep this in mind - otherwise you may think I'm saying something completely different to what I actually mean.
Right, so, do those above images objectify genders ? You betcha. Is this a problem in and of itself ? Arguably, no. Is this a problem in society more generally ? Hell yes - and it's only a problem for women. I'll return to this more in part two, but first I want to say a little bit more about objectification.
People are sexy, deal with it
I don't have a problem with objectification per se. A woman who chooses to objectify herself for male gratification is no more immoral than a man who does the same for women, and nor are men who enjoy objectifying images of women any more immoral than women enjoying those of men. The problems are twofold, and related : 1) the much, much greater extent to which society objectifies women than men; 2) the fact that many men seem to extrapolate wildly from the women in these images that all women exist solely for their own enjoyment. This extrapolation is absurd as saying that because Chris Hadfield can play the guitar, he cannot also be an astronaut. It's as mad as a bag of clams, but that's the world we live in.
Put simply, the objectification of women (partly due to the sheer amount of it) has led many men not to conclude merely that women are attractive (which is all an image of an attractive woman intrinsically says), but to conclude that women are attractive and that's all they are. In fact, reducing one individual to their physical characteristics for the enjoyment of the opposite gender does not, in and of itself, imply that all members of that gender have no other value. It does not mean that the particular person on display has no other value either, only that they have chosen, temporarily, to ignore their other qualities - not eliminate then. They're not toys, for crying out loud.
Speaking of which, a pretty close analogy would be the similarly-decried video games. The notion that video games are a direct cause of violent behaviour is patently absurd. I play (or used to, a lot) Total War games, in which battle casualties can often run into the thousands. I don't know the total number of casualties I've inflicted, but it's certainly in the tens of thousands, probably in the hundreds of thousands, and very possibly in excess of a million. As for more up-close-and-personal games, I haven't the foggiest idea how many people I've immolated, punched, beheaded, riddled with bullets (and in one case with high-velocity gnomes), hacked with a sword, and brutally beaten to death with assorted blunt instruments. These things are fun to do in games because they're not real. They no more induce me to go on an orgy of death and destruction than they make me want to start the world's first floating circus and start wearing a tutu : there is precisely zero correlation here. Zero. Nada. Zilcho.
Similarly, objectification in principle does not lead to sexism (it doesn't when women objectify men, after all). If you can differentiate between the fantasy world of gameplay and reality, you damn well ought to be able to tell the difference between a woman posing for a photograph and the idea that women are somehow subordinate to men. There ought to exist the same vast chasm between enjoying killing thousands in a video game and wanting to massacre people in reality, as between enjoying a photograph of the opposite gender (or indeed any form of adult entertainment) and assuming they're all somehow inferior to you. You ought to possess the modicum of intellect needed to realise that people aren't toys because they chose to dress (or undress) in a certain way - yes, even (especially) when they're deliberately doing it so that you can enjoy them.
Moreover - if (note the maximum possible emphasis here) people treat "sexploitation" images in the same way they treat video games (i.e. they don't let them influence their real-world actions), then I fail to see anything immoral here. Far better - and frankly more fun for everyone - to simply demand equal levels of sexploitation of men and women. That could either mean much less objectification of women than at present, or much more of men, or something in between.
In short, objectification (by the definition I'm using) is scarcely intrinsically worse than simply finding someone attractive. Few people could honestly say they'd don't assess someone's physical attractiveness at all if presented with no more than a photograph. No-one thinks, "I must make a detailed inquiry into the personal habits and moral values of this person before judging their attractiveness." No-one. That is nonetheless a form of objectification - a part of human nature, which, like aggression, is only dangerous if not properly controlled.
So that's the theory covered. In summary, people can be hot. Judging them on this, and even ignoring their other qualities, is not damaging in and of itself - women happily do this to men with little harm done. But assuming that they don't actually have any other qualities, to treat them like a toy... this is immensely harmful. This level of objectification is far worse, but as we'll see in the next section, in practise even just ignoring their other values can be seriously degrading if it's allowed to run rampant. We'll also examine the ways in which things are much worse for women, and why when women objectify men this isn't damaging for men.