A loud feminist complaint in society is that men objectify women and view them as sex objects. Women want instead to be treated as full people with talents, opinions, and aspirations, just like men. I believe that in general men will instinctively evaluate women with regard to their attractiveness regardless of the context they meet them in. Demanding that they don't do so is unrealistic, and if it were effective it would mean that men would be stuffing their feelings wholesale. (I'm assuming here binary sexuality and heterosexual interest -- I realize that this is only one subset of human possibilities).

How can we resolve this seeming impasse? I think it can be done by treating people in a way that is appropriate to their role in your life. In some circumstances, that might be called objectifying them.

People come into our lives in different roles. If I watch basketball, I am objectifying the players, focusing on their basketball playing to the exclusion of all else. This is appropriate. The player understands that others will view him that way, and not be offended if I do not earnestly consider whether he had a happy childhood. If I go in to a store, I expect the salesperson to be calm and friendly and help me -- even if they are in fact feeling irritable and depressed. Their role requires them to hide those aspects of their humanity.

At the workplace, women have the role of fellow workers and deserve to have their work-related qualities valued above all else. Men will inevitably find some of the women hot, but they have an obligation to set that aside as inappropriate to the situation they are in, not let it show, and treat the women as valued coworkers regardless of their attractiveness. But they do not need to deny their inner reactions. I would go so far as to say it is unhealthy for them to do so. Women should understand this. Many women are perfectly aware that some of their male colleagues are hot, and sometimes they too struggle to treat them exactly as they would a colleague who is ugly or geeky. But generally they do a far better job of it than men do. Men should do better, and therein lies the resolution.

In dating situations, we have different roles. Many women want to be considered for a long-term relationship and would like men to consider them with that in mind. They might wish men would focus less on their appearance. Yet if men do not find them sexually attractive, that will also be unacceptable to the women. Men have their own desires in how they are viewed -- what they wish women would value. Many would prefer women to place less value on sharing feelings, on gifts and celebrations, on the men's appearance, to be more interested in frequent sex. Women might wish men would judge them less based on their appearance while simultaneously putting great effort into their appearance. Men will similarly wish for a change in women's desires while attending to the reality. Resolving these conflicting desires and needs is an enormously complicated part of the human condition. But physical and sexual attraction is definitely a valid part of the picture. 

There are other roles. Some women (in bars, commonly) are looking for a one-night stand and want to be regarded in that light. They want men to find them sexy. They don't want to hear the man's life story or tell their own. Within the roles they are assuming, they want men to view them as sex objects. That is an authentic role for a woman to choose. She also reasonably regards her partner as a sex object and evaluates him based on superficial physical attributes that suit him for that role.

Now let's shift to the role of images in men's sex lives. The women who participate in the making of pornography fully understand their role and accept it. The claim of some feminists that it is not a true authentic choice is condescending and intrusive. These women have agreed to be viewed as sex objects by way of the images that are produced.

Moving away from this clear case, women who are models accept the same thing as part of their role. They know that they are evaluated to a considerable extent on how much men find them sexy. Actresses too know that even if they are not trying to look sexy, they are offering their images to the world to use in whatever way they want.

Finally, we can come to ordinary women going about their daily lives. While they have every right to be treated according to the role they are in (no harassment, no wolf whistles, no leering), a man remembering what he has seen and masturbating is totally consonant with whatever roles the man and woman had when they were face to face.

So now let's turn from women to children (cue the ominous music). Broader society's view of pedophiles is a deep horror and revulsion. But among thoughtful people who consider real pedophiles (and among pedophiles themselves) we can apply the same analysis of roles.

In many ways it is simpler. Adults must never enter "dating" or "one-night stand" roles with children. Children deserve to be treated as children, and adult sexual interest has no appropriate place in interactions that the children are aware of.

I join society in judging that children should not be presented sexually to men in images -- child pornography. All experiences should be prohibited where the children perceive then (or in the future) that they are involved in sexual activity or sexual display.

And yet children are actors, singers, and celebrities. They are clothing models. They present their images to the public -- and are eager for as many people as possible to see them. They are inviting people to objectify them based on their appearance.

A great many people fervently wish that pedophiles should not view any such displays and think sexual thoughts. To a large extent this is a desire that pedophiles should not exist. But given that we exist, such a wish is like trying to hold back the sea. It is like wishing that you could leave your wallet on a city park bench and have confidence you can come back in an hour and find it there, including the $200 in cash. The idea that no one will fantasize sexually about minor girls aged 15 to 17 is even more ludicrous.

Pedophiles will privately view images of children and think sexual thoughts. This is consistent with appropriate roles. The children are unaware of men's sexual interest. Pedophiles are achieving the closest approximation of sexual satisfaction that they can that is consistent with not harming children.

There is a different dimension to these questions that deserves its own post. Will private viewing of pornography transform the men in some way so that they treat women worse? Will men thinking sexually while looking at images of children lead them to abuse children in real life? In brief: It is appropriate for individual men to address any such connections privately in choosing their own actions. But society externally imposes penalties on this basis (for instance, penalties for virtual pornography possession). My main answer is that this is a serious assault on personal liberty. A free society does not limit what ideas people expose themselves to, whether by book, online print, or images, for fear that it will lead them to take unfortunate actions. My subsidiary answer is that even if someone was willing to make exceptions, the correlation between idea/print/image and crime should be large and dramatic and the evidence for it very robust. Liberty requires it. There is no evidence regarding sexual use of images that even approaches this.

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