Sunday, May 20, 2012

Love, Sex toys and Gucci couture

One particularly awful date a couple of years ago tattooed itself into my soul. My date spent the evening describing how several other men (who had also shown an interest in her) made her feel. She used an interesting analogy to explain what was going on to me: one man she had been seeing was like a 'warm cuddly sweater', but she was looking for a guy like a 'Gucci dress'. I suspect this was all a not-so-subtle attempt to explain how she was not even slightly interested in me. She never got around to telling me what kind of fashion accessory she saw me as. By that time, I was too disgusted and angry to care.

To me, this seemed the quintessence of why dating in Los Angeles sucks. I'm not a bloody handbag, I'm a person.

'Objectification' may be thought of the process by which a person is made into a thing.

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that something is objectified if certain criteria are present. These include instrumentality (if the thing is treated as a tool for one's own purposes); denial of autonomy (if the thing is treated as if lacking in agency or self-determination); fungibility (if the thing is treated as if interchangeable); denial of subjectivity (if the thing is treated as if there is no need to show concern for the 'object's' feelings and experiences). Note that one of the categories is violability (if the thing is treated as if permissible to damage or destroy) which, when applied to people is widely considered unacceptable. All of the other criteria, however, are habitually and routinely applied by people on each other within the context of dating.

When men do this, it's generally based on treating women as sexual objects and is justifiably recognized as denigrating, dehumanizing and exploitative. When women do this, its usually related to finding a sugar-daddy or a protector. At their worst, men seek women as sex toys; and apparently, women are looking for Gucci couture. I think that these are just the worst, most obvious examples, but the underlying attitude is absolutely pervasive, widely accepted and wildly destructive to everyone touched by it.

Objectification tends to be obvious to bystanders watching it happening. Recently, I was standing in the lunch queue at my local sandwich shop and two women standing behind me were describing a friend of theirs who was in the thrall of a particularly exploitative man. This is something we have all seen. It sounded as if she was simply being used by the man she was interested in and both friends were delicately talking about how she didn't want to hear them tell her the truth. We've all been there. The person being used is always the last to realize and the person being used is often strangely complicit in their own exploitation. "They'll only like me if I give them something" or so the logic goes.

I think people objectify one another (and themselves) all the time in romantic relationships, especially in Los Angeles. If you find yourself asking the question "Do I love this person?" and you rationalize your perspective via a pros-and-cons sort of logic then guess what? You're objectifying the person you're evaluating. That person is now a thing that provides you with something like sex, or money, or romance. It might be framed as someone who makes you feel a certain way, or someone who fulfills a romantic (or sexual) fantasy or caricature. Where are they as a person in this calculation? Why is love so resplendent, so shockingly glorious and beautiful, so selfless and unthinking amid all the cynical calculations? Well, it hinges on the thought of the loved one as someone you treat with the same consideration as you treat yourself, or more. Quite the antithesis of the sorts of selfish calculations I find so sickening.

So, please, take a moment and see the person sitting across the table from you. The person who has spent hours in front of a mirror or on a treadmill to look their best, and be the specific-type-of-object you currently think you're looking for in a man or a woman. Take a moment, throw all that nonsense aside, be yourself and talk to them as a person. You might find a little moment of transcendent vulnerable beauty shimmering in the darkness. In that discovery, you will make the world a happier, more radiant place for all of us.


  1. You have written something beautiful, and I'm sorry that it was motivated by pain and a negative experience.

    I think the Biblical language, "Love thy neighbor as thyself," confuses people. We have to remember that our spouses, children, employees and dates are our "neighbors" in this context. What can we do for THEM?

    Of course, Los Angeles is the very capital of self-absorption. Only rarely do we hear of the selflessness that characterizes true love. One of those rare examples would be Father Greg Boyle's creation of Homeboy Industries. Wish I could think of one in the dating scene.

    Your last paragraph is as beautiful as the sea.

    1. I just realized how insanely generous the last line of your comment is. Thank you.

  2. Very nice.

    Of all the places I have been lucky enough to live, I found the US (the south, mind) to be a place where objectification happened everyday, and with almost everyone. Considering the overwhelming influence of the politically correct culture - a force that comes from the top down - I found this to be quite revealing and depressing.

    I think that those who look at life in this way must be very shallow people. After all, looking at the world through those tinted glasses can't be pleasant. Sadly, many people choose to be blind because life is more comfortable that way.

    1. Dear Mark,

      I should have replied immediately when you posted this. Thank you for your comment.

      I think it's an easy thing to objectify people, leading all the more surprisingly to how wonderful things can be when you don't. Perhaps the US is more pragmatic than many other cultures... which leads people to see others as commodities or stepping stones to other things. Such things happen everywhere though and I think is more due to lack of awareness than malice.

      Thanks again for your comments and good luck.

  3. Well, I think you were kinda rough on her. It's just an analogy! Me, I want a guy who is the perfect tailored suit. Fits me to a tee. Perfect color for me (that would be a soft green). Soft, expensive wool. With proper care, lasts a lifetime. Always flattering, never lets you down. Can go anywhere, perfect for any situation. You never get tired of it. Tasteful and smart. Can be dressed up if necessary with flashy accessories. Fortunately, that is exactly what I have. Of course, when I met him I didn't recognize that he is the perfect suit! Took me a while to notice the elegant cut.

    1. "May I compare thee to an Armani suit?
      Thou art as elegant and complimentary"

      If she had framed it as a poem of appreciation (as you have done), then maybe, and only maybe, it might have been OK.

      At the very least, she was treating men as exchangeable commodities, where the only criteria she cared about was how they made her feel. It never entered her thinking to stop and consider them (she certainly paid no attention to me in that way).

  4. I wonder if it's any worse in L.A. and New York than anywhere else. Maybe so. I think culturally we've become so me-centered; people have their lists of qualities they're looking for, and kind of forget to take in the actual human being in front of them. I love this piece. xoAlly

  5. I think it may be worse in big cities, especially amongst people who are driven to try to 'get' something and since people perceive relationships as a thing that they want, they treat the other people involved accordingly... I think it's interesting though, since placing the criteria of 'treating people like people' and absolutely insisting that other people do the same to you, a lot of the old insecurities go away.

    For example, I was at a party and went up to a woman and said "I really admire your outfit...". She took one look at me, mumbled a 'thank you' and just walked off . Continuing my thought, I said "... but not your attitude". Ten years ago, I would have felt dismissed, undervalued, angry. Now, it's obvious to me that I wasn't even a person to her. No-one treats people in such a casually dismissive way. This makes it much easier to recognize what's important and where to place energy.