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Sally Haslanger on Gender

How to understand gender is a complicated issue that has not been settled in any conclusive or definitive way. And it is not my goal here to enter this discussion. For now, I wish only to describe roughly how Sally Haslanger understands gender in order to make better sense of her analysis of objectification.

Along with Haslanger, I assume the sex-gender distinction that is common in the feminist literature. According to this picture, “sex” refers to those biologically determined facts about a person that relate to one’s role in sexual reproduction. There are at least two sexes, “male” and “female.” “Gender,” on the other hand, refers to a socially constructed position that a person occupies in society, and there are at least two genders, “man” and “woman,” i. e. those who are “masculine” and those who are “feminine.”  According to the standard way of thinking, these two ideas are connected in that an individual’s perceived sex plays some role in determining his or her gender. This is, for now, very vague, but a more precise account will be sketched later.

Assuming the viability of the sex-gender distinction, there are further questions about how many sexes and genders there actually are. Though my focus is on men and women, I am committed neither to the claim that there are only two genders (or only two sexes) nor the claim that there should only be two genders.

Serious questions do arise about “how far down” socially constructed gender goes and indeed about the stability of the sex-gender distinction itself. I doubt that a clear-cut way to demarcate gender from sex is forthcoming. But there are significant social, political and economic inequalities in our society that correlate with perceived roles in sexual reproduction.

Haslanger has developed a characterization of gender as a social construction.

S is a woman if and only

1. S is regularly and for the most part observed or imagined to have certain bodily features presumed to be evidence of a female’s biological role in reproduction;
2. that S has these features marks S within the dominant ideology of S’s society as someone who ought to occupy certain kinds of social position that are in fact subordinate (and so motivates and justifies S’s occupying such a position); and
3. the fact that S satisfies (i) and (ii) plays a role in S’s systematic subordination, i.e., along some dimension, S’s social position is oppressive, and S’s satisfying (i) and (ii) plays a role in that dimension of subordination.

S is a man if and only if

1. S is regularly and for the most part observed or imagined to have certain bodily features presumed to be evidence of a male’s biological role in reproduction;
2. that S has these features marks S within the dominant ideology of S’s society as someone who ought to occupy certain kinds of social position that are in fact privileged (and so motivates and justifies S’s occupying such a position); and
3. the fact that S satisfies (i) and (ii) plays a role in S’s systematic privilege, i.e., along some dimension, S’s social position is privileged, and S’s satisfying (i) and (ii) plays a role in that dimension of privilege.1

Haslanger’s definitions involve two notions that will need to be elucidated further, the ideas of social positions and structural inequality. I understand social position, as, I believe, does Haslanger, in terms of social structure. And the existence of some positions that are privileged or subordinated relative to others means that the social structure that contains these positions has a structural inequality.

1.Haslanger, Sally. “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?” Noûs, Vol. 34, No. 1, (2000): 31-55,  Page 42

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“The Nature” (of Women)

I am not going to make claims about the nature of women (hence the strange punctuation in the title), and I will say a little about why not at the end of this post.  Instead, I am going to talk about what it means to have beliefs about “the nature” (of women or men or whatever).

There is an enormous body of philosophical literature, going back thousands of years, about the nature of entities.   My goal here is not to enter into this ancient debate.  Rather, I want to clarify the term as it is used in Catharine MacKinnon and Sally Haslanger’s definition of objectification, which I call enforced reconstruction.

Recall that Sally Haslanger interprets Catharine MacKinnon as holding that an objectifier represents and treats the objectified as

“having by nature properties [the objectifier] desires” and “has the power to force [the objectified] to have these properties (and sometimes exercises this power).”

So what meaning does the notion of “nature” add to these sentences?

  • Women are ____ by their nature.
  • It is in the nature of women to ____.

At root the conception of “nature” that Haslanger and MacKinnon have in mind is simple.

The nature of an entity is what is essential to it, and an entity’s “natural properties” are just those properties without which it would either not be what it is or would not be a well-formed or well-functioning individual of the type of entity that it is.

Our knowledge of the nature of an entity guides us in figuring out what we should do when we encounter it.   Such knowledge also informs our moral, aesthetic and functional evaluations of individuals.

That men’s beliefs about women are often beliefs about the nature of women is important, and here’s why.

Consider that there is commonly held belief that women are naturally submissive.

Full Stop.  This is only an example.  I do not believe that women are naturally submissive.

In fact, it is an undeniable fact that there are many, many women who do not act submissively.

This fact could be taken as a reason to change the beliefs that women are submissive.  If I just so happen to think that all women are submissive because all of the women that I have ever seen have acted submissively, then my reaction to meeting a women who does not act submissively should be to change my mind about the submissiveness of women.

A counterexample to the idea that women are submissive.

But if I think that it is in the nature of women to be submissive, then my reaction to meeting a women who does not exhibit this trait will be to attribute a defect to that individual woman.  I do not, in this latter case, revise my views about the nature of women; rather, I infer from my beliefs about the nature of women that this woman is not a good woman.  This, of course, is bullshit.

We must watch out for this sort of belief – in others, yes, but also – especially – in ourselves.  They are very common, and they may be held in good faith by people who do not intend to have sexist beliefs.

I don’t think it’s possible to really justify a belief about the nature of women or indeed people in general.  So I am an agnostic about the nature of people.  We can’t know what our nature is.   This is why I will not make any positive claims about the nature of women (or anyone else).  But what I will do is criticize claims made by others about the nature of women.

Work hard to avoid making beliefs that operate this way.  In one sense it is fairly easy to do this.  Just make sure that you hold your beliefs about people open to being revised.  When you encounter an individual who doesn’t fit your beliefs about what people are like, let that individual change your beliefs about what people are like.  Don’t let yourself think that an individual is defective, weird, or bad just because they don’t fit your preconceived notions about what people are like.

But in another sense, it is very difficult to do this.  It is very easy for us to let our beliefs about what people are like solidify into a beliefs about the nature of people.

Be vigilant!

1 Haslanger, Sally. “On Being Objective and Being Objectified,” A Mind of One’s Own, ed., L Antony and C. Witt. (Boulder: Westview, 1993) 85-125. Page 111; MacKinnon, Catharine. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989). Page 122.

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Objectification, Sexual and Eroticized

There are at least two distinct ways to understand how some objectification is “sexual.” These approaches are not mutually exclusive, and there is overlap and interconnection between them.

Sexual Objectification

The first notion is nicely expressed by Sandra Bartky, who offers the following description. “A person is sexually objectified when her sexual parts or sexual functions are separated out from the rest of her personality and reduced to the status of mere instruments or else regarded as if they were capable of representing her.”1

Precisely what counts as “sexual” is difficult to specify and further work will be required. Bartky suggests that there are cases of this kind of sexual objectification that are neither oppressive nor even morally wrong. It can, for instance, be morally permissible to objectify someone in this way during consensual sexual activity. The practice becomes oppressive when it is “habitually extended into every area of [a person’s] experience,” including those contexts in which perceiving that person as a sexual object is inappropriate or in which she has not consented to being so perceived.2

While this kind of sexual objectification may in different circumstances implicate all ten of the practices in the Nussbaum-Langton list, it’s key distinguishing feature is its focus on the instrumentalization of the sexual parts or sexual functioning of the objectified person. The objectifier regards and treats the objectified as a sexual object, and the objectifier’s erotic focus is on the sexual parts and functions of the objectified.

Eroticized Objectification

A second way to understand a specifically “sexual” sort of objectification follows Haslanger and MacKinnon’s view on the matter. As Haslanger puts it,

[O]ne objectifies something just in case one views it and treats it as an object that has by nature properties which one desires in it and, further, one has the power to make it have those properties. (Sexual objectification adds to each of these two further conditions: The desire in question is an erotic desire, and the desire is for dominance/submission).3

Here the emphasis lies on the eroticization of dominance/submission. As Haslanger elucidates, the sexual objectifier “desires subordination and finds force erotic.”4

In contrast to Bartky’s notion, the objectifier’s erotic focus lies on the perceived submissiveness of the objectified and on the exercise of power in enforcing this perception, rather than on the sexual parts or sexual functions of the objectified. To distinguish these two approaches, I will refer to Bartky’s conception as “sexual objectification” and to Haslanger and MacKinnon’s as “eroticized objectification.

Put simply, while sexual objectification involves the reduction of a person to a sexual object, eroticized objectification involves the eroticization of the objectification of a person. Though conceptually distinct, sexual and eroticized objectification are, in practice, interconnected. And since this fact is relevant to my overall question about the moral obligations of men, a more detailed examination of this relationship will be required.

1 Bartky, Sandra. Femininity and Domination (New York: Routledge , 1990), 26.

2 Ibid. 26

3 Haslanger, Sally. “On Being Objective and Being Objectified,” A Mind of One’s Own, ed., L Antony and C. Witt. (Boulder: Westview, 1993) 85-125. Page 109

4 Ibid. 111


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Enforced Reconstruction

I’d like to say a bit more about the notion of enforced reconstruction.  Note that this is an exposition of Sally Haslanger’s analysis of the subject.

Recall that Catharine MacKinnon’s concept of objectification (as understood by Sally Haslanger) is: “[O]ne objectifies something just in case one views it and treats it as an object that has by nature properties which one desires in it and, further, one has the power to make it have those properties.”  And that enforced reconstruction is my term for the epistemic component of this type of objectification.

The problem of objectification starts with the view or belief of the objectifier that the objectified has by nature certain properties that are desired by the objectifier. The treatment as an object follows on this belief, but it starts with a belief.  So when men objectify women, they do so, in part, because they actually have a belief about the nature of women.

What are the relevant properties that men believe women have by nature?  Well, there are a lot of them, but the basic list is the typical patriarchal picture of women: Women are by nature submissive, more emotional, disposed to want to please men, etc. In general, women are, by nature, subordinate to men.

Full stop.  I believe it is false that women by nature have these properties.

But the very commonly held belief that women have these properties by nature is (at least for MacKinnon and Haslanger) part of what it means to objectify women and is one of the root reasons that men treat women in an objectifying way.  Incidentally, many women, unfortunately, share this belief.

Consider the state of affairs in the world today.  There is a tremendous amount of empirical evidence that, at first glance, would seem to support the notion that women are naturally subordinate to men. There are undeniably huge disparities in economic, political and social power between men and women. It is a straightforward empirical fact that, with very few exceptions (egalitarian tribes and the like), you see women subordinated to men pretty much everywhere you care to look.

Typically, when we see these sorts of patterns, we form beliefs about natural properties. Every time I have ever seen water, it has exhibited certain behaviors, so I have formed a belief that these behaviors reflect the nature of water. The formation of these kinds of beliefs is inevitable, and it happens before we are conscious that we are doing it. It is also difficult to unlearn them once they’ve set in our minds.

So men (and women) grow up in a society in which women are systematically subordinated to men, and they form beliefs about the nature of women based on their experiences – just like they form beliefs about the nature of everything else.

Full Stop. I believe that these beliefs about women are false.

The mistake that is made when these beliefs are formed is easy to specify. Briefly: What men (and women) miss when they form the belief that women have properties by nature that make them subordinate to men is the fact that there is a power differential between most men and most women. Our society is patriarchal, and men, as a group, occupy the dominant and empowered social position. So when we look around and see how women are, what we’re really seeing is how women are when they are in a systematically dis-empowered social position.  But since we fail to take into account the patriarchal system when we interpret these observations, we think that what we’ve seen represents how women actually are by nature.

So to summarize: Men form beliefs about the nature of women because in their experience most women are submissive when compared to men, etc. But men (and women) miss the fact that that men’s power influences the way that women act. We fail to take into account the fact that when women fail to defer to men, women are punished in a variety of ways by men (and to a certain extent by other women) for transgressing gender rules.  So men (and women) form a false belief about the nature of women. The reason that this happens is that our belief-forming inferences are flawed.

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Objectification in General

The objectification of women is a set of practices that plays a central role in the sexism of our society. I distinguish between a general notion of objectification (the Nussbaum-Langton list), sexual objectification (treating a person as a sex object) and eroticized objectification (the eroticization of objectifying a person). I’ll describe objectification in general here and the other two in subsequent posts.

The basic idea seems simple enough. To objectify a person is to treat her as an object, so objectification at its simplest could be described as a set of practices that involves such treatment. Martha Nussbaum has done some work to specify this set by cataloging seven different ways to treat someone as an object. They are:

1. Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the objectified as a tool for his or her purposes.

2. Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the objectified as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.

3. Inertness: The objectifier treats the objectified as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.

4. Fungibility: The objectifier treats the objectified as interchangeable (a) with others of the same type, and/or (b) with individuals of other types.

5. Violability: The objectifier treats the objectified as lacking in boundary integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.

6. Ownership: The objectifier treats the objectified as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.

7. Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the objectified as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.1

To this list, Rae Langton adds three additional practices.

8. Reduction to body: The objectifier treats the object as identified with its body, or body parts.

9. Reduction to appearance: The objectifier treats the object primarily in terms of how it looks, or how it appears to the senses.

10. Silencing: The objectifier treats the objectified as silent, lacking the capacity to speak.2

The above list is formulated in terms of ways in which the objectifier treats the objectified, but there is an important epistemic component to objectification as well.

According to Sally Haslanger, Catharine MacKinnon holds that an objectifier represents and treats the objectified as “having by nature properties [the objectifier] desires” and “has the power to force [the objectified] to have these properties (and sometimes exercises this power).”3 Since the practice involves a sort of coercive reconstruction of the objectified by the objectifier, I will refer to it as enforced reconstruction. With respect to treatment, this idea adds little that is not already on the list. Indeed, we can understand Haslanger and MacKinnon’s notion as a general description of objectifying treatment. But enforced reconstruction adds an important epistemic element as well. In addition to treating an object in the ways described, the objectifier represents the objectified as having certain properties by nature.

This point is significant because operating under such a belief can conceal the wrongness of these kinds of treatment. If, for example, John represents Mary as lacking autonomy, then it will not seem to John wrong to treat Mary as lacking autonomy. In fact, if Mary has formed this belief about herself, as is often the case when oppressive gender norms are internalized, it will not seem wrong to her either. This list gives also rise to a number of further questions, particularly about autonomy and agency, that will need to be addressed in more detail.

1 Nussbaum, Martha. “Objectification.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 249-291: Page 257. I have slightly altered Nussbaum’s wording.

2  I have slightly altered Langton’s wording.

3 Haslanger, Sally. “On Being Objective and Being Objectified,” A Mind of One’s Own, ed., L Antony and C. Witt. (Boulder: Westview, 1993) 85-125. Page 111 (Hereafter references with the abbreviation “Haslanger 1993.”); MacKinnon, Catharine. Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989). Page 122.

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