The Delusion of Sexual Empowerment

The Delusion of Sexual Empowerment, by Christopher DeGroot.

A few weeks ago, Aly Raisman came to public attention for doing a brave and noble thing: testifying in court against Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor who, over two decades, had sexually abused her and more than 160 other girls and women. Thanks in part to Raisman’s testimony, Nassar has been sentenced to 175 years in prison. The public may feel grateful to the young woman.

Now we are hearing about Raisman again, although it is for a very different reason: She has chosen to appear naked in the new Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. …

The problem for a literal-minded millennial like Raisman is that there is an entire world outside herself: the minds of other people. That world is full of rich symbolic meanings, which cannot be altogether determined by the self — not even when you are the object of others’ perceptions and beliefs.

Therefore, despite Raisman’s intention, the impression her naked appearance makes will be this: a mostly male audience will lust after her flesh, while paying only passing attention (if any) to “her message.””

Besides, a modest appearance, in formal contexts, simply means one in which the body is not an egregious distraction. There is no reason why, in a boardroom, or a doctor’s office, or a school, a breast, or a penis, or a vagina should be on display in such a manner as to receive attention from persons who have quite other business to attend to. The expectation of a modest appearance, found all over the world, is not “sexist” but simply adult behavior. Of course, the need for it is much greater in women, but that corresponds to the reality that women have much greater sexual power than men do.

A modest appearance has always been essential to the public-private distinction and to professional seriousness. A female lawyer or male lawyer who shows up half-naked to discuss a case with his or her colleagues would immediately prompt the following reaction: “Why is your body on such prominent display? What does it have to do with the business at hand?” Whatever might be the person’s strange motive, the body would of course have nothing to do with the case, so the lawyer would necessarily lose the respect of his or her colleagues. …

Feminists have led American women to believe that they themselves should be able to determine how they behave at all times. But such a way of thinking, whether you are male or female, is unrealistic and asking for trouble. Our appearance, and actions, and words, have meanings that are far beyond our own ability to determine and control. That has always been so, and it is foolish to expect that to change. …

If Raisman draws some “confidence and happiness” from appearing naked in a magazine, it is not because no one has “judged her.” On the contrary, the woman has been judged as sufficiently attractive to appear alongside the other models. Like other beauties, Raisman’s relationship with those who admire her is symbiotic: She needs their regard, even as their lust needs her for an object. It is not, then, that Raisman does not want to be judged. Rather, she wants to be judged on her own terms. She wants to dress however she pleases, while never being thought inappropriate for doing so, or suffering worse consequences. At bottom, this is a familiar fantasy: absolute individual autonomy, without any pesky negative effects. …

The assumption is that, by appearing naked in a magazine, Raisman is now “an even bigger hero.” Yet this just reveals how saturated our culture is with sex. Women do not want to be reduced to sex objects, but somehow female sexuality can be attached to any issue whatever, on the view that to be half-naked or naked is to be empowered by definition.