Gentium News

Reflections on contemporary feminism: The challenge of objectification

  • 15th February 2018

All right-thinking people would agree that the objectification of women is a social harm. But what do we mean by objectification? The concept is curiously elusive. The purpose of this short essay is to try to develop a straightforward notion of this essential feminist concept; to proffer some tentative contours of when it might or might not apply; to explain why it is a bad thing (as it obviously is); and  to suggest what society should (or should not) do about it.

This short article was inspired principally in response to a newspaper article in The Guardian on 7 February 2018 entitled Bikini Baristas’ in Washington State are told to cover up – is it an issue of free speech?. It is also the result of a number of helpful comments and critiques by a series of friends and colleagues, whose assistance was superlative. Nevertheless responsibility for any and all errors and omissions in this article remains mine alone. Moreover I must emphasise that the phenomenon I am about to describe is seriously objectionable to me. The reason I am writing this is because I want to develop a coherent theory, that balances civil liberties against abuse of vulnerable groups, as to why I find this so objectionable. Then we might develop feminist law and norms more effectively.

The article in The Guardian to which I refer is a report about a recent phenomenon in Washington State, in the northwestern United States of America, whereby a series of roadside coffee shops have emerged the distinguishing feature of which is that the “baristas” – persons serving coffee to customers – are wearing bikinis or other immodest items of clothing. It would appear from the contents of the article that most or all of these baristas are young women. The article proceeded to provide anecdotal evidence from various such baristas commenting that they like to do the job because they receive very substantial tips: so substantial that the job turns out to be extremely well-paid.

The general tenor of the article was that the employees are happy in their jobs, although they periodically had to manage some aggressive or unpleasant customers. The article then proceeded to observe that a local government authority had sought to pass legislation compelling baristas to dress more modestly, but this had been enjoined by courts on civil liberties grounds and the debate was now immersed in some inordinately complex civil rights litigation.

I have never been to one of these coffee shops. (Indeed I have never been to Washington State.) But there was much that troubled me about the events described in this story. The article was broadly sympathetic to the women, and the journalist who wrote it is a woman. Nevertheless I was disturbed, because I found the whole thing rather degrading. In fact I find it degrading not just of the women serving the coffee, but of everybody involved. I wrote this essay with a view to trying to identify for myself what it is that I find unsettling about this curious recent practice in selling coffee. Perhaps most fundamentally, if an international policymaker is legitimately disturbed by this practice then what if anything should they do about it?

Perhaps the most obvious initial reaction is that the phenomenon we are apparently observing, a free-market transaction whereby men (I assume most of the customers in these coffee shops are men) wish to pay premium prices to drink coffee served by women wearing bikinis is not just distasteful but in some fundamental sense irrational. The premiums for coffee served by persons dressed in this way are not entirely clear, but they seem to be in the order of several hundred per cent in some cases. Economics Is notorious for making the mistake that people behave rationally. Nevertheless, this particular species of distasteful irrationality occurs to me as unusually bizarre.

Speaking personally, I cannot imagine wanting to pay so much more for a cup of coffee, and to go out of my way for it (i.e. driving to some presumably inconvenient location), in order to acquire the ostensible advantage of preferring the way the coffee waitress is dressed. I do not see this putative advantage worth the delta in terms of additional time and money. If my view is typical, then can such a business really survive? Maybe there really are enough people out there with irrational taste preferences such that they do want to pay for this. I doubt it, but I do not know. I am not in everyone’s heads. I am only in my own. I admit that I have not undertaken a market study in respect of the matter. Perhaps somebody has.

Another natural reaction must derive from the fact that I am basically a believer in civil liberties and the freedom of the individual. I think this is an important, although not necessarily always paramount, guiding principle of civilised society. It follows from this in most cases, I think, that mutatis mutandis and subject to the risk of harmful externalities (that is, losses other than losses intended by the parties to the transaction, which I discuss below), my initial reaction is that even if one might characterise such voluntary interactions as quixotic then they should not automatically be banned. There are lots of strange things that people like to do. Consider base-jumping, the so-called sport of throwing oneself off a cliff with a minimal parachute apparatus that has been documented as being extremely dangerous. People exchange money to do this. It is not usually banned, and I am not sure that it should be. Buying coffee at inflated prices from young women wearing bikinis seems less bizarre than this (at least to me, although others might disagree); and certainly it seems less dangerous. I will not easily be persuaded that having persons sell coffee dressed in this way should be banned any more than base-jumping should be – at least, not in a country such as the United States which prides itself upon tolerant civil liberties.

Thirdly, although I am not a Marxist and therefore I do not generally prefer to characterise economic interactions using the moniker of exploitation, it seems to me that there it would be challenging to assert that there is substantial exploitation of the women involved in the Marxist sense of using people to extract value higher than the labour-value they invest in the employment relationship, at least if we are to take the contents of The Guardian article at face value. According to that article, the women in question seem happy to occupy their unusual profession. They apparently earn substantial above-market incomes from doing something they do not seem to mind doing (at least if we believe what the article says). That might not be the beginning and the end of the story – maybe some women hate doing this work and feel forced into it – but this is not the evidence before us if we consider only the contents of the article, which is the premise upon which I am proceeding. Moreover given that the author of the article is a woman and a feminist, I would imagine that had she discerned trends of exploitation within this trade then she might have raised those issues more forcefully within the contents of the article than she in fact did. Therefore, at least prima facie, the possibility of widespread exploitation of these persons (we are all exploited to some degree in the workplace) does not seem to me to justify a ban upon this ground alone. The evidence for it is not there – at least, not so far. If it were, then I might well have a different view.

Moreover this strange behaviour pattern – people buying coffee at inflated prices from women wearing bikinis or other immodest clothes – is sufficiently trivial, in my view (at least in the context of the liberal standards in Washington State), that there is no outrage to public morality. I do not find the fact that women may wear immodest clothing in public an outrage, although I accept that many people might think differently. If I see women on the beach wearing bikinis, I do not get morally outraged. I imagine that most people living in Washington State would agree with me; but if I were wrong then I might form a different view.

If I go to a beach bar in Washington State (I have never actually been to Washington State but I imagine they might have beaches there and hence beach bars), and the person selling me a drink is wearing a bikini, I imagine that I would not become morally outraged either – given my assumptions about the conventional moral/religious standards of dress in Washington State. Granted, it might be regarded as more natural, or normal, for a person working in a beach bar to be wearing a bikini than it is for a person working in a roadside coffeeshop to be wearing a bikini. That is because bikinis are habitually worn on beaches and not by the sides of roads. But it seems to me that this is irrelevant, at least as far as outrages to public morality are concerned. As a general rule, women ought to be allowed to wear whatever they like, wherever they like (and so indeed should men).

Wearing a bikini in a coffee shop might be regarded as rather silly. Nevertheless given the moral values I assume to be common in Washington State, my view is that this is not so outrageous such as to incur the penalty of criminal law. We cannot go around banning every silly thing. Society has no business criminalising displays of sexuality, at least up to a certain point depending upon the moral values of the society in question. I can see an argument for prohibiting public nudity, but this depends upon the social mores of the society in question. Some societies do not ban public nudity because they do not find nudity sufficiently offensive. Others do. As a general rule, regulation of the way women dress using the criminal law seems to me basically objectionable unless extreme limits that represent overwhelming social consensus within the society in question are transgressed.

Now I will offer a personal observation, which may or may not be valuable but I offer it because I suspect that this observation may reflect the intuitions of a number of readers of this article. I would respect anyone who was offended by such a coffee shop. People certainly should not be forced to go to such coffee shops if they do not want to. For this amongst other reasons, a law requiring that everyone who works in a coffee shop in Washington State should dress in this way would be just as offensive as a law prohibiting people from dressing this way when they work in coffee shops. Nobody has a right to require that others can purchase ordinary services only in circumstances in which their personal values are inevitably offended. The market is a proper way of catering to different social tastes and standards of personal offence. If I want to go to a coffee shop in which people dress more conservatively, because my moral standards entail that I find it insulting that people dress in immodest ways, then the market should (if it is operating efficiently) ensure that my moral preferences are catered for.

I will offer another personal observation, again that I think may comport with that of many readers although maybe I am wrong. I believe I know myself well enough to say that if I did go to such a coffee shop (which I think highly unlikely), then it would only be for reasons extraneous to its distinctive quality, i.e. I wanted a coffee and there were no other coffee shops close by such that I was prepared to pay several times as much for the same cup of coffee (assuming the enhanced tips are essentially mandatory as a practical matter). In other words the novelty, if one can put it like that, of buying a coffee from a barista in a bikini would likely, if not immediately, become a dummy variable in a regression analysis of my coffee shop choosing preferences. If this expression of my purchasing preferences is widely held, then these bikini coffee shops seem likely to me to go bust as soon as the novelty wears off. And, as I explain below, I think that would be a good thing. So we ought not to preserve or extend their novelty.

Now I believe we are getting to the crux of the matter. Notwithstanding the fact that these institutions seem likely to die that peculiarly cruel death reserved to them by the necessities of market logic, I think that what troubles me about the bikini coffee shops is something more subtle. It seems to me to be an instance in sometime that I am going to call the normalisation of objectifying women. I will need to explain what I mean by this, because it sounds like a series of complex words bolted together but I want to use these complex words to describe an important phenomenon that, because it is subtle, may resist easy conceptual capture.

To understand what is wrong with the bikini baristas, imagine if a social norm were to develop that a woman could only get a job in a coffee shop if she dressed in this idiosyncratic way. Then the high earnings currently enjoyed by these apparently happy ladies (if we are to believe the article) would presumably drop to the market salary levels for everyone normally selling coffee. There would be no market imperative to pay the increased tip, because every barista would be dressed in this way. Supply of coffee by immodestly dressed women would increase given presumably static demand; there can only be a finite number of persons (again, presumably mostly men) who actually want their coffee served this way, particularly when the service of coffee subject to these unusual conditions of immodest garb become habituated in the mind of the consumer. Accordingly prices must fall.

In this eventuality, there would be exploitation. Imagine the hypothesis that women can only work in the field of serving coffee if they undress in public in ways they may not feel comfortable with. This is totally unacceptable. To borrow the long-renowned adage from advertising, sex sells. But it cannot be right that everyone must sell using sex. It is even more wrong that half the population (i.e. women) are obliged to sell using sex and the other half (i.e. men) are not. This is exploitation of a kind that the law rightly proscribes.

We are nowhere near these depths yet. Indeed I doubt we ever will be – the idea that women must dress immodestly if they want to sell coffee will never catch on. I am confident of this because there is such a heavy flood of contemporary norms developing in precisely the opposite direction. The prevailing trend is against compulsory objectification of women in the workplace. Rightly, there are more laws and practices against sexual harassment. There is a culture in which women are encouraged ever more to speak out against such outrages. (It is sometimes known as the #MeToo campaign, from a commonly used social media label.) Employer dress codes requiring women (and indeed men) to dress to work in a certain way as a condition of their continued employment are ever more the subject of lawsuits. This is a good thing. It inhibits discrimination on grounds of religion or personal beliefs. It protects women (and men) who are uncomfortable in dressing in a certain way and in a certain context, for whatever reason (personal standards of modesty tor otherwise) from being discriminated against in the employment context. It also protects persons who do want to dress in a certain way: subject to limits that reach towards substantial standards of public decency and outrage. The flip side of this coin is that acceptable standards of immodesty in a nightclub might be very different from those in a religious building. This is absolutely normal and appropriate in a multicultural society.

The article in The Guardian suggests that it may ultimately be legal bills that ends the bikini baristas. I agree, and I think that this is the proper means of their demise. The legal principles that an employer should not be allowed to force people to wear clothes they do not want to wear in the workplace, and/or should not be allowed to discriminate against people on grounds of gender, will eventually put pay to these coffee shops. Currently, it may be that the only people who want to work in these coffee shops are women who want to wear bikinis to get higher tips. But sooner or later, male activists and female activists wearing burkas, who object to this sort of objectification of women in the workplace, will start applying for jobs in these coffeeshops and will sue and bankrupt the coffeeshops through lawsuits when their job applications are not successful. So that will be the end of these institutions. And I will applaud their demise by this means. So upon this occasion, I salute the lawyers.

Notwithstanding, the foregoing discussion gives rise to a broader question that we must return to if our discussion is to have any intellectual coherence. For although the bikini baristas are sure to fall at the hands of legal machinations, we might hope to draw some broader social lessons from all of this. To do so, we need to understand better the concepts we are using by which to condemn this novel phenomenon. The most important such question is this. What do I mean by the objectification of women? I think this is an important concept, but not an easy one. Firstly I believe that, a priori, objectification is not something that only half the population can be subject to. An ethical concept that is so contorted that it is defined around a contingent quality as arbitrary as gender (namely the random events that result in the genetic composition of chromosomes) would be bizarre indeed. How could any such ethical categorisation meet the Kantian prescription of universality inherent in a coherent system of moral philosophy? So in principle at least men can be objectified too, even if in history it may be that women have suffered by far the brunt of the evil of objectification.

Secondly, as a conceptual matter in moral philosophy I think it is not individuals who to whom the category of objectification should be applied, but groups or citizens as a whole. Objectification is not, in my opinion, valuably used as a proxy term for being forced to do something you don’t want to do. If you and I decide to have dinner together; I want chicken for dinner and you want beef; and you win out, then nobody is being objectified: not me, not you, not the chicken and not the cow. Objectification is about something else.

Imagine two women walking down the beach in swimwear, perhaps attracting the attention of onlookers. Nobody is paying them to do this. Imagine that one such woman likes the attention. The other does not, but she wears the bikini or other swimwear because she feels the social obligation to conform to the behaviour of her friend. (People often act in this way. It need not be about bikinis on the beach; it could be about the latest designer-labelled jeans.) Is one of these women being objectified and the other is not? Because other moral language could better be used to describe what is wrong with this, I do not think so. One woman may be embarrassed, perhaps, and the other may not be. But to use the language of objectification is a category error in this regard. There are better concepts to use to describe the relative emotional and psychological states of the two women. Objectification is not a quality to describe the fact that an individual is subject to something unpleasant, unjust, arbitrary, exploitative, hurtful or unwanted. There are other moral terms to describe those things. The concept of objectification can and should be confined to some other problem or wrong.

On the other hand, it might be appropriate to say that both of the women on the beach are being objectified; or all of the women on the beach are being objectified; or the fact that either or both women want to or do dress in this way on the beach is due to objectification. I am not sure whether I would automatically agree with any of these assertions. Personally, I am somewhat drawn towards the principle that women ought to be able to wear anything they want on a beach, and we have no business using moral concepts to condemn them in doing so. That is a personal view of mine and I accept that not everyone may agree with it. Nevertheless, I hope that at least I understand and might have be able to empathise with these potential diverse uses of the concept of objectification even if they do not fit within my subjective personal moral scheme. These observations give rise to an insight about that the concept of objectification is better used to describe something other than wrongdoing inflicted upon individuals.

In my view objectification is a collective concept, and I think it is best used to describe the phenomenon in which a group of people within society is ascribed collective qualities that not all of them may have, the result of which is negative externalities towards the group as a whole. Consider, for example, the all too common degrading refrains heard from men in some parts of some societies such as ‘those women are sluts’ (perhaps because they are dressed immodestly). These negative externalities (i.e. persons in a group representing one half of a society using offensive negative labels unjustifiably to ascribe collective imagined moral turpitude to persons of typically lesser physical strength in a group representing the other half of society), as well as being highly unpleasant, may be most harmful.

Women walking down beaches, performing lawful activities such as wearing whatever they want (and to re-emphasise, in my view it is their decision – women ought to be able to wear whatever they want whether on a beach or in a coffee shop) – might be the subject of increased risk of sexual assault, because norms of objectification have taken hold. It is not just that men who talk like this may use these words because they are socially stunted, emotionally immature, violent and dangerous. Perhaps the even greater harm is that if use of such derogatory language towards morally innocent persons (for that is what women walking down beaches are) is ingrained in social discourse, then there is a risk that women may be hurt by people who are ingrained to believe that legitimisation of this type of language carries with it a colour of justification of immoral actions such as sexual violence against women.

Men are physically the stronger sex. There is nothing wrong, in my personal view, with sexual activities between consenting people. But there is something very wrong with the propagation of social norms that might have cause some people to believe that men’s superior strength can legitimately be used to overcome ethically relevant standards of consent. A parallel problem may arise where conventional power structures, whether in employment contexts or otherwise, have traditionally been dominated by men (for whatever reason; that is the subject of another essay). This may make men, in colloquial terms, the stronger sex in those contexts as well. Again, propagation of social norms derogatory to the notion that women should be entitled freely to consent to sexual activity in exactly the same way as should men, are dangerous in this context and they must be discouraged. That is the responsibility of the policy-maker.

I therefore suggest as a tentative definition of objectification, a collective social norm of viewing woman as agents whose personal desires are to be subordinated in one way or another to the selfish sexual pleasure of men in a way that may degrade morally appropriate notions of consent to sexual activities or indeed any other activity in which the gender or sexual habits of the putative victim are at issue. Objectification occurs when men normalise the treatment of women as instruments for the achievement of their sexual pleasure, without paying adequate regard to what women themselves may want. That is because there is a social norm indicating to men that this is legitimate. These norms are most harmful, and we should work to eliminate them as best we can.

Social norms are path-dependent. This means that their contents depend heavily upon convention. New social activities can change conventions and hence and redirect social norms. A new social trend indicating that it is fine for women to serve coffee wearing clothes that cause sexual excitement in customers, such that those customers will pay higher tips, might redirect social norms about objectification of women in an adverse direction. It might contribute to what could be described as the “prostitutionisation” of society. What I mean by this admittedly crude neologism is that sex becomes a market commodity in a way that erodes moral standards of consent to sexual activity or activity related to the gender of a group of individuals about whose collective welfare we ought to be concerned.

Banning behaviour that might adversely redirect social norms seems to me profoundly illiberal and inconsistent with democratic values. It relies upon benevolent dictatorship. Who is to decide what redirection of social norms is adverse? Anything could be banned. History teaches us that banning activities just because they represent potentially harmful social trends can lead to totalitarianism, and in an any event is inconsistent with liberalism as classically conceived in the writings of Bentham and Mill. So prohibition is not the answer.

Nevertheless I should return to the observation that that this curious trend in bikini baristas in Washington State is more likely than not an aberration due to die death through a thousands cuts by lawyers’ briefs, and the most responsible social policy response to this is not to ban activity that is, in these isolated instances, in all possibility mostly silly and harmless; but to starve it of the oxygen of publicity such that the possibility of adverse social norm redirection is calcified pending the phenomenon’s likely prospective demise. We could also credibly say that whichever idiot thought this up is not exactly helping the feminist cause, but life is full of idiots many of whom do unhelpful things. The policymaker has to address each new idiocy on a case-by-base basis.

Now I will express a more controversial view, albeit in passing and without adequate justification, if only to seek to stimulate further debate for which there insufficient time and space to continue here. I think The Guardian, in its exercise of journalistic responsibility, should have thought more carefully as to whether it was appropriate to have published this piece. Arguably it should have starved this nonsense of the oxygen of publicity. Of course law cannot possibly prohibit The Guardian from publishing articles of public interest, which this undeniably is. But it might have been a case of irresponsible journalism. Equally, The Guardian should have a right of reply to this tentative charge. I would welcome any such reply in the name of advancing legitimate debate.

Moreover much of the foregoing discussion is subject to the presumption that these women are safe. But they might not be. Such a quixotic service could attract unsavoury persons. I presume there are security guards and the like at these coffee shops. If the work were dangerous, then serious negative externalities might justify legal prohibition. (Unless of course people just did it anyway – there became a black market in such absurd coffee shops, in which case the social policy response should be regulation rather than prohibition.) There are indications that bikini barista work could potentially be dangerous, from the anecdotal comments contained in The Guardian report. Sexual psychopaths are everywhere, although one very much hopes in a minority.

Nevertheless – and I mention this just as an aside, again to stimulate further debate rather than to express and definitive view – one might form the opinion that how best society should deal with sexual psychopaths – people, mostly men, who have so limited a  moral compass that they are prepared to execute egregious sexual violence against any available person within the sphere of their attractions – is the subject of a separate discussion. I have an intuition that problems of psychopathy may well be unrelated to problems of sexual discrimination against women other than tangentitally. Sexual psychopaths have always existed, and I imagine they always will do no matter how far the feminist cause advances. Discriminatory practices might facilitate their acts, but I doubt  legal or social measures against discrimination could ever eliminate behaviour in persons inclined to psychopathy. The solutions to this problem may be more predominantly penal and/or medical, amongst other things. I am no expert, and this issue would require further study. My tentative, and admittedly uneducated, comments might be directed upon the wrong lines, but this seems to me an empirical debate worth having (if it has not already taken place).

Now I would like to conclude with a number of final, serious thoughts. What is it about society that has caused us to commoditise sexuality; can it be reversed; and should it be? We cannot answer the latter two questions until we understand the first one, and I do not know the answer to that question. But we must think about it.

Feminism is surely one of the most just of causes: using moral and social tools to eliminate widespread discrimination against a group so large that it represents half of society. I hope to have shown, in this short essay, that feminism is also a sophisticated cause, and that some of the challenges facing society and the policymaker in seeking to promote feminist goals require further study. We must continue thinking seriously about these issues, apart from anything else to balance the periodically competing principles of liberalism and social justice. Alas, good policy-making was ever thus.

Matthew Parish


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Matthew Parish is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and has been listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland.