When a man shares intimate details of his past sexual partners with you, he’s contributing to the objectification of women, and unless you tell him to stop, so are you, says Cara Hoffman.
I once dated a man who felt compelled to share the intimate details of the last few relationships he’d had. This included what kind of noises he’d heard women make in bed, how loud they were, where they would have sex (bathroom stalls!) what kind of sex toys they used and how big they were, nicknames a woman gave his penis, the size and shape of individual body parts of women. It was a veritable list of circus tricks and beauty contest results, a parts and services catalog: one put her knees behind her head, one had the prettiest mouth, a few required lube, another shaved. And yes, one even ejaculated.
I would like to think that this kind of immaturity in discussing women’s bodies as objects with other women is uncommon but I know it’s not.
There are ways that it’s appropriate to share the details of another person’s private life when you are building a relationship. And there are other ways that will never be.
Responding to the parts and services catalog is tricky for women. If you say you are not interested in hearing about an admittedly embarrassing fling with a narcissist who waved to passersby while doing it in front of a window, you can be accused of a variety of shortcomings: sensitivity, jealousy, possessiveness, and most ironically immaturity. Let’s be clear. Being unwilling to hear about what a great sense of humor a partner’s former girlfriend had or how much fun she was to play tennis with, or how professionally accomplished she was, or how smart or lovable would definitely put you in the categories of jealous, immature, and possessive. That kind of thing is completely unacceptable and not sisterly. But not wanting to be party to a breach of a woman’s private sexual life or a detailed description of one body part is something else entirely.
Sadly I engaged in some of this talk. But my final moment of refusing to be party was when he wanted to speculate about “the prettiest pussy” either of us might have seen. A beauty contest for a few inches of flesh. I rolled my eyes. A woman who takes part in, encourages, or tolerates this kind of cataloging is sexist. She betrays other women. She denies her own responsibility. She violates her own best interests.
This kind of “confiding” is insidious, it’s a violation, a verbal dismemberment and a clueless, sexist assertion of power. It is impossible to listen to this kind of speech, to be aware of the titillation it provides, to know how rote it is in so many men’s lives, how some men view cutting up women this way as a kind of sexual honesty or bonding in a new relationship, and not see just exactly how sad it is to be a man. How men are sold an identity so deeply connected with sexual prowess and experience that it hobbles them.
Women are forced to take part in the everyday objectification of other women and of themselves just by existing in this world. Going to movies, seeing ads on the sides of busses or cabs, standing in the checkout line. But hearing these details in the confines of your own home and your own bed is to be audience to the extreme and unlimited power and privilege of masculinity—the reduction of specific women to parts, the instumentalization of women as performers of acts. Revealing, exposing, and detailing these acts to other women for sexual pleasure is a double violation. And contributes to attitudes that dehumanize and cause violence against us.
It’s hard to break behavior that has manifested over centuries of not seeing women as fully human—break seemingly innocent knee-jerk behavior that’s part of maintaining masculine power. When a girl can be gang raped and urinated on and then publically mocked on Youtube as happened in Steubenville, or raped with an object until she is eviscerated, as happened in Delhi, when women are second class citizens worldwide, and three women a day are murdered by their partners in the United States (vastly more in other parts of the world), when a quarter of women in the United States are victims of domestic violence, when women face the everyday guerilla war against us—not knowing who among half the population might be a rapist or when and where they might strike, when 15 out of 16 rapists will never spend a day in jail, when women are actually physically dismembered, decapitated, and burned alive, the immature bedtime revelations of hapless good-guy sexists who have absorbed the message that women are meat, and want to share that message with you, are really not so innocent after all.
A good man will recognize that. And change.
Cara Hoffman is the author of the critically acclaimed novel So Much Pretty, a New Yorker Books Pick. She has been a visiting writer at St. John’s University, Goddard College, Oxford University where she lectured on Anti-social Masculinity for the Global Scholars Symposium, and has spoken at the Columbia University Epidemiology Scientific Symposium on Sexualized Violence. Her second novel Be Safe I Love You is forthcoming from Simon and Schuster in 2013.