When Does a Fantasy Become Harmful?

Although I love video games and although I love Greek mythology, the God of War series never really crossed my path until recently. Now, I still haven’t played it, so I can’t say anything about the quality of the game or the plot or anything like that. All that I’ve seen is one scene, but as this scene wasn’t overly complicated or difficult to interpret, I feel fairly confident discussing at least it.

In God of War 3, your protagonist Kratos – a Spartan demigod with more muscles than Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime – enters into Aphrodite’s chambers (Aphrodite, for those of you who aren’t aware, being the Greek goddess of love and sexuality). He finds her almost naked, laying in a bed with her handmaidens and having some sexy-fun-time with them (because lesbians). Upon seeing Kratos, Aphrodite banishes her sexy handmaidens to the other side of the room so that she can have a conversation with him, during which she is lounging out on the bed, rolling around, and very clearly trying to seduce Kratos (because boobs). After the conversation is over, the player then has the option to give into Aphrodite’s seduction. If the player does this, we see Kratos descend upon the bed, before the camera pans off of them and onto Aphrodite’s handmaidens across the room, who then proceed to watch the bed and swoon and sigh over Kratos’s supposedly exceptional lovemaking, making comments about how jealous they are of their mistress while simultaneously groping each other.

Now, the critiques of this scene are obvious. It is both objectifying to women and fetishizing bisexual women. But that being said, I can already hear the defence against this critique: that it isn’t supposed to be taken at face value. It’s all a fantasy, intended to make Kratos look like the manliest manly man that ever lived, not only exceptional at fighting and looking awesome, but also at pleasing the ladies.

And trust me, I get that argument. I love fantasies in the media. In fact, some of my favourite story lines are power fantasies, intended to make the viewer feel like they are strong and capable by making you relate to the all-powerful, impossibly strong hero. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, these are all power fantasies.

But at the same time, they are different from what we see happening in the scene from God of War 3.

The thing about Spider-Man that makes him and his story arch very different from this scene is, well, content. Spider-Man is awesome because he fights crime, he has super powers, he looks like an average teenager but is actually secretly awesome. And at the same time, Spider-Man is awesome in a way that most young people know isn’t real. When it comes to things like superheroes, parents tend to be quick to remind their kids that, yes, Spider-Man is awesome, but in real life, people don’t have super powers and they don’t fight crime in quite the same way. When it comes to discussions of sexuality, parents don’t tend to be quite so quick to talk to their children.

When I saw this scene from God of War 3, the first thing that it reminded me of was… well, pornography. Not because it foregrounded sexuality, but because of how unrealistically it depicted sexuality. Let’s all just agree: Aphrodite did not act like a real woman would. Neither does she or Kratos look the way that the average man or woman does; they are both idealized versions of what society thinks their gender should look like. And nobody in the history of the universe has made comments like the ones that the handmaidens made about Kratos’s lovemaking. This is all fake, and it is fake with the intention of pandering to the man and his ego, while most pornography is similarly made with a male viewer in mind.

And for many children in the western world, pornography is their introduction to sexuality. According to a report made by the BBC in 2016, 53% of children aged eleven to sixteen have seen pornography online, and of these children, 53% of boys and 39% of girls saw it as a realistic depiction of sex. And, look – I’m not trying to shame you if you watch pornography, all that I am saying is that pornography is not only unrealistic, it is centred around catering to a male gaze and a male ego. Like this scene from God of War 3, it is a fantasy, but when no one is talking to young people about this topic or offering them an alternative way of looking at it, it becomes easier to accept it as truth.

To put it in perspective, it would sort of be like if every single movie made for young boys was Spider-Man, and every single young boy knew that super powers existed, but they weren’t allowed to see it or talk about or hear about it ever; after a while, they’d start to question why they don’t have web-swinging powers, and why some girls look and act differently from Mary Jane.

But let’s talk about another issue that this scene discusses; female bisexuality. Like sex, bisexuality isn’t really talked about or represented in our media. The only bisexual characters that I can think of off the top of my head in mainstream media is Maureen Johnson from Rent and Piper Chapman from Orange is the New Black (both of whom are despicable human beings, but anyway…). In fact, probably the greatest representation of female bisexuality is, again, in pornography, meaning that you are more likely to see bisexual women having sex in our media than you are to see them going about their day or doing their jobs or anything like that.

But let’s go back to the scene from God of War 3, and let’s talk about the issue of desire here. Because, yes, Aphrodite starts out making out with her handmaidens, and yes, when Kratos is in bed with Aphrodite, the handmaidens are groping each other. But throughout all of this, the primary object of their desire is always Kratos, a man. Aphrodite sends her handmaidens away so that she can seduce Kratos instead. When the handmaidens are groping each other, their eyes are constantly on Kratos and they are going on about how hot he is. In fact, I am almost hesitant to describe them as bisexual, because outside of a few small sexual acts, they express nearly no desire for women; it always goes back to the man. And I have absolutely no doubt that the reason why the animators included these small sexual acts into the game was not because they wanted to represent Aphrodite as a strong, bisexual woman, but because they thought that it would be a nice treat for the presumed straight male player to see.

As I discussed before, this scene is harmful toward women in general because it perpetuates these unrealistic expectations that men have about how women should look and how they should behave sexually. But in some ways, it is almost more harmful toward bisexual women, because it perpetuates a very harmful stereotype that we all live with from the moment we come out of the closet: that we aren’t actually bisexual, we’re just trying to get attention from men.

This stereotype is one that hinges on dismissing the existence of bisexual women (and bisexual people in general). It portrays them, not as their own sexual orientation, but as promiscuous straight women – and as much as it is not okay to treat women differently depending on how many sexual partners they have had, it is an unfortunate fact in our society that that frequently happens, and it happens to bisexual women from the moment that we come out of the closet. Because of this stereotype, bisexual women are frequently dismissed, by straight men and lesbians alike, as ‘dirty’, a good, quick fuck but not actually worthy of love. Because of this stereotype, bisexual women are seen as ‘owing’ sex to men, because they obviously went to all the work of seducing them by being bisexual, and as a result, 61.1% of bisexual women are raped by an intimate partner, while 46% of bisexual women report being raped at any point in their lives, compared to 17% of straight women and 13% of lesbians. And don’t even get me started on the emotional side-effects of being consistently told, by both straight people and the LGBT community, that you aren’t enough, you’re too dirty, too promiscuous, to be accepted.

But, hey, maybe this stereotype would be less frequently relied upon if our media would just give us alternative representations of bisexuality.

So to sum this all up: when is a fantasy harmful? Well, my answer would be that a fantasy becomes harmful when it’s the only narrative we’re given. Sex is nothing like the way that it is represented in either pornography or God of War 3, but you wouldn’t exactly know that as an inexperienced young person who knows that sex exists but has never seen it for themselves, because the vast majority of our depictions of sex come through a heavy lens of fantasy, and a very male-oriented fantasy at that, resulting in some unhealthy ideas of what sex is and what women in sexual situations should be. And actual bisexual women are not lounging in their beds, making out with their handmaidens until a man shows up to sex them up properly, but if that’s the only image of bisexual women that we are given, then how are we ever going to know that?

So maybe my issue is less with God of War 3, which is nothing more than a stupid fantasy for young straight boys who like the idea of being a super powerful, super masculine lady-pleaser, and more with a society that doesn’t really give us much else than that. Where are my depictions of sex from a woman’s perspective? My bisexual women who don’t care if a man shows up or not, they’re perfectly satisfied with the woman they’ve got right here? If we had more of those, not only would this scene be much less harmful, it would be easier to recognize it as silly and unrealistic by comparison.

What It Means to Have Privilege

Privilege comes in a wide variety of forms.

People can experience privilege in terms of race, gender, or sexual orientation. People can experience privilege if they are able-bodied, neurotypical, or cis-gendered. Chances are, every single person in our society experiences some form of privilege, for one reason or another. Privilege is not something to be ashamed of, and it is not something that makes you an inherently worse person. Privilege is only something to keep in mind.

And why am I bringing this up? Why am I saying all of this? Because privilege is something that people have begun talking about more and more often lately, and in my opinion, that should be encouraged, because it is something that we should talk about. However, there are many people who take offence to the idea of privilege, and who may even deny that it exists.

 

To illustrate this, let’s create a very common, more specific scenario: a group of people are talking about race. Ted, a white person, keeps asserting that black people are treated in this way, and that the only appropriate reaction to it is that. Sue hears this and disagrees, and so she says, “you’re speaking from a place of privilege”.

Now, there are two ways that Ted can interpret this comment. On the one hand, he can assume that Sue meant it maliciously, that she is intentionally trying to belittle his perspective and tell him that it doesn’t matter as much as a person of colour’s perspective would. On the other hand, he can see it for the comment’s most common meaning: that Ted is white. He is not black. He has never been black. He does not know what it is like to live as a black person, and therefore he has no idea what they experience and how they should feel – at least not from a first-hand experience.

This is not a moral judgement against Ted. He cannot help being born the way that he was, and even if he could, there is nothing wrong with being any race, gender, sexual orientation, level of ability, or anything to that effect. However, that being said, it is important for Ted to keep in mind that his experience is not universal.

In our society, whether we like it or not, people are treated differently from one another based on superfluous things like skin colour and genitals. These sort of things do effect our lives and our experiences. For example, a white person will not be turned away from a job based solely on judgements made about their race. A man does not have to worry about his rights to reproductive health being taken away or made more difficult to access. A straight person does not have to worry about whether or not their families will still have contact with them when they finally admit who they love, and so on and so forth. None of these are that specific person’s fault – it is all based on the society in question and what rights and abilities that society has decided a person should have access to.

However, when someone lives their life taking these sort of things for granted, it becomes too easy for them to just assume that these are things that everyone has access to, and too easy for them to forget that they don’t. And that is why it is so important that we talk about our privilege – because if we don’t talk about it, then we forget that we even have it.

But saying that you have privilege is not a moral judgement, and it does not mean that your life was constantly easy. Nobody’s life is easy, no matter how much privilege you have, and nobody is forgetting that or taking away from your hardships by reminding you of your privilege. All that they are saying is that you lack the lived experience of someone in that scenario, and in that one part of your life, things might have been a little easier for you than for another person.

So please, don’t be afraid to awknowledge your privilege. Don’t be afraid to admit that you might have it a little easier in one regard of your life than another person. Because once you can admit that, once you can accept that your experience is not universal and that other people deal with different hardships, then you can open your mind to other perspectives and learn about them, maybe even help them a little bit.

There’s nothing wrong with having privilege. We all do. The only place you can really go wrong is denying someone else their right to speak out about their own unique perspective.

Why Emma Watson’s ‘Provocative’ Photo is Still a Feminist Act

When I first heard about the controversy regarding Emma Watson and her ‘provocative’ photo, bearing her stomach and parts of her breasts, I decided to stay out of it. My initial reaction was a very general ‘that’s a silly thing to get offended about’, and I had faith in humanity that this would just blow over and it wouldn’t be a deal in a couple of days.

Except the controversy is still here. People are still talking about it. And I have to say, I don’t understand why.

The argument that I’ve heard people offer is that Emma Watson is very outspoken about being a feminist, and that posing with parts of her torso exposed contradicts this statement. You can’t be a feminist and have boobs. Everybody knows that. Feminists are all conventionally unattractive women who dress head-to-toe in men’s business suits, and the moment she puts on a skirt or some lipstick, she immediately loses her status as a feminist.

Except that that very clearly isn’t true. And the manner in which people have responded to Emma Watson’s photograph just proves to me how much we need feminism.

Because, first of all, there is nothing inherently sexual about Emma Watson’s photograph. You can see parts of her breasts and her stomach, but besides that, she is standing tall with her arms crossed delicately before herself. The only reason why the photograph has been deemed sexual at all is because parts of a woman’s body are exposed – and that is a problem.

Because, honestly, what about a woman’s stomach and breasts is sexual, besides the fact that society has deemed them so? Why can’t Emma Watson be taken seriously as a feminist while simultaneously having breasts attached to her body?

And even if the photographs were completely sexual, even if she was lounging on a bed with a come-hither look in her eye and a pout on her lip, could she not still believe in equality? Want to be taken seriously as an individual? How is it that one photograph can so completely define who a woman is one hundred percent of the time?

This is our society’s problem – more than the fact that Emma Watson happens to have tits. We fail to see women as complex individuals. We have been taught to see them in the terms of stereotypes – a woman is either an unliberated whore or an ugly and completely asexual feminist. Any crossover between the two stereotypes completely baffles our mind and we don’t know how to understand it.

Because here’s the thing – women have sexuality. Even feminist women feel desire, have wants and needs of their own (unless they’re asexual), and that is perfectly fine. That’s more than fine – that’s human. And women should be allowed to express their sexuality in any way that they feel comfortable with, whether that mean that they take topless photographs and release them publicly or dress head-to-toe in a man’s business suit. As long as she is doing it because she wants to do it and it makes her feel comfortable and liberated, then that’s alright. That’s a completely feminist act and she should feel no shame for it.

Being a feminist does not mean that you have to limit yourself to being one thing. Being a feminist means that you can be free, that you can do what you want and what makes you happy, that you don’t have to bend exclusively to a man’s whim. That’s what being a feminist means.

Or, if nothing else, being a feminist at least means that you shouldn’t be publicly shamed for having tits.

Two Paths: The Virgin or The Whore

The way that many people talk, it would seem as though all women reach a fork in the path at some point of their lives, one that forces them to choose between two options.

They can choose the path of sexuality, and this one comes with countless assumptions about who they are and what they are capable of. Women who express their sexuality are automatically connected with stupidity and frivolity. They are useless women, whores, really. They are the sort of woman that no one wants to be or be with. They are women who are defined solely by the fact that they express sexuality, because from the way that many people talk, they are incapable of thinking beyond their own vagina.

Or they can choose the second path: the path of intelligence and education. These are the sort of strong, modern women we should all strive to be. They are respectable, modest, sexual only for their long-term boyfriend or husband behind closed doors. They do not partake in one night stands, they do not explore their sexuality, and most people would not even guess that they feel any sexual desire.

These two women are represented as binary opposites: the good and the bad, the virgin and the whore. The problem with this, however, is that these binary opposites are trying to describe people, and people are not as simple as all of that.

The idea that women who explore their own sexuality are stupid, useless, and undesirable is an unfair generalization. It relies on the very old-fashioned idea that women should not be in charge of their own pleasure – which these women are. In fact, in some cases, these women are more liberated than the alternative. These are women who know what they want, who pursue what makes them feel good, and there’s nothing wrong with that, and neither does that make them stupid. It just makes them human.

And sometimes, the alternative, the ‘good’ woman who represses her sexuality, might be a woman who has internalized patriarchal ideas. She might think herself ‘better’ than her more sexually active counterpart directly because she isn’t ‘the whore’. She’s the good woman who caters to her man’s needs before her own.

But at the same time, this ‘fork in the road’ that people discuss just doesn’t exist. There are not two separate roads that a woman must choose between – there are more like multiple, meandering paths that sometimes intersect or branch off. Women are not ‘virgins’ and ‘whores’ – they are people, who find their comfort and pleasure in all sorts of things.

Some women are not comfortable with or liberated by sex, and that does not say anything about who she is as a person. It just means that she isn’t comfortable.

Some women are not comfortable with or liberated by sex, but they still enjoy flirting, or dressing in revealing clothing. And that, too, is perfectly fine.

Some women enjoy sleeping around while they’re single, but accept monogamy while they’re in a relationship.

Some women have multiple sexual partners even while they’re in a relationship.

Some women have a different relationship to sex depending on what is going on in their lives at the moment.

Women are not one thing or another. They are a massive group of people defined by countless ways of being. Some women feel more comfortable expressing their sexuality one way, some another, and both types should feel equally as free to express themselves without shame.

Because at the end of the day, it does not matter how many partners you have had or how you dress – none of that means anything about who you are. All that matters is that you are in charge of your own sexuality and that you feel comfortable living the way that you choose.

Why Women Are Not ‘Asking’ To Be Objectified

Though we may not have personally experienced it, I think many of us have at least witnessed the objectification of female bodies – particularly of nude or sexualized ones.

Perhaps you’ve seen a friend on social media post a sexy photo, one with her cleavage as the clear focal point, or where she’s wearing very little clothing for whatever reason (maybe it’s for an event, or maybe that’s just what she felt like wearing for this photograph), and you can’t help but notice a disturbing trend in the comments section. A trend of her male friends making very sexualized comments toward her. Some of these men are just there to drool over her, making the typical “nice legs, honey” comments. Some of these men make it clear that they’ve already imagined her in situations that she may not have even wanted to be in, saying “there are so many things I’d like to do to you”. And while you may not see it directly, it may not come to you as a surprise when I say that some of these men have privately messaged her explicitly sexual comments, invitations, or dick pics as a result of this photograph that she publicly shared.

Because when a women represents herself as a sexual being, too many men see that as an invitation to began treating her as a sexual object, one whose humanity can be entirely drained away to serve only the purpose of their gratification.

And there are some people who don’t really see this as a problem. They see the posting of photos like this, or a woman dressing in even-just-slightly revealing clothing, and they say “well, if she didn’t want this kind of attention, then she shouldn’t have done that in the first place”. Personally, I disagree with this statement, however, and for a couple of reasons:

1) It ignores the fact that, maybe, she didn’t dress or act this way for men.

Whenever people see a woman presenting themselves as a sexual being, they always seem to assume that she’s doing it specifically for the purposes of the entire community of straight men, which feeds into this vicious cycle that I’m talking about. She’s doing this for men, therefore it’s alright for men to talk to her however they want or send her whatever pictures they feel comfortable.

But women don’t necessarily have to have had men in mind to take a sexy photo or dress a specific way.

Maybe she just got a new outfit that she’s pleased with, and she wanted to show it off.

Maybe she feels like she looks particularly pretty in that photograph.

Maybe representing herself in a sexualized manner makes her feel confident and powerful.

Maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with men at large – maybe she just wanted to wear that outfit today. Which makes catcalling, dick pics, and objectification completely unwarranted when you think about it that way. Imagine trying to show off a nice, new shirt that you bought, and the only responses you get are obvious come-ons and sexual advances from everyone, including people who you might not have even wanted to think about you that way.

And even if she is intentionally representing herself as a sexual being, that is only because many women are sexual beings. Women have desires and attractions, and if they feel comfortable expressing that in a public setting, then they should feel safe to do so without being hounded by men who only want to tell her the ways that she can gratify them.

A woman isn’t ‘inviting’ anything by the way she dresses. She isn’t an object who exists only for your pleasure – she is a human being who should be considered as much more complex and varied than that.

2) Sexual objectification doesn’t just happen to women who are dressing or acting sexual.

The best example that I can think of that’s been on many people’s minds lately is breastfeeding. A woman’s breasts are not, inherently, sexual objects. They are a part of her body, and sometimes, they can be used to feed small children. But many breastfeeding mothers have been forced into shame and seclusion directly because a part of their body that they cannot help having has been deemed sexual by other people.

I have heard from people who fear what might happen if a child walks by and witnesses a woman feeding her baby in a public space, as though the sight of a breast is a fearful thing that might contaminate the young and pure of heart. But at the end of the day, it is just a breast, just a part of the human body, and no child who sees one will be worse (or better) off for it. The only reason why people think of it as a dangerous and sexual thing is because they’ve decided that it’s a dangerous and sexual thing.

The same thing is true for essentially all nudity. Nude photography, for example, is something that we’ve often been taught to view as fearful or inherently sexual. If one poses nude, then they are forced to take into consideration things like what people at work will think if they ever find out, or what their children will think if they ever stumble upon the pictures. But, a) nude photography does not inherently have to be sexual, and if you want evidence of that, I urge you to look up some of the late great Leonard Nimoy’s work. Some of it is just celebrating the beauty that is the human form, and b) even if it is sexual, so what? Many of us are sexual beings, and what’s so wrong with that? What about that is so fearful? I mean, yes, there are certain people in our lives who we may not want knowing that side of us, but if someone feels comfortable expressing it, then they should be allowed to without fear of being stripped of their humanity in the eyes of others because of it.

So I know that the question many men will be asking at this point is, “What is the appropriate way to respond then?” and, truth be told, I don’t know if I can entirely give a blanket answer to this question, because a lot of it has to do with the individual – particularly, it depends on your relationship with the person as well as the setting. All that I can really say is that, if you are considering making a sexual comment toward someone, you need to take a second beforehand to ask yourself, is this warranted? Is my relationship to this person one where I am totally justified in responding to them in this manner, and is their behaviour suggesting that a sexual response is proper? A lot of this is something that is going to require judgement on your part, because it’s difficult to broadly describe in which scenarios its appropriate and in which it isn’t. After all, treating a woman as a sexual being, with her own sexual agency, is not a bad thing. It only becomes twisted and ugly when you treat her as a sexual object, with the expectation that she exists for and should be flattered by your pleasure.