Transformers 3; or, What’s Wrong With Sexual Harassment Training

They have more in common than you’d think. The obvious answer is that they both have an obnoxiously long duration that wasted hours of my life, are devoid of any meaningful substance, pander to the the worst cliches imaginable, and are insulting to our common sense. But the obvious is not always the full story.

Our current milieu is awash with stories of multiple alleged sexual assaultsbattery, unwanted physical contact, general sexual inappropriateness, and combinations of the above. And with more and more disclosed every day, it makes me wonder who will be next. It also makes certain business heads anxious. So it makes sense that there is renewed interest in sexual harassment training.

But should the response to these revelations be powerpoints? I’m doubtful that such attempts at “awareness”, done by educational seminars, targeted to the individual, will work.

First, in order to not trivialize sexual crimes, we need to distinguish between revulsion and mere disapproval. Being part of someone else’s fantasy may disturb you, but until it is backed up by an abuse of authority or persists beyond reason it does not amount to a justiciable offense.

How could it? Neither disgust nor arousal at certain sexual acts should give rise to a claim on anyone’s part to not to be surrounded by, or included in, such fantasies. Interfering with another’s sexual fantasy, so long as it does not directly harm a specific person, is morally obtuse. As per Thomas Nagel:

“No one is sufficiently polymorphous perverse to be able to enter with imaginative sympathy into the sexuality of all his fellow citizens. Any attempt to treat this psychic jungle of private worlds like a public space is much too likely to be an expression of one’s own sexual fantasies, rather than being based on an accurate appreciation of the meaning of the sexuality of others.”

With finite minds having the possibility of reacting with delight or revulsion at infinitely many situations, it is impossible for everything to be sympathetic to the particular configuration of one’s own sexual imagination. There’s simply no reason to think a judge or an administrator is capable of adequate evaluation. There’s also no reason to think that dark-and-twisted material necessarily comes from dark-and-twisted thinkers. Otherwise the same mind wouldn’t give us both Glee and American Horror Story, and the same mind wouldn’t give us both Happy Feet and Mad Max.

So if unacceptable feelings in some are no indication of what it means to others, and particular thoughts need not be connected to a deeper character flaw, it then follows that a Procrustean treatment of sexuality should be opposed. The argument on behalf of a standardized behavior due to making others feel threatened assumes that incompatible sexual fantasies are part of the public. But they’re not. If there is to be a separation between public and private life, what could be more private than one’s sexuality?

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Furthermore, it’s impossible to be removed from the private thoughts of others. Everybody is always judging everyone else all the time. We are constantly attributing motives to others based on our experiences, and Others do likewise to us. For someone like Sartre, the best attempts to escape the Other’s gaze is to be in situations that can enable a form of mutual recognition of subjectivity. In sexual terms, it means:

“I make myself flesh in order to impel the Other to realize for herself and for me her own flesh. My caress causes my flesh to be born for me insofar as it is for the Other flesh causing her to be born as flesh.”

But try as one might, full satisfying of desire seems to always be beyond reach. As a result, in relationships one doesn’t idealize but is made to accept all the failures and flaws of the other person. You begin to see perfection in imperfection. You misrepresent reality and fantasize according to your desires.

Needing to fit one’s fantasy, however, means one loves another only insofar as the person fits the coordinates of the fantasy. This creates partial objects. So we’re stuck between seeking out an ideal that transcends our subjectivity, and a succumbing to a fantasy that shrinks our already narrow subjectivity. And we do this constantly to others. And others do it constantly to you. Thus hell is other people.

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The panopticon known as society is such that, not only does everyone see and judge everyone else, it permeates everything including our own minds and our sexuality. An animal in heat performs sexual acts in a neutral manner so as to make an erection an instrumental activity on par with raising one’s arm. On the other hand, human cultures can sexualize anything. As put here:

“Our ‘mating strategies’ aren’t guided by evolution but by ‘sociocultural expectations.’  I may be all in on evolutionary theory, but not when it comes to human beings mating, not [now], not when the media has already decided how I’m going to talk, think, and feel.   If evolution isn’t driving your decision to drink 10 cans of Diet Coke a day, how could it possibly be driving my choice of sex partner, let alone wife?  Birthing hips?  Really?”

Even a culture that “represses” sexuality has just found another way of bringing sexuality to the forefront of consciousness. Physical touch need not be the mark of intimacy or arousal. An Amsterdam peep show is just as physically abstinent as a monastery, but your adrenal and cerebral cortices will be getting their freak on. Those who think we’re being, or should be, repressed are talking about sex. Claiming to not be talking about sex makes one end up talking about sex, as argued ad nauseum by Foucault. Repression doesn’t remove sexuality, it modifies and expands upon it. As put by Alan Moore:

 “Rather than being able to have a healthy relationship with our own sexual imagination, we’re driven into some dark corners by shame and embarrassment and guilt, and those dark corners breed all sorts of monsters.”

Shame buries fantasies. This would appear to keep them repressed in an attempt to keep things controlled and presumably safe. For instance, exotic dancers are shamed more for their ecdysiasm than those who model lingerie. The latter was commanded to be in a certain pose, while the former chooses her moves. But as shame keeps fantasies underground, it also enables them to breed darker fantasies. So shame exists to keep fantasies going. Thus we get advertisements that use sex to sell items that previously were not sexualized.

The end result of this is that your fantasy is neither YOURS nor a FANTASY.

It’s not yours since society told you what to desire. For instance, a woman can choose to wear makeup, but she can’t choose to not be (viz. she will be) judged as vain for wearing makeup. Even though this is exactly what she was told to do. Her best shot is to be proficient enough in cosmetic use that she looks like it was not on purpose, viz. get the result but hide the process. Fantasy is born: you get what you desire seemingly from nothing. But at no point were you the one choosing the desire.

It’s not a fantasy either. It’s a hellish cycle of endless metonymic pursuit, where everything you get is only a manque substitute because, as a famous German said, “love desires itself and not the object”. Try as you might to get something, you never really get it. You’ll get the object sought after, but jouissance leads to more failed attempts and so on. Thus you buy lingerie, paying for the fun and excitement had by Victoria’s Secret models, and instead of happiness you get a piece of clothing.

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Back to the initial doubts expressed – if the predicament is so entrenched in social forces, how is one lecture aimed at the individual supposed to change things? Individuals will get blamed for mocking Weinstein, and also will get blamed for not mocking. Institutions like to say they protect their employees, that people are innocent until proven guilty, but they’re also just as susceptible to social pressure – so businesses presume that outrage is forthcoming which leads to cancellations and replacements, viz. avoiding instead of fixing the problems.

Attempts like this don’t work. If they did, we wouldn’t have situations like we currently do. Situations like the current one make us reassess prior attempts. However, the problem is: see the first sentence of this paragraph.

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But however much fantasy entraps us, it can provide solutions too.

Consider a fairy tale. All types of Imaginary things happen, but the end result is always a concrete material reward (marriage, money, surviving a journey, etc.). They allow us to “grow up” by providing a social fantasy for one’s personal fantasy to attach to. On the other hand, immaterial personal attempts at mitigating sexual harassment (eg. seminars) will never substitute for material or social solutions as they lack this capacity.

Or consider a movie. The camera is another panopticon, always there in a movie frame but never seen. This voyeurism is inherent to the art form, and explains the parallel growth of the daguerreotype in 1839 that allowed for pictures of sexual fantasies (eg. porn) to widely distribute, with over 400 shops in Paris by 1860.

This, at long last, brings me to a comparison with Transformers 3More specifically, to Rosie Huntington-Whiteley:

2016 LACMA Art + Film Gala Honoring Robert Irwin And Kathryn Bigelow Presented By Gucci - Arrivals

She is a Victoria’s Secret model that functions as an actress who symbolizes Carly in the movie. This was very much done on purpose; she wasn’t hired for her acting chops. A model was intentionally cast as an actress. She is a semiotic connection between those different elements, between the Real and the Symbolic. She functioned as a copy of a copy of a copy, never ever able to be a being-for-herself. But existence via repetition is not the same as repetitive existence (the latter is not good). Even if not sui generis, her existence and agency has been asserted in moving from a job directly in the male gaze to being a Hollywood celebrity. She remains a feminine objet petit a, but for more money, with more clothes on, and from a point of more agency (instead of being another’s puppet).

So the crux of the matter is this –

How could something as asinine as Transformers 3 get this right?

How is everyone else getting it wrong?

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