Dear Liza,
I am the editor of an alumni magazine that is sent to a diverse alumni population. I strive to be inclusive in my coverage and usually succeed. A recent issue did not contain any African Americans except in the athletics section, and an African American faculty member complained to me about it, ignoring the many editions that show excellent diversity. I feel it is my job to go where the story is first and worry about diversity second. To me, her criticism that the African American athletes we featured were stereotypical discounts the very real accomplishments of these students. She believes in representation in every issue in what she considers an acceptable way. How would you respond to this complaint and this instruction?


Dear Flummoxed,

It is so frustrating to receive criticism that feels unfair. However, we as media producers always have to remember that no one else reads our work as closely as we do. Your colleague may not be a regular reader of the magazine. But that doesn’t make her criticism wrong. We can’t expect anyone to read all of our work in full, as galling as that may be. You say you worry about where the story is first and diversity second, but you would be critical of an editor who never thought black scholars, authors, or scientists were the story. For a reader who sees only this issue of the magazine, alas, the effect is the same. While I agree with you that athletes are worthy of recognition, alumni magazines send important messages about the institution’s values, and to portray black students or graduates only as athletes, even in one issue, sends (unintentionally, of course!) the wrong message about how the school views its black students, their potential, and their achievements.

When it comes to something of this importance, Flummoxed, you have to treat each issue of your magazine as if it’s the only one a reader will ever see, because in many cases it will be. Respond by thanking your colleague for bringing the matter to your attention, acknowledging that she’s right about this particular issue of the magazine, and saying that you understand why, given all the stellar accomplishments of black graduates, she’d find it jarring. Emphasize that you are sorry that this issue of the magazine did not reflect the school. You can add—but not too defensively—that previous issues have been much better in this regard. Tell her you won’t let this happen again. Then don’t let it happen again.

Dear Liza,
I’m a teenage male trying to be a better person, which includes being truly feminist. I do not want to be that guy who says he’s a feminist but just uses women for sex. I used to be a very offensive person, and sometimes I feel I view women as sex objects. I’m bisexual, but I feel like I don’t do this with men. I have many female friends, but I’m not sure where the line is between normal thoughts of sex and objectification. These girls have really been there for me when I’ve struggled, and when I think about them this way, it feels I’m betraying their friendship. This is eating away at me, and I was wondering if you could help me out.

—Aspiring Feminist

Dear Aspiring Feminist,

First of all, Aspiring, it’s perfectly normal, especially at your age, to think about sex a lot. And there’s nothing morally wrong with being superattracted to someone, even someone you don’t know. In fact, this happens to many people (and not only to men) every day.

“Objectification” means viewing someone as a thing rather than a person. The word is usually meant as a feminist critique of the way women are seen in a male-dominated society, as objects for men’s pleasure, without desires, ideas, and achievements of their own. Objectification can be enraging—for example, a man complimenting our ass when we’re giving a serious presentation on climate change. When women and girls are treated that way, it not only hurts our feelings but also obscures our humanity and inhibits our potential.

Of course, that’s horrible. But sometimes the phrase “sexual objectification” is too judgmental for my taste. It has a moralistic connotation, suggesting that whenever we sexualize people “too much,” we are failing to treat them as fully human. The concept of sexual objectification, after all, comes originally from Immanuel Kant, an 18th century philosopher who thought people should think about or partake of sex only within marriage—hardly a useful doctrine for you to follow as a teenager.

Kant’s view and that of some feminists has some downsides. It misses important distinctions between feelings and actions: Your private thoughts can’t hurt anyone. And, in fact, sometimes people want to be seen as sex objects. Perhaps you’ve experienced this. Isn’t it annoying when you want someone to notice how hot you are but the person wants to be just friends? Girls experience such aggravations, too.

Finding yourself attracted to your female friends doesn’t make you a sexist jerk. They might even like you back in that same way. The key here is communication. Ask questions of yourself and the girls you like: What do they want, and what do you want? Sometimes both of you might want something just physical—and that’s OK. Sometimes one person wants something only physical, while the other needs something more. That’s not likely to work well. That disparity doesn’t make anyone a creep, but the sooner you clear that up and get out of the situation, the better.

It is interesting that you worry about objectifying women more than men. If you do take men more seriously than women as humans, you have problems with women and should avoid romance with them for now. But I suspect that’s not the case. More likely, you’re labeling your strong sexual responses to women as objectification because you’re trying to make sense of your sexuality while coming to feminist consciousness. All of our desires take place in the context of a patriarchal society, but that’s no reason not to enjoy them, as long we keep talking with one another and making sure our actions are consensual and considerate.

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