Commercialization of the Female Form

In March 2009, the journalist Buki Naeh was present at a night club in Tel Aviv that features “exotic dancers”. Naeh noticed that one of the patrons was General Eliezer Marom, the Commander of Israel’s navy, and disclosed Marom’s presence to the public.

When the situation became known to the IDF, internally the issue was closed rapidly. Marom apologized for his actions, and the Chief of Staff issued an admonishment (short of a reprimand). However, the incident ignited a public furor, with a number of prominent figures considering the admonishment insufficient and calling for Marom to be sacked or to resign.

The calls for Marom’s ouster were accompanied by a lot or moralizing, but relatively little substantive moral reasoning. Many just strung together a lot of judgmental words like “immoral”, “unethical”, “unsuitable” and so on, without ever exactly explaining what was wrong with his actions. All commentators agree that Marom’s visit was on his own time, in civilian clothes, and was perfectly legal.

In an interview to Ynet, Amira Dotan, a reserve Brigadier General in the Navy, decried the behavior in rather oblique terms. She complained in the that “this kind of behavior raises eyebrows,” adding “To be a commander is first of all to be an ethical person”, and that the command doesn’t want to be involved with “things like that.” It may be that she is in fact not relating to the substance of the behavior but rather directly to the fact that it “raises eyebrows” – that it is perceived as something unseemly.

It’s dangerous to make substantive moral judgments on the basis of convention, because one reason we engage in moral reasoning is to reconsider the moral status of things previously considered immoral. But for a person in a very high position this approach makes sense. A leader needs to be an example for generally accepted ethical standards, even when he or she doesn’t share them. Marom will pass on the command to someone else in a couple of years and then he can behave like a private citizen.

A related consideration is that as soon as a place is perceived as unseemly, it tends to draw unseemly characters of all types. A strip club seems a natural place for a criminal correspondent like Naeh to hang out, looking for some juicy story.

In contrast to Dotan, another former female former naval officer accompanied her criticism in the same forum with a reasoned ethical critique. Chedva Almog, currently assistant mayor of Haifa and also a reserve brigadier general in the Navy, stated: “Someone who has command over soldiers, and particularly female soldiers, needs to know that places like this are unsuitable places to hang out – places that make cynical use of and exploit the female body.”

The critique in and of itself is valid. One of the tenets of Western ethical thinking is Kant’s imperative that others should be treated always as ends in themselves, and never merely as means to an end. Based on this criterion Kant repudiated prostitution, and no doubt would have shuddered at strip clubs as well. Of course the approach has problems as well; someone who attends a sports competition is equally interested in the athlete’s body, and not his or her character. But there are other distinctions, such as power relations, which strengthen Almog’s approach.

The main problem I have with Almog’s critique is its inconsistency. If the Gogo club in Tel Aviv commercializes the female body, what can we say about any number of popular television programs, such as “The Models”? The only difference would seem to be between retail and wholesale commercialization. The ladies in the club disrobe anonymously before a small number of strangers, and are able afterwards to go back to private lives; the ladies in “The Models” disrobe before millions, including their friends and neighbors. Should commanders who view this popular television program also be relieved of their posts? Should they also be deemed unfit to command female soldiers?

I think that the “bad milieu” consideration is a valid one, and justifies giving Marom an admonishment. Anything beyond that would be excessive, given that his conduct was completely lawful, on his own time and in civilian garb, and he apologized. If he likes that kind of entertainment let him wait until he is a civilian. But I can’t see how the “exploitation” argument is applicable in an equitable way. The commercialization of the human body is ubiquitous in popular culture, and singling out Marom for censure on this score would be unfair.