I am not a scientist. I also do not have testicles. However, if I had testicles, I would give my left testicle to be a scientist. I haven’t given up on science, though. I am a die-hard science nerd. I also happen to be very happy to be the owner of a nice, shiny, highly functional vagina. I am a girl in a world that many still see as a man’s world. It has been a long and difficult journey, for women, to become able to exercise their rights the way men have for centuries. Our gender worked hard to get here, and there is still, very clearly, more work to be done to obtain equality. At the Science Online 2011 conference, one of the topics of discussion was in regards to women in the science blogging community. Scicurious and Miriam had some things to say about it. Since I think it is important to discuss these things, I felt the need to respond.

I’m going to respond as I go through their post. I respect both women (scicurious is one of my favorite people on twitter) and trust that people will take each position on its own merit.

Miriam: So here’s what I’ve been thinking during this very very earnest discussion on women science bloggers. We have a fundamental conflict between selling science & including women. Everything in our society is sold with female bodies. Just check out the blog Sociological Images. Everything from household items to soap to apples. Everything.

While I think discussion about women science bloggers and how to sell them is an important topic of conversation, I also think it is important to note that I don’t think everything is sold with female bodies. At least, not in a sexual way. 50% of the population happens to be women, so it would be difficult to find a product that doesn’t have advertising that includes a woman, somehow. But, sexual imagery with a woman is not something that is always seen in advertising. It is there often, but not everything is sold that way. Some examples:

  • Hemorrhoid Cream
  • Hungry, Hungry Hippo (the children’s game)
  • Tongue Depressors
  • Krylon Indoor/Outdoor spray paint

Even if it were the case that everything was sold using sexualized images of women, that seems pretty irrelevant if we’re really trying to question if it is appropriate to do so. As we know from history, just because everybody does it doesn’t mean it is a good or bad trend to follow.

Miriam: So tapping into this to sell science is very effective. It totally works. Scicurious: But it utilizes a framework that involves the objectification of women’s bodies to the detriment of women, who continue to be objectified and thus get judged not on what they do, but on how they look. What a man says on blogs is usually (not always) disconnected from his looks, while a female face on a blog tends to be associated with whatever she writes, and the quality of what she writes is influenced by the way that she looks.

It doesn’t necessarily work, actually. It can work, sometimes, but as I’ve mentioned in the past, context is important. Sex is only a good advertising strategy if the advertisement is in the right context. Otherwise, it is ineffective. Also, as a person who has to strike a balance between being a sexual image and contributing intelligently to the world around her, I don’t really think that how a woman looks really has to play a huge role in how people value her as a writer and academian. While many of my readers may find me attractive, I’ve yet to encounter a single person saying something sexually inappropriate in reaction to anything I’ve posted on shethought. In fact, I suspect that most of those readers don’t even know what I look like, or what many of my peers on there look like. I agree that having a vagina does affect how a blog is received by readers.  In fact, I think what I wrote in 2009 , when Sheril Kirshenbaum had to deal with the problem, is still very relevant, today. Owning a vagina and being a writer means that we sometimes have to deal with some tactless hounds. I don’t think that problem is necessarily something that should be a deciding factor on if something or someone in the scientific community uses a sexual theme to market themselves. Marketing something a certain way does not mean that the marketing theme has to be something that the product always conforms to. Just because fruit of the loom, for example, used commercials with men dressed up as apples and grapes does not mean that men who wear underwear must then dress up as apples and grapes. Likewise, if the Science Cheerleader uses  cheer leading as a theme in how she advertises science, that does not mean that everyone in the science community must suddenly be a cheerleader, nor does it mean that is what the world will expect.

Scicurious: Well, how many women WANT to come forward and say “You were called hot, I was called fat and ugly”? There’s another little issue in there, I think. The fact that, when you get complimented, it is somehow more OK than if you get harassed for being ugly. People seem to feel more sympathy for those who are harassed for being pretty.

I actually think this needs more attention, but, as stated, nobody wants to highlight that they’ve been called ugly. Well, except me. I’ve complained about that behavior, before. You know what happens when you come out to a wide audience and say, “hey, so and so says I’m ugly?” Well, you find all the people who think you’re not ugly. I don’t think the problem is that people stop feeling sorry for those who are made fun of because someone thinks they’re ugly, I think the people who receive that kind of criticism either don’t mention it (because they don’t want to repeat something like that) or, they mention it and are quickly told that the person who harassed them is a loser and wrong. There’s an interesting side problem to this, though. For those who are told that they are ugly, I’ve noticed that it is sometimes difficult for their readers or peers to correct that problem because it is also considered inappropriate for a reader to say that they are attractive. As a result, there’s this odd hazy area when it comes to appropriate behavior. So, as a side question, is it appropriate for people to tell someone they’re attractive if you’re trying to help them recover from someone else’s bad behavior?

Miriam: And some women – who perhaps are a little younger – do think it’s a compliment. At first. But I think the true nature of those type of compliments becomes clear – and it comes back to using the female body to sell everything.

I think that the problem isn’t that one person thinks something is a compliment and another does not. Instead, I think that this is a problem because of context. Much like the aforementioned issue with Sheril, and the problem I wrote about on shethought, here. There are times when a compliment is appropriate and there are times when it is not. Also, there is a problem when it comes to who will welcome a compliment and who will not. If someone compliments me, I often welcome it, but it depends on the context, as well. I’m going to quote myself, here, because I think it is relevant:

This is a whole other issue, entirely. Sometimes, I care what people think about my appearance, sometimes I don’t. I like a variety of compliments and that includes compliments about my appearance, about my intelligence, about my skills. Would it still have been a problem if this person complimented her on something else? What if he complimented a book she was holding, a sticker on her car or her taste in coffee? Would that still be offensive? When we get a compliment that we don’t want, why don’t we treat it like we do input about other things that we don’t want? You know, like when you go through the checkout at the store and the clerk mentions that they’re raising money for the elite baby vampire robot olympics and would you like to donate? Unless we have a special interest in elite baby vampire robots, we’re likely to just pass that one over and the incident is forgotten as quickly as it happened. The clerk is free to mention it and we are free to dismiss it. It doesn’t matter if the clerk thinks that we care about it. This is one of those situations where it is our own reaction that matters, not that someone else did something. As long as they haven’t harmed us, they’re not responsible for how we take it.

While context for a compliment is important to consider, sometimes even moments where the context might be appropriate, we still don’t want to hear that compliment. That’s where the above paragraphs come from. So, while I may end up in a situation where there’s a compliment that I like and I accept it, if another person is in the same situation and they don’t like it, that doesn’t mean that the person issuing the compliment is somehow malicious or villainous or that the person who lacks desire for the compliment should necessarily be offended. Instead, dismissing the compliment as they would a comment on their shoes, that they don’t care about, is probably the best plan of action.

Miriam: Those of us who are trying to sell our brains are NOT selling our looks, and it’s insulting to presume that we are. Scicurious: Then when you get a compliment on your looks in the workplace, it’s like a slap in the face, taking away the other things you strive so hard to be proud of, by telling you what really SHOULD matter: your looks. Many people may say that really when you get a compliment on your looks, what they are REALLY saying is that you can be pretty AND do science! But why should the pretty even MATTER for your content? Why should this be pointed out at all? It has no effect on the content you are presenting, and mention of it is thus at least a non sequiter. But what it really does is remind you that you can be brilliant or not brilliant, or do good writing or not…but you’re so PRETTY!

At least, when there’s not any indication that you’re selling your looks. If you were someone who wanted to be a sexual image and wanted to write about science, I think that should be your right as much as it should be your right to write about science and not be sexual. When it comes to science and sexuality, I sell both. In fact, I enjoy selling both. I think that the thing that really bugs me about this debate is that there are so many valid points on all sides, but it has become a kind of ingroup/outgroup thing. I would love to see women in the community who don’t want to be sexual to be regarded in the light that they want to be seen in, but I don’t want them to have that at the expense of people like the Science Cheerleader or myself. I think that it is a false dichotomy to think we have to have either a sexualized element in scientific promotion or that we can’t have it at all. I want to be myself and to continue discussing science and feminist issues with my peers and I want my peers to remain as they wish to. I be me and you be you – I think that’s extremely important. For most women in the scientific community, I agree that it makes little sense for someone to follow important, informative posts with “gawrsh, ur hot!” when it doesn’t fit the context. I don’t think that should be a reason to strip all sexual elements from other people’s contribution to the community.

Scicurious: I feel like using hotness or women or sexy to sell science is not good for the women IN science. But i also think it’s not spectacular for science itself. Miriam: How so? Scicurious: Coolness doesn’t rub off. Putting science next to something that’s cool doesn’t make it more cool. It makes it science, standing next to something cool, and I feel that science has a great deal to sell itself on its own merits.

Doesn’t that mean that science will stand, regardless of context? If this is true, then it shouldn’t matter if I promote science while dressed in my petticoat, corset and kitten-kicker boots or if I’m dressed in coveralls, the message is the same.

Scicurious: To sell science with sex implies that it’s not GOOD ENOUGH on its own, that science itself can’t be fascinating or interesting unless it’s got glitter on it. But it CAN be! Look at the citizen science projects! They makes science perfectly interesting and fun, without having to prop it up next to something that’s sexy.

I don’t think that promoting science with a sexual image means that science is uncool on its own. That’s kind of like saying that men’s underwear would be unpopular, on their own, if we didn’t have visions of human-sized grapes and apples dancing in our heads. The imagery might be used to get attention to an idea, but that doesn’t mean that the product, itself, has nothing to offer on its own.

Scicurious: Yeah, I have to say that sounds really cool…but that’s not using women to sell it, it’s using something else, and something which has not yet been deemed to be harmful.

What evidence is there that it is harmful to women to be advertisers? If it *is* harmful for women to be advertisers, why is it not also harmful for men to be advertisers? or babies? or puppies? I’m not convinced that selling something with a woman’s image is harmful to women, in general. I’m not convinced that science would be ‘better’ than the rest of the world if they avoid sexual imagery when promoting itself. I don’t think that using or not using sexual imagery makes something better or worse than the next thing. In fact, I suspect that attitude has become an excuse for marginalizing a segment of the population. I admit that there is some bias, on my end, since I’m the population being marginalized and directly affected by that attitude. I am the outgroup that is shunned when others decide that sexual imagery is somehow a ‘bad thing’ and should always be avoided in certain situations. The thing about being in the outgroup for something like this is, it sucks.

Miriam: Exactly. And then we come back around again to selling science with sexy women. People made arguments that Nerd Girls or cheerleading are not actually about sexy women, which frankly I think are ridiculous.

When I write on shethought or indieskeptics, it is not about sexy women. Most of the time, when I write here on sexandscience, it is not about sexy women. Instead, I write about things like issues surrounding abuse, mummies, health, the Muslim use of the veil, and abortion. Me being a sex worker doesn’t play a role in those articles. They have nothing to do with sexy women and the people who read them aren’t thinking about sex, usually, when they read them.

Scicurious: Also…why science cheerleaders? Why not literature cheerleaders? Financial cheerleaders? English teachers surely need more exposure and appreciation.

Is cheerleader reading advocates close enough? Why would the existence or non existence of other types of cheerleaders be relevant to if a science cheerleader should or should not exist?

Miriam: I’m rather fond of the Radical Cheerleaders. They cheer for left-wing causes, are kinda punk, and include a range of body types.

Actually, this comment touches on the real problem more than anything else that has been said. Stereotyping. Isn’t the real problem more about how scientists tend to be non-conformists and by tossing in a sexual theme with a stereotyped womanly image, we feel a tiny bit of loss because now we’re being shoved in an uncomfortable direction, into the mainstream? Why is it acceptable to have a sexualized image of people who have a range of body types but not so acceptable if the image is of someone who conforms to a beauty stereotype? Is it better that I’m a fat, perhaps a little gothy, chick than it would be if I were a skinny cheerleader? Should that make a difference at all? Why? If we do think it is suddenly acceptable to have a cheerleader, perhaps sexy, image if the imagery is of women with a range of body types, aren’t we then contributing to the problem of ingroup/outgroup behavior by placing the Science Cheerleader in the outgroup to our ingroup?

Scicurious: Too true! I usually try to start out my days pretty well dressed. it makes me feel more confident, but at the end of the day, I smell like rodents. Oh well, at least Sci-cat thinks its pretty cool. And of course no one wants to punish people for being good looking. You’re ALLOWED to be good looking and a scientist.

Yay! Now I need to get the scientist part down.

Scicurious: Darlene Cavalier has stated in comments on my blog that she wants it to be ok to be good looking, and a cheerleader, and a scientist. I think that’s great and just fine, but I worry that using cheerleaders to promote science makes the looks supersede the science. And while using cheerleaders, and things that little girls like, to promote science for kids SHOULD be fine, it’s only really fine when we live in a society where we do not have to worry about being taken less seriously because of our looks. Sadly, we do not live in that society, and cheerleaders have far more connotations than just being role models for little girls.

I don’t think that context makes it wrong or only OK when we have a different society. Isn’t that kind of like saying that it is only OK to eat blueberries in a certain context or it is only OK to dress a certain way when society is different? I don’t think the ethics surrounding this issue change just because we don’t yet have the society we want. Also, if society is really the problem, then shouldn’t we work toward changing that problem instead of changing this behavior just because that problem exists? In fact, I think that because there is a problem with people’s personal biases, that’s all the more reason to show people how we can break the norm through being whoever we are HOT or NOT, and still being smart and educated. If you want people to take you seriously as a hot scientist, then be a hot scientist and let people see your value that way. If you want people to take you seriously as a non-hot scientist, then be that. It is entirely up to you. Don’t hide from what you are because you’re concerned that society hasn’t matured as much as you. If we always did that, then we’d NEVER see progress. We’d forever be stuck in this cave where scientists can’t be hot or scientists can’t be women and ugly in order to be heard. That would be really unpleasant!

Scicurious: I think there is a divide here. People want to promote science, and the easy way to do that is based on using female images to make science sexy. But I’m not sure we can do that AND try to keep comments on our boobs away from our blogs at the same time. While, in a perfect world, we SHOULD be able to do this, there’s no perfect world, and there are still too many connotations with using sexy to sell science that could negatively affect the women trying to perform and write about science on a daily basis.

I think there’s got to be a way to promote science that is effective and exciting. Citizen Science projects and fun science blogs for kids and adults are a GREAT start. Other great ideas for outreach are things like math books for girls and books on math and science that spark general interest, and are BY women, but do not focus on appearance. I think we can and should build on that kind of outreach. It’s great to look however you want, and do whatever you want (cheerleading, gymnastics, D&D, anime), and still do science. But mostly, it’s great to DO SCIENCE!

I think we should have the best of both worlds, really. There should be science outreach that is non-sexual, but I also think that the science blogging community should embrace the diversity that exists and welcome those who promote science in their own ways, no matter if it is a sexy promotion or not. I think diversity is important and that dismissing sexual imagery in association with science is only helping to create rifts within the community between a minority who doesn’t mind being sexualized or who are excited about presenting their subject matter as a cheerleader.

Oh, and I completely agree with that last part, YAY, SCIENCE! Now I have to find a left testicle for it.

A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine directed me towards a reality TV series called “Hookers: Saved on the Strip.” The show revolves around someone I have heard of before: Annie Lobert. Annie runs an organization called “Hookers for Jesus” and a place called “Destiny House” where she brings hookers to Jesus and pretends that they’ve all escaped from slavery. If you go to her website, you’ll find that ‘about page’ starts out with this:

Hookers for Jesus is faith based organization that addresses the realitiesannie-lobert of human sex trafficking, sexual violence and exploitation linked to pornography and the sex industry. We are committed to reaching out to children/teens/women that need assistance/escape from sex slavery.

One problem with Hookers for Jesus and the shelter she runs, Destiny House, is that Lobert uses misleading information and ideas in order to promote her organization. Based on her website, you’ll find that she seems to assume that women in the industry are somehow slaves. Obviously, anything people think is really bad should be compared to slavery or internment camps, right? The Facts page at the Destiny House website also promotes a lot of things that aren’t even true.

12-14 – Average age of first involvement in prostitution.

I’ve debunked this before. So I’ll just quote myself to save time:

That’s a lie that has been repeated for a long time, all over the place. Someone did a study on children who were forced into prostitution and then assumed that the numbers in the study on children applied to the industry as a whole. Obviously, that’s really bad reporting. It is really bad science and it is a horribly damaging myth to spread. It is sad that it is such a widespread myth. It is one of those myths that people believe because it is scary, not because there’s a rational reason to believe in it. A quick meta analysis of the information gained from this study on women detained for prostitution, you know, an actual study that collected data on the actual group we’re talking about, the average age the participants started prostituting themselves appears to be 20. Of course, we need far more information and this study has a natural bias because the people conducting the study were after other information. However, applying that data to the question of what the average age people enter prostitution is would certainly be far more accurate than using a study that was only about children entering prostitution.

Other aspects of Lobert’s site are misleading as well. For one thing, she focuses a lot on ‘facts’ related to child sex trafficking. However, there is no evidence, anywhere that I have seen thus far, that Lobert interacts with children who have been sex trafficked. In fact, where most of the ‘facts’ are related to children, on the Destiny House website, it seems unlikely that Lobert deals with children very much at all. Because when a child is found in the sex trade, it is usually a case of child sex slavery and the case gets turned over to Child Protective Services. Unless Lobert has some sort of license that allows her to foster such a child, and a suitable location for the child (which the Destiny House does not appear to be), then she can’t do the things for those children that she lists as her services on her organization websites. In other words, Annie Lobert is lying.

Furthermore, the issues facing children forced into the sex industry are dramatically different than those facing adults in the sex industry. So making a big deal out of children she’s not helping doesn’t tell anyone much at all about what she does for the women she’s supposedly helping and spouting off information that is completely unrelated to the women in her shelter is, at best, not helpful and, at worst, deceptive. I don’t think I can stress this, enough; children are incapable of giving informed consent like these women were. Children who are forced into this industry face much bigger problems than adults in the industry. They’re more vulnerable and more prone to long-term problems because of their own situations. Lumping them together with the women is demeaning to the experiences of each group.

So, I watched the first episode of Hookers, because I felt I really needed to know what was being said about the sex industry, if anything at all. Annie kicks off the show with this little gem:

Each year, more than 100,000 women and children are sex trafficked in America. They’re bought, sold, beaten, raped and killed every day. No one hears their cries for help. For over a decade, I was one of them. I sold my body and I almost lost my soul. My name is Annie Lobert, and I’m the founder of Hookers for Jesus. The Las Vegas strip is my office and my job is to get women off the streets.

Does that statistic sound suspicious? It did to me. So, I turned to Google. On google, I found no study that stated anything like this. Yes, people are sex trafficked in America. There are such things as people being forced into slavery where they are expected to do sexual things. That is a very, very serious matter, but as far as I have seen, thus far, Annie isn’t working with sex slaves and she pretty much pulled that statistic out of her ass. Also, based on the implied definition she uses on her website of ‘sex trafficking,’ that should be a bigger number. If sex worker is the same as sex trafficked, as she implies, then she’s got a lot more counting to do if she’s to find out how many there are. The sex industry is a very large industry. It is also ethically icky to imply that you’re saving sex slaves when you’re actually helping people who voluntarily entered an industry. Shame on you, Annie Lobert!

Also, while the instance of domestic violence is higher per capita for people in the sex industry, implying that all in the sex industry experience this is misleading and saying that the solution to the problem is getting them out is kind of like saying the solution to people drowning is no longer allowing anyone to play in the water. People will, very likely, always like to play in the water and people will always be inclined to do sex work. The solution to the problem of violence against people in the sex industry is to make the sex industry safer, just like the way to prevent drowning is to teach people to swim and navigate water.

I want to reinforce something about this show, really quick, because I think it is important. Nobody featured in the first episode of Hookers: Saved on the strip was forced into the sex trade. All who are featured, including Annie, herself, describe their situations and it is clear that their entry into sex work is a choice that they made. Slaves don’t get to choose. It is evil to take advantage of real slavery and child exploitation in order to benefit Hookers For Jesus and to claim that people who were free to do something were slaves or related to those two horrific experiences. Annie Lobert was never a slave. It is sickening that she attempts to imply that she and, others who have made choices in their lives, that they decided they didn’t like, are slaves.

All that being said, I’m not against an organization that helps women leave the sex industry, if they want to. I am against treating the sex industry as if it is a ‘bad thing,’ itself and I’m against this organization using religion in order to accomplish its goals. What happens when someone wants to leave the sex trade because they just want a change and they have some other religious affiliation? Adding guilt and a natural bias against them for their choices and their lack of being a jesusphile is not going to be useful to them at all.

The first episode of Hookers focuses, partly, on a girl named Regina. Regina has a few good points to make in the show, even though they try to make her story side with Lobert’s point of view. For one, Regina has stripped before and says, multiple times, that she doesn’t think stripping is the same as selling sex. She’s right! Lobert seems to assume that, because she met her pimp while she was stripping, that selling sex and stripping go hand in hand. She actually claims that stripping is a gateway to prostitution. This is misleading. Some strippers might sell sex, but many do not. In fact, some of the highest paid strippers that I know of don’t sell sex because if you sell sex, then the guy cums and he goes home and stops paying you. Selling sex, for strippers, is bad for business. Most strippers are also aware of the dangers of selling sex and so they object to it based on a variety of other reasons, such as they don’t want to go to jail or they don’t want a disease or they’re loyal to their spouse or boyfriend. In fact, other than the potential to go to jail and not wanting to lose money, the reasons for not selling sex for strippers pretty much mirrors why most other people might not have sex with a random person. Strippers, as it turns out, are quite capable of making appropriate sexual decisions for themselves.

bio_page_regina_400An interesting element of this episode is that Regina and Annie share the screen time devoted to telling Regina’s story. I’m not sure entirely why, because there doesn’t seem to be a problem with Regina telling her own story. To further make this element of the show odd, to say the least, the story told by Regina about herself and the story told by Annie about Regina don’t seem to be entirely congruent. Annie assumes that Regina was kicked out of her home situation and, while Regina doesn’t completely contradict that, the way the story is cut up for film, Regina makes comments about calling her dad to tell him she entered the Navy and it doesn’t seem to flow with the story about a kid being kicked out. I could be wrong about this, but the story seems to be broken, here, at a critical point in the story. Regina met her pimp in the Navy, but saying she was kicked out of her house makes her story more dramatic, I guess.

Another element of Regina’s story that is worth considering are her comments about money.

The last paycheck I got, I could have made that in an hour.

That comment leads to another scene where Lobert says, “The money is definitely what keeps girls in the business.”

That’s only partly true. Money is a great motivator, I have no doubt about that, and Regina is wise to miss that money. Money gets you food and shelter and Internet access and Darth Tater, the Mr. Potatohead version of Darth Vader. Money is a nice thing to have and when it comes to making decisions based on if you have spare cash for a spudly Sith Lord or you can barely afford Ramen Noodles, many people will opt for the option to fork out the dough for Master Tater. That being said, there are other reasons why the adult industry is an appealing place to be. For example, a job based on pleasure is a hell of a lot better than a job based on removing grease from a fast food service grill. Also, being able to have control over your schedule, not having an actual boss to report to and having the freedom to say and do things that you want to and get paid for it, is a really awesome work situation to have.

I will soon watch the second episode of Hookers, and if I deem it necessary, I may write a response to it, as well. For now, I’d like to see Annie’s take on her spreading misleading information around and offering such biased services through her organization.

Note: It was really difficult to not make fun of Annie for mistaking the Squirrel’s penis for an umbilical cord. And the one thing that made the whole show worth watching was hearing the lady at the stable say, “we’re going to learn some things with these horses and shre what they have to offer. The outside of a horse is what’s good for the inside of a woman!” Hilarious!

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