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Sexism in Science and Science in Sex

As Sex and Science comes together as a site, I am gradually forming in my head all the things I want it to be. I like to see it as a vital extension of all the things that go on in my head but also as a way for me to communicate very important ideas and concepts to people that don’t get dealt with often enough or even brought to the attention of the average person. I actually have lots of posts in the works at the moment that will be published at a later date after I get them all done the way I would like them, but today I’d like to discuss something that was brought to my attention by Nails at skeptifem. In particular, my concern has to do more with what she linked to than her commentary, though I’m happy to read her input on the matter and will respond to it after addressing the original issue.

Basically, Sheril Kirshenbaum was recently welcomed to begin writing on the ever-increasingly awesome blogs at Discover Magazine. In response to her arrival, she was welcomed by other awesome bloggers such as Phil Plait and


it is in his comments section were the bulk of the controversy lies. Apparently, a few science fans have some difficulty supressing their penis thoughts (That’s what PENIS said!) and made this fact known in the comments section. In fact, the nice comment vs. penis thought comment line got rather blurred there, ranging from acceptable comments to complete social retard from one to the next. Feel free to scope out the examples in the links above.

The dilemma presented is actually quite a perplexing problem. When issued a compliment, we’re often told to nod politely, be thankful and be happy about it. But one person’s compliment is another person’s irritation. When the offending compliment crops up amidst the tempestuous issues surrounding sex, gender and society, that seems to especially be the case. I’m going to try to outline how some of these problems end up occurring as best I can while offering what might be some helpful advice to others as a result. First a little anecdote of my own to add to the mix of how this issue gets complicated:

As many people know, and as it will become more apparent here on Sex and Science as time passes, I work in the sex industry. To put it more clearly, I pay my rent, pay my bills, clothe myself and feed my belly nearly 100% on an income that I earn by showing off my body and talking about sex. I’m extremely open about this fact on the internet. I also am a really big geek and I spend my spare time immersed in subjects such as my favorite parts of science, skepticism, gender studies and ethics. It just so happens that many people like what I have to say about these subjects and it is highly reinforcing that I manage to be appealing to people for the sake of my brain as well as my body. In such, my name appears in various places on the internet discussing those subjects and pretty much leaving my work as just an aside fact about me to the readers. This does, however, lead to some interesting problems similar to the one encountered by Sheril (occuring on a smaller scale, but very often). It is often the case that I get comments where I have discussed the aforementioned topics and my responses include random sexual suggestions and comments on my appearance. I’ve even had men contact me and tell me that they masturbated after reading something I said or having a thought about me. The problem in this case isn’t that they masturbated, but that they felt the desire to contact me about their actions when the situation did not warrant such behavior. I’ve had this problem everywhere I’ve gone as well, including skeptic and science forums, chatrooms and blogs.

Bearing in mind what I do for a living, I understand the problem and I’m generally quick in responding to them in a manner that explains the inappropriateness of their actions and why I may have a problem with it. Occasionally, when the situation warrants, I give them a more appropriate context by which they can deal with their desire. I realise that most women don’t really have that luxury or may not have an appropriate way to do this and it should not be something they’re obligated or expected to do.

So, now I have to tie all of this together. It seems to me that the problem is that we once had a society where each person is taught two different relevant things (Let me head off this generalisation with acknowledging that yes, I’m generalising, but that the norm is important in considering the problem) which are different according to gender. Boys are supposed to be sexually assertive and are also supposed to support a significant other who is to be their dependent (and sometimes servant). Girls, on the other hand, are taught that there is a limit to their social roles and that their sexuality is owned by men; their future mates. This theme is gradually being pushed aside by women who want to be free of such ties and also by men who like the idea of women going indy. In this process, though, the assertiveness idea and the male sex drive have not really vanished and an ever growing openness about sexuality creates an environment where men are given the impression that speaking from the penis is often a good idea. Science? Penis talks! Social Issues? Penis talks! Breasts? Penis talks! In this Age of Enlightenment, we’re discovering that some penises never fucking shut the hell up.

Just as our biology works against us surviving as described in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s talk, “Stupid Design,” the biology of men in combination with changing social norms seems to be working against them in the whole goal of getting the attention of a smarty-pants girl category. This leads to those of us working toward some rational form of equality having to find a way to cope with it the results. I do have a few productive suggestions for all sides of this problem.

Things to remember:

  1. We all have to acknowledge that the human sex drive plays a big role in how we behave and sometimes that behavior is misbehavior. This acknowledgment can then lead us to be understanding that erections happen, masturbation happens and sexual needs should be met in some healthy manner.
  2. We also have to acknowledge that other people are not obligated to deal with any individual’s sexual needs in any manner and some people don’t want to and it is often inappropriate to ask them to.

So when might it be considered rude to speak from penis? (switch the term ‘penis’ with the term ‘vagina’ if you’re a girl)

  1. If you’re standing in a grocery store line, it is a bad time to talk from penis.


  2. If someone has just been seriously injured or killed, it is a bad time to talk from penis.
  3. If you’ve just been arrested or are in a courtroom, it is a bad time to talk from penis.
  4. If mentioning something Penis said means that it shows you haven’t paid attention to the important elements of a conversation, it is a really bad time to talk from Penis.

Actually, determining when it is safe to talk when sexually-driven is a complicated task and many people suck at it. The above examples don’t necessarily represent accurate advice 100% of the time. One person’s freedom ends where another person’s sexuality begins and when we’re using communication itself sometimes it is extremely difficult to gauge that. Sure, the drooling guys in the comments section have every right to comment on what they find appealing about Sheril, even if it is about her body, but this is done at the expense of seeing what the other contributions she can make to the community are. So this may be a time when self-censorship is warranted. Basically, we’re in a time where we all want to exercise our own freedoms, from the freedom of one woman to be highly regarded in science to the freedom of being sexually open and free. It is sometimes the case that the two don’t mix very well.

To sum up the main point of this post, I think that many of the issues that Sheril’s introduction to her new blog have brought to light really have to do with how we’ve kind of indoctrinated men to behave when they have to react to What Penis Says. It isn’t that penis necessarily does all the talking (I don’t want to imply that, lest my male peers feel oppressed at my own oversimplification of the problem); it is more the case that for those who let penis do the talking, they just need some social guidance as to when it is appropriate to allow Penis to talk. Likewise, from the perspective of a bisexual who has dealt with women doing similar, sometimes women need the same kind of guidance. I think that the best way for people to react to the problem if they aim to educate is to be extremely clear about what has offended you and why. Be sure to mention the context of the situation and your own intentions.

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten Nails. Nails is very correct in pointing out that many of the penis says comments were inappropriate. The reason is, though, that it shows that the individuals weren’t paying attention to the significance of the event. By pointing out her attractiveness, the people commenting on it seemingly ignore the valuable contribution she will make to Discover Magazine’s Blogs. It was likely the case that joining the bloggers there was a pretty big deal and she was looking forward to more opportunities in making a difference in her community and she wasn’t looking forward to the responses she got about her appearance.

As far as the guys who jump in and say, “well, it’s just a compliment,” that comment is not entirely wrong, but it is certainly misguided. Sure, it is a compliment and compliments are not entirely bad by themselves. If she was dressing up for a night on the town to go ham it up with the guys and put herself on display or go on a date, then the compliment would have made sense. Instead, she was putting her brain out there for people to benefit from, offering some great new content for a community that she values and all some of the commenters could come up with were comments on her appearance. That’s a problem. It is a problem because it isn’t what she was looking for; it is a problem because it makes her feel like you’re not paying attention to her real intentions and it basically shows that you’re oblivious to what is going on.

I do want to mention one thing, though, about Nails’ post; just something a little nit-picky. She makes this comment:
“On a nicer note, phil plait seems to have grown up a little since his ‘hawt women in science’ comments. except for the “at least you women weren’t born in the middle east” shit anyway.”

If you click on the post she links to, it links to what she’s actually referring to where Phil laments the mistreatment of women in general, then qualifies the statement by pointing out incidents in the middle east and then concludes with examples of liberated women who have made valuable contributions to science. I think that the summary that is presented in Nails’ post of Phil’s commentary is an inaccurate representation of Phil’s intent and so it is somewhat unfair to him.

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