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.

2 Responses to “Sex in Science?”

  1. Sophie,

    Thanks for reading our post and taking the time to respond! I think you are coming from a post-feminist perspective with which I do not agree. You are starting from the premise that the world is gender-neutral, and that while women may have been historically oppressed this is no longer true. For example, you argue that disembodied female bits used to sell goods are just “advertisers,” that comments on a woman’s looks are the same as random other unwanted comments (though I LOVE the vampire baby robots!), and that unconventionally attractive female bodies are received by society in the exact same way a conventionally attractive female bodies.

    In a perfect world this would all be true. But none of these things are actually gender neutral, since (as Twisty likes to say) women are the sex class. I think this is clearly illustrated when people gender-flip stereotypically sexy poses, like in this superhero parody. So when people want to use sex to sell stuff, they use women (of course there are some exceptions, but why else do women’s magazines aimed at hetero women have sexy pictures of women?). And comments on a woman’s looks are NOT the same as other unwanted comments, because (like street harassment) their intent is to remind a woman of her place in the sex class. And women who want to be sexy with different body types are NOT the same as those who conform to the beauty ideal – in fact, they can get smacked down pretty hard.

    Just like advertising & cheerleading, science and science outreach has a history and a context. We can decide not to care about it to achieve other goals, but I don’t think we can pretend that it doesn’t exist.

  2. Miriam, thanks for replying!

    Firstly, I don’t claim that we have a gender neutral world. In fact, I started out the post pointing out that we still had a long way to go to equality, so I don’t think I even hinted at that.

    I didn’t say that female bits are just advertisers, either. I’m not sure where you’re interpreting that from.

    I also did not say that unconventionally attractive bodies are received the same as the conventional appearance. I, of all people, am well aware of the differences between how society sees a body like mine as compared to, say, Paris Hilton. What I said was, if we’re going to be all for people of all body types approaching something like science outreach using a theme that people see as sexual, then, in order to be fair, we have to be cool with that same approach from anyone, not just full bodied people. If we’re not cool with everyone doing it then it is we who are being prejudiced and that prejudice is aimed at our fellow woman who happens to have a body that society views as better than ours. A bias against a media-reinforced image is no better than a bias against the average, normal body.

    I also don’t think that all comments on a woman’s appearance are somehow designed to remind her of a class position. I think most comments on a woman’s appearance are representative of what the person saying them is thinking. It may not be welcome and it may remind a woman if she feels oppressed, but that doesn’t mean that the intention of the person saying it was to make her feel that way.

    Honestly, I like playing on the grounds that I have and if the world is cool with me doing it because I have an atypical body than people are used to seeing in my position, then I want them to be cool with anybody else, no matter their body type, doing the same thing.

    Again, there has not been a single place where I claimed that inequality doesn’t exist. My main message was that I want fair grounds for myself and other women and I want myself and other women, no matter their body type, fat, thin, Barbie, Rosanne, I don’t care who they are, to be able to express themselves as they wish and I don’t want the sexy police to tell us we can’t express our passion for science and social issues because we show a nipple every now and then.

    I don’t think it is correct for women to arm themselves in defense of the average woman’s body while chastising women with a stereotypical media-reinforced image. I want the same treatment as other women and I want to hold my ground as I am, a representative of my own sexuality, and see people like the Science cheerleader maintain her identity as well. I simply don’t feel that it is ethical for anybody to favor any set of body types over another. To bash the Science Cheerleader while being cool with the Radical Cheerleaders just smells too much like a reverse prejudice to me. I just can’t get on board with that.

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