Sheril Kirshenbaum, a sexy female scientist, gives a woman’s perspective:
2003: I’m a budding marine scientist on my first fishing boat. “How old are you?” asks the captain. “Twenty-three.” He grimaces and blows smoke from his pipe into my face. “My niece’s younger’n you and she got three kids. You got no business here, what’s wrong with you?”
2008: Now a science writer, I’ve just returned from a conference, ecstatic to have met one of my… science heroes. He somehow tracks down my number and calls the following week. How would I feel about being “his next mistress?” I remind him I have a popular science blog and warn never to call back.
So what principle does Sheril think people should follow when it comes to sexism?
Naturally, attention to physical appearance has been hardwired into our neural circuitry over a few millenia, however, you better believe it’s never acceptable judge anyone based on appearances and number of X chromosomes.
Here is the kind of comment that bothers Sheril:
…as a living breathing male of the species, I look forward to any article with Sherils picture attached.
One reader gave a response to Sheril much like one I would have given:
The problem is not that… I compliment Sheril’s appearance. The problem is that people like you take issue with it, as if somehow that compliment is “lesser” than a compliment on someone’s intelligence. [Let's] move on.
I disagree, so let’s not ‘move on‘ immediately. You see, all of this does matter. Surely it contributes to the reason so many of us wonder about the dramatic gender gap in science, policy, and much of society.
…[I wonder] whether a woman can really be taken seriously as a writer for her ideas, if on some level she is first perceived as female.
…I’d rather not be labeled a ‘woman in science‘ at all. I have far more dimensions than the ones assigned by base pairs and profession.
So maybe I’m not helping by listing sexy female scientists. But let me write from my own perspective and see if I can reach out to Sheril’s camp to see if we can understand each other, and maybe even adjust our views.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. I can guess, but I’ll never really know.
I do know what it’s like to be a man. Frankly, it’s pretty awesome. I’m a tall white male born in the USA in the late 20th century. I pulled nearly the best lottery card available in the history of Earth’s biosphere. As for the male part of that, it’s rather convenient to be a member of the sex that has dominated the planet throughout history and built up thousands of privileges for itself that persist throughout the age of female empowerment. Also, I very much enjoy not bleeding from my genitals for several days each month.
But hey, I’m a progressive. Obviously, I want women to have the same rights, opportunities, and respect that men enjoy. Even as a young evangelical Christian, I asked my mom what “feminism” meant the first time I heard the word, and when she said it meant that women should have the same rights as men, I said, “They have a word for that?” To me it was like having a word that meant “not believing in unicorns.” Isn’t it just obvious?
Feminism goes wrong, of course, when it allows ideology to trump truth. Feminists who say there are no biological or neurological differences between men and women are simply wrong. But that claim was mostly a 70s thing, as far as I can tell.
What I think is happening
Here’s what it looks like to me. It looks like Sheril and company have experienced genuine sexism and misogyny (no surprise!), and perhaps they interpret those who compliment female beauty as if they also were the type who don’t take women’s academic work seriously or can’t see past their beauty.
Consider a comment about how Sheril is sexy. Some readers, I’m sure, do not consider anything else about Sheril or her work. Some readers may assume implicitly that because she is a beautiful young woman, she can’t be a serious academic. Some may think she ought not pursue a career, but instead get married and raise kids. All that must be annoying as hell, and is perhaps what Sheril has in mind when she says people should not be judged based on appearance and gender.
But here’s the thing.
Many men who comment that Sheril is sexy don’t have any of those notions in mind. I can only really speak for myself, but I doubt I’m the only one. I think it’s perfectly fine to “judge” someone as attractive. Why wouldn’t it be? A problem only arises when we allow a person’s appearance to dictate how we judge the rest of their attributes.
So when I say Sheril is sexy, I don’t see the problem. She is. And I’m not a “Neanderthal” (as Sheril puts it) for saying so. I didn’t tell Sheril she should abandon this “boys’ game of science” to get married and raise kids. I didn’t prejudge her academic merits, or the merits of her ideas. I didn’t identify her as nothing but sexy – as a sex object. I didn’t say her appearance was the most important thing about her. All I did was say she’s sexy.
Think of it this way. When I named Erik Wielenberg as “one of the most handsome living philosophers,” did this imply that I’m a Neanderthal? That I have preconceived notions about what he should do with his life because he’s a man? That I prejudge his academic merits, or assume a certain respect for his ideas? That I identify him as nothing but sexy: a sex object? That his appearance is the most important thing about him?
No. Of course not. All I said was that he’s handsome. And hey! He took it as a compliment, and so did his wife.
So here’s my point: When I call a woman sexy, and make no assumptions about her other qualities, it is precisely because I am treating men and women the same.
And I think this is where many other progressive men are coming from, too.
And that’s why some of us don’t take Sheril’s criticism very well. We’re thinking, “Hey! We’re not Neanderthals just because we said you’re sexy! Don’t bundle us in with sexists and misogynists! Don’t assume we consider you a sex object just because we say you’re sexy!”
So what should we do?
Hopefully “Luke’s camp” and “Sheril’s camp” understand each other a bit better now.
I think it’s clear that lots of men who call women sexy are not sexist or misogynistic. But perhaps it’s also the case that as a utilitarian matter, writing so much about how certain female academics are sexy doesn’t help women overcome millennia of oppression and disrespect and misogyny. So what should we do?
I don’t know the answer to this.
I do know that we men who call women sexy are not all sexist or misogynistic. I do know that even in the West, women are far from achieving equality with men. I do know that even we progressives may still be implicit sexists in the same way we are (unavoidable, perhaps) implicit racists.
But what should we do about all this? I don’t know. What do you think?