Am I Sexist? (round 2)

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 17, 2010 in Ethics

Look at that smug, sexist smile!

(series index)

In its first 24 hours, my post Am I Sexist? racked up over 270 comments. Let me try to sum up the debate so far…

When I posted my list of Sexy Female Scientists, I meant it as a lighthearted celebration of sexy women doing science. The reaction I expected was something like the reaction of the only person actually on the list to comment so far, Abigail Smith, who wrote:

…flirting at [academic] conferences is just silly fun, like some blogger’s list of ‘SEXAH SCIENTISTS!’

After publishing the list, someone directed me to a 2009 post by one of the other women on the list, Sheril Kirshenbaum, who apparently does not like being called a “sexah scientist!” Most of the commenters on “Am I Sexist?” sided with Sheril’s view. But Abigail responded:

Why are you all focusing on [Sheril's] reaction, and not mine (or other female scientists) who embrace our femininity, sexuality, *and* brains?

But the fact that most commenters have not reacted the way Abigail did, but more in line with Sheril’s post, suggests that I am ignorant of some things in this domain.

So here’s the thing: It’s quite plausible to me that I’m wrong about this. I’m just trying to get clear what the arguments are.

Why it’s plausible I’m wrong

Here are some reasons it’s plausible I’m wrong about the extent of my own sexism:

  • My culture, and especially my planet, are extremely sexist in many ways. I don’t have an impenetrable anti-sexism shield to keep all that from affecting me. The objectification and demeaning of women is everywhere.
  • I’m not sure I’ve felt “offense” for several years. I’ve really lost touch with that feeling. So I’m probably relatively blind to that domain of human interaction – though apparently not totally blind, because I get along with people very well in person.
  • I’ve never done any research in gender studies, so my views on the subject are almost certainly rather primitive compared to my views on, say, meta-ethics or philosophy of religion.
  • All the women I know like being treated as the wonderful, feminine creatures they are. But this is probably not a representative sample of women in general – rather, it’s an effect of my own preferences relevant to choosing with whom I spend my time.
  • Really awesome people like Phil Plait side with Sheril, along with many respectable people who commented supportively on Sheril’s original post.
  • It seems plausible we might all be “implicit sexists” the way we are all implicit racists.

But what are the arguments?

So all that leads me to suspect the last post in this series is going to have the title “Yup, I Was Being Sexist.” But I don’t really know yet, because I’m still trying to figure out what the arguments are.

Obviously, there are lots of bad or obscure arguments on offer against my original position. Researchers in moral psychology have shown that moral judgment usually happens like this: We have an emotional reaction to something, and then we invent post-hoc reasons to defend our unthinking emotional reaction. And of course that’s no different here.

Some of my favorite examples:

  • One person claimed that my calling women sexy was like calling Obama a n*gger, because the n-word has been used to keep blacks down, and sexiness has been used to keep women down. Wowza!
  • Some people said my post was “violent” against women. Ummmmm…. well, only if we radically redefine the word “violent” to mean, you know, “non-violent.”
  • One person said I should not evaluate people based on something they’re born with, so I should not evaluate sexy women as sexy. This is bizarre on two points. First, most sexy women work awfully damn hard to look as sexy as they do. They aren’t born that way. Second, why can’t we evaluate people for the way they are born? Are people not allowed to call me tall because that is mostly the result of genes? Are people not allowed to call homosexuals “homosexual” because they were born with that orientation?
  • Several people said I was reducing women to sex objects by calling them sexy. But I never said these women were nothing but sexy, or principally sexy, or anything of the sort. No such implications are in my post itself – they must be put there by other people. If I made another list of women and listed only their scientific achievements, would I be criticized for reducing them to science objects? If I made a list of philosophers who happen to be good at tennis, would I be criticized for reducing them to tennis objects? Of course not. Making a list about a certain subject does not imply that the people on the list are only important in relation to the subject of the list.
  • Many people said I was “exercising male privilege” by calling women sexy or sharing my opinions or making scientific claims about the female gender. Certainly, male privilege exists. I said so in my original post. But males have no special privilege to (1) call people sexy, (2) share their opinions on the internet, or (3) make scientific claims about the opposite gender. Women have just as much privilege to do these things, and I do these things because I’m human not because I’m male. To call such things an exercise in male privilege is weird, and diminishes the actual meaning and importance of real male privilege.
  • One person claimed I said women should react to compliments the same way men do. But read my post again. I said no such thing.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But such “arguments” are to be expected on such a heated topic.

Are there good arguments again my position?

Most people objected to the mere fact that I made a list of sexy female scientists and posted their publicly available photos to my blog.

This, by itself, was sexist or misogynistic or otherwise objectionable, according to many of my readers.

But why?

It certainly isn’t sexist in the usual ways. I don’t think that women should be limited more than men in their opportunities, wages, education, political influence, or respect. So what’s wrong with a list of sexy women?

The objectification argument

Some claimed that my post “objectified” women – that because it was a list about women and their sexiness, it ignored their other qualities and turned them into “sex objects.” This is wrong because it causes harm and downplays the dignity and autonomy of women.

But if I make a list of philosophers who play tennis, would I be accused of objectifying them as “tennis objects”? Of course not. The subject of the list is sexiness, and that’s why the focus is on their sexiness. This doesn’t imply that their sexiness is all they are, or that it says anything about the quality of their ideas, or that sexiness is the most important thing about them. It just happens to be the topic of the post.

But, my critics object, there’s a difference between women being shown for their sexiness and philosophers being shown for their tennis prowess. The difference has to do with the history of how sexual portrayals of women have been used to demean or really objectify women as sex objects.

There might be a good argument here, but I’m still waiting to hear the inferential logic from the facts about the history of misogyny – about which we agree – to the conclusion that therefore we ought not make lists of sexy women.

The unwanted compliments argument

Others have said that my list of sexy scientists is condemnable because my celebration of these women’s sexiness is unwanted in some cases, and something that is unwanted – or even offensive to someone – should be avoided unless it serves a higher moral purpose.

Abigail Smith seemed to appreciate her inclusion in the list, and other women have written me in the past saying they wish they had made my sexy atheists list, but Sheril, it was pointed out to me, does not appreciate being called “a woman in science” (nor, presumably, a “sexy scientist”). And if people don’t like hearing your compliments or your opinions of them, you shouldn’t give them.

This was spelled out a bit more thoroughly by some commenters, but my worry is identical to one left by ‘corn walker’:

I have a friend who easily takes offense. Talking to that friend is somewhat comical as I try to avoid saying anything that might possibly be misconstrued by a brain that works incomprehensibly to my own. In the end we don’t talk about much because the conversation field is scattered with eggshells just waiting to be broken.

I’m a teetotaling, non-smoking vegetarian. If I took offense every time someone offered me a drink, or a smoke, or bacon I’d be right to be ridiculed. Some people assume I’m offended when they eat meat in front of me, others tell me I don’t know what I’m missing. I don’t have the time or energy or insecurity to be offended by the things other people say or do. Ultimately I, and I alone, am judge jury and executioner. If I find their friendship not worth putting up with their behavior, then I don’t need to be friends with them.

However sometimes being purposefully provocative is called for. Just as you have a right to take offense, I have a right to say your taking offense is ridiculous. Take the example of drawing Mohammed. I think it’s important to draw Mohammed – not to be intentionally offensive to Muslims, but to make a very strong point that it is not acceptable to kill someone because they’ve offended you. I doubt there would be much interest in drawing Mohammed if it weren’t for the threat of violence that accompanies some Muslim’s umbrage. I see little distinction between it and gang members who kill each other because of slights both perceived and real – it’s immature and thuggish and ought not to be tolerated.

…I wouldn’t want to live in a society where we’re each tiptoeing around trying desperately not to offend someone. If I offend you, and you tell me I’ve offended you, I’ll likely try to avoid offending you in the future. If I think your offense is unwarranted, I’ll try to bring you around to my point of view. Moreover, I expect of my friends that they will challenge me on it – not wilt away in a heap of insecurity with injured sensibilities. I see it as an opportunity for personal growth if friends call me out, and no one is growing if we’re busy tending to each other’s bruised sensibilities.

I don’t believe feelings are necessarily valid. Emotions are reactive. They are both instinctual and learned, and they’re not always right (although confirmation bias leads us to think they usually are). By insisting that others pay deference to our emotional responses, we’re not seeking shared understanding but instead behaving as emotional tyrants. You don’t have to believe what you think and you don’t have to trust what you feel.

So maybe there’s an “unwanted compliments” argument to be made, or maybe not.

There are other arguments gradually being clarified in the comments, but those are the two that have made the most progress, I think.

I think we all agree on a great deal. Obviously women are constantly objectified and demeaned and weakened by male privilege. And yes, there are very good reasons why I might end up titling the last post in this series “Yes, I Was Wrong about Sexism.”

But let’s see if we can’t make some more progress on the issue.

Again, I ask: What do you think?

Update: Sheril has written a preliminary response to my posts.

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{ 186 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris K July 17, 2010 at 1:26 pm

I skipped most of the first discussion, so maybe this came up, but what about the idea of treating persons as ends in themselves instead of means to an end as an argument along the objectification lines? It couldn’t easily be argued that treating women as “tennis objects” treats them as means to an end, whereas I think there is an argument that treating women as “sex objects” can easily be seen as treating women as a means to an end. If we categorize women according to “sexiness,” is that attempting to respect women’s innate beauty as something of inherent value, or is it an attempt to use the beauty in women as a means to satisfying the desires of our eyes, or what have you.

And if we categorize women according to “sexiness” because it is attempting to respect women’s beauty as something of inherent value, does that lead us to devalue women who we take to be unattractive?

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Alex July 17, 2010 at 1:34 pm

The “you can’t evaluate people based on something they’re born with” argument is even more absurd than your examples suggest. First, it implies that you shouldn’t call people intelligent (general intelligence is 50% heritable, and much of the rest of the variance is accounted for by environmental factors outside the control of the individual). Second, with a commonsense concept of talent (as distinct from skill, which is a product of talent and training), you can’t call someone talented at anything. Even if you confer attributes like intelligence and talent not just descriptively but also attach an evaluation, there doesn’t seem to be a problem with that.

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Lukas July 17, 2010 at 1:39 pm

“One person”

I’m guessing that would be me.

“said I should not evaluate people based on something they’re born with,”

I said we shouldn’t *judge* people based on attributes they can’t change, especially if said attributes are utterly irrelevant to what they do.

“This is bizarre on two points. First, most sexy women work awfully damn hard to look as sexy as they do. They aren’t born that way.”

Beauty is something humans are born with, unless you’re talking about cosmetic surgery (which, for various reasons, a lot of women either won’t or can’t do).

“Second, why can’t we evaluate people for the way they are born?”

Again, you are using the word “evaluate”. I used the word “judge”. There’s a difference. We shouldn’t judge people based on what they were born with because, obviously, they had no say in what they were born with. It’s not their fault if they aren’t pretty.

“Are people not allowed to call homosexuals “homosexual” because they were born with that orientation?”

Now you’ve gone from “evaluating” to simply “calling”. People are born the way they look; the fact that you find some of them pretty and others not is a subjective judgement you apply to them. Whether somebody is homosexual, on the other hand, is not. By your own logic, it would be okay to publish a list of the ten ugliest female scientists, because hey, you’re simply calling ugly people ugly! It’s mostly a result of their genes, so it’s okay to point out who the ugliest women are! We can judge people for how they were born!

Well, no. Your logic makes no sense.

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Lukas July 17, 2010 at 1:43 pm

@Alex: First, the argument is a straw man, nobody claimed that you shouldn’t evaluate people on genetic attributes (if it makes sense – otherwise, it’s just mean).

Second, you underestimate the influence a person’s behavior has on his or her intelligence.

Third, what we call “talent” is the result of years of exercise. Nobody is born with the ability to, say, play the guitar, so the “talent” argument is meaningless.

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Bradm July 17, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Luke,

Why did you decide to make a list of sexy scientists instead of tennis-playing philosophers? (Philosophers aren’t exactly known for their athletic ability, afterall … think of the stereotypes you’d be shattering!) You already did a post on sexy atheists, why not choose a different quality for the scientists? Of all the qualities about a person, why sexiness? The reason is because in all likelihood, it never crossed your mind.

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lukeprog July 17, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Chris K,

But let’s look at a parity case: a list of female comedians, showing short videos of some of their jokes. This appears to be ‘objectifying’ these women as ‘comedy objects’ in exactly the same way as you seem to think a list of sexy photos objectifies women as sex objects. I’m using the comedy for my pleasure in the comedy, and I don’t necessarily take interest in their other qualities for the purposes of that list. Is a list of female comedians sexist? Also, would such a list devalue women who are not so funny?

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lukeprog July 17, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Lukas,

I’m sorry to have misinterpreted you. But if by ‘judge’ you mean something more than ‘call’ or ‘evaluate’, then what relevance does your argument have to my original list? I only called these women sexy, or evaluated them as sexually attractive to me. I didn’t judge them in any more global sense.

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lukeprog July 17, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Bradm,

I actually have a draft of a ‘sexy philosophers’ post, mostly made of males, somewhere. But yeah, it didn’t cross my mind to make a list of tennis-playing philosophers. And what of it?

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Chris K July 17, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Luke,

I’m not sure if the female comedians example comes off as a parity case. I think that there are some important differences, but I’ll have to think about it some more.

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Bradm July 17, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Luke,

Do you think it is all just a big coincidence that you happened to post a list of sexy scientists when our culture just so happens to identify and value women for their looks? You don’t see how those 2 are related? You don’t see how this contributes to a culture that already makes women feel as if they are constantly being looked at by men?

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Lukas July 17, 2010 at 2:09 pm

@lukeprog

It is obvious that a lot of people (including some people on the list) perceive such lists as an implied judgement of the value of the people on (and not on) the list. I do. I would guess that most humans do; that’s how humans work. You yourself use the word “evaluated”, so you’re explicitly assigning value to the people on the list that you do not assign to the people who did not make the list.

But even if we concede that no such judgement was intended: It is obvious that a lot of women are uncomfortable with such list, including women who are actually on the list. They did not ask to be evaluated on the basis of their beauty by you, and there is no objective reason for why anything they do would require this kind of evaluation. Historically, women have often been reduced to their looks, so even if you don’t think that your behavior was sexist, there are clear negative connotations to what you did. So why insist on doing these lists?

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Bradm July 17, 2010 at 2:12 pm

And by “looked at” I mean exactly what Lukas said: “evaluated.”

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svenjamin July 17, 2010 at 2:27 pm

for some unknown reason, any article on CSA with over 100 comments won’t load for me. I encounter this problem on different computers and browsers, so I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m a Cancer.

Anyway, I have no idea what else has been said on this issue, but:

Yes, it is probably frustrating to be a sexy female scientist and wish people would stop focusing on the sexy and/or female part when it is your intellectual achievements that you value. But that doesn’t make those people sexist. It makes them pesky obstacles to be publically castigated by lobbing in-vogue accusations of sexism at them.

Luke finds science attractive. He also finds women attractive. And he likes making lists. So there is nothing sexist about Luke making a list of his favorite attractive female scientists. But it might be imprudent.

By the way: women ARE sex-objects. They are one of the two most common members of the set of human sex-objects.

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Thrasymachus July 17, 2010 at 2:29 pm

@Lukeprog

Re. in part earlier comment in earlier thread

The problem is that sexiness as a category is not the same as tennis playing, or being a philosopher (or being a woman). It’s replete of all sorts of bad stuff re. male privilege and objectification which are still live issues. People *do* treat women as if they had nothing else of relevance besides their physical attractiveness. So these sorts of complements many women won’t want (or plausibly offended by) – especially coming from a Man, precisely because it harks back to these sorts of morally toxic traditions.

The moral heft of given speech acts depends on both actor and acted-on. If you were female, this is something you’d probably ‘get away’ with. Why? Because if you’re a girl you have greater moral latitude – ‘cos you’re a member of the ‘at risk’ class yourself, it reassures that the intent of the behavior isn’t to demean and objectify. Yet you’re a member of the class that (historically) does all the demeaning and objectifying, and that makes things much more morally suspect. For another example: if you heard two black people calling each other ‘nigger’, it’d be wise not to assume it would be okay for YOU to call them ‘nigger’ if you’re white. For similar reasons.

If you went here’s a list of xxx female scientists, where xxx was something like intelligent, eminent, funny, gives lots of charity, or tennis playing, you wouldn’t be in such hot water. That’s because being marked as things is morally innocuous (or laudable). Yet (again) sexiness is much more ambivalent because a) these people might hold other virtues over their physicality, and some be offended that they are being recognized for this as opposed to these other virtues they aspire to have, and b) because ‘sexy’ (over something like ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’) is compact of all sorts of nasty stuff. It can invite a really demeaning ‘looking as leering’ view of these women, as if offering them up as bits of meat for sexualized delectation – suppose one of them has a husband or partner: why should comments from be other men finding her sexually attractive be remotely welcome? Perhaps also c) the very act of these sorts of evaluations (whether or not you find a women ‘sexy’) is itself inadvertently expressive of contempt: who made you arbiter over someone else’s sexual attraction?

This is an obviously a mistake of oversight (namely, of all this cultural baggage). And I cynically wonder how much of the opprobrium is just nerdy white-knighting. But regardless, this is still isn’t on. Put it this way – suppose me and a bunch of guys started make a list of fellow students/colleagues we regarded ‘sexy’, or maybe ranked or scored them. That’s deeply (and I hope obviously) wrong. What’s the morally relevant difference between that and your blog post?

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Jeff H July 17, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Luke,

To make a list of the funniest female comedians is completely different. Obviously, these people are aware that they are being judged for their humour, and are alright with that – otherwise they wouldn’t have become comedians! As I said in the comment on the previous post, there is an implied consent there. Similarly, if you had made a list of female scientists with the best contributions to science, that would be perfectly acceptable. Clearly they are alright with being evaluated as scientists. Or, you could make a list of the sexiest female supermodels – because they are clearly alright with being evaluated for their looks.

But a list of sexy female scientists is not something they have necessarily consented to. I’m talking about it in the implied sense mostly (though explicit would work as well). If there were severe barriers to tall people becoming philosophers, and there was a stigma associated with being tall in that field, you may work hard to try to downplay your height, pointing to your achievements as a writer. If in that context, someone had then made a list of tall philosophers with you on the list, there is no implied consent on them evaluating you in that way. I know height is a trivial example, but it’s difficult to get an analogy here.

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Alex July 17, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Lukas: if I misconstrued your argument, I apologize. I didn’t actually read your original post, but assumed Luke would faithfully replicate it.

In addition, my examples were just illustrative so quibbling about details doesn’t make a difference, especially since “being born with X” isn’t a black-and-white distinction (see, e.g. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/innate-acquired/ ). Also, re-read my comment about talent. You’re misusing “talent” to refer to “skill”. But if for some reason you want to go into details, I think you seriously underestimate the degree to which people’s sexiness is influenced by their behavior.

Re your comment about ugly people – posting a list of “top 10 ugliest ” would be quite wrong for reasons unrelated to your argument. Your being able to come up with some examples in which it is wrong to “judge” someone based on innate characteristics doesn’t show that it’s always wrong. If it’s wrong in Luke’s post, you have to find another reason.

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Erika July 17, 2010 at 2:52 pm

I recommend that those interested skim the part one conversion. Luke has only highlighted what he put personally considers the best and worst arguments. He has not mentioned the many other interesting arguments that do not fit into those categories for him. There was a lot of interesting discussion going on.

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Dan July 17, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Hrmmm…..

Maybe it’s that it appears to people that you’re presupposing that most smart women are not “sexy” by mainstream male standards.

By choosing these women, it’s almost as if you’re saying about them, “Look, these girls are actually awesome because their SEXY as well as smart” as if being smart isn’t enough.

As if someone can’t be considered sexy for only their mind.

With that said, you’re more than welcome to share your view on which of these smart women actually turn you on sexually… which is what you’re doing, right?

You’ve posted photos of them, which means you want us to see their bodies. The only reason one would show off a body and label it “sexy” is because it means they find them sexually attractive.

So maybe it’s that. People want you to like women for looks and brains equally, and to not create a post where you single out the smart women who also turn you on sexually.

Because a smart women who turns you on sexually shouldn’t be praised, awarded, or placed higher than a smart woman who does nothing for you sexually.

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lukeprog July 17, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Bradm,

No, it’s not a coincidence that I posted a list of sexy scientists instead of tennis-playing philosophers. Part of the reason I posted a list of sexy scientists was because it’s more *fun* than a list of tennis-playing philosophers. Another reason is because I personally prefer sexy female scientists to tennis-playing philosophers.

Now, does this contribute to a culture that already makes women feel as if they are constantly being looked at by men?

Yup.

Women are constantly being looked at by men. And don’t try to tell me that’s mostly a cultural thing.

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lukeprog July 17, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Lukas,

But historically, women have been greatly elevated according to their looks, too. As for how I’m ‘evaluating’ them, I just mean I’ve ‘evaluated’ them as sexy, not that I evaluate their global value in terms of their sexiness or something like that.

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corn walker July 17, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Let’s assume Luke was instead Lucy, and had posted this list or perhaps this list. I contend there wouldn’t have been such outrage. That there is a “double standard” is not in question – what is in question is whether or not it is a necessary and valid double standard.

I think in opposing Luke’s list while not condemning others (it’s an assumption, but I feel pretty confident that the most commenters on the previous posts have not put the same time and energy into lambasting sexiest male lists) we need to reach for something to explain or validate the double-standard. This is when we turn to “feminist studies” ideas like “male privilege,” “unintentional sexism,” and “male gaze.” It wasn’t clear to me from the comments that everyone using this terminology have a shared understanding of what the terms mean.

Then there have been a bevy of equivocations, straw men, and slippery slopes offered. The introduction of “rape” into several analogies and explanations is particularly puzzling to me – most psychologists will tell you that stranger rape is far less about “sexy” than it is about “power” and “violence.” (An interesting diversion might be to read about the incidence and underreporting of prison rape for another perspective.)

Some have offered criticism to the effect of “it’s no wonder you don’t understand – you haven’t yet read …” but that does little to help. First, this type of argumentation is a non-starter, placing undue burdens on one party. It also allows the proponent a “get out of supporting my ideas free” card – I can make assertions and back them up not with logic and examples but by reference. I’ve always felt that the truest test of whether I understand something or not is if I can effectively communicate it to someone else.

I’ve recently read some interesting works on sexuality and challenges to the classical evolutionary psych model. It suggests that agriculture and animal husbandry are responsible for much of our cultural woes when it comes to the subjugation of women and the stratification of society. But this would tend to focus more on why Luke is attracted to the women on his list and less on the moral implications of creating the list in the first place.

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lukeprog July 17, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Thrasymachus,

You think it would be wrong to make a list of fellow students you thought were sexy? Really?

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Doug July 17, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Dude, you find women sexy. You made a list of sexy female scientists. Obviously women with brains attract you or you would have made a list of sexy females in general or in more degrading situations. Sexuality is part of being human and you’re seriously overthinking this. Women look at men, men look at women, and sometimes they look at the same sex. If you pissed someone off, then so be it. They’ll get over it. Do your thing. peace.

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lukeprog July 17, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Erika,

I agree, on the bit about the other thread.

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lukeprog July 17, 2010 at 3:20 pm

Thanks, Doug.

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Silas July 17, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Dude, you find women sexy. You made a list of sexy female scientists. Obviously women with brains attract you or you would have made a list of sexy females in general or in more degrading situations. Sexuality is part of being human and you’re seriously overthinking this. Women look at men, men look at women, and sometimes they look at the same sex. If you pissed someone off, then so be it. They’ll get over it. Do your thing.

Additionally, Luke seems to enjoy creating lists – look at his stuff at Listology. I bet he just wanted to make a good list that is somewhat relevant to the blog.

But some people seem to have a lot of time to spare… and to be “offended”.

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Atheist.pig July 17, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Dude, you find women sexy. You made a list of sexy female scientists. Obviously women with brains attract you or you would have made a list of sexy females in general or in more degrading situations. Sexuality is part of being human and you’re seriously overthinking this. Women look at men, men look at women, and sometimes they look at the same sex. If you pissed someone off, then so be it. They’ll get over it. Do your thing. peace.

Words of wisdom.

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piero July 17, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Bradm:

You don’t see how this contributes to a culture that already makes women feel as if they are constantly being looked at by men?

I’ll assume you are a man. If I’m wrong, plese correct me.

Women are constantly looked at by men. That’s a fact. It is a natural drive. It is in our genes. We cannot help it. Can you honestly tell me that when you see an attractive woman on the street you don’t see her as an attractive woman, but as a possible research partner or business associate?

If I see an attractive woman in tight jeans the first thing I look at is her face. Then her bottom. Then her breasts. Am I a pervert? Probably, but that’s the way I am. I like women, and the more attractive the better.

Women look at men too. I know this because my wife has told me, and because many female friends have told me. They like men’s buttocks (don’t know why, but de gustibus no est disputandum). They like broad shoulders. They like prominent abs and chest muscles. They like deep voices.

Why don’t we just accept that we see each other primarily as sex objects and then we come to appreciate other qualities? Why don’t we accept that the sex drive is the most powerful force that guides our existence? Why fool ourselves with talk of academic achievement, economic success, etc.?

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Thrasymachus July 17, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Lukeprog:

And put it up for public display? Absolutely! If I found out one of my friends was doing it I’d be appalled. If you did it for your coworkers, wouldn’t you be fired?

Further aside: Perhaps a clearer way of looking at it. People want autonomy of sexual expression. It isn’t the case that any woman who works as a glamour model or similar is objectifying herself: these people ‘opt in’ for this sort of thing eyes open. Yet the people on your scientist list (and not the Atheist one, by and large, hence the lack of opprobrium) haven’t acted in a manner to imply their acceptance of their sexualization. Some might consider it something they only wish to express to those they take as their sexual partners. Others might want to keep these realms separate: so when, say, blogging about science in society, they don’t want to people to bring how fit they are into it at every turn (regardless of male gaze or other concerns, I’d be really pissed off if everyone just kept calling me fit, handsome or whatever without regard to the stuff I want them to pay attention to).

By sticking up this list, and inviting others to make sexual evaluations of these people, you violate their own wishes on how they want to be viewed as people. Sure, some will be entirely happy for this to happen, but evidently not all. Unless they explicitly consent or implicitly signal (say, by posting up raunchy photos of themselves) they’re happy for you to view – and invite others to view – them in this way, you shouldn’t do it.

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piero July 17, 2010 at 3:43 pm

svenjamin:

By the way: women ARE sex-objects. They are one of the two most common members of the set of human sex-objects.

Cheers for that!

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piero July 17, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Terry:

You seem incapable of nuance in a social context. You’re looking for empirical “if a then b” rules to govern yourselves by, and if any exception can be found the entire ruleset is invalidated. At least that’s how it’s coming across. This has become an academic exercise in hair splitting and arguing in circles. It frustrating and a little painful to see an otherwise smart person such as yourself, Luke, with such a huge blindspot when it comes to gender issues and human respect.

Are you saying that women issues are beyond logic?

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Ben July 17, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Luke finds science attractive. He also finds women attractive. And he likes making lists. So there is nothing sexist about Luke making a list of his favorite attractive female scientists.

There might not be anything sexist about making the list, but there it is inherently sexism in publishing it. By publishing his list for the entire world to see unrestricted, he has taken his completely valid personal opinion and made it a focus of public discourse.

In our society, where women are constantly judged on how they look, such publication can be seen as demeaning and reinforcing the unfair double-standard (men are not judged so harshly on how they look).

Think of it this way: here in Australia we recently had our first female Prime Minister appointed by her party. What made up the majority of the first fortnight of discussion? Her hair (it’s red, OMG!), and her clothes. I’ve never heard anybody talk about a male politician in the same way (except for when they run around in Speedos, but there’s a big difference between men wearing almost nothing and women wearing professional attire).

Society values women more based on their looks. Nobody is denying it, but so many men here are denying that when they publicly value women’s looks it’s just as bad. Except there is no post here stating the scientific achievements of those same women. No discussion about their real contributions to society, other than making it a “sexier” place.

By only focusing on their looks in a blog post, even though you may admire them otherwise, you are publicly declaring that their looks are more important than their achievements. If not, why do a “sexy” post and not an intellectual one?

Because of this?

Part of the reason I posted a list of sexy scientists was because it’s more *fun* than a list of tennis-playing philosophers.

And clearly more fun than a list of the top ten women who’ve contributed to science.

By only doing what’s fun (to you, a heterosexual man), you are again reinforcing stereotypes. Unsexy women aren’t fun, scientists aren’t fun. Fun is more important than anything else, and well, despite what these women have done you’re only going to mention them in regards to what is fun.

By all means, do what’s fun for you, but don’t complain that you’re being unfairly judged for your actions when you have had explained to you, many times, how your fun can be the complete opposite for other people.

Maybe if you actually spent time talking about individual women as something other than sexual objects to be “rated” and “categorised” then you’d cop less flak for doing such a post.

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Andrew Maynard July 17, 2010 at 4:03 pm

How about a list of:

Eye catching scientists
Attractive scientists
Beautiful scientists
Sexy scientists
Scientists I fancy
Scientists I want to get off with
Scientists who are sexually inviting
Scientists who are gagging for it

Where do you draw the line? I know where I do!

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piero July 17, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Thrasymachus:

By sticking up this list, and inviting others to make sexual evaluations of these people, you violate their own wishes on how they want to be viewed as people.

Could you provide one example of someone who has never been thought of as a sex object, whether appreciatively or disparaginly? HAL, perhaps?

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Ben July 17, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Could you provide one example of someone who has never been thought of as a sex object, whether appreciatively or disparaginly? HAL, perhaps?

It has been pointed out that thinking about somebody like that is different to publishing that thought for public discussion. The former is perfectly justifiable, the latter is not (dependent on context — which in this case is against you).

Feel free to objectify any woman you want in your mind, but don’t think that publishing that thought for the world to see is not reinforcing the attitude that women are valued more for their appearance somehow immune from criticism.

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Terry July 17, 2010 at 4:35 pm

piero:

“Are you saying that women issues are beyond logic?”

No, I clearly stated that I thought you seemed incapable of nuance in a social context, and you just proved the point.

Again, you seem to be looking for some kind of formula – a “unified theory of social interaction” if you will. If only there was such a formula, preferably a one liner with only 2 or 3 variables. You could simply enter your input values, and an infallible answer would pop out the other side. Do you honestly believe such a formula could be true for long enough to be discovered and understood in our constantly changing world?

So, if you wish to rephrase my argument in a more general way, I think I’m trying to say that social issues in general do not fit neatly into empirical formulas.

Thus we must rely on experience and personal judgment, and be willing to accept that we might misjudge any particular interaction, and get it wrong – and therefore admit a mistake, attempt to learn from it.

Its a fuzzy social world out there. If the criteria for changing minds on this subject is that such a formula must be defined and proven to be empirically true in all cases, I freely admit defeat.

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piero July 17, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Ben:

You seem to be endorsing hypocrisy: “Think what you want, but don’t say it.”

Terry:

So social issues do not fit neatly into empirical formulae. Then whatever you say about social issues I am free to dismiss as “too constrictive”. In the case at hand, whatever you say concerning the rightness or wrongness of calling women “sexy” I’ll dismiss as “too restrictive”. I’ll also suggest that when you object to my calling a woman “sexy” you may be guilty of misjudgement, and suggest you learn from it.

Way to go.

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Reidish July 17, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Again, I ask: What do you think?

Luke, I’m going to have a little fun with this, because maybe the point can be made with a different tone:

I think these two posts are amounting to a blaring advertisement that you aren’t getting any. Because if you were, you wouldn’t be posting any provocative images, and you wouldn’t be wasting so much time defending the original post.

In my humble opinion, women don’t want to be addressed this way unless they know that you are theirs and theirs only. So if you want to be with a woman, don’t treat them this way (discussing their sexiness plus whatever) until you’re exclusive with one. Simple.

Don’t dig any more Luke, you’re down pretty deep!

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Terry July 17, 2010 at 4:56 pm

piero:

I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. Yes, you have the freedom to act in any way you feel is appropriate and moral – within some pretty broad legal restrictions – broad enough that they don’t apply here. And I have the freedom to call you out on it. And we’ll both have to deal with the judgments of others if we do this publicly. No one is attempting to force you to conform. We are arguing why we think you’re wrong in this case.

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piero July 17, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Terry:

I’m not arguing from a legal point of view, but from a logical one. Your last post was egregiously devoid of logical argument, to the point that nothing can be deduced from it. Well, maybe some fuzzy feel-good platitudes; i.e. nothing.

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Terry July 17, 2010 at 5:01 pm

piero:

I don’t agree that it was devoid of logical argument. But I admit it devoid of empirical argument. Indeed, that was my entire point. You want the world of social interaction to be empirical, I submit that it isn’t. Do you believe that it is? What is the formula?

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piero July 17, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Reidish:

I think your post is the shallowest, silliest I’ve ever seen. May I suggest you posted it because your mum caught you wanking in bed and you somehow had to vent your shame and your anger?

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Ben July 17, 2010 at 5:02 pm

You seem to be endorsing hypocrisy: “Think what you want, but don’t say it.”

No, I’m saying say what you want, but don’t expect to be not criticised for it. Freedom of speech does not make one immune from the consequences of that speech.

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piero July 17, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Terry:

You tell me. After all, you’ve declared Luke’s post to be wrong, so you must have some formula.

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piero July 17, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Ben:

That’s not what you said:

It has been pointed out that thinking about somebody like that is different to publishing that thought for public discussion. The former is perfectly justifiable, the latter is not (dependent on context — which in this case is against you).

You are free to claim that you did not say what you said. Don’t expect tyo be taken seriously, though.

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Terry July 17, 2010 at 5:06 pm

piero:

Now you’re just being obtuse and flippant. As I’ve explained, several times now, I’m arguing that there is no formula, but that your posts seem to expecting one. If you don’t want to engage that argument, don’t.

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Eric July 17, 2010 at 5:06 pm

What’s being discussed in this debate is something essential to who we are in how we are programmed by genetics to seek a mate. I simply don’t see how there is anything implicitly wrong in describing a woman as being sexy. If a woman is attracted to a man who is tall, has a deep voice and thick flowing hair is she “objectifying” him? If she wants to marry a man who is stable and has a good career so she can be well provided for does she see him as a “means to an end” rather than an “end in itself”? We all do these things, how can we avoid it?

How can there be something wrong in expressing something so essential to our humanity? I think some women are sexy, and by golly I’ll sing it from the mountaintop! The notion that there is something shameful in all this disturbs me. It’s like original sin all over again.

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Terry July 17, 2010 at 5:09 pm

piero:

The hypocrisy thing was debunked yesterday. By your definition, every time anyone didn’t immediately verbalize any thought that came into their heads, or act on any impulse they felt – they would be hypocrites. This is just wrong and totally impractical in every day life. Again, nuance.

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Joe Fatzen July 17, 2010 at 5:09 pm

That’s ok. I prefer my philosophers to be playing football instead of tennis anyway: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79vdlEcWxvM

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Terry July 17, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Eric:

“I simply don’t see how there is anything implicitly wrong in describing a woman as being sexy. ”

This point has been explained ad infinitum in yesterday’s thread. If you disagree with the arguments made there, make your own argument. Simply asserting that you “don’t see” doesn’t advance any position, other than “I want therefore I am obligated to act”. I don’t think you actually subscribe to that view in a broader sense.

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piero July 17, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Terry:

I’m being neither obtuse nor flippant. I’m just asking for you (or anyone else) to give a cogent argument whereby Luke’s post was wrong. No fuzzy, indeterminate, “well, you know” arguments accepted. Can you provide one?
.
.
.
.
.
Still waiting…

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Atheist.pig July 17, 2010 at 5:15 pm

That’s ok. I prefer my philosophers to be playing football instead of tennis anyway: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79vdlEcWxvM

LOL… Classic!

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Eric July 17, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Terry,

I said a little more than just that. You don’t get to dominate this thread. I wrote my comment because I felt it needed to be said.

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Reidish July 17, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Hi piero,

I think your post is the shallowest, silliest I’ve ever seen.

Duly noted!

May I suggest you posted it because your mum caught you wanking in bed and you somehow had to vent your shame and your anger?

Sure, you can suggest that. Look, Luke stirred up a hornet’s nest with these two posts, and I was trying to get the point of the opposing view across in a different way.

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Silas July 17, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Oh, so you all believe in objective morality all of a sudden? Or how else did you conclude that Luke’s post was “wrong”?

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piero July 17, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Terry:

By your definition, every time anyone didn’t immediately verbalize any thought that came into their heads, or act on any impulse they felt – they would be hypocrites.

No. You are conflating “verbalizing” and “acting upon impulses” as if they were the same thing. I’ve never said that not acting on your impulses was hypocritical: I said that verbalizing white lies was, in general, hypocritical.

Not acting upon your impulses is called civilization, by the way.

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Terry July 17, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Eric:

“dominate the thread” LOL! No, you’re right about that. But I do get to post questions about posts that I find questionable. As do you.

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Matías Guzmán July 17, 2010 at 5:20 pm

My personal view on the matter is that some people are way too oversensitive about some topics. I don’t see anything wrong in your list, nor in saying X person is sexy. I understand sexism as treating one sex as better than the other, so you just have to make a list of sexy male scientists.

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Terry July 17, 2010 at 5:22 pm

piero:

Isn’t verbalizing just a category of “acting on impulses”? i.e. I have an impulse to verbalize this thought I’m thinking. What is the difference?

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Eric July 17, 2010 at 5:24 pm

Terry:

Instead of questioning my comment, you ignored most of it.

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ERV July 17, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Reidish– I think these two posts are amounting to a blaring advertisement that you aren’t getting any.

Im sorry, I dont know who Reidish is.

Is this deep satire, or does Reidish usually lack self awareness?

A males opinion is only worth anything if he is out sexually conquering females, thus a male who is only complimenting said females and not actively using them as sex objects is not an adequate ‘male’, thus will never conquer as many females as Feminist Alpha Male Reidish, who is helpfully dispensing advice on how to best trick females into being sex objects to poor pitiful Sexist Beta Luke.

lol, wut?

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piero July 17, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Terry:

Isn’t verbalizing just a category of “acting on impulses”? i.e. I have an impulse to verbalize this thought I’m thinking. What is the difference?

It’s the difference between me saying “I wish Terry was dead” and me stabbing Terry with a sharp knife as many times as necessary to kill him. No difference at all, as you can see.

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Terry July 17, 2010 at 5:33 pm

piero:

They are both impulses is the point. There is a difference of degree or effect, not of kind. By your “logic” the impulse to verbalize something is not an impulse at all. What is it then?

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piero July 17, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Terry:

By your logic, people who say “I wish X was dead” should be imprisoned or executed.

Even if I accepted your point that verbalizing one’s thoughts was an impulse too, it wouldn’t make any difference: actions cannot be judged, only the consequences of those actions.

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Terry July 17, 2010 at 5:40 pm

piero:

I said there was a difference of degree or effect. Again, obtuse, flippant, incapable of nuance.

I won’t be engaging any you further piero. Its pointless.

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piero July 17, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Terry:
Nope. You know it’s not pointless. It’s just that you have no arguments, and that hurts. Don’t engage me if you do not want to, but don’t fool yourself.

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Ben July 17, 2010 at 5:48 pm

You are free to claim that you did not say what you said. Don’t expect tyo be taken seriously, though.

You clearly aren’t understanding what I’m saying then. Taking the conscious decision to publish/express your thoughts requires that you be aware of the consequences of that decision. This isn’t just the consequences on yourself, but the consequences on other people. Every decision we make has a justification, and whether that justification is adequate or not for those consequences is what is up for debate.

Most people here are clearly on the side that the excuse (i.e. having fun, freedom of expression) is not enough to justify the consequences, which is objectification of women, reinforcing gender inequality and characterisation, and causing offence.

Just because you can say whatever you want, doesn’t mean you should. If you decide to say something regardless of whether people find it acceptable or not, you cannot expect to be immune from opposition. Speaking, or publishing, is a conscious decision, and conscious decisions must weigh desired outcome (the ends) versus likely consequences (the means).

In this case, Luke thought that his bit of fun would be met with general acceptance and didn’t understand what other consequences can come from that decision. Now those consequences can be seen, which include both derision and acceptance, but mostly derision, and the discussion is about justifying that decision.

I’m not saying that people should be outright banned from producing such lists, but I am (as are many others) trying to explain why they should choose not to do so.

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Erika July 17, 2010 at 5:53 pm

+1 to Terry

You seem incapable of nuance in a social context. You’re looking for empirical “if a then b” rules to govern yourselves by, and if any exception can be found the entire ruleset is invalidated. At least that’s how it’s coming across. This has become an academic exercise in hair splitting and arguing in circles. It frustrating and a little painful to see an otherwise smart person such as yourself, Luke, with such a huge blindspot when it comes to gender issues and human respect.

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Isis the Scientist July 17, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Calling someone a good tennis player means that you want to smack some balls with them. Calling someone sexy implies you want to smack them with your balls. One is creepy. One is not.

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piero July 17, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Isis:

Was that supposed to be funny or just stupid? One it is not, the other it is.

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piero July 17, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Ben:

I won’t quote your original post again, because it gives me no pleasure to rub it in. I’ll address your latest post instead:

You clearly aren’t understanding what I’m saying then. Taking the conscious decision to publish/express your thoughts requires that you be aware of the consequences of that decision. This isn’t just the consequences on yourself, but the consequences on other people. Every decision we make has a justification, and whether that justification is adequate or not for those consequences is what is up for debate.

Fine. I am an atheist. Whatever I publish on the subject of religion is bound to cause offence to some believers, and I am fully aware of that. Should I refrain from publishing anything at all? Why? Why not?

Most people here are clearly on the side that the excuse (i.e. having fun, freedom of expression) is not enough to justify the consequences, which is objectification of women, reinforcing gender inequality and characterisation, and causing offence.

You seem to be assuming that it has been proved beyond doubt that Luke’s post objectified women, reinforced gender inequality and caused offence. I’m sorry to break the news, but that’s still the subject of debate. Of course, you are free to argue from assumptions; in that case, I would recommend you visited some other forums where you would be more warmly welcome.

Just because you can say whatever you want, doesn’t mean you should. If you decide to say something regardless of whether people find it acceptable or not, you cannot expect to be immune from opposition. Speaking, or publishing, is a conscious decision, and conscious decisions must weigh desired outcome (the ends) versus likely consequences (the means).

That’s very enlightening. I couldn’t have thought of that myself. Maybe you could add just a little bit more, and explain to me whether people who find the post unacceptable actually have a case? Please?

In this case, Luke thought that his bit of fun would be met with general acceptance and didn’t understand what other consequences can come from that decision. Now those consequences can be seen, which include both derision and acceptance, but mostly derision, and the discussion is about justifying that decision.

Precisely. So far no logical argument has been offered in support of the opposition. I take it there are no objections, then.

I’m not saying that people should be outright banned from producing such lists, but I am (as are many others) trying to explain why they should choose not to do so.

So you could perhaps be so kind as to explain to me the difference between “you should not do this” and “you should choose not to do this”. I’m sure it would make for an interesting evening.

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MichaelPJ July 17, 2010 at 6:39 pm

I’m afraid I’m not going to contribute anything to this debate other than to say:

Reidish’s post and Isis’ post. I assume these were jokes. I found them funny. piero, you didn’t. That’s fine, but it’s a bit unnecessary to put up frankly aggressive posts just because you didn’t like someone’s joke.

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Ben July 17, 2010 at 6:41 pm

Well, this is pointless. You’re as bad a bible literalist: “but where is the proof!”.

You seem to be assuming that it has been proved beyond doubt that Luke’s post objectified women, reinforced gender inequality and caused offence.

The proof is in the pudding. Sheril said she felt objectified, therefore the post objectified her. Other women said they were offended by the post because it objectifies women. Rating women in order of the “sexiness” is objectifying them. The post objectified women in a sexual sense.

There is no two ways about this, no other way to interpret that post. Claiming that the post is anything else is completely disingenuous.

The discussion has moved on (or at least it should have) from whether the post did objectify women to whether treating women as sexual objects in a public domain is justifiable.

Your obsession with redefining the term “objectify” to mean something it doesn’t just goes to expose your dishonesty in this debate.

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Hermes July 17, 2010 at 6:42 pm

As I’ve said before with more words;

Smart is sexy.

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piero July 17, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Michael:

Reidish’s post and Isis’ post. I assume these were jokes. I found them funny. piero, you didn’t. That’s fine, but it’s a bit unnecessary to put up frankly aggressive posts just because you didn’t like someone’s joke.

Don’t you think that “calling someone sexy is creepy” is aggressive enough?

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piero July 17, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Ben:

The proof is in the pudding. Sheril said she felt objectified, therefore the post objectified her. Other women said they were offended by the post because it objectifies women. Rating women in order of the “sexiness” is objectifying them. The post objectified women in a sexual sense.

So whatever Sheril says is the way things are? So far no-one has heeded my request to call me “your Highness”. Why not? I am demanding it. Why is everyone so disrespectful?

Besides, no argument has yet been offered explaining why objectification is a bad thing. I objectify 99% of the people I meet every day: the bus driver, the shop attendant, anyone who blocks my way to the escalator, etc. Should I endeavour to establish a meaningful, truly human relationship with everybody I see? Why?

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Ben July 17, 2010 at 7:17 pm

This is going nowhere. Piero: read all of the comments on this thread and the previous one and then come back and try to claim that no evidence has been put forward as to why PUBLIC, unwanted sexual objectification of women is a bad thing. If you still insist that people shouldn’t consider you an asshole despite your continuing disrespect, then you’re a lost cause.

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piero July 17, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Ben:

I do not expect people not to consider me an asshole. I expect them to give me an argument. I’ve read this whole thread and the previous one. So far, no dice; just vague references to women’s oppression throughout history, obscure authors, the indeterminacy of social issues and so on. In summary, the arguments put forward fall into one or more of these categories:

1. “Women have been oppressed, therefore calling a woman sexy is wrong”.
Non sequitur.

2. “Luce Irigaray says…”
I don’t care.

3. “Calling a woman sexy objectifies her”.
So? Calling a man sexy objectifies him too. What’s wrong about it?

4. “Calling a woman sexy perpetuates the imbalance of power”.
Not so. I find Sarah Chalke sexy, and I say so publicly. Is she now less powerful than she was ten seconds ago? Do I hold sway over her in any manner whatsoever?

5. “Your approach to social issues is not nuanced enough”.
Bullshit. Last resort when arguments are not forthcoming.

6. “It’s no use arguing with you. You are just like Biblical literalists”.
See above.

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A Listed Lady July 17, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Look, as one of the women who had their picture on the list, I’m of two minds on this. You know what, the first time I saw one of these lists I thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s pretty creepy”, because me having a picture of myself on my departmental page/blog was in no way, in my mind, permission for it to appear randomly elsewhere, as there is a major difference between public and publicized (http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2010/05/public_vs_publicized_future_of_1.php). However, it was a pretty benign list, and the general feeling that I got from it was “Look, physical attractiveness and career choice are unrelated, don’t believe the stereotype”, so, all and all, I’m glad, I guess, if I can serve as a useful role model for someone somewhere (because frankly, having relatable examples is really important – I’m still always looking for mentors).

Now, what I have found rather offensive in all of these lengthy comment threads are the people saying, “How offensive to judge a women on her looks who has spent all this time on her education”. Now does that make any sense? What, so it’s okay to judge a women on her looks who has made different life choices than us (ie. decided not to spend an extra 10 years + in school)? Women are objectified, this is not limited to science, but thinking that scientists/intellectuals should be exempt from it is really shitty.

I don’t like the word “sexy” because it has a rather unsavoury connotation to me, when said by anyone other than my partner, but that’s me, based on my experiences/society/blah blah blah. Generally, it would be pretty hard for me to be offended by someone simply saying, without any creepy connotation, “Hey, she is pretty”, just as if they said, “Hey, she has a brain”, or “Hey, she has brown hair” (these are all just attributes, part genetic and part aided by my own doing – yes, attractiveness, intelligence, and hair colour are all both nature and “nurture”). We should be able to comment on a physical attribute in the same way we do an intellectual one, without it being creepy (because it’s not like I don’t find a man with brains sexy). Unfortunately, we are not there yet as a society.

However, we shouldn’t be upset that physical attractiveness is considered a positive quality – evolution has made us feel that way, so why fight it? That is not objectification. In many fields, mine included, there is a real imbalance towards a certain type of person (white males), and it’s fairly well known that different genres of people bring different brains and different “eyes” to problems so diversity can really help advance a field. Thus, people who are different should be made to feel welcome. But how do we do that? First, by having role models, and second, by not being jerks.

Oh, and I know I am completely guilty of that “Hey, several of these women aren’t real scientists” garbage when I first saw the list, but hell, I don’t know the situation in those other womens’ fields, they could be just as in need of hip, young female role models as the rest of us.

Basically, “sexy” has a connotation that many of us are uncomfortable with, so just pretend his picked another term, like “young and cool seeming”, or what have you. This whole “equality” thing we all want comes down to the fact that we don’t want to be judged solely off of our looks if we are in academia (seems pretty obvious), but to do that, I don’t think the answer is to ignore the fact that we *have* looks, it’s to try to remember that being “evolutionarily attractive” is just a property, like “brown hair” or “good with algebraic topology” (part natural talent/gifts and part effort). We wouldn’t be as offended by a “brown haired scientist” list, so let us not be so offended by a “sexy scientist” list (ignoring that whole ‘using our pictures without permission thing…’).

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Terry July 17, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Paging Luke, your thread has gone off the rails.

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corn walker July 17, 2010 at 7:38 pm

@ERV is providing case in point for @Hermes

Even if she looks like a dog her confidence, intellect, and wit makes her damned sexy in my book. But then I’m sure I am just one of many that fell for her after her now classic takedown of Behe.

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Mark July 17, 2010 at 7:52 pm

First, I think people have been neglecting to mention the nearly pornographic banner at the beginning of the “sexy scientists” post. Probably that picture has been generating a lot of the disgust that you’ve been subject to. Imagine rather than posting, say, Sheril’s photo, you had photoshopped her face onto the woman in the banner’s body. Would you personally consider that inappropriate for a blog like this one? If so, consider the ways in which putting Sheril’s photo next to the banner is similar.

Second, I personally am not much interested in debating the meaning of the word “sexism,” so I’m not in a position to authoritatively pronounce on whether your post crosses the line into sexism or not. But I do think we have strong reasons to want to avoid publicly sexualizing other people in general, and that’s going to involve avoiding it even in borderline cases where it feels to us like it philosophically ought to be harmless. Your willingness to let your conscience be your guide in borderline cases signals to people that you don’t take the general principle very seriously. That’s why they find it creepy.

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Hermes July 17, 2010 at 7:53 pm

Terry: Paging Luke, your thread has gone off the rails.

It looks like it just slammed back on the tracks, to me.

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piero July 17, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Mark:

But I do think we have strong reasons to want to avoid publicly sexualizing other people in general

Why?

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Mark July 17, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Why?

Well, I shouldn’t say “people” so much as “people pursuing certain sorts of careers.” In particular, we want to avoid publicly sexualizing people when sexism is a major obstacle they have to overcome, and when they want their professional achievements/identities to be detached from their sexual/gender identities.

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Terry July 17, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Hermes:

I assume you’re referring to A Listed Lady’s post. She claims, I think, to not feel particularly violated by be included in Luke’s list. Fair enough, I respect that. But her post was far from a blanket endorsement of being included in “sexy” lists generally. At best, I would characterize what she said as conflicted, nuanced, and finally ‘OK’ with this particular list. A Listed Lady, please correct me if I have mischaracterized what you intended to say.

On the other hand, other members of the list have expressed different opinions. I assume each one is valid in the context of their life experience and current circumstance.

So which of these differing opinions should be respected, and which ones can safely be ignored? Why?

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piero July 17, 2010 at 8:18 pm

Mark:

I’m not convinced. Let’s say XY is a smart scientist and also an attractive woman. She’s had to overcome sexism throughout her professional career. I find her picture on the net and publish it on my blog, with a comment concerning her looks. Is she now going to be subject to more harassment? Do the men who could curtail her career need to see her picture on my blog before they harass her? Isn’t her presence in person enough for them to regard her as sexual prey?

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Mark July 17, 2010 at 8:25 pm

I’m not convinced. Let’s say XY is a smart scientist and also an attractive woman. She’s had to overcome sexism throughout her professional career. I find her picture on the net and publish it on my blog, with a comment concerning her looks. Is she now going to be subject to more harassment? Do the men who could curtail her career need to see her picture on my blog before they harass her? Isn’t her presence in person enough for them to regard her as sexual prey?

She might be subject to more harassment, yes. More realistically, she might just be taken less seriously as a professional by people who are primed by the blog post to think about her sexually, or by people who don’t understand the internet very well. Even more realistically, it might simply cause the woman distress to think that her efforts to In fact, we don’t really know what the likely adverse consequences are. Maybe it’s nothing.

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Mark July 17, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Ugh, whoops, posted that comment before I meant to. I’ll try again:

I’m not convinced. Let’s say XY is a smart scientist and also an attractive woman. She’s had to overcome sexism throughout her professional career. I find her picture on the net and publish it on my blog, with a comment concerning her looks. Is she now going to be subject to more harassment? Do the men who could curtail her career need to see her picture on my blog before they harass her? Isn’t her presence in person enough for them to regard her as sexual prey?

She might be subject to more harassment, yes. More realistically, she might just be taken less seriously as a professional by people who are primed by the blog post to think about her sexually, or by people who don’t understand the internet very well. Even more realistically, it might simply cause the woman distress to think that her efforts to divorce her gender and professional identities are being counteracted, and by flippant strangers, no less. In fact, we don’t really know what the likely adverse consequences are. Maybe it’s nothing. But if you reread my post, I wasn’t appealing to adverse consequences. In fact, I wasn’t even arguing that anything was sexist, just explaining where the creepy vibe people are getting comes from.

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Hermes July 17, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Terry, there are quite a few good posts, hers included. Your assessment was premature even without her post, though.

I have my own unwritten insights, but from the feedback from many of the commenters I don’t think going into detail would get me anything but derisive replies at this point. Maybe later? Yet, from my own experiences seeing how well that worked even in an academic setting, I don’t see that being more likely on a blog.

Both men and male thought processes have no input into these discussions, or so I’ve been told. I’m also supposedly evil no matter what I say; agree or disagree, honest or dishonest. Very catch-22.

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A Listed Lady July 17, 2010 at 9:25 pm

@Terry:

Yes, I was saying that I do not feel violated by this particular list, but that’s because I choose to give the benefit of the doubt and imagine that it wasn’t actually intended to sexualize (sexualization not being a requirement in many people’s uses of the word “sexy”) but was done from a positive place (I’ve come across other lists that have made me uncomfortable though – but that’s because they were of the “Here are scientists I would like to ‘do’” nature, and not of the “Here are scientists who I think are easy on the eyes” variety. So basically Terry, you’ve taken my meaning (despite my comment not being exceptionally well proof-read).

Now, the existence of such lists is no surprise (it’s human nature to both like to group things and to like pretty ladies, after all), and I think they are fine so long as they are not full of uncomfortable, sexualized, comments or derogatory remarks (which Luke’s post was not). Again, using people’s pictures without their permission is generally frowned upon, but it happens, so I can understand that people don’t know what the acceptable practice is (it’s fine when it’s celebrity photos, after all, so it’s easy for people to get confused where to draw the line with what is a publicity photo, and thus fair game, and what is not). I think, if any women (etc.) has an objection to finding herself on a list like this, she has the right to speak up and ask to be removed, and, so long as that is obliged, then there shouldn’t be an issue.

@Hermes:

It’s unfair that the male thought process isn’t always welcome in these conversations because I think that attitude just stresses the “This is a gender issue!” versus the “This is a human issue” divide that probably isn’t especially helpful when it comes to actually making a social change. When you experience discrimination and harassment first hand, you’re bound to be more sensitive to it – unrelated to gender, often when it’s an issue we don’t ever see, first hand, we often don’t think it is as serious as an issue that we have actually encountered (some men have never even witnessed/noticed their female colleagues being harassed so they assume it doesn’t happen). Thus, men sometimes appear insensitive so they automatically get shut out of the debate. Sometimes, when I’ve had a really bad week, if I’ve had a come on from someone who I used to respect intellectually, I’ll get really down on men in general in my field because “how can they let this type of behaviour continue”, but honestly, it’s not a men versus women thing, and we need to remember that. Yes, men have made me more uncomfortable with overt behaviour in my academic life, but that doesn’t mean that some of the most thoughtless sexism I have encountered has come from feminist-flag-toting women (“I wonder who she’s sleeping with in the department”, “I wonder if she spent less time in front of the mirror if she could really accomplish something”, blah, blah, blah). Regardless of *our* gender, we always seem to find an endless list of things to judge others on, unfairly.

Basically, our species is full of assholes, but we’ll never get anywhere if we don’t start giving people the benefit of the doubt. The original “Sexy Scientist” post, probably wasn’t done with any ill or insulting or debasing intent at all, so I don’t need to be offended. If other people were offended, they should ask themselves, specifically, what about it offended them personally. If the word “sexy” is offensive, that’s because you’re assuming it to mean something that probably wasn’t the intended meaning (unfortunately, it has a wide array of synonyms with varying connotations). If it’s offensive because if someone is Googling you and that list comes up before your CV/research (and hey, when you’re young and your publication list is still quite small, it happens) you’ll feel judged – then just make sure not to judge someone else if the roles are reversed. We don’t help break our culture of these thought patterns by continuing them ourselves. If I am looking up a colleague and I see her listed on some “Sexy Scientist” list, I’m certainly not going to think to myself, “I bet she’s not much of a scientist then” because that would just be insane. Frankly, if someone thinks that way about me, that I am somehow less competent or respectable because some strangers on the internet feel the need to call me pretty, then I don’t want that person’s respect to begin with. Can that hurt my career? Frankly, not in any way that I would care about. Why would I want to work with someone or be at an institute with people who would think less of me because I am labelled “sexy” to someone? I’d rather they judge me online before they waste my time with that crap in person, anyway. If people take me less seriously because they’ve seen what I look like then so be it. If my work/ideas can’t speak for themselves and change their minds, then I really don’t want or need their respect. Professionally, this stuff has no consequence for me at all. The only people that it encourages are the unintelligent crackpots out there who see my picture and somehow decide they absolutely need to email me and share some profound insight with a “P.S. And you’re super hot; I’d like to run away with you” comment thrown in.

So I guess, in conclusion, people are jerks, but get over the list, it was done in good fun and wasn’t meant to cause any of this upset or meant to be creepy (scandalous banner image aside). No, it’s wasn’t sexist in my eyes (only including women just means that “women” is contained within the author’s definition of “sexy”, and that is his right).

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Chris July 17, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Re: Am I Sexist?

No. I know you really value your willingness to change your mind, or, in this case, the appearance of being willing to change your mind, but move on man. There are no good arguments against you here. Be a good philosopher and realize, as Epictetus did, that “If you are ever tempted to look for outside approval, realize that you have compromised your integrity.”

Yeah maybe its fucking pretentious of me to quote an ancient philosopher like that, but I’m trying to get your attention. Plus, I’m a bit pissy that I’m home alone on a Saturday night and I let myself waste time going through the 347 mostly ridiculous comments on the other post.

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lukeprog July 17, 2010 at 10:33 pm

Thrasymachus,

I can see the problem with posting a list of people you consider ugly, or a long, ranked list of people that includes half the people on campus, or something like that. But don’t we post lists celebrating ‘top’ people all the time? Top grades. Top sports performers. Etc.

The office is another matter, because they have their own rules…

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lukeprog July 17, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Thanks for your comments, A Listed Lady.

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lukeprog July 17, 2010 at 10:50 pm

‘A Listed Lady’,

That’s interesting. I must admit that to me, the word ‘sexy’ is a fun, light-hearted word I (and the people I know) use to describe women, guitars, Apple products, and silk pie. But I suppose to many people it is a more powerful word than that, and perhaps brings up the image of some creepy drooling guy talking about how he wants to “bang” all the “chicks” on the list. Not what I had in mind.

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lukeprog July 17, 2010 at 10:51 pm

Following on my previous comment to A Listed Lady, is one of the big problems for many people here the word ‘sexy’? Would you have objected as much if I had called the list ’15 Beautiful Female Scientists’ or ’15 Cool-Looking Female Scientists’?

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lukeprog July 17, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Chris,

LOL!

Anyway, that is of course precisely why I’m waiting for the arguments to be clarified, and not just caving to angry assaults.

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Beelzebub July 18, 2010 at 2:15 am

Here are my thoughts, for what they’re worth. This is bound to piss some people off, but I don’t mean it as a troll comment.

First, male visual sexual stimulus is unlike female sexual stimulus. Don’t ask me to quote the psych lit, but most people suspect this is true anyway, and this is the reason that porn for men will always dwarf porn for women. When a man looks at an attractive woman, in a small way, he “achieves” (probably a bad word here) a certain amount of sexual gratification. Women understand this as much as men do. This is why many woman who are unreceptive to a male can go from zero to irate just from the wrong kind of glance. (Unfortunately, I’ve experienced this firsthand.)

I don’t blame women for this reaction; in fact I find it totally understandable. Mere eye contact is the primary means people signal initial attraction.

Take this and apply it to the case in hand. The vague pornographic connotation is unavoidable. For men, it’s very hard to separate visual sexual stimulus from actual gratification. Perhaps it sounds absurd, but when a man ogles a woman, in a sense he’s already having sex with her, in his mind.

I understand the points made on both sides, and I can certainly see how some women could be offended, depending on how they feel about being an unwitting centerfold.

I have a very simple solution: get permission first. Everyone’s happy.

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Haukur July 18, 2010 at 2:49 am

Would you have objected as much if I had called the list ‘15 Beautiful Female Scientists’ or ‘15 Cool-Looking Female Scientists’?

No, that would have been less objectionable. And, as we’ve gone over before, if you’d gotten permission to use the photographs in this way that would also have been less objectionable.

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Nonchai July 18, 2010 at 5:28 am

Isnt it a little sloppy for a supposed philosophy blogger to issue a post using such a pot’entially misunderstood term as “sexy” ?. Isnt clarity and clarification one of the first things one is meant to get out of the way before making ones point – be that to argue against god or list some attractive scientists.

And shouldn’t your knowledge of how different social groups and cultures react differently to emotionally charged words – even within the atheist community – have prompted you to do a little more research into how people perceive the word “sexy”.

As others have said here, notable females – had you used a more “clarified” word such as pretty, attractive or beautiful. it is very doubtful your posts would have received so many comments.

Now of course your post was light hearted and definitely not intended as sexist at all but considering any blog in philosophy has to have the defining the meaning of words near the top of its priorities, seems to me you failed big time.

Your blog gets read all over the world and although in LALA land in your social group sexy clearly just means attractive, a little research or just asking around in LA a little -would have shown you that in many english speaking cultures sexy equates to “something i would like to shag”.

I think this is where you made the mistake. In your defence ( and this really IS a wonderfu blog ) I think this arises from the dual nature of blogs of this kind, they are one the one hand focused on ONE particular topic. On the other they by their nature are ALSO obviously about the blogger themselves. And sometimes those two things are slightly in conflict, even a tad contradictory.

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Haukur July 18, 2010 at 5:44 am

I wouldn’t want to live in a society where we’re each tiptoeing around trying desperately not to offend someone.

We already live in a society where we need to be careful not to utter every thought that comes to mind. Presumably the people in this discussion fairly often have thoughts like these:

“Man, this meeting is boring. I’d rather be fishing.”

“Wow, this person I just met on the bus is attractive. I feel myself becoming sexually aroused.”

“Hey, that person seems to have put on a lot of weight.”

And presumably they don’t immediately express them every time. I don’t see why following the social convention “don’t post pictures of women, saying you find them sexy, if you don’t know whether they’d want that sort of attention” would be a particularly burdensome social convention to follow.

Neither Luke nor corn walker seem to offer any particular argument for why this is a bad social convention. I’m not even sure what corn walker is getting at – he seems to have some sort of general concern that people might be too easily offended and that that is a bad thing. Okay, I’ll agree, there are people who are too easily offended and that’s bad – but so what? We still shouldn’t gratuitously offend them and corn walker agrees – he says he tries to be as careful around his sensitive friend.

The part about Mohammad seems to come closest to making some sort of argument but I don’t really get it:

I think it’s important to draw Mohammed – not to be intentionally offensive to Muslims, but to make a very strong point that it is not acceptable to kill someone because they’ve offended you.

But if you draw Mohammad then you are intentionally offending (some) Muslims, whether that is your main point or not. That seems like a bad thing to me. Now, perhaps this bad thing is outweighed by some other good thing but I don’t really see it. The good thing corn walker sees is “a very strong point that it is not acceptable to kill someone because they’ve offended you”. I don’t really see how you get from A to B here but perhaps there is some sort of case to be made. Let’s read on:

I see little distinction between it and gang members who kill each other because of slights both perceived and real – it’s immature and thuggish and ought not to be tolerated.

This is completely incomprehensible to me. Do you go around gratuitously offending gang members to provoke them into killing people? Presumably not. Do you gratuitously offend gang members to make the point that gang members are immature? Isn’t gratuitously offending people immature?

Let me tell a parable. Jack and Jill are siblings. Jill has a teddy bear that she likes. Every time Jill gets out of bed in the morning she leaves her teddy bear all snug lying on her pillow. If someone disturbs this arrangement during the day, Jill goes into a fit of rage and starts breaking things and biting people. Jack knows this and sometimes intentionally takes the teddy bear out of the bed and puts it somewhere else – which makes Jill go bananas every time. The children’s mother says to Jack: “Why on Earth do you keep provoking your sister like that?!” Jack replies: “I’m making a very strong point that it is not acceptable to go into a fit of rage because someone has offended you”.

What are our recommendations for Jack and Jill? Well, two things:

A: Jill needs to mature and learn not be so touchy about her teddy bear.

B: Jack needs to stop being an asshole.

Point A doesn’t somehow negate point B. But that feels like the argument being made here.

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Thrasymachus July 18, 2010 at 7:05 am

lukeprog:

Well, let’s take an example that closely parallels yours. (Aside: I’m not sure what moral distinction you’d draw by picking a selection of sexy students or ‘ranking’ half the campus…) I make a list of 10 or so hot/sexy fellow med students (all female) and post them on my blog. Let’s pretend people actually read my blog, and news spreads. I can pretty much guarantee I’d be the subject of disciplinary action. The same would apply if I did so in an office.

Neither my med school (nor your place of work) probably have any rules about publishing lists of attractive females. So what you’d be pulled up on is breaking some general rule about treating your fellow students or co-workers with respect/dignity or similar. Why? Well, for the reasons I’ve somewhat ineptly (and others less ineptly, like Ben or Harkur) stated above.

Again, if I put up ‘smart’ ‘industrious’ ‘best’ or ‘brown haired’ short lists, then there’d be no problem because, again, calling someone smart or industrious isn’t potentially disrespectful (or similar) in the way that sexy is. I don’t think any of the people in your list would mind being called a top female scientist, or a smart female scientist (pace worries about why the ‘female’ stuff is relevant). Sheril obviously does mind this whole sexiness shtick, and Listed Lady isn’t over the moon about it either.

In regards to your ‘what if I just called them beautiful?’, I think you’d probably still get some of the moral opprobrium. People would question your motives: sure he might just be saying ‘don’t they look nice’, but his real intent is to mark them as ‘sexy’. I definitely got a ‘woah, creepy!’ vibe from the posts, and I doubt it would have been lessened with some careful changes of phrase.

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lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 7:26 am

Thrasymachus,

Hmmm. I think an interesting question here is: Is it my fault if people respond to what from me is a genuine, lighthearted compliment, and interpret it as creepy or unwanted or – more impressively – demeaning? (I can see why calling someone ugly is demeaning, but it’s a special kind of nuance that turns a compliment like “sexy” into something bad. I think the argument is that some women will interpret it as meaning they are sex objects, or “most importantly” sexy, or something – but again, that meaning is not in the post, it must be put there by people who apparently want to be offended.)

Imagine I was a kind-hearted gay guy and I saw a woman on the street and I thought she looked great so I told her she looked sexy, hoping I’d make her day. And this woman turned on me in a rage, “Don’t come on to me! You’re demeaning me!” Now, whose fault is this? Would it be my fault for not considering how she might respond to a genuine compliment, or is it her fault for inventing all kinds of meaning that is not there so she can be offended?

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corn walker July 18, 2010 at 7:32 am

Haukur,

Let me write plainly so you can better understand where I am coming from.

You open by saying, “We already live in a society where we need to be careful not to utter every thought that comes to mind.” This is not what I am talking about. Some call this “radical honesty” but I don’t think there is anything more “honest” about it. I edit myself when I’m thinking, I edit myself when I speaking, and I edit myself when I am writing. This editorial process is how I clarify what I think and what I believe. As I said before, “you don’t have to believe what you think” and the idea of immediately sharing every nascent thought as some measure of authenticity is nonsensical to me. In the space of this discussion, it’s a caricature of an alternative to the type of self-censorship I believe some are advocating.

I am a fierce proponent of free speech and opponent of censorship. As abhorrent as some speech appears to me, I believe it is more abhorrent that some would seek to censor that speech. Within this view, I place a higher value on free speech than I do on avoiding offense. Where someone draws the line at editing or censoring their own speech is entirely up to them – what I don’t want is a culture that is, in my view, overly censorious. You may want a culture that is more censorious – you can fight for your view, I’ll fight for mine.

Not only do I not want to live in a more censorious society, I think ultimately it’s counter-productive. When someone airs their views, they let me know what they believe. And if I disagree with their beliefs, I can counter them. They may be strongly held beliefs or they may be entrenched ideas that haven’t been critically examined. But at least they’re honest beliefs. I’d much rather know up front that you’re a sexist boor than have you hide that from me because of some social convention of not wanting to cause offense. Writing that, a quote attributed to Malcolm X comes to mind:

I have more respect for a man who lets me know where he stands, even if he’s wrong, than the one who comes up like an angel and is nothing but a devil.

My point about my friend is to provide an illustration of how ridiculous it can become when we approach extremes of being concerned about whether someone might be offended. I might say to this person, “did you go out last night?” and their response would be, “should I have? Do you think I go out too much? I don’t think I go out too much, do I?” What was intended to be light conversation about what someone did on their weekend becomes an unintentional, and quite unanticipated, discussion about judging this person. Now I love this friend, and over the years I’ve learned how to talk with them, but there is definitely a different amount of energy required for conversation. The unfortunate reality is that when I don’t have that energy, our conversations will often be less personal. If I had to spend that amount of energy trying to anticipate how everyone might react to what I say or write, my conversations would be exhausting or reduced to banalities. Instead I have decided to take the approach of not self-censoring, apologizing when I recognize I’ve caused justifiable offense, and challenging others when I think the offense isn’t justified. If you think I’m wrong and I don’t, all I ask is that you show me why I’m wrong.

Yes, I am deciding what is justifiable offense. You (the person offended) are asking me to curtail my speech and/or apologize and I have no obligation to uncritically accede to your request. Nor am I obliged to internalize or validate your sense of what is justifiable offense anymore than you are obliged to adopt my point of view. Sometimes I do apologize as a matter of courtesy, particularly with professional acquaintances, however with friends I will often challenge them and expect to be challenged in return. On internet discussion boards, I have neither a personal or professional relationship with my interlocutors, and I accord them considerably less deference.

Concerning the drawing of Mohammed, I feel very strongly about this. I recognize that it is offensive to some Muslims. I also recognize that it’s not at all difficult to not draw Mohammed and just get along. But there is a bigger issue at stake here. I am happy to censor myself as a matter of decorum. However I refuse to censor myself under the threat of violence. I will not back down to petulant bullies and those who would do harm to someone for a cartoon should not be humored – they should be opposed at every turn. I compare them to gangs because the behavior is much the same. There is an idea that it is proper to respond to some offense with violence. It is immature and thuggish behavior and even the threat of that behavior must not tolerated in a society.

I’m afraid I don’t get the point of your “parable.” I don’t agree that Jill needs to be less “touchy” about her teddy bear, but she absolutely needs to not be violent towards others, despite the provocation.

Please let me know if there remain aspects of my position that you still find unclear and I will attempt to better explain them.

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piero July 18, 2010 at 7:43 am

After 400 posts, I still wish someone could tell me which ones of these statements are offensive, which ones aren’t, and why:

1. Your cooking is superb.
2. That hairstyle suits you.
3. I didn’t know you were such an accomplished pianist!
4. I like talking to you, because you have a remarkably positive attitude.
5. Your last paper was very insightful.
6. You are sexy.

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Alexandros Marinos July 18, 2010 at 8:00 am
piero July 18, 2010 at 8:01 am

corn walker:
That was quite excellent.

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Erika July 18, 2010 at 8:20 am

After 400 posts, I still wish someone could tell me which ones of these statements are offensive, which ones aren’t, and why:
1. Your cooking is superb.
2. That hairstyle suits you.
3. I didn’t know you were such an accomplished pianist!
4. I like talking to you, because you have a remarkably positive attitude.
5. Your last paper was very insightful.
6. You are sexy.

That’s your problem. There is no clear answer. For each and every one of these statements, the answer is to whether or not it’s offensive is “it depends”. When it comes to human interaction, there are very rarely universally right and wrong ways to act.

For example, telling someone that their cooking was superb or that their hairstyle looks nice or that they are an accomplished pianist when they were talking about their accomplishments in the lab may very well be offensive. Telling someone that their last paper was very insightful is probably offensive just after sex.

There are no black and white “this is right, that is wrong” sort of answers. That’s why human interaction is hard.

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Erika July 18, 2010 at 8:37 am

Two huge pieces of context in whether or not a comment is appropriate are

– Are you making the comment public or privately?

– Is the comment about someone you know or a stranger?

If you are making a comment publicly, you are not only stating your own opinion. You are encouraging others to view the person you are commenting upon in the same way. If Luke thinks of some woman as a sexy scientist, that’s one thing. If Luke is encouraging thousands of others who have never heard of her to think of her as a sexy scientist, that’s another thing.

If you are commenting about someone you know, then the recipient of the comment has a more multifaceted relationship with you, and they know that you don’t just think of them in the way implied by the comment, and they know you probably meant the comment positively. However, when you are making a comment to a stranger, then the whole of your relationship is this comment. If that comment is perceived as insulting, they have no reason to think that you are any different than someone who made the same comment and intended it as an insult.

In short, there is a whole spectrum of contexts which affect whether or not a comment is appropriate. The standards for public comments about strangers should be much higher than the standards for private comments between people who know each other.

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lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 8:38 am

Great link, Alexandros.

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Erika July 18, 2010 at 8:39 am

Alexandros, that is a great link. Because it shows how woman can be empowered when they can voluntarily embrace their own sexuality.

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Haukur July 18, 2010 at 8:40 am

I edit myself when I’m thinking, I edit myself when I speaking, and I edit myself when I am writing. This editorial process is how I clarify what I think and what I believe. As I said before, “you don’t have to believe what you think” and the idea of immediately sharing every nascent thought as some measure of authenticity is nonsensical to me.

Great. We agree.

I’d much rather know up front that you’re a sexist boor than have you hide that from me because of some social convention of not wanting to cause offense.

I think this is where we either stop understanding each other or stop agreeing with each other. If I have sexist thoughts but don’t voice them or act on them then I’m not a sexist boor. If I start voicing these thoughts then I haven’t simply stopped hiding that I am a sexist boor – I have become a sexist boor. Whether or not I say sexist things isn’t extraneous to whether or not I am a sexist boor.

I am happy to censor myself as a matter of decorum. However I refuse to censor myself under the threat of violence.

Here, again, communication or agreement has broken down. There seem to be three options:

A: Drawing Mohammad.
B: Not drawing Mohammad because of threats of violence.
C: Not drawing Mohammad for other reasons (decorum etc.).

You seem to be saying that only A and B are open to us and that you refuse to do B. But I don’t see what’s wrong with C.

I’m afraid I don’t get the point of your “parable.” I don’t agree that Jill needs to be less “touchy” about her teddy bear, but she absolutely needs to not be violent towards others, despite the provocation.

Fair enough, I’m willing to rephrase there. Jill has two not mutually exclusive courses of action open to her:

a) She can learn to deal more constructively with the problem of people removing her teddy bear.

b) She can modify her views on the necessity of her teddy bear remaining undisturbed on the pillow.

Now, let’s say the mother says to Jack: “Jack, please stop removing the teddy bear – just out of being nice to your sister”. He replies: “While I would be willing to be nice to my sister the problem is that she gets violent when I remove the teddy bear. I am not willing to stop removing the teddy bear under the threat of violence.”

I am assuming that you agree that Jack’s position is unreasonable and I am assuming that your view differs from his. But I’m still not clear on how.

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Hermes July 18, 2010 at 9:11 am

A Listed Lady, thank you for your further general and personal insights. I regret that I can not reply in kind without taking this conversation on a different tangent, though I will keep your comments in mind when I do. Hopefully, it won’t be bad taste to swipe a few?

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corn walker July 18, 2010 at 9:20 am

Haukur:

I think this is where we either stop understanding each other or stop agreeing with each other. If I have sexist thoughts but don’t voice them or act on them then I’m not a sexist boor. If I start voicing these thoughts then I haven’t simply stopped hiding that I am a sexist boor – I have become a sexist boor. Whether or not I say sexist things isn’t extraneous to whether or not I am a sexist boor.

If we disagree, it’s on the definition of “sexist.” I typically follow the denotation of the word common to most dictionaries and online reference. Here is a typical definition:

Discrimination based on gender, especially discrimination against women.Attitudes, conditions, or behaviors that promote stereotyping of social roles based on gender.
Source: dictionary.reference.com

So if you hold attitudes that are sexist, I believe you are sexist. Boorish specifically relates to behavior but is not required to be sexist. Certainly you can be a polite sexist just as much as you can be a rude sexist. It’s clear that by including a behavioral aspect of being sexist I’ve muddled my intention a bit. To be clear, I’m don’t hold discrete sexism in any higher esteem than overt sexism. If anything I probably hold it in lower esteem because you don’t have the courage of your convictions to say what you mean.

I am happy to censor myself as a matter of decorum. However I refuse to censor myself under the threat of violence.
Here, again, communication or agreement has broken down. There seem to be three options:
A: Drawing Mohammad.
B: Not drawing Mohammad because of threats of violence.
C: Not drawing Mohammad for other reasons (decorum etc.).
You seem to be saying that only A and B are open to us and that you refuse to do B. But I don’t see what’s wrong with C.

There are additional options you either haven’t considered or have lumped under A or C.

I might be inclined to draw Mohammed because I am an atheist and I intend to make a political statement about Islam. I might be a comic illustrator whose web comic is based on satirizing religion, particularly Christianity and Islam. I may draw Mohammed because I have nothing better to do with my time. I may draw Mohammed to intentionally ridicule the idea of a prohibition against drawing something. The act of drawing Mohammed is a form of speech, and I don’t believe anyone should be subject to violence or threats of violence for that speech. And so I fully support those who would draw Mohammed – whatever their reason for doing so – against the bullies who would silence their pens or their lives. Sure some Muslims are going to be offended – they can deal with it, as long as they do so non-violently.

I am assuming that you agree that Jack’s position is unreasonable and I am assuming that your view differs from his. But I’m still not clear on how.

If by this you intend to draw a parallel between making a political statement about whether or not someone should be subjected to violence for drawing a cartoon, and the behavior of children whose prefrontal cortexes are incompletely developed, I’m afraid you’ve lost me. It’s the role of the parent in the latter situation to referee disputes and help counter impulsive behaviors until the children are old enough to self-regulate. There is no parent in the former situation.

I find no parallel between your scenario and adult adherents of Islam threatening beheadings for some perceived slight caused by drawing a cartoon image. This is, to some extent, why lately I have come to consider myself as anti-religious. Even though the basis of the behavior finds its roots in tribalism and mob psychology, religion often facilitates and justifies what is by any objective measure intolerable, anti-social behavior.

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corn walker July 18, 2010 at 9:21 am

Whoops, forgot to close my tag there.

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Erika July 18, 2010 at 9:22 am

Luke, reading back over the comments, it seems like there are two separate discussions going on that may be worth separating.

– Is it appropriate to post lists like this in the first place?

– Was it appropriate for you to leave Sheril on the list and, furthermore, defend your decision to keep her on the list, once you learned that would likely object to it?

Many of the arguments that people have been presenting have a very different relevance based on whether they are being applied to the first or the second question.

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lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 9:35 am

Erika,

Yup, I totally agree that those are two major and separate questions, both of which I plan to try to work through in this series!

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Haukur July 18, 2010 at 9:54 am

If by this you intend to draw a parallel between making a political statement about whether or not someone should be subjected to violence for drawing a cartoon, and the behavior of children whose prefrontal cortexes are incompletely developed, I’m afraid you’ve lost me.

This seems muddled. We completely agree that no-one should be subjected to violence for drawing a cartoon, that’s not the issue.

As for using an analogy with children in it, let’s backtrack. You called (certain) radical Muslims ‘immature’. I countered that gratuitously offending people was also immature. To illustrate this I made up a story with two immature people (i.e. children) in it. Jill represents your immature radical Muslim activists, Jack represents my immature radical ‘draw Mohammad’ activists. Do you still feel that you don’t understand my story? Obviously I can’t force you to engage with this analogy but I was hoping it at least clarified my views somewhat.

There is no parent in the former situation.

Yes, that’s definitely a place where the analogy breaks down. (As analogies must.)

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A Listed Lady July 18, 2010 at 9:56 am

@Hermes,

I’m glad you got something from what I wrote. Feel free to borrow any comments that you wish. :)

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Hermes July 18, 2010 at 10:49 am

[ tips hat to A Listed Lady ]

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Rick B July 18, 2010 at 10:52 am

Erika,

– Are you making the comment public or privately?

– Is the comment about someone you know or a stranger?

One other piece of context you didn’t mention is whether the speaker comments from a position of entitlement, a sense of having the right to act in a certain way, or to be treated in a certain way.

Luke felt it was not only his right to compile and publish such a list, but also that his opinion mattered to someone else. Now, given that Luke’s blog is fairly well-read, I’d say that in most matters, Luke is right to think his opinion carries some weight once it leaves his cranium. In this post, however, he failed in at least two distinct ways (with respect to entitlement):
1. He thought his readership would appreciate a list of women scientists he finds sexy.
2. He did not consider the reaction of at least one woman who clearly expressed objections to such comments in the past.

Luke,

Regarding #1, why does the world need to be informed about your sexual preference for specific women scientists? It absolutely doesn’t. It’s a huge exercise in hubris (defiant pride, if you will) to believe the world needs to be informed of said list so much that you should publish it. At first I was simply bored – “great, Luke’s put out another list having nothing to do with atheism or arguments for or against it.”

However, when I looked again, I found that there was significant controversy brewing over an issue you and I have already misunderstood each other on. My perspective being exactly that – mine – I’m still convinced you’re the one with the misunderstandings ^_^.

As has been amply illustrated, there is a wide variety of reactions from women, and no one woman can presume to speak for all the rest by her reaction. However, the argument that your post is sexist is quite cogent. I’ll take a stab at it here:
a) Women are members of an historically oppressed group. Men have exercised many tactics to perpetuate this power imbalance, including sexualization of women. This sexualization allows men to marginalize and essentialize women as sex objects who owe their primary value to their attractiveness.
b) Your post replayed this power dynamic. Regardless of your intention or ignorance of such power dynamic, the post values these women for their attractiveness to you first and foremost, objectifying and marginalizing them.
c) Therefore your post perpetuated the power dynamic used to oppress women. And is therefore aptly called sexist.

Please note that this argument does not depend on the reaction of the women on or off the list, or on your intentions, however harmless. This is how most sexism works today in the US. It’s a very subtle dynamic played out covertly and often without realization that it’s even happening.

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Bradm July 18, 2010 at 10:59 am

RickB,

Thank you for that post. It said much more clearly what I was trying to get across to Luke earlier.

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Hermes July 18, 2010 at 11:20 am

Rick B, how would you apply that to individuals?

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lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 11:38 am

Rick B,

Did I assume that my opinion of sexy scientists mattered to somebody else? Yup. Was I right? I think 350+ comments in 2 days suggests the answer is “Yes.”

You say I did not consider the reaction of at least one woman who expressed objections to such comments in the past. I suspect you’re describing Sheril? But I said explicitly in Round 2 that I was not aware of Sheril’s post until after I had posted the list. Moreover, did you see Sheril’s photo. It is clearly a professional or semi-professional “beauty shot.” Of course it’s possible somebody stole the photo and uploaded it to the public domain against her will, but this is somewhat unlikely. Is it implausible of me to assume that she uploaded a professionally taken “beauty shot” to the public domain because she didn’t want to be seen as sexy?

Another complaint is that the list was unnecessary. Yup. So are many posts on my blog. I’ve explicitly stated that I intended it mostly as lighthearted fun.

Thanks for trying to make your argument clear with (a), (b), (c). Where I start to disagree is with (b). Yes, the post values these women principally for their attractiveness (but remember, part of the point of the post is their scientific achievements, something men and women need to be reminded of!). Why is this? Because it’s a post about sexy women. What I deny is the inference from this to the conclusion that the post objectifies (in some senses) or marginalizes women. Again, I didn’t say – and in fact explicitly and repeatedly deny – that these women are principally valuable because of their beauty. In fact, given my respect for science and my relative dismissal of aesthetics, I think their scientific achievements are way more important than their beauty. But despite all this, other people have come in and invented content that is not there: content saying that the most important thing about these women is their beauty. This is just false, and it is not present in the post, and it is explicitly denied by me elsewhere.

So I deny the the post marginalizes women in the way I think you’re saying. My post does not say that these women are principally valuable for their beauty, and in fact I have explicitly denied this over and over and over again.

So you’re going to need to try a different kind of argument. Maybe something like this:

“Luke, while your post does not degrade women by saying their value comes principally from their beauty, it could potentially be interpreted that way by some people, and is thus susceptible to perpetuating the marginalization of women because of the meaning some other people may put into it. You should have been sensitive to this possibility and therefore not published such a post, even though some women have specifically appreciated and defended it.”

Now, Rick, is that a kind of argument you might like to develop?

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Bradm July 18, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Luke,

You say you don’t value them principally for their sexiness. Great. Could you tell me a little bit more about Serena Kamber? The page you linked to was awfully vague (not surprising seeing as how it was a link to The Sun. What scientific achievements caused you to put her on the list?

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lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Bradm,

No, I said their value was not principally in their sexiness. But luckily, my valuing them has virtually nothing to do with their value as persons.

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A Listed Lady July 18, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Bradm: “Could you tell me a little bit more about Serena Kamber? The page you linked to was awfully vague (not surprising seeing as how it was a link to The Sun. What scientific achievements caused you to put her on the list?”

Now that *is* awfully sexist. What, you assume because she has a “sexy” picture and an article in the Sun about her she *isn’t* a credible scientist? What do you know about her? Odds are, the original post author isn’t an expert in all of the fields that the listed women are in, so he wouldn’t really be able to judge their scientific accomplishments anyway. What’s wrong with taking the news article as evidence of her being a scientist and leaving it at that?

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Thrasymachus July 18, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Lukeprog:

Suppose I watch too much of the Wire and Boyz in da hood, and think that saying ‘wassup Nigger’ is an acceptable greeting for a black person. Surprise surprise, when I do this, they get rather pissed off.

What have I done wrong? I really wasn’t meaning to offend or endorse a racial slur (much in the same way your list really wasn’t intended to objectify or sneer at these women). I am, however, guilty of breathtaking naivety of the discursive context of what I said. ‘Cos different rules apply to what two people of an ‘at risk’ group can say to each other (including trying to re-appropriate demeaning vocabulary) and what someone bearing all the historical baggage of past abuses can say. If you’re white, ‘Nigger’ is verboten.

So too sexy. Erika has pointed out the contexts vary: it’d probably be fine flirting at a bar (or in flagrante). The contexts here are such that ‘man on the street’ (or ‘random blog lists’) aren’t acceptable times to use the term. This is for twoish reasons 1) it plausibly can be taken the wrong way: sexism of this sort is far more invidious than stark racial slur, and 2) they can be co-opted, unintentional though they may be, into some male gaze/male sneer sort of thing which is toxic to appropriate attitudes towards people in general. Given this, better to play it safe.

Is it the offendees fault for taking offense, for reading these ‘other meanings’ into what you say? No. Firstly because your acts take a meaning of your own regardless of your intent, and these meanings are very offensive. Secondly, because it wouldn’t be unreasonable of them to infer a less-than-lovely intent from your actions. I have be called ‘sexy’ and ‘you are so fit’ on the street a couple of times, and I didn’t care. However, were it common or normal for me to get this (plus wolf whistles, whatever else) then I think I’m within my rights to take a very dim view of the next person to call me sexy, even if he really only meant it in a friendly and light-hearted way. So I wouldn’t call a girl on the street sexy if I were you!

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Bradm July 18, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Listed Lady,

Not at all. Did you read the link Luke linked to? It wasn’t a news article, it was a sexist “profile” of the model. “Wow, she has looks AND brains, you don’t see that everyday! Amazing!” I don’t doubt for a minute that she is a scientist and accomplished. What I doubt is that Luke knows anything about her except that she looks good in a bikini. I was questioning Luke, not her.

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Haukur July 18, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Luke,

I didn’t say – and in fact explicitly and repeatedly deny – that these women are principally valuable because of their beauty. In fact, given my respect for science and my relative dismissal of aesthetics, I think their scientific achievements are way more important than their beauty. But despite all this, other people have come in and invented content that is not there: content saying that the most important thing about these women is their beauty. This is just false, and it is not present in the post, and it is explicitly denied by me elsewhere.

I don’t know what you call this in philosophy but over in literary theory we call it intentional fallacy. The author of a work cannot expect to remain sole and final judge of the meaning of a work. The meaning you intend a work to have isn’t the same as the meaning the work has to its audience. The meaning the work has to its audience is not secondary or false or unimportant while the meaning you intended is the one true Platonic meaning.

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lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Thrasymachus,

I think your diagnosis of the problem with white people calling blacks ‘nigger’ is plausible. But if calling someone ‘sexy’ is verboten I did indeed miss this memo. So did almost every TV show and publication I know of. Which makes me think there never was such a memo, or that it was circulated in very narrow circles to which I needn’t be beholden.

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lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Haukur,

No, I am not the final judge of the meaning of what I write. But I am questioning the idea that when other people offer their interpretations, I responsible for their interpretations. I think they are responsible for their interpretations.

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Paul July 18, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Rick B, your idea that

“Regardless of your intention or ignorance of such power dynamic, the post values these women for their attractiveness to you first and foremost, objectifying and marginalizing them.”

doesn’t seem to allow for any value attached to women for their attractiveness without reference to any other characteristic. But this seems very odd, that we can’t praise a valued characteristic without praising another characteristic so the first one is not the only one praised.

You suggest this idea because you are aware of the context of objectification in our society, which certainly exists. But I think Luke approaches things a bit from something like this perspective: Let’s say a man has a ponytail and others keep asking him if he’s a hippie or not, which bugs him. This guy doesn’t care about hippies, isn’t wearing a ponytail because of hippies, or because he wants to look like a hippie, he just wants to have long hair tied back, that’s his preference separate from what everyone else thinks about it, which is that long hair in a ponytail on a man means “hippie,” which means a lot of other things besides long hair. He’s not playing their game, he’s just doing what he wants, and which he certainly has a right to do.

Luke, I think, claims a right to think that some women are sexier than others as a matter of his personal preference, and unless you’re willing to argue that that is wrong under any conceivable circumstance, including a world in which men and women are completely equal and there is no unequal treatment, then Luke does this, I think, more like the man with a ponytail, just doing his own appropriate thing, and not as a statement to be interpreted within the current societal view of what long hair “means.”

Let me clarify without a major edit of the above: is the primary issue merely the current state of feminism? That is, is it primarily because women are still treated unequally that we can’t even give the appearance of same, despite any innocent intention, so that in a future perfect world in which unequal treatment is a distant memory, that consideration wouldn’t apply, so Luke’s list would be appropriate, as a mere statement of what he thinks is sexy? Or is there something more essential, regardless of how much progress feminism has made, such that *any* list like Luke made would still be objectifying?

If the critique is that Luke’s list feeds into the current power dynamic of unequal treatment, then wouldn’t it be OK if that power dynamic were gone in some future society?

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Haukur July 18, 2010 at 2:37 pm

Luke,

No, I am not the final judge of the meaning of what I write. But I am questioning the idea that when other people offer their interpretations, I responsible for their interpretations. I think they are responsible for their interpretations.

Great, great! Now we’re getting somewhere. Let’s try to find other examples to apply this rule to and see if it seems to work well. I’ll start with Mel Gibson’s Passion, you could pick some examples too. Gibson was heavily criticized by many people for the putative anti-Semitic content of the Passion. But what did Gibson intend?

Asked by Bill O’Reilly if his movie would “upset Jews,” Gibson responded, “It’s not meant to.”

So, who is responsible for the putative anti-Semitic meaning of the Passion. Gibson? His critics? Some other entity?

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lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Haukur,

I’m sure you can find better examples. In that particular case we have lots of other evidence that Gibson actually is anti-Semitic.

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Haukur July 18, 2010 at 2:50 pm

I’m sure you can find better examples. In that particular case we have lots of other evidence that Gibson actually is anti-Semitic.

I’m sure there are lots of potentially good examples and I invite you to find some. I don’t see why further evidence about Gibson would make this a bad example – do you mean it renders it a poor analogy to your case? Why? The way I understand the *feminist logic here is that there is plenty of evidence that you are sexist. Do you mean that there is evidence that Gibson is consciously anti-Semitic while your critics don’t claim that you are consciously sexist?

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Hermes July 18, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Paul: If the critique is that Luke’s list feeds into the current power dynamic of unequal treatment, then wouldn’t it be OK if that power dynamic were gone in some future society?

Along those lines, what would that society look like?

* A place where nobody posts lists of photos of people they find attractive sexually?

* A place where people post photos of people they find attractive sexually, causing quite a bit of discussion on the inappropriateness or (conversely) the appropriateness of the act?

* A place where people post photos of people they find attractive sexually, and few people are riled up about it?

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Haukur July 18, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Here’s another example. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made a lot of speeches in his career. Some of those speeches have been criticized as having anti-Semitic content. Ahmadinejad rejects this interpretation, saying that he loves and respects Jews and is not at all anti-Jew.

Who is responsible for the putative anti-Semitic meaning of Ahmadinejad’s speeches. Ahmadinejad? Or his critics?

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Thrasymachus July 18, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Luke:

Again, context. Calling people sexy is not verboten in all contexts. It _is_ verboten in contexts when you don’t know the woman in question or her own wishes for sexual (or not) portrayal. I can’t think of many instances in popular culture (better, intellectual culture, which is assumedly where you’d rather be) where calling someone off the street ‘sexy’, making lists of hot girls or similar is regarded positively. More to the point, if it _did_, then so much the worse for that culture: that other people do it doesn’t deflect the merit or not of the criticism you are getting (which, by the way, implies that a lot of other people seem to have ‘got the memo’). You can’t tag your norms with the general social millieu and expect it to be a safe harbor from criticism.

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lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Haukur,

Ah. I thought we were considering the sexy scientists list in isolation. Have people pointed to evidence outside it that I am sexist?

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lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Haukur,

Re: Ahmadinejad. But he has said some things that are explicitly anti-Semitic. I have not said anything of the sort about women. I have specifically said that they are oppressed, that we ought to strive for equality, and so on. Ahmadeinejad’s anti-Semitism is in his very words. My supposed sexism is, at least in reference to the sexy scientists list, being added by other people who assume things about me that are manifestly untrue.

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lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Thrasymachus,

Excellent! I think those are good points. Thanks.

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Rick B July 18, 2010 at 6:58 pm

Paul:

But this seems very odd, that we can’t praise a valued characteristic without praising another characteristic so the first one is not the only one praised.

It’s only odd if you strip the context from the post. Independent of cultural context, there is nothing wrong with calling a stranger sexy. This is the same reason why all the analogies, yours being the long-haired not-hippy, fail to touch the issue in the slightest. Indeed, making these analogies makes me suspect you’re also a sexist, but know it to the degree that Luke does.

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Rick B July 18, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Hermes,

I’m really not sure what you’re asking. Apply what exactly to individuals?

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Hermes July 18, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Your comment 2 before my question seemed to deal partially with individuals, but leaned heavily on what groups thought. I was asking if you had some insight into how that would apply only to individuals. If this does not make much sense or holds no interest for you, don’t fret. I’m only slightly interested and am not eager for a detailed reply.

I thank you for replying at all.

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Rick B July 18, 2010 at 8:18 pm

Luke,

I’ll suggest another reason for the comments: people are interested and surprised that you think your opinion is worth so much on this subject. I for one did not expect you to display such a sense of entitlement; on other subjects you’re a humble and astute study. But these women are strangers to you. To offer your opinion to the general public about women you do not know, and have little connection with, is an exercise in entitlement, and is the entire reason I commented. I suspect many others’ involvement is similarly motivated.

I specifically avoided mentioning whom meant when I raised objection #2. It leaves open the possibility that you’d heard and disregarded the argument so many here have made: that calling women sexy without invitation is not necessarily welcome, and may reasonably be met with hostility.

Sheril’s photo seems quite professional to me. It is by no means a typical “beauty shot,” and even if it were, the argument you put forth is so flimsy and ridiculous I fail to see why you’re still advancing it. I also don’t quite understand why she’s still on the list as of 8 PM PST on 7/18.

I’m glad we can both agree on (a) and ( c) parts of my argument. Let me see if I understand your objections to (b). You claim the post was about the women’s scientific achievements. Why then, have you listed none of these achievements? This post is prima facie not about their achievements in any field but the male-adjudicated beauty contest. Please stop making this claim. It’s not backed up by anything in the post, and it’s not even good bullshit.

You say the post values the women principally for their attractiveness, and although this is the case, it does not by inference objectify women.

I’ll agree that this can be the case in principle, but the titular image clearly objectifies the woman there. Her name isn’t given, nor does the link associated with the picture give any idea of what her name or field is. The picture is 100% objectification. This is the title picture, the first image readers see when opening the post. A reasonable reader will assume that the rest of the post will proceed in like manner. But wait, without prompting or clue from the author, the reader is supposed to appreciate the women’s scientific achievements on the basis of some cryptic text like “hospital scientist”? Or that the reader should understand from the post alone that you value these women primarily for their scientific achievements?

I’m not sure which post you’re referring to anymore, Luke. I didn’t read this meaning into the post, but you’re attempting to invent content that is not there [scientific achievements], while denying the most reasonable interpretation of the post [the women are valued in and by the post primarily because of their physical attractiveness].

I’m not interested in developing a new argument. Mine speaks to the facts of the matter, not the fiction you’ve seen fit to invent.

However, since you’ve brought up the issue of interpretations, I’ll address that too. Your post is interpreted differently because of the differing contexts it can be viewed in. Simply because you wrote it without thought to the context of marginalizing and objectifying women, and did not intend on the post being interpreted in other contexts does not void it of all other meaning. As Haukur said, you’re not the sole arbiter of your work’s meaning.

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Bradm July 18, 2010 at 8:37 pm

Luke,

I’ve been reading the comments over at PZ’s blog and the only thing I have to say is listen to Cerberus. Don’t argue with her and don’t demand a formal argument from her. Just listen and try to understand. Learn from her experiences since you will NEVER have those experiences. If you don’t, then the only hope for you is for us to do to you what you have said works with religious people when they don’t get something: mockery. She seems to have more patience than I – probably because she’s actually experienced sexism and I haven’t.

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Paul July 18, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Rick B, I don’t understand your point in your last post above. Let me clarify my point, then: The point of my analogy was that the long-haired guy was acting independently of social context, which is appropriate in his case, right? If it’s not appropriate in the case of Luke’s list, but it is for the long-haired guy, what’s the relevant difference?

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lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 8:45 pm

Rick B,

The scientific achievements mentioned in the post are merely their scientific profession. That’s all I meant, sorry! But yeah, it’s mostly about their sexiness.

Anyway, I’m too exhausted by all the action on P.Z. Myers blog to say anything more right now.

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Bradm July 18, 2010 at 8:57 pm

Luke,

Just saw your reply to Cerberus’ 8 points. Not cool. Mockery it is. Because “Sometimes, ridicule is the only thing that will get through to certain people at certain times.”

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Paul July 18, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Luke, you praised some individuals members of a class of people on what would otherwise be a positive characteristic but which has been used against that class of people.

So is your action about the otherwise positive characteristic, or about the characteristic as it has been used negatively?

I see no way to answer that question, which might account for the hundreds of posts.

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Bradm July 18, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Hmmm, I tried to leave this comment earlier but it must have been eaten.

Luke, your response to Cerberus’ 8 points was not cool. Stop acting like some intellectual wanna-be and start listening to people. Stop demanding people do the intellectual work for you and start trying to understand what they are saying. At this point I think the only way to get through to you is mockery. “Ridicule is the only thing that will get through to certain people at certain times.”

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lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Yeah, some stuff was stuck in the spam queue, but I’ve let it through now.

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Haukur July 19, 2010 at 1:19 am

Luke,

Ah. I thought we were considering the sexy scientists list in isolation. Have people pointed to evidence outside it that I am sexist?

This isn’t the first post of this sort you’ve made and not the first time you’ve been accused.

Re: Ahmadinejad. But he has said some things that are explicitly anti-Semitic. I have not said anything of the sort about women.

Gah! You can’t just assume this. Your critics think you’ve said sexist things. You think you haven’t. Ahmadinejad probably honestly thinks he hasn’t said anything explicitly or implicitly anti-Semitic. How are you going to apply the principle you’ve promulgated even-handedly? Remember, “golden rule atheism”? Remember “outsider view”? When you understand why you dismiss other defences of this sort you will understand why yours is dismissed?

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ash July 19, 2010 at 2:16 am

Quite a few people have made the comparison ‘why is it insulting to judge people on their looks, but not to judge them on their intelligence?’ I have a few thoughts on this…

Intelligence is a highly varied field – I myself do alright in academia, socially I’m thick as pig shit. Everyone I choose to know is smart in some ways, very few are intelligent across the spectrum. Only being smart in certain aspects is hardly ever a barrier to being noted for your intelligence however. I have noticed personally that whilst I often hear men who are not stereotypically attractive referred to as ‘sexy’, it is rare for an woman who does not fit societal norms to be called such.

If I were to draw up a list of men I find sexy, the results would probably seem odd to many people – some would be included for their smarts, some for looks, some for talent, etc. I would probably have to explain my reasons.

What bothers me about the OP list is that, yes, it was drawn from a specific pool – scientists, therefore also smart – but the sexiness factor is presumed self-explanatory, because, hey, they kinda look like western stereotypical ideals of female model conformity. And the focus then appears to be about good looking women who, as an aside, also have a bonus. The skepdude calendar thing was AFAIK viewed as a laugh, an aberration, whereas the objectification of women based primarily on their appearance is seen as normal, run of the mill, not a big deal.

@lukeprog – are you sexist? Haven’t a clue. As you have noted, you do live in patriachal, often misogynistic, culture, and it is easy to be influenced, however unconciously, by that. Hell, I do, and I’m female.

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Scheming Astrophysicist July 19, 2010 at 3:42 am

Repeat after me, everyone: the internet is not public domain! Posting items to the internet does not reduce your right (as in copyright) to control how that item is reproduced, and under what circumstances. By taking these images, and posting them without the permission and outside of the control of the original owners, you have broken copyright law (“I find them hot” is not a valid defence).

And it is sexist behaviour to trample all over the rights of these women to control their images, and their own online profile.

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En Passant July 19, 2010 at 4:43 am

Luke– 
First, love your blog. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the wealth of information and resources you provide here. So, just know this is coming from a long-time fan and lurker. :)

From what I have seen so far, Rick B and Paul have articulated positions most similar to my own, but I think I may be able to build upon their arguments. Rick’s first premise is that women belong to a group historically marginalized by men, which you agreed was an accurate statement. However, you disagreed with his premise that your post reinforced that power imbalance and therefore contributed to marginalizing women. 

To be clear, I do not think you are “a sexist,” that is, one who believes in the superiority of one gender. Nothing you have said would suggest this. However, I suspect a previous commenter’s phrase, “breathtakingly naive,” may be closer to the mark. And the comparison others have drawn between your list and the use of the n-word is over the top and not really an appropriate parallel. Your list was intended to praise two attributes you find laudable, that is, scientific achevement and sexiness. However, the claim that doing this reinforces stereotypes IS correct, and here’s why. 

Imagine if you had instead posted a list of 15 successful black scientists who were good at sports. (I think this is a much more appropriate comparison than saying your list was the equivalent of a hate-fueled racial slur.) Being successful at science and being good at sports are both positive attributes, right? Why would anyone be offended? Because compiling those two qualities–one completely unrelated to stereotypes and one that IS a blatant stereotype–into one list trivializes the struggle of the people on the list to overcome stereotypes and break down cultural barriers. It doesn’t matter that it’s a “nice” stereotype. Just as “athletic,” a positive term of praise, can be hurtful when it used naively used to define a person as much as his or her hard work, “sexy” female scientists can feel marginalized, too: pushed back into a category of cultural stereotypes after working very, very hard to overcome them. Your list unthinkingly endorses one female stereotype, and I think you maybe fail to appreciate what that means to the group it categorizes.

Some women wouldn’t be offended by the list; others would be. And you’re right that you are entitled to publish your opinions on your own blog. Personally, I’m not offended by it, but I can definitely appreciate why others are. It’s not that it was written from a sexist or misogynistic perspective; it’s that it seems almost wilfully ignorant of the cycle of sexism and misogyny it unintentionally supports.

Anyway, keep on writing and I’ll keep on lurking. ;)

Cheers,
EP

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Paul July 19, 2010 at 5:42 am

En Passant, your black athlete analogy is the best one so far (although I might be able to poke a small hole in it later, let me think about it).

You’re idea of “willful ignorance” comes close to mine and Rick B’s about social context. Your formulation puts a negative spin on it, my formulation about the long-haired hippie puts it in positive terms, so we still have some distinguishing to do there. I don’t have that answer yet.

What I still don’t get is whether Luke’s critics think that commenting on someone’s sexiness the way he did is inherently wrong, no matter what the social context. Imagine any future world, and would Luke’s list be wrong in the same way that we can imagine other actions always being wrong, like hitting someone for no reason, etc.?

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En Passant July 19, 2010 at 5:58 am

Thanks, Paul. I understand your point in making the hippie/hair analogy, but I do think there is a fundamental difference in that scenario and this one. Namely, the long-haired guy only faces issues of his relationship to the societal norm. It’s just about him, not about the rights or images or respect or whatever of other people. Luke’s list involved real-life human beings, and whether the list was offensive or not, it DID take liberties with those humans’ rights and images. I think that’s important to the debate.

I don’t think it’s inherently wrong to comment on a person’s attractiveness, the same way it’s not inherently wrong to comment on a person’s athletic skill. In a parallel universe that didn’t have centuries of history infused with negative stereotypes and preconceived judgments of groups of people, a list of sexy female scientists or a list of athletic black scientists would probably not be offensive. But we don’t live in that universe, and I think Luke would probably concede that.

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Maria July 19, 2010 at 8:43 am

I don’t think you’re sexist. I think you’re a man who wanted to share with the world something he appreciates. And there’s definitely, in my mind, no reason you shouldn’t be able to.

But in this case I also think you acted inconsiderately. The fact that you didn’t ask any of the women if they minded being included in such a list makes me wonder, if you suspected (consciously or not) that some of them could have a problem with it. Not everyone wants to be honored for that which others want to honor.

I feel that the polite thing would have been to contact them, explain your intended post and ask. I think, as Abigail’s reaction showed you, you would have been pleasantly surprised by most of the responses. And probably saved yourself a lot of trouble.

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Hermes July 19, 2010 at 10:24 am

Maria, it looks like if anything this series of posts isn’t trouble for Luke. If anything, it’s a boon to his blog. After all, he got mentioned on PZ’s and hundreds of messages — many from new people.

Additionally, while politeness can be a worthy goal, I can’t remember when the last time someone posting a blog went out of their way to ask for photo approval. I’m sure it happens quite regularly, but in normal practice it seems not to happen.

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Rick B July 19, 2010 at 11:03 am

Paul,

Sorry to have neglected to respond for this long. I was wading through the commentary on PZ Myer’s blog.

I’d agree with En Passant as to the difference in your long-haired not-hippy analogy and Luke’s sexist post. Hippies, although arguably marginalized, chose that lifestyle, while most the vast majority of women never chose their gender, but suffer the pervasive and ineluctible marginalization due to cultural treatment of women.

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Maria July 19, 2010 at 11:07 am

You’re right :) “trouble” = higher traffic in the blog world. Good for him. Truth be told, I’ve found a new blog to follow and I’ve enjoyed the conversation his OP has sparked as well as the back and forth with follow up posts.

However, I need to clarify, I wasn’t talking about the use of the photos and asking permission to use those “objects” specifically.

I meant contacting and asking them, the women themselves, if they minded being on such a list accompanied by their pictures, visible in such a publicly viewable a manner. To be honest, maybe because I don’t blog, to me it would be common sense consideration and good etiquette to interact with the people that I claim to respect, and in this case, fellow professionals I’d claimed to respect.

I think that’s where some of the accusations of objectification come from. That at some level, he first treated them as things to display in his cabinet rather then people who might have an opinion (negative or positive) about being displayed in such a way.

I guess it’s a really fine line. I know we can’t, and shouldn’t have to, go around and ask permission to utter every opinion or voice every thought about another person. But I think context definitely helps guide when we should think twice about our intended approach.

Again, I see no problem with the idea of a list of sexy scientists / atheists / firemen or the idea that we can appreciate physical beauty as physical beauty.

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Rick B July 19, 2010 at 11:09 am

Hermes,

I hope you’re not approving of posting photos of people without their permission for these purposes. An argument to convention is only an argument for the status quo, and for little else.

Maria,

I think you’re a man who wanted to share with the world something he appreciates.

This illustrates precisely the privilege Luke displayed. Vanishingly few people have written to say, “Gee, thanks for that list, Luke. That’s a really great contribution.” But Luke’s belief that the world needed to know about this list and how sexy the women on it truly are is an exercise in social privilege. It serves no other purpose but to stroke Luke’s ego.

I would have been more impressed had he not included pornography, and had he actually talked about these women’s achievements. Especially good would have been the story of how they’ve overcome sexism to get to where they are today. Sadly, Luke did not do any of this.

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Hermes July 19, 2010 at 11:35 am

I hope you’re not approving of posting photos of people without their permission for these purposes. An argument to convention is only an argument for the status quo, and for little else.

It’s not an argument as much as a statement of fact. What I was noting was that permission is not asked for normally, and (*importantly*) it is being asked for in this instance. That difference is what I was noting, not if it is proper or polite or not in all situations.

If you want to explain why there is a difference that requires extra emphasis in this instance, you can add that insight to the ongoing conversation.

I noted it because it stood out for me as a special consideration and because other people have noted exactly the same thing as Maria did. In no case, though, did I see anyone note that it isn’t normal to ask permission or why this case raises the question of asking permission.

A truly polite person would ask in each and every instance, but those that don’t do not get questioned most of the time.

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Paul July 19, 2010 at 11:36 am

En Passant, I appreciate very much the distinctions you made in your last post, I think I am with you on this.

But let’s look some more at the crucial distinction you made, that the supposed hippie makes a choice to wear long hair and a pony tail, whereas women do not choose to be women. This consideration would argue that, if a women on the list did not have a problem with the list (like EVR, especially), then there’s no problem. This means, though, that we could not locate any objectification of women in the list. Does this make objectification dependent on consent?

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Rick B July 19, 2010 at 11:45 am

Paul,

Whether the listed person is there with permission or with an objection is irrelevant to the objectification taking place. Objectification is independent of consent, but its consequences certainly are not.

ERV is happy to be on the list. Does this mean she’s not being objectified? No. Does this mean the list is not sexist? No. The list is sexist because of its content (clearly objectivist) and how its message falls in line with the historical marginalization of women. As I note above, there are many ways of compiling a list of identical women while refraining from sexism or objectification.

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Hermes July 19, 2010 at 11:49 am

Maria: I meant contacting and asking them, the women themselves, if they minded being on such a list accompanied by their pictures, visible in such a publicly viewable a manner. To be honest, maybe because I don’t blog, to me it would be common sense consideration and good etiquette to interact with the people that I claim to respect, and in this case, fellow professionals I’d claimed to respect.

Perhaps it should be a common curtsey, yet there are exceptions and as blogs as instant publishing outlets waiting for permission might kill many instances where someone wants to publish something relevant.

As an example of an exception, let’s say you’re writing about a thief who lives in your area. The thief is contacted, and not only doesn’t want their photo published but now threatens you if you write about them. In the future, would it be reasonable not to ask permission when you write about an embezzler or a corrupt county official?

Fortunately, journalists and publishers do have both legal and ethical guidelines. None of that has been discussed here, and I’m not at all singling you out on not knowing the ins and outs — I don’t know them except in passing myself.

My comments are about how exceptional this instance has become socially. That is interesting outside of the actual merits of the case brought up by any individuals discussing things here.

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corn walker July 19, 2010 at 11:50 am

Rick B,

You say the list is sexist because it is objectivist and because it is consistent with marginalization of women. Is this your definition of sexism? If not, what exactly is your definition of sexism? It doesn’t seem to be any definition I’ve ever learned in my feminist studies classes nor is it one I find contemporaneous with any written resources that I have access to.

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PP July 19, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Personally I don’t think you are being sexiest, more like creepy to get photos from the net and use them without permission.

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En Passant July 19, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Actually, Paul, I was thinking a bit differently when I mentioned the ponytail analogy. In my mind, Luke was analogous to the guy, and making/defending his post was analogous to wearing a ponytail despite the opinions of others. In that situation, I claimed the difference was that wearing a ponytail concerns no other person’s rights, whereas making a post about 15 other people does concern their rights.

You seem to be comparing the guy with a ponytail to women, but how? Would the ponytail be analogous to BEING on the list? Being okay with the list? Being sexy? Feel free to elaborate.

Corn Walker, I think you’re spot on when you distinguish actions like Luke’s from intentionally demeaning sexism. I think maybe this post could be chalked up to “insensitivity to gender issues and maybe privacy issues too.” But I think “sexism” is an not appropriate label for this situation.

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Paul July 19, 2010 at 12:55 pm

En Passant, I understand my analogy the same way you do, sorry if my last post or two mistated or implied that.

What do you think about Rick B’s comment about consent and objectification? Were you implying that, with consent, there would be no objectification? Because Rick B would disagree. I think I have to agree with Rick B there, it seems like objectification does not depend on consent.

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Erika July 19, 2010 at 1:22 pm

As an example of an exception, let’s say you’re writing about a thief who lives in your area. The thief is contacted, and not only doesn’t want their photo published but now threatens you if you write about them.

Quick copyright primer, since this is a completely ridiculous example.

You do not have the right to use an image that someone else has the copyright to without their permission. (This may be flagrantly disregarded on the internet, but until the relevant laws are changed, it’s true.)

The person in an image is not the copyright holder. The person who takes the image is (or the company they work for or whoever they have sold the rights to or…). For the most part, they have the right to use these images as they wish (there are important exceptions). Thus, in the example with the criminal above, the criminal’s feelings on the matter are completely irrelevant.

Which brings us to privacy. You may, of course, ask for someone to take your picture. You may also prevent someone from taking a picture of you in private (again, lots of subtleties of detail). You have no right to not have your picture taken in public. Hence, why pictures can be taken on the street and published. (Again, subtleties about whether the picture contains you or is of you and whether or not you are considered a public figure.)

So from a legal point of view, publishing your picture on the internet is not giving anyone the legal right to use it on a list like Luke’s.

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corn walker July 19, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Quick copyright primer, since this is a completely ridiculous example.
You do not have the right to use an image that someone else has the copyright to without their permission. (This may be flagrantly disregarded on the internet, but until the relevant laws are changed, it’s true.)

You sound so authoritative on this, and yet you’re not entirely accurate on the facts. The Internet introduces some interesting modalities as pertains to copyright law. Specifically there’s copying, linking, and compiling. Copying is perhaps the most straightforward example, where you make a digital copy of a work. If the owner of the work has not given you permission to make such a copy, you may have infringed on their copyright. This is different from linking to a work. If I link to an image on your website, I haven’t “copied” it per se. However, depending on how I’ve linked to it, and the purpose of the link, I may have induced the viewer to violate your copyright. Finally, my linking to your copyrighted images, while not “copying” them, may nonetheless create an impermissible derivative work.

All of which is to say the Internet as medium is different from print media and copyright law is slowly catching up. While “copying” an image translates well from print notions of copyright, mere “use” is more ambiguous.

Which brings us to privacy. You may, of course, ask for someone to take your picture. You may also prevent someone from taking a picture of you in private (again, lots of subtleties of detail). You have no right to not have your picture taken in public. Hence, why pictures can be taken on the street and published. (Again, subtleties about whether the picture contains you or is of you and whether or not you are considered a public figure.)

This depends on where you are. In the UK there are stronger laws protecting individual privacy, where the test of being a “public figure” is very much applicable. In the US the laws vary by state. For example, in Maryland there is a law that gives arresting officers a right to privacy (even while discharging their official duties as an agent of the state) while admitting of no such rights for the individual being arrested.

So from a legal point of view, publishing your picture on the internet is not giving anyone the legal right to use it on a list like Luke’s.

In Luke’s case, because he actually copied the images he may have violated someone’s copyright (unless he made sure to only include CC images or other similarly licensed material). However it’s entirely possible to create such a list and not violate copyright or create a derivative work that violates copyright.

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Erika July 19, 2010 at 2:41 pm

@corn walker, good clarifications. I was being intentionally high level since, as you illustrate, the post becomes at least twice at long if you even get into the high level subtleties.

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Erika July 19, 2010 at 2:42 pm

And the high level point, which some people on this thread do not realize, is that putting a picture on the internet is not the same as putting it in the public domain.

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Hermes July 19, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Erika, thanks for the overview. Yep, the example I gave was lame; no excuses.

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Hermes July 19, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Corn walker, also agreed. We live in interesting times. Old copyright, journalist practices and ethics, fair use — legal and informal, Creative Commons, etc… .

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Rick B July 20, 2010 at 12:52 pm

corn walker,

I think an inadequate definition of sexism is given by Merriam-Webster:

behavior, conditions, or attititudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.

What this definition leaves out is any discussion of how societies define sex (it’s a bit more slippery than the cultural belief in only two) or how gender is at all related. I don’t think it has to do with sex per se, except that western cultures have traditionally defined gender by classifying external genitalia into one of two groups – male or female.

Now, the behavior I described – objectification and marginalization – is certainly an example of sexism, but by no means defines all sexism.

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corn walker July 20, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Rick B,

It’s not just the M-W definition. I can’t find any definition of sexism that corresponds with yours. Not on the web, not in my women’s studies texts, not in any dictionary I own or have access to, not in any books I own by feminist authors. I believe if you research the etymology of the word, which was coined in 1965, you will see that objectification is not part of its definition.

That’s why I say words mean something, and although we’re using the same words, I don’t think they mean the same thing to us. How can we persuade each other of the validity of our ideas when we can’t even agree on terminology? It reminds me of Penn Jillette’s essay for This I Believe:

I believe that there is no God. I’m beyond atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy — you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do. You can’t prove that there isn’t an elephant inside the trunk of my car. You sure? How about now? Maybe he was just hiding before. Check again. Did I mention that my personal heartfelt definition of the word “elephant” includes mystery, order, goodness, love and a spare tire?

I think it’s clear, based on the definition of the word “objectification,” that Luke’s post is objectifying. However objectification, unlike sexism, isn’t “always wrong.” For objectification to be wrong one must consider the context of the act, whereas there is no imaginable context in which sexism (again, going by the definition of the word) is not wrong.

Note that the neither the definition of “sexism” nor the definition of “objectification” require context to determine if an act is sexist or objectifying. Because objectification is value-neutral, we need the context of the act to determine its morality. Because sexism is not value-neutral, we know that the sexist act independent of context is wrong.

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Rick B July 20, 2010 at 6:32 pm

corn walker,

You seem to be conflating me using the definition of sexism to point out aspects in Luke’s post, and redefining sexism by the attributes I named. I apologize that my meaning wasn’t clearer above. I wasn’t attempting to define sexism at that time, by any rubric, but to name Luke’s post as such.

Also, as noted, I’m dissatisfied with the M-W definition. Do you have a better one that’s more accurate?

I agree that objectification is value-neutral, and that sexism is by definition bad. I not sure, however, that sexism does not require context. Why do you say that it can stand alone without context?

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corn walker July 20, 2010 at 7:26 pm

I’m traveling so I don’t have access to any of my books, but the definition (or explanation rather) that I like is that sexism, like classism and racism, is oriented around social justice. Sexism is a theory (not to imply that it’s not also a reality) that women (including individuals that identify as or appear to be women) as a class are oppressed either actively or indirectly as the result of oppression in some other sphere or from past discrimination. On an individual level, sexism involves attitudes or acts that oppress a woman on the basis of her belonging to a particular class (women).

If I can paraphrase, sexism is identified as the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that perpetuate inequality and deny social justice to women based on their being women. It is a form of discrimination based on class identity.

One of the more concise definitions I recall reading on the internet (please pardon me if I’m not able to find the reference – such is the hotel internet connection) is that sexism = power + prejudice. Sexism would therefore be the exercise of power to perpetuate prejudice against women, just as racism would be the exercise of power to perpetuate prejudice against another race (e.g. blacks).

I say that sexism can stand alone without context because, like racism, the very definition of sexism is to deny social justice to one or more individuals based on their identity as women. Unless you subscribe to a utilitarian ethics, in which it would be theoretically possible for discrimination against women to be moral, we do not need to consider the context of the sexist discrimination to determine if that discrimination is wrong.

Now I’m making a different contextual argument, perhaps, than what I think you’re thinking of. If I am interpreting you correctly, you’re looking at context to determine whether a particular action is sexist. This may be necessary in the case of indirect sexism. For example, if we were to say only people who have passed the 10th grade should have the right to vote, this is not prima facie sexism. However if women are denied an education and therefore don’t have access to vote, even though the rule about who can vote doesn’t specifically discriminate against women, it indirectly discriminates against women because it denies women social justice based on past discrimination.

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foolfodder July 21, 2010 at 1:07 am

Hi Luke,

I’ve only read a bit of stuff so this may well have been covered.

I don’t think you’re a sexist because I think that if you were gay you’d have done same thing (but with men, obviously).

I think the issue is that saying that you find someone attractive can be an unwelcome advance that might make the other person feel uncomfortable. So whether a list like this is offensive is likely to relate to how happy the people are to be on such a list; someone posing for a glamour shot is probably going to like it, most straight men are going to be happy with that kind of attention from women but not from men, and most women are not going to be so happy with that kind of attention, I’d guess.

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kael July 24, 2010 at 11:33 am

This is why, as a woman, I have spent a lifetime (secretly and not-so-secretly) trying not to look pretty or sexy. Even when I’d want to, I want more to be a person. I want to be intelligent, or strong…or something. Heard, not looked at. For once. I can’t articulate very well what was wrong with the list, but it made me feel bad. It made me fear that years of college and study can be reversed, edited out of importance. Not saying that’s rational or the reason other people objected, but it’s why I’m uncomfortable.

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gold July 31, 2010 at 3:15 pm

You still don’t get it. Thanks for demonstrating that.

You can hide behind intellectualising your arguments – but at the end of the day you wish to call women whatever the hell you want and don’t see their objections as worth listening to or respecting.

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Amnesia August 2, 2010 at 8:19 pm

If someone told you they were severely allergic to peanuts, would you continue to eat peanuts in their presence? Would you insist on your right to eat peanuts anywhere you want, even if that person ended up in the emergency room as a result?

Many women don’t like being labeled ‘sexy,’ myself included. Whether you understand it or not, the term has connotations that aren’t always flattering or beneficial. It may bring back memories of past street harassers, of men that were perfectly happy to look at us while ignoring anything we had to say, of situations we’d rather forget. Is your right to use that word in association with these women worth more than consideration of the women themselves?

Maybe I’m just being naive, but I like to think people are worth more than principles.

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