When I posted my list of Sexy Scientists (with photos, of course!) last week, I didn’t think it was a big deal. I’d made many such lists in the past, without much hubbub. I intended the list as lighthearted fun, a welcome relief from the more technical stuff often posted here, and a compliment to several lovely ladies for their beauty and their scientific status.
Over 1500 comments later across a dozen different blogs, it’s safe to say my post sparked more controversy than I had anticipated. Much of the response was juvenile name-calling:
Some fuck-up skepticatheist or whatthefuckever published a blog post last week entitled “15 Sexy Scientists (with pics, of course)”, in which he embedded photos he found on the Web of female scientists that he apparently considers “sexy”. There has been a fuckton of discussion of this on various blogs – including that of the skeezbag motherfucker himself – about the significance of this blog post… The fucking skeevd00d’s post is leering.
Others, including one of the Sexy Scientists, Abbie Smith, came to my defense:
…flirting at [academic] conferences is just silly fun, like some blogger’s list of ‘SEXAH SCIENTISTS!’
Others had some problems with the list, but didn’t think it was a big deal, including another listed Sexy Scientist, Sheril Kirshenbaum:
I honestly don’t think any real harm has been done to me personally. And it’s worth pointing out that in 2005 when Chris [Mooney] was named one of Wired Magazine’s “Sexiest Geeks,” no one complained… That said, I would like to see Luke, and others, think more carefully about the ripple effects of such posts.
[Also,] we need to find more ways to acknowledge women who speak up, take a nontraditional path, defy expectations, and contribute to society in and out of science. And there are better ways to do so than commentary on our physical assets. But I also want to emphasize that I appreciate the way Luke is taking the time to explore a topic that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.
The folks at Fark said some amazing things that, alas, did not seem to divert any criticism away from me:
Apparently [being one of Luke's critics at his site] involves filling your vagina up with lots of sand.
There was also lots of “Seriously people? What’s the big deal?” But most of it was highly critical, and deliberately misrepresented my positions in order to demonize me. But hey, it’s the internet. Gotta have a thick skin out here.
My first reaction was surprise. The response to my earlier Sexy Atheists list had been mostly positive, even from women, who mostly just said they wished they had made the list. But now I was being attacked as a sexist, misogynistic, male chauvinist pig! My reaction was something like this:
I know women are oppressed, and of course I support equal opportunity and respect for women. But I’m not a Neanderthal just because I think women are sexy! Don’t bundle me in with real misogynists just because I compliment a few women on their looks and their science!
But my harshest critics would not have it. I was clearly a despicable person who put these pictures up so I could masturbate to them and encourage others to do the same.
Part of the problem was that despite my “joke entry” of P.Z. Myers at #15, people missed my lighthearted intentions and took “sexy” to be a more aggressive word than it is to me. The women I know (in person) take “sexy” as a compliment, but many women take it as harassment, or as insulting and demeaning. Probably, it was my first mistake to forget that many women see things that way, as Nichole pointed out:
Luke, because you are often the farthest thing from ignorant in so many areas, I think folks are understandably shocked when you expose an area of ignorance regarding something most would consider to be so obvious.
As the criticism kept flowing in, I thought, “Huh. Maybe I really am just totally wrong on this one.” In fact, I made a list of reasons I might be wrong, given here.
But I don’t come to moral conclusions by asking my intuitions or looking at other people’s emotional reactions. That way lies religion, fascism, tribalism, and every other blinded ideology. No, when it comes to something as important as morality, I want arguments and evidence.
So I spent most of my time asking people to clarify exactly what they thought was wrong with my Sexy Scientists post. Many people, when asked to provide an argument, said something like “If you can’t just see what’s wrong with your post, then you really are one fucked-up douchebag.”
Many people kept saying something like: “Geez, man. Can’t you see how many people you’ve offended, and how many people are telling you you’re wrong? Isn’t that enough to give it up and just apologize?” But that’s not how I do morality. I don’t do morality by feelings or majority vote. Morality is too important for that. The morality of emotion and majority is the morality of Hitler, religion, and five thousand years of slavery.
But luckily, a few people did try to clarify what the problem was. Perhaps the problem was that my post objectified women. Or perhaps the problem was that I did not ask for permission, or that the “compliment” was unwanted. These and other objections were neatly summarized in an epic comment by Cerberus at Pharyngula.
Ironically, many people said I was dogmatically immune to argument. I had spent dozens of hours responding directly to the arguments given and asking for clarification, while those who said I was immune to argument ignored the arguments altogether, and sometimes even explicitly admitted they didn’t care about my arguments.
I examined one potential reason for the wrongness of my Sexy Scientists post – the objectification of women – by reading some of the latest feminist philosophical literature on the topic. In the end, I had to reject this possibility.
But the “harm to women” argument was explored with the most depth and precision in a post by Alonzo Fyfe, and it was his argument that finally made it clear to me what was wrong with my Sexy Scientists post.
That was a big relief. Now I can just apologize and get this all over with.
Many people offended by my Sexy Scientists post probably don’t read my blog anymore. And now, by disagreeing with those who came to my defense and said there was nothing wrong with my post, I’ll probably alienate even more readers.
Well that’s just too bad, because I do think it was morally wrong of me to publish that list.
What was wrong with my Sexy Scientists list?
To really explain what was wrong with my list, I would have to explain the meta-ethical theory of moral realism that I find most plausible, and explain how this conclusion in applied ethics follows from it. But for this post, let me try to explain the wrongness of my action in universal terms.1
My Sexy Scientists post was wrong because it harmed women and contributed to a culture of harming women.
It harmed each woman on the list by increasing the chances that someone prone to sexual harassment or violence would see their photo, click the link, and find their home or work address. It harmed each woman on the list by increasing the chances that men would see them, first and foremost, as sexy girls, and not take their other qualities or contributions seriously. Neither of these is a plausible threat faced by men who are listed as “sexy.”
So, I apologize to the women on my list. I’m sorry for entering you in a beauty contest without your permission, and for increasing your chances of facing sexual stereotyping and harassment. I apologize even if you don’t accept my apology because you think I did nothing wrong. Some of you don’t mind what was intended as lighthearted fun, and some of you like the compliment, but I could have handled this better.
There’s a reason you can’t put up a photo-poster of ‘sexiest women in this office’ in your workplace. It would increase the chances that those women would be seen as sex objects, not taken seriously, and sexually harassed. And this would be true even if some of them took it as a compliment. The same goes for the internet, where luckily the listed women are not usually in physical proximity to the readers, but they can still be harassed, and there are a lot more eyeballs on the images.
And these negative effects are not limited to the women on the list. My post contributed to a culture of harming women by reinforcing stereotypes in a way I should have easily predicted even if it was not my intent. Men – forever the physically dominant sex and portrayed as the ambitious, interesting, change-making heroes of almost every story ever told – do not risk harassment2 from being seen as sexy. They do not risk having their skills and potential ignored because they are seen as “sexy.” They do not risk violence from libidinous women. But women do face all these risks, and a post like mine makes these risks worse.
So, to women everywhere, I say: I’m sorry for making your life a tiny bit harder, a tiny bit more frustrating, and a tiny bit more dangerous. I’m sorry for reinforcing the idea that it’s okay to see women as sexual playthings, even though that wasn’t my intent at all. I apologize even if you don’t accept my apology because you think I did nothing wrong. Even if I didn’t offend you or hurt your feelings, I made the world a little bit worse for you and your entire sex, and I’m sorry.
Moreover, the Sexy Scientist post was published by someone who cares deeply about living a moral life, and writes about ethics constantly. I implicitly told everyone: “I care about living a morally good life, and I’ve thought about ethics long and hard, and I think this kind of thing is okay.”
This is the most personally shameful part of the whole ordeal. I care a great deal about morality, and study it many hours each week. And yet when I came up with the idea of posting a list of Sexy Scientists, I didn’t care enough about its potential harm to look into it, not even a little. I basically told myself, “Meh. It’s no big deal. What could be the harm?” It is this kind of moral negligence that people have reason to condemn.
A big thanks to those who shared their perspective in a constructive way, and to those who engaged the arguments.
Also, a big thanks to those critics who noticed that I was taking the arguments seriously, and that I was open to changing my mind. Kind words like these ‘The Crocoduck Hunter’ were a ray of light in a week when it felt as though the entire skeptical blogosphere was firing vitriol my way:
Holy hell, Luke. Reading this post, and the comment thread over [at] Pharyngula, and man have I gained a ton of respect for you.
I’m also glad to see those commenters give you some real hard arguments of the kind some of us were unable to come up with on Friday.
[Quoting me (Luke) at Pharyngula]: “No, my response is definitely more along the lines of “Maybe I [was wrong].’ Especially as this epic debate continues and people keep hinting toward arguments in favor of their position, and I keep coming up with none in favor of my own original position.”
You win the fucking internet.
Finally, my thanks to those women who shared their stories of harassment, which helped me to see what it can be like from their perspective.
It’s been quite a journey for me, and I hope some of my readers have benefited from it.
Now, I have a serious question for those who supported me originally, and defended my Sexy Scientists post. Do you still think it was morally acceptable? If so, what are your reasons? Where have I gone wrong?
I will not attack you like I was attacked. But I would like to consider your arguments. I have been wrong before. Quite recently, even.
What do you think?
(Note: I don’t generally moderate comments, but on this page abusive comments will be deleted. Let’s have a civilized discussion, for once, shall we?)
- Thus, I believe the analysis here to be incorrect, but at least it is an approximation of the problem, given in plain talk without the need to explain the entirety of desirism, the moral theory I find most plausible. [↩]
- They might risk approaches, but men would almost never experience this as harassment, because they have little to fear from a woman who shows sexual interest in them. [↩]