Women are ends in themselves too: the wrongness of sexual comments in non-sexual contexts and the Sheril Kirshenbaum post.
- Posted by Paul Gowder on March 25th, 2009 filed in academia, ethics, philosophy, sexism
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Sheril Kirshenbaum responds with a devastating barrage of good points to the brouhaha noted in my last post. Kirshenbaum sort of circles around many of the same points that Danielle Citron made in the required reading paper from a while back about the undermining of one’s ability to carve out one’s own identity that comes when women are forced by harassment to blog without gender or without photos, but her main focus is on the social benefits of women being able to do so. This is framed as an explanation of why she has pictures up despite the misbehavior of some males, but it also works as an explanation of why the misbehavior needs to stop, right the fuck now, so as to preserve these social goods:
You see, all of this does matter. Surely it contributes to the reason so many of us wonder about the dramatic gender gap in science, policy, and much of society. Of course, on a personal note, I say don’t cry for me academia because while there are undoubtedly hurdles, I’m having a blast and plan to stick around the ivory towers for a while. Still, I strongly suspect the veritable nosedive in XX representation over time is, at least in part, a self-perpetuating cycle resulting from long-standing cultural norms and social expectations.
Shortly after entering the blogosphere, there was a period when I stopped posting personal pictures altogether… until I stepped back and thought about why I felt pressure to remain somewhat obscure. These reservations stemmed from wondering whether a woman can really be taken seriously as a writer for her ideas, if on some level she is first perceived as female. Evolutionary psychologists describe subconscious cues and I’ve encountered more than a few folks from the fishing industry to the Senate with overtly preconceived expectations on gender. I’d like readers here to recognize content before appearances, but I never had the option of anonymity. Eventually I realized that the truth is, by ‘hiding,’ I’d been undermining myself by unintentionally creating self-imposed constraints based on fear. I’d been feeling the need to censor myself because of the potential for external bias. Thing is, those outside pressures are going to exist no matter what, so the only opinion of real consequence is my own. And in time, I decided it was incredibly important to openly provide an image of a woman in science to the many bright young readers who follow the blog:
Even in the 21st century there’s still this ridiculous misconception that gets popularized in middle school suggesting girls in academics are weird, unattractive, or nerdy. ‘Beauty and the Geek‘ anyone? I can’t fathom why the negative labels persist. Frankly, I’m having a blast growing up geek exploring the ivory towers and beyond. So what we collectively ought to be doing is finding the means to reinforce reality over ‘reality‘ television! It’s past the time we get the simple honest message out in a way that resonates that women can be successful, intelligent, hip, and most importantly–it’s our choice how we define ourselves. I suspect that society and culture will catch up…eventually.
While I still feel that way, I’ve since decided I’d rather not be labeled a ‘woman in science‘ at all. I have far more dimensions than the ones assigned by base pairs and profession. So as for the response at Bad Astronomy, it’s a microcosm of a broader cultural issue.
This is pretty obviously right, but I want to add yet another brick to the head of the sexists who look at an attractive woman in a non-sexual role and immediately think about her sexuality. And it’s a Kantian one that connects with a few previous themes around here. It’s this: To immediately sexualize a woman in a serious role is to treat her as a mere means. It is to suggest that the only point of the woman’s presence, if not her existence, is to fulfill your sexual desires. It doesn’t really matter why she’s entered the space that you’re in, her own will in the interaction. All that matters is the use you have for her.
To some extent, of course, this is a problem in all sexual interactions. The way most people seem to do romance and sexuality, it’s all about using one’s partner or potential partner as a mere means — for dates, dinners, orgasms, ego boosts, status displays, emotional support, free therapy. But when one initiates this kind of interaction in romantically loaded contexts, a case can be made that it’s mutual — that the object of one’s attentions contains within herself the end of the interaction, to borrow a phrase from Kant — that everyone is at that party with the potential of romantic interaction in mind. Not so when the context is a conference or posting a scientific blog.
Attractive female scientist though I may be, I am incredibly irked when I receive these kinds of comments (!=compliments) because it tells me that the commenter is far more interested in imagining me naked than hearing about my science***. It is disrespectful to me as a person (I am not your sex toy) and it is disrespectful to the work that I do (please pay attention because my science is pretty damn good). This kind of treatment does not make me want to share my science (because that’s really what we’re here for right?) with this sort of audience – what’s the point if the audience would rather add my image to their masturbation bank than listen to the results of my research?
“But,” someone might object, “why shouldn’t people be able to meet partners for mutually agreeable, and thus end-regarding, romantic relationships in non-romantically loaded contexts, like conferences?” To which I have two answers. First, much of the time, that’s not the genuine intent or a realistic possibility. One of the commenters on Kirshenbaum’s photo put it as follows:
as a living breathing male of the species, I look forward to any article with Sherils picture attached.
I defy you to tell me that’s a serious attempt to meet someone for a mutually agreeable anything. Rather, it’s a pure announcement of one’s sexual desires as if they constitute the important facts about their object.
Second, this is yet another episode in why the patriarchy hurts men too.* Even genuine approaching for a non-exploitative interaction comes tainted with a social meaning imposed by the nastier behavior: a senior professor shouldn’t hit on a junior scholar at a conference even if he has perfectly reasonable intentions as well as a due regard for her academic as well as her physical merits because the “hey baby” response is so pervasive that he contributes to the objectification and reduction of women to their sexuality even without meaning to, as well as inflicting the same injuries on the woman he hits on that would be inflicted on her by a less respectful suitor. So, fellow men, let’s tear down the patriarchy, and only then we can find romantic interaction in non-dating contexts.
* Best put here:
Realistically, the breadth of allies in a comprehensive challenge to the patriarchy is vast and varied. Though all of us, sans rigorous philosophical exertion, are hapless conduits for every limiting and oppressive archetype upon which the patriarchy depends, conveying the bars of our own cages, very few of us are its unconstrained beneficiaries. Even the average straight, white, middle class American man exchanges privilege for severe limitations on his personal expression and emotional life—and he is encouraged never to examine that devastating trade-off too closely, lest the veneer on the alleged bargain prove thin enough through which to see. We all serve the same callous master, and there’s little to celebrate in being the favored slave—especially compared to a life of freedom.