XX at Common Sense Atheism: Harmful or Harmless Fun?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | July 17, 2010 3:36 pm

Several long-time Intersection readers have emailed asking how I feel about being included on a list of “sexy scientists” at Common Sense Atheism. On that thread, someone named “Hansen” noted:

Oh dear, you may be in serious trouble now for placing Sheril Kirshenbaum on that list.

The link leads to Singled Out: My response from March 2009 to the hullabaloo and broader discussion in the science blogosphere after I joined the Discover Network.

Blogger Luke Muehlhauser followed up with a second post asking whether he’s sexist based on what I wrote back then. [The context on why I composed it could have been clearer.] Initially, I hesitated to get involved because it’s an area that has been discussed in detail here already. But Luke took the time to contact me himself and seems polite and genuinely interested in my perspective. I looked back at Common Sense Atheism and the growing discussion that’s now over 300 comments. It’s mostly a thoughtful discourse and you can follow along here.

Since so many people seem to assume they know what I’d say or how I feel, I’ve decided it’s worth weighing in myself. Luke appears to be open-minded, so I will think on this over the weekend. I’ll have a response on Monday, but please remember that I can only express my individual perspective, not serve as some kind of representative for any “camp.”

In the mean time, I invite our readers to share your opinions in comments. Would you call Luke sexist? Be offended or flattered to land on a “sexy” list? Do you feel these are harmful or harmless fun?

[Update: Luke’s follow up post]


Comments (27)

  1. Boz

    It’s not “sexist” to be on any sexy list, especially if you are sexy. Even less so, if you are smart. Having worked at NIH for 10 years, a little sexy science would be a good thing. It gets people to take notice. The only thing I saw in all that time was the Red Dress campaign.

  2. If you had worked hard in your profession and then saw someone emphasizing only your physical appearance as what they saw as important, wouldn’t you feel insulted? All the work you had done was secondary, in this person’s eyes, to what you look like. Now imagine that you have to deal with this kind of thing all the time. As a white male I don’t ever have to experience what that’s like. But by reading the experience of others it helps me appreciate my privilege and empathize with what others must go through. Muehlhauser appears to be at the beginning of that journey.

    I’m not saying we should ignore the fact that some women (and men) are attractive, but show some respect. Muehlhauser seems oblivious to why what he did was insulting. His sexism is based in a lack of empathy, he knows what he likes and doesn’t see why anyone should be offended.

  3. I don’t think there’s any harm in that kind of things, I don’t think he’s sexist at all and I would mind ( I would like it actually) to be called a “sexy linguist”. We are sexual beings, I don’t see anything bad in expressing ourselves freely about it.

  4. My gut reaction to this discussion is that there is a tremendous amount of nativity floating around about the power of words and labels. I’m still trying to work out where those reactions have a legitimate basis, and how to capture this. But I thought I would post a few initial thoughts here following Sheryl’s invitation – under the disclaimer that I am no expert!

    Any public comment on another person has implications to the person being commented on, broader social implications and implications to the writer – and they are all interlinked. Especially so when the comments revolve around sex.

    So how might this apply to women being placed on a public “sexy” list – presumably without their permission?

    From the perspective of the person being included in the list, the appropriateness of the label must surely depend on the person. If they have publicly put themselves forward as being “sexy,” it would be hard to object to their inclusion. But for someone to be labeled sexy on a public list without their permission, and simply because a guy labeled them as such – this is getting into dangerous territory, because it slaps a loaded label onto someone that will impact on how people react to them. Some people may be OK with this – others may not. But surely it is not up to the person making the comment to decide what is best for the person being commented on.

    The social context is more complex – and possibly more important. A person in a privileged position using language about a person in a historically underprivileged group of a form that has been used to maintain the privilege gap in the past, is in danger of re-enforcing that gap – whether they personally believe they are or not. Sex is an incredibly strong factor in social hierarchies, and invoking it has broad social consequences. To ignore this or deny it is simply naive.

    But how about the context of the writer – or list compiler? In this case, the argument has been made – I find these women sexy, so why shouldn’t I say so? The trouble is, this is then a personal indulgence being carried out in public – which is something that should always be thought about very, very carefully before doing, because of the broader social and personal ramifications of such actions.

    This really needs a more formal social ethics framing, but some initial ramblings… But bottom line – in a public forum, social impact and impact on others must come before personal indulgence.

  5. Masonic Boom

    It *is* completely sexist that almost all “Sexy Lists” invariably contain all women (though I do note this one, in an odd reversal, contains one token man.) To assume an implicitly (hetero) male gaze is inherently sexist, even *before* you get into the problematic areas of how women are viewed sexuality-first achievement-last.

  6. I’d probably call Luke sexist. Not having read many of his other posts or knowing about him, I could see why he did what he did, but he didn’t do it quite right. My guess is he didn’t mean to be as possibly insulting as he was… but that doesn’t mean I forgive him (nor do I feel he’s anywhere near the worst out there). Things I think he did wrong: including only women, including women in some questionable poses, featuring some questionable scientists.

    But I think he may have been well intentioned. As a female in the hard sciences, here’s my take. I feel like when I’m “pretty”(wearing a dress, wearing make-up, or even looking obviously like a chick), I feel less likely to be “believed” as a scientist. When I’m in trashy jeans & a tee, grossed up from working in the cleanroom,or even in the slacks & button down dress-up, it’s easier to see me as a scientist. I think one message that kids don’t get is that a) girls are scientists b) girls can be scientists AND pretty. We’re often portrayed either as uber-sexy (see that one chick in his post– dear god, why would she do that?), or as super nerdy and incapable of social interaction. We need more role models who are somewhere in between. And featuring real, “pretty” scientists could be good. I find where he runs into a problem here is the ridiculous pictures of some of the others on that list, and how it doesn’t even highlight the hott science anyone does.

    So, to summarize, yes, he’s sexist. I’d probably be flattered, if it were done *right*. I don’t know exactly how that is, but nonetheless, I’m sure it could be done. Again, if done not quite like this, I think it’s generally good to show people that scientists aren’t horribly disfigured, socially inept people. I think it’s good to be a scientist and girl, too.

  7. I think all this noise from CSA is simply another case of incredulity of privilege. They are being confronted with the disturbing news that some of their basic assumptions are the same as those of patriarchy, and it is causing some dissonance (hopefully).

    He seems very open to discussion, so I hope that he will use this opportunity to listen to the voices of those who are affected most, rather than a bunch of frat boys whining about how feminists are a buzzkill.

    It’s like friggin Spinal Tap: “Sexy? It’s supposed to be sexy!”

  8. What Andrew Maynard said.

  9. Sheril, last week I taught an English conversation class to about 30 Japanese adult students. Most of them in their late fifties early sixties. When I told them that there are many women scientists they didn’t believe me.

    In a traditional patriarchy, like Japan, the attitudes toward gender equality, equal job opportunities, and fair pay just don’t exist. Needless to say the majority of scientific positions available are usually taken. Granted Japan did send their first ever woman astronaut, Naoki Yamazaki, up to the space this year, and it made headline news!!! The whole nation reported on it, and she became a role model for millions of young Japanese girls almost overnight.

    Do you know why? Because she’s beautiful AND smart. Young girls want to know they can be both. It makes them feel they can accomplish their dreams even in a rigid male dominated society like this one.

    Coming back to my aging students, I showed them a series of pictures of my own favorite scientists, such as Laurence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Lisa Randall. When they saw the long golden flowing locks of Lisa Randall a sixty year old grandmother asked, “What’s that picture of a model doing in there?”

    So what’s wrong with bringing a little awareness to the fact that women scientists can be sexy? If you don’t want to be called sexy, then by all means, stop being so.

    Easier said than done I can assure you. Have you ever wondered, whether or not there is a bias when employers higher you? If two women of equal I.Q.s and talent went to a *male employer, one beautiful the other not, who do you think will get the job?

    I’m not denying an unfair double standard at play, but the question is, do you take offense at the audacity that culture is largely influenced by people’s “sex” appeal, from Hollywood to your local JC Penney’s make-up department… or do you try and keep the message positive? You can look sexy and be smart too. Does that reinforce the negative stereo types that ugly people are stupid? I don’t see how. But you may want to use the opportunity to your advantage… more people will listen to what you have to say when you put a face to a name… and if you look like a Cary Grant or a Angelina Jolie, then heck, more people will focus on you–attraction is part of the mind design from infants on up. It’s inbuilt.

    So you can complain about all the forces which work against you as a woman… or you can learn some finesse… and learn how to take a compliment… and I dare say that would be even more sexy. Better be careful!

  10. Albert Bakker

    Sexism is the belief that one gender is inferior to the other, not that some specimen of one gender are particularly good looking. That is called seeing. It is not advisable to stop doing that.

    Some sexy women are scientists (praise the Lord) and they should not have to pretend to be men or to have to try their best to look like them in order to be taken seriously. Those who think they must are the real sexists and screw them.

  11. Ah come on! You don’t have to be a scientist to see that Sheril is sexy. I would [like to have sex with her]

    * edited for inappropriate creepy content *

  12. I was going to add a comment here about the use of language used in compiling such lists, but the more I think about this, the more uneasy I am about the whole idea of compiling lists and photos of people using attributes they have not actively promoted in their professional/public lives, and which have deep and powerful cultural connotations.

    However, I thought I would pose the question I started to write about anyway:

    In reading through the comments on this issue, there seems to be a free and easy interchange between words like “sexy”, “pretty”, “attractive”, beautiful” and probably a few others. But I’m not so sure they are valid synonyms. The label “sexy” when applied by a man to a woman seems more about the desires of the observer than the self-esteem of the observed. Whereas terms like “attractive” and “beautiful” have a far greater emphasis on the self-esteem and empowerment of the observed (although this is of course context-specific).

    Is this a valid observation? Is there a danger of using apparently similar words when discussing other people in public that have very different meanings and implications in a broader social and cultural context?

    So that was the question I started out with. But I think it’s possibly a distraction to the bigger issue of how language and images are used to either empower or constrain different groups within society.

  13. Gaythia

    I think that Andrew Maynard at #12 above is onto something in terms of a need to address the bigger issues as to how language and images are used to either empower or constrain different groups within society.

    I say this not from the perspective of someone who has ever made it onto a “sexy” list, but rather as someone who (years ago) was first greeted by one of a group of all male peers, on my first day of my first job out of graduate school, with the exclamation: “Gee, you were supposed to be a blonde!”

    However, I do think that Luke, the author of the original post, is handling this controversy well, and in a manner that allows for further thought and discussion.

  14. I.P. Freeley

    If only I could think of a comparable situation where some male intellectuals were treated as mere eye-candy. Oh right, that:

    I seem to have forgotten the cries of sexism that followed that article.

  15. I wouldn’t say these lists are sexist, because men and women can be on them, but they do bother me—-for completely selfish reasons. As a geeky girl, I’ve been a misfit most of my life and always different and separate from the pretty girls. After discovering science and making a career out of it, I eventually came to feel I’d left that stuff behind. These ‘sexy’ lists are just another way I feel excluded, because I could never be on one no matter how smart I am or what I do.

    Which is not to say they’re bad. I probably just can’t be objective. And Sheril *is* totally cute.

  16. Actually, I think the Wired list is a great contrast. Look at *why* they were included, as well as the size of the pictures relative to the Common Sense Atheism post. Luke put no context besides appearance. Hell, I’m an epidemiologist and I don’t even know what a “hospital scientist” is, which is given as a description of one of the women. The Wired post included people who are “sexy” for what they’ve accomplished, not what they look like. That would have been more acceptable to me. As-is, Luke’s post is basically just a meat market ad.

  17. Granted Japan did send their first ever woman astronaut, Naoki Yamazaki, up to the space this year, and it made headline news!!!

    Tristan, Naoki Yamazaki is the 2nd woman astronaut from Japan. Chiaki Mukai was the first. She flew twice, once in 1994 and again in 1998.

    But in any case, being the first or only woman in any field is always going to make headline news for the sheer “who would have believed a woman could climb a mountain/fly an airplane/do math” novelty of the event. But I don’t think that was the point you were trying to make.

  18. Jim Menegay

    Luke is stupid for not getting permission in advance. Very stupid. But I was all ready to give him a pass on the sexism charge until I decided I might as well check out the Sexy Atheists, as well as the Sexy Scientists. That is when my thinking got complicated.

    But here is my current position. Luke was not sexist in posting the pics of Sexy Atheists, even without seeking permission; those were cheesecake pictures of women publicly trying to look sexy – being sexy is what they do professionally. But then when he decided to do a followup series of women for whom sexiness is not a professional attribute, but only an ancillary personal attribute – well, at that point he began demonstrating that he is stupid and insensitive to a degree that can certainly be called sexist.

    Now if Sexy Atheists were not already out there, and if the rocket scientist, hospital scientist, and cowboy had been omitted from the scientist listing, then I would be inclined to advise Sheril to react cheerfully, just like Abbie did. And I would advise Abbie to publish a more flattering photo in case something like this happens again. My (male) opinion. You asked.

  19. Tim

    I wish we could get past the “historically oppressed group” stuff, which is a red herring. This is really about privacy.

    Sheril’s photo is publically available, and Luke used it without her consent. Although there is no law against this (to my knowledge), I suspect most people feel that the photo is still in some sense Sheril’s, and that she should have at least some control over how it is used.

    Sheril, if you ask Luke to take down your photo **for whatever reason**, you are asking for a courtesy. And the courteous thing for him to do would be to take it down. I don’t think he has an obligation to do so, but that would be the admirable thing for him to do.

    Certainly if it was me who had compiled the list of “sexy scientist” photos, I would happily take down those of any people who asked me to, in recognition that the photo is in some sense their property. Frankly, the reason why they might want it taken down is unimportant. About the only situation in which I would consider *not* complying with such a request is if it was framed as an angry demand.

    My opinion on whether the original list was in good taste is that it would have been better to have asked for each featured person’s consent first, but that not doing so was not a major faux pas. I would just as happily support anyone’s right to make a “Scientists I Don’t Like” page and put up a list of photos and names on it, providing no defamatory statements about them were made.

    Finally, people who complain that the list (a) does not contain enough men or (b) fails to show off other aspects of these women besides their physical attractiveness and so fails to reduce gender boundaries are missing the point I think. By all means express your opinions, but recognise that an individual’s private expressions on his or her blog are not constrained by your sense of taste, and nor should they be. In terms of rights, the only real question here is who owns a photo of themselves that is freely available on the internet, and to what extent should they be able to control what others can do with it.

  20. JMW

    Sheril, I’ve read your column “Singled Out” and Luke Muehlhauser’s reply. I haven’t read any of the comments on either thread, so I hope I’m not repeating anything anyone has already said.

    As a “here’s where I’m coming from”, I am (like Mr. Muelhauser) a white male in North America (Canada, in my case). I’m heterosexual, married, middle aged. Three kids. I’ve been known to appreciate an attractive woman. I have had in my life close friends who are female and who are, to one degree or another, ardent femininists. I believe that extremism in anything is bad, so I think extremist feminists are as bad for the state of women in society as the worst of the “club them over the head and drag them back to the cave by their hair” misogynist. That’s another discussion…

    I think that Mr. Muelhauser is sexist. On Roger Ebert’s blog, in the article “How do they get to be that way?”, I submitted a comment in which I identified two broad forms of racial prejudice – the active, malicious kind that springs from fear, and the passive kind that springs from ignorance where the person has a bunch of misconceptions about the other kind of person, and just doesn’t know any better.

    I think the same applies to sexism (or for that matter, any other kind of prejudice). And I think that Mr. Muelhauser falls into the category of passive sexual prejudice from ignorance.

    When I read his column, I was struck by how much he spent trying to explain his point of view. I suppose that’s natural, it’s his. But there was little to no attempt on his part to try to get into the head of women. The point I learned about my feminist friends is that if a man meets you and says, “My aren’t you attractive/sexy” or “Why aren’t you married?” or you get whistled at by construction workers as you walk down the sidewalk, then they’re being sexist because they are acting without any regard to how that makes you feel. In short, they are treating you as a sexual object that exists only for their pleasure (in this case, visual). You may enjoy that. You may not mind. It may embarass you. It may infuriate you. The point is that they don’t care which reaction you’ll have.

    So when Mr. Muelhauser has his column about sexy scientists, and then tries to explain this as “I’m just appreciating their physical beauty, but I still respect their scientific accomplishments,” it rings hollow. Did he actually ask anyone one that list if they minded being on it? Did he check with some people to find out if the concept itself would be offensive to some? (personally, I’m less inclined to worry about that – there will always be someone who will find offense at anything)

    So when he asks if he’s sexist, I’m inclined to say, “Yes”. He’s not the kind to ask someone if they want to be his next mistress; but he doesn’t know how it feels to be wolf-whistled at, or to have their picture posted on a blog entitled “Sexy scientists” or anything like that. And I’ll admit that I don’t either. But I’m at least aware that I don’t, but that some women will feel uncomfortable in a way I don’t understand.

    To be sure, we have to work on many things in our culture’s male-female relationships. I’m not advocating a culture of victimhood. But I think that until the issues of male-female cultural dynamics are resolved, we should be striving to express ourselves with a little more respect than we have been doing.

  21. I really appreciate so many thoughtful comments here and will have a lot more to say about this tomorrow morning. I’m very interested to hear your responses to my upcoming post.

  22. Sheril, How about both feeling flattered (why not?) and thinking the guy’s arrogant for setting himself up as some kind of an authority on who’s sexy and (by implication) who isn’t?

  23. Isabel

    “Sheril’s photo is publically available, and Luke used it without her consent. Although there is no law against this (to my knowledge)”

    ‘Publicly available’ is not the same thing as ‘public domain.’

    Ever heard of copyright law? Luke broke it a number of times on his post. And it involves permission from the copyright holder, not the subject/model.

    Even with public domain photos, the photographer should be credited, just like if you were quoting someone’s writing. This is even a requirement for the use of most photos from Wikimedia Commons as well as providing a link, though it is rarely done. That’s what ‘attribution’ means (read the fine print sometime). The photographer (or agency’s) name next to the photo AND a link back to the source.

    As far as the people in the photos, of course he should have asked them, out of common courtesy.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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