Sexism and Objectification

With reference to this post, and this one (for those who don’t feel like checking out the links, Luke at Common Sense Atheism put up a list with pics of “sexy scientists” and “sexy atheists”, and one of the women who recently started writing at scienceblogs/Discover took offence, although to a different instance, of being appreciated for her looks as opposed to her scientific accomplishments ).

I think one of the reasons I have for tending to side with Luke (although in this specific case I don’t think he’s doing a very good job of defending himself) is that I always interpret the condemnation of objectification as perhaps stronger than people intend it to be. I’m hearing “people who call attention to a woman’s attractiveness or “sexiness” are sexist” and I’m thinking, hey. That’s harsh. It doesn’t make any sense. It specifically rubs me the wrong way that this basically amounts to people telling me what I can and cannot post on my blog. On the other hand, I am coming around to thinking that what they are actually saying is that this sentiment is not a “good thing” to express on my blog, seeing as it doesn’t do any good to anyone and runs the risk of trivializing all the other achievements of the woman or women in question, because of the fact that attractiveness, especially in women, is one of the key things that people define other people by.

If one treats the “sexist” allegation as a grave personal insult, which I think is what Luke is doing,  then things are much more problematic. There is no way for him to frame his post as something positive. On the other hand, there’s harm, and then there’s harm, and this has to count as a fairly benign offence.So I am treating this issue as, essentially, “bad manners” on Luke’s part.

On the general issue of objectifying women-my views are well expressed by this post (to a first approximation- I might have phrased some things differently, but unless someone calls me out on some particular issue I’m not going to bother right now), which I found linked to somewhere in this discussion. I wonder why more people did not respond to it.

Curiously enough, the more I read feminist blogs, the less I am coming to think of “sexist” as a particularly strong insult… if only because there seems to be no way out of it, if one accepts their definition. You can of course disapprove of me or my actions because of perceived sexism, and if your approval is important to me I will take that into account, but I am becoming far less inclined to view this as a moral issue with the accompanying assumption of normativity. (I don’t think that’s a word. What’s the word I’m thinking of?)

12 thoughts on “Sexism and Objectification

  1. I think in the last sentence you’re trying to say that you’re viewing minor sexism less as an issue of moral norms as an issue of practical norms, or perhaps “institutional” norms (the latter meaning “norms within a particular institution like table etiquette or the workplace or the hockey rink). Maybe?

    In any case, somewhere in the 350 comments that I hope you did not spend your time reading, I have a dialogue with ‘Erika’ and others about how though my post may have not been this big evil thing, it was still just kind of unnecessary and not the most sensitive thing. So I’m aware there are varying degrees of condemnation being put upon me, not all of them very heavy.



    • “I think in the last sentence you’re trying to say that you’re viewing minor sexism less as an issue of moral norms as an issue of practical norms, or perhaps “institutional” norms (the latter meaning “norms within a particular institution like table etiquette or the workplace or the hockey rink). Maybe?”
      That sounds about right. Actually I was just treating it as a question of common courtesy, which arguably you violated by not asking permission. An oversight as opposed to deliberate rudeness, perhaps, but a condemnable one nonetheless.

      I didn’t read all the comments, but I’ve actually spent a wholly inordinate amount of time reading comments at your blog and pharyngula, mostly because my manager didn’t come in for work today and I felt like goofing off. There are varying degrees of condemnation (and approval, for that matter), but as I’m sure you know some of the condemnations, especially in the comments at pharyngula and some of the links on Sheryl’s blog, are surprisingly scathing.

      And I must say it’s nice to know that 2 of the parties most directly involved in this issue both read my little post 🙂 . I assume Sheryl did, too, since she linked to it.

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  3. Whenever anyone gets called out for being sexist or racist (etc.) the initial response is a circling of wagons and defensiveness. This often takes the form of “you were so mean to say that I was sexist!” or “How could you say my favorite blogger is racist?!” Why is it more wrong to call someone out on something than it was to say the sexist thing in the first place? There’s also a difference between someone saying a post, or a statement, is sexist, and saying that a person is fundamentally sexist.

    It’s problematic to say “perceived” sexism, because that puts the onus on the perceiver, implying that they’re being oversensitive and their reaction isn’t valid. There’s a huge context behind why women scientists (and I am one) would feel offended by objectification. When someone says, “I think your post is sexist, and this is why,” rather than dismissing the response or trying to lighten up the issue as unavoidable (because we’re immersed in privilege) or a “light insult,” I’d much rather see some real, honest and open dialog. I’d like to see the person who made the post stop defending himself long enough to listen and validate the concerns of those making the critiques.

    • Well, actually, the point I was trying to make is that this “circling the wagons”, as you put it, is in fact unnecessary and counterproductive. I definitely did not mean to imply that it was wrong at all to call someone out on sexism. Also, I understand the difference between calling an action sexist and calling a person sexist, and this distinction is part of the reason I said it should not be taken as a “grave personal insult”.

      The reason I said “perceived sexism” is because the fact that person X feels offended by something person Y said is not reason alone to restrict person Y from saying it, and somehow this very obvious fact-to me, at least- does not seem obvious at all to most people weighing in on this. You need a bit more than that to base a moral judgement on. I understand that there’s something almost like that here-his actions seem to contribute, however marginally and however counter to his intentions- to making the sciences more unwelcome to women, which means less women take them up, which is bad all round, so there is reason for censure. I’m just not sold on the seriousness on the offence. As he noted, as many women* wanted to be on his list as were offended by it.

      Did you bother to click through on that link on objectification?

      *Ok, that might be stupid, because I didn’t actually tally them or anything, I just remember seeing some (more than 1, at least) comments to that effect.

  4. This is quite similar to my position. I’ve recently been reading up on the basics of feminism at, and was confounded by their definition of sexism (“sexism = prejudice + power”). I see that in the comments, someone called Nathanael Nerode advances the idea that in fact that is not a consensus definition of sexism even among feminists, and that the consensus (and original) view is that “Sexism is judging people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter”, which I feel much more comfortable with — that’s more or less exactly how I would have described it.

    The word that defies sensible understanding to me is “objectification”. I was actually quite relieved to see that in the page at that site attempting to define that word, the proposed meaning is torn to shreds in the comments. To summarise, if it really means to believe that someone is not fully human, it’s something that only a mentally disabled person or complete psychopath could do; if it only means to ignore certain aspects of a person while acknowledging that of course they are fully human, then it’s something harmless that everyone does when interacting with the cashier at the bank.

    I don’t mean to imply that all of feminism is wrong or pointless, it’s certainly not, and I learned things at that site. But some of the pieces of that puzzle just make no sense.

    • I’d say most parts of the puzzle, as you so curiously phrase it, make sense, and most of the time. This post wasn’t meant to imply in any way that feminism in general is pointless. I was just pointing out that using the general descriptor of “sexist” in this particular case conflates sexism on the scale of “bad manners” -like here- with sexism of a more troublesome sort.

      I remember seeing the faq you linked to a while back, but hadn’t revisited it since. It seems…interesting.

  5. I’m sorry if I’m rude and I don’t mean to be but you’ve said in your response to Luke – “That sounds about right. Actually I was just treating it as a question of common courtesy, which arguably you violated by not asking permission. An oversight as opposed to deliberate rudeness, perhaps, but a condemnable one nonetheless.”
    So well, judging by that, I’m assuming that you admit that is condemnable too?

    • 🙂 It’s not rude at all. To answer your question, that was a publicity shot from Mad Men meant to spread far and wide across teh interwebz. By bringing it to the attention of my meagre readership I’m just advancing that aim. It would be ridiculous to argue that spreading a publicity shot requires explicit consent. Implicitly that consent has already been given.

      Also, another of the arguments used, besides consent, is that putting up photos of scientists and calling them sexy is leading attention away from their scientific accomplishments, which enables interviewers/people considering them for various positions to dismiss them as “just a pretty face”, or something like that. Exactly the opposite effect applies here. The fact that she is an attractive woman simply adds to her suitability for most acting gigs. These shots are released to provoke exactly that sort of response.

      • I guess I confused the conversation we had about the post with the post itself. Sorry about that. And we’ve had this argument before and agreed to disagree, I believe. I don’t think that starting on that again appeals to my conflict-avoidance-tendencies. 🙂

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