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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

No sexual images, please - we're atheists

I have a post over here at Talking Philosophy, and it's attracting some good, thoughtful discussion - although the comments thread is fairly brief at this point.

As I say in my latest comment on the thread, you'd hope that what convention organisers are really trying to do is create an environment that won’t be hostile or demeaning to women (or, presumably, anyone else, but I do think that particular issues arise with making the environments of conventions welcoming to women).

Perhaps policies should say that explicitly – it's vague, but it would have some meaning in that it could govern how the rest of the policy is interpreted. Instead, the policy that I'm criticising in the post has prohibited all sorts of categories of behaviour that are described in sufficiently sweeping terms to (one hopes inadvertently) catch up innocuous or beneficial behaviours, such as selling posters of pre-Raphaelite art.

Of course, what is hostile or demeaning to women (and others) is also contestable, and there are large grey areas. We’ve discussed some of the issues right here at the Hellfire Club, where I’ve often complained about demeaning representations of women in comics. What is perceived as demeaning will depend on certain cultural codes, and not everyone has internalised the same codes in their heads. There are no answers that are objectively binding - there is no such thing as an objectively demeaning image in, say, a metaethicist's strong sense of "objective" - but there certainly are facts about what will, in a particular society, strike ordinary, reasonable people who are not especially prudish as demeaning to women. We're looking for images that are objectively demeaning in the weak sense of "objective" used by lawyers - i.e. not what a particular person actually experiences as demeaning but what an ordinary, reasonable person within the milieu would probably perceive that way.

This image is one that I've criticised in the past, but some people might think it falls in a grey area. Very well, but I could find images much more demeaning than that if I wanted to. The point is that we can keep a convention environment free of images that most people would regard as pornographic and demeaning to women (unless we are actually discussing them) without tending to demonise all expressions of eroticism.

However, the main thing that a convention needs to do is make clear that no harassment of any kind will be tolerated. I.e., if someone hassles you - sexually or otherwise - the organisers will have your back (Richard Carrier put it that way in one of his posts on the subject, and I think it's as good a way to convey the idea as any). You need the policy to specify how a complaint can be made, and everyone needs to know that complaints will be investigated fairly. No long list of specific prohibited behaviours is needed. People generally know when they are behaving in nasty or callous ways. The point is to make clear to the small minority who do so that it won't be accepted (and to give that sort of reassurance to possible victims).

There's more from me in the comments on the thread at TP.


Greg Camp said...

I suppose that "Don't Be Boorish" would incite too many arguments? Another approach would be rule that if the subject is sex, and it's not a theoretical discussion, "Stop" must be accepted as a sufficient answer. Of course, as a fellow intellectual, I realize that our kind likes to argue out the finer points.

Regarding the images, the comic appears to be one picture from a series, and the dialogue is taken out of context. But note that the woman there is over the man. She's in a position of advantage. Psyche, by contrast, is emerging from the water, and Pan is in control of that scene. Both images have sexual content. I don't find either to be demeaning, but again, there may be more to the comic that I don't know about.

Russell Blackford said...

No, Greg, you're entitled to your view about the images. The nature of images is that they're open to interpretation.

I don't think there are binding "correct" and "incorrect" views about these things, but I do think we can explore it to see what people are responding to. I have a problem with the broken backed pose that Starfire is given - and we see a lot of these poses in comics. Women are twisted into shapes that don't bear much resemblance to the postures that women are ever likely to adopt in real life, even when being seductive. It also doesn't help when they are portrayed with huge breasts on almost anorexic (look at those ribs!) bodies. To me, this all screams that Starfire is being coded here as just a sexual object for the boys, not as also a person with her own legitimate interests.

Psyche appears more like a real, if obviously beautiful and idealised, woman. The image strikes me as a much more sensitive and evocative portrayal of erotic emotion and erotic beauty. Apart from anything else, I think it's just plain sexier.

Now, I may be wrong ... but I expect a lot of women would like the Psyche and Pan image. Many women whom I know are fans of this kind of art, eroticism and all. By contrast, I expect that relatively few women would much like the Starfire image.

All of this is complicated, of course, and there are grey areas, personal responses, different backgrounds that affect how we look at things, and so on. It all calls for nuanced discussion of composition choices, social codes, and personal emotional response.

For me, I can't imagine finding the Psyche and Pan image demeaning of Psyche herself, or, by implication demeaning of women or of female sexuality, or anything like that. Nor can I imagine not feeling some of that with the Starfire image. But your mileage may vary. I seem to recall Jean Kazez not being too worried by the Starfire image, but she's probably reading this and will correct me if I'm misunderstood her point.

More generally, though, women seem to like erotic images as much as men do, but maybe not always the very same ones. In any event, there is a huge variety of erotic or sexual images in our culture, and demonising them all as so problematic that it is "harassing" if they are publicly displayed ... is, to say the least, rather worrying.

And frankly, I've never known it to be much of an issue at science fiction conventions where numerous erotic images of various levels of emotional impact are on public display in huckster's rooms and art shows. There may be some unstated boundaries, and it's possible, I suppose, that some sf conventions have tried to put them into words, but generally speaking it just isn't an issue on anyone's mind. So why should it be an issue for atheist conventions? Are atheists really that much more emotionally vulnerable in this way than fans of science fiction and fantasy?

Lee said...

"To me, this all screams that Starfire is being coded here as just a sexual object for the boys, not as also a person with her own legitimate interests."

But she just isn't a person with her own legitimate interests. To echo what I said over on TP, there is a world of difference between treating a person as a sexual object, and treating a sexual object as a sexual object.

Greg Camp said...

I'm a philosophically minded "other," not an atheist, but all of us who run counter to the dominant religious trend do feel pressed into conformity. Are these rules an effort to go against the standard model, so to speak? I suspect that we feel the need to be different, even when there's nothing particularly wrong with the way things have been done.

About the images, I expect a comic to show unnatural images. The rest of Starfire is muscular, and her expression suggests that she's about to go elsewhere. But the context matters to me. I find Jodie Foster to be much more beautiful than any number of no-talent starlets, and that's precisely because Foster plays roles that require brains. Contact, for example, is one of my favorite films.

I do get disturbed when seeing science fiction or fantasy that portrays unrealistic women. A woman wearing an armored bra and panties, but exposing lots of skin elsewhere makes no sense for a warrior--look at statues of Athena from the ancient world for how women who fight should look. In television shows and movies, the woman is always wearing a skimpy tank top, while the men are in full battle dress.

Where am I going with this? This is my message to writers: Real women with complexity and skill (not just sexual!) are attractive. Animated blow-up dolls? Not so much.

Russell Blackford said...

Lee, she's supposed to be a person with her own interests, etc., within the diegesis. Obviously there's no such person in, y'know, the real world.

I'm not suggesting that the image be banned or that the image itself can be harassed or that Starfire actually exists to have actual feelings. But images and narratives do have emotional impact, and I can certainly imagine cases where the display of images of certain kinds, perhaps combined with other conduct, makes a workplace (say) hostile to women. The early "hostile workplace" cases are pretty convincing on that, at least to me.

That said, I don't think that reasonable men and women who are not especially prudish (or in the grip of an ideology) are going to find, say, an art display or a poster shop hostile merely because erotic images are publicly shown. This policy against "sexual images" being displayed publicly seems to me to be a massive overreaction - to a pretty much non-existent problem.

Just to talk for a moment about personal feelings. Having spent my adult life opposing sexual repression and puritanism in various small ways (in my writing and in other ways), I'm horrified to see a policy like this coming from an organisation like American Atheists, of all people.

Russell Blackford said...

Greg - yeah I agree with a lot of that.

ColinGavaghan said...

Russell, out of interest, would you have a problem with the Starfire drawing if it had been created solely and overtly for the purposes of sexual titillation, and displayed within a magazine that made no bones about its wholly gratuitous objectives?

Lee said...

My position is that the image itself is not a person, even if it depicts a real person, and you cannot mistreat, nor be mistreated by, an image. We appear to agree, I just wanted to clarify my use of the word "she".

I had a lot more to say, but I'll just jam it into a blog post sometime rather than clutter up your comments. I disagree about the emotional impact point, because violent/disgusting images aren't mentioned. I disagree with the hostile workplace analogy, because it seems that a conference is different in a relevant enough way to be unhelpful.

I also disagree with Greg's points about "unrealistic" depictions of women being objectionable, because that's to misunderstand the role and tools of art. Women misunderstand this as well, when they try to compare themselves to the actual dimensions of, say, Starfire. The artist is exaggerating the qualities (some or most) men find sexually appealing, much like political satire exaggerates things like Obama's ears or Bush's incoherence, NOT creating a straightforward blueprint for what women should look like or what Obama does look like. Men can't live up to the characters in romance novels either, but they aren't created to teach male behavior.

Russell Blackford said...

Colin ... possibly, but not in a fanatical way. We always need to distinguish between what we disapprove of (aesthetically or otherwise) as individuals and what we'd subject to very serious condemnation or demonisation. And then there's what we'd actually want to prohibit. Even the last has sub-categories, I guess - at one end of the scale is what would be welcome in my own home, while at the other is what I'd want to prohibit even in the privacy of other people's homes. Somewhere in between is what I'd prohibit in public. Once we get beyond my own personal sensibilities, I'm always likely to lean towards a liberal approach.

I realise that you're well aware of this dimension to it, but a lot of people are not.

Lee, I agree that you can't simply apply the same rules to a workplace as to a convention. It's all contextual. Indeed, I think a lot of workplace rules go too far to try to sanitise the environment. And there are reasons for that, largely related to employers' wish to avoid potential legal liability.

But would you deny that a convention could be turned into a hostile environment by sufficiently extreme behaviour, images, etc.? I'm not now talking about posters of pre-Raphaelite paintings, or, say, Boris Vallejo art. I don't think I'd have too much trouble designing some extreme decor that would make most women, even highly non-prudish ones, feel very excluded. (Though I doubt that this is a genuine mischief that needs the rule we're talking about and which I'm objecting to.)

Lee said...

I want to be clear that I'm not running this "argument" of mine against prohibitions on behavior. I fully agree that anti-social and degenerate behavior needs to be addressed in some fashion, whether that be an anti-harassment policy or a simple right-to-refuse-service sort of policy.

"And there are reasons for that, largely related to employers' wish to avoid potential legal liability."

Reasons I agree with. A work environment just isn't the place to challenge unrelated belief structures; you're there to do a job, and as long as whatever you believe about reality doesn't affect your performance, there is no reason to be set-upon for it. That function is more suited to, say, a conference of ideas within a skepticism movement.

In answer to your question, I find myself wondering precisely what "hostile" means here. Is it hostility to preconceived notions (about sex and sexuality, perhaps?), or a hostile environment such that women should expect verbal and physical violence? There is a broad range here, but I don't see images as sufficient to enable most of what a harassment policy is purposed towards solving.

What image could make someone feel excluded? It just seems you would need some accompanying behavior, in which case the behavior is the problem, rather than the image.

Russell Blackford said...

A hostile environment is basically just an environment that reasonable people cannot enjoy quietly and comfortably. Obviously it gets a bit complicated, as you sometimes want to have provocative messages around.

As you say, workplaces may not be places where you want in-your-face messages, and that's a related issue. I do actually talk a bit about this in FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE - don't know whether you've read it. It comes up when I discuss the burqa and whether employers should be able to forbid it in the workplace.

But anyway, surely a conference that is not actually being held by the sex industry, but nonetheless has its walls are plastered with, let's say, Penthouse-style centerfold images is going to make a lot of ordinary, reasonable, not-especially prudish people uncomfortable. And the discomfort is gratuitous - those images will not usually be relevant to the ideas that are being put forward in the conference. Indeed, they may tend to perpetuate ideas that the conference is essentially opposed to (e.g. ideas about women or women's sexuality).

Or I'm sure you could come up with more extreme examples, perhaps involving more hardcore forms of porn - I can, but I don't need to lay them out here, I hope.

Of course, someone might show an image, even one that they disapprove, to make a point about it. But that's different.

The thing is, there is room for a great deal of public display of images involving sexuality and nudity in ways that are perfectly reasonable, as we see in any bookshop or any shop that sells posters. Or even take the famous painting Chloe in Young and Jackson's Hotel in Melbourne (google for it if you're not familiar with it). Arguably this is a sexual image, but it's a much-loved Melbourne icon, not something that any reasonable people in Melbourne would want to see removed from public display.

When rules are set in place, you need to ask whether a genuine mischief is being addressed and whether the actual rule being put in place is overly broad. In this case, I don't see any evidence of any mischief - do the walls of American Atheists conventions really get plastered with Penthouse centerfolds and other porn images? And the rule is massively overbroad, since it says "sexual images" - which could cover an enormous range of images that are in some sense or to some degree erotic or "sexual". Many of those images will have some kind of social or artistic value.

I don't actually agree with you, Lee, that it's appropriate to sanitise workplaces completely, if that's what you're suggesting. Again, it depends on the context. What might be quite inappropriate decor in a legal office might be completely appropriate in a shop that sells (and displays) fantasy art. But both are workplaces to whoever actually works there.

But what this conversation brings out is that different people will have different paradigm situations in mind. I don't know what the people who originally drafted the "no public display of sexual images" clause had in mind. I assume it was not the sort of situation that I'm complaining about, and I'd like to hope that they'd be horrified if they realised how potentially broad the words are. What came to my mind - e.g. the images in my original post and the earlier posts here and at Talking Philosophy - may have been totally different from a situation they were thinking of.

But I don't know. I don't know who originally drafted the words (probably not someone at American Atheists) or why the folks at American Atheists did not have all sorts of alarm bells ringing as soon as the words were suggested. And of course, some people really do seem to think that any erotic elements in the environment are somehow harmful or oppressive. It's not that difficult tracking down examples of suh people.

Lee said...

"I don't see any evidence of any mischief - do the walls of American Atheists conventions really get plastered with Penthouse centerfolds and other porn images?"

Whether or not I agree with you in the extreme cases, we do appear to agree that it would need to reach levels we do not see at these conferences in order for it to be a problem worth arguing about.

"And the rule is massively overbroad, since it says "sexual images" - which could cover an enormous range of images that are in some sense or to some degree erotic or "sexual"."

In addition to leaving out mention of other potentially "hostile" imagery, such as gratuitous violence or cruelty, while likewise threatening perfectly legitimate expression.

"I assume it was not the sort of situation that I'm complaining about"

One has to wonder, frankly, given what was actually present at past conferences. Are they reacting to that? or are they preparing for an foreseeable onslaught of gratuitous and/or pornographic imagery such as you describe? We can be charitable in assuming that they are reacting to the problem as it really exists, or in assuming they are reacting in a reasonable way, but to assume both is kind of hard.

"What might be quite inappropriate decor in a legal office might be completely appropriate in a shop that sells (and displays) fantasy art. But both are workplaces to whoever actually works there."

True, but then, if someone has a problem with fantasy art, they're going to have a tough time performing the job of selling and/or producing it. There would be no reason to have religious or political displays in a fantasy art shop, so that's more what I meant.

Greg Camp said...

We Americans have something of a reputation for prudishness regarding sex. People attribute it to the loud Puritans who demanded the freedom to control others as they saw fit, but the Puritans weren't opposed to sex categorically. What may be the cause is that we've never really got over our Victorian period here. That makes anything that could be taken as a sexual image into something salacious, rather than merely pleasing.

Russell Blackford said...

"We can be charitable in assuming that they are reacting to the problem as it really exists, or in assuming they are reacting in a reasonable way, but to assume both is kind of hard."

Yes, true.