Let's talk about sex (in science)

Jan 27 2011 Published by under Activism

Sci has been really thrilled to see so much talk over the past few days on women science bloggers, where they are, and why they appear to fly under the radar.  But I’ve noticed that, while female science bloggers and female scientists aren’t big fans of comments on their appearance...most of them have no problem with using some sexy to sell science to the public.  What is the difference, and can the two options of trying to get people to ignore looks in favor of content, and using cool and sexy to sell science actually coexist without one harming the other?  So when my most glorious partner in science blogging-crime Miriam hit me up, we thought it’d be a good idea to get some discussion out there.  Our chat has been edited for grammar, clarity, length, and some side discussion of things like hats.

*The entirety of this text has been cross posted at Deep Sea News.

Miriam: So here's what I've been thinking during this very very earnest discussion on women science bloggers. We have a fundamental conflict between selling science & including women
Everything in our society is sold with female bodies. Just check out the blog Sociological Images. Everything from household items to soap to apples. Everything.

Scicurious:  No kidding.

Miriam:  So tapping into this to sell science is very effective. It totally works.

Scicurious:  But it utilizes a framework that involves the objectification of women's bodies
to the detriment of women, who continue to be objectified and thus get judged not on what they do, but on how they look. What a man says on blogs is usually (not always) disconnected from his looks, while a female face on a blog tends to be associated with whatever she writes, and the quality of what she writes is influenced by the way that she looks.

Miriam:  Therefore leading to these issues with female science bloggers.

Scicurious:  Yes.

Miriam:  I'm actually surprised that we didn't get more anecdotes of women being called fat ugly hairy lesbians & being dismissed. The current discussion seems to be focusing around inappropriate complimenting. But it's two sides of the same coin.

Scicurious:  We want to be noticed, but often when we DO get noticed, it's for the wrong things (and by "wrong", I mean things unrelated to the stuff we blog about).

Miriam:  Actually, I'm sure Zuska has some pungent tales.

Scicurious:  Well, how many women WANT to come forward and say "You were called hot, I was called fat and ugly"? There's another little issue in there, I think.  The fact that, when you get complimented, it is somehow more OK than if you get harassed for being ugly.  People seem to feel more sympathy for those who are harassed for being pretty.

Miriam:  GOOD POINT.  I think the ugly-harassment is much more common in the feminist blogosphere.

Scicurious:  Oh yes, ugly harassment is very rife among the feminists.

Miriam:  The reason that both ugly harassment and attractive harassment take that form is that women are powerfully, powerfully socialized to believe that the most important thing in their lives is how they look. Thus, how could calling a woman attractive be insulting? And the worst thing you can do is call her fat and/or ugly - because thereby you are attacking the entire root of her self worth.

Scicurious: And similarly, men are socialized to believe that the most important thing is how a woman looks so it makes it even easier to say things, because that's a COMPLIMENT, right?  that must be what she WANTS.

Miriam:  And some women - who perhaps are a little younger - do think it's a compliment. At first. But I think the true nature of those type of compliments becomes clear - and it comes back to using the female body to sell everything.

Scicurious:  I do think it's especially hard for some women who are in science or other rigorous fields, and who have tried very hard to base their self-worth on their intelligence and work.

Miriam:  Those of us who are trying to sell our brains are NOT selling our looks, and it's insulting to presume that we are.

Scicurious:  Then when you get a compliment on your looks in the workplace, it's like a slap in the face, taking away the other things you strive so hard to be proud of, by telling you what really SHOULD matter: your looks. Many people may say that really when you get a compliment on your looks, what they are REALLY saying is that you can be pretty AND do science!  But why should the pretty even MATTER for your content?  Why should this be pointed out at all?  It has no effect on the content you are presenting, and mention of it is thus at least a non sequiter.  But what it really does is remind you that you can be brilliant or not brilliant, or do good writing or not...but you’re so PRETTY!

Miriam:  And as you've said in one of our previous conversations - science can be a refuge from the very labor-intensive task of having to perform femininity. All that plucking and shaving and expensive clothing!

Scicurious: Right. It's only cool to be smart if you're ALSO doing your female duty of being hot.

Miriam: But you better not forget your primary directive. So that brings us - again - to the controversy over using sexy women to sell science. There’s a couple examples of this that have come across my radar (and everyone else’s)  - Nerd Girls, Science Cheerleaders, the list of 15 sexy scientists (since removed) and to some extent, the Geek & Gamer Girls video (though that’s about geek culture, not science).

Scicurious: I feel like using hotness or women or sexy to sell science is not good for the women IN science. But i also think it's not spectacular for science itself.

Miriam:  How so?

Scicurious:  Coolness doesn't rub off. Putting science next to something that's cool doesn't make it more cool. It makes it science, standing next to something cool, and I feel that science has a great deal to sell itself on its own merits.

Miriam:  Hah, I am imagining a poor little test tube with glasses, leaning next to a pipette in a leather jacket.

Scicurious:  To sell science with sex implies that it's not GOOD ENOUGH on its own, that science itself can't be fascinating or interesting unless it's got glitter on it. But it CAN be!  Look at the citizen science projects!  They makes science perfectly interesting and fun, without having to prop it up next to something that's sexy.

Miriam:  I don't have as much of a problem with that - I just see it as part of the way our society sells EVERYTHING. Why should science be different?

Scicurious:  i feel like science, and other academic fields, should strive to be different, because we all know and have evidence of how much that objectification harms women, we in fact have scientific evidence of it.

Miriam:  I'm thinking of all kinds of highbrow stuff that is sold with glitter. Like how art museums have special exhibits on the Art of Pixar for example. (Actually I loved that exhibit.)

Scicurious:  Yeah, I have to say that sounds really cool...but that's not using women to sell it,
it's using something else, and something which has not yet been deemed to be harmful.

Miriam:  So, playing devil’s advocate, should science strive to be better than society at large, even at the cost of perhaps reaching fewer people?

Scicurious:  Hmmm. That's a fair point. Should science strive to be “better than” the public at large in our recruiting strategies?  Or is it a matter of life or death and let’s use whatever we’ve got?

Miriam:  Actually, one of the issues in the Science Cheerleading debate was about the audience. I have a much less negative reaction when the audience is little cheerleaders.

Scicurious:  Oh yes! Absolutely!

Miriam:  Clearly they already connect to cheerleading. So yay! Reach them!

Scicurious:  But the audience is often not little cheerleaders, and most of the people paying attention to the video on the internet are probably not showing it to their kids.

Miriam:  Exactly. And then we come back around again to selling science with sexy women. People made arguments that Nerd Girls or cheerleading are not actually about sexy women, which frankly I think are ridiculous.

Scicurious:  When they perform live, the vast majority of their audience will be adults, and at the science and engineering festival, it will also be majority male.

Miriam:  If it wasn't, they would wear comfy warm tracksuits like the men (and Sue Sylvester).

Scicurious:  I mostly get told in response to that that little girls won't respond unless they see cheerleaders dressed like they are 'supposed' to dress.

Miriam: I actually buy that. Who imagines a female cheerleader in a tracksuit? It's ridiculous. Why? Because cheerleaders = sexy woman. Sexy women don’t wear tracksuits.

Scicurious:  Also...why science cheerleaders?  Why not literature cheerleaders?  Financial cheerleaders? English teachers surely need more exposure and appreciation.

Miriam:  I'm rather fond of the Radical Cheerleaders. They cheer for left-wing causes, are kinda punk, and include a range of body types.

Scicurious:  I feel like science cheerleaders tends to fly very well because most scientists are men. I think in a female dominated field it wouldn't be so positively viewed.

Miriam: So I wanted to bring it back around to the lack of prominent women science bloggers. Can we articulate why we find it so bizarre that everyone in the Science Online-oriented blogosphere is so concerned over the women science bloggers thing -  while being nearly universally positive about using sexy female bodies to sell science?

Scicurious:  I have been thinking about this too. I think for a lot of women it comes down to an inner conflict. We DO base most of our self-worth on our work in science. But it's REALLY hard to give up the idea that looks really matter.

Miriam:  Hey, you and I will be the first to admit that we like to look nice! At least, I try to look nice at conferences - at work I mostly wear dirty blue jeans and smell like dead sea life.

Scicurious:  Too true! I usually try to start out my days pretty well dressed. it makes me feel more confident, but at the end of the day, I smell like rodents.  Oh well, at least Sci-cat thinks its pretty cool.  And of course no one wants to punish people for being good looking. You're ALLOWED to be good looking and a scientist.

Miriam:  There are a TON of examples...in fact marine scientists are pretty damn hot on the whole.

Scicurious:  It's totally fine!  I encourage it as much as I encourage being ugly and a scientist, or being bright green and a scientist! What you look like should not influence your work.

Miriam:  Some of the looks-based science outreach, like Nerd Girls, seemed to try to specifically reach self-identified hot girls by telling them that it was all right to be hot and a scientist.

Scicurious:  Darlene Cavalier has stated in comments on my blog that she wants it to be ok to be good looking, and a cheerleader, and a scientist. I think that's great and just fine, but I worry that using cheerleaders to promote science makes the looks supersede the science. And while using cheerleaders, and things that little girls like, to promote science for kids SHOULD be fine, it's only really fine when we live in a society where we do not have to worry about being taken less seriously because of our looks. Sadly, we do not live in that society, and cheerleaders have far more connotations than just being role models for little girls.

Miriam:  I have an "Intermediate Hotness Hypothesis" based on the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis in ecology that it is best to be unremarkable. I have no doubt that really beautiful women are taken less seriously - but unattractive women have it really bad too.

Scicurious:  Ooooh, that sounds quite plausible, at least as far as being taken seriously in academia.

Miriam:  So, yeah, I guess my summary is that by selling science with female bodies, we are actually contributing to the barriers that women run up against both in science and science blogging. When female looks are central to science outreach, the physical attributes of women become part of the conversation, whether they want them to or not.

Scicurious: I think there is a divide here. People want to promote science, and the easy way to do that is based on using female images to make science sexy.  But I’m not sure we can do that AND try to keep comments on our boobs away from our blogs at the same time.  While, in a perfect world, we SHOULD be able to do this, there’s no perfect world, and there are still too many connotations with using sexy to sell science that could negatively affect the women trying to perform and write about science on a daily basis.

I think there’s got to be a way to promote science that is effective and exciting.  Citizen Science projects and fun science blogs for kids and adults are a GREAT start.  Other great ideas for outreach are things like math books for girls and books on math and science that spark general interest, and are BY women, but do not focus on appearance.  I think we can and should build on that kind of outreach.  It’s great to look however you want, and do whatever you want (cheerleading, gymnastics, D&D, anime), and still do science.  But mostly, it’s great to DO SCIENCE!

34 responses so far

  • KBHC says:

    I love this so much.

    Sci said: "Many people may say that really when you get a compliment on your looks, what they are REALLY saying is that you can be pretty AND do science! "

    Exactly. And that shouldn't be something to juxtapose, it shouldn't be something to comment on, there should be nothing out of the ordinary about it.

    I also think there's a big difference between using sex to sell science and being comfortable with your gender. I recently wrote a comment on Christie's blog to this effect: that it's not that I want to hide what I am, it's that I want it to be a regular ole part of me that I'm proud of and pleased with, but that's it. I want to model being female for my daughter, which means not trying to sell anything, but not hiding it either. Anyway, just thinking aloud.

    Virtual high five for your awesomeness.

  • alice says:

    You two might like the paper I blogged about <a href="http://alicerosebell.wordpress.com/2010/11/10/bimbo-or-boffin/&quot; here.

    • scicurious says:

      I remember that post! Was very interesting.

    • Miriam says:

      I didn't see this - thanks for posting the link. I find the bit about using male scientists for serious conversation and female scientists for accessibility to be particularly interesting/disturbing.

  • Joe H. says:

    Wow, I love posts like this. Well done, both of you. LOL-ish!

    Now I have a Y chromosome, so I don't deal with this except from an outside observer's point of view. But am I the only one having a disconnect between the sexist comments toward bloggers and the lack of female prominence in the blogosphere?

    I mean, it's obviously not good behavior for any well-mannered human to be commenting on Christie's boobs, or anyone's looks as tools of objectification. But that really just seems to have sparked the whole "where are the next Rebecca Skloot" discussions, not really connected to it. Is there a big, important connection that I am missing?

    I guess that my knee-jerk reaction is that while the sexist comments towards authors from the ether are certainly tasteless and inappropriate . . . it's the internet. Another idiot will replace whatever idiot is knocked down, and tasteless comments are never going to disappear. If there is a finite amount of energy in the world to help female scientists/science writers, wouldn't it be better spent on solving the promotion problem and the equal access problem instead of curing all of society's ills having to do with reactions to women's ladybits?

    • scicurious says:

      ...and wouldn't all our time be better spent helping people starving in Darfur? You can fight on several fronts at once, you know. We can work for equal access AND talk about sexist comments. Especially since sexist comments mean a woman is not being taken seriously, and mean that she is then LESS LIKELY to get equal access.

      Also, yes, it's the internet. But when women get hooted at on the streets of NYC, you don't just shrug and say "it's just a city, that's what people do". The location doesn't excuse the behavior. Sure, people are jerks on the internet, but that doesn't mean we should just write it off. Being on the internet doesn't make sexist comments ok. And the more people know that it is inappropriate, the more people will impress that upon their peers.

      As for a disconnect: if you get sexist comments (or any kind of insulting comment) where you are, you're less likely to stay there. That goes for the blogsphere, too. Getting comments on our appearance doesn't make us want to stick around and work hard to become good science bloggers, and thus perpetuates the lower profile of women in science blogging.

      • Joe H. says:

        "Getting comments on our appearance doesn’t make us want to stick around and work hard to become good science bloggers, and thus perpetuates the lower profile of women in science blogging."

        Ok, I certainly see the connection there. I really didn't mean that the other front should be abandoned. Posts like David Dobbs' are heroic and make it clear to readers what should be acceptable. I guess I just don't share the hope that the comments are really avoidable, due to my lack of faith in the internet's genpop. I think they should be fought, every time, though.

        I recommended on Twitter that someone start an e-pillory for violators of the sexist comment rule. If you can't eradicate them, at least humiliate them publicly into thinking twice.

    • Miriam says:

      As I said during the Science Online panel, I've actually never had a negative gender-related experience in 3.5 years of blogging under my real name. But I worry about the trend in science outreach of making science sexy by marketing it with female bodies. The message I get is "LADIES: You can do anything as long as you also complete your primary directive of being hot."

      So the big, important connection that _I_ see is that when women are valued primarily for their looks, it makes it pretty difficult to be a prominent science writer. Does that make sense?

  • Great, thought-provoking conversation. I'm not sure the "hot" factor necessarily applies only in science or even only to women. One venue that comes to mind is ratemyprofessor.com, in which the purveyors offer students the opportunity to give "hot peppers" to faculty whom they think are...hot. I've not looked, but I wonder how many men vs. women, esp. in science, get peppers.

    That said, clearly, maybe no one's going around mocking an overweight, ugly male science writer--do they even exist? I haven't noticed. Everyone's just a head in an avatar--but I know that women in science online have been accused, without any apparent grounds, of being ugly, lesbians (and why not?), overweight, lovelorn, etc. Do men get this kind of thing? I guess not, and that's what this conversation is partly about. But do you counter that by proving that you're cute, straight (and why not?), a healthy BMI, and happily requited in love? Or do you ignore it and show that regardless of what you are, you're a great scientist or science writer?

    On the one hand, I confess that I have always liked showing my students that cute brunette women can also be very smart scientists. It helps to break up stereotypes. On the other hand, I don't want them considering my science or teaching of science in the context of my level of attractiveness. It's a weird interaction, this desire to show them that I'm not whatever stereotype of a scientist they might have in their heads while also wanting them not to focus on the anti-stereotype that they may think I am. Confusing.

    I haven't drawn a lot of fire online except from anti-vax people who accuse anyone who disagrees with them who's also female of being ugly, bitter, hateful women who are angry at the world for rejecting them for their ugliness. Doesn't apply to most of us, so we don't take that too seriously. I've got only one story to relate about this whole attractiveness vs. sciency-ness, in which my TA overheard two of my *female* undergrad students discussing my teaching, and one of them said, "I like her. She's *pretty.*" Not the criterion by which I want to be judged in my teaching, my writing, or my science.

    • scicurious says:

      Actually, I have heard from some men who have gotten nasty remarks on their weight, women are not entirely alone. But certainly the problem is much less. And of course it applies outside of science, in all other fields really. It's just science and academia is what we both know. :)

      • Tybo says:

        Even as a male, I've noticed a definite gender difference in some students' remarks too. I know of at least one (female) professor that is called an ogre by many students, and assumed to be a much meaner person than she really is due to her appearance. I've had plenty of male professors that are certainly not attractive people either, but never heard anything quite so horrid directed at them.

    • Karen James says:

      "...this desire to show them that I’m not whatever stereotype of a scientist they might have in their heads while also wanting them not to focus on the anti-stereotype that they may think I am. Confusing."

      +eleventy

  • jc says:

    "Well, how many women WANT to come forward and say “You were called hot, I was called fat and ugly”?"

    On my teaching evals from stus over the years at multiple schools as TA and course instructor, I have gotten "she's a dyke", "lesbian bitch", and "she is a he", as well as "I'd do her", "she needs to get laid", "will fuck her for an A", "she looks better without her glasses", and "she's so stupid and ugly like my dog". I get comments about how pretty/ugly I am from men and women stus. I have been bullied by men and women stus. I have been hit on by male stus. I even had a male stu write a threatening message to me on his TEST! I kicked him the hell out, and flunked his ass. The point totals of the course evals are usually very good, highest for the section or course or even dept. The stus can separate out the ability to eval me with direct questions about the course content and my lecture presentations, but when the stus are asked to write comments in open space, all hell breaks loose beyond the critique of me as a scientist and teacher.

    The Disturbance Hypothesis definitely holds up. Women are a disturbance to men, PERIOD. If you are too smart, you're fucked. Too pretty, you're fucked. Ugly, fat, brown, lesbian...fucked fucked fucked fucked. If you don't wipe some moron's ass, fucked. If you overshadow some moron's ass with your brilliant study, fucked. Whatever the goalpost is for whatever whiny douche, you have to exist below it as a woman, or you are fucked.

    • KBHC says:

      Maybe it's because I have only been blogging for a few months, but the majority of my attacks have been not from bloggers or commenters, but students in their evaluations, like you have said jc.

      I am very muscular, and have been mocked for it on ratemyprofessors.com (twice!). I have had a drawing submitted of me with overemphasized muscles by a student. I have been called "sexy and sassy" in student evaluations. I've been called a bitch. A lot.

      Student evaluations are where the trolls are, for me. And of course this has been demonstrated again and again, that women and people of color get attacked more and get lower evaluations for doing the same quality work. And yet these still end up in our tenure packages...

  • Karen James says:

    Well, if you're going to cross-post the post, I'm going to cross-post my comment:

    First of all, thanks to both of you for posting this conversation. Much of what you say here rings true for me.

    Miriam will know that I’ve been getting rankled about this too, and am bothered by selling science with (primarily) sex, and by explaining science using sexist analogies (for example, one of the films in the #scio11 film fest tried to explain phenomenon X by suggesting that a great application of phenomenon X would be the enabling of female stereotype Y). I’m still formulating some thoughts on this.

    Miriam, when I read “Intermediate Hotness Hypothesis” I slapped myself in the forehead and said, “a ha!”. Then, of course, as a scientist *winks* I immediately wondered how we might test such a hypothesis. I think it involves scoring photos of women in academia then asking whether score is correlated with things like getting jobs, tenure, promotions, grants, etc.

  • "Posts like David Dobbs’ are heroic and make it clear to readers what should be acceptable."

    For me, this comes uncomfortably close to giving a man a medal if he spontaneously does the dishes. Only worse.

    The David Dobbs post — I assume you mean "Guys who say 'Nice Tits' STFU" or words to that effect — is just another example of posturing and serving of notice of superiority. That's exactly what "Nice tits!" and "Show us your tits!" are meant to do to women. And Dobbs won't stop anyone from doing it, because the guys who do that either don't care what Dobbs thinks or feel threatened by being called out by someone they feel one-down from, and might even react by stepping up their titty comments to the women they feel they can intimidate.

    I feel uncomfortable when sex is used to sell science — because women used in promotion that way are not agents but props, and no amount of detail or naming in a caption will change that. The science cheerleaders set my teeth on edge. Especially with cheerleading being both extremely risky, physically, and dramatically worse (eg, than football) in terms of institutional support and injury protection for the girls doing it. If baby cheerleaders need to see women cheerleaders to feel connected, that breaks my heart, because cheerleading as it is practiced right now seems like a poster child of a dead end for women. It's not just being on the sidelines — perversely, it's taking tremendous, and widely unappreciated, risk there, too.

    By the way, I'm not a science blogger. I work in advertising.

    • KBHC says:

      While I agree with you that it's important to not over-emphasize ally work, like that of men, I think David's post was kinda awesome... because he really did follow up. Just tonight he told a dude to STFU on Twitter because the guy joked that if he had "great tits" he would have ended up in Ed Yong's post celebrating female science bloggers.

    • Karen James says:

      David Dobbs' post kicked some ass, sister. I wish more men would come out in support of women in science (and science communication/outreach/education), because sadly the ones that need to hear the message aren't likely to have the desired response when the women they've offended tell them to cuss off. Also, it's always nice to know we have some vocal advocates with Y chromosomes and that they're not just toodling along through their happy-go-lucky lives wishing the discussion would go away so they can keep writing about science and pretending everything's okay.

      • I've found a few places where Dobbs describes his mother in highly respectful but colorful terms, and I'm thinking that one of my roles as a scientist and a mother is to grow sons who, in addition to their obsessions with science, also can tell someone to STFU when they're being assholes to women just because they are women.

        I don't think David Dobbs was just doing the dishes there. He was speaking a heartfelt truth from his experiences with women and his understanding of their equal rights and powers, based on his life with his mother and other family members and friends. I admire the hell out of him for speaking up like that, not for the "doing the dishes" part but for his palpable understanding, and I admire his mother even more for who she was and for passing that on to him. Hoping my sons (I have three) reflect that kind of feminism.

  • Karen James says:

    I know the science cheerleaders are on everyone's minds right now, and I've expressed my own views about that on Twitter, but I hope this discussion will also be about things like whether it's good or bad when women get extra dolled up in super-sexy outfits to present science in public, using their cutest head tilts and crossing their legs oh so provocatively on the sofa while they talk about the Higgs boson or whatever it is.

    Speaking of Higgs, it's worth pointing out here that Brian Cox has a certain following for his looks as well as his science... not that I know anything at all about that.

    • Miriam says:

      There's an interesting parallel with women's sports - which have also used sex appeal to sell something that is not so popular. Apparently that doesn't work.

      And Karen, there was even a calendar called "Studmuffins of Science" featuring male scientists in dishabille. Certainly attempts have been made to sex up science using men, it's just far less prevalent.

      • Karen James says:

        Oooo, interesting parallel, indeed! Just substitute "scientist" for "athlete" in this paragraph for example:

        ...research by University of Minnesota sports sociologist Dr. Mary Jo Kane shows that sexy images of female athletes may make women bigger celebrities but they don't translate into a deeper interest in their sport. Kane showed men and women sexy images of female athletes and found that while they may sell magazines, they didn't make the viewer any more invested in women's sports, and may actually alienate existing fans.

        And oh yes, who could forget Studmuffins of Science? I thought it was great reactionary stuff: are you going to objectify women? fine, then we're going to objectify men.

    • My first thought on reading this post was 'But what about Brian Cox?'

  • Silver Fox says:

    Excellent! And thanks. :)

  • Isabel says:

    "When female looks are central to science outreach, the physical attributes of women become part of the conversation, whether they want them to or not."

    Yes. It is illogical to demand detailed, situation-specific control over discussion of woman scientists' hotness in science. Either it's appropriate or it's not. It's not, btw.

    I'm also confused. WHY are we trying to "promote science" again? I thought we had too many wannabe scientists already. 10 PhDs for every academic position and all that. We want more kids to choose to be scientists? Why, to get more girls involved? We've shown in the biological sciences that that doesn't automatically lead to more prominence in the field (at least not yet- maybe we are just impatient). And, considering the difference in the NIH and NSF budgets, aren't most of the jobs/graduate positions in the biological sciences anyway? where we already have a female majority...?

    Or, do we just want a more scientifically informed public? What exactly is the problem we are trying to solve? Sorry if this has all been gone over, I've been too busy to follow the discussion elsewhere.

  • [...] is never mentioned as a science writer in people’s “top tens”. Sci also discusses the use of sex to sell science, and the advantages and disadvantages thereof. Meanwhile, she’s ACTUALLY “busting, [...]

  • Danna Staaf says:

    Very thoughtful, very thought-provoking! Thanks so much to you both for posting.

    Among the sciences, Biology seems to encounter a particularly difficult version of this problem: it actually IS about sex.

    It's great from the point of view of outreach and education, because this guarantees an audience, at least for certain kinds of biology. Even if you talk about flatworm penis fencing in a monotone, people will be interested. I studied squid reproduction for my PhD, and the sex angle made it a lot easier to explain my research to students, reporters--even fellow scientists.

    As biologists, when we're writing for peer-reviewed journals, I think we tend to use jargon that scrupulously avoids evoking human sexuality. But when we're writing or talking in any other context, even at conferences, we often fall back on casual metaphor with direct reference to human sexuality. I remember my invertebrate zoology prof describing the mating aggregations of market squid with the comment, "It's all very erotic."

    So what's the problem? There's nothing sexist about calling market squid erotic, or getting people interested in flatworms that feint with their sexual organs. The thing is, once people are talking (and especially joking) about sexuality, I've noticed that it's VERY EASY for sexist comments to slip in--and sometimes I don't even notice them until I'm thinking over the conversation later.

    One egregious example occurred recently at a conference, after a speaker had presented data showing that squid of a particular species caught by jigging were disproportionately female, while those caught by trawling had a more typical sex ratio. A well-known researcher in the audience made a comment suggesting that female squid, like female humans, are attracted to shiny objects (i.e. the jig). Wow!

    So what about using sex to sell science, when the science is actually about sex? Miriam has written excellent posts on invertebrate sexuality with language that evokes human sexuality, and I've been known to say things like "Female Nautilus like it rough." Obviously these sort of things are not the same as using the human female body (sexy cheerleaders!) to sell science. But it seems closely related to me, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

    • scicurious says:

      This is a really interesting point, and something I use frequently as well when writing about sex on the blog. I will have to give it more thought. I usually do it to make what I'm talking about relatable, but I wonder if it's actually helpful in the long run. I think it's a good point to raise.

    • Miriam says:

      Danna,

      Great point - and it's definitely something I think about when writing these anthropomorphized posts. I try to write them either in a "character," like my recent post on Smoove A the mate-guarding amphipod, or in a way that doesn't draw conclusions about humans. I am way more drawn to animal sex that goes against human sexual stereotypes rather than conforms to them, so I feel like it hasn't been too hard to walk that line, though I'm sure there are times when I've screwed it up.

      I actually feel way more of a hypocrite with my sea shanties. Lots of them glorify rape ("Bell Bottom Trousers"), are misogynistic (the whore verses of "All For Me Grog" to give a mild example), or are just horrible about lady parts ("The Crabfish"). I like to think singing them is pleasingly subversive, but I worry that I'm doing the "I can be just as misogynistic as a guy! Please, can I be an honorary guy???" kind of thing, especially when I teach them to undergrads. But, basically, it comes to down to "BUT I LIIIIKE DIRTY SEA SHANTIES" for me, so I try to compensate by actively engaging my students in discussion about gender in science, and giving them practical advice about how to act in the field.

  • BUT I LIIIIKE DIRTY SEA SHANTIES: A Feminist Deconstruction of Sex, Sea, and Sea Men
    [Hardcover] by Miriam Goldstein
    $19.50
    $ 7.50 Kindle Edition

    From Publishers Weekly: In this rollicking new collection of essays that examines more than 400 sea shanties from a philosophical, feminist, socio-sexual power dynamic, bawdy ocean scientist Miriam Goldstein demonstrates that not only does she know The Man from Nantucket, but she can clearly demonstrate to him how the deconstruction of sea shanties can allow us to rethink the political and explore the possibility that there is indeed life after identity politics.

    "One of the more compelling ventures in feminist sea shanties that I have seen. I think that a book with this range, and with the kind of precise and cautious thinking exhibited by this author might just establish a new standard in the field."
    –Professor Iva Biggin, University of Very Serious Studies, Stoke on Trent

  • jebyrnes says:

    Intriguingly, it looks like the Intermedite Hotness Hypotheses is being tested (sort of) by the data nerds over at OK Cupid (and a male-version is due soon). And it looks like it holds up - albeit in a very different context. Hrm...

  • AK says:

    In a way, I'm a little disappointed. I was hoping from the title this post would be about something like this.

  • DeLene says:

    Great post ladies, really appreciate it. Especially liked this part, "To sell science with sex implies that it’s not GOOD ENOUGH on its own, that science itself can’t be fascinating or interesting unless it’s got glitter on it." I don't think this debate is inherent to science alone, but I do enjoy reading your thoughts on it within the field of science.