“Philosopher’s Photo shoot Presents Women as Stupid Sex Objects”

That’s the title a major Danish paper gave to this piece written by Mikkel Gerken, University of Copenhagen; Berit Brogaard, University of Missouri, St. Louis; Anna-Sara Malmgren, Stanford University; Anders Schoubye, Carnegie Mellon University; and Andreas Stokke, The University in Oslo. It’s great.

The international reaction was due to the fact that the photos contribute to a huge problem in the profession: unfortunate stereotypes. This problem has been given serious attention internationally. The pictures have, therefore, been seen as a big step back, to a time not so terribly long ago, when male philosophers quite often would consider female philosophy students potential sex objects rather than individuals who could contribute to the profession.

It is discouraging, though not unsurprising, that the Danish debate resulted in people seeing those who called attention to the problematic aspect of the photos as sex-phobic puritans. This kind of reaction is among the things that contribute to an uncomfortable climate for female students.

Who wants to draw attention to a problem if the automatic reaction is that you are sex phobic or one of the American religious puritans?

This kind of accusation is absolutely ludicrous, but it also hinders constructive debate. You can easily be a radical hedonist and still believe that the pictures are problematic. Danish liberalism is, of course, entirely consistent with the empirically well-founded assumption that gender stereotypes can help to maintain an underrepresentation of women in certain contexts.

8 thoughts on ““Philosopher’s Photo shoot Presents Women as Stupid Sex Objects”

  1. I should mention that the newspaper changed the cited title without informing us. Our title was “Can we learn something from Hendricks’ picture series.”

    We prefer our own title because it reflects that we’re trying to turn the debate towards more general lessons pertaining to stereotyping, implicit bias, silencing etc.

  2. I lived in Spain for a while and I grew to enjoy the overt appreciation of each other as sexual beings that was just part of Spanish culture. In Britain that cultural and social ‘norm’ would have been regarded as ‘treating women as sex objects and offensive!” In Spain, the men of all ages call out their appreciation of a woman if she turns them on and Spanish women smile, walk with pride and enjoy this from their men, and I did, and found it sexually liberating too!

    If it’s done to denigrate and belittle then it’s a perverse form of what is natural behaviour. I think we ought to make that distinction more often because sometimes it seems that ANY overt appreciation of the sexuality of women from men is being objected to and I think that’s sad and also repressive.

  3. “The pictures have, therefore, been seen as a big step back, to a time not so terribly long ago, when male philosophers quite often would consider female philosophy students potential sex objects rather than individuals who could contribute to the profession.” – Quote from the article.

    This is assuming that male Doctors and Professors of Philosophy are stupid.

    As if they can’t handle the idea of female philosophy students being intelligent and contributing members of the profession AND sexual beings who turn him on.

    Why does it have to be one or the other? That’s crazy logic.

    Most men, unless they have a subnormal IQ, are capable of appreciating a woman’s intelligence and engaging with her on multiple levels. If men acknowledge their appreciation of a woman’s sexuality in the workplace (or at university where everyone if fucking like rabbits btw) then it shouldn’t be assumed that he’s too stupid to appreciate her as an individual contributing to her profession.

    Some people have hang up’s about the other sex appreciating them as sexual beings – and this attitude is fostered by more ‘uptight’ cultures. For some insane reason we expect people at work to function like asexual robots. It’s a problem with the social and cultural norms to do with sexuality in some countries like America and Britain, and *not* the men or women who ARE capable of appreciating each other as sexual beings AND competent workers and students.

    ‘American puritanism’ as the cause of the problem? That’s not far off! I agree with it.

  4. “This is assuming that male Doctors and Professors of Philosophy are stupid”. It really is not doing that. While an empirically full picture of what goes on may be difficult to specify, we do know thst activating some stereotypes can cause serious harm for many women. Further, the cognitive stereotypes work often at a level fairly independent of intelligence.

  5. I agree with the rest of the so-called ‘puritans’, that this is not about repressing healthy and natural sexual urges. I’m all for consenting sex between equals. I’m also pro-porn (as long as the actors are consenting adults engaging in joyful acts) and I’m for harm reduction strategies, rather than criminalization of sex work.

    But VH’s photospread is not portraying healthy flirting. It’s portraying a disparate power dynamic between a middle-aged man with the authority to make or break the careers of his students, and a flock of scantily-clad females made up to look like pouty children offering bribes of fruit (with a list of connotations that could span pages) to avoid getting spanked. My university actually had formal regulations preventing profs from engaging in relationships with their students. I’m sure it still happened occasionally, but I agree that the regulations were designed for good reason.

    First, there is way more to a classroom or workplace sexual relationship than just the admired and the admirer. I only wish this world were an episode of Star Trek where people could actually date their superiors/subordinates and still be seen as competent professionals who earned their grades and their rank! But with any pyramid-shaped organization where too many qualified competitors are vying for too few positions of authority, sex is the worst thing a newbie of either gender can do with an authority figure. Her/his fellow competitors see, and they know, and they talk. When a prof shamelessly sleeps with his/her students, people start to question whether or not the student actually has the academic ability to move ahead, or if s/he was graded on other assets. The same goes for the prof. There are stories all over the net about profs getting fired for this behaviour. When a student is following a specific curriculum with a specific set of grading criteria, there should be absolutely no question about the student’s ability, or the prof’s objectivity. Any cheating on either side lessens the value of the degree being offered and the integrity of the institution as a whole.

    Second, even if a prof and a student can hide their affair from prying eyes, the student often wonders about the grade given after an affair with a prof. What if the student is doing less well in another class? S/he will start to doubt the validity of the grade. Doubts like this can damage a student’s self esteem, no matter how caring the relationship.

    This is reason enough to avoid encouraging fiascoes like the VH photospread. There is a time and a place for sex. The middle of a classroom or other business transaction is not it. The 3rd and most important reason to not encourage this attitude in male students and profs (to me anyway) is the crippling cost of higher education. My student loan debt is close to $80 000. For that price, I don’t want to feel like my booty is all that matters to my appraisers. If I wanted to shake my other assets around to earn my keep, I could have done so for a $40 DJ fee, and actually walked out of the establishment with a few hundred dollars in my pocket, rather than beating my brains off Platonic Idealism and going home depressed and broke!

  6. I agree with anne and xena, but with a big ‘however’. And it is this – we should not assume that simply because there is mutual appreciation of sexuality in the workplace that it automatically leads to relationship. It does in puritan cultures because that sort of signalling is a risk here. In the Med however? No way! There’s a huge difference between expressing oneself as a sexual being and being appreciated as one, and signalling that you want sex from a person. In countries that have a little more maturity in this area, it is obvious and a given. Not so in more puritan cultures.

    Anne – you were talking about cultural stereotypes and the harm they do, but in order to redefine those stereotypes along lines that are more natural, comfortable and innate to the sex’s I think we should not fear them nor be imprisoned by them, but instead be very open and honest in the way we address them in our lives. That may involve a certain amount of education work both in rhetoric and by example, but I think it is better than being fearful of the backlash. However- that’s an individual and personal choice for women to make for themselves.

  7. Just for a bit of background, there’s an excellent Italian series on the BBC at the moment called ‘Inspector Montalbano’ that is based in Scilly and illustrates some of this non risky and free-flowing appreciation of sexuality without sex being regarded as the automatic outcome (kind of an art actually) whilst also retaining professional respect.

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