From comments: I’m rubber, and you’re glue

I thought this point was worth bringing up from the comments: as we talk about tech conferences enforcing standards against use of sexualised imagery, we’re hoping to replace the “ho ho ho, we’re all het men here, what we have in common is coding and finding women attractive, don’t we all feel closer now, boys, for having shared our two great joys?” vibe.

But Melissa Gira Grant left a comment on Selena’s post reminding us that these kind of structures can be easily turned and used against women, as follows:

I think I get the thinking around these guidelines — and the totally male-dominated conference circuit that needs to hear this sort of guidance — but I just am stuck on this:

How do we keep guys (or anyone) from non-sensically using sexual or sexualized imagery and language in their presentations and preserve the right of people to use that information when it’s actually really, really what the presentation concerns?

This might be beyond the scope of these guidelines, but I am thinking back to the first BlogHer, during a “Birds of a Feather” session organized by self-identified mommybloggers, who were irritated that when they discussed the biological particulars of childbirth and childrearing, they were told they were being unprofessional, NSFW, or “overshare-y” — or, obscene.

It’s hard to address intent in this stuff. And I don’t want to sit through anymore stuffed-shirted dude “presos” on boring web marketing that just have some naked women sprinkled throughout to “sex things up” — because usually, those are the same dudes who don’t actually want to hear women talk honestly about sex, either.

In the FLOSS community, this may be a more specific concern with a history of problematic presentations, I know, and I’ve followed some of that through this blog — but tech/geek conferences can be pretty influential in establishing norms, and I’d not want to see a very flattened idea of what “safe” is promoted when those kind of norms can end up used to curtail women’s speech & expression, too.

I think one of the big problems here is that conferences will be very reluctant for various reasons to use any phrasing of guidelines that itself sounds exclusionary. It’s much easier to say “unprofessional content is banned” or “no naked pictures” than it is to try and draw a line between annoyingly exclusionary and usefully challenging or even just usefully informative, especially if that line may have anything to do with differentiating “men talking about women’s bodies” and “women talking about their own bodies.”

11 thoughts on “From comments: I’m rubber, and you’re glue

  1. Liz Henry

    Thanks for re-posting Melissa’s comment and thanks Melissa for diving right into the fascinating complications. I would like to point out a few good sites to think over on the politics of body image, gender and nakedness.

    Shape of a Mother where readers send in photos of their bodies.

    It occurred to me that a post-pregnancy body is one of this society’s greatest secrets; all we see of the female body is that which is airbrushed and perfect, and if we look any different, we hide it from the light of day in fear of being seen. That makes me want to cry. Sure we all talk about the sagging boobs and other parts, but no one ever sees them. Or if they do, it’s in comical form, mocking the beauty that created and nourished our children.

    It is my dream, then, to create this website where women of all ages, shapes, sizes and nationalities can share images of their bodies so it will no longer be secret.

    nakedjen’s guerrilla nudism. It is very interesting to read (and see) people’s reactions. For example, rabbitwrite’s interview with Jen.

    Body Impolitic – Laurie and Debbie’s books of photos – Women En Large and Familiar Men.

    – Can’t find a good description of it, but Ingy döt Net’s conference talk where he stripped naked as part of the point he was making. Likely to offend someone? Yeah probably. But I prefer that sort of thing to random women’s pornified body parts put up on a slide in a context where it’s making women into Other.

    I wish more *men* would acknowledge that nakedness and obscenity are complicated concepts. It is not squeamish prudery that gets us feminists objecting and it’s not an automatic knee jerk reaction to anything involving sexuality. It’s the politics of what’s going on with the use of images of women and the rhetorical opposition of us (programmers, geeks, experts) with them (women, whether it’s your “comically” linux-ignorant mom or a porn star’s butt). POLITICS… complicated… are you people listening? Not “hurt feelings” and not prissiness that oppresses quirky boy geniuses from free expression.

  2. Melissa Gira Grant

    Liz! Thank you for keeping this going (and the links) — !

    Exactly, it is about politics: a politics of representation, and a politics of access — of who gets what jobs, and who got invited onto what panel in the first place, and who is thought of as a “thought leader” (gag) etc etc.

    This is part of the reason I spazzed out earlier this year about the Porn talk at TED — it was like, finally, porn is being discussed in a serious context, by a woman even — and yet, the way it was deployed in the TED context was still about getting attention for someone who has little expertise on the material she flashed on the screen. Who knows how long it will be until a real discussion of sexuality makes it to TED? (One promising thing: Mary Roach did a talk on orgasm, too, which was pretty fantastic and quite science-heavy.)

    To me, what’s misogynist about the use of porn imagery in a geek context, when we’re not even talking about sex or porn, isn’t the naked bodies — or the commercial apparatus behind the production and publication of porn — it’s that when women actually do want to talk about gender, sexuality, and power (which I do, a lot), it’s as if all the air has been drained out of the room by every non sequitur usage of sex imagery that has come before us. Just one example: when MAKE published a how-to I co-wrote, O’Reilly refused to print the fact that the project was inspired by projects done by sex workers. “It’s a family magazine!” we were told. But Mark Fraunfelder can say in his bio, printed in the magazine, that he’s been an editor at Playboy, of course. It’s a double standard, whether or not you’re the naked girl.

  3. Erika

    Interesting point! I’m reminded of the recent dust-up when WOW threatened to ban LGBT guilds as part of their blanket rule against hate speech (like use of the word “gay.”

  4. Erigami

    It’s much easier to say “unprofessional content is banned” or “no naked pictures” than it is to try and draw a line between annoyingly exclusionary and usefully challenging or even just usefully informative, …

    Isn’t it easier to say “we’re all here to talk about some technical matter, so lets keep the presentations focused on that”? If any subgroup wants to get together in a BoF to talk about a shared interest, go to town, but the general proceedings should limit themselves to the subject matter of the conference.

    I’m also curious how you would define “usefully challenging”. I agree that people should have their preconceived notions challenged and explored, but I’m not sure that the general proceedings of a technical conference are the right venue. If participants know that’s what they’re signing up for, fine, but if not, your usefully challenging might be someone else’s exclusionary and offensive.

    1. Mary Post author

      Isn’t it easier to say “we’re all here to talk about some technical matter, so lets keep the presentations focused on that”?

      Melissa’s comment (on my reading anyway) was about the norms of technical conferences being adopted by related but broader communities, eg BlogHer which includes but is far from limited to technical content. My last paragraph was more in that context: presumably when your content is semi- or not-at-all-technical, you still don’t want “go to town” as the guidelines for presentations and you could end up in a situation where the first feeling about inclusiveness is “if women can show childbirth, men can show porn models, wasn’t that easy? Phew. Discussion over.”

      1. Erigami

        I was referring to the original post. I don’t think I saw Melissa’s comment when I wrote mine.

        I guess it depends what the conference is about. I’ve only attended deeply technical conferences (yay ACM!), deeply lefty conferences (yay local anarchist commune!), or Green Party electoral organizing conferences (yay, um… yay!). I would have a hard time challenging anyone’s assumptions on sexuality at any of those. It’s not what the attendees signed up for when the bought their ticket, unless the talk is titled “Sexuality in…” or something along those lines.

        1. Mary Post author

          I’m not quite sure what you mean by not seeing Melissa’s comment: I was referring to the one that’s embedded in the OP.

  5. jef Spaleta

    Here’s a little story that my wife told me that maybe relevant.

    While watching a student presentation at the end of a lab course last semester, one of the male students included a slide with a woman in a bikini. She broke into his presentation and politely asked if he felt comfortable adding some male beefcake for her benefit to keep her interested in his talk similar to the image he added for the men in the audience. Since it was obvious to everyone in the room (including the speaker) that the actual content of his talk was not compelling on its own merits and it needed to be juiced up to keep everyone awake and she didn’t want to embarrass him by with her snoring if she fell asleep during his presentation. Needless to say he did not feel comfortable adding a posterior view of an oiled, overly sculpted male wearing a thong bikini into his slidedeck. I believe she used the word “sheepish” to describe the subsequent apology before he felt comfortable continuing.

    Now I’m not saying that sort of approach will work in a large conference room setting. She had the benefit of being in a small audience. But if I saw someone make that sort of beefcake challenge at a conference I was attending, I’d feel compelled to buy them a drink to celebrate the showing of chutzpah in the act of stopping a speaker and addressing the appropriateness of the image while its on the screen.

    -jef”only includes images in presentation guaranteed to make everyone in the audience uncomfortable”spaleta

    1. Mary Post author

      The trouble with this is that it suggests that everything would be fine as long as the sexual tastes of straight women were appealed to, and in fact I think on a couple of occasions it has been seriously suggested that “if only I’d put some photos of beefcake in my presentation it all would have been sweet.” But there are problems with sexualisation of non-sexual messages other than one not catering to a broad enough market. A joking challenge may be effective in many circumstances, but not all, not when there’s this confusion about the message going on.

  6. Meg Thornton

    I’m not sure how to best (or most tactfully) phrase this, but I think the most apt way of tackling the matter might be to get back to notions of “on-topic” and “off-topic”. If you’re talking about programming, then images of partly-clothed or suggestively posed persons of either sex aren’t necessarily on-topic for the matter at hand. This, to me, provides a reasonable grounds for querying the inclusion of such material – is it relevant to the matter at hand? If not, why include it? Why that particular image? Why not an image of a cabbage, or maybe a single slide in bright shrieking green, or some similarly startling colour if you’re trying to startle the audience out of their lecture-induced stupor?

    Ideally speaking, images used in a slide-style presentation should be appropriate to the subject of that presentation. It’s what used to be called common sense.

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