Modesty, shame & sexual propriety

The furor over Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs the other night truly surprised me. I expect a fair amount of screaming and wailing from the idiots in the cheap seats. But even some people I love and respect couldn’t stop themselves from joining in, leveling not just artistic criticism at Ms. Cyrus, but also personal insults and accusations of immorality.

Why? Because Cyrus used sex to shock, to get attention, and to make a point.

Everyone has the right to dislike a performance. No harm there. And on that count, I actually agree with the critics who panned the performance. It was was not particularly entertaining1.

I draw the line though at the point where critics resort to sexual epithets to express their dislike, and extend their criticism beyond the performance and onto the performer. It’s one thing to say you find a performance distasteful. It’s quite another to chastise the artist for her lack of self-respect or morality. What I see is a lot of people trying to pass off their indignant yet self-satisfied slut-shaming as though it were artistic criticism. You cannot do that. ‘Bad performance’ is not equivalent to ‘bad behavior.’

Let me start with those who level the epithet ‘slut’ (or its variants) on artists whose performances they find too risqué. In addition to perpetuating an outdated and uncivilized binary view of womanhood, this slur also perpetuates the idea that those who employ sexuality for personal gain are not wholly human. Every woman deserves respect. This includes the ballerina, actress, fashion model, pop star, porn star, and sex worker. You may find distasteful the choices some people make; but besmirching a woman’s basic humanity and dignity is beneath contempt. If you fall short of this basic standard of respect, you contribute to an atmosphere in which, for example, attacks on women are justified on the basis of what they were wearing.

I’m all for publicly shaming people who do actual harm to others — murderers, rapists, abusers, thieves, liars, vandals, fraudsters, corrupt officials, embezzlers, and polluters. I do not see that is is my right though to tell another person how to express her sexuality.

I hear the cries of conservative parents, lamenting the loss of Miley’s previous childish image. “She’s setting a bad example for young girls!”, they shout. Well sorry to break it to you, but Ms. Cyrus is a grown woman, and has a right to grow up. She owes nothing to to your your daughters, and certainly not an obligation to remain asexual and prim. If you don’t feel that Miley’s new image is appropriate for your children, then don’t let them watch.

Still others say they just don’t want their daughters following Cyrus’s example. My friend Jason offers an apt rebuttal to these parents:
     “Just so I understand it, we’re supposed to slut-shame Miley so that little girls don’t see her and grow up to get slut-shamed? OK then.” 
You see, most of the ‘harm’ these conservatives imagine arises from public expressions of sexuality is in truth harm those very same self-righteous moralizers inflict — both on those bold enough to transgress against the old social mores, and on those who come to their defense. This view of the world — that we must shame our children so that they don’t do things that others might shame them for — is also a very bleak and hopeless one, in which people blindly and unquestioningly perpetuate their parents’s customs, without so much as a thought to whether doing so is right. Shaming people just for the sake of upholding an outdated notion of sexual propriety is morally wrong and destructive.

People like to fool themselves into believing that they can judge a person’s moral character by observing just a few superficial markers. More specifically, people like to imagine that they can judge the morality of a woman by how she dresses, how she expresses herself towards men, how flirtatious she is, and so on. This old-fashioned view of morality, that groups women into either the Madonna category, or the whore category, based exclusively on how steadfastly they uphold a chaste and Puritan version of the monogamist tradition, is not just unfair — it’s immoral. It fosters an atmosphere where girls feel ashamed just for being sexual creatures. It lends the aegis of adult approval to schoolyard bullies who hurl sexual insults at teenaged girls. It perpetuates an egregiously broken one-size-fits-all approach to sexuality and relationships. And perhaps most importantly, it encourages a slavish obsession with superficial gestures, and not the true determinants of whether a woman is good. (In a better world, we would judge a woman’s morality in the same way that we judge a man’s: by whether she were trustworthy, caring, thoughtful, and fair-minded.)

And to those who actually intend to pass moral judgement, let me offer a word of caution: before you smugly reassure yourself that you are standing up for standards of sexual morality, remember that in 1797, the newly-invented ‘waltz’ spurred similar moral outrage. People could not believe that such deviance was being practiced in public. In every generation, there will be those who are disgusted and shocked by the openness and temerity of their younger cohorts. Disabuse yourself of the conceit that your particular notions of modesty or sexual morality hold special significance.

Critique the performance all you want. Keep the bitter, hateful, sexist moralizing to yourself.

1. Cyrus’s performance was unabashed, brash, and raw. It was also energetic, wild, and playful. I found it a bit entertaining just because it was obvious that she was having such a good time. To be honest, I actually found the sexually suggestive repartee between Cyrus and Thicke the most enjoyable part of the performance, precisely because it was so clear that while she was having a blast, he was just going through the motions. I think she caught him a bit by surprise with her enthusiasm. It was hilarious!


Freedom vs. equality

Consider the following statement:
Parents should work hard to provide their children with the love, care, education, and resources they need, so that they grow into well-adjusted adults and productive members of society, and so that they have the best possible chance at a successful, fulfilling, and happy life.
 Do you agree with this statement? I’d wager that the vast majority of people do.

Next, consider another statement:
All people may not be equal in their innate capabilities or strengths; but all people should be given the same opportunities in life. Every child deserves the same chance at success, fulfillment, and happiness.
I’d guess that most people would agree with this statement too. Now, try to reconcile the two statements. How can every child have the same chance in life if parents struggle to give their children advantages that other children do not have?

Of course, life is about finding the right balance. Here, the balance is between selfishness and altruism, between individualism and collectivism. It’s interesting though that many selfish behaviors that might otherwise be shunned are often forgiven (or even lauded) when they are conducted in the service of one’s offspring.

Selfishness for the sake of one’s children is still selfishness. It is especially important to remember this where collective action is required to tackle a problem that affects the whole community.


Sex and scouting

Recently, the Boy Scouts of America announced that it was considering changing its longstanding policy of discrimination against gays. A news report on the radio covered the protests outside the BSA’s headquarters in Irving, Texas. Asked for his opinion, one protestor commented:
“Allowing homosexuals in scouting would send the wrong message. The Boy Scouts is not a place for any kind of sexuality.”
This remark reveals an important truth about the Boy Scouts of America, and about the conservative undercurrent in American culture in general:

The BSA’s fear of gays is grounded in its general discomfort with sex.

The conceit that boy scouts are asexual provides comfort to those who would prefer not to tackle the complicated issues around teenage sexuality. By excluding girls and gays, the BSA has heretofore been able to pretend that sex wasn’t an issue that needed to be dealt with. Parents and scout leaders convinced themselves that scouting was a place completely safe from the influence of sexuality. As one of the few remaining bastions of conservative religious Puritanism in American life, the BSA has attracted many who seek refuge from the complexity and diversity of the broader culture. These conservatives would prefer to be able to continue pretending that they live in a world where scouts are entirely asexual. Allowing gays — or girls — into the group would make it more difficult to keep up the pretense.

Unfortunately, this way of thinking actually stands in the way of progress, because it is not based in reality.

It is precisely during those scouting years that a man truly awakens as a sexual creature. To deny the physical and psychological aspects of a boy’s growth into manhood is to turn a blind eye to the foundation of one of the most important parts of life: building fulfilling, meaningful, and effective relationships. How many scout leaders out there would be comfortable talking with a 15-year-old scout about how to handle feelings he has for a girl in his neighborhood, how to be safe if he begins having sex, or how to be respectful toward girls in general? I’m afraid the answer is very few.

In Sweden, there are no boy scouts and girl scouts; there are only scouts, with boys and girls in the same organization. Because scout leaders in Sweden lead desegregated troops with both boys and girls, they are certainly more experienced dealing with issues related to sexuality. This goes a long way toward explaining why homosexuality is simply not a big deal for scouts in Sweden.

If more scout leaders in America were comfortable talking about sex, they could help the boys and girls in their organizations to develop into mature, responsible, emotionally healthy adults. As a bonus, they could then probably relax a bit about homosexuality too.


NASA needs women

A recent NASA article describes an effort by a team of engineers to learn from old rocket engine designs. The initial phase of the project involved resurrecting the gas generator from an old F-1 rocket engine that had been sitting in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.. The formidable F-1 engines are among the most powerful rocket engines ever built. They powered the Saturn V rockets that took astronauts to the moon as part of the Apollo program. The article opens with this paragraph, focusing on the efforts of a hypothetical female rocket engineer:
“Imagine a young engineer examining an artifact from the Apollo era that helped send people on humankind’s first venture to another world. The engineer has seen diagrams of the rocket engine. She has even viewed old videos of the immense tower-like Saturn V rocket launching to the moon. Like any curious explorer, she wants to see how it works for herself. She wonders if this old engine still has the ‘juice.’ Like a car mechanic who investigates an engine of a beloved antique automobile, she takes apart the engine piece by piece and refurbishes it.”
Accompanying the article are several photos of engineers working on the refurbished gas generator. All of these photos depict men. A photo of a team of engineers posing in front of a massive Apollo-era F-1 engine does include one woman, and eight men.
A group of NASA engineers stands in front of an Apollo-era F-1 rocket engine
The hypothetical woman rocket engineer fantasized by the article’s (female) author does not appear to be representative of reality—not yet, at least. For now, it seems, the majority of engineers at NASA are men; and the women remain largely consigned to non-engineering roles like media relations and public affairs.


Unrealistic images warp our perception of reality

In a tweet this morning Alain de Botton linked to a Washington Post editorial he wrote in December, with the provocative title, Why most men aren’t man enough to handle web porn.

His basic premise is that because men have much the same brains today that their ancestors had millennia ago, they make unwitting—and often counter-productive—assumptions, judgements, and choices when faced with the apparent abundance of sexual opportunities depicted in pornography.

I think de Botton has a point, but I am not sure it is particularly novel. As he rightly points out, religions have for centuries recognized the two-faced nature of sexual desire—that it can be an expression of love and affection, can be a transcendent experience, and is of course the impetus behind the perpetuation of life; but that it can also lead to dishonesty, betrayal, jealousy, obsession, and even violence. I think de Botton presses a bit too stridently the idea that religions are the only institutions that have recognized the potential dangers of desire’s darker side.
Only religions still take sex very seriously, in the sense of appreciating the power of sex to turn us away from our sincerely-held priorities. Only religions see sex as potentially dangerous and something we need to be guarded against.
I know many conscientious atheist parents who teach their children about the dangers of acting without thinking, and carefully educate them about the potential pitfalls of lust. An important part of this too is teaching children how to deal with strong emotions, how to handle conflicts with others, and how to communicate openly and honestly—for it’s fine and well to realize that desire can get you into trouble, but you have to have a strategy for dealing with the emotion when it comes, not merely avoiding it altogether.

It’s an unfair oversimplification to paint men (or even ‘most men’) as slaves to their emotions and desires, but of course underlying de Botton’s broad generalizations lies a kernel of truth. Compared to women, men are more promiscuous, more jealous, more aggressive in their pursuit of sex, and—importantly—more attuned to visual stimuli. Combined, these traits make sexual imagery more appealing to men. Here again though, de Botton makes an unsubstantiated claim:
The secular world has no problems with bikinis and sexual provocation of all kinds because, among other reasons, it does not believe that sexuality and beauty have the potential to exert a momentous power over us. One is meant to be quite able to behold beauty, online or in reality – and get on with one’s life as though nothing in particular had happened.
I would not say that the secular world denies the power of sexual imagery. Every advertiser knows the sway that beauty and desire hold over us. If advertising were not effective, it would not be such a big business.

Men today are expected to resist temptations that in an earlier age might have seemed irresistible. In any given day, the modern man beholds many images that would have inspired his more primitive male ancestors not just to feelings of lust, but also to actions such as unwelcome advances, sexual assault, or even rape. Men today are more acclimated to such temptations, and better able to handle them. (The real challenge arises where groups with widely disparate standards of modesty & courtship meet. Think of the many Muslim immigrants in Western Europe, and the difficulty they often have adapting to the continent’s more open and liberated attitudes towards sex.)

Both primitive religious societies and the modern secular world demand personal responsibility. The crucial difference lies in how the responsibility is allocated. In the modern world, it is no longer considered acceptable to blame women for tempting men. What sets the modern secular world apart is that it demands that men take personal responsibility for their actions, and live up to a high standard of respect for women, even in the face of temptation.

Culture-clash problems aside, the modern secular society does a good job holding people to a high moral standard, and gets better all the time. Men today are allowed to think all the lustful thoughts they want in response to tempting stimuli; but unlike with their forebears, men today must behave in a civilized way toward women. Men who transgress in the sexual sphere are shunned by society and stand to loose their treasure or even their liberty (or life) when the violation rises to the level of criminality1. I do not believe modern secular societies fail to recognize the problem of temptation or fail to hold citizens to a high standard.

That having been said, I think there is a nugget of important wisdom buried in de Botton’s words. Specifically, he calls upon men to recognize their own weaknesses, admit that they are a potential source of strife and suffering, and guard against letting these weaknesses take control. Many things that offer short-term satisfaction can stand in the way of more lasting and fulfilling contentment later on. If you realize that certain temptations fall into this category for you, then it’s probably in your best interests to try to avoid these temptations.

Sexually-charged imagery can have a powerful effect on people, and can shape their ideas of their environment in ways that are damaging to their happiness. It has been shown, for example, that married men who are shown photos of attractive women report being less satisfied with their wives. It seems that on some primitive level, images people see are automatically incorporated into their mental worldview. Somewhere deep in the subconscious mind, the men believed those attractive women in the photos were potential mates, present in their surroundings. Remember: in the environment in which our brains evolved, there was no internet, and there weren’t even photographs. In that world, every face you saw belonged to a person there in front of you — likely a member of your community. Nowadays, we see hundreds or thousands of faces per day of people we will never meet.

This phenomenon is not limited to sex, either. When we are bombarded with images of happy, contented people using a particular product, we unwittingly make the assumption that using that product is a potential source of happiness. Or more basically, when we see people living a life of luxury in an advertisement, movie or in real life, we subconsciously compare ourselves to them, and feel inadequate if we do not measure up. Each picture we see changes our perception of the world.

Quite simply, sexual temptation is one of the many areas where our savannah brains are ill-equipped for the modern world. We compare ourselves and our situations to our imagined cohorts—but these days, the concept we create in our minds of our community is likely to be an illusion—an exaggerated fantasy hodgepodge of images from our actual lives combined with images from the media.

Each day we are assaulted by images of health, beauty, happiness, wealth, freedom, and contentment in the media. Some of these images we seek out, such as the movies we watch; others seek us out, such as advertisements. To the extent that these images depict a fantasy life that is unrealistic or unattainable, they will provoke unease and dissatisfaction. We should therefore be careful about the images we allow ourselves to see.

1. Population genetics provides an interesting perspective, and suggests the following optimistic possibility: thanks to increased respect for women and readily available birth control and abortion, rape is quickly declining as a viable reproduction strategy for men. To the extent that sexual aggression is partially hereditary , these advances in the areas of respect for women and women’s reproductive rights may lead to a general decline in violence in future generations.


Swedish panic over nakedness in advertising

One of the Seqr advertisements:
“All I need is my mobile”
This morning, my friend Martina brought my attention to an ad campaign by a mobile payments company in Sweden, in which several of the company’s staff appear naked beside the tag line, ‘All I need is my mobile.’ The ad campaign sparked a fair amount of criticism from some feminists in Sweden, who often view feminine nakedness in advertising with suspicion.

In an article on Resumé.se, Nina Åkestam echoed a common refrain—that depictions of naked women were damaging to the position of women in society:
“Det riktiga problemet är att i och med den här kampanjen fick de här kvinnornas döttrar lite mindre sannolikhet att få lika bra lön som deras söner. Några fler personer drabbas av psykiska problem. Och det dröjer ännu lite längre tills Sverige får sin första kvinnliga statminister…”
“The real problem is that this campaign has made these women’s daughters less likely to get as good salaries as their sons. More people will suffer from psychological problems. And it’ll be even longer before Sweden gets its first woman prime minister.”
I think Ms. Åkestam overestimates the influence one photo of a naked woman has on society. One could just as well say that the problem is that society treats the human body as something unusual and exceptional, to be hidden from view except in a very limited set of contexts. Surely there are better ways to empower women than decrying ads with naked women in them.

To better understand this point, step back for a moment and imagine a similar feminist argument, but made in different country where women are traditionally expected to cover themselves from head to toe. An ad appears showing a woman revealing her hair, arms, and ankles. A similar outcry erupts from a well-meaning feminist, who is outraged that an advertiser could be so short-sighted and crass as to use such sexist imagery (hair, arms & ankles!) just to grab attention and make a profit.

With this added bit of perspective, it becomes quite clear that the nakedness per se is not the problem.

The problem—what makes this kind of ad appealing to advertisers and offensive to some people—is the implied significance of nakedness in the societal context in which it appears, and in the mind of the observer.

If women and men truly wish to be free of the unfair and arbitrary gender-based assumptions, they also need to accept that many of these assumptions are based on even-more arbitrary societal customs like standards of modesty — standards that are mostly arbitrary, and that vary greatly between cultures.

So when someone claims that ads like this one encourage people to make unreasonable assumptions about women, the natural retort is that shunning such ads also encourages people to make assumptions about women—just other assumptions. Where Ms. Åkestam might claim, “It is harmful to women to encourage the idea that women are valuable only as objects of sexual desire,” another feminist might answer, “It is harmful to women to encourage the idea that women are respectable only if they are fully dressed.”

Which assumptions are good to encourage, which are not, and who gets to decide?

Another of the Seqr ads, this one depicting a man
When informed that the ad campaign included men and women of different ages and body styles, Ms. Åkestam did not change her position, but simply replied that naked men were different from naked women.

In the comments to her article, Ms. Åkestam wrote:
“Jag tycker iofs sällan att nakenhet är befriande när det används i kommersiella sammanhang för att sälja en irrelevant produkt. Inte för att kroppen är fel i sig, utan för att den har blivit så märkligt laddad i vår kultur. Den här kampanjen hade både män och kvinnor av olika åldrar och storlekar med, men jag tycker inte att det gör saken bättre faktiskt.”
“I believe that nakedness is seldom liberating when it is used in a commercial context to sell irrelevant products. Not because the body is in itself wrong, but because it [nakedness] has become so strangely sensationalized in our culture. This campain featured both men and women of different ages and body types, but I actually don’t think that makes it any better.”

Ms. Åkestam acknowledges that it is a problem that nakedness has become sensationalized in Swedish society; yet in the very next sentence, she argues against a campaign that would actually help to normalize nakedness in a non-sexist, non-ageist way.

She does not explain why she focused on just one photo from the campaign (the photo of the young woman), nor why she sees men’s and women’s nakedness so differently. And evidencing what migh be described as a lack of perspective, Åkestam also fails to realize that through her writing she is contributing to the very atmosphere of sensationalism about nakedness that she herself acknowledges is damaging.