The assholes don't get it: Sexualized Images of Women Edition

Jul 21 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I had to do diversity training. I need to be writing another grant.

The training was mostly innocuous. Nobody got really uncomfortable. Nobody was told that their views were not acceptable. In white-bread, rural almost-MRU-land this was par for the course. The presenter was  competent. Until.

Of course until. We came to a slide on "cultural competency". It contained a line something like: cultural competency is knowing when to salsa and when to twerk. The image on the screen was a hyper-sexualized salsa dancer, white(ish), very thin, and wearing what could not be remotely construed as appropriate clothing for a medical school. More flesh showing than flash, but what was there was flash.

There were 200+ people in the room, and given that I am never scared of anything but blended scotch, I decided I had to say something. I raised my hand and said "I find that image inappropriate". Note: "I find" - discussing my thoughts. The (female) facilitator replied "in 1000's of presentations no one has ever objected to this image before". I thought: Duh - maybe that says something about the comfort level or  ability or security of women in the room to express themselves. But I didn't say that. I said something about it promulgating societal images of women as sexual objects, except, of course, it did not come out quite so glibly at the time.

Then, a bunch of (younger) women stood up and basically said:  you are way too sensitive. Its just a picture. It doesn't mean anything. A picture of a young, pretty, thin, sexualized woman doesn't mean that we or you can't do our jobs well.

The facilitator interjected at this point "well, its clear that Potnia has had a very visceral reaction to this image". No, you jackass. It was not visceral. I am not an emotional woman, reacting hysterically. I "find" not I "feel".

But the worst was when one of the men, one of the goddamn leaders of diversity at this small-potatoes place stood up, and said the following: I am Cuban and I am Hispanic and this is part of my culture. When my wife and I go out, we dance like this, and she wears clothes like this. Salsa means "sauce" and it means "hot sauce" and it is sexual and that is my culture. And by implication: your uncomfortableness with sexual images was in conflict with my culture. I was the one being intolerant.

I flashed back 30 years to being the only woman and having a smile pasted on my face while men told boob jokes at lunch. Can't you just take a joke. The women's movement has no sense of humor.

Fuck that. Replace the body in that picture with a woman who is 200 lbs. Or 65 years old. Its not sexy anymore, it is funny. The idea of fat women, or old women, being sexy is funny, is humerous, because the important thing here is that sexy is thin and young. If changing the body image in the picture changes the meaning, there is something wrong with the image.

I didn't say more, because I had had my turn, and this was a session about everyone having their turn, But what needed to be said to Mr. Vice-president of Diversity and Inclusiveness was 1) what he and his wife do, what is in their culture, is fine, in the appropriate time and place. But I don't want to know about  your, or anyone else's at work, love or sex life. Really. 2) This is a medical school, and sexual images, of men, women, children no matter what culture are not appropriate.  The inclusion, in any culture, of images of women as sexual entities is a different, societal discussion than the discussion of what should and should not be shown at a diversity/inclusiveness workplace program.

The facilitator was an air-bag. I got a non-apology when I told her that I thought "visceral" was playing into female stereotypes about gender images. "I'm sorry you feel that way". She said over and over to the group "I'm still learning" but it felt false, as if she had learned to say this. Her criteria for success seemed to be "is everyone talking? yes? good".

What broke my heart, yes, emotion, heart, etc, was afterwards, two young women I mentor came to me and said "well that was a waste, I learned nothing but that this place has a bunch of hypocrites who want to check boxes and don't give a damn about diversity in any real form".

12 responses so far

  • B. Kiddo says:

    That is fucked up, Potnia. And yes, heartbreaking to hear that from your mentees.

    I have not read or thought about the following nearly enough, but... I find (see that verb?) that parts of the sex positive feminist crowd (of whom I'm generally one) seem so eager to be uber positive (feminist bitches, not us! we love porn! we love being sexy! ) that they forget that their very image of what sexy and feminine is is entirely culturally defined by a society that has rape culture at it's core, where women are sex objects rather than human beings. Not all porn is bad, but not all porn is positive either. And even for what is positive, it is all about venue and audience. Images of a scantily-clad overly skinny woman dancing at a medical school (because twerking is going to far?)? I'm with you. I find that inappropriate.

  • Marie says:

    I just came across this article, which furthers what B. Kiddo said.

  • PaleoGould says:

    And I'd have loved to see how they'd have reacted to a non hetero-normative sexualised image to illustrate cultural competency....

  • Anonymous says:

    Well, I'm Cuban and I am Hispanic, and I'm also young, not overweight, and white. And when I go dancing with my husband, I look damn sexy! But I would never show up dressed like that at my uni, because hey, turns out that I'm not an idiot, and I don't want that image of me seared into my colleagues' brains. Because there is a time and place for everything -- duh!

    I will even go as far as to note that at social gatherings with my colleagues, when the salsa music comes on (surprisingly it's rather popular where I am), I don't even dance the same way that I do when it's just me and my man out on the town. Because there is a time and place for everything.

  • Zuska says:

    Oh Diversity Training: We have met the enemy, and they are us.

    That's empowerful 21st century sexuality in yer face!

    Back in the day, diversity trainers used to explain to sci/med types how photos of scantily clad women were not appropriate for inclusion in professional talks. Now we are supposed to embrace sexual objectification as cultural diversity?
    I might as well go shave my hairy legs right now, start smiling at everyone, and try to be less shrill.

    • potnia theron says:

      also, would you please look for my lost sense of humor... it seems to have been waylaid in some march for justice or other.

  • Labroides says:

    I have gone through (mandated) diversity training and it was about as perfunctory as one would expect at a university grappling with damage control over rape culture. What I like about this piece is that it brings up issues of sex positivity, cultural differences and workplace rules. Ultimately, while I think that (multiple, non-binary, non-exclsuive) sexualities are important to recognize, you're in a medical school and "First, do no harm" should be the rule for the office as well as the classroom. In this case there was no real need to have the image, and the perpetuation of intersectional racial and sexual stereotypes. The person could have just as easily said "when to line dance or when to break dance" (or hell, when to drink beer or soda) and the point would have been made.

    That one of your colleagues essentially said "you don't understand my culture" is unfortunate, I would have felt uncomfortable in that situation, but what it boils down to is that we have a work place culture and you're right. What I do or don't do with my partner off work hours isn't really germane to the situation. Moreover, buy not actually engaging in this off script moment, the facilitator, and the community as a whole, really lost out on a chance for a meaningful discussion (although a large group with hierarchical power structures might not have been the ideal place for that discussion now that I think about it).

    Anyway, you're my fucking hero for standing up.

  • Pascale says:

    Kudos to you. I would have been asleep in the back row.

  • chall says:

    I'm sad it happened to you and in other places, and hearing about your mentees' thoughts.

    It's always "one person standing up saying I don't identify with the sexual so therefore it isn't". It's like those women I've encountered through my career who tell me that "there is no sexism in science, I(you) just need to use female guise and work with the men with humor", not to mention the "there is no glass ceiling" etc...

    Seeing those kind of photos that you describe are exactly the same thing. I might not care if they were shown in a non-work setting, however when it is work setting it does matter. And really, you might have to work a little harder on yuor presentation and your analogies "to be proper" but you know, that's for the good. It's lazy to stick with old jokes that worked "before".

    then again, I'm the cranky feminist who has gotten a few stink eyes from coworkers for being difficult ^^

  • Susan says:

    Thanks, sincerely, for standing up. Think of the silence as ... silent thought, because I'm sure you initiated some questioning of values.

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