No Sex In Skepticism

Stephanie Zvan's picture

There was no sex in skepticism before the women showed up.

Harry HoudiniForget Houdini's brooding eyes and dark curls. Forget his personal magnetism. Those were strictly incidental. Forget the amount of skin--well-muscled skin--that he showed in his escapes. That was only to demonstrate he wasn't hiding a key anywhere. Strictly utilitarian. Houdini's appeal to his audience was based entirely on the complexity of his tricks and the calm reasoning he showed when dealing with mediums and spiritualists, and it's a mere coincidence that many of the male faces of the skeptical movement since then have had similar stage experience and heaps of charisma.

When there were no female skeptics at skeptics' meetings and conventions, there was no sex at these gatherings. None of the men attending found any occasion to think about, discuss or have sex. Everything was focused entirely on skepticism and critical thinking, with partying saved for the meetings of lesser souls.

Ridiculous assertions? Yes, and I've deliberately presented them with all the seriousness they deserve. But that doesn't keep this idea from being the unexamined underpinning of one of the current arguments being made in skeptical circles. Stated in its most bald form, it is suggested that women are ruining skepticism by bringing "teh sexy."

It's rare to see the argument made that way, but it does happen. Alternately, a woman who carries her sexuality with her into the field, who fails to suppress what she expresses in the rest of her life, may be considered unprofessional in a way damaging to other women. She may be accused of trying to use her sexuality to sell her message. She may even be held responsible for the behavior of males at skeptical events.

While I agree that there are legitimate issues to be discussed here--the amount of professional versus social programming at an event, effective communication tactics (and, importantly, recognition of a diversity of intended audiences and outcomes), and acceptable interpersonal behavior--I have to wonder why it is, once again, the women who bear the burden of these questions. Where are the men at the business end of these pointing fingers?

D. J. Grothe, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, isn't considered too sexual to be taken seriously, despite the occasional very candid discussion about being a gay man. Former president Phil Plait doesn't get called a lightweight, no matter how easy it is to find the nude picture of him and his rather large...instrument. The other men who have posed for the Skepdude calendar don't seem to bear any responsibility for sexualizing skepticism. Nor do men who primp for conferences, or those who attend parties where there are hot tubs or body shots, or those who partake of either. Nor the men who are attending Boobquake.

Just the women.

There are reasons for this, reasons having to do with women's struggle to be taken seriously in a male-dominated environment. In our sexist society, where the smart/sexy and saint/slut dichotomies in perceptions of women are still generally in effect, women who bury their sexuality in public will face fewer repercussions. They're less likely to be dismissed intellectually or thought to be indiscriminately asking for sex. A woman who wants to avoid these repercussions may well be making a wise choice by displaying as few public sexual signals as possible.

But this is still an accommodation to a sexist world, and it is still up to an individual woman whether it's one she wants to make. It may not feel like an accommodation to a woman whose personal preference is to strictly limit her display of public sexual signals, but that's a reflection of that woman's situation, not a universal for all women. There will be women who prefer to struggle directly with the sexism rather than make the accommodation, and it's not my place or anyone else's to make that decision for them. Or to judge it once it's made.

Even if such a decision creates an opportunity for bad behavior in some males who can't tell the difference between public sexual signals and an invitation to sex, even if these males can't tell the difference between the women who wear their sexuality openly and those who don't, it's still not the women who need to change. Those problems exist whether women are openly expressive of their sexuality or not.

Banning expressions of sexuality from public arenas may be necessary in some situations, but it isn't the goal. It can't be, because in a world in which the flash of an ankle or uncovered hair can become a sexual signal--or even be mistakenly read as one--it just won't work. Any difference of female personal expression can and will be used to "excuse" bad behavior. A ban can only be an interim step in dealing with an immature society. The goal must be the destigmatization of sexuality and the recognition that there are a diversity of valid, everyday means of expressing it. Even if you're female.

Yes, that also means that those who wish to express very little of their sexuality are making a valid choice and shouldn't be pressured to change their means of expression. And that is where those other discussions come into play, in making sure that all our diversity is not just accommodated, but valued and put to use in furthering our common cause. Last time I looked, I was pretty sure that was our goal.

I'm just a bit skeptical that we can get there heading down the path we're currently on.



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