This note just appeared in the major Danish newspaper Politiken. As most of our readers don't speak Danish, I decided to translate it. The newspaper changed the original title, which is the title of this blog post, to "Philosopher's photo shoot presents women as stupid sex objects". The original note was drafted by Mikkel Gerken, University of Copenhagen and signed 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.
Philosopher's photo shoot presents women as stupid sex objects
A photo shoot of philosophy professor Vincent Hendricks with a bunch of sexy female 'students' has recently given rise to debate internationally and now also in Denmark.
Unfortunately, the debate in Denmark has been unproductive. In our opinion, it has been unproductive for two reasons. First, the debate has not focused on why the pictures are unfortunate. Second, the national debate has been entirely off-topic.
The pictures are unfortunate for several reasons.
Underrepresentation of women in philosophy is a major problem. The underrepresentation is at least as bad in Denmark as it is internationally, but in Denmark, the problem has been given much less attention. Internationally, the issues have been widely discussed. People have tried to figure out what the cause of the underrepresentation is, and presumably the cause is rather complex. (See all the pictures from Connery.dk here)
Extensive research shows that unfortunate stereotypes about women are among the factors contributing to the problem. There is empirical evidence to suggest that many of our decisions are made via subpersonal processes that involve implicit biases. Because of these biases stereotyping can directly contribute to the continued underrepresentation of women in an academic discipline.
It is for this reason that gender stereotypes are now receiving so much attention in international philosophical communities. Unfortunately, the debate once again lags behind in Denmark, which the Danish reaction to the current controversy is a good indicator of.
We hasten to say that Hendricks, a well-meaning guy, deserves credit for not intending to contribute to any existing stereotypes. He also deserves credit for promptly removing the photos and for having apologized publicly.
However, it is a fact that even though it was not Hendricks’ intention to contribute to existing stereotypes, the pictures do contribute to these stereotypes.
Although Hendricks is neither a male chauvinist nor a sexist, the pictures are unacceptable and Hendricks’ apology is in order.
The problem is that the photos that were taken were not just images of sexy women. They represent students as submissive and unintelligent sex objects in a teaching setting. The pictures obviously borrow their aesthetic effect from pornography. The female students are, furthermore, displayed as completely lacking in academic acumen.
The photo shoot is especially unfortunate when linked to a prominent professor’s professional website and (though less directly) a course website. The photos are particularly problematic because of the underrepresentation of women in philosophy.
The international reaction to the pictures in the academic philosophical environment was consistent and unambiguous. Virtually no one believed that the pictures were acceptable. Numerous commentators, including Danish professional philosophers and students, drew attention to the many problematic aspects of the photos.
The debate in the Danish media came somewhat later. To our surprise and disappointment, we have observed that some commentators believe that the international response is simply due to American puritanism. Here is a male commentator’s comment on Universitetsavisen’s coverage of the case:
"Why the fuck should I care what ridiculous American Bible-belt blockheads think?"
Despite the fierce rhetoric the comment on Universitetsavisen’s coverage is quite representative of many other people's reactions nationally. But these commentators are wrong that the criticism of the photos was restricted to the bible belt or to the U.S. The critics came from both the U.S. and Europe, including Scandinavia and Denmark.
In any case, the reasons for the criticism are far more interesting than its geographic and demographic origins. In philosophy, it's the arguments that count. The reasons for the criticism are not puritanism, bible study or sex phobia.
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.
This assumption should be taken seriously regardless of whether you are male or female, American or Danish.
If the pictures led to a debate which generated a better understanding of implicit biases, stereotypes and other factors that contribute to the underrepresentation of women in philosophy, something good might come out of all this.
But if we are not careful, the debate could also end up contributing to the bizarre idea that if you point out that certain photos or similar things are problematic, then you suffer from sex phobia. If this sort of reaction continues, then the debate will worsen the consequences of what has happened.
The losers will be female philosophy students and professional female philosophers. This is too high a price to pay.