On the Sexualization of Science: A Response to Jerry Coyne

On the Sexualization of Science: A Response to Jerry Coyne September 24, 2015

[Today’s guest post is by Melissa Chen, a geneticist at MIT and the editor of the Global Secular Humanist Movement]

Accusations of “mansplaining” erupted the other day after the illustrious evolutionary biologist and best-selling author Dr. Jerry Coyne posted some views on his website that drew the ire of some feminists, though notably, many female scientists agreed with him. The topic was using sex to sell science, something that is becoming more relevant in a day and age when female science communicators are becoming more numerous. Coyne, as a white male, represents in the eyes of many the epitome of privilege in what is seen as the highly patriarchal field of academic science, so the backlash was not at all surprising. As a female scientist, I understand where the professor is coming from, but I also recognize the limitations of his views.

rockstarsA couple of years ago, one couldn’t miss an ad campaign called Rock Stars of Science™ that was being splashed upon glossy magazine pages and prominent public spaces. I first caught sight of it on a poster at a JFK airport transit terminal and my first instinct was to crinkle my nose in bewilderment. Could someone explain to me how thrusting Dr. Francis Collins (who was donning a stylish pair of shades) into a picture, jamming alongside Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, is supposed to “sell science to a largely science-illiterate American public?” Isn’t the message supposed to be that science itself is cool? The very fact that we needed rock stars to pose alongside the scientists detracted from that objective, I thought. Instead, it gave the impression that rock-and-roll was cool, and the only way science could be hip, was purely by association. Furthermore, it underscored the chasm between the social statuses of scientists and celebrities.

Dr. Coyne is a science purist who declared that he doesn’t like to “see science sold provocatively.” He also added that it doesn’t have to be sold this way, and brought up examples of several female scientists who promote science without “showing any skin.” He’s arguing that science doesn’t need to use sex as an advertising tool.

Or does it?

In science environments, dressing provocatively or looking “too sexy” has always been inversely correlated with perceptions of professionalism or competence. When I first started doing research at a lab in my undergraduate career, nobody sent me the memo that in academia, if you looked like you spent more than 5 minutes getting ready in the morning, then your devotion and work ethic became a matter of serious contention. As a result, I wound up inadvertently building up a reputation as a fashionista. Months went by and when I started on a serious project that led to conference invitations and publication, I heard whispers going around in the lab from the older graduate students, who were belittling my work by crafting ad hominems about me and my sartorial choices. From that day onwards, I adapted to the code of the typical academic scientist – look as frumpy as possible without showing much skin, and never wear shoes with heels. I started to wear exercise clothes to the lab every day, with minimal or no make-up.  From that time on, never again did I have to deal with rumors about my physical appearance, and never again was I talked about in any way other than my work.


I doubt that this type of anecdote is limited to the realm of academia.  Even in the business world, projecting a “professional” image is important. As a woman, you never want to be talked about for the “wrong reasons.” Of course, we can debate why the correlation between attractiveness and perceived incompetence persists, or even better, the merits of exploiting what Dr. Catherine Hakim calls “erotic capital,” a combination of physical and social attractiveness that anyone (but mostly women) can use to get ahead professionally. But these questions warrant a deeper sociological analysis worthy of a PhD thesis, so this really isn’t the place to unpack all that.

Distraction, or No?

The question here is this: are the tactics used by SciBabe and Science Babe effective? Jerry Coyne concedes that it does attract a certain demographic, but suggests that it may alienate others. Sure, we have all heard that tired cliché that sex sells, but researchers have increasingly been finding that it sells only under certain conditions. Overtly sexual advertising can make women downright angry, but they tend to view sexualized ads for luxury products more positively than the same ad. Indeed, Dr. Coyne’s website draws a very serious and technical audience and many female scientist readers commented on how turned off they were by SciBabe’s barefaced attempts at using titillating images on her website. So how does this all square for “selling science?” Does it “cheapen” science?

My take is this. Practicing female scientists might be held to a more stringent standard, but female science communicators/popularizers are on a very different playing field. They have to walk the fine line between self-promotion and the promotion of their scientific message. Perhaps using sexualized images or ads helps to attract those with limited attention spans in our fast-paced, click-bait world of social media. Hypothetically, this can in turn convert them into long-term readers, after they find that there is more substantive content.

Erotic capital is a depreciating asset, and for every young new model being followed in droves on Instagram, there’s another one whose fifteen minutes of viral fame are expiring. The proportion of female scientists who are likely to be repelled by SciBabe’s risqué persona arguably are not her target audience anyway. Ultimately, it’s about navigating that fine line between quality and quantity of readers. Sure, using sexy images might turn away some “quality” readers who are more intellectual, but it may convert the masses and engage them to become consumers of scientific articles, which is precisely the telos of a public science communicator.

It might seem particularly damning that our current crop of male science communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and Brian Cox don’t employ sexualized tactics to sell science, but that’s not to say that they themselves are not sexualized by an adoring audience. Males might be sexualized in different ways than females are, relying less on visual appeal and more on social status, authority/power or even emotional appeal. Females are naturally attracted to “brainy” men but the reverse isn’t nearly as prevalent. However, the fact that exists with a “hotness” rating and occasionally, sexy male models moonlighting as university lecturers and researchers (or doctors) “go viral” on social media, shows that it is very much part of the human condition to sexualize the other, regardless of gender.

Double Standard?

The question remains though, what (if any), are the differences between Shirtgate and SciBabe? The Rosetta mission scientist, Dr. Matt Taylor, was excoriated for wearing a shirt splattered with images of semi-nude women during an interview, a shirt that was in fact, a gift from a female artist friend. Feminists were quick with the backlash, ultimately forcing a tearful apology from the scientist. If the same feminists support SciBabe’s use of sexualized images of herself, wouldn’t that constitute a double standard?  Why is it okay for one to use sexualized images of women in a “science setting” but not the other? For me, there are only two intellectually honest positions to take: either both uses are not okay, or both uses are. I’m for the latter.

I’m also skeptical of the extent of “alienation” in the target audience that Dr. Jerry Coyne is worried about. Selling science to a disinterested public surely involves an effort to humanize the image of scientists, who are widely perceived to be cold, automatons in the mold of Dr. Sheldon Cooper from the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Verizon put out a tear-jerker of an ad campaign entitled “Inspire her mind,” which features a little girl growing up, getting bombarded by all the subtle social cues that drive her away from science. She’s supposed to be “pretty” and “not messy,” and eventually a fledgling interest in science and engineering fails to develop, let alone translate into a scientific career. Might the somewhat sexy images of SciBabe and Science Babe tackle this insidious phenomenon by showing a different side, namely that science and femininity are not mutually exclusive, that they come in different molds?

Jerry Coyne’s concerns are that “humanizing” and “sexualizing,” like “feminity” and “sex appeal” are not the same thing. In my view, these are legitimate concerns but sexuality is part of our humanity and feminity does encompass sex appeal though there is a threshold where a woman’s humanity and feminity does get drowned out. And for each and every person, that threshold is going to vary, so I’d much rather let the marketplace of ideas and preferences sort it all out.

At the end of the day, practicing female scientists who are in the public eye like Dr. Lisa Randall and Dr. Carolyn Porco have to conform to the rules of the game in the professional science world. For science communicators, perhaps a new set of rules apply. I applaud Dr. Jerry Coyne for stirring up a healthy debate about the phenomena of sexualizing science, especially in a way that doesn’t shame them, and likewise I hope no one accuses him of “mansplaining,” a word that is too often used as a silencing tactic to shut down any chance of a real dialogue.

I’d like to gently suggest to SciBabe that her tagline might be improved. Perhaps it should be the other way around: come for the dirty jokes and sexy persona, stay for the science.

[Image Source: SciBabe]


mel1Melissa is geneticist at MIT, and currently works on paleogenomics, which involves unlocking the genetic secrets of ancient organisms. She sees this work as in line with her activism in the atheist/secular community, as the editor of the Global Secular Humanist Movement.



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