"Just a Shirt": Sexual Imagery in the Workplace

They really ought to know better.

Who, you ask? The people trying to say that Matt Taylor’s shirt, the one covered in fetishwear Bond girls, the one he wore on camera to talk about landing a probe on a comet, was nothing worth noticing. The people trying to tell you that feminists are overreacting when they object to the shirt. The ones telling you feminists are picking on some helpless guy who dared to be a little different.

Really, they ought to know better. Why? Because this is how it goes when we find sexual imagery* in the workplace.

When we find it in the firehouse:

“But I was willing to overlook all that,” Kelley said. “The dirty jokes, the porn, the frat boy stupidity. I didn’t care if I had my own bathroom. I just wanted to be part of the team.

“I wanted to be a firefighter so bad, I was willing to put up with almost anything.”

We find it as part of a greater pattern of harassment and assault:

The first rule was broken when she was a rookie, on the night she was roused from sleep at the station when a firefighter climbed into her bed.

“He tried to kiss me,” Kelley recalled. “I was so shocked, it took me a second to figure out what was happening. I didn’t want to [anger him], so I kept saying ‘Not right now, not right now.’ ”

He slid his hands under her clothes, promising “no one would know.” When she resisted, he left and returned to his bed.

The next morning, he made no mention of the incident, Kelley said. But he taunted her for weeks, clucking like a chicken when she was around.

When we find it in the courtroom:

McEwen said that Thomas had been “obsessed with porn” and “would talk about what he had seen in magazines and films, if there was something worth noting.”

We find repeated, unwanted sexual advances:

“Anita said that Clarence Thomas had repeatedly asked her out … that he wouldn’t seem to take ‘no’ for an answer,” Hoerchner told senators. “The thing Anita told me that struck me particularly and that I remember almost verbatim was that Mr. Thomas had said to her, ‘You know, if you had witnesses, you’d have a perfect case against me.’”

When we find it in the lab:

According to the suit, the heads of the lab—C. Keith Haddock and Walker S. Carlos Poston II—sought sexual favors, circulated torture videos and pornography and physically intimidated female lab students and employees.

We find sexual demands and assault:

Meanwhile, Haddock and Poston continually made comments about the body parts of female students and employees, including once asking the females in the lab to remove their sweaters so that Haddock cold better see their figures.

The complaint contained other details about the chairs’ conduct—including making reference to oral sex as women ate bananas, putting women into “playful” chokeholds and, one time, telling a female student that if she lost a bet, Haddock would put a leash on her and make her call him “daddy.”

When we find it in the field:

Pornographic photos appeared daily in my private workspace.

We find widespread harassment and distractions from work.

My professor often joked that only pretty women were allowed to work for him, which led me to wonder if my intellect and skills had ever mattered. He asked very personal questions about my romantic life, often in the presence of the male students. His inappropriate behavior was a model for them, making it not only acceptable, but the norm. My body and my sexuality were openly discussed by my professor and the male students. Comments ensued about the large size of my breasts and there was speculation about my sexual history. There were jokes about selling me as a prostitute on the local market. Once I mentioned that I admired a senior female scientist and they began describing scenarios in which she and I would have sex.

When we find complaints about sexual imagery with no relationship to the job* in the workplace, we don’t generally find just some sexual images. We generally find a workplace in which people are treated like sexual objects instead of coworkers, subject to unwanted sexual advances, and even assaulted. We generally find that workplaces in which sexual imagery is tolerated, so is textbook harassing behavior, typically behavior that targets women (as well as gender nonconforming people and sexual minorities).

This is not new information. The presence of sexual imagery in the workplace is one piece of evidence used to demonstrate a hostile working environment in sexual harassment claims. People really ought to know this. They ought to know that when someone reacts to sexual imagery in the workplace, they are reacting to a behavior that frequently has ugly and unacceptable correlates.

No, that doesn’t mean that Matt Taylor’s shirt specifically tells us he engages in harassing behavior. It doesn’t mean that it tells us bad things are going down at ESA.

It does, however, mean that objecting to sexual imagery in a workplace is reasonable, because it generally makes a good marker for harassment. It means that people reacting to that shirt weren’t just reacting to that shirt. They were, rightly and reasonably, reacting to a broad pattern that exists across decades of history of workplaces hostile to women.

It also means that the people saying these women are overreacting really ought to know better. It isn’t hard to find this information. Anyone who’s had workplace harassment training knows that sexual imagery is not part of a professional working environment. Anyone who has the least curiosity why can find out without difficulty. Anyone who’s studied the topic already knows.

That means the very best that can be said for people complaining that others are taking the “just a shirt” too seriously is that they’re objecting from a place of ignorance, that they haven’t bothered to become educated on their topic. Even then, however, to draw the conclusion that protests over the shirt are reacting to an isolated event requires assuming that feminists are hyper-reactive and not bothering to follow up to check that assumption.

That’s the best case. The other possibilities involve knowing the place of sexual imagery in workplace harassment and choosing to ignore it for some reason, whether to “score points” against feminists or to protect the ability to harass in the workplace. While some of that is certainly happening out there, I’m not going to speculate on who is complaining about feminists for what reason. I don’t need to.

It’s simple enough to note that even the ignorance and assumptions are not just wrong but grating, particularly snice they really should have known better.

*You weren’t going to try to tell me that corsetry and PVC are the working uniform of assassins, right? Good.
**You weren’t going to bring up sex work as though it invalidated a discussion of sexual imagery in the workplace to note that sexual imagery is appropriate in some very small minority of workplaces, right? Good.

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"Just a Shirt": Sexual Imagery in the Workplace
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10 thoughts on “"Just a Shirt": Sexual Imagery in the Workplace

  1. 1

    It happens on the flight deck… o.O

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/sexual-images-in-air-canada-flight-decks-worse-than-airline-admits-pilot-1.2815730

    A commercial airline pilot who wants Canadians to know the truth about pornography found in Air Canada flight decks says she’s speaking out to defend another pilot whose complaints were reported in a previous CBC News story, saying she has seen images that included “genitals and full nudity.”

    The pilot said she is challenging claims the airline made in a previous CBC News story that the images were mostly “inappropriate business cards” from Las Vegas, found with limited frequency mainly on one aircraft type, the Embraer E-90.

    “You could encounter it once or twice every month,” said the pilot, whose identity CBC News is not revealing, given her concerns about reprisals from colleagues and Air Canada.

    Describing some of what she’s found as “definitely pornographic” she said it could range from suggestive pin-ups to, “clearly explicit images.”

  2. 2

    I think people who try to use the “its just a shirt” argument should consider whether a poster displaying cartoonish hyper-sexualised images of scantily-clad women in unnatural poses to best show off their leather-bound butts and boobs would be acceptable on the wall of an office or other work environment. Even apart from how it affects employees, imagine if the public reception area of a business – any business whose operations have nothing to do with said cartoons – was decorated with that type of imagery… and try to make an argument that it would do nothing to detract from the company’s image or professionalism, or that it would not in any way suggest that sexism existed in that workplace. Or, imagine if a leading spokesperson for that business went out to make public statements whilst holding up such a poster, or standing beside one. Imagine, say, Mark Zuckerberg giving a press conference on recent developments at his company, standing beside a picture full of fetishised women (or men). Or the head of a bank, pharmaceutical firm, food manufacturer etc. talking about new products or services. I think most rational people would realise that it wouldn’t really do much for a company’s position or to promote equality in any of those businesses: “let’s talk about our recent successes whilst I stand next to this entirely irrelevant picture of exaggerated sexual imagery”. So why should it be OK in science for someone to display that imagery on their clothing at work, and whilst acting as a spokesperson?

  3. 3

    Thank you! This is what I wanted to say, but you said it better than I would have.

    We generally find that workplaces in which sexual imagery is tolerated, so is textbook harassing behavior, typically behavior that targets women (as well as gender nonconforming people and sexual minorities).

    This is not new information. The presence of sexual imagery in the workplace is one piece of evidence used to demonstrate a hostile working environment in sexual harassment claims. People really ought to know this. They ought to know that when someone reacts to sexual imagery in the workplace, they are reacting to a behavior that frequently has ugly and unacceptable correlates.

    No, that doesn’t mean that Matt Taylor’s shirt specifically tells us he engages in harassing behavior. It doesn’t mean that it tells us bad things are going down at ESA.

    It does, however, mean that objecting to sexual imagery in a workplace is reasonable, because it generally makes a good marker for harassment. It means that people reacting to that shirt weren’t just reacting to that shirt. They were, rightly and reasonably, reacting to a broad pattern that exists across decades of history of workplaces hostile to women.

  4. 4

    I was thinking just this earlier today, I’m glad you posted about it because sexualisation as a “marker” for sexual harassment/assault matches some of the cases of workplace sexual harassment that I know about – the sexual predator deliberately sexualised the atmosphere, through pornography, sex jokes etc. – because it laid the ground for more, and gave a handy excuse when needed (“Come on it’s just sexual banter, don’t be a prude”).

    So that’s two arguments then, against wearing such a shirt in the workplace: (1) micro-aggressions/micro-inequities and alienating atmosphere, and (2) marker for sexual harassment and assault. (And I’ve seen women who were affected by (1) also. The consequences [that I noticed] would be things like not wanting to work on “his” team, avoiding company parties and so on.)

  5. 6

    @ Sunil D’Monte
    Obviously, the negative effect of a “locker room atmosphere” on women entering a field is the most important issue. For a third argument though, we should emphasize that it’s distracting and insulting for men to be bombarded with sexual imagery when it’s not desired. Particularly on the internet, sexual imagery is constantly used as a cheap and effective trick for manipulating viewers’ attention. I actually don’t think it’s surprising that someone steeped in modern “geek culture” would completely fail to process the offense.

  6. 7

    This is just an aside, but the #scishirt twitter hashtag is a very positive result of the ESA debacle, in case anyone with a twitter account is interested. Various working scientists wearing t-shirts that are work-appropriate, and that promote science.

  7. 10

    @terranova:

    Well, we don’t know whether the buyers will wear them to work. But it’s a bit saddening to see that someone can make money this way off of this episode. I guess many people will want to underscore their “support” for Matt Taylor and stand tall for free speach sexist shirt-wearing!

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