A distinguished turtle researcher who was honored last week for his lifelong scientific achievements sparked a controversy when his presentation on river turtles included revealing photos of women (and men) in swimsuits.
Now, I am perfectly open to having my mind changed on this controversy. And before I say anything else, I'll add that this isn't JUST about bikinis -- Richard Vogt apparently has a long history of sexual harassment and crass remarks, which is obviously unacceptable.
In principle, I'm on-board with denying awards and paid talks to known harassers, assaulters, and abusers. But I still think it's important to make sure that we approach this with some kind of transparency, reason, and rigor -- if Aziz Ansari were a scientist, for example, I wouldn't want him blacklisted for a bad date.
But, as bikinis are what sparked the outrage, and as bikinis are the reason men and women alike stormed out of the presentation, let's spend a few moments discussing what that even means.
Vogt's plenary lecture on Thursday contained photos of men and women doing research in water environments. Therefore, they were wearing swimwear. Among the photos at issue was one with a woman in a bikini and a boat full of turtles, which showed that researchers dived for turtles on the expedition. Another photo showed a former researcher, in a bikini top and shorts, crouched down releasing a turtle.
I was unable to track down copies of the photos online. But let's just assume that the men and women in the photos were not compelled to wear what they were wearing -- that they'd chosen their attire of their own free will.
That they were free to wear this:
Or even this, if they so chose:
Let's also assume that they knew their photos were being taken, as nothing about the articles I read on the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (#JMIH18) incident said anything about the photos being surreptitiously taken.
One thing that would influence my opinion on the debacle would be finding out that the women (and men) in the photos had not received photo approval, since I think it's fairly obvious that if you're going to include bikini photos of someone during a presentation (or even on your Facebook!), you should make sure they're okay with that, first.
Another thing that would influence my opinion is, of course, finding out the women had been compelled to dress in a revealing way, or had been photographed without their knowledge, or had been coerced or manipulated into posing for photos while in their swimwear. (As I've previously written, feminine passivity is a real problem that we should address; however, when the person pushing your comfort zone is your boss, that changes things some.)
Finally, I would disapprove of the presentation if the women were portrayed sexually. But, according to the New York Times, Vogt defended his presentation, saying that there was “nothing sexual or indecent about the photos.” He said someone had interfered with his slides without his permission, covering female torsos with blue boxes, which “made matters worse by suggesting to people that there was something wrong with the material.”
If the women in the photos didn't want to be in the photos, I am with them, 100%. That is a personal decision that should be their call.
But say that didn't happen.
Say these female scientists (including, according to the New York Times, Vogt's wife)... are actually proud of the work they did.
Say they love the opportunity to work in the field -- to swim in the ocean for their job!
Or -- gasp! -- say they even love their bodies, and aren't ashamed to have their torsos showing.
Would it have been better for Vogt to force his female students to cover up in burqinis? Or to exclude their images entirely from his presentation? Should he have told them to cover up every time he wanted to take a photo? Would that have made them feel more comfortable and included in the world of herpetology? (See also: Guys, Let's Face It: Either Way, You Just Can't Win.)
Because that would certainly have made me feel alienated, "othered," and objectified. Not to mention degraded, as though my body were something to be ashamed of. It would also have obscured my participation in the project, which is something female scientists struggle with every day.
Say the women were stoked to be in the presentation... and now they just feel slut shamed and awkward. That... seems a little anti-feminism.
Now, obviously, since we're talking about a presentation, there is also the audience to consider. On seeing naughty female flesh, some audience members stormed out and started tweeting. Emily Taylor, a herpetologist who saw the presentation, told the NYT, “We’re scientists. We are there to learn about the animals. We are not there to be subjected to pictures of half-naked women holding the animals.”
It's odd that the very women who argue in favor of a woman's choice and freedom -- and may even support such movements as #FreeTheNipple -- feel "subjected" to pictures of women dressed in the clothes they wear to do their research.
Lori Neuman-Lee, who leads the Herpetologists’ League’s new diversity and inclusion committee, said, “It wasn’t explicit, but it was not professional.”
That sounds like a decent assessment of what happened.
In general, because of the culture we live in, things like bikini photos are considered to be unprofessional and should be shared in the workplace only with caution. It's weird to me that someone -- even someone who is now based in Brazil and spends a lot more time in the field than in a lab or office setting -- wouldn't realize this. Knowing nothing about the man personally, and knowing what female herpetologists have been saying on Twitter, I can definitely imagine him selecting those photos with a little smirk on his face, thinking, "Oh! I can't wait to make everyone jealous and show them what a big man I am!"
But... I can also see why he might have thought it made sense to have bikini photos in the presentation. After all, one of my favorite things about attending academic talks is seeing photos of the actual research happening and hearing firsthand accounts of how the research went down. Hearing the behind-the-scenes story of some of my favorite studies has rocked my intellectual world.
It shouldn't have been shocking to an audience watching a talk about turtle research that the researchers might wear swimsuits. It wasn't like he was talking about birds, and put random bikini photos for no reason.
It's kind of like, if I were taking a Python class and saw this image on a slide:
I might be like, "WTF? That was inappropriate."
BUT. If I were taking a class on the history of computer science or sexism in STEM, seeing that image would make sense. Lena Söderberg's photo is the single most widely used picture in image-processing research, though it came out of a Playboy magazine someone brought into a lab in the 1970s.
In other words, if the images were gratuitous and sexual and served no educational purpose, they would definitely be inappropriate. If the speaker was using them to add context or richness to his presentation -- or even if he were simply progressive enough to see his female students as researchers, and not mere sex objects, even with their skin showing -- it would make the images more acceptable.
Since I wasn't there, I can't say which more accurately describes the Vogt controversy. Only that I find the audience aversion to female bodies to be a little weird, and I sincerely hope that we aren't moving into a post-#MeToo era in which women are expected to cover their bodied when photographed.
If Vogt has committed any actual crimes, I hope he hangs -- or at least receives the punishment he deserves. It's clear that he has a history of acting inappropriately (by reasonable and objective measures), and, it's clear that the field of herpetology is super bro-y. I'm glad that #MeToo is helping weed out the bad guys... but in order for #MeToo to work, we have to make sure that we approach it in a logical, consistent and transparent way.
And maybe NOT demonize the female body.