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No Pimping On Posters

Guest Column
Julia Steinberger

I’ll admit it: I have a big problem with posters advertising parties with pictures of scantily clad women (hereafter abbreviated to “naked women”). I don’t have an esthetic problem with the pictures, but a moral one. I am convinced that using these pictures, at MIT in particular, is wrong; and I hope that if you read this column with an open mind, and look up the references, you will also become convinced of this or at least have a better understanding of the complexity of the argument.

I have had many conversations on this topic, and there are a few typical responses. “A woman made the poster.” Just because some members of the oppressed group support the oppressors doesn’t mean the oppression isn’t real. “But we put pictures of naked men on, too!” Studies have shown that the arousal levels produced by men looking at women’s pictures and women looking at men’s pictures are vastly different. Moreover, men and women are far from equal in this society. The leading cause of death of pregnant women or women at work is murder. Workplace and domestic violence kill thousands of American women every year. “The poster does not promote violence against women.” Sorry, bub, but objectification, exploitation, and violence have strong links. Can’t really have one without dragging in the others. Ask your local sex worker. “You are uptight, anyway it’s healthy to be proud of women’s bodies.” I come from a family of people who walk around the house naked all the time (including the pets), and I’ll admit the posters celebrate women being proud of their bodies when I see a sixty-ish butch overweight happy lesbian on them.

At MIT, we are primarily in a work environment. There are social aspects to our interaction, thank goodness, but work is the main focus. Personally, I want my colleagues, fellow students, and teachers to think of me as a respected co-worker, first and foremost. As a woman in physics, this has never been a given. In choosing advisors I have to worry about things my male colleagues have never had to: will this person take me and my work seriously? Having images of naked women promoting MIT’s social life undermines these efforts.

I remember walking down the Infinite Corridor last year and hearing a group of guys ask a female colleague, “Hey, why don’t you ever dress like that?” And maybe that was a joke, and maybe she was supposed to laugh, which she did. But let me tell you what it feels like to have your colleagues remind you that to them, you could just be another piece of tits and ass: it sucks. It makes you feel like long years of work could suddenly count for nothing.

If parties are advertised with pictures of naked women, that means that there is some kind of wishful thinking going on, along the lines of: “sure, you can do integrals faster and better in the classroom or office, but if you come to this party, you will be what really matters: desirable to men.” Well, that’s not what really matters. Not to me, or the vast majority of women at MIT that I know or with whom I have worked. If you want to get us to your party (or simply walk down the hallways of MIT without puking), you’d better respect that, and work to make MIT a more respectful, supportive environment.

Secondly, the women whose pictures are used in these posters may be models, actresses, strippers, porn stars, or some combination of these; who knows? There are blurry overlaps between the categories of sex slaves, prostitutes, strippers, porn and mainstream actresses, Playboy and lingerie models. For many of these women, these are all the same industry at different times in their “careers.”

One element that the vast majority of the women in the sex industry share is childhood sexual abuse. “Believing that sexual exploitation is inevitable and deciding to get paid for it is a direct result of being sexually abused as a girl and is intimately connected with being female in a sexist society.” (“Stripping as a system of prostitution,” Off Our Backs, Jan-Feb 2002). Moreover, the sex industry relies heavily on violence, rape, and abuse to keep the women “on the job” (see the online readings for the recent “American Porn” PBS Frontline).

So here is my question: if there is a chance, even a small one, that the naked woman in that picture was used and abused from a young age, and taught that her only worth was in looking good to men, do you want to condone her abuse by using that picture? “When I pull up pornographic web sites, I find the first twenty-odd years of my life on display.” (Testimony from an ex-sex worker, Off Our Backs). Let’s compare the situation of these women to that of most MIT students: MIT women are usually the pride of their families, cherished and encouraged to think for themselves, and to make the most of all their capacities. In advertising for a party, do you want to promote the situation of MIT women, or that of sex workers? Images are not free: they are real people, real pain, real opportunity denied. Whose side are you on?

Before I finish, a few words about the booming sex industry, that most American college males will participate in in one form or another: bachelor parties, movies, etc. Stripping is a booming industry; titty chains like Hooters are growing fast. Same for porn movies, now universally available on cable, and making billions of dollars every year for mega-corporations like AT&T (want to guess what the actresses get paid?). Hollywood presents stripping as a more viable alternative to young women than science (how many movies were there recently about women scientists? Okay, that one with Jody Foster. Any others?).

In many ways, this mainstreaming of “prostitution lite” is a backlash of insecure men in a world where women are making workplace progress. If businessmen go to “gentlemen’s clubs” to conduct business deals, they are shutting out their female colleagues, while degrading and using women. Two birds with one stone! MIT students, male and female, should be smart enough to realize that stripping is prostitution by another name (not a career option of today’s savvy Ivy League graduate), and should have enough moral fiber not to contribute to the exploitation, or condone others who do.

To conclude, here are some suggested guidelines for poster images: no image from the sex or scantily clad industry, that is until there is a “no violence, no rape, no pimping” cruelty-free label for them, no pictures of women who could have been abused through childhood to choose other people’s image of themselves over themselves. Use pictures of happy, real, college women who look like they can do math as well as have fun at parties, pictures that do not deny the MIT part of us. Good luck!

Julia Steinberger is a graduate student in the Department of Physics.