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Posters of Liberalization, Not Pimping

Guest Column
Ling Bao

Julia Steinberger’s guest column entitled “No Pimping on Posters” [March 1] is a gross oversimplification of the issues that she claims are so complex. Moreover, her column seems rather like a long-winded rant than any type of focused rational argument. The article is all too quick to link posters of scantily clad women with their exploitation and this haste in reasoning typifies the ignorance and impetuousness of certain factions of the feminist movement.

First off, please do not dismiss me as a chauvinist simply because I don’t agree with her. I am open to feminist arguments and one of my favorite classes at MIT was Introduction to Women’s Studies with Professor Haslanger. However, any sociological argument must be sensitive to a myriad of human subtleties and unfortunately, her response to a few party posters lacks such sensitivity.

Her writing is quite unclear to me but I believe that her first argument is that women and men occupy unequal positions in society and thus male nudity is rather benign while female nudity results in objectification, exploitation, and violence. Right off the bat, I don’t remember explicit nudity in any of the party posters I have seen recently, and even Ms. Steinberger admits that by nude she only means scantily clad. Even if there were nudity, the result is not inevitably damaging.

Just as male nude sculptures and paintings of the Renaissance era did not lead to excessive exploitation of male bodies, nude depictions of female bodies can be similarly devoid of negativity. The exploitation of women arises from a plethora of factors including their economic subordination, physical diminutiveness, and the abundance of laws that repress natural sexual expression. To make a strong association between exploitation and any single factor such as nudity in party posters is a gross miscalculation in causality.

Indeed, one need only look at the trend in graphic sexual liberalism to discern possible benefits. In the United States, colonial Puritanism has eroded steadily since the seventeenth century and with its waning, opportunities available to women have increased. Although the pattern is not simple, sexual liberalism has in general accompanied increased equality among the sexes. Accepted women’s clothing moved from long dresses to short dresses to pants to shorts to miniskirts to bikinis, and thus graphic depiction of women has moved from very conservative in the days of yore to contemporary risquÉ fashions. In parallel with these changes came greater gender equality: women were accorded property ownership, followed by labor membership, then by suffrage, and at last by opportunities for major political and business leadership.

I would be as brash as Ms. Steinberger to suggest that the parallelism above proves causality between graphic depiction of women and gender equality. However, I do believe that it is evidence that “nude” posters may be more of a reflection of liberalizing currents than increased objectification of women. Regardless of what is reflected, it would be disastrous to assert that women had greater opportunity and suffered less domestic abuse in the 1600s when paintings of them were less graphic. And it would be even more ruinous to claim that prostitution has risen with graphicness since forms of prostitution are well documented in even the earliest of modern societies.

Hopefully that drives the point home: graphic female nudity does not unavoidably result in sexual abuse of women. To think that respect for women and appreciation of the attractiveness of their bodies are mutually alienating concepts is absurd. Does anyone think that if a woman respects a man, she cannot appreciate the appeal of his physical features?

Her second argument on the “blurry overlap” between models in posters and prostitutes and strippers is also misconceived. The presence of such an ambiguous overlap indicates that more education is required to distinguish healthy and unhealthy representations of women. Yes, sex slaves are probably a mar on society, but does that mean supermodels are as well? Instead of promoting further thought and analysis of the issue, Ms. Steinberger proposes totally discarding any depiction of an attractive woman’s body, regardless of how it affects society.

Additionally, her complete dismissal of stripping and prostitution as morally depraved industries is rushed. Although many women are abused in the sex industry, many also reap great benefits from them. In fact, if Ms. Steinberger has ever stopped to speak with women at legal strip clubs, she would find that their clients are mostly respectful and that they rarely suffer any type of sexual abuse. It is true that illegal strippers and prostitutes are subject to frequent abuse, but this points more to the need to legalize and supervise the sex industry than anything else. Shouldn’t we avoid a repetition of the mistakes of alcohol prohibition and learn from our past? Repression is almost never the right answer.

So what should we do? As a patron of some of the very parties that these “pimping posters” advertise for, I believe that very little radical change is necessary. Parties are a way for students to have fun and do not reinforce the need for women to be desirable to men any more than vice versa. From my own observations, women and men are to a large degree equally respected at these events and both are equal buyers and sellers in a free market. In other words, these parties are not unilateral meat markets as she insinuates, but rather, at worst, fair and bilateral flesh exchanges. And if Ms. Steinberger has a problem with sex in general, then this debate is moot already.

More broadly speaking, though, I do recognize that there are still many disparities between opportunities open to women versus those available to men. However, I believe the best solution to this problem does not come in the form of repression or prohibition of certain forms of expression. Instead, as is usually the case, the quickest course to steady, fair, and long-term gender equality is gradual change through open discussion and education. Schools should promote classes on gender issues so that future generations are more aware and sensible about the equality of sexes. And all of us should learn to think critically, not emotionally, about the important gender problems that face us so as to avoid making sweeping generalizations or taking rushed action. In other words, let us not sacrifice speed for haste.

Ling Bao is a member of the Class of 2002.