January 6, 2012

Science Writer Carl Zimmer Publishes on Playboy, Internet Freaks Out

Should respectable authors publish in Playboy?

Carl Zimmer, a celebrated science writer, has published a piece about Neil deGrasse Tyson in the January issue of Playboy magazine (also featuring Lindsay Lohan!). Almost immediately after the article started making the rounds on the internet, the question of whether “respectable authors” should publish in Playboy arose.

The discussion largely unfolded on the Google+ profile of Miriam Goldstein, a writer for the ocean science blog Deep Sea News, where a commenter asked, “What is with women who applaud Playboy — the magazine that strives to reinforce a social hierarchy where men have all the privilege and women are told in no uncertain terms what they’re good for?” The conversation shuffled between how pornography socially affects women and how this compares to other “more acceptable” publications such as Esquire and women’s fashion magazines.

I will preface this discussion by saying that there are different kinds of pornography and that talking about the way pornography impacts women is akin to making a statement as broad and useless as discussing how literature or film impacts women. The type of pornography that Playboy offers is different from the sort, say, porn producer and sex educator Madison Young offers, which focuses on women’s pleasure as well as couples remaining intimate during pregnancy. Granted, Young’s work is much more recent than Playboy, which has changed little since Hugh Hefner created it in 1953.

The role that Playboy played in the “pornification” of culture cannot be brushed off completely, however, as it — along with other publications of the time, including art and nudist magazines — played a key role in creating a legal structure that upheld our right to express ourselves in regard to our sexuality, opening the doors to hundreds of literary works which had been banned in the United States since Anthony Comstock’s crusade against immorality and sexual expression after the Civil War.

Allow me to paint a picture for you: Comstock used spies, informers, decoys and was not against tampering with the mail in order to capture the immoral, practices which blatantly flew in the face of constitutional freedoms in this country. We’re not talking about the sort of porn we see online these days, we’re talking about all of that, as well as educational materials about contraception, and all the way to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Goodbye freedom, hello Society for the Suppression of Vice. Fines leveled against publishers and writers and anyone holding these materials were as high as $5,000 and jail time as lengthy as ten years.

Think about this: in 1877, a man committed to debunking the Bible, taxing church property, and educating the public about birth control by the name of D.M. Bennett ran an underground publication called The Truth Seeker. He was charged with mailing two indecent articles, one of them “How Do Marsupials Propagate Their Kind?” It was no euphemism. It really was about marsupials. Indeed, the suppression of sexual discourse has always come hand in hand with the suppression of literature, as well as that of scientific inquiry. This is something we cannot afford to forget.

The assault against freedom of expression in the guise of protecting the public against immorality continued long after Comstock’s death, being taken up by all manner of church organizations and politicians in need of an easy battle to get behind. It was into this environment that Hefner was born in Chicago. And it mustn’t be forgotten when mentioning Esquire magazine that the publication was not always what we know it to be today. Esquire was bullied by church leaders and severely weakened by the cost of having to defend itself in court for charges of obscenity between 1942 and 1946. This shift in content is evident if one looks at the issues closer to its inception in 1933. Esquire caved.

George Von Rosen, himself in the magazine business, published nude photography in his magazine Art Photography, a nudist lifestyle rag called Sunbathing & Hygiene, as well as Modern Man, a magazine that offered suggestive images of women along with excellent articles as a means to get around the laws that required publications to have “redeeming social value.” Hefner joined Von Rosen’s newsroom shortly after the launch of the latter and would eventually take the same combination of imagery and content when launching Playboy a few years later. Unlike Von Rosen’s magazine, which was written for the outdoorsman, Playboy would cater to the urban, more intellectual man.

Playboy’s contribution was two-fold: it created a Trojan horse out of sex that educated men, and it also took a healthy approach to sex, which similar magazines of the time portrayed as aberrant, immoral behavior. Women’s magazines at this time, you must remember, did not acknowledge female desire and addressed sexuality as a problem to be dealt with. Meanwhile, Hefner published the Kinsey report on American women without censoring what readers may consider offensive and without editorializing Kinsey as a menace to society, as several other news sources did at the time.

What is easy to miss about this very long and multi-faceted discussion of the cultural significance of pornographic magazines is how they informed a generation about sex. Up until that point as I mentioned previously, women’s sexuality was hardly considered, but in the years of the great “pornification,” women were finally able to break out of the role of wife and mother and recognize themselves as sexual creatures. It’s true that Hefner was — and remains — caught between his traditional upbringing and the cultural shift he helped catalyze, but to ignore the bigger picture in favor of his inconsistency is a great disservice to the facts.

The sexual revolution did a great many things for women. Today, there is more female-geared pornography than ever. Playboy’s studios, along with others catering to mainstream pornographic interests in film have taken the hint and, though clumsily, have attempted to cater to this audience, finally moving toward more couple-geared offerings. Female sexuality is recognized and the importance of this cannot be underestimated. It is ridiculous to consider how little progress we have made in this particular arena when we stop to think that it’s been over a century since Sigmund Freud asked, “what does a woman want?” To deny that the “pornification” of this country enabled what little progress we have made in this regard is absurd.

That said, the question of whether it is advisable to write for a publication that is geared toward men and which casts women as beautiful things to look at is not a bad one. The science, technology and skeptic space is plagued by questions relating to equality between men and women. This year alone we have read countless of pieces about how unsafe it feels to be a woman at conferences, in comment threads, and the web in general. But it is my opinion as someone who champions our freedom of speech and inquiry, that pornography and our expressions of sexuality have little to do with the respect that we offer one another as colleagues, peers and human beings. Just as a woman should not be subject to harassment for wearing a little black dress, neither should she be subject to harassment for appearing as a centerfold. The only way we can drive that point home is not to shun our work from publications that cater to demographics we consider problematic, but by reaching out to them with this message.

In the case of Carl Zimmer, who has written something completely different, I ask myself: shouldn’t we be glad that he can? Should an entire demographic be ignored because we disagree with the contents of the magazine that caters to it? If we mean to educate the public about science, then we must stop worrying that doing so for mainstream magazines, weeklies and sites outside the ones dearly loved by the science writing community, is going to hurt our careers. We need to penetrate those markets. To break out of the echo chamber, we must stop talking to peers and start targeting the everyman and everywoman through every avenue we can access. Playboy is one of these.

This piece originally appeared as a comment on Google+ on a thread about this conversation. It was later syndicated as a post, and finally reproduced here. Image use courtesy of James Vaughan.

AV Flox

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Sex and the 405 is what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.

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