What is a sexual image?

I frequently encounter complaints that public spaces are being sexualised, filled with “sexual images”, and so on, as if this is a serious problem. My first thought is to wonder why the spaces where mammals like us interact publicly would not contain much sexual imagery, given our interest in sex, being sexually attractive to others, etc., but let that pass. A further thought is to wonder what even counts as a “sexual image”. How erotic or suggestive does an image have to be before we regard it as a “sexual” one?

In Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, I argue that (subject to countervailing values) it is legitimate for the state to regulate the public display of images that cause large proportions of the population high-impact offense. That might apply to hardcore pornographic images, but it applies equally to, say, graphic images of feces, medical procedures, and exit wounds.

Not all high-impact images are sexual and I doubt that all images that most of us would classify as “sexual” are high-impact (in the sense of causing ordinary people shock, psychological disturbance, nausea, and so on). When we’re talking about what images should be regulated in public spaces, you’d think that concepts such as “sexualisation” or just “sexual” would be almost irrelevant. These simply do not provide the test.

But perhaps that depends on what people mean by a “sexual image” – if it means certain kinds of images that are high-impact and which most of us would classify as pornography, then perhaps it’s fair enough to object to such images in public spaces. However, I never see images of that kind on, say, billboards.

Ever since I became sensitised to the issue some years ago, I’ve amused myself now and then by looking for such an image on the billboards, or in shop windows, of large cities that I visit – whether it’s Sydney (just down the road from where I live), New York City, or wherever. I have yet to see an image that meets at least my understanding of pornography. So presumably images of much lower impact (but with some erotic charge) are being objected to.

So, what counts as a “sexual image”? I’m going to offer some images that have undoubted sexual suggestiveness or erotic charge. In each case, I probably would therefore classify them as “sexual”, but that is not a pejorative term. I see nothing terribly wrong with any of these images (some may be kitsch, some may be open to some sort of political criticism for their possible messages, but I don’t think any are sufficiently egregious to keep out of public places).

First, consider this pic of tennis player Rafael Nadal, from a jeans advertisement.

Surely this contains plenty of erotic charge and I don’t need to elaborate on the composition, the way Nadal’s undoubtedly beautiful body is further idealised, or the significance of the jeans that are not quite on. Is this a sexual image?

How about Steve Pearson’s famous “Wings of Love?

This is often regarded as kitsch. Perhaps so, or perhaps that is just snobbery. I’m not so interested in the debate about its aesthetic characteristics, much as that might be interesting. I do want to ask whether it is a sexual image. If not, why not? It has plenty of erotic charge – surely it is, in part, a celebration of the erotic beauty (sometimes) of the human body, and of sexual love. The message is pretty clear, and the nude human figures are themselves erotically charged.

How about this Boris Vallejo image (a tame one by Vallejo’s standards)?

Again, I’m not interested so much in its aesthetics (you may consider it kitsch and unimpressively populist) or its politics (you may find a lurking message there – perhaps valorising some unfortunate view of women or of gender roles). I am not defending the aesthetic or political characteristics of any of these images. I simply want to know whether they count as sexual images or not, because I’m trying to get a handle on what that actually means. Surely this one is a sexual image, if not heading slightly in the direction of pornography? Right? I would not, however, think of it as the sort of high-impact image that it is the concern of the state to regulate under a strict application of the offense principle.

Finally, a bit of high art. Here is Titian’s Venus of Urbino.

I’m no art critic, so I won’t go into the composition or aesthetics of the image, though you are welcome to. My question, yet again, is whether this counts as a sexual image.

I imagine that, with a lot of research, we could find out how the expression “sexual image” has been understood by various censorship boards and similar authorities. But I’d like to see what a general educated audience thinks about the phrase. Do the images above count? And if not, what more would you require? Actual depiction of people having sex? Close ups of human genitals? Less emphasis on aesthetic qualities? Clearly all these images are heavily focused on visions of beauty, however unrealistic or even oppressive to people who think they need to live up to them; they are meant to give aesthetic pleasure, not merely sexual arousal, even if some aim at the latter as well.

Discuss away!

Leave a comment ?


  1. RB compares sexual images with what could be called disgusting images of feces etc. There is jot a large “problem” with these images since most public images are for advertising which seek to evoke desire not be revolting.

    Defining “sexual image” is a fool’s errand. The definition is personal, but will likely be an image of sexually evocative content above that of your average public experience.

    Something does not have to be pornography before a person has a legitimate complaint that the sexuality of an image has disturbed their emotional tranquility. People often don’t appreciate being manipulated: The use of the viewer’s innate and uncontrollable emotional systems for the image creator’s benefit.

    Not to say law needs to prohibit such images.

  2. It seems slightly odd to me to say I’m “comparing” sexual images with images of feces, etc. Maybe “comparing and contrasting”? I’m saying that the category of images that would cause widepread high-impact offence could include some sexual images but also a lot of non-sexual ones.

    So, whether or not an image is a “sexual” one doesn’t seem like it should be the issue if you look at it in terms of high-impact offence.

    I tend to agree, though, that defining “sexual image” may be a fool’s errand.

    I also agree that low-impact (in the relevant sense) sexual images might (merely) “disturb someone’s emotional tranquility”. But so might many other things (e.g. seeing a woman wearing a burqa might make some people feel less tranquil, as might seeing a smiling image of a politician you dislike). That could hardly be a test that the law or public policy could use, right? But I guess by your last para that we’re at one on that.

  3. There’s a range of sexual imagery, and where it crosses the line into being “indecent” or “pornographic” or just plain not fit for mixed company is pretty subjective and circumstantial. Personally, I am somebody who is very much on the far libertarian end of the free speech debate, and I think that practically anything in which no one is actually harmed in the production of should be allowed to be seen by the greater public. That said, time and place restrictions are of course called for in a civil society where you have people with decidedly mixed tastes and triggers of offense.

    People should be able to view whatever they like in private. When you’re talking about public space, the arguments get decidedly more complicated. One could argue that if something is likely to offend someone else, then one should keep it out of the public square. But that would throw a great deal of public political speech out the window, and that’s critical for democracy. Should the “majority rule”? What if the majority is just fine with a heterosexual couple holding hands and giving the occasional kiss, but put off by two men? To give in to majority tastes here would clearly be discriminatory. On the other hand, showing “Deep Throat” during a public outdoor movie night would probably be way out of line. What I think you have to end up with is the idea of public space being a kind of mass compromise between “anything goes” and “I have the right to not see anything in public that personally offends me.” And even within the broader realm of “public space”, there are different degrees of what goes. What would go at the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco would not go at a Fourth of July parade in Normal, Illinois.

    The point about where “art” crosses the line into “pornography” is again a pretty subjective one, and is a place where a great deal of license has been given. Consider Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés, which is openly on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with no “this may be unsuitable” warnings posted anywhere, at least that I can remember. It is undeniably a sexual image, yet I’ve never heard of any challenges to its display in an all-ages environment at a public institution.

    Now I’m not sure if you’re trying to touch on the debate about “sexualized imagery” clauses in anti-harassment policies. This, again, really depends on the venue. A professional convention like, for example, the American Society for Cell Biology annual meeting might very well call for a maximum of professional decorum. At the other extreme, DragonCon has sci-fi-oriented porn companies like Seduction Cinema that will screen their work there, and I think that’s absolutely fine too. Regular skeptical conventions might fall out somewhere in between. The problem is when some people try to push one-size-fits-all anti-harassment policies on all venues, even when this ends up prohibiting things that are entirely appropriate to the venue. But, of course, actually raise this point in the debate and you’ll have the usual gang of idiots jump down your throat claiming you’re against any prohibition on harassment at all.

  4. these images you’ve offered are all pretty tame, russell. i think it’s this kind of stuff that upsets people: http://www.karenfranklin.com/resources/rape-ads/

  5. That’s interesting, Kim. I find those images that you linked to objectionable myself – they appear to glorify and glamorise rape, sexual assault, etc.

    However, I haven’t seen any billboards like that in Sydney or Melbourne, and it was Waleed Aly (an Australian public intellectual for those who don’t know of him) that I especially had in mind as one of the people complaining about the sexualisation, etc., of public spaces. I still don’t know what sorts of images he had in mind, but he seemed to be suggesting that objectionable images were everywhere, dominating in the cityscapes of Australia. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any.

    So don’t get me wrong – there are images that will, in fact, cause high impact offence to many people and will even offend someone as tolerant as me. But I’m actually posting mild images deliberately because I want to see how far down the scale of impact we go before people want to start saying, “Oh, I don’t count those as sexual images” or “Technically those are sexual images, but I didn’t mean that all sexual images are problematic”. If we are going to talk about “sexual images” as being bad or problematic or inappropriate for public spaces (which I know you don’t do), I want to know what is meant and why such a potentially broad category is so bad.

    I’m happy, though, to have more thoughts from you others about narrower categories that you consider genuinely problematic.

    I hope it’s clear that I’m not some absolutist about this. I do, however, think there are many, many examples where legitimate artistic speech in the form of “sexual images” has been prohibited or unreasonably restricted (I talk about a couple of them at some length in the book).

  6. Would Waleed Aly be borrowing on the ideas of Melinda Tankard Reist and her “Collective Shout” group? Because, to my knowledge, they’re the main campaigners against so-called “sexualized imagery” in Australia. Can’t say I sympathize in the least as to where they’re coming from – their rhetoric is the deformed offspring of Christian fundamentalism and old-school radical feminism that people like Tankard Reist and Renata Klein have forged into an all-purpose reactionary movement.

  7. MTR is, of course, one of the people who bangs on about this a lot. But so do many people.

    But you’re also right that one of the very recent examples that’s come to my attention is an American conduct policy that appears (it’s badly drafted) to define the display of “sexual images” (whatever that expression means) as a form of harassment. wtf?

    And this policy is apparently based on other such policies in the US. Again, wtf? Shall we have no more books with covers by Boris Vallejo or Frank Frazetta? No more suggestive pics of Rafael Nadal? Am I harassed if I see a Vallejo poster on display for sale at a science fiction convention? And if not, why am I if I see it at some other kind of convention?

  8. i hear you, russell. fyi, that calvin klein ad was australian and was taken down after complaints. i think the most-complained-about ones get taken down. also, i think we write mtr off as a crackpot at our peril: she has enormous influence and speaks enough like a sane person to fool most people.

    when you have small children (as i do) you are very aware of this stuff, simply because you have to answer difficult questions (what’s longer lasting sex, mummy?). i worry more about the widespread use of photoshopping and my daughter’s self-esteem, but she is 5 and can already identify a photoshopped image and we have talked about what advertisers do and why etc. so the gang-rape billboards i posted are definitely too far for my liking, but the rest of it i will manage by helping my children become critical thinkers.

  9. michael reidy

    It took me a while to discover that, as I first thought on reading the OP, Russell Blackford was on the Muslim’s case again. Personally I would be very happy if there were no commercial ads of any sort in public spaces but as this is not likely, at least keep them bland. The idea is to link a startling image with a product. The images which Kim Wilkins links to are obnoxious. Would they sell products which women might buy? Strange but then so are the Grey books.

  10. Michael, did you leave out a “not” somewhere? I’m struggling to understand your point. Are you suggesting that the post was somehow really all about Muslims because I use Waleed Aly as an example of what’s on my mind?

  11. Kim, I hear you on the “long-lasting sex” billboards. There was, perhaps still is, one on the Tullamarine Freeway (spotted on my searches for these horrible sexual billboards everyone talks about). But while it might cause some embarrassing questions for parents (which you & your kids seem to be coping with) it’s certainly not high impact. To me, open talk of these things seems healthy.

    The big billboard near Sydney Airport is one that often has controversial images of a quite erotic kind – but they also tend to have high aesthetic values and not to be high impact in the sense that I’m using. They may offend some people morally, but they are not shocking for people who are not easily morally offended. Still, some these may be examples of what some social critics mean. From my viewpoint, the various images I’ve seen there over the years have been quite benign. Someone should actually put together a retrospective compilation of them so we can see them all together.

  12. Charles Sullivan

    The ancient Greeks liked the beauty of the human form, particularly the male form. Other societies preferred the female form. How can the erotic mix with the beauty of the human body without causing harm? Ideas of aesthetic Beauty and Eros appear to be connected when it comes to the human form (or body).

    When I look at Michaelangelo’s David I see beauty,and I see the soft curves, which are erotic. David reminds me of a woman but with more muscle. He’s soft and strong.

  13. IMO, without wishing to be a prude about it, overt sexual imagery in advertising has an intent to provoke a sexual reaction – when this is done to promote a product it is using our provoked awareness to associate a +ve image to the thing being sold. Sexual addiction is a phenomenon, it does cause a level of harm to individuals. As we control images of tobacco, gambling, alcohol, etc., that have historically applied this advertising strategy, then perhaps we should control overt sexual imagery in advertising.

  14. The thing with “what about the children” is that it assumes children asking “difficult” questions is somehow the job of society to avoid. Indeed, it assumes that once someone has a child, everyone else now has the duty to configure the world according to the wishes of the parents of that child. (to head off the inevitable, I do in fact, have a child.)

    This is rather nonsense. Children ask “difficult” questions with no prompting whatsoever. I did this to my mother when I was 6-7 on a bus:


    In that voice that only a child can have, the one that carries for miles. My mother told me that eeeeveryone on the bus was paying attention to what her answer would be.


    Was her answer. Worked for me, I knew my parents were from chicago, chicago is a place one could be from, I was from there as well. Done and done.

    Just because a child asks a question with answers that could be inappropriate for the age of that child, there is no requirement to answer it in those ways.

    “Mommy, what’s longer-lasting sex?”
    “Something only adults worry about. Like driving a car or paying rent.”

    Done. You have answered the question accurately, and in a manner that a small child can understand. Children know there are things adults have to do they don’t. Like “work” and “driving” and “paying for things”.

    There is no reason that EVERY possible answer has to be given to a small child. You don’t even have to lie. You just have to not allow the question to be more than it is.

  15. John is not about the problem of answer questions to childrens. You missed the point. It’s about keeping the children out of the range of a category of images that doesn’t include only sexual but violent too.

    I live in Argentina and here in any newstand you can see the front cover of Playboy, Maxim and a lot of magazines with clear sexual images.

    Probably, the problem is not the exhibition of images of any kind in itself, but the increasing invasion of commercial ads in any place that use any means to reach their target and seduce them as sexual images.

    If someone doesn’t complaint about this, there wouldn’t be limits.

  16. “Sexual addiction is a phenomenon, it does cause a level of harm to individuals. As we control images of tobacco, gambling, alcohol, etc., that have historically applied this advertising strategy, then perhaps we should control overt sexual imagery in advertising.”

    Are you serious? “Sexual addiction” is a highly debated category, and one that’s way overused in popular culture and political debates. It’s a bit like creating a category of “food addiction”. Certainly there are people with disordered eating, but where do you draw the line between that and the fact that to some degree every one of us are by necessity “food addicts” in order to to stay alive?

    Are you seriously claiming that the use of sex in advertizing is going to drive people down an addictive spiral? Analogous to the way consuming tobacco products in the way the manufacturers intend would? Sorry, but this is utter misuse of a public health argument.

  17. Since there are a lot of new faces here, I guess I need to say (again) that discussions at Talking Philosophy operate under a strong principle of charity. We also expect respect and civility. This is entirely non-negotiable. Individual bloggers have control of their own posts, of course, and largely can set their own tone, but… ultimately all decisions on these matters are mine (not least, because I’m the only one who has corporate responsibility).

    Thanks. And carry on!

  18. What counts as a sexual image is indeed hard to pin down. This might be a family resemblance type issue with no single classification working for all cases.

    However, I would argue that an imperfect (but useful) way of assessing this would be to ask the following question:

    “Are the individual(s) depicted wearing significantly less clothing than would normally be the case – bearing in mind the context specific environment (which includes temperature, geography and culture) in which the picture was taken?”

    If ‘yes’, then this is highly likely to be sexual image. Of course, this is very loose in some ways, as it is easy to think about a sexual image that does not fit this criteria: i.e. a fully dressed individual being expressive with their hands or tongue. (Or indeed other miscellaneous body parts, many of which I am way too repressed to name in public text).

    This would classify all of the above as ‘sexual’ in that the Venus is wearing a great deal less than the other women in the picture. However, it does pleasingly avoid blanket classifications. For example, pictures of totally naked people in saunas or on nudist beaches would not count as ‘sexual’ images. It also easily lends itself to investigating whether the context specific environment varies with gender.

    N.B. None of the above images, although sexual, would meet my criteria of a ‘high impact’ offence. I would very much resist any of them being subject to state regulation. However, I would agree with Russell that ‘high impact’ images could conceivably be treated as a separate cases.

    High impact seems to involve either conditioned disgust or the eliciting of immediate empathy reactions. Disgust would be relevant to the faeces pictures and empathy reactions relevant to the rape adverts. Interestingly, the medical procedure example could involve both reactions.

    Whether or not the difference between empathy and disgust needs to be teased out (with possible different sanctions against these different types of outrage) is a separate issue that I would have to think about a great deal before commenting on.

  19. Even if sex addiction exists, addiction to sex, if done with a condom, presents no public health problems, except maybe tendinitis at times.

    Addiction to tobacco is a severe public health problem, the treatment of which is very costly to taxpayers, while addiction to alcohol is not only a public health problem, but leads to problems of public safety (traffic accidents and an increase in violent acts).

  20. Russell Blackford writes:

    “But you’re also right that one of the very recent examples that’s come to my attention is an American conduct policy that appears (it’s badly drafted) to define the display of “sexual images” (whatever that expression means) as a form of harassment. wtf?

    And this policy is apparently based on other such policies in the US. Again, wtf? Shall we have no more books with covers by Boris Vallejo or Frank Frazetta? No more suggestive pics of Rafael Nadal? Am I harassed if I see a Vallejo poster on display for sale at a science fiction convention? And if not, why am I if I see it at some other kind of convention?”

    Well, if you want to get to the bottom of this, I refer you to the “Geek Feminism” wiki, which is kind of the online encyclopedia for this mindset. Relevant entries below:



    Basically, their argument runs that most sexualized imagery and presentations is aimed at straight men and that it constitutes a kind of “boys club” atmosphere that is exclusionary to women and by extension gay and trans people. Being a legal scholar, you might also pick up more than a few traces in their rhetoric of Catherine MacKinnon’s claim that sexual imagery “silences” women.

    Now one might be able to make that case if you’re talking about professional meetings that are essentially extensions of the workplace, but there’s a lot of rhetorical drift into areas where it doesn’t apply so well. Gaming, for example, which is an entertainment medium, and like all entertainment media, has a certain amount of sexual imagery associated with it by its very nature.

    But as to your point, “why am I [harassed] if I see it at some other kind of convention?”, I refer back to my points about different kinds of environments having different sets of expectations associated with them, and people having a reasonable expectation that they might not encounter certain kinds of things in a professional/workplace environment (though, of course, that’s relative to the profession), but might reasonably expect to see in a less formal environment which they could easily elect not to attend if they’re offended by such things.

  21. swallerstein

    “Even if sex addiction exists, addiction to sex, if done with a condom, presents no public health problems, except maybe tendinitis at times.”

    To be fair, the kind of behavior described as “sex addiction” can be very serious for those who are afflicted, in terms of broken relationships, temptation to engage in unsafe/risky sex practices, and often financial problems from excessive spending on sexual services.

    What’s highly debatable is to what degree that this is a public health problem rather than one in which certain individuals have a tendency toward a compulsive behavior that they have to take some responsibility for controlling. Sex, like food, cannot be considered some foreign substance, product, or externality that could be regulated in the same way as an addictive drug, after all.

  22. Matias,

    as a youngish child, I visited NYC. I was in times square in the 70s. Pre-Guliani cleanup. I grew up in Miami in the 70s and 80s. I graduated in a class of around 1300 from high school. I’d hazard that every kid in that class had seen a corpse at some point.

    the problem with the whole “WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN” is “WHAT ABOUT THE ADULTS”. We have places designed for kids. “Disney World” comes to mind. I like Disney, it’s a lot of fun, i don’t wish to live there. I don’t want to live in a world where everything visible to the public eye is designed for a particularly delicate five-year-old, and I hope no one else does either.

    I can, and have, parented my child just fine in a world of violent imagery and the occasional boobieflash on TV. I don’t demand other people change the world to suit him, and I ask the same from other parents. Their children are not my responsibility, please don’t make them my problem.

  23. By coincidence I was reading this interview with photographer Paul Freeman which covers some fo the double-standards between photographs of male and female subjects.


  24. Lots of interesting comments here. I do take the point that no one would be selling books with Frank Frazetta or Boris Vallejo covers, or would be selling posters of those artists’ work, at, say, the annual conference of the Australasian Association of Philosophy. But that’s not because doing so would be harassment – it’s because there would be no real interest in those products. If a philosophy book on, say, the philosophy of sex, had a low-impact sexual image as its cover, no one would be objecting at the AAP conference, and the AAP does not seem to have any relevant policies.

    It may be, however, that Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta posters should be kept out of actual workplaces. That’s not because they are literally harassing, but because there’s a general policy reason for making actual workplaces very inoffensive. This may be partly so they are comfortable for everyone, no matter how unusually conservative about sexual matters or whatever. But I think it’s also much like a policy of having men wear suits, just to create an environment and image that seems “businesslike”.

    A couple of points about this. If this is the policy to apply to workplaces, I think it’s unfortunate if sexual harassment law is used to achieve it. Definitions of sexual harassment can (and sometimes have) become very broad, which causes confusion about what it actually is (and what was really being addressed when books on the subject calling for laws against it appeared in the late 1970s). We do need to stamp out sexual harassment, but if we also think some relatively innocous behaviours, such as pinning up Boris Vallejo posters or copies of “Wings of Love”, should, for some reason, not happen in actual workplaces, I think this needs to be handled quite separately … and probably as a matter of employer policy rather than by law.

    Second, I think there are many workplaces where posters that feature low-impact sexual images are perfectly appropriate. The most obvious ones include sex shops and fantasy-oriented poster shops (which may very well display the Boris Vallejo posters that they are selling!). But I also think that low-impact erotic art of the kind we’re talking about could be perfectly appropriate in the office of any organisation where most people can be expected to be broad-minded and there is no effort to project a traditonal “business” atmosphere. E.g. I had some fantasy images with low-impact nudity in my office, years ago when I was (in an earlier incarnation) teaching English literature. In those days, tutorials were commonly held in academics’ offices, but I doubt that any students were offended by the relevant very-low-impact images.

    As for conferences – getting back to that again. Most conferences sell books, and books often do have (usually very) low-impact sexual images on the cover. The Venus of Urbino could easily be used as a book cover, for example.

    This probably applies more in the arts and humanities than, say, accounting. But I think it’s a bit crazy if any conference tries to censor what book covers can be displayed.

    Conferences relating to fantasy, science fiction, gaming, media, art, etc., are almost inevitably going to have people selling stuff with sexual images, albeit relatively low-impact ones. It would be crazy for those conferences, at least, to start prohibiting this.

    I can imagine circumstances where it might be appropriate for similar products to be sold at other conferences, perhaps with similar demographics. E.g., an atheist conference might deliberately adopt as a theme one year the way religion attempts to suppress sexuality, and it might on that occasion encourage vendors to sell products related to the theme. This might not happen every year, but if it wasn’t actually harassment of some kind the year it happened, then it can’t actually be harassment (even if inappropriate to the conference theme) in the other years. QED.

  25. When I think of “sexualized images” the thing that comes to mind is the differential between the use of men and women in overtly manipulative images. This plays more to the psychological weakness of men and their need to prop up their egos with displays of their capacity to manage and display desirable females. It is a primitive part of human behavior we would do well to realize we have not escaped by our seeming civility.

    Some might protest this as fiction, but it clearly is not. Men are very seldom placed on a display that clearly shows skin of the chest, shoulders, and legs in, say, church. Women very frequently are. The same is true in expensive restaurants and business environments.

    I believe some women quite rightly would object to such displays as a prejudicial use of the female form, one that, in the eyes of the common run of the culture, reduces them to mere object status. That is not merely a public health objection. It is an objection that raises issues about whether we believe women and men have equal rights to an assumption that their principal value is found in intellect rather than aesthetics.

  26. There is no dispute about matters of taste. Things are well done or badly done, vulgar or tasteful. So much depends on one’s ethnicity, gender, age, social background, education. We might expect out of this that people who closely correspond with each other in so far as the above categories are concerned will most probably have similar tastes. There is nothing in my opinion disgusting about sexual intercourse, viewing it or indulging in it. It can be portrayed in the most vile and loathsome way so far as I am concerned but again that is a personal viewpoint. I am no expert on porn sites on the net but those I have viewed are mostly, but not always, quite unpleasant. The may count as sexual images to some but not to me. There has to be something more than a plain example of crude sex for it to become a good acceptable sexual image. What this something is is difficult to identify. It probably embraces Mood, Human tenderness, Love, Passion, I am trying to think of something essential here and in doing so I suggest that the painting of Titian’s Venus of Urbino generates these feelings. Could viewing it be a spur to sexual activity? Yes probably, again for me, that is.
    The Boris Vallejo image I find exaggerated and unreal, It leaves me unmoved not a sexual image for me.
    The Wings of Love by Steve Pearson is a picture I like to contemplate, it is thought provoking. Kitsch for some maybe, but not for me. A sexual image yes if you look right into it for it holds more than sexuality alone. Rafael Nadal? Yes sexual, but there is something terribly wrong with it, on which I will not elaborate. I would say he was ill advised to concur in that contract.

  27. Russell Blackford writes:

    Conferences relating to fantasy, science fiction, gaming, media, art, etc., are almost inevitably going to have people selling stuff with sexual images, albeit relatively low-impact ones. It would be crazy for those conferences, at least, to start prohibiting this.

    DragonCon actually has people selling (and even screening) “high impact” sexual images, and this has long been accepted as part of the culture of that conference. One of my objections to the rush toward adoption of overly-broad anti-harassment policies was that the wording did not make allowances for spaces like this. (Actually, in debates about this, I was told that model polices were “modifiable” while all the while shouted down for suggesting the unmodified policies were not good ones!)

  28. Lee – No offense, but you comment has a tone of elevating the role of women as “moral minders” of men’s “primitive” urges. Looked at another way, that’s a relationship between the sexes that’s quite dated and sexist in it’s own right. Forgive me if I’m misreading you.

    Also, I’m absolutely not convinced that to value images of women (or men) for their comely qualities is to devalue the intellectual capacity of the entire gender. That comes down to a dualism between mind and intellect on one hand and body and sexuality on the other, which, personally, I reject.

  29. What right do we have not to be offended?

    What rights do we want to give up to the state to protect our, and our children’s, sensibilities?

    What limits do we place on what individuals and corporations can display on their own land?

    I tend to come down quite far along the libertarian scale but even I would be somewhat taken aback to see CG pornography on a moving billboard. Would I want to hand the state the right to limit what I could show to enable them to limit what I am forced (albeit accidentally) to see? I’m not sure. Once they are allowed to limit what I am subjected to, they will also limit what I am allowed to subject myself to.

    More on topic – is a sexual image (of whatever hue) problematic in and of itself, or is it society’s irrational reactions to them that are problematic? We all have, and see, our own naked bodies and, for the most part, do not see them as inherently sexual at all times. If nudity was less taboo perhaps children wouldn’t ask ‘difficult’ questions because there wouldn’t necessarily be ‘difficult’ questions.

    Or am I being terribly naive?

  30. At first when I read Russell’s comments about sexualized images as a potential form of harassment in the workplace, I assumed he was talking about conferences and not about office settings where a certain level of professionalism is expected. Then he said this:
    “E.g. I had some fantasy images with low-impact nudity in my office, years ago when I was (in an earlier incarnation) teaching English literature. In those days, tutorials were commonly held in academics’ offices, but I doubt that any students were offended by the relevant very-low-impact images.”
    The relevant question is, of course, not whether anyone was offended. The question is whether the images were appropriate for a professional work setting, particularly when you had the power to judge student work, and where students might have had to be alone with you. I can easily imagine images involving nudity that would be both appropriate and inappropriate in such a setting. My question is, does Russell think any such images would in fact be inappropriate, assuming they didn’t cause an immediate physical response in the viewer as intense as, say, nausea? Does he think any “low-impact” nude images could contribute to sexual harassment, or is that possibility a non-starter?

    In general, Russell might try to consider, in at least the same level of detail he has offered in consideration of examples here, some real-life examples of sexualized images being used as part of workplace harassment. Until he has a grasp of how that works, I think he’ll continue to wander in some degree of confusion. Yes, this is a topic full of gray areas. However, in this article, the gray areas are highlighted only to question why anyone’s freedom to display such images should be restricted at all, assuming nobody is thrown into actual vomiting or tremors at the mere sight of them. [Why is that even the "obvious" standard, though? Protestors regularly parade large images of aborted fetuses, and that's usually considered protected speech in the U.S.]

    In an office where a dozen men work along with one female secretary and one other female co-worker, someone pins up the sort of cartoons that used to be found in Playboy magazines on the billboard. Should this activity continue, unrestricted? In that same office, someone leaves “sexualized images” of the same “low impact” level as all of those shown above, on the female co-worker’s desk so that she will find them each morning. Does that contribute to sexual harassment?

  31. “Men are very seldom placed on a display that clearly shows skin of the chest, shoulders, and legs in, say, church.”

    Except images of Christ?

  32. The images to which Susy refers sound more like merely bad taste to me. Possibly it was someone showing how he or she considers him or herself as somehow special. just a show off maybe. An attitude of “Look see the sort of pictures I put on my walls; how about that?”
    Sexual Harassment? No just inappropriate silliness I would say; unless they served some identifiable educational or artistic purpose.

  33. Suzy, I suggest that you deal with posts and other peoples’ comments at face value rather than indulging in personal speculations about what the poster does or does not know about, or is or not motivated by, or is or is not confused about, if you want to have a future here at this blog.

    You are getting very close to making personal attacks in your remarks about what I should or should not “gain a grasp of” or else I’ll “wander” in “confusion”. If you want to comment on what I asked in the post, go ahead. If you want to suggest that I am “confused”, that I am unfamiliar with the hostile environment cases in sexual harassment law, or even that I have not practised in the area of sexual harassment law, or that I have not given legal advice to large organisations in the past on exactly those issues, then you are likely to get into trouble. It’s none of your business, as far as this blog is concerned, to be speculating about me personally. For all you know, I may have a vastly more professional expertise than you do in these matters – but that’s not the subject of the post or even my comments. Just deal with points on their merits, and apply the principle of charity when looking at other people’s arguments.

    In short, you don’t get to post your speculations about the poster personally. You do get to discuss the philosophical issues raised.

    The other thing you won’t get is another warning.

    Now, to answer a couple of your questions – Playboy centrefold images are not high-impact but nor are they usually especially low impact. In combination with other things, and especially if they are sufficiently pervasive, they might well make an environment hostile. However, I don’t think that, say, the famous Marilyn Monroe nude photo run in the very first issue of Playboy would necessarily, in itself, be inappropriate in an artsy rather than blokey sort of environment. That photo is so tame that it is now regarded as more iconic of its time than pornographic.

    Next, placing an image on someone’s desk will be taken as aiming a message to that specific person, and of course that message might be a hostile or sinister or creepy one. Unless the people were friends and had an understanding that explained the image, such an action might well be sexual harassment if the image was a sexual one – especially if there was no plausible reason for placing such a message on the person’s desk (“Here’s the Aubrey Beardsley poster you asked for”), and even more so if it was not an art image of some kind but something more headed in the direction of what our society regards as pornography.

    But conversely, if someone put up a poster of, say, “Pan and Psyche” by Edward Burne-Jones, or, say, “Hylas and the Nymphs” or “The Mermaid” by John Waterhouse, or a more modern image of about the same degree of eroticism (perhaps one of the tamer, not-so-hypersexualised, etc., Vallejo images), on, say, their office wall within a university department, I do not believe that this could in any way be considered sexual misconduct, any more thanit would be to set students to read The Water of the Wondrous Isles by William Morris and discuss how Morris uses nudity as a theme. Nor would having a book (perhaps the same book) lying around with a cover using that sort of image.

    The Burne-Jones and Waterhouse works are the sort of intensity of image that I was talking about once having in my office, and I’d have no hesitation having images like that in that sort of “arty” rather than “corporate” work environment (or on my walls at home if it comes to that … in fact I do have Waterhouses’s “Hylas and the Nymphs” hanging up at home).

    My above answers are not legal advice, obviously – apart from anything else, I don’t practise law anymore. But they’re in line with the sort of advice that I’d have given employers in the past if they’d asked me about possible misconduct by staff for these sorts of things.

  34. Torquil Macneil

    I was startled by the rape fantasy photo that was linked to above and which I had never seen before. It was clearly setting out to arouse controversy as well as desire, of course, and it is not the sort of thing I want to see in a public place. But it is clearly a woman’s rape fantasy being acted out there and not a man’s (or not a man’s predominantly). I wonder if that thought entered into the campaign to ban it.

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