No sexual images, please – we’re atheists

In an earlier post at Talking Philosophy, which I linked to from my personal blog (Metamagician and the Hellfire Club), I asked readers the blunt question, “What is a sexual image?” Considerable discussion ensued on both sites, but no consensus emerged as to just what “a sexual image” actually is.

Accordingly, I am now struggling to understand what an ordinary person would understand by the expression “sexual images” in a provision that attempts to prohibit their display in a certain context. Perhaps it might convey something definite to a censorship board with an established body of decisions, and it might be possible to review what such boards and the like have decided, but its meaning is very unclear to an ordinary person. We don’t seem to be able to agree on what is a “sexual image” and what is not. So how about “Psyche and Pan” by Edward Burne-Jones? It appears to me to convey plenty of erotic charge, so if it’s not a “sexual image” I’d like to know why not. What does the expression convey to you, such that this Burne-Jones painting (and many others by the great pre-Raphaelite artists) is not a “sexual image”?

As some readers will know, Atheists America has recently promulgated a code of conduct for its conventions, setting down, among other things, the following definition of “harassment”:

Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

This is dreadful drafting. It seems to say that harassment includes “offensive verbal comments relating to … sexual images in public places”. In that case, it is fine to have sexual images in public places, but no one must make offensive verbal (what other sort are there?) comments about them. Likewise it is fine to indulge in sustained disruption of talks or other events, but not to make offensive verbal comments about it if it happens. But I assume that any sensible tribunal would interpret the provision to mean something like this:

Harassment includes:

(1) offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion; and

(2) sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

That being the case, “sexual images in public spaces” constitute “harassment” under the code … and harassment is prohibited. Forget anything else in this strange code (e.g. it seems that “following” someone, perhaps a friend when you ask for directions and she cheerfully says, “Follow me!”, is defined as harassment). Today, let’s just focus on the prohibition of sexual images.

Why on earth would the mere public display of a low-impact sexual image such as “Psyche and Pan” be considered harassment (of whom, exactly – of anyone who sees it?). Is selling such an image at a convention, and displaying it for sale to likely purchasers, really a form of harassment? Who says so? How does this even remotely relate to the ordinary meaning of the word “harassment”, or even to expansive ideas of “sexual harassment” in employment law (where it is true that the pervasive display of relatively high-impact pornographic images, perhaps combined with other conduct, might make a workplace a hostile zone for some people)? The provision is so sweeping and unnuanced that I have to wonder what could be behind it. Perhaps it’s just a matter of people not thinking things through and realising how overbroad their drafting is, compared with whatever mischief they actually had in mind.

Now, it may be that American Atheists would have other reasons for not approving vendors that would display and sell, say, posters of pre-Raphaelite paintings. Perhaps it’s remote from their mission. But that seems like a reason why they don’t actually need such a provision. In any event, I can imagine circumstances where it might be completely appropriate to display such an image. What if it, or some other image with a similar erotic charge, is used on the cover of a book about the religious suppression of erotic art, or just about the philosophy of sex? And what if this book is on sale at the convention, perhaps with many others? These scenarios are not especially bizarre or unlikely. Books are sold at conventions all the time, and the cover art often has at least a low-grade sexual frisson.

I would have thought that an avowedly atheist organisation would lean strongly against the problematisation of erotic images, given that this is precisely one of the things that atheists object to from the religious and from religious moralities. I don’t know how often the issue would come up at an atheist convention, but it must surely happen from time to time. Even if it never happens in practice, it would be nice to know that an organisation such as American Atheists stands in favour of eros and against sexual prudery.

Thus, this provision is exactly the wrong one to include in a code of conduct, and I do hope that we don’t see other organisations with supposedly atheist or secular agendas going down such a path.

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