Pharyngula

The NSFW problem

Roger Ebert has a thoughtful post on the problem of not-safe-for-work images. It’s a real problem, and it’s a curious example of self-imposed censorship built on an artificial fear. I don’t care who you are, you’ve all seen pornography, you’ve all heard profanity, yet somehow, if even a tasteful nude or an obscenity neatly typed in a small font face appears in a web post, people freak out: I could have viewed that in my workplace! My eyes aren’t allowed to see a breast or a penis between the hours of 9 to 5!

There’s good reason for that, of course, and Ebert discusses some of it.

I haven’t worked in an office for awhile. Is there a danger of porn surfing in the workplace? Somehow I doubt it. There is a greater danger, perhaps, of singling out workers for punishment based on the zeal of the enforcers. And of course there is always this: Supervisors of employee web use, like all employees, must be seen performing their jobs in order to keep them.

There is also this: Perfectly reasonable people, well-adjusted in every respect, might justifiably object to an erotic photograph on the computer monitor of a coworker. A degree of aggression might be sensed. It violates the decorum of the workplace. (So does online gaming, but never mind.) You have the right to look at anything on your computer that can be legally looked at, but give me a break! I don’t want to know! I also understand that the threat of discipline or dismissal is real and frightening.

I’ve made it through two years on the blog with only this single NSFW incident. In the future I will avoid NSFW content in general, and label it when appropriate. What a long way around I’ve taken to say I apologize.

I think he misses a couple, though.

One is the one-sided nature of most erotic images that makes a workplace situation more difficult for those who are already struggling: women. Ebert himself does this, since his examples are all of lovely naked women. Why not naked men? Ebert is a male, he clearly enjoys the female form, but if he’d used examples of erotic male nudes, there’d be a little more distancing from the subject, a little more objectivity. I like looking at naked women, it tingles my hypothalamus in interesting ways; I don’t object to pictures of naked men, but I’m afraid there is no thrill here, not even a sense of forbidden, hidden fear. It’s easier for a male to dismiss images of women as simply beautiful and non-threatening, because he isn’t likely to be the target of objectification and lust, which actually are inappropriate in a working environment where women want to be treated as equals.

Avoiding even the appearance of discrimination is reason enough to avoid these loaded images, but there’s also a more universal reason that we have this problem, and it’s unfortunate. It’s the tyranny of the ideal, and it also is on display in Ebert’s post.

Whenever we talk about sexualized images and their virtues as simply representations of beauty, we always trot out examples from art of nubile young men and women in the prime of health, typically slender and unwrinkled and unburdened with any trace of experience. This is what we are supposed to look like, is the message, beauty is in this smoothness, these unmarred curves, this hidden youthful suppleness exposed. What we will regard as beauty in our bodies is such a narrow band of reality that it means that very few of us actually have a positive self-image, and not only every porn image, but every ad on billboards and television, reinforces that message that you aren’t worthy.

And of course it’s made worse for women, because the standard image of women is that ideal of young and fertile and lubricious. Are you pretty enough to be on a billboard? If not, there’s something wrong with you. Even as a man I can feel this, since no one is going to mistake me for a 20 year old Adonis, but at least I’m mostly spared the optic cacophony constantly reminding me that my body is homely and sub-standard.

But it’s not, not really. Everyone has bodies that serve them well, that carry them through life and give them pleasure and work hard, but somehow we’ve fallen into the trap of idealizing such a specific set of features that we spend most of our lives lacking the proper appreciation of them, in part due to the way the advertising and pornography industries work to promote a standard and punish anything outside that standard with neglect. This is another reason to avoid “NSFW” images — not because they’re unsafe for our eyes, an absurd concept already, but because we need to rebel against the homogenization of beauty.

Here’s a counter-example. When we talk about erotic images of bodies, we all know exactly what we’re talking about, and it isn’t my body or even the bodies of most of the readers of this article. If I posted an image of my kind of body (or, probably, your kind of body) it would be as an object of derision, something that people would mock because it’s not perfect enough, not pretty enough, or just plain ugly. I know; I posted one photo of my breast on facebook*, and got a flood of email that can be summarized as “ooh, yuck”.

Why can’t we treat bodies like we do hands? Look at this; this is not a youthful hand, it’s not an unlined hand, it’s not a smooth and perfect hand…but it’s beautiful.

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We can look at a baby’s hand, a young woman’s hand, or a gnarled old man’s hand and see loveliness and function everywhere, and respect the evidence of lives lived well. We’ve been acculturated by the tyranny of a narrow ideal to only be able to approve of bodies that fall into a tiny category that we can call ‘fuckable’. Outside of the art world, you simply don’t find images of bodies that are not airbrushed and photoshopped and selected for that kind of exclusively sexualized purpose.

It’s very easy to make a case for tolerance of images of beautiful people in a state of undress. I’ll believe we’re ready to be liberal about the use of what we call NSFW imagery when the case can be made for the beauty of a naked old man without a volley of derision and expressions of disgust and disappointment because they’re not a slim naked young woman.


*There was a good reason: it was to protest facebook’s policy of censoring photos of women breastfeeding their babies. While it’s embarrassing to be mocked for the fact that I don’t have a sculpted, youthful figure, it was worth it to point out the hypocrisy of a ridiculous policy. Consider it another act of sacrilege, and that I did a fabulous job of defiling most people’s ideal of what a breast should look like.