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Carl Zimmer and Neil deGrasse Tyson TOGETHER AT LAST. A million science fans' hearts go pitter-pat.
Emily Willingham's profile photoDavid Dobbs's profile photoGuy Horev's profile photoEthan Deyle's profile photo
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? Here's what the Daily Beast has to say:

"The false logic at the heart of the documentary holds that because Hefner aligned himself with various laudable causes through the years (civil rights, the antiwar movement, etc.), his magazine is a force for positive change. No one in the documentary questions whether Hefner could have accomplished all the same things without publishing photos of topless women (“girls,” as the oh-so-enlightened Hef calls them) dressed like rabbits. According to Tony Bennett, once readers finished masturbating to the pictures, they actually read the articles—a fairly insulting characterization of the typical Playboy reader as needing a spoonful of cheesecake to help the medicine go down. The fact that magazines that publish insightful journalism and quality fiction without the nudie pics (The New Yorker, Esquire) are still around, and in better financial shape than Playboy, which has been losing money and subscribers for years and came close to bankruptcy in 2008, would disprove this notion."
Whether or not we want to look at naked women isn't the issue, +Miriam Goldstein . The issue is quality writers lending legitimacy to a rag like Playboy and their "keep the women where they belong" attitude by publishing their stuff in it.
To be honest, worrying specifically about Playboy seems beside the point to me. While I agree that Playboy has a retro attitude towards women, so do the sexualized and violent images of women present in many many many more mainstream magazines - here's an egregious mainstream example from Dolce & Gabbana (, but the world is so full of using women's bodies to sell everything that I could list examples all night. Playboy is losing business rapidly (down 38% according to this:, and I just don't see them being a major factor in keeping women down. Most people get their porn on the internet, and magazines like Playboy have little future.

Here's where I'd like to spend some feminist social capital - getting those quality writers (and editors of quality magazines) to nurture and promote female authors. The current statistics are absolutely dismal - less than 25% of authors reviewed by quality publications (and often far fewer) are female. If people like Carl Zimmer & Neil deGrasse Tyson really champion talented female authors & scientists, that would be far more helpful than merely not-publishing in Playboy.
You miss the point. When they publish their articles in Playboy, the men (and women) who go there to read them also get a healthy dose of "women are inferior and good for only one thing" in their heads, whether they realize it or not. That rag reeks of it. As a result, these readers are less likely to take women serious as writers, editors, or anything, nor are they likely to promote women in any area other than assistant-to-the-man positions. The attitude is insidious and pervasive throughout the magazine, and people who read it frequently come away with it in their heads whether they are aware of it or not.

I'm with you on the sexual violence toward women that now is rampant in advertising. We've crossed some fairly dangerous threshhold.
Ed Yong
While I am no fan of Playboy, I would encourage people to think twice before pushing ideological prescriptions upon people who have to write for a living. All publications have one dodgy aspect or another. Those of us who like to eat are forced to be pragmatic.
A.V. Flox
I will preface this 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, Madison Young offers, which focuses on couples remaining intimate during pregnancy.

The role that Playboy played in the "pornification" of culture cannot be brushed off completely, as it along with other publications of the time, including 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, 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 a 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 is evident if one looks at the issues closer to its inception in 1933.

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 his own magazine in 1953. 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 magaines 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 and many other studios catering to mainstream pornographic interests in film have taken the hint and, though clumsily attempted to cater to this audience, have finally moved 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 arena 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.
Say that again. Wonderful contribution here. Plus I love "Playboy's contribution was two-fold." 
Roger Ebert has a similar perspective to that of +A.V. Flox. He says "I believe sex in our society, in general, is more moral today than it was when Playboy began. I think young people in particular have healthier attitudes toward it than they did when I was in high school. I agree that teen pregnancy and STD are tragic, but it was Hefner who fought for birth control and protection when they were illegal in some states. I was taught that a woman's body was a possible Occasion for Sin. What kind of morality is that?" (h/t R.O.)
+Ed Yong What dodgy aspects do, say, The New Yorker or The Atlantic have?
A.V. Flox - Playboy's success and the sexual revolution coincide but it does not mean that playboy contributed to the sexual revolution, I suspect that the opposite is true. Also, freedom of speech/expression should be limited when it contradicts with individual freedom.
Playboy's success occurred before the sexual revolution began. To say that it had no impact on the cultural shift merits more information than the assertion that you believe the opposite to be the case.

As for freedom of expression being limited when it contradicts individual freedom, you'll have to elaborate before I can respond. Are you suggesting that pornography contradicts individual freedom?
Male humans, mammals who do not have much of the sensory estrus trigger, are slaves to the chemical bath of hormones that drive the concious thought processes. The dramatic drop in these distractory hormones after ejaculation allows men to concentrate more deeply for longer, and treat women as equal-contributors rather than as just potential sex partners.

That affords males to actually read and think about Playboy fiction and articles. The two (pictures and thought provoking words) go hand in hand. The New Yorker has only half the solution, as fine as it may be. Crude as it may appear, in evolutionay psyhology, Playboy works well.

Females do not have as much of this distractions and do not understand. It is easier for females to be successful daily due to the more even hormone level, but with Playboy, we males can get hormone drop and compete on a more even playing field. And,,,, I am not a Playboy subscriber/purchaser.
The timeline alone suggests Playboy played a significant role in the sexual revolution, along the lines that Flox describes. Playboy is problemmatic in many ways, but I find absurd the idea that it is categorically off-limits as a place to publish, especially to publish the sort of piece Zimmer did. There's a perfectly good argument that the ads in virtually every mainstream magazine send the same sorts of messages that Playboy's nudie shots do, only clothed, as it were, in a veneer of respectability and glamour that make them more surreptitious. I cringe at the messages about gender roles and sexual power that many ads in the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker would suggest to my 7 and 10-year-olds; to say nothing of what one would see in Vanity Fair or Vogue. This is a spectrum issue, not a binary one; a matter of blatancy (if that's a word). .Yet no one objects when science writers publish there -- nor should they.

Clearly there's a line somewhere; there are publications that are over the top. But the ground seems rather slippery for drawing the line at Playboy, especially given a) the issues Emily Willingham raised in her twitter string last night and b) that Zimmer just reached 1M readers with a pro-science message from one of the most effective science communicators out there.

As to the notion that Zimmer should have just placed this elsewhere, such as at the New Yorker: Most people have no idea how hard that would be: Sell a proposal for a 6,000-word profile about an astrophysicist talking science in Tulsa? Good luck with that. You can count on your fingers the big pubs that'll run over 5000 words on anything; add science and the fact that nothing terribly sexy is involved here (a guy talking about astrophysics for 6000 words?), your odds of selling that story are damned close to zero. It's not a matter of what will actually turn out well; as we can see (if we read it), this piece turned out beautifully and will captivate anyone. It's a matter of what you can sell in a proposal. I'm amazed he placed it in any non-scientific magazine.
There's more fascinating discussion of this on +A.V. Flox 's post. I argue there that the recent #womanspace conflama is affecting this. And personally I find that churches are actually more of a barrier to my work in science--yet people are always encouraging scientists to reach out to church groups and write in their publications and such...
It's interesting to me that Playboy, in which women express sexuality through nudity to attract (mostly) male eyeballs, takes these hits when there's a far more insidious anti-woman, anti-intellectual juggernaut targeting women themselves in the form of "women's magazines" that urge women to follow 10 tips to satisfy their man, improve their bodies, trap a boyfriend, etc. I've argued myself that publishing science in such magazines would be a real coup. The reaction to a legitimate science-related piece appearing in Playboy seems more associated with the fact that it's men (and some women) ogling naked women, whereas publishing legit science in a magazine that attracts women only to demean them seems to be generally received as a beneficial move. Regardless, publishing science in any of these formats is a positive step, in my opinion.

The #womanspace issue seems like a red herring to me. That piece was a throwback, badly written, appearing in a research journal in which real estate for scientists is at a premium. The journal in question publishes in a field that historically has not been particularly friendly toward women and seems to have an expectation that women must be asexual robots flung into their work 24-7 to succeed. Playboy, on the other hand, played a role, as A.V. Flox has noted, in the sexual revolution, and that role was in several ways a positive one for women. The women I've known who've posed in Playboy did so as an expression of their sexuality, not because they were oppressed, deluded, or exploited. I think that I personally viewed the "Womanspace" piece as a humorless, poorly written throwback packed with '50s stereotypes. Playboy is more complex than that, as is its role in female empowerment, sexuality, and the sexual revolution. Yes, women are naked in it. Yes, men look at those women, but there's a presumption here that looking at naked women consists solely of objectifying them, and I'd like to see some proof of that presumption (see below). Oh, and there's good writing, too, unlike that godawful Nature thing.

I like what A.V. Flox wrote about Playboy's being a Trojan horse in terms of delivering sex education to men. Many, many male friends of mine have related to me how Playboy exposed them to women's bodies when there was no other comfortable, private route to such exposure. These are not superficial men who treat women as objects. They wanted to see a naked woman for any number of justifiable and defensible reasons, not just to objectify women. I'm not going to fault men for wanting to see pictures of naked women or presume about their reasons for doing so. I'm also not going to fault women who pose naked or claim some moral high ground relative to them for choosing to express their sexuality and sexual power in the ways that they do. As was noted in a Twitter exchange last night, I long for the day when female expression of sexuality doesn't somehow mean negation of intelligence, dimensionality, or personhood, and it doesn't rely on application of 10 tricks or tips to somehow trap a mate.

Full disclosure: We subscribe to Playboy.
I wasn't discounting that someone had linked it to womanspace, having already viewed your link and that tweet from Unstable Isotope, and I didn't argue that someone had suggested that it was the "same thing." I argued that it's a red herring in terms of relevance to the current discussion, which is not intended to directly counter your assertion that people are sensitized thanks to the womanspace fracas.
<steps in shyly> I agree with the points made by +A.V. Flox, amongst others. The thing is, surely we want as many as people as possible to read good science writing? If so, I think it's important to ensure that as many different types of publications/media carry such writing - only publishing in places such as, for example, the New Yorker, excludes a great many people who simply don't read that sort of periodical. It would also, I imagine, help to reinforce the image, held by many, of science and science-related work being elitist (for example).</steps in shyly>
[N.B. from moderator: To +aimee whitcroft and any other lurkers: I will delete any comments that make personal attacks or create a nasty atmosphere WITHOUT MERCY. Please don't be afraid to comment if you'd like to!]
Oh, phew! For a moment there I thought I was being told to watch my remarks :) The shyly was as much because I try to ensure my comments are appropriate, and have something to add rather than simply reiterating someone else's view (or, worse, saying something that's off-topic!). But thank you, that's really good to know :)
I thought of a reason why I reacted so negatively to Zimmer's piece appearing in Playboy. I was an astronomy grad student at Berkeley in the 80s. Apparently, until shortly before I arrived, the male students in the department had a Playboy subscription. The issues were stashed behind the Xerox machine (or some place like that). When the department started getting more female students, one of the women found the Playboys and was offended. I remember talking to her about it and seeing the anger in her eyes. So I have a strong unconscious association of astronomy + Playboy = bad.

I do think rationally that there are good reasons not to publish in Playboy, but I was surprised how viscerally I felt about this.
A.V. Flox Allow me to paint a picture for you:
Your 17 yrs old daughter is going to her friend house, where the father of the friend offers her money for taking her nude pictures.
If I am the father police will be involved.
But for hugh hefner it works.

I don't buy all the BS about playboy’s contribution.
In Yiddish we call it “ kosher but stinks”.

David Dobbs - The fact that you think you need to defend Zimmers decision speaks volumes.
In Nevada, it's 16. Frankly, I'm more concerned about how my daughter would feel if such a situation presented itself -- whatever her age -- than about what the law says. Consent laws are messy, sporadically resulting in two kids getting labeled as sex offenders for sexual exploration. I think coercion has more to do with context than it does age. Age is just easier to enforce.
"Sporadically resulting in two kids getting labeled as sex offenders for sexual exploration." Yes, a problem.
I should add I don't exactly see Playboy as the outfit that at a suburban house offers a visiting 17-year-old money to take her pictures.
The question is very simple: is it OK if an adult man offers 17 yrs old girl money to take her pictures nude and publish them worldwide?
I say. NO
You say. Yes if enough money and 6000 words from Carl Zimmer are involved .
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