Article: 19910701054

Title: The War on Nudity: Part One

The War on Nudity: Part One
HMH Publishing Co., Inc.
Reader Discussion
Let's get one thing clear: Lois Robinson was never physically assaulted or sexually propositioned in the course of her work as a welder at the Jacksonville, Florida, shipyard. She was promoted from third-class welder to second-class welder and from second-class welder to first-class welder for the usual reasons.

Let's get one thing clear: Lois Robinson was never physically assaulted or sexually propositioned in the course of her work as a welder at the Jacksonville, Florida, shipyard. She was promoted from third-class welder to second-class welder and from second-class welder to first-class welder for the usual reasons.

So how was it that she won what feminist lawyers claim is a stunning victory in the realm ofsexual-harassment law?

Robinson and a team of lawyers from the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund managed to convince a Florida judge that pinups can create a hostile environment of "visual assault on the sensibilities of female workers."

Robinson, who was unable to recall the exact number of days she had missed work because of pinup-related stress, was able to recall with near photographic memory dozens of centerfold and pinup calendars, locking on images of women with breasts exposed or naked buttocks thrust submissively into view, and every copy of Playboy kept in a desk drawer that she had seen over an 11-year period.

In The New York Times, Tamar Lewin selectively described the most offensive pictures--an image of a woman's pubic area with a spatula pressed to it, a nude female torso with the words USDA choice written on it and a nude woman bending over with her buttocks and genitalsexposed. Susan Tifft, writing for Time, mentioned the last two photos and added a "drawing of a woman's breast with her nipple as the bull's-eye." Offensive? Yes. Are they the moral equivalent of a burning cross? Only in the fevered imagination of feminist crusaders.

Most of the pinups were not sexually explicit, merely nude. They were promotional calendars from firms with names such as Whilden Valve and Gauge Repair. When asked if the shipyard had ever distributed calendars with nude men, a foreman said he would probably throw such a calendar in the trash. One witness said it was accepted practice at the shipyards for vendors to supply calendars of nude women, but he had never known of a vendor distributing a calendar of nude men, and if one did so, he would think the "son of a bitch" was "queer."

One member of the company's management told Robinson that nautical people had always displayed pinups and other images of nude or partially nude women, such as figureheads on boats, that the posting of such pictures was a common custom in a nautical workplace and that pinups were not intended to intimidate, embarrass or cause concern for anyone. The pinups were there long before Robinson--the images were not acts of war.

Robinson was treated differently from male employees--not because she was a woman but because she was a strait-laced, rabid, bluenose priss.

One lawyer asked to interpret the decision told The New York Times that the case showed that "under the law, people who are strait-laced have the right to be that way and be protected within reason." If the Reverend Donald F. Wildmon became a welder and started whining that pinups degraded women, the guys at the shipyard would call him a queer son of a bitch. They would react with a natural distaste (i.e., hostility) for the individual who wanted to impose his or her taste on the community.

Some of the incidents retold in court take on a Catch-22 absurdity--when a group of men wanted to tell a sexual joke, they yelled to Robinson to "take cover." Harassment if you do, harassment if you don't. One foreman ordered pictures of nude and partially nude women off his shop's walls; the calendars were replaced with ones showing women in provocative swimwear. Tut-tut. More harassment.

We think the shipyard workers, in some instances, acted without couth in this debate. They were not William F. Buckley, Jr.s. Still, we think she doth protest too much, but then, we work for Playboy.

The decision is a slippery slope: Once you give the individual the right to set the terms of sexual hostilities, the next battle will be over the definition of environment. Do women who commute to work now have the right to demand that billboards with sexually suggestive images be removed? Does someone heading past a kiosk in Grand Central Station have the right to demand that Playboy be hidden from view? The pinups in question expressed the robust community values of the shipyard--men personalize a cold steel environment with sexual images. Women such as Robinson sterilize. Some call this progress.

Dr. Susan Fiske, a psychologist from the University of Massachusetts and an expert in the field of stereotyping, helped convince the judge that women like Robinson need special protection simply because they are women or, more accurately, because they are pioneers in a predominantly male environment. (In 1986, there were six women employed as skilled craftworkers in the shipyard, 846 men--which meant that Robinson almost never worked with another woman.) Succinctly, Dr. Fiske said that having to think about sex interfered with a woman's ability to work. The judge summarized her theory: "When sex comes into the workplace, women are profoundly their job performance and in their ability to do their jobs without being bothered by it. The effects encompass emotional upset, reduced job satisfaction, the deterrence of women from seeking jobs or promotions, and an increase of women quitting jobs, getting transferred or being fired because of the sexualization of the workplace." Fiske said the effect of the sexualization of the workplace is "vanishingly small" for men.

In short, men can think of sex and weld ships at the same time. Women can't. A curmudgeon might suggest that they try thinking of sex and chewing gum at the same time.

A repressed attitude toward sex is not one of those handicaps deserving special intervention. Removing the pinups to help the Robinsons get ahead in the world strikes us as akin to McDonald's putting pictures of cheeseburgers on the cash register so that math illiterates can still ring up a purchase. Does anyone seriously think these kinds of concessions advance the quality of life?

Do women need protection from images of sex? The judge thought so. Ironically, it was this kind of patronizing attitude that inspired the feminist revolution in the first place.

So put up the blue-chintz curtains, boys. We've been neutered.