Sexy or Sexist?

By Robert Jensen

Published in Media Ethics · April, 1992

Spring 1992, Vol. 4, No. 2.

“Who’s the sexiest Twin?” the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press asked its readers one morning this fall.
Before the start of the 1991 American League playoffs, the features department of the paper explained to readers the poll was to be taken as “sexist, objectifying, idiotic, silly and fun. Especially fun, please.” Readers were asked to call in their vote for the sexiest player, “the guy you’d most like to be stranded with in an empty dugout.”
As a part-time copy editor at the paper, I was embarrassed by, and angry about, the poll and the tone of the story, but not out of prudishness or an underdeveloped sense of humor. I object to journalists following the tendency in this culture to sexualize virtually every aspect of being human, which helps maintain a climate that fosters sexual abuse. That may seem a far-fetched claim: How does a stupid contest lead to abuse? It is easy to write it all off as trivial, but there are important ethical and political issues here.
Was it wrong to run the poll? The paper’s editor, Walker Lundy, said that the question was kicked around by male and female staffers before it ran and that he wasn’t troubled by the poll. The serious objections raised by other staff members after it ran made him reconsider, he said, but the positive reader response — 5,961 calls came in, with few complaints — left him comfortable with the decision.
Ken Doctor, managing editor/features, said that he thought the poll was fun and that neither of the two main objections raised were reason to not run it. First, the poll was criticized for being silly. But that, Doctor said, was the stated intent. Second, some thought it was sexist. But sexism typically is thought of as involving the objectification of women, Doctor said, and the staffers who raised that issue had a difficult time explaining how it was sexist. (I’ll ignore the fact that the story announcing the poll called it sexist, albeit tongue-in-cheek.)
Doctor said that a similar poll about women or a women’s team would be sexist and that he wouldn’t run it. “But you can do something like this (poll about men) that doesn’t do harm to anybody and is good-natured and good-humored,” Doctor said.
Those seem like good parries of the objections, but only on the surface. To counter the objection that something is silly by admitting it was meant to be silly avoids the question of just how juvenile a paper should get. But I am more concerned with the way the argument about sexism was made and refuted. I think the poll was sexist, but not in the way we are used to using that term. I have trouble calling this kind of thing sexist, just as I resist describing the hatred some people of color feel toward whites as racism. Sexism and racism both involve the power to oppress the group that is made subordinate.
Sexism is a social and political system that institutionalizes male power and keeps women subordinate. One of the central practices in this system is men’s control over sexual access to women. A key part of that practice is the objectification of women — turning women into objects to be used for sex — and the media regularly participates in that objectification.
So, it is misleading to call the objectification of men “sexist.” Men are not the routine targets of sexual violence in the way women are. Men do not suffer the systematic discrimination that women experience as women. No member of the Minnesota Twins is at risk in the way a woman is in this society.
However, the poll is sexist in that it adds to a climate that hurts women, children, and others in vulnerable positions. How does that work?
Baseball is a physical, but not a sexual, activity. Certain players may be physically attractive and sexually desirable to others, but that is not an essential part of their identity as baseball players. A “sexiest Twin” contest suggests that no matter what part of life we are discussing, we should not forget to focus on sex. Highlighting the sexual desirability of baseball players is one more way to commodify sex. And when sex is a commodity, something to be taken, we know who is at risk: In a culture that sexualizes everything and everyone, it is those who lack power who suffer most.
Doctor said he thought that argument would be valid if such items ran in the paper regularly. But the defense that it’s not so bad if we are bad only once in a while is weak. Newspapers exist in a world that constantly commodifies sexuality; a “sexiest Twin” story isn’t read in isolation from the rest of the culture. It isn’t harmless.
Doctor suggested that newspapers have trouble dealing with sexuality. “There is nothing wrong with realizing that sex is part of everyday life,” he said. I agree. The repression of sexuality has done much damage, but the solution is not the sexualization of all aspects of our lives. This culture desperately needs to better understand human sexuality; our failure to do so literally is killing people. Newspapers should address these complex issues, but with integrity. The Pioneer Press’ announcement that “Cheesecake competition is out; beefcake is in,” and suggestion that “objectifying” is “fun” didn’t help. The “sexiest Twin” poll was simply a cheap attempt to grab readers’ attention.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against fun. I like fun, and fun has its place in a newspaper. But the paper made a mistake on this one because it failed to think through the issue and ignored the implications of its decision.
The fact that so many readers responded positively to the poll does not justify it. Newspapers could publish a lot of material that could titillate readers but would be irresponsible. That’s not elitism; it’s simply acting ethically. A newspaper should be a space where issues — both the great questions of public life and the more intimate matters of everyday personal experience — can be discussed with intelligence and respect.