Retraction Watch

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‘‘I don’t take whores in taxis”: Casual sexism in scientific journal leads to editor’s note

with 57 comments

Author Stuart Pimm.

Author Stuart Pimm

The Elsevier journal Biological Conservation has put out an apology, but not a retraction, after outcry over a bizarre, misogynistic non sequitur in a book review by Duke conservation biologist Stuart Pimm.

Here’s the introduction to Pimm’s review of Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth, which went online in October ahead of its December print publication:

I confess to having had a teenage crush on Julie Christie, the actress in ‘‘Doctor Zhivago’’ and ‘‘Darling.’’ In the latter film, she has a scandalous affair with a married intellectual. When, at last, he finds that she’s having other affairs too, he walks her to the subway, refusing to send her home in the usual taxi. When she asks why, he replies: ‘‘I don’t take whores in taxis.’’ I teach this as a metaphor for academic discourse. Now, I spend my life in scientific debate: it’s what makes science so effective. That some scientists desperately seek attention, however, does not make giving it to them desirable.

This sparked debate on Twitter almost immediately:

On November 20, the journal released the following note (paywalled):

We would like to inform our readers that parts of the book review Keeping Wild: Against the Domestication of the Earth by Stuart Pimm, Volume 180, pages 151–152 are denigrating to women. We have taken action to prevent such use of inappropriate language from recurring, and emphasize that the language used in this book review in no way reflects the policy or practice of Biological Conservation or Elsevier.

We reached out to Pimm for more details. He doubled down, initially sending us the following by email:

No, I do not think my wording was sexist.

In my review, I take a direct quote from a movie — the line is not mine — and I point out that I use it as a metaphor to criticise a man who has made exceedingly unpleasant about the conservation profession.  Now, my group may be exceptional — they are all women apart from one man.  A larger sample size is the Biodiversity Professionals Linkedin group, which appears to be more women than men.  So, the notion that this is about old white men criticising women rather falls short.  This is about someone using the bully pulpit of a large conservation organisation with a board almost entirely from industry to denigrate people who work hard to protect our world.

He followed that up with a phone call (emphasis ours):

What woman is being denigrated? The lead actress in the movie? It’s clear that I’m not – there’s no woman I’m criticising. I’m basically saying I believe this is an organization that started out conserving nature and is now dominated by industries that do not have the most salubrious environmental record.

The thing I find interesting and the reason I refused to change it: it seems entirely self-evident I wasn’t referring to any particular woman other than the line in the movie. This does not denigrate women, it bitterly criticizes a man and an organization that has dramatically changed its direction to be brutally critical of people who are trying to do great things.

In that first paragraph, I don’t see any way you can interpret that first paragraph and say I’m trying to offend a particular woman. You might say I shouldn’t say Julie Christie is an attractive actress – well, guilty as charged when it comes to that.

Go to the Oxford English Dictionary…and you should look up the definition of the word whore. It means prostitute of course, but it also means more generally someone who sells themselves to the highest bidder. When I used the word prostitute in the last paragraph, that’s in common usage for people selling themselves to the highest bidder, typically to industry.

The incident comes to light amidst a pattern of behavior by some scientists that may help explain why there are so few women in STEM. The casual sexism ends up in papers, lectures, and even textbooks. As scientist and blogger Isis put it, in a post about the sexist shirt worn on TV by one of the scientists behind the Philae comet lander:

If it were truly one shirt – one isolated incident in women’s decades long careers – I could see their point. A woman leaving science over one shirt might earn her the fragile flower label. But, it’s never just one shirt.

I may have stuck it out, but I don’t blame women who feel that all of the sex references make them feel too uncomfortable to interact with these men. The problem then rears its ugly head when, because you’ve avoided these men for all of their talk about their johnsons and where they’d like to stick them, that you start missing opportunities.

We asked Pimm to clarify that the journal editors had asked him to edit the review:

I told them I had no intention of doing that. They asked me to do the review, and they looked at it and then they published it. And then they said a bunch of people are complaining and we want to stuff the genie back in the bottle.

I was told a bunch of people complained but I do not know who the accusers are.

Editor Richard Primack, who we’ve written about before for his assertion that scientific misconduct is a rare phenomenon, told us the journal would also be publishing a letter to the editor about the review:

The Book Review by Pimm is not being retracted.  It just contains some offensive language.  We want to emphasize to our readers that this type of offensive language does not reflect the policy or practice our journal or Elsevier. We also have taken steps to ensure that this situation does not happen again.

Primack said a letter to the editor from a conservationist had

just been accepted that provides more details on why the book review is so offensive.

It is a policy of the publisher that we do not take down articles just for inappropriate language.

We look forward to the details.

Update 4 p.m. Eastern, 12/10/14: The letter to the editor is now available online.

Hat tip: René Malenfant

Written by Cat Ferguson

November 21st, 2014 at 11:40 am

  • Bobo November 21, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    I’m not entirely sure that I agree that the original comment was sexist, though use of the word “whore” was certainly out-of-place and jarring.

    But in either case, this is honestly one of the best pieces of investigative scientific journalism that I’ve seen in some time. Well done, RW.

    • MadGastronomer November 26, 2014 at 1:33 pm

      It doesn’t matter whether or not you agree that it’s sexist. It IS sexist.

      • Lewis Lorton November 26, 2014 at 3:47 pm

        Ah, I see.
        So you are in charge of making the ultimate and correct decision for all questionable issues?
        Lucky you turned up here.

  • Burnelli November 21, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    And so the professional offence takers have taken offence. Nothing unsurprising here. Move on.

    • Bobo November 21, 2014 at 1:17 pm

      In his review, Pimm says, “Now, I spend my life in scientific debate: it’s what makes science so effective.”

      We should at least have the conversation about whether calling one’s opponent in a debate a “whore” is effective science.

  • Neuroskeptic November 21, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    The movie quote is a red herring and clearly this has nothing to do with Julie Christie. The point is that Pimm called his opponent “a whore”. He did so in a roundabout way but his meaning was clear. Pimm’s saying “the line is not mine” shows a lack of integrity. He chose to use that line and he knew exactly what he was doing.

  • Lewis Lorton November 21, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    While I am not surprised about the response, it is a little disappointing that the editors of this site would make a value judgement about the phrasing in the review. ( ‘bizarre, misogynistic nonsequitor’).
    Why not accept Pimm’s explanation for the meaning as given?

  • Lucas Gallindo November 21, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    The use of the word “whore” was heavy-handed, but maybe the review needed it.

    The movie character is in fact mysoginistic, but I don’t think the guy who quotes it is necessarily sexist. In context, it is a metaphor. A weird, non-sequitur metaphor, but a metaphor indeed.

    Anyhow, the discussion is relevant.

    • MadGastronomer November 26, 2014 at 1:35 pm

      He quotes a misogynist line with approval. He is implicitly supporting it. It’s misogynist.

  • Eco-feminist November 21, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    I agree that Stuart Pimm is smart enough to know what he was doing, and also to choose a different metaphor if he was inclined to leave women and whores out of the conversation.

    And for those depending on OED for social cues:

  • Red Herring November 21, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Why do feminists and noble protectors of the female sex complain about references to whores? Men can be whores, too. In fact, a study has shown that the frequency of males that have at some point in life prostituted themselves (in the literal sense) is twice the number for women. Taking references to whores as an insult to women is to belittle the problems for men. In fact, these feminists are just being plain sexist.
    I’ll leave it at that. These types of discussions don’t really belong on this blog.

  • iv November 21, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    When I first read it I couldn’t see the sexism. When I read it second time I couldn’t see the sexism.
    But I do feel tired of the “professional offence takers” (as the above commenter rightly noted), who constantly read behind the lines and find -isms, -phobias and any other kind of perceived incorrectnesses. And feel also glad to see that I am not the only one who uses “his/hers”(!) judgement to understand a writer’s/speaker’s true intentions.
    That said, I am more inclined to considering the projection of one’s personal interpretation of someone else’s words to that someone’s intentions to be selfish and offensive. Maybe I am wrong or maybe I am happy.

    PS: I am neither the writer of the review, nor do I know him. I am just honestly tired of this paranoia-isms.

  • Leonid Schneider November 21, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    “I teach this as a metaphor for academic discourse”, now there is something for Pimm’s young female students to learn: Academia is still ruled by misogynistic little patriarchs with some hidden issues. Pathetic.

    • maria November 21, 2014 at 2:33 pm

      Thought that was unintentionally hilarious but (also unintentionally) potentially accurate :). Am also impressed with the level of Elsevier QA, as it seems as if other people looked at this text before it was published and saw absolutely nothing potentially offensive there. It’s only after social media reacted that editors decided to add a note :). I always wonder in these cases what the reaction would be if instead of terms like “whore”, the quote used a racially-charged or religiously-charged term.

      • RAVaught November 24, 2014 at 9:02 am

        Maria, one wonders why anyone should moderate their speech(or writing) to avoid being “potentially offensive”, particularly being “potentially offensive” to people who have proven repeatedly that they take narcissistic delight in taking offense at everything while refusing to live by the same standards that they demand.

        The “people who have proven repeatedly that they take narcissistic delight in taking offense at everything while refusing to live by the same standards that they demand” remark is not targeted at anyone in particular that has responded to this article, but rather towards the latest wave of feminists as represented by the following articles:

        -Anita Sarkeesian – Feminist Frequency
        – The Matt Taylor Incident
        (Here is a clear definition, in their own words, of the hypocrisy)
        (See the image at the bottom of article and reference Matt Taylor for
        example of Hypocrisy)
        -The Hobby Lobby Case –
        – The Daily Show –
        – The Surgeons Career –

        • Conrad Seitz MD November 24, 2014 at 7:06 pm

          The links which RAVaught posted in his/her comment seem to be heavily weighted to a “conservative” point of view, making me feel repetitive (not to mention intellectually challenged) in going over more than one of them. Thus I am trying to be brief in disagreeing with him/her.
          In reference to Hobby Lobby, I wasn’t aware that feminists had any special animus against that particular Supreme Court decision other than the religious freedom issue (that is, the religious freedoms of the owners of Hobby Lobby versus the religious freedoms of their employees); how naive I was/am!
          In reference to the Lazar Greenfield editorial of 2011, there are two potential reasons why Dr. Greenfield lost his presidency-elect status in the ACS and resigned altogether: 1) his editorial was THAT offensive; or 2) his opinion on other subjects was unpopular. 1) is arguable; 2) hasn’t even been brought up. I favor 2) because Dr. G was, unlike the vast majority of surgeons in this country, supportive of “Obamacare.” Recall that surgeons, as a class, are highly Republican.
          Unfortunately, that reason is not acceptable as an admitted rationalization to the majority of Republicans. So the “sexism” reason is the only one that is remarked upon (it fits the Republican worldview, whereas the other does not; but why would the ACS cave in to feminists?)

          This is not to say that Dr. G’s sexism and foot in mouth syndrome are not at least slightly objectionable; even a great surgeon can be a jerk on occasion.

          As to the current controversy, it is clear to me that the reference to “whores in taxis” was irrelevant and objectionable, from a tastefulness perspective as well as other points of view. The editor should have insisted that the writer remove it, particularly because it was irrelevant, even if the writer’s personal opinion was that the people in question were “sell-outs” (the meaning is nearly the same as “whore” but not sexist, therefore to be preferred.) I see that, given the journal’s policy, an apology but not a retraction is in order; after all, it is an opinion piece, not research.

          For what it’s worth, I’m an Independent, but it does seem to me that RAVaught is limiting reading material to right wing publications, not a good way to obtain unbiased reality-related documents.

          • RAVaught November 26, 2014 at 7:11 am

            Actually, I am politically neutral. If I were to label myself it would be neither right nor left, but rather Libertarian. However, that was not the point of the links, but rather just a quick grab bag selection of issues which could be researched further that illustrate the fact that the general group of people, particularly the new breed of feminist, getting offended at the ‘whore’ comment get offended at the drop of a hat anyway.

            There is actually a really interesting blogger named Maggie McNeil who writes ‘The Honest Courtesan’. Now, this woman was a former self-proclaimed whore. If she, as a woman, can call it what it is even given that it was her chosen profession for the majority of life without taking offense, then what rational basis is there for taking offense at Pimm’s statement? The word describes a set of actions that is appropriate to the situation. Maybe folks should grow up and get some thicker skin.

        • maria November 24, 2014 at 7:37 pm

          In my opinion (and it’s just that,people can disagree :)), we moderate our speech, dress, etc. all the time in professional settings or venues. By we, I mean both men and women. I can’t speak for academia, but in industry where I work there are plenty of words we’d be advised not to use at work, a dress code of sorts (informal, but it exists) and more. Some of these restrictions seem odd to me, but people abide by them because well, those are the rules of the place of employment. I understand people disagree about language which should or should be used in a book review, but if it’s considered part of one’s professional presence, people will object to some of the language on those grounds alone. This doesn’t mean I advocate for people to lose their job or title, etc. because of some ill-chosen metaphor – that seems completely extreme. Just trying to explain where I think some people are coming from – and I could very well be wrong.

  • Kate November 21, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    As a women who has never experienced any serious sexism in academia, I find this conversation quite alarming. If I were a man I’d be terrified to take on the sort of woman who is offended by a quotation from a movie.

    • maria November 21, 2014 at 2:44 pm

      Or, as a professional, one could think twice about using a word like “whore” in such a review, even if that meant calling on more than one’s appreciation for Julie Christie movies.

  • Red Herring November 21, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    On request, here is a news story about the male/female prostitute ratio study. The original study is in Swedish, sorry:

  • John T. Gregg, MD November 21, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    Kate – and THAT is the problem – there are way too many in academia and the media who appear to look for reasons to be offended.
    If you are a serious student of the environment – and that comes in all sizes, genders, styles and political stances – it is a brutal word of opinion and reality – take your position and defend it – wear a cup and go for it.
    ( …and waiting for the offense provoked by THAT phrase…)

  • John Elder November 21, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    Why would, as one commenter actually said, anyone ever decide to ignore merits of an argument for any reason, other than those very merits (evidence, etc.)? That is just ignorant and foolish. A great deal of (still-current) human medicine, for example, is based on torture experiments conducted on humans by Nazi scientists. I don’t see anyone throwing out the information because it was done as torture on Jews and Poles and Russian prisoners, etc.

    • JSimon November 28, 2014 at 5:54 pm

      “A great deal of (still-current) human medicine, for example, is based on torture experiments conducted on humans by Nazi scientists. ” Do you have ANY references that would support this? I believe that the great majority of the experiments were unscientific, and we learned very little Biology/Medicine from it. As for throwing out information that is the result of torture, there are at least two good reasons to do it: 1. You do not want experiments to be replicated, or encourage others to do similar experiments “for the greater good”; 2. There is a certain amount of trust when using data, unless you have some confidence that the authors reported everything faithfully (lab conditions, outcomes, absence of statistical vices, etc.) What kind of confidence should one have on the moral integrity of criminals?

  • John Elder November 21, 2014 at 4:18 pm

    PS: my doctorate was earned on the basis of information and effort that required corruption by all emotion, in service of uncorrupted fact. Presumably all Ph.D. and similar research degrees require such accomplishment. Presumably science itself excludes substitution of emotion for scientific method. Has that changed?

    • John Elder November 21, 2014 at 4:20 pm

      error: to the moderator: meant to insert the word “exclusion of” before “corruption.” TY

  • Hutch November 21, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    I would like to explore more precisely what has caused some people to be offended. Would everything be acceptable if the actor had used the word “prostitute” instead of “whore”? If so, is that because “prostitute” is the less colloquial term, although it certainly is also often used as a term of abuse? Or is it that “prostitute” is gender neutral, whereas “whore” tends to imply a woman? What if rather than mentioning prostitution, the actor had said something about “selling out to the highest bidder”? That also implies a lack of morality, but not necessarily in a sexual context. Obviously Pimm wanted to make the point about money winning over scruples, which the subject of the criticism would not much like whether the language is polite or coarse, but the sentiment behind such criticism is nothing to offend others; it can only be the language that raised hackles.
    I do also wonder whether there is a difference in sensibility to the word “whore” between Europe and North America. I ask these questions because I am genuinely surprised what all the fuss is about.

    • maria November 21, 2014 at 5:19 pm

      As with a lot of things, the context is probably part of it. The author indulges in some reverie about Julie Christie’s movies which manages to add unnecessary sexual overtones to a point about selling off to a higher bidder which could be made in many, many other ways. If he’d made the same point in the same way in a casual blog post, people may still have objected to the specific quote/term but it would have been less jarring than in the case of a published review. I do think there’s a generational divide here as well as not necessarily paying attention to the fact that the readership for a scholarly article is maybe wider and broader than it used to be.

  • Leonid Schneider November 21, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    OK, now I got it. The usage of the rude word “whore” is what appears here to be the only problem, also for the Elsevier editors. Not the fact that Pimm admires bigamy and promiscuity in men, while denies women same rights, otherwise they become whores, stripped of all respect and dignity. Women should know their place, says Mr Pimm and some of the commenters here seem to agree.

    • ammmmmg November 21, 2014 at 7:01 pm

      In what perverse universe do you live that you managed to understand Pimm as calling women whores? As put by Pimm: “I point out that I use it [“whore”] as a metaphor to criticise a man”. Calm down and RTFA, there’s nothing to be offended about here. Perhaps crude language, but even at that it is rather gender-neutral, so this is most certainly not a feminist cause, nor is the piece putting down women in any way.

      I’m saddened to see that the Social Justice Warriors have now moved to science, too
      (first the comet lander and the shirt on Matt Taylor, now this).

  • Lewis Lorton November 21, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    Leonid Schneider
    Not the fact that Pimm admires bigamy and promiscuity in men, while denies women same rights, otherwise they become whores, stripped of all respect and dignity. Women should know their place, says Mr Pimm and some of the commenters here seem to agree.

    It isn’t clear where this conclusion comes from.
    Is this an inference from the quotes above or are you referring to some other statements?
    To quote from a multitude of tv lawyer shows, your statement seems to be based on “facts not in evidence”.

  • KarlVonMox November 21, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    Some people really are determined to be offended, arent they?

  • iv November 22, 2014 at 7:46 am

    Definitely yes. And I would be very interested to learn what else these people have in common from a sociological and psychological perspective, if such a study should ever exist.

    Because most of the time, the fuss is so nonsense as if animal rights defenders would be complaining about Schrodinger using a cat in his example…

  • Lewis Lorton November 22, 2014 at 8:01 am

    Because most of the time, the fuss is so nonsense as if animal rights defenders would be complaining about Schrodinger using a cat in his example…

    What an amazingly on point comment.
    Certainly the best summing up of how I see this issue. I hope that this analogy gets to Pimm.

    I am interested in seeing this letter to the editor that explains how this person is offended.
    So similar to the ruckus about the word ‘niggardly’ as described here – .

    One specific comment struck me “the teacher made a bad decision by teaching the word because it was inappropriate for that grade level.”
    Clearly Pimm made a arguably bad decision about using that word considering the grade level.

  • littlegreyrabbit November 22, 2014 at 8:14 am

    I find it bit hard to make head or tail of Pimm’s metaphor. Who are the whores here? What are the metaphorical taxis that he is refusing to pay for? Where are the whores going in these taxis? Are they in anyway inhibited in reaching this destination by Pimm’s refusal to stump up a taxi fare? Are the whores really whores or simply people who have consensual relations with people other than Pimm?

    If he really teaches this as a metaphor for academic discourse, I wonder what his students make of it? I don’t see why one couldn’t use the word whore in a metaphor, but I can’t quite work this one out. For example I rather like Stanley Baldwin’s description of media proprietors: “All power and no responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.” Although it could be said Baldwin rather over-estimated the actual influence of harlots.

    • Bobo November 22, 2014 at 11:10 am

      The “whores” are people with whom Pimm disagrees (because they have “sold out” to industry). “Taxis” are books written by opponents of the “whores”, because they contain the whores’ names and arguments.

    • Sciencegirl December 1, 2014 at 11:35 am

      You are jumping into the middle of an ongoing debate. He is calling Peter Karieva and others at The Nature Conservancy, which has Board members from Merck, Goldman Sachs, Duke Energy, whores, because Pimm thinks they advocate giving up on the conservation of nature.

  • Dave Langers November 22, 2014 at 9:56 am

    I waited a day commenting here because I did not quite get the “metaphor”, I did not understand why a movie quote would be offensive, I am unsure why RW added some “emphasis ours” to a couple of sentences, and I do not comprehend why people always have to be labeled mysogenist if they are not overt feminists.
    What is wrong with whores (or gigolos for that matter; provided they are not unvoluntarily forced into the profession)? Please stop marginalising women (and men) who earn a decent living like that: without them I bet rape statistics would explode. I would love to have a whore as a neighbour over a priest or a politician anytime. I do hope we are beyond puritanism. And especially scientist should stick to the facts. Likely all of us would have phrased things differently ourselves, but that is not an argument, is it?
    Also, that quick reference to the shirt of the Rosetta guy “sneaked in” for no obvious reason. One of the saddest stories in public science of late (not the shirt, but the indignation that followed, demolishing the poor guy completely). In the same week Kim Kardashian was applauded for reducing womenkind to mounts of flesh.
    This is the first comment sequence where I miss the thumbs up/down feature. I’d like to quote Christopher Hitchens: “I’ve been told ‘that’s offensive’ as if those two words constitute and argument or a comment. Not to me they don’t.”

    • johnalanpascoe November 24, 2014 at 3:51 am

      “What’s wrong with whores…”
      Maybe you should ask Pimm, since unless he thinks there is something wrong with them his metaphor makes no sense.

  • Vivienne November 22, 2014 at 10:59 am

    I haven’t seen the movie (and I doubt many of Pimm’s students have), but the quote taken out of context does seem sexist to me. A *married* man denigrates his *mistress* for having other affairs? Effectively saying that it’s fine for him to cheat on his wife, but not for her to consensually take other lovers? And that she no longer deserves his respect and consideration because of it? Now, again, I haven’t seen the movie so maybe there are mitigating circumstances, but out of context the quote does seem sexist and offensive. The women in question is not a prostitute, and the comment was clearly meant to be disparaging to her.

    As for the use of the word ‘whore’ out of its context, I think the editors and Pimm should have known better than to include it regardless of how it was applied. It is well established that there are certain words, e.g. “fuck”, that are unprofessional in academic contexts even though “intercourse” itself is perfectly acceptable.

    Overall, Elsevier itself is a business, and I think they have the right to request revisions or pull the article if they believe it is in the interest of their consumer base to do so. I think this incident could generously be characterized as an accident committed by Pimm and the publisher, one that was later recognized by the wisdom of the crowd and rectified. As someone who has published in this particular journal, I am glad they made that decision.

    I believe that Pimm did not intend for his writing to be sexist. However, the point in writing articles like this is to communicate with your audience, many of whom, as Pimm himself said, are female. If you alienate them right off the bat by using language that can easily be construed as misogynistic (even if that wasn’t your intention), you’re simply not doing a good job of communicating your science.

    • Leonid Schneider November 23, 2014 at 5:51 am

      I read through again and Pimm does appear to associate himself with the film’s protagonist who is cheated by “whores”. In the end, the detailed content of the film doesn’t matter, it is how he interprets it.

  • Jonathan Badger November 22, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    I find it bit hard to make head or tail of Pimm’s metaphor. Who are the whores here? What are the metaphorical taxis that he is refusing to pay for? Where are the whores going in these taxis?

    An awful lot of book reviews (even in the sciences) seem to be like this, though. Full of pop cultural references and other such nonsense. And like you mention, it isn’t as if the metaphor even makes sense in context. Whether or not it is “sexist”, it was a stupid and unprofessional comment and presumably was an attempt to insult the author of the book.

    In a review of a science book, I do not care if the reviewer was a fan of Julie Christie and quote dialogue from her movies. I only want to know two things 1) Is the book accurate and 2) Is the book well written.

  • Leonid Schneider November 23, 2014 at 5:56 am

    Amazing, now I had a small taste of what women experience who speak out against misogyny and discrimination. And I received such replies not from (male) truck drivers and builders, but from scientists, probably mostly with PhDs!

    • Dave Langers November 23, 2014 at 8:02 am

      You had a taste of two sides in an evolving debate. On both sides you will find men and women.
      Picking up on the Rosetta TV incident: Isn’t it funny (i.e.: not) how someone commenting on what a female scientist wears is immediately labeled as a sexist because it should be about what she does rather than about how she looks, whereas someone commenting on a male scientist’s shirt immediately rallies support from all over the globe despite the fact that he did an absolutely magnificent job in his science?
      I wish we would have a discussion based on arguments rather than cramping up in political correctness, striving towards gender equality rather than either pro-male or pro-female positions.
      In my perception, the above “amazing” contribution to the discussion contains no argument, but a lot of cramps, unfortunately. Perhaps the fact that this discussion lives among people with PhDs too suggests that there are two sides to the story, Leonid. As a scientist, you should let that observation inform your opinion; you are interpreting what you see from what you deem should be the outcome. That is fine for a truck driver perhaps, but not for us scientists.

      • Bobo November 26, 2014 at 8:18 pm

        Women have the common sense not to wear shirts with scantily clad men on them. Especially at the workplace. And especially on television. If they did wear such things, then it would be right to call them out on it.

        • Leonid Schneider November 27, 2014 at 4:07 am

          actually, women probably have just as much or as little common sense as men. But wearing such shirts or saying things Pimm said is much more socially acceptable for men.

  • johnalanpascoe November 24, 2014 at 4:04 am

    That Pimm is quoting is completely beside the point, since he uses the quote as a metaphor. Although men may indeed also perform sex work, whore is generally not a gender-neutral word. Furthermore the context given in the article (the only context I have, I haven’t seen the movie) heavily implies it’s meant to apply to a woman in this case.

    Using this quote as a metaphor implies that Pimm agrees with the value judgement applied to Christie’s character in the movie, and by extension to (female) prostitutes.

    By using ‘whore’ as an insult, you are implying that being a whore is a bad thing to be, and that is the problem with Pimm’s words.

  • Lewis Lorton November 24, 2014 at 11:11 am

    By using ‘whore’ as an insult, you are implying that being a whore is a bad thing to be, and that is the problem with Pimm’s words.

    Are you saying that being a whore, in the sense that one allows oneself to be used for money, is a good thing?
    Are value judgements of any sort not allowed because someone takes offense? If I call a surgeon a butcher, should actual real-life butchers take offense and start picketing my house?
    Perhaps all those that they have the absolute right to go through life parsing every utterance for its possible potential to offend should make a list of what can and cannot be said. That way, when I see someone with a list, I know who to ignore.

    • Bobo November 24, 2014 at 1:07 pm

      The character in the movie is not called a whore because she is allowing herself to be used for money. She is called a whore because she is sexually involved with a married man.

      Another reason that Pimm’s analogy makes no sense.

      • Lewis Lorton November 24, 2014 at 2:04 pm

        I haven’t seen the movie so the analogy makes no sense to me either.
        But that doesn’t seem to be the point of the outrage which seems to stem from the use of the word.
        Forget the analogy, which may be bad in itself, should he not use the word ‘whore’ at all?
        If I say ‘I went ‘whoring’ around’ is that offensive?
        If I say that the environment organizations are whores for big business, is that offensive?
        There seems to be some very vague criteria and lines that I don’t perceive.

  • Hutch November 24, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    The offence that this has clearly caused still puzzles me.

    Is the character in the film misogynistic?
    Even if I had been unfaithful to my last partner, if I discover that my new partner has been secretly unfaithful to me I am going to be pretty sad and angry. That is human nature, regardless of the sex roles. Even if one approves of sex-workers oneself, it is not an inappropriate insult to compare their promiscuity to the behaviour of the unfaithful partner. The gender non-neutral term “whore” was also appropriate given that the insult was directed at someone female, and that in anger one wants to use a coarse term. So, I can’t really see any evidence from the excerpt that the male character is behaving misogynistically. He might now despise this woman, but not women in general.

    Is Pimm being misogynistic in citing this section of film?
    Classic fiction is full of misogynist characters, and feminist literature too needs misogynists as villains. Alluding to episodes involving such characters cannot necessarily be taken as evidence that one approves of their misogyny. The more convincing argument is that Pimm could have chosen many other film scenes with a similar message, but chose one that used the word “whore”. I sense that the strongest objection to this word is not its use by the character in the film but its common usage in everyday language as a misogynistic insult. Maybe that’s true. Personally I think that “whore” is usually used as an insult specifically to denigrate promiscuous or mercenary behaviour, without any implication about women more generally. Similarly I don’t feel that the term “cowboy”, as applied to unscrupulous builders, implies a general denigration of men.

    • maria November 24, 2014 at 4:55 pm

      I think it’s the latter hypothesis in your comment: if Pimm had simply said “X is a whore for selling out, etc.” people would think – well, is that word appropriate in the context of a book review ? just call him a sellout, etc. By introducing that entire sexualized situation from a movie where the word is applied to a woman, etc. in a particular situation, he introduces a slew of issues which I am sure he didn’t mean to refer to and which have nothing to do with his main point. And he opens himself up for exactly this speculation – it just seems like a very self-indulgent thing to do which backfired. All of this could have been avoided if some editor would have simply said “don’t see how your crush on Julie Christie and this movie have much to do with the review, make your point using a less offensive term”.

  • Zeb November 25, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    “… the sexist shirt worn on TV by one of the scientists behind the Philae comet lander”: So it’s just a given that that shirt was sexist?

    • Conrad Seitz MD December 10, 2014 at 5:22 pm

      The “sexist” shirt: I don’t think it really captures the image when you just say the shirt was “sexist.” In actually looking at the shirt, you will see that it is printed with multiple images of large-breasted women dressed in skimpy suits of the type seen in science fiction cartoons like Heavy Metal. The images aren’t individually large enough to see clearly unless you are quite close. Nonetheless, once you recognize what the shirt depicts (and celebrates): the adolescent sexual fantasy pictures of Heavy Metal. Now is that sexist? Or just out of place and potentially offensive? I’d say that shirt represents a fashion nightmare. I have very similar shirts that depict other robust images that might be considered acceptable in such a social situation, but if I owned that particular shirt I would not wear it except to the beach.
      Is it offensive? Yes, a least a little. Your response may vary.

    • Conrad Seitz MD December 10, 2014 at 5:24 pm

      I have one shirt showing a dragon in gold and black that I think would be acceptable.

  • Lewis Lorton November 25, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    I went back and read the blog post referred to above (“scientist and blogger Isis put it, in a post” ) and understood what the blogger was saying – although it seems that the object of her wrath was misplaced.
    Then I went back a day and read her previous post about an attitude survey, interesting. But the shocker was that she illustrated it with a gif of Data slapping Dr. Crusher.
    Obviously a shocker and as completely unintelligible as Dr. Pimm’s remark but not much complaining resulted.
    Clearly she is using an out of place example to make a statement and using a trope about men to do it.

  • Bobo December 10, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    The response letter has now been published online:

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