This post is not safe for work.
Here at Body Impolitic, where part of our core reason for the blog is to showcase Laurie’s nudes, we have thought a lot about the “NSFW” label on nude photographs. We generally use the label, for reasons I’ll get to at the end of the post.
A few years back, we linked without comment to Susie Bright’s rant on the topic.
NSFW is unmandated, unlegislated censorship — there’s no ballot to punch, no senator to harangue.
The great majority of NSFW warnings are the result of unconscious class bias, with the conceit of American ethnocentrism. It’s made a mockery of out of journalism and the First Amendment.
NSFW and its slippery slope of “assumptions” leads to stories and ideas of all kinds being banned, firewalled, off the grid in places from universities to major wire services.
Now, Roger Ebert is revisiting the question, following a column he did on Hugh Hefner with an embedded “Playmate of the Month” photograph (of Azizi Johari) from thirty-five years ago.
As a writer, it would have offended me to preface my article with a NSFW warning. It was unsightly — a typographical offense. It would contradict the point I was making. But others wrote me about strict rules at their companies. They faced discipline or dismissal. Co-workers seeing an offensive picture on their monitor might complain of sexual harassment, and so on. But what about the context of the photo? I wondered. Context didn’t matter. A nude was a nude. The assumption was that some people might be offended by all nudes.
I heard what they were saying. I went in and resized the photo, reducing it by 2/3, so that it was postage-stamp 100 pixel size (above) and no passer-by was likely to notice it. This created a stylistic abomination on the page, but no matter. I had acted prudently. Then I realized: I’d still left it possible for the photo to be enlarged by clicking! An unsuspecting reader might suddenly find Miss June 1975 regarding him from his entire monitor! I jumped in again and disabled that command.
This left me feeling more responsible, but less idealistic. I knew there might be people offended by the sight of a Playmate. I disagreed with them. I understood that there were places where a nude photo was inappropriate, and indeed agree that porn has no place in the workplace. But I didn’t consider the photograph pornographic. Having grown up in an America of repression and fanatic sin-mongering, I believe that Hefner’s influence was largely healthy and positive. In Europe, billboards and advertisements heedlessly show nipples.
Ebert goes on to compare his own personal reactions to Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” to the nude of Azizi Johari.
I’ll throw in one of Laurie’s photographs here to make the contrasts more interesting.
The two big questions in the NSFW controversy are:
1) What differentiates art nudes from erotic/pornographic nudes?
We have a peculiar cultural consensus that old paintings are art and contemporary photographs are erotica. In this case, the distinction is further confused by the fact that Playboy photographs are consciously and unambiguously intended to be erotica (and Ebert talks about how much more erotic he finds the photograph of Azizi Johari than he finds the painting). At the same time, it seems pretty clear that Titian also had conscious erotic intent in his painting, especially given the placement of the model’s hand. Laurie does not have conscious erotic intent in her photographs of nudes, and yet she is (as am I) very aware that any nude can have an erotic effect on the viewer. The same is true, to varying degrees, of most photographs of people, but nudes are still a special case.
In the end, the only important difference is in the eye of the beholder. Which takes us neatly to …
2) What are the workplace issues?
Susie Bright thinks the workplace issues are class-based, and have to do with the difference between prestigious publications and individuals or small publishers. This is actually less convincing given that Ebert’s column is in the Chicago Sun-Times, but she’s certainly not completely wrong, in the sense that browsing a Vanity Fair article with bare breasts will (often) get a different workplace reaction than browsing our site, or old Playmates online. Also, both Bright and Ebert are open about not having worked in offices for many years.
I work in a (liberal, friendly, open-minded) cube farm. I’m writing this blog from work and I’ve had all three pictures on my screen at various times. It’s an edgy choice. I’m at virtually no risk of getting fired, but I could easily get reprimanded. (At the same time, for a while it was part of my job to look at actual porn sites if their domain names were based on our company trademarks. That was much more nervewracking.) Because my job is not at stake, the biggest issue for me is not offending or triggering my co-workers. I really don’t want someone to come by and see something which bothers them, and I know the range of things that can bother people is very wide indeed. Certainly it would upset me to walk by a co-worker’s desk and see genuinely violent images, and I probably would ask the HR department to say something to the person involved (just as I do when one of my co-workers posts misogynist political cartoons where anyone who walks by is likely to see them).
And that’s why we tag our posts “NSFW.” Not because nudes are objectionable, not because Americans are prudes (see Ebert on this point), not because we think people shouldn’t look at the pictures. Obviously, we think people who are interested should look at the pictures. But because no one should lose their job for reading this blog, or looking at this site. And because all of us are bombarded with so many thousands of images every day that we can’t avoid and can’t screen, any little island of protection against the unexpected trigger is a relief.