“Not Safe for Work” Revisited

Debbie says:

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.

Azizi Johari, African-American nude woman, Playmate of the Month from 1975. She's sitting on a couch, nipples showing, pubic hair concealed by crossed legs, looking at the camera

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.

Venus of Urbino painting, reclining nude woman on a couch with one hand on her genitals

I’ll throw in one of Laurie’s photographs here to make the contrasts more interesting.

fat African American woman lying on a couch

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.

11 thoughts on ““Not Safe for Work” Revisited

  1. Although I work in a cube farm with nobody easily able to see my screen, I appreciate NSFW warnings. I assume my web surfing is monitored and am not sure what rules could be used against me, if someone wanted to. Sometimes I don’t want to have nudity (or other things) in my face, and I don’t want visitors to be startled by them.

    I read Susie Bright’s comments when she first published them and rolled my eyes at her outrage and position of privilege.

  2. Hi Laurie, thanks for revisiting this. It’s interesting to consider that the Sun-Times does publish nudes (in a news or review context) in their paper version, as does every other daily paper of record. It’s the online issue, of contemporary representation, that kicks in the NSFW button. Even Ebert’s text, the typical issues he discusses in film reviews (which would apply to any serious critic) get fire walled and nanny- gated.

    The kind of words, pictures, & ideas that are censored by NSFW jingoism reduce the “protected” reader to a kindergarden version of 1984.

    I’m glad Ms. Fox can still roll her eyes despite the effect of blinders.

  3. These issues are symptomatic of a number of root causes.

    a) Authoritarianism. In America, we are increasingly trained to fear authority, and we are increasingly constrained by laws, rules, and taboos to the point where it is impossible to live without constantly violating many of these contradictory, overlapping laws, rules and taboos.

    b) Economic inequality. Why are we all worried about losing our jobs? Because it’s hard to find another. The greater the income inequality, the less power the workers have when compared to the corporations, the less freedom we have to be individuals.

    c) Sexual inequality. In this case, not the male-vs-female type, but the authoritarian type. Corporations and the powerful are allowed, no, expected to use sex as a sales tool. It is perfectly acceptable for a Victoria’s Secret model in a brassiere to appear on your TV during prime time if the goal is to sell stuff. But individuals are disempowered and less free: it is completely unacceptable for a woman to wear only a bra (to say nothing of nothing) to work. It is even unacceptable for me to watch the Victoria’s Secret video on my computer at work, even if I work at the place that broadcasts the same image to my dining room.

    The powerful are laying claim to everything that they can, and denying everything to the rest of us for fear of losing our means to survive. This inequality must be challenged, because we are increasingly becoming slaves to the economic terrorism of the workplace, and authoritarian control.

  4. Maybe it’s as simple as when a person is at work they are expected to use the company owned Internet for that work? And unless their work concerns erotic/pornographic material then the site may reasonably be considered off limits. My work place deems all kinds of sites “NSFW”… porn, gambling, “entertainment”, sport sties, etc. Only recently were we able to get YouTube and Facebook unblocked because it has some use in our work. It’s a pain, but I don’t consider it a censorship issue. It’s their Internet access and worktime afterall.

  5. Funny, my biggest problem with NSFW warnings (which in my experience is a decidedly different issue from nanny software) is completely different.

    My problem is with the term itself, which assumes an awful lot about work. For some people work IS porn. The term presumes that we all (or those of us worth mentioning) work in environments where nudity on a computer monitor is problematic.

    90% of my work experience has been in places where there would be no problem with the content other than the fact that it wasn’t work.

  6. Wow, great comments!

    Albatross, I really like that framing of sexual inequality by corporate vs. individual distribution.

    Susie, I wouldn’t have remembered your NSFW post from three years ago if it hadn’t had a real effect on me.

    Lizzie, the choice issue is why Laurie and I use the NSFW label.

    Samba, yes, but you don’t see gambling and sports sites, or even serious pictures of violence, labeled NSFW.

    Marlene, great point! It should be NSFM(ost)W.

  7. My experiences with the kind of work environment where the boss is looking over your shoulder date back to pre-internet-at-work days when dinosaurs roamed the earth and in-office ethernet email was new.

    But the privileges of rank made the work place very fragile for anyone who did anything not related to work on the premises. Given the tech level of time time Big Brother was as active as he could be. Our office manager spent his evenings monitoring the buffer memories, reading every worker’s every keystroke. I know because he threatened to fire me for writing a novel on a company computer during my lunch hour. I never used a minute of the employer’s time and never saved a word on the system. I saved the material on a diskette brought from home, but the keystrokes still existed in the buffer memory. They couldn’t quite make a case for firing me for typing during my lunch hour.

    This manager died at work (can’t say I grieved to hear it–he was such a gleefully vicious person I couldn’t spit out the word “sorry” when I heard it. I just said, “Oh.”). However, I would imagine that if he had survived the stroke that killed him and lived to see employees surfing the web during work the very prospect of that would have done him in on the spot, whether the onscreen material was “safe” or not “safe.”

    Interestingly on the subject of “nonwork activities at work” one of the senior partners in this same law firm had one of my fellow word processors transcribe his dictated novel into the system and print it out as part of his work duties. The senior partner’s novel, by the way, never saw the light of day, by the way. Mine was published, and others since have been published as well.

  8. Huh. My thoughts go to the work of Michel Foucault and his writings about authority and prison. He constructed a thought experiement of the prison wherein with only one or two guards, and no privacy or ability to know if and or when the inmates were being watched, the inmates began to police and guard themselves, falling into the trap of authoritarianism imposed upon themselves. I don’t know of any prison that actually will work in, but it sure sounds like the average cube farm American workspace to me. Thoughts?

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