Science Magazine Cover's Depiction of Trans Sex Workers Sparks Outrage


For the cover of its special HIV/AIDS issue, Science magazine chose to use an image of transgender sex workers in Jakarta. While the purported intent of doing so was to raise awareness about this “key affected population,” many have taken issue with the fact that the photo in question is pretty damn objectifying and offensive.

At Slantist, A.V. Flox unpacks the myriad issues with the cover choice: “Instead of showing viewers a humanizing glimpse into the lives of these women, the reader’s eye is drawn directly to their thighs, which are placed almost dead center on the cover,” she writes. Furthermore, she notes, of the forty-two Science covers to feature humans in the past decade, this was the the only one to sexualize and objectify its subjects (looking through the archives, it’s quite evident that this is a big departure from the typical Science cover). Furthermore, as Flox argues, this is also the only image visually “decapitate” its subjects — which is a particularly insensitive choice, given the fact that trans women are 28 percent more likely to experience physical violence than cisgendered women.

To make matters much worse: following the initial backlash, a Science editor took to Twitter and offered some obliviously offensive justification for the photo. When a Twitter user criticized the magazine for selecting an objectifying image, Jim Austin, editor of the Science Careers section, jumped in and responded, “You do realize they are transgender? Does it matter? That at least colors things, no?” Uh. How, exactly, would that realization “color things?” The implication here seems to be that objectifying a trans woman is not the same as objectifying a cis woman — like, “Oh, no, it’s not classic male gaze-oriented objectification of women, because these particular faceless, sexualized women are transgender!” Trans women are women. Objectifying women is objectifying women. So, no, it doesn’t matter.

When the same user insisted that the photo seemed like “just another dehumanizing male gazey image,” Austin replied, “Interesting to consider how those gazey males will feel when they find out.” … Um, sorry, excuse me? As though the cover photo is some kind of clever trap for heterosexual dudes. As though these women conforming to their own gender identities is surprising or shocking, some kind of plot twist. Are you fucking kidding me? (Fortunately, not all of the editorial staff is so misguided. Science editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt has since apologized on Twitter: “We apologize to those offended by recent cover. Intent was to highlight solutions to HIV, and it badly missed the mark,” she wrote.)

While awareness-raising is definitely a laudable goal, representing trans sex workers in such a dehumanized way does obvious harm — especially because dehumanizing both trans people and sex workers is such a horribly commonplace practice in our society. Regardless of whether the intent was pure, depicting these women in a stereotypically negative manner helps prop up the malignant logic behind transphobia and transmisogyny. As Katy Waldman puts it at Slate:

When you “raise awareness” about the plight of an underserved group of people, the type of awareness you raise matters. Transgender sex workers should not be expected to thank Science for “raising awareness” of them as erotic objects, jokes, or disease vectors.

The best way to raise awareness about the issues faced by a specific group of people is to depict them as people — not as faceless, hypersexualized stereotypes.

Image via Science.

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