Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Two strikes for Science magazine


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Science is a well-regarded, peer-reviewed magazine, but its recent cover stereotypes transgender women and further stigmatizes people living with HIV/AIDS. This isn't the first time we've called out the magazine for its HIV/AIDS coverage, so there seems to be a possible pattern emerging that is troubling to us and should be to readers as well.

It was Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) who brought this latest issue to our attention. She fired off a letter to Science publisher Alan I. Leshner after seeing the July 11 cover, which showed trans women in tight dresses and high heels with their heads cropped out of the photo. The cover was apparently meant to illustrate an article on battling HIV/AIDS in Southeast Asia.

Speier called out the magazine for what she said was its "sexist, racist, transphobic cover."

The cover, she added, "speaks volumes to how men in the science fields view and treat women. To use headless, sexualized women of color to illustrate treating the AIDS pandemic is extremely offensive."

More problematic was editor Jim Austin's comments suggesting that if men were drawn in by the exposed legs and tight dresses, it would be "interesting" to see how they felt once they discovered the women were transgender.

"The prevalence of the 'trans panic' defense, in which perpetrators of violent crimes justify their actions by claiming shock at the identity of a trans person, makes this abysmal motivation for Science 's choice of cover art," Speier wrote in her letter.

That, Speier continued, "is an abysmal motivation for the choice of cover. Transgender people are already disproportionately subject to hate crimes."

She added that the magazine's editor did apologize for the comment, but she wondered how such a cover was selected in the first place.

In 2010, we were critical of the magazine for publishing a paper by leading researchers at UCSF and UCLA that predicted that a "wave" of HIV drug resistant virus "will emerge over the next five years in San Francisco due to transmission from untreated individuals."

The problem with that prediction, which four years later has yet to occur, was that the modeling and calculations looking at the transmission of drug-resistant strains of HIV involved only one type of antiretroviral drug – non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors. It was not a study examining the actual levels of drug-resistant HIV and rates of transmission in San Francisco; in fact, other studies that did look at the information found HIV rates declining. Lately, they have leveled off.

The article stigmatized gay men, and concluded in one sentence that they posed a "great and immediate threat to global public health."

Now, four years later, it's a different article about a different part of the world, and a different population being stigmatized. What's next for Science? An article about how injection drug users will cause a worldwide outbreak of HIV cases?


Women stigmatized

In recent months, conservative American politicians, religious leaders, and other pundits have regularly sought to stigmatize women. Last month, it was men on the U.S. Supreme Court who ruled 5-4 that the Department of Health and Human Services regulations requiring employers to provide their female employees with no-cost access to contraception violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

This same court made it easier for anti-abortion protesters to harass women entering abortion clinics when it struck down Massachusetts' "buffer zone" law, which barred protesters from within 35 feet of clinics. Now, protesters are testing that decision by showing up at clinics in San Francisco, and local police say they can't do anything about it.

Congressmen have held all-male hearings on women's issues, and denigrated women who speak out in favor of laws that allow them to make decisions for their own bodies. Shock jock conservative radio hosts are no better, eagerly piling on with virtually identical talking points.

Women historically have earned less than men, and in the emerging tech sector women are sorely under-represented. Recent data from several tech firms show that their workforces are mostly white and male.

So yes, when a cover like the recent Science one comes along, it strikes a nerve. And it shows just how much change is needed so that women can be seen as equal counterparts, not as some sexed-up playthings.






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