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  “Not Safe for Work” is a reprisal of an article published by Bitch magazine in their Winter 2004 issue. While the article was less sophisticated than this current one in many respects, and probably deserved to be cut down from 1,500 words to a mere 500, other edits were more problematic: “pornography” was in one instance changed to read “frisky pictures” a choice that both trivialized the very point I was making even as it worked to transform my voice. I’m not one to employ “frisky” in my writing, to say the least: whether they were trying to feminize my words or even “faggotize” it (men in trendy-something feminist publications seem to be required to channel rape-apologist Dan Savage on occasion), the change was not appropriate. Nor, for that matter, was its placement in the Love it/Shove it section. If male voices are to be included in a publication that professes to know that patriarchy exists, they should be treated differently —not better—but with care to not have a male saying that pornography is, well, harmless sounding “frisky pictures.”    
Not Safe for Work:
The Reasonable Patriarch Standard

By Richard Leader

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One of the most ubiquitous images on the internet during the days of its adolescence was that of the Blue Ribbon. Pioneered by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF.org), the Blue Ribbon Campaign was used to encourage website operators to link back to the Foundation’s information on threats to unrestricted free-speech. In 1996, the most pressing of such threats was the Communications Decency Act: two separate components of it targeted indecent and obscene speech. While various efforts on the part of institutions such as the American Civil Liberties Union resulted in the blocking of the indecent clause, many of the issues would be up in the air for several years. This forced further rallies from free-speech advocates when other bills were introduced, such as the Child Online Protection Act that was struck down in 1999 just before Bill Clinton would sign the Children’s Internet Protection Act into the law books.

Now that the internet has survived into adulthood and is more integrated into everyday life, the sense of stability quieting alarmists on both sides, the EFF has struggled to remain relevent. Though the Blue Ribbon can still be found adorning websites, sightings of it are fairly rare: the Campaign was the sixth most linked to website in 1996 according to Webcrawler’s ranking system and yet today, using Alexa Internet’s “traffic rank” feature, 11,609 other websites prove to be more popular. In a desperate bid for attention, the EFF has worked to become a clearinghouse for information on peer-to-peer filesharing (Napster et al.) and what it has cutely described as “Blogger Rights,” cashing in on all the latest masculine media obsessions.

The realm of free-speech advocacy is a particularly macho one: while privacy and even anynonymity are seen as fundamental rights of men, who would like to imagine that they use this power to keep the authority of government and big business in check (rather than deploying such anonymity to verbally abuse, silence, and further subordinate others, as is more often the case), the true colors of such organizations can be seen in how they interact with feminists. When the American Civil Liberties Union asserted in 1991 that they owned the letters “ACLU” and were willing to use the force of law to restrict the speech of Nikki Craft and her own group, Always Causing Legal Unrest, it becomes clear that such free-speech advocates are more interested in promoting the rights and voices of patriarchs first and foremost. The call for unfettered anonymity is a function of the desire to create a clear division between men’s online and offline identities; this is similar to the split between the alleged public and private spheres of existence that have historically given men free reign to abuse their intimate partners in private.

Feminists dependent upon the pornographic and prostitution industries for their livelihoods, however, have been traditionally keen on attaching themselves to such free-speech efforts. Such moves were not just made to paint their feminist sisters and sometimes critics as oppressive agents (using lies to present the Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon anti-porn ordinance as censorship rather than legal recourse for women who had suffered physical harm in the creation of pornography), but also out of jealousy for their male peers who have been able to further their careers under the aegis of being speech-protectors. Even male librarians were able to cash in on the free-speech paranoia over the imposition of “search filters” to limit the content available to children, especially those men working in wealthy and predominantly white districts that could afford to reject certain government funding and still remain operable, while female librarians were often put in the dangerous position of having to physically eject men from the premises who were willfully disregarding rules about publicly viewing and displaying pornographic content—a less cerebral and politically rewarding task for these women, to be sure.

Despite the decade of fear surrounding governmental censorship, few people have objected to the emerging paradigm of internet censorship that operates at both the personal and the corporate level. This phenomenon is symptomatic of the popularization of the expressions “Not Safe for Work” (NSFW) and the less common “Safe for Work” (SFW), warnings that internet users give with hyperlinks: the acronyms work to alert others that the link might lead to objectionable content that might potentially get the viewer into trouble if displayed at the workplace. Almost invariably this material is pornography.

Such warnings are hardly genuine, however: NSFW has become an advertising beacon, a virtual red-light district. Just as the pornographic industry of yore freely added additional letters for their “XXX” ratings, many are now hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the expression by registering domains such as NSFW.com and NS4W.com. The latter was a weblog that once advertised itself with the tagline, “stuff you can get fired for.” Many websites even sell clothing that features the acronym, one defining it as “a label warning you that the website link, image, etc. in question will probably not go over well with your employer and/or co-workers, which in this age of political correctness, can be a deal-breaker as far as keeping a job is concerned. Now you can label yourself in that regard, letting everyone know how hip and edgy you are.” The phrase is even incorporated into geek puns that transcend but reinforce its original meaning, such as when the tech website Slashdot.org reported on new software that can intercept workers’ personal emails with the headline, “Hotmail: Not Safe for Work.”

The use of the acronym itself is highly arbitrary, given the organic creation of the phrase and its subsequent imposition. The line between SFW and NSFW is a thin one: most websites declare nipples to be off limits—or in some cases, Clintonesque rules apply, such as the “severe insinuation of nipples” boundary that the computer enthusiast website, Arstechnica.com, employs for the “babe thread” in its community forum. Pubic hair and uncovered anal regions are other common lines that are said to exist, supposing there might really be a concrete foundation for this paradigm of censorship, yet all such rules are open to interpretation and are highly mercurial. From floral pasties to overly small bikinis that clearly show the outline of the genitals, it is fairly easy for men to skirt around such boundaries. Being that they are rarely punished by either their employers or those operating the websites that encourage the posting of barely-Safe for Work material, this constant reinterpretation of the rules serves to push these lines further in the direction of hardcore pornography, like the advance of an inexorable glacier. This can be compared to the progression of Playboy as they moved from topless to full-frontal to the recent move towards showing penetrative sex on their television network (Jenna Jameson's American Sex Star), even as their paper magazine began to falter against SFW-alternatives such as Maxim, the two formats mutually reinforcing each other.

At the same time, the SFW and NSFW typologies have been treated as if they have legal value by many, becoming the de facto yardstick for measuring what content is suitable for the workspace. Much of this has to do with the reality that the men responsible for crafting and popularizing the monikers are also often responsible for governing the information-technology groups at their workplaces and are, rather conveniently, tasked with tracking the internet use of others. Thus, they are often able to impose their own views on censorship in both limited and unlimited fashions. Given their own predispositions, their libertine stance on what is appropriate can often have more weight than an administrative superior who lacks the technical ability to ensure that what few rules that have been set are being followed with any amount of vigor. This can also have the effect of pushing women out of technical roles, as they are seen as less easy going by male employees, more likely to object that something crosses the nebulous line into NSFW territory, and are viewed as less attractive candidates for these positions by the male rank and file.

As the use of SFW and NSFW tags has become ever more popular and part of the internet’s lexicon, feminists of all kinds have also adopted the terminology, regardless of their personal positions on pornography. This is troubling for a variety of reasons. Long before NSFW gained any real traction, feminists had their own label for potentially objectionable content in the form of “trigger” alerts. “Trigger” warnings were used by women to protect others from witnessing content that might elicit a strong emotional reaction based on past harm they experienced and the similarities they might see in the substance of various content. This was not limited to the explicit triggering of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—and indeed, many would argue that describing women’s rational response to an oppressive environment as a pathology is an attempt to further diminish them—but operated widely within a paradigm of caring, a standard of reasonable women. NSFW operates within a far different paradigm, projecting the standard of a reasonable patriarch, as if there were such a creature.

Secondly, male institutions such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have historically used the threat of censorship against women as a bait-and-switch to protect their own interests: If women want to be able to download information on breast cancer, pornographers must be given equal access to the female body to use as they like. This arbitrary imposition of “fairness” presumes that the hypothetical government responsible for deeming the word “breast,” or its visual likeness, to be unilaterally indecent equally represents its male and female constituents. The United States government clearly does not. For all of the liberal male snickering over John Ashcroft’s covering of a nude statue of Justice—snickering that at once argued the Republican was out of touch with “real” issues while simultaneously rendering him a greater threat to free-speech than his buffoonish attempt at censorship might accurately reflect—the fact that such Leftist men shared a gendered category with the object of their derision, and his power, was allowed to remain a non-issue. Thus women were required to band with male pornographers against an oppressive yet neuter government, rather than one accurately seen as male dominated. The threat to women’s speech is not a gender neutral one, even though male radicals require it to be viewed as one for their own selfish reasons.

Feminists in league with the sex industry have long made similar arguments, delivering statements that the Dworkin and MacKinnon ordinance would really result in the banning of feminist and lesbian literature, if anything, pretending that it is radical feminists who are the most tyrannical force opposing women’s freedom. Thus an entire breed of “anti-censorship feminist” was conceived, with numerous organizations created (often with the assistance of rightwing money!) to legitimize the framing of anti-exploitation feminists as oppressive censors. However, in joining with the NSFW bandwagon, whether through the naïve acceptance of the jargon or out of the desire to harness the “edgy” component for their own advantage, such pro-porn feminists have actually inadvertently worked to ban feminist speech.

This censorship occurs because the NSFW doctrine sees patriarchy as an apolitical enterprise: it is simply the air in which we breathe. As such, when there is any conflict concerning how “free time” is spent on the internet in the workplace, entertainment is privileged over the political, the latter of which can be seen as more risky from a managerial perspective. Feminism and Nazism are viewed by many as equally balkanizing, and thus both equally suspect in the work environment, while misogyny is quite simply entertainment. As patriarchy is removed from any concept of context, viewing a website such as Nikki Craft’s Hustling the Left (an expose on the sexism and racism of Larry Flynt and his attempt to silence the speech of Aura Bogado, despite his inveterate status as a liberal free-speech icon) is thus more problematic in many job sites than going to Flynt’s own website for titillation, given the apparently apolitical nature of the second act. It is never safe to attack patriarchy, no matter where you are, at work or otherwise.

The application of NSFW and SFW tags are working to create a new morality: many workplaces do not have clear-cut rules when it comes to what is or is not appropriate viewing material on the internet. Some have a hard line against any non-business related browsing at all, while others are more liberal during employee breaks, but seldom are there any rules posted demarcating the exact difference between sexy pinup art and outright pornography. Because of this, the metric employed by NSFW practices could come to have enormous cultural force in the workplace, answering a question that few anticipated needing to be asked. Perhaps in the near future, sexual harassment and hostile workplace arguments will hinge on whether the email, desktop wallpaper, or poster contained “severe insinuation of nipples” or merely “moderate insinuation.” While slippery slope arguments are often spurious, in this case, being that the progression is very much desired by the male participants, escalation is a forgone conclusion.

The two liminal sides of the phenomenon work towards a common goal. The designation NSFW serves only to insulate the ever expanding category of that which is Safe for Work from external criticism and to deflect responsibility away from the male contributors and dealers of such content. Indeed, the question of whether or not there even needs to be a line between various forms of erotica in the workplace has been neatly elided by the NSFW argument. (After all, there should be no need for the SFW tag, given that NSFW renders it the default, every other link presumably being “safe”—and yet SFW does exist, precisely to highlight the borderline cases, biting its thumb at those who would dare to object.) While it is easy to poke holes in the NSFW philosophy, it has already become an idiom that holds immense sway over the internet population, and to many it has the force of law. Those in power tend to focus on “freedom to,” while those without it are often concerned with “freedom from.” The phrase “Safe for Work” is likewise about the safety of those in power, the safety to chip away at the concessions they have been forced to make to women and other sexual and racial minorities over the past forty years.


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