London’s sexiest barristers… only OK if they’re male?

Someone (well, technically more than one person) has decided to make a list of London’s hottest barristers. Not hottest as in most-likely-to-win-your-case, but hottest as in barristers-we’d-most-like-to-see-shirtless. The raters are probably female (or gay), and all the barristers on the list are male. The raters even suggest that each ‘set’s’ (barristers seem to come in sets, a bit like crockery) website ought to have at least two photographs of each barrister – one with a shirt, and one without.

This has made a bit of a stir in barristering circles in London, and prompted this article in The Lawyer. The interesting bit is the comments – and the first commenter wonders whether, if this had been a list of sexy female barristers put together by men, its reception would have been the same.

This is something that crosses my mind quite often. A man making sex- or appearance-related comments about a woman is being sexist, or committing sexual harassment. If a woman does it to a man, then she’s making a joke. A woman has the right to be upset or offended or even to feel threatened – but a man is supposed to be flattered when a complete stranger suggests that he be required to post a picture of himself shirtless on his workplace’s website. I wonder what the reaction would have been if a similar website rating female barristers had suggested that they pose topless, or even in a bikini?

If you read further down the comments, though, more facets to the situation become apparent.

Someone suggests that sexy female barristers are more common than sexy male barristers – well, personally I do think that unless a person is truly absolutely dead-centre bisexual and finds both genders equally sexually desirable, that person is not qualified to judge. Or is this an implication that women are more likely to be good-looking than men?

Someone else comments that if sexy female barristers are more common than sexy males, does this mean that women are more likely to be accepted as barrister pupils if they are good-looking?

Someone else implies that a list of sexy women in the legal industry in London will be composed of legal secretaries – clearly assuming either that a woman in the legal industry is a secretary, or women barristers are all ugly (unlike female secretaries).

An interesting look at the different ways something can be perceived, and the different meanings given to an action. It makes me think, how do I react to that list of hot male barristers?

Well, my first thought is that none of them are a fraction as handsome and sexy as my husband. Decorative, in some cases, but then so is Monet. And I can’t stand Monet.

Secondly, pity. These men, who have worked hard to get where they are, are suddenly reduced to the status of sex-symbol. They haven’t even been given the Miss World opportunity to state that their hobbies are working in a soup kitchen for the homeless and rescuing small puppies, and their dearest wish is for world peace. Their photographs – admittedly posted on their workplaces’ public websites – have been taken and used for a purpose for which they were not intended, and presumably without their knowledge or permission. Then they are written about in a profoundly disrespectful way that makes it clear that the raters are simply interested in looks rather than personality – or that they think a person’s personality can be known from their looks.

Of course, one could say that this happens to women all the time. However, this does not make it right. How can it be right to discriminate, or harass, one group and justify it by saying ‘they started it’? Especially if it wasn’t them, personally, but other members of their group (or gender). ‘They started it’ does not cut it as an excuse in an infant school playground, and should not be accepted as an excuse for adult conduct either. How can we ever achieve respectful equality if there’s a continual tit-for-tat war going on? Someone has to stop the cycle.

Or is it just a bit of fun? But then, where does fun stop and treating someone as a sex object start?

Then, of course, it’s necessary to consider what equality of treatment actually means. Does putting up a list of sexy male barristers have the same connotations as a list of sexy female barristers?

I don’t think it does.

Sexiness and desirability are not just based on looks. Read enough romances, and you find patterns in what society – as demonstrated by authors and agents, and the readers who buy the books and thus approve the content – considers to be sexy.

If you take the male lead, he is not just good looking, but he is also powerful, charismatic, and usually rich. Lately, he often has an intriguing vulnerability, but usually he’s the alpha male. He’s in control of his life, and he makes the choices.

The female lead, on the other hand, is often not in control of her life, or at least not happy. She is often lonely. She may have come out of an unsatisfactory (even abusive) relationship, may be left looking after a child, or may be long-term single. She is almost always in a position of weakness compared to the hero (boss/secretary, rich man/poor woman, rescuer/damsel-in-distress), and may have got into her current position due to poor judgement or bad luck. Then, of course, outside romances we have such societal tropes as the ‘dumb blonde’.

Desirability, therefore, appears – to me – to be constituted of different factors depending on whether we are talking about men or women. A desirable man is not only gorgeous-looking, but he’s also powerful and wealthy, likely to be a good provider. A desirable woman, on the other hand, is beautiful but not too bright, and is in need of male guidance. We have a societal convention of treating female beauty as incompatible with intelligence (admittedly, this is disappearing – but it certainly hasn’t gone).

So when we’re deciding whether a list of hot male barristers is as insulting as a list of hot female barristers, it’s necessary to consider what else we’re saying about those who make the grade.

Me? I think there is sound reason why we react more forcefully against a prospective list of hot female barristers than a list of hot male ones. But ‘less wrong’ is still not the same as ‘right’.

And here endeth the rant.

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