A few weeks ago, The Science Cheerleaders grabbed headlines with their appearance at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, where they cheered for citizen science and science literacy, as well as served to provide a new kind of role model for young girls, showing them they can be both cheerleaders AND scientists.

Following this public appearance, were two very strong reactions. One was overwhelmingly positive. The other was overwhelmingly negative and critical—and a lot of it came from scientists and science bloggers. 

This is troubling to me.

But before I really get into my specific angst, I want to mention a few things.

First, I have met Darlene Cavalier, the original Science Cheerleader, and founder of Sciencecheerleader.com and the co-founder of ScienceForCitizens.net. We had a chance to hang out in Boston in June and chat about citizen science and science communication, among other things, at Humanity + @ Harvard, where we were both speakers. She is an amazing person with a clear vision for science literacy, and a tireless advocate for science communication, one which we should feel very fortunate to have cheering on our side. She has logged in countless hours working with policy makers and educators in order to push for an increase in not only science literacy, but for enthusiasm in science in general.

You may not like the way she is doing it, by promoting cheerleading as an avenue for science awareness, but get over it. It works.

Second, I have a confession to make.

I was a college cheerleader. Yep, that's right. I wore short skirts, and had pom poms and everything. And rumor has it, from time to time, my cleavage was showing as well. And one more thing: I was also a Bacardi Girl, which means I wore skimpy clothing and peddled liquor to frat guys in college bars. Was I a bimbo-slacker student? Hardly. Between the doubled-up semesters of undergraduate research and a therapy internship, I also managed to serve as the Chapter Secretary of Psi Chi (National Honor Society in Psychology) for two terms and graduate Magna Cum Laude.

So—now the question is, especially for those of you who are regular readers of my column, does this lower my science credibility in light of this new revelation? If so, shame on you. Also, keep reading, because I have a lot to say about this.

There were a few science bloggers, that I am aware of specifically, who wrote posts in response to the Science Cheerleaders appearing at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, NeuroDojo and Scicurious to name two. The general consensus was: "We know it's really crappy of us to hate this idea and it will make us look like closed-minded bigots, but we really hate this idea and are being closed-minded bigots, but we just can't help it and here's why..." They go on to state why they have problems with women being cheerleaders for science. Dr Zen, from NeuroDojo even goes so far as to say he hates everything cheerleading represents. Sci thinks that women have a hard enough time being treated with respect by men in science, and sexing ourselves up only makes this worse.

They both have a right to their opinions, and they both make a few good points. However, I think their conclusions suck as a whole. I have a few distinct reasons why I disagree with their opinions, which I will lay out here.

My first point is this: people generally have the wrong impression about what cheerleading actually entails. A fellow former cheerleader has agreed to "come out" with me in public and make a statement about cheerleading. Go Arikia!!!

Behold, the lovely and talented Arikia Millikan, community manager at Wired.com, hacker, technophile, and all-around cool chic—well-respected in the tech and blogging community. She was also a cheerleader for 5 years, and had this to say:

"[People are] missing the point of what a cheerleader is. In sporting events, the cheerleaders are there to support the athletes on the team. They aren't football players themselves, and they have a different athletic skill set. Their job is to rally the crowd to support the football players. They are typically attractive and perform dangerous stunts with the intention of drawing the crowd to the football game, and to show support for the larger institution of the school itself.

In my opinion, science could use some more cheerleaders: people who may not be doing the science, but still want to draw attention to the rock stars of science. I personally admire and support the campaigns to do this, including Chris Mooney's GQ spread and Darlene Cavalier's Science Cheerleader campaign. When I was an actual cheerleader for five years, sometimes the athletes would say we were annoying or that we would distract them from the game, which sucked, because we were there to support them. Some people could do well to graciously accept that people are making efforts to support them, even if it is in an unconventional way."

The whole point of having cheerleaders is to generate excitement and support for a cause. Why not for science? The reason the "cheerhaters" give: cheerleading is just selling long hair, large breasts, shapely legs, essentially, their sexuality, in order to lure in admirers.

Which brings me to my second point, and the more important of the two.

What is wrong with being both a scientist AND a cheerleader? Or being intelligent AND a sex object? Is there something inherently wrong about being perceived as attractive or sexy? Why does one have to negate the other?

Scicurious says in her blog post, "I don't know if I want cheerleaders representing women in science this way."

Well, the thing is, the Science Cheerleaders ARE women in science. Every one of them. They are scientists and engineers, not play-acting. So really, you have a problem with them being authentic. I have a problem with people thinking feminism equals removing sexuality altogether.

. Feminism is all about equality despite differences.

Women can be attractive, and that doesn't make them any less competent or intelligent. Feminists should be screaming at the top of their lungs in SUPPORT of this type of thing—strong, intelligent, independent, confident women who are trying to be good role models for young girls—showing them you don't have to give up your womanhood or your femininity in order to be a successful career person. You can be intelligent AND wear makeup and have highlights! Who knew?

Some arguments I've heard used against my rationale: "You are only making yourself a sex object and this in turn makes it difficult to gain respect from men because no one will take you seriously."  <-- This statement here, is a very big problem for me. Huge.

This was my profile picture in support of "Boobquake". Note that I had this picture up for several days, and the world did not end in a flurry of fire, brimstone, or a series of natural disasters. Also, God didn't strike me down.

Since I'm going for full-disclosure here of my tendency to engage in activities that may be perceived as sexual in nature, I should mention that these types of endeavors and pursuits did not stop in college. In fact, right now, I am one of the administrators in a group on facebook titled "We're Scientists AND We're Sexy!"WSAWS
A screenshot of the facebook group, "We're scientists AND we're sexy!" or simply, WSAWS.

Silly, you may say? Well, the over 21,000 group members don't think it's very silly. In fact, I've met some of my closest friends in that group.
Contrary to what you may be thinking, it isn't a virtual "singles bar for scientists", either.

What it is—a group of scientists who aren't in denial of their sexuality, or their passion for learning, or their forward-thinking about science. It's a forum where we are allowed to be ourselves, without worrying about censorship from the "science moral and ethics authority panel" who often dictate how we should look, or how we should talk, or what kind of image we "should" be projecting, or what kind of role model we "should" be. We just be ourselves—we talk science, we talk about the difficulty of relationships while pursuing a PhD, we lament the trouble in finding like-minded peers in real life, the battles fought in the lab, we question and discuss social issues—and it is a wonderful, lively, authentic environment in which to interact.
discussion board
A sample of some of the current discussions going on in WSAWS.

But yes, I won't lie, there is a visual aesthetic as well—we have a featured "Sexy Scientist of the Fortnight" who is chosen by crowdsourced votes on posted photos in the group. The chosen scientist is the avatar picture for the group for that fortnight, and as you can see by the screen capture above, there is no nudity required (or allowed) to be voted as "most sexy scientist". I, myself, have been voted one of the "featured scientists" a few times.

Here are the "winning pictures"—myself with Phil Zimbardo at TED 2010:

WSAWS pic 2Yep—me and Phil Zimbardo! I was so excited to meet him—giddy like a child.

And one of just me...
WSAWS picThe founder of "We're scientists AND we're sexy!" (WSAWS), the brilliant and witty Jojo—a PhD student at Oxford studying Protistology—created the group on one sleepless night in the lab as a joke, trying to see if anyone would join such a group. After one week, there were 147 members. The following month, 522 members. After three months, over 1,000 members, and now that we are three years old, we have almost 22,000 members world-wide. It is a highly multi-cultural group— members from every country, background, sexual orientation—but the common threads that weave us together are science, independent thinking, open-mindedness about the world society, and passion for life. I daresay I am closer friends with the people I've met in WSAWS than I am with anyone in real-life. In fact, it's in a discussion thread in that very group, where I met Darlene Cavalier, the Science Cheerleader.

So what is the moral of this story? Why do I think sexuality shouldn't be taboo in science, even though there are negative reactions as a result? I'm getting to that right now.

The Therapist Has Now Entered The Building

This is where I put on my therapist hat, because as well as being a former cheerleader, Bacardi Girl, and science blogger, I am a Behavior Therapist (and a damn good one—might even have won a few awards several years ago). So...*ahem!*

Let me frame this in the context of a true story, a situation where I was training a new therapist to work with a young child with Asperger's and OCD. This child had an obsession with peach crayons. Of all the hundreds of colors in the crayola box, the peach crayon was the color extraordinaire. So I asked the newbie therapist what her course of action would be to handle his inappropriate obsession with the peach crayon, given it was interfering with therapy.

Her answer: Since he is obsessed with the peach crayon, and it is resulting in maladaptive behavior that is unreasonable and interfering with therapeutic goals, we should just remove the peach crayon from the box so it is unavailable. That way, he won't be able to engage in inappropriate behaviors surrounding the crayon, and we can continue on with therapy.

Wroooong answer. (However, a typical rookie error)

Removing the crayon from the box (a.k.a removing the object of obsession) is exactly the opposite of what you should do. The peach crayon shouldn't be hidden from view, it should be the new target item. Let me explain.

Removing the peach crayon is not helping him deal with his unrealistic expectations of the peach crayon, or change his maladaptive behaviors surrounding the peach crayon. By hiding it, he is only suppressing those behaviors because the antecedent to the behavior isn't visible. The urge to engage in those behaviors will reemerge as soon as that crayon reappears. Some day, somehow, in the course of that child's life, he will come into contact with a peach crayon, and all hell will break loose. Not an effective method of therapy.

Instead, you need to expose the child to that peach crayon more often, and when he engages in those inappropriate behaviors, you teach him to change that behavior, show him what is appropriate, and shape his behavior from there. You force him to deal with the discomfort of changing his maladaptive ways surrounding that peach crayon, because really—life is full of peach crayons, and he'd better learn to deal with the reality of those crayons now, because the world will not stop producing peach crayons just to keep his behavior in check.

How does this relate to cheerleaders and sexuality and science? In short, the people that have a problem with women displaying their sexuality or scientists showing their fun, flirty side need to just get over it. As humans, we are sexual beings. Just because we may be serious as hell about the science we study, does not mean we gave up our sexuality and traded it in for a "license to practice science" badge.

Suppressing our sexual nature just because some people engage in maladaptive behaviors and have unrealistic expectations surrounding our sexuality is the exact wrong way to handle this issue. We need to keep on being who we are, sexual beings and all, and make those people deal with the fact that it isn't going away. They are the ones being maladaptive in their thinking, so they are the ones who need to change.

I am not going to tip-toe around the haters and pretend to be someone I'm not (and neither should you), living an unauthentic life, just because they don't know how to act around the peach crayon. They need to be taught how to act around that peach crayon, because the peach crayon isn't going anywhere. The rehabilitation of the messed-up thinking about human sexuality and feminism begins by coming out of the closet—as human beings, sexual and all.

One of the Science Cheerleaders that was interviewed in that video clip posted above (please watch it if you haven't already) said this:
"People say 'Think outside of the box' and I'm like... you can do more than that. You can live outside of the box."
We should all be living outside the box, especially when it comes to how we view women in science. It's OK to be sexual and be a scientist. There's nothing wrong with that. People who force us to behave in ways contrary to this are only hurting us in the long run. Open your mind. Bust through the stereotypes. And live an authentic life.

After the initial posting of this article, I have gotten an overwhelming positive response, but especially from the female scientist/engineer/tech community, which makes me... well, pleasantly surprised and unbelievably happy, for lack of any better way to put it. Thank you for all the support! You ladies rock STEM!!!

Another sci-blogger, Biochembelle, who blogs at LabSpaces, wrote this post last year, which echos my same sentiments regarding females and the pressure to repress your sexuality in the scientific workplace. Three cheers for Biochembelle!!!