The Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement Day is an annual event designed to showcase the hard work of UMBC undergraduate researchers. Students have the freedom to select a topic and showcase their discoveries to UMBC staff and students. However, the content and imagery of one topic in particular resulted in controversy.
Researcher Sarah Riley Auer, a senior ancient studies major, presented her poster, “Illustrating the Unseen: Analogy and Metaphor in an Ancient Gynecological Text” at this year’s symposium. All was well, until her work was moved to a less prominent position because it displayed female anatomy. Auer and her poster were relegated to a far back corner of the University Center Ballroom, making her work harder to see and henceforth ignored by many of the URCAD attendees.
Auer’s research discusses the manuscripts left by ancient medical writer Soranus of Ephesus, specifically his work on female anatomy and gynecological studies, and how it relates to today’s society and understanding of the female anatomy and women’s medicine. However, URCAD officials had a complaint not with the the research itself, but with the image that senior INES major Zoe Wang provided, which, according to Auer, depicted Soranus of Ephesus’ view of the female anatomy.
Although both Auer’s and Wang’s advisors cleared their work — as did the committee which accepts URCAD proposals — it wasn’t until the night before the presentation that URCAD officials informed the two students that their work would be moved to the back of the room in the “Rated-R” section.
Auer was extremely confused by that decision. According to her, “considering that no one responsible for the decision [to move the poster] felt it necessary to approach either myself or my advisors about their motives, I cannot begin to fathom why they chose to mark our poster as ‘inappropriate,'” she said. “The fact that anyone felt it appropriate to sexualize our poster and deem it ‘inappropriate’ is extremely concerning.”
When Auer’s friend Vicki Goutzoulis, a senior media and communications studies major and ancient studies minor, discovered the treatment of the work, she took to myUMBC. In a post entitled “Rated ‘R’ for Research,” she expressed her concern for the decision. “Nothing about the work could have been construed as sexual, until a university representative informed Auer that her work had been moved to the back of the UC Ballroom, ‘near the stage,'” stated Goutzoulis.
This post garnered much attention and overwhelming support for the student researchers, and concern about wider issues in the UMBC community. According to Auer, “the treatment of our work is an indicator of a multiplicity of deeper issues — not the least of which are academic freedom, female health and the reduction of female anatomy as profane or lewd.”
Said Auer, “the harmful and sexist treatment of my work was acted by a small number of individuals who have yet to confront me about their decision. The committee who vetted my project, my advisors, my faculty and my peers have been nothing but supportive. I think that the majority of individuals at UMBC find the censoring of my and Zoe’s work to be a grave offense to both our academic freedom and to our subject of female anatomy as a respectable, academic topic.”
Wang believes the image stirred up controversy because of a societal taboo against sexuality. “A lot of people talking about this issue are focusing on women rights,” said Wang. “I do feel that if instead of putting a vagina and a uterus on the poster, I had put a huge penis it would result in the same outcome.” Wang also stated that she felt the attention this issue received detracted from the research, especially since many people did not even see the poster or the URCAD exhibit itself.
The magnitude of this situation made its way to President Freeman Hrabowski, who issued a formal apology via mass email, which read, “on behalf of the University, I apologize to the student researchers and their mentors.” Our president’s apology is proof of the ability of a few dedicated students to bring attention to a cause.
Despite the dissatisfaction from both Auer and Wang, the latter did say that she “understood the risk” behind making a poster related to female anatomy. “I did think that this poster might cause some people to overreact when I was making it,” said Wang. “When I was designing it, I was expecting this outcome.”
Wang stressed the importance of challenging society’s views on sexuality. “The reason I chose to make this poster even though I knew the risk of it,” she said, “was that I always felt that we should see sexual organs the same as how we see any other organs. If we always hold uncomfortable attitudes towards sexual organs, we will not improve our education research on these areas.”