Sanitising the #distractinglysexy campaign

A critical deconstruction of the BBC Radio 4 programme #DistractinglySexy, 2015 Hashtags of the Year.


This blogpost discusses a particular narrative of the Twitter hashtag #distractinglysexy as presented on BBC Radio 4. If you are unfamiliar with the background of #distractinglysexy I would recommend starting with this primer.


In the BBC Radio 4 programme on trending hashtags in 2015, #distractinglysexy, the presenter Mukul Devichand makes a number of claims with regards the timing and purpose of the #distractinglysexy campaign:

Tim Hunt then offered a heartfelt apology to the conference organisers, and publicly. But it wasn’t quite enough. He didn’t have a paid job to be fired from but while on the plane home, he was asked to resign from his honorary position at University College London. Resignations from the European Research Council and the Royal Society followed. And that might have been that. but it wasn’t. Because social media made Tim Hunt’s words into a symbol.


Remember – by now, Tim Hunt had already resigned several roles. So the campaign wasn’t targeted at him. His wife told us he never even saw it, because he doesn’t go on Twitter. But it did have the effect of making his words into an enduring symbol of sexism in science.

Note of acknowledgement: transcript provided by Alex Cull

Hence, listeners are being told that #distractinglysexy followed after Tim Hunt’s resignations whereas those who carefully followed the Tim Hunt saga from the start will remember that the #distractinglysexy campaign in fact preceded them. I mentioned this to the BBC presenter on Twitter:

Neither Mukul Devichand or BBC Radio 4 have responded to my tweets, and requests for correction have been steadfastly refused.

Here I want to expand on my earlier documentation of the evidence, demonstrating the full extent of the sanitising of the #distractinglysexy campaign on BBC Radio 4. Part 1 focuses on the timing aspect and Part 2 focuses on the premise and aim of #distractinglysexy.

Part 1 – Timing of #distractinglysexy relative to Tim Hunt’s resignations

The accuracy of the claim that #distractinglysexy followed Tim Hunt’s resignations can of course simply be evaluated by examining the time of the request sent out by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, the ‘intellectual owner’ of the hashtag (hereafter referred to as RLC), as well as the time of the first #distractinglysexy tweets, relative to the time of Tim Hunt’s resignations from UCL, the Royal Society (awards committee) and the European Research Council (Scientific Council).

The request (and very first tweet containing the #distractinglysexy hashtag) was sent out via the Vagenda Magazine Twitter account on Wednesday 10 June, at 11.38 am (GMT, Summer time):

Seven hours later, David Colquhoun is the first person to announce Tim Hunt’s resignation from his honoury position at UCL, at 18:36 (GMT, summer time):

Within half an hour this was confirmed by the Dean of UCL’s Faculty of Life Sciences:

Entering the relevant query using Twitter’s search facility brings up more than 200 tweets with the #distractinglysexy hashtag prior to the news breaking of Tim Hunt’s first resignation. To display it graphically:

Just over 24 hrs. after the launch of #distractinglysexy, major media outlets start picking up and reporting on #distractinglysexy and, presumably as a result, the number of tweets with the #distractinglysexy hashtag explodes, going from mostly under fifty per hour in the first 24 hrs to hundreds per hour after that. Tim Hunt’s resignations from the Royal Society’s awards committee, on the 11th of June and his resignation from ERC Scientific Council on the 12th follow after this spike.

Hence, the timestamps of the relevant tweets demonstrate that Mukul Devichand got it wrong with regards the timing of #distractinglysexy relative to Tim Hunt’s resignations.

Part 2 – Premise and aim of #distractinglysexy campaign

Roughly six months after the event, RLC offers us this perspective on #distractinglysexy:

But this campaign was absolutely not to do with targeting Sir Tim Hunt, and in fact it was about shifting the conversation to make it something positive about women in science. And I think we achieved that.

As highlighted above, Mukul Devichand re-iterates that view and asserts:

So the campaign wasn’t targeted at him.

Of the five most-shared articles across social media on Tim Hunt, four covered #distractinglysexy (Source: BuzzSumo).

Looking at how these and other articles covered #distractinglysexy it is not clear how the conversation was shifted away from Tim Hunt at all. On the contrary, how can Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Mukul Devichand maintain that the campaign wasn’t targeting Tim Hunt when so many of the newspapers covering #distractinglysexy explicitly framed it as “mocking” or “ridiculing” Tim Hunt?

Moreover, in the 15 minutes before the #distractinglysexy request, RLC tweeted the three following tweets, offering us a direct insight into her thoughts on Tim Hunt’s comments:

Do any of these tweets convey the aim that RLC attributes to the campaign 6 months later, i.e. shifting the conversation to make it something positive about women in science”?

I don’t think so. Note how #distractinglysexy singles out, but misrepresents, what Tim Hunt said about his personal experience:

I mean, it is true that people – I have fallen in love with people in the lab, and that people in the lab have fallen in love with me, and it’s very disruptive to the science.

is misrepresented as:

women in laboratories deemed “terribly disruptive to science”

Note: ‘terribly’ is a transcription mistake made by Huffington Post. Tim Hunt did not use the word terrible or terribly in that context.

and then simplified into:

women disrupting science by being distractingly sexy

So we have arrived at a hypothetical male scientist unable not to leer at his female colleagues. Tim Hunt, however, never commented on women’s appearance, only about the potential disruption of falling in love at work. #distractinglysexy conveys a notion of falling in love as based on sexual desire only, and implicitly paints a picture of Tim Hunt as described by ‘The Single Woman Guide’ thus:

Unfortunately, men are very shallow creatures. This initial stage is all about instant physical attraction. If you ever thought a guy initially liked you as a person…oh boy! how wrong were you. Some women may fall in love during the first conversation but sadly, in the beginning stages men are only attracted by a woman’s physical appearance.

There is no going away from this: the core premise of the #distractinglysexy campaign was critically flawed. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many tweets explicitly played on this flawed angle. This is one of the most popular ones:

The flawed premise of #distractinglysexy also led to some of the nastiest attacks on Tim Hunt:

Worth examining more closely is the third and last tweet from RLC prior to the #distractinglysexy request:

Would it be unreasonable to wonder if / infer that the premise of #distractinglysexy was to put as much pressure on UCL as possible to dissociate itself from Tim Hunt?


We are left with two rather contrasting #distractinglysexy campaigns. In the version sold to us by the BBC Radio 4 programme, #distractinglysexy did not set out to target or mock Tim Hunt, but instead was aimed at moving the conversation away from Tim Hunt and towards something positive about women in science. Moreover, in that sanitised version #distractinglysexy could not have played any role in Tim Hunt’s resignations as these had already occurred prior to the launch of the campaign.

A different version, however, emerges after evaluating the key claims against the evidence. Regardless of whether #distractinglysexy actually contributed to the pressure that led Tim Hunt to resign from his honorary Professorship at UCL and his committee positions with the Royal Society and the ERC, the truth is that the #distractinglysexy campaign was started before any of these resignations took place. More damningly, serious question marks arise as to whether the laudable intentions attributed to #distractinglysexy are truthful.

The sanitising of #distractinglysexy on BBC Radio 4 is, at best, the result of sloppiness due to bias but at worst it represents a case of deliberate misrepresentation by a journalist intent on staking out a (virtuous) position in the #TimHunt culture war.




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