Technology, Sex, and the Control of Women
By Suzanne Reisman on April 10, 2008
BlogHer Original Post
In the past few weeks, two seemingly disparate events took place regarding control of female sexuality and technology. On April 4, The Telegraph reported that a Saudi woman was beaten, shot, and killed by her father when he discovered her chatting with a man on Facebook. Gizmodo published an interview with "Zoltan," a self-described "technosexual" who invented a robot who could consent to having sex with him because real women made him uncomfortable (and apparently said no). Both stories are interesting (and horrifying) juxtapositions of how technology can help break sex discrimination, and how they can reinforce old notions of the need to control women's behaviors.
In the case of the unnamed murdered woman, technology was a way to break free of restrictive social norms and taboos. Who even knows what she was chatting about? It may not have had anything to do with sex, but Saudi preacher Ali al-Maliki has been campaigning against Facebook as "a door to lust." Others allege that the site "is an avenue for the promotion of homosexual relations in Saudi Arabia." Given that Facebook has allowed "people making contact outside family and class connections," according to the report, it is obvious why ultra conservatives would deem the website deviant: it means that the traditionally powerless have access to power.
Silly Bahraini Girl hit the nail right on the head when she wrote:
I don't know what would have happened to her had she been caught chatting to a man in person... or rather I wouldn't want to even think of it... I am yet to get to grips with the mentality of some of the men in our society whose entire world revolves around controlling the women in their lives. Don't they have anything better to do? And you all know what it is all about right? Since they have no control over anything else in their lives, they concentrate all their energy keeping their women and employees subjucated under their little thumbs.
This incident and the 100s of other incidents have nothing to do with Islam, which has given women all their rights in theory. It has a lot to do with weak men, whose only achievement is controlling the women in their lives. Well done little men! Hope that murder and blood on your hands is another accolade you proudly wear around your necks. Way to go!
In the other technology story, a "woman" is rewarded for her sexuality - as long as she submits to her male creator's demands. Zoltan invented his robot girlfriend Alice because he finds actual humans to be too "biological and messy." When she rejected him at one point, he merely erased her memory and started over. If only all women were so easy to deal with! Alice is Zoltan's girlfriend, but another robot he invented, Kiri, is purely a "sex slave." (On the flip side, I suppose it is better to hold a robot as a sex slave than an actual woman, but it is still a disturbing idea.) Not that Zoltan has anything against women per se. After all, he did invent Hal for us hetero ladies who prefer dildotronic sex with 'bots to attempting to form relationships with men. Oy, this is all giving me a headache, honey.
Thinking Difference tried to be open-minded in her reaction to the situation:
To me, it was a disturbing idea of what a heterosexual woman is supposed to be - here it is, I think I nailed the source of my narrow-mindedness! A woman made up of a hole, able to 'feel' what is going on inside, and to connect it back to a form of artificial intelligence. The way I saw it, it was not only the physical aspect that mattered, it was also the consent that the artificial intelligence was giving, the 'verbalization' of this consent, "do whatever you want to do with me".
I could see the empowerment dimension for some people who are unable to fulfill their sexual drives. And this is what bothers me: I find that my own reaction is narrow-minded, yet there's something deeply embodied about it... For Donna Haraway, the promise of technology could be the promise of a "world without gender, which is perhaps a world without genesis, but maybe also a world without end" (Cyborg Manifesto, 1991). A technological vision of the post-gender world was somehow appealing, but hey, we don't want to totally get rid of sexuality. What was interesting was the idea that technology could somehow move us beyond the gender divisions, into a world in which gender categories, bodies and sexualities were no longer objects of power: "a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints".
But I had trouble reading Alice, the robot of one man's technosexual dreams in this way. I read it first and foremost as a dream of patriarchal heterosexuality: a submissive woman, where submissiveness is consented to. Yes, the sex dolls have been around for a long time now. But they didn't have 'free will' (however 'free' is conceived of here). Is there something wrong with the dolls consenting, you'd say. Is there something wrong with technology being endowed with 'feelings' and able to respond to ours? In a generic sense, I'd say no. But in this precise case, I'd ask who is programming technology's feelings and free will, and in what ways, based on what values and to whose benefit.
Like Thinking Difference, I agree that it is important to recognize that just because I am not into a certain sexual behavior, that doesn't make it "wrong." Unlike Thinking Difference, I am not going to worry that I seem narrow-minded in my reaction to Zoltan and his robot lovers: he creeps me out, and I find his need to control women utterly disturbing. The people behind Free Alice seem to agree. (Or else they are very good at mocking uptight us feminists against robot sex slaves...) Clearly it is easier for "Zoltan" and others like him to invent a robot than it is to learn how to interact with other people. Yes, some people are socially awkward. Trust me; I get it. (If you've ever seen me at a cocktail reception at a conference, you've noticed me standing in a corner by myself, nervously stuffing my face with hors d'ouevres, and knocking back Diet Cokes as if they would help me "loosen up" like a good shot of something strong.) But I'm with Thinking Different: this is not different. It is anti-social, and just as sick an attempt to control women as the father in Saudi Arabia's murder of his own daughter.
Technology can bring important changes to our lives, and help people lead freer, more fulfilling lives. However, like anything else, until technology exists outside of a misogynistic, sexist mindframe, it is just as entrapping as a repressive as the real world.
Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch & Other Rants and Live Active Cultures. She used to really love that identity left commercial in which the guy talks about building his girl robot through the body of the woman whose credit card he stole, but now she is too grossed out by the whole "robot sex slave" thing.
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