The year in language and feminism, Part II: selected reading

I created this blog primarily as a vehicle for my own thoughts and opinions, but what I write for it is always informed by other people’s research, and by ideas I’ve encountered in other people’s writing. So, to complement my recent review of the year, I’d like to share ten things I read in 2017 which I found interesting, informative and thought-provoking—and which aren’t too technical to be accessible to non-specialists.

Four books

Mary Beard, Women and Power: A Manifesto. A short book which takes the long view on the silencing of women in patriarchal societies.

Emma Jane, Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History. An Australian journalist turned academic researcher examines the development and impact of online misogyny, and its characteristic linguistic register ‘Rapeglish’, from 1998 to the present.

Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Before anyone was talking about the ‘alt-right’, Angela Nagle was investigating the online subcultures from which it emerged, tracking the people involved, the platforms they used, the political positions they espoused and—from a linguist’s perspective most interestingly—the evolution of their distinctive communication style. This isn’t as distinctive as we might think: it has much in common with earlier celebrations of transgression (‘kill all normies’ is reminiscent of Baudelaire’s ‘il faut épater les bourgeois’), and its emphasis on men rebelling against the domesticating influence of women recalls the leftist counter-culture of the 1960s (think Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). What this shows, Nagle argues, is that we shouldn’t equate being transgressive with being politically progressive. She thinks opponents of the ‘alt-right’ need to take a critical look at their own style of discourse.

Jennifer Sclafani, Talking Donald Trump. Another short book in which an interactional sociolinguist analyses Donald Trump’s use of spoken language during the contest for the Republican nomination. Sclafani doesn’t say much about Trump’s performance of masculinity (which became more salient after he won the nomination and was pitted against a female opponent, Hillary Clinton), but what she does do, by concentrating on small but interactionally significant details, is get beyond the linguistically superficial received wisdom (‘he’s inarticulate/ can’t construct a proper sentence/ has a vocabulary as small as his hands’) to show what’s actually distinctive (and effective) about Trump’s style of public speaking.

Six shorter reads

Language, gender and politics

Unsurprisingly, 2017 produced many reflections on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, and one issue some of these reflections addressed was the role played by gendered language in shaping responses to the candidates. Among the most intriguing approaches to the question was a dramatic experiment asking ‘What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had swapped genders?

Speaking while female in the workplace

Though working women in 2017 continued to be lectured about their dysfunctional ‘verbal tics’, the idea that inequality in the workplace might not be the result of women’s own linguistic shortcomings appears to be gaining more traction. The research reported in ‘A study used sensors to show that men and women are treated differently at work’ led the researchers to conclude that the problem is ‘bias, not differences in behavior’.

Representing violence against women

Watching the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which was one of the feminist cultural events of the year, prompted Emma Nagouse, who researches Biblical and contemporary rape narratives, to write ‘Handmaids and Jezebels: anaesthetising the language of sexual violence’, about the way language is used to normalise sexual violence and exploitation in the fictional world of Gilead. Later in the year it would become apparent that language serves a not dissimilar purpose in our own world. In ‘The complicated, inadequate language of sexual violence’, Constance Grady reflected on the difficult linguistic choices writers face in reporting women’s experiences of sexual harassment.

Language, gender and artificial intelligence

There was a steady stream of commentary this year on the rise of intelligent machines and what it might mean for the future of humanity. A question of interest to feminists is whether the Brave New World of AI will look any less sexist than what preceded it. In her short but pithy ‘What is a female robot?’, Gia Milinovich asked what it means to treat a  machine as ‘female’. Another memorable piece about the way gender affects human-machine relationships was ‘Siri is dying. Long live Susan Bennett’. Susan Bennett is the woman whose recorded voice was used, without her knowledge, to create the first version of Apple’s virtual assistant Siri. There’s nothing feminist about the writer’s take on her story, but for a feminist reader it contains plenty of food for thought. You could think of it as a Pygmalion narrative for the 21st century, set in a technologically advanced world where women are still seen as raw material to be shaped and improved on by male ingenuity.

Bonus: something to listen to

One of my professional sheroes, the cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott, gave 2017’s Royal Institution Christmas lectures for young people. In the run-up to the lectures she made this podcast, which is interesting on a range of frequently asked questions about language, evolution and the brain, and includes some trenchant debunking of  myths about male-female differences.

As Sophie Scott observes, challenging popular beliefs about men and women is an uphill struggle. Though I’ve only mentioned a few by name in this post, I want to salute all those women (and men) who have, nevertheless, persisted.

 

 

 

The fembots of Ashley Madison

Content note: this post includes some explicit sexual material which readers may find offensive and/or distressing.

‘Life is short. Have an affair’.

That was the sales pitch for Ashley Madison, the website for people seeking ‘discreet’ extra-marital sex that recently came to grief after hackers dumped a load of its users’ personal data on the web. It turned out that the website was basically running a scam. Straight men, the majority of site-users, were paying to hook up with women who did not, for the most part, exist. Real women did use the site, but they were massively outnumbered by fake ones.  Profiles were cobbled together by employees, and then animated by an army of bots which bombarded male subscribers with messages.

The bots’ opening gambits were merely banal: ‘hi’, ‘hi there’, ‘hey’, ‘hey there’, ‘u busy?’, ‘you there?’, ‘hows it going?’, ‘chat?’, ‘how r u?’, ‘anybody home? lol’, ‘hello’, ‘so what brings you here?’, ‘oh hello’, ‘free to chat??’. But if a man responded (using his credit card as instructed), they started to sound distinctly bottish. ‘Hmmmm’, they would confide, ‘when I was younger I used to sleep with my friend’s boyfriends. I guess old habits die hard although I could never sleep with their husbands’. Or: ‘I’m sexy, discreet, and always up for kinky chat. Would also meet up in person if we get to know each other and think there might be a good connection. Does this sound intriguing?’ No, actually—it sounds like you’re a bot.

Some men did suspect fraud. In 2012, one site-user complained to the California state authorities, though nothing came of it at the time. What tipped him off wasn’t, however, the bots’ clunkily-scripted lines. It was being contacted in a short space of time by multiple women who supposedly lived in his area, who hadn’t looked at his profile, and who sent him identical messages. All things that might have passed unnoticed if the bots hadn’t been operating on such an industrial scale.

The Ashley Madison bots were pretty basic. But the sex industry is a serious player in the world of AI bots—more sophisticated programs that can learn from their interactions with humans, and produce novel, unscripted messages. David Levy, who has twice won the Loebner Prize (a competition based on the Turing test for machine intelligence, in which a computer has to convince human judges it is also human) is the author of a book called Love and Sex with Robots, and president of Erotic Chatbots Ltd, a company whose name is self-explanatory. Recently it has gone into business with an enterprise that makes high-end sex dolls. At the moment, sex dolls are designed to satisfy their owners’ physical and aesthetic requirements: few of them talk, and none of them could be said to converse. Chatbots, on the other hand, talk, but they’re not usually physically embodied. Bringing the two things together in one package—a doll that looks and feels realistic and can also make human-like conversation—seemed like an obvious (though technologically ambitious) business proposition.

When I first read about this I was sceptical, for reasons that are succinctly summarized in this comment left by a man:

Don’t you realize, the whole reason to get a doll is so we DON’T have to listen to them talk after sex?

But while this may be the prevailing attitude among the minority of men who regularly fuck inanimate objects, there are reasons to think it is not how most men feel. In surveys of men who buy sexual services, a high proportion typically claim to want some kind of human relationship. Silent, sullen prostitutes who make no effort to get to know the client, talk to him or pretend the encounter is enjoyable for them are apt to prompt complaints from punters, even if those punters also describe them as physically attractive and compliant.

You might think this issue would also deter men from having sex with robots: you can’t have a human relationship with a non-human entity. However, many experts believe otherwise. Studies of people who work with robots in other contexts have found a strong tendency to anthropomorphize them, projecting personality traits and feelings onto them which, outside fiction, they do not have. The military sometimes uses robots to do dangerous tasks like disarming bombs, and sometimes the robots get blown up. Human soldiers reporting these incidents say things like ‘poor little guy’. One group whose robot got blown up held a funeral for it.

So, there could be a market for talking sex robots. But what kind of conversation will they make?

The less ambitious developers are just hoping to improve on the current generation of ‘unintelligent’ sex chatbots, programmed to spew out the sort of random messages Ashley Madison’s subscribers got. You could do this by giving them a sexed-up version of the capabilities displayed by Virtual Assistants like Siri and Cortana. They wouldn’t pass a Turing test, but they’d be able to, as one developer puts it, ‘follow simple instructions’.

Erotic Chatbots Ltd. has more ambitious plans. At the moment it’s developing a bot that can ‘talk dirty’. Levy explained in an interview how you train a bot to do that:

You give them lots and lots of examples and they generalize from those examples and they can make the whole of their conversation sound like somebody who talks dirty in a loving way. We teach [the bot] and it generalizes, but it will talk about any subject. You can talk to it about Italian food and it will interject about lasagna. “I could have a great time with lasagna!”

His business partner Paul Andrew chipped in:

We’ll be using erotic writers to help us program the language, so we’re actually going to work with people who do this for a living, as it were. That way we can give the chatbot a good understanding of the vocabulary and the… talk. I’m trying to think of a good word to use there. Basically, we will give them a really good grounding, and then the chatbot learns. Once they have a vocabulary, once they have a basic brain, they grow themselves. They’re quite competent. We also work with some people who do [sex] chat lines; we’re going to pick their brains, too.

In other words: ‘we’re going to teach our bot to emulate the linguistic characteristics of porn’. In the circumstances that’s not a big surprise. But there is, perhaps, a certain irony in it. Levy and Andrew want to use cutting-edge science and technology to make machines capable of producing one of the most predictable and stereotypical linguistic registers in existence—so clichéd that its human users often sound like bots themselves.

Paul Andrew mentions ‘picking the brains’ of people who work on sex-chat phone lines. Back in the mid-1990s, the linguistic anthropologist Kira Hall did some research on the language used by phone sex workers (their own term was ‘fantasy makers’) around San Francisco. She found their performances traded heavily on stereotypes about women’s language. Like speaking in a lilting, breathy voice, ‘using lots of adjectives’ when describing yourself, and dropping in plenty of elaborate rather than basic colour-terms (your imaginary underwear wouldn’t be ‘pink’ or ‘black’, it would be ‘peach’ or ‘charcoal’). The workers knew these were stereotypes: the language they produced on the phone was nothing like the way they talked when they weren’t taking calls. But stereotypes, in their experience, were exactly what their customers wanted.

Since different customers were into different stereotypes, a skilled fantasy maker needed to be able to produce a range of female personae on the phone—schoolgirl, southern belle, dominatrix, bimbo, Asian woman, Black woman, etc. They prided themselves on being able to ‘do’ personae which were remote from their own real-life identities. One of the individuals Hall spoke to wasn’t even a woman, he was a man who could pass for a woman on the phone. On the question of race, the view was widely held that white women made the best Black women, and vice-versa. As one worker explained to Hall, the Black woman of the (mainly white) callers’ dreams was a two dimensional racist stereotype which white women were actually better at producing (not to mention less uncomfortable with).

Women (and men) who work the fantasy lines are like human fembots, performing a version of femininity that callers will pay to spend time with. Not only does this performance not have to be authentic to be convincing, in the context of commercial sex an authentic (i.e., non-stereotypical) performance of femininity would risk destroying the illusion which is the real object of desire.

But you might wonder, what is sex-talk like when the parties are not in a commercial relationship? Is the language less clichéd? Are the personae constructed less stereotypical? The short answer is, not necessarily. The researcher Chrystie Myketiak has analysed cybersex encounters between peers in a virtual environment which those who study it refer to as ‘Walford’. (It’s an online community which did a deal with a university: the university would host and maintain it in exchange for being able to observe and analyse what went on in it. Its members all consented, and their consent is sought again every time they log on). Here’s a typical extract from Myketiak’s data, in which the two parties have taken the roles of a male and a female (most likely this reflects their offline identities, but we don’t know for sure). In the transcript ‘F’ and ‘M’ identify the female and the male participant.

(M) [his] hot seed fills every crevice of your womanhood…
(M) Keeps fucking you hard, jolting your entire body with each thrust.
(F) Grinds you by twisting and turning, faster and faster… she really wants it rough.
(M) Gives it to you so hard your ancestors feel it.
(F) Is pleasured senseless, she has tears coming to her eyes.
(M) Reaches around and rubs your hardened clit, violently.
(F) Whispers “Know any other wild positions? Hehe…”
(M) Whatever comes to mind is good for me.
(F) Same here… surprise me…

Linguistically, what stands out about this extract is the way the participants mix third-person narrative, second-person address and occasional use of the first person. You don’t get that in other kinds of porn. But the narrative itself is full of porn clichés, and the whole thing is organized around the heteropatriarchal proposition that in sexual encounters, men lead and women follow. Men are dominant, women submissive: whatever men desire is also pleasurable for woman. If he’s violent, that’s OK, because ‘she really wants it rough’.

In a paper she gave at a 2012 conference on robots (there’s a written draft version available here), the lawyer Sinziana Gutiu argued that if AI sexbots are successfully developed they will further entrench these ideologies of gender and sexuality. She thinks this will be a serious problem, because the combination of verbal and physical interaction which intelligent sex robots permit will have an even more powerful effect than porn does now on men’s real-world interactions with human women.

Gutiu points out that the advanced capabilities designers hope to give future robots will make them seem human, and that perception will be reinforced by the anthropomorphizing tendency mentioned earlier. However, some key human qualities will be deliberately left out of their design—like the ability to verbalize pain or emotional distress. Above all, there will never be any question about whether a robot consents to sex. It is there for its user to have sex with as and when he wishes. She goes on:

By circumventing any need for consent, sex robots eliminate the need for communication, mutual respect and compromise in the sexual relationship…allowing men to physically act out rape fantasies and confirm rape myths.

And she believes men’s experience with these nearly-but-not-quite human entities will lead at least some of them to assume that real women can legitimately be treated in the same ways.

Her paper also hints, however, that intelligent sex robots could in principle be designed to do the opposite of what she fears. If they were trained to engage their human user in talk which emphasizes negotiating consent, communicating your desires and feelings, respecting others’ boundaries and being willing to compromise, they could be used to teach a different way of interacting from the one which is modelled in porn. I’m no AI expert, but that sounds to me a lot more difficult than making a bot that ‘talks dirty’. And also, of course, a much less attractive proposition for investors whose aim is to make a profit.

It’s not only the money angle which makes me think that Gutiu’s educational sexbot is less likely to materialize than the pornified fembot of her nightmares. Therapists tell us that the most important reason why intimate relationships fail is a lack of open and honest communication, particularly about sex. But intimacy with another person doesn’t seem to be what a lot of men are looking for. If what they wanted was an intimate encounter with a female human being—a unique, complex individual with her own thoughts, feelings and desires—how could so many men have fallen for the fembots of Ashley Madison?