MIT Symposium on Gender + Technology – Session 2: SEX + BODIES 

Events,Liveblog,Series February 23, 2014 3:26 pm

Saturday, February 22, 2014  |   MIT

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Organized by Renée Blackburn and Mitali Thakor, doctoral candidates in the MIT Program in History, Anthropology, + STS.

 Feminist theory in STS has critically engaged questions of scientific ideology, institutional power, difference, and epistemology –- attending not only to gender but also race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, ability, postcoloniality, queer theory, and more…

11:00AM-12:30PM – Session 2: SEX + BODIES 

“Online Moral Economy of Sex Selection in Women’s Club, Turkey” Burcu Mutlu, MIT

Burcu looks at the moral economy of sex selection in the anonymous women-only online forum known as the Women’s Club.  By analyzing 541 posts on eight different topics of sex selection, Burcu reveals the range of discourses concerning preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and in vitro fertilization (IVF).  Burcu demonstrates how Turkish women strategically negotiate this online moral space from concerns of whether sex selection is against God’s will, advice for determining the sex of a child during IVF, and the shifting heteronormative discourses of having a “healthy” or “good” child.

“Carceral Biopolitics and the Traffic in Child Pornography” Mitali Thakor, MIT

Some of the main questions framing Mitali’s research concern what ‘anti-trafficking’ actually looks like and how new digital technologies (and their developers) disrupt and stabilize anti-trafficking networks of alliances.  By examining at attempts by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to identify and capture predators through facial detection or trapping them with “fake” children, Mitali demonstrates how the increasing use of biometric technologies reveals tensions in designing, using, and legitimizing new forms of digital surveillance.  What do these technologies in fact accomplish?

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Discussant: Ruha Benjamin, Assistant Professor of Sociology and African American Studies, Boston University

Moderator: Erica Caple James, Associate Professor of Anthropology, MIT

Ruha begins with comments for Burcu, invoking Charis Thompson’s framing of biotechnologies as a part of an “ontological choreography,” which involves the dynamic coordination between scientific, legal, political, and financial participants in the emergence of new biotechnologies.  The members of the Women’s Club are a part of this dance through their own lived experience of PGD.  Burcu’s method of observing this online forum where women confess their ideas and thoughts shows a small part of a larger choreography.  While these are candid and confrontational interactions that face-to-face ethnography would not reveal, certainly there are limits to online discourse analysis alone.

Another point of reference is Sherine Hamdy’s Our Bodies Belong to God, which demonstrates how religious dispositions among patients requiring organ transplants in Egypt are embodied and cultivated in different ways.   This implicitly pushes against accounts of Islamic fatalism (the idea that Islam rejects all scientific technologies), so how patients feel is crucial to this narrative because it shows the messy transactions of a moral marketplace.  For Hamdy, the breakdown of people’s bodies reveals the breakdown of the welfare state.  And in Burcu’s case, by unpacking the idea of “social pressure” among members of the Women’s Club, we might be able to see how political anxieties make sex selection look like a necessary solution.

Regarding Mitali’s talk, Ruha is taken with the case of how anti-trafficking software is a moral prophylactic for other terrible practices, which makes the FBI look like they’re working to whole-heartedly serve the public.  Drawing upon the work of Zhaleh Boyd, she asks, “What does the rubric of ‘trafficking’ allow us to see and not see?”   Perhaps less common moralized instances would overlook cases of sweatshop labor.  This is what concerns the feminist activists and the press.  The focus on sexual violation allows the image of the savior to persist by entangling it with previous savior images.

Finally, by examining the creation of the “fake” digitized characters who are meant to trap online predators, what can it tell us about the kinds of criminals we want to track and the criminals that are not tracked?   How does capturing a certain kind of person reinforce the idea of a certain kind of predator?  What can be said about this kind of critical biometric consciousness?


Event sponsored by:
MIT Program in Women’s and Gender Studies
Program in Science, Technology, and Society
Foreign Languages and Literatures

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