Feminist Technoscience response 1: A Stigma Problem through "Standpoint Epistemology" pt. 1
Updated: Mar 7
"Standpoint theories argue for 'starting off thought' from the lives of marginalized peoples, that beginning in those determinate, objective locations in any social order will generate illuminating critica; questions that do not arise in thought that begins from dominant group lives." - Sandra Harding, Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology
In 2014, Melissa Gira Grant published Playing the Whore, a powerful call to action to include the voices of sex workers in debates about labor, policy, health, and human rights. Grant's appeal opposes the deeply entrenched "dominant ways of thinking" that Harding charges with distorting research and its results, and in doing to Grant highlights the process by which sex work panic is legitimized by scientific research and cultural analysis. She discusses how the word "prostitute" only became the noun we now use it as in the 19th century, a practice of "produc[ing] a person by transforming a behavior (however ocaissional) into an identity," Gira writes, from which point a class is "marked that could be more easily imagined, located, treated, and controlled by the law." This couples with science, which has historically treated sex workers as a public health "problem," further justifying surveillance and policing despite gross distortion of research through the lens of andro-ethnocentric assumptions ("When male AIDS researchers heard about the study to track the virus in women, they assumed the subjects were prostitutes," Gira quotes Melinda Chateauvert).
Through this convolution, science justified surveillance of sex workers by creating the fact that having the disease "was mischaracterized as evidence that women—still assumed to be prostitutes—could transmit HIV to men through straight sex" (Gira 61). Instances of female-to-male transmission have since been proven to be incredibly rare, and at half the rate of male-to-female transmission. The woman (assumed prostitute) becomes a voiceless object of knowledge, and as such her body is used to support the criminalization of the marginalized person (the sex worker). A clear case of "one's social situation [enabling and setting] limits for what one can know," the answers discovered by researchers in this case were in fact located in "the beliefs and activities of what people at the center who make policies... that shape marginal lives" (Harding 1992, pg.443). These answers fueled anti-prostitution gentrification efforts, which pushed sex workers in two highly divergent directions: into the shadows, where they lost the protection of visibility and became more vulnerable to violent crime and trafficking, and onto the "private sphere" of the internet, where sex work achieved a new visibility that both unified the community and created an even larger surveillance target prime for god-trick datafication toward automated monitoring. (I will come back to this in my response to our readings for March 3).
In January ITP hosted its first-ever Tech for Social Good Day, a day-long unconference motivated by the need to facilitate critical discussion among technologists and "create motivation and energy around using technological skills to make our society a better place." I organized a panel called "Networked Bodies of Resistance" which focused on how sexuality was translated into "harmful content" when coded into digital communications systems by way of culturally-embedded stigma. We started the conversation on a quote, penned by Danielle Blunt, co-founder alongside Grant of Hacking//Hustling, a "collective of sex workers and allies working at the intersection of technology and social justice issues", and one of the three panelists who joined my conversation: "The misogyny of the creator is mirrored in the platform." While there is space to "study up" and "map the practices of power" from this point, I am calling it in order to further highlight its counterpoint, also penned by Blunt:
Here, we find an invitation, a plea, really, to make the sex worker the "embodied and visible" subject-object of knowledge in the research that determines what values are engineered and codified into information technology. In previous research I spent a great deal of time focusing on how stigma and the delegitimization of sex worker voices ends up justifying surveillance/censorship tech R&D and policy that have already bled beyond further criminalizing sex workers toward criminalizing any body that defies "the misogyny of the creator." And once those state weapons are established, there is no reason they won't be used against even the purest, most law-abiding citizen of the state.
However, here (and from here on) I want to take the opportunity to use the prompt to "create technology that is safe for sex workers" as a standpoint theory thought exercise. "Standpoint theory articulates the importance of a group's experience, of a distinctive kind of collective consciousness, which can be achieved through the group's struggles to gain the kind of knowledge that they need for their projects" (Harding 1992 pg.36). When I asked the panelists that question, being "What does technology look like with sex workers at the front?" there were some obvious answers: no more facial recognition. Stop destroying the livelihoods of laborers because they engage in sex trade economies—recognize your sanctimony in this action.
But beyond this there are plenty of questions that can be asked of this distinct collective consciousness, currently ignored due to our Stigma Problem. This is a group rooted in two incredibly significant human qualities: survival and empathy. And this consciousness is nothing if not diverse. Grant emphasizes this truth throughout her research, citing the grey area that encompasses the sex trade from those who partake with the same casual in-and-out familiar to anyone participating in the contemporary informal gig economy, to the fully-fledged administrative upkeep required to operate a legal (and often innocuous) BDSM dungeon, to the "convergence" of the sex industry with the leisure industry by moving to the private sphere of the digital, thus allowing for undetected engagement in sex trades while dismantling "conventional ways we'd distinguish a prostitute from a non-prostitute woman." What does public health research look like when these knowledge subject-objects are involved in street-based harm reduction? What does sexual/mental health and education look like when those who labor in sex industries are asked about their experienced observations from the frontlines of intimate encounter? What do employment practices look like when sex workers are seen for their labor and collective organizing strengths? Who gets protected when those who can have their futures destroyed by their non/chosen labor are asked about surveillance and privacy?
to be continued.