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[whitespace] Illustration Sex Studies at MIT

By Annalee Newitz

PROVING ONCE again that geeks know far more about sex than the average citizen, the world-renowned MIT Media Lab has just unveiled its latest project, the Erotic Computation Group (http://ecg.media.mit.edu). Researchers in the group will be studying everything from digital erotica and sexual speech recognition to the impact of sex on robotics.

Not. As everyone from your local blogger to The New York Times has already reported, the Erotic Computation Group is a not-very-elaborate hoax designed by Media Lab graduate student Dan Maynes-Aminzade. The would-be computer sexologist's actual area of research takes place in MIT's Tangible Media Group, where he said he and his fellow students work on "nontraditional computer interfaces that use physical objects to manipulate and organize digital information."

A quick glance at the Media Lab's other projects makes it clear what Maynes-Aminzade is making fun of with his spoof site. As he put it, "Sometimes people around here take themselves way too seriously. They think we're doing work with a profound significance to humankind, when actually we're doing things like building garden-hose-based interfaces for browsing stock quotes." His website parody, and the media's instant love affair with it, are part of a time-honored tradition of so-called regular people mocking those wacky academics and their wish to take almost everything far too seriously.

I couldn't care less about making fun of the Ivory Tower. It's a cheap shot, and academics have enough problems already. What's interesting to me about Maynes-Aminzade's joke is its serious side. "I think that some of the project ideas on the ECG site are actually feasible and have commercial potential," he said. "But I doubt that anyone would get away with actually working on them here. Even in the 21st century, people are pretty hung-up about sex."

Of course, many people who saw the site took it seriously, too. Witness the email received by Sara Cinnamon, an Erotic Computation Group "researcher," who listed her area of interest as sexual robotics. An enraged reader wrote to her, "Women already feel sexually worthless due to fake representations in the media. They don't need some big-titted suck dick robot as competition." Maynes-Aminzade was particularly amused by this email because he'd used "fairly formal scientific language" on the site, and yet this visitor had filled in her own insulting terminology, perhaps to satisfy her need to be offended.

As Maynes-Aminzade noted, people are still hung-up about sex. The many bizarre and predictable reactions to this site prove how pathetically underequipped we are when it comes to thinking about sex as something which can be examined scientifically--that is, the same way we study other body parts, like the brain, for instance, or the same way other groups at MIT's Media Lab study the way computers affect human relationships.

What, ultimately, is so laughable about the idea that the MIT Media Lab might support a group that researches technology and sex? Why not develop tools for understanding how sexual relationships are affected by computers? Everybody loves vibrators, so why not invent a sex robot?

Most importantly, why shouldn't we subject sex to the same levels of rational scrutiny we subject every other damn part of our lives to?

I don't mean to sound as stupid as the person who complained about the "big-titted suck dick robot"--although I must admit that part of me wished I'd come up with such a succinct turn of phrase. I'm just sick of hearing every "serious" reference to sex in the media or online turned into a joke or a salacious little secret. If you research sex, you're automatically considered a quack.

The worst part of this whole vicious circle is that it ironically ends up leaving room for all kinds of heinous quackery about sex that goes unchallenged. Throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was deemed a medical fact that masturbation (known in "scientific" terms as onanism) caused disease and death. Because so few people actually applied any kind of rigorous scientific method to sex, many generations of children were terrorized, pathologized, and even had their genitals mutilated by doctors who felt they were doing the right thing by putting safety pins through the foreskins of little boys who "compulsively" masturbated.

Even today, there are all kinds of scientific barbarities perpetrated on people because they lack basic sexual knowledge. Babies born with small penises are castrated and turned into girls "for their own good;" babies born with large clitorises are given clitorectomies so that they'll "fit in." Homosexuals and bisexuals are still routinely told that they're sick and can be cured. And these are only the most egregious examples.

Frankly, I think we need an Erotic Computation Group at MIT. If scientists and engineers can't deliver us from ignorance, who will?

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who wants a sex robot.

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From the December 13-19, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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