Sex Studies at MIT

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 (www.monzy.com/ecg). 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 Web site 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 e-mail 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 e-mail 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 the site show how pathetically under-equipped we are when it comes to thinking about sex as something that can be examined scientifically, that is, the same way we study the functions of other body parts, like the brain for instance.

Ultimately, what 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? Most important, why shouldn't we subject sex to the same levels of rational scrutiny to which we subject every other damn part of our lives to? I'm sick of hearing every "serious" reference to sex in the media 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 sexual quackery 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 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 of a lack of 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 (mitforever@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who wants a sex robot.

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