The Face Of Sexuality: Why Do AI-Generated Sexual Orientations Matter?

This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Weber is the author of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge which has been the subject of a symposium on this blog, besides also being an occasional contributor to the blog. This text is based on comments presented at the 2017 European International Studies Association Annual Conference, Barcelona, on the panel ‘The Politics and Responsibility of IR in an Age of Crisis’.

A Stanford University study by Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski that recently went viral repackages long discredited beliefs that a person’s face is scientifically readable for specific personality traits (also see this). The study claims artificial intelligence (AI) facial recognition technology can determine a person’s sexual orientation, with 16-30% greater accuracy than the human eye. The study analyzed more than 35,000 images on a US dating website of white, able-bodied, 18-40 year olds for ‘fixed’ (e.g., nose shape) and ‘transient’ facial features (e.g., grooming styles, weight, facial expressions). Researchers compared their AI-generated sexual orientations against sexual orientations researchers found from dating profiles, which researchers established ‘based on the gender of the partners that [website users] were looking for’.

LGBTQ advocacy organizations immediately labeled the study ‘junk science’. Social scientists will have little trouble understanding why. For example, the study’s sample is skewed in terms of race, age, (dis)ability, and location (online and in the US). Furthermore, the study’s coders failed to independently verify crucial information like age and the problematic category sexual orientation, which are things people regularly lie about on dating sites.

What may be less obvious to many reading the study are some of the other ways biases are created via coding errors or are written into the facial recognition algorithm. For example, the study restricts the range of sexual orientations, sexes and genders to neat yet inaccurate binaries: gay and straight, male and female, masculine and feminine. The study also mistakenly equates sexual orientation with sexual activity, even though people who have same-sex sex do not necessarily identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer. And the study treats ‘transient’ facial features as if they are natural or ‘native’ to ‘gay culture’ and ‘straight culture’, rather than understanding them as performative acts that are highly dependent upon context. In addition to naturalizing culture, this move overdetermines how ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are coded. For it fails to recognize that people who choose to go on a dating site will likely post photos of themselves that can be easily understood through sexualized stereotypes, which they may or may not perform in other on- and off-line contexts.

If there are so many problems with this study, why should any of us give it a second thought, particularly (IR) scholars, policymakers and activists? And why should this study be the focus of reflections on the politics and responsibility of International Relations in an age of crisis?

I have five answers.

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Right-Wing Populism, Anti-Genderism, And Real US Americans In The Age Of Trump

This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, who is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Cindy is the author, most recently, of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Power which was the subject of a symposium hosted by The Disorder of Things. 

The US satirical website The Onion recently ran a fake testimonial video featuring a remorseful Donald Trump supporter. The 2-minute clip is entitled ‘Trump Voter Feels Betrayed By President After Reading 800 Pages of Queer Feminist Theory’. The video features the character ‘Mike Bridger, Former Trump Supporter’, a middle-aged, working class, cishet white male from a small steel town in Pennsylvania. The balding Mike is shot in documentary talking-head style. Mike sits facing the camera, both so that his truthfulness can be evaluated by viewers and so that what US Americans will recognize as his iconic working-class garb is fully in view – dark tan zip-up jacket, olive-green button-down shirt open at the collar, white t-shirt visible underneath. Accompanied by slow music which sets a troubled, post-catastrophe tone, Mike tells his story.

‘I voted for Donald Trump,’ Mike tells us. ‘I voted for Trump because I thought he’d create a better America for everyone. But after reading 800 or so pages on queer feminist theory, I realize now just how much I’ve been duped.’

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‘You are fired!’ Towards the Hegemony of Neoliberal Hypermasculinity

This is the final post in a series of posts by several guest authors  for The Disorder Of Things symposium on Ali Bilgic‘s new book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy, released in late 2016. In this post, Ali Bilgic responds to the previously published posts and makes some concluding remarks. The full series is collected here.


He is signing a document. Men standing behind him are all serious, looking over the shoulder of the one who he is performing the ceremony, a TV show par excellence. One of them passes the black folders; one after another, one signature after another. When he signs, his eyebrows rise a little, probably to see better. In this moment, it is possible to notice the blankness in his eyes that complements the expressionless face of the new Commander-in-Chief: there is no sign of affect in them, a staunch wall, like the one to be built on the border with Mexico, or the one in Palestine/Israel.

US President Donald Trump signs an executive order in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, January 23, 2017.
Trump on Monday signed three orders on withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, freezing the hiring of federal workers and hitting foreign NGOs that help with abortion. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

One expects he would abruptly say ‘You are fired’; one wonders whether he has learned and practised this masculine emotionless performance during his years in the world of entertainment: in a reality show where young men and women wildly competed against each other to prove themselves to the neoliberal finance capitalism. Otherwise, they are fired, they vanish, do not exist anymore, neither for the audience nor for the market. This kind of decision requires rational thinking; in other words, a solid emptiness, a wall.

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Of Malls and Mosques

This is the fourth post in a series of posts by several guest authors The Disorder Of Things on Ali Bilgic‘s new book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy, released in late 2016. The full series is collected hereAida A. Hozic is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Florida.


The publication of Ali Bilgiç’s book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy in 2016 could not have been more timely. There are few historical moments in our recent history when politics of gender and race have been so forcefully pushed to the front and center of global conversations. Conflicts, refugee flows, uprisings, coups and counter-coups, populist blowbacks and rising authoritarianism – all seem to be written through, with, and over racialized, gendered bodies of men, women and children, justifying the persecution of some and advocating protection of others. Turkey, as the events (and the trail of bodies) of the last few years tragically confirm, sits at the crossroads of all these trends; civilizational cliché that it is the country where “East meets West” can no longer suffice to explain (and perhaps never could) multiple fissures and violent contradictions of its polity.

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The View from Elsewhere Turns the World Inside Out

This is the second post in a series of posts by several guest authors The Disorder Of Things on Ali Bilgic‘s new book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy, released in late 2016. The full series is collected hereTerrell Carver is a Professor of Political Theory at University of Bristol, UK.


Ali Bilgic’s Turkey, Power and the West contributes in highly significant ways to three literatures not normally brought together. Firstly, foreign policy studies, approached from what – for Anglophone writers and readers – is a novel, de-centred vantage point. Secondly, gender studies and feminist research, using masculinity as a highly relevant and essential analytical ‘lens’. Thirdly, postcolonial perspectives, from which the East/West binary is reimagined and pluralized (which, quite naturally, plays into the de-centred approach to foreign policy studies).

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Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy

This is the first in a series of posts by several guest authors The Disorder Of Things on Ali Bilgic‘s new book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy, released in late 2016. This is an introductory post by Ali Bilgic. Ali is a lecturer at Department of Politics, History and International Relations, Loughborough University.  Following this introduction, there will be posts by Aida Hozic, Terrell Carver, Swati Parashar, and Clemens Hoffmann, as well as a response by Ali Bilgic posted during the course of this week. The full series is collected here.


Introduction

‘What is this research really about?’ is a question we ask ourselves. Naturally it often invites more questions: what is the importance of this research? Why am I doing it? And finally, what is so puzzling about it? When I was writing Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy, I asked myself these questions and tried to produce academically sound answers. The book is about gendered power hierarchies between the West and non-West and the insecurities that these power hierarchies generate. More specifically, it examines how the changing standards of hegemonic masculinities in global politics are predominantly defined by the West(s) and how the inability of ‘subordinated’ non-Western masculinities to catch up with these changing standards becomes a source of insecurity. I define this ‘gendered ontological insecurity’: the anxiety about not being accepted as ‘man’, or better to say, ‘state’ enough by the West(s). A corollary objective is to situate domestic politics in a non-Western country in the context of foreign policy and evaluate it through the prism of gendered ontological insecurities.
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Sovereignty, Sexuality And The Will To Trump: A Queer IR Analysis And Response

In this final post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge, Cynthia responds to her interlocutors. You can read the other posts in the symposium here.


On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States of America. His campaign was marked by extreme racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism, and homo/bi/trans*phobias. In light of this election result, I will depart from the usual format for a symposium conclusion, in which I would engage point-by-point with the generous, insightful, critical commentaries of Joan Cocks, Antke Engel, Cyril Ghosh, and Dianne Otto. Instead, I will put the analysis I developed in Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Power and the correctives to it offered by the commentators in this symposium to work to address two urgent questions: ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘What is to be done?’.

The argument I make in Queer IR is that sovereignty, sexuality and all political scales from the intimate to the international are inseparable. So, too, are the intersectional ways sex, gender and sexuality function in relation to and through, for example, race, class, ability, religion, ‘civilization’ and colonialities. One cannot understand sovereignty without understanding how sexuality functions intersectionally at every scale, and one cannot understand sexuality without understanding how sovereignty functions intersectionally at every scale. This means my queer IR analysis is never fully distinct from those found in Critical Race Studies, Black Studies, CRIP Studies, and Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies. Yet it always insists on focusing its analytic lens on the function of sex, gender and sexuality, which is not necessarily the case with other critical traditions. As Antke Engel points out in this symposium, my idiosyncratic formulation and articulation of a queer IR has its pitfalls. But, as she and Cyril Ghosh discuss, these choices are what allow me to mobilize queer strategically, especially in relation to the Discipline of International Relations that has long ignored queer scholarship. This neglect of queer scholarship is as much because of how Disciplinary IR conceives of proper contributions to the Discipline as it is to how Disciplinary IR fetishizes particular kinds of IR methods.

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