Tech, Feminism, and Sexual Submission in “Eidolon”

Lily is the lady protagonist of Eidolon, and unlike me, she grew up with a very clear picture of how the tech industry, the Internet, and its denizens marginalize women. Especially women in technology or some other space erroneously identified as being straight, white, cis men-only.

Computers have been around a long time. While you might think of computing as a male-dominated industry today, which it is, women were the original pioneers in programming while their male counterparts were “more interested in building” the machines for which women wrote the first algorithms and computer languages. Women like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper.

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Weird Science (1985) from Universal Pictures; WarGames (1983) from United Artists; Revenge of the Nerds (1984) from Twentieth Century Fox; Real Genius (1985) from Delphi III Productions

Then in the mid-80s when personal computers were entering US homes, marketing began targeting young men. This marketing in addition to ‘80s pop culture pushed the stereotype that computers (and later, video games) were for boys. Girls who were interested in computer science were overlooked, discouraged, and pushed out.

The late ‘80s/early ‘90s brought about the Internet as we know it today—or rather, the World Wide Web—and it put us all through decades of growing pains. Still does, in fact. Among those growing pains was the slow erosion of personal privacy, both from individuals and companies—even our own government(s). We also invented words for new concepts and reanimated old words with new meanings: identity theft, phishing, cyber-mob, troll, doxing, swatting… Forum, cookie, Big Data, social media, hashtag…

My generation—Millenials—grew up in the Information Age. As a whole, we enjoy a better familiarity with tech and the Internet, but we’ve also suffered the consequences of that familiarity. Of taking privacy and security less seriously than we probably would’ve preferred in hindsight. Of free speech rights repeatedly trumping privacy. Of failing to ensure that legislation maintains pace with online threats. Of failing to ensure that law enforcement not only takes online threats seriously, but also has the training and tools to investigate. And of social media companies failing to offer robust methods for combating harassment.

We’ve also heard from more marginalized voices, amplified on social media, blogs, and news sites. And, inevitably, we’ve seen the backlash to what they’ve had to say. Dozens of culture wars rage across the Internet at any given time, most rooted in old prejudices and some that overlap each other suspiciously well. One of many good examples is the 2015 Hugo Awards. (Seriously, click on that link and read the whole article. It somehow manages to reference quite a few backlash “movements” from the last couple of years.)

A common thread in most of these backlash movements is sexism, which manifests online as an extremely disproportionate amount of abusive, gender-based comments and messages, doxing, stalking, and threats of rape and/or death.

Women aren’t welcome on the Internet, especially women of color, trans women, queer women, and women with disabilities. Women have little support from law enforcement and social media companies, and those individual users who try to support targeted women risk being harassed in turn.

Worst of all: not only is it common for women receiving abuse to be told that online threats shouldn’t be taken seriously, they’re also accused of making it up. (Read Mikki Kendall’s The Harassment Game to get an understanding of the typical path that online harassment takes.)

And this is just scratching the surface of all the ways the Internet has been used to hurt people, women especially.

In Eidolon, which is set about thirty years in the future, I imagined that none of these now-inherent issues with the Internet really improved all that much; women simply took their safety into their own hands and got better at dealing with it, Lily in particular.

Women who dare to exist online, especially women from marginalized and/or minority groups, are now encouraged to take special care with the privacy and security settings of their online accounts. To use browser extensions that prevent or limit web tracking. To use the Tor network or a VPN when they need to surf the web with greater anonymity. To consider whether a new status update might reveal too much about their personal identity and contact information.

The list of safeguards one can utilize online is long. In Eidolon, one safeguard Lily utilizes to minimize the risk to her overall identity involves diversifying it into several dozen online personas and even filtering what she says to avoid make her gender overt.

Don’t mistake her strategy for “catfishing,” which involves creating a fictional online identity (often with pictures and information stolen from real people) specifically and particularly to “pursue deceptive online romances.” (Reasons why will vary.)

No, what Lily does (and indeed, lots of people online) is meant to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for anyone with enough malicious intent to stalk her or otherwise find her elsewhere online for the purpose of learning things about her that she didn’t consent to share. Including the deeply held secret that she is a sexual submissive.

I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, so I’ll just say that in Eidolon, the shame Lily feels about her sexuality is not related to whether it makes her a “bad feminist.” Though it’s not uncommon for female sexual submissives to feel ashamed due to internalized “kinkophobia,” this is not the case with Lily.

But let’s talk briefly about that intersection between sexual submission and feminism. Incidentally, we’ll also loop in mainstream pornography, which the Internet has done so much to proliferate. I’m going to heavily reference an essay entitled “The Fantasy of Acceptable ‘Non-Consent’: Why the Female Sexual Submissive Scares Us (and Why She Shouldn't)” by Stacey May Fowles, which is one of several excellent essays in Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape.

Fowles’ essay brilliantly lays out how mainstream porn misappropriates “those desires specific to BDSM” and borrows “from BDSM’s images without readings its rules,” leading (assumed straight male) viewers “to believe that what women want is to be coerced and, in some cases, forced into acts they don’t consent to.” The best shorthand I can think of for this trend is Brazzers, a popular porn site that infamously features the aforementioned type of imagery. (In case it needs to be said, here is a content warning for anyone reading this who is curious and who decides to visit the Brazzers website.)

This kind of porn ends up leaving straight men (and, as some feminists believe, women) with a dangerous lack of understanding of consent and sexual agency. Therefore, as Fowles says in her essay, “the concept of female submission makes feminists really uncomfortable,” and “the idea of a male inflicting pain on a consenting woman is just too hard for many people to stomach.” She then goes on to say:

There is a guilt and shame in having the luxury to decide to act on this desire—to consent to this kind of “nonconsent.” It seems to suggest you haven’t known true sexual violence, cannot truly understand how traumatic it can be, if you’re willing to incorporate a fictional version of it into your “play.” But this simply isn’t true: A 2007 study conducted in Australia revealed that rates of sexual abuse and coercion were similar between BDSM practitioners and other Australians. The study concluded that BDSM is simply a sexual interest or subculture attractive to a minority, not defined by a pathological symptom of past abuse.

And before you say it: yes, abusers do exist in the BDSM lifestyle. I’m not going to trot out the No True Scotsman fallacy and claim that anyone, either Dom or sub, who abuses and manipulates their play partners isn’t a “real BDSM practitioner.” Just as you’ll find bigoted Christians and racist feminists, you’ll find abusive Doms and subs. In fact, a character in Eidolon must work through their emotions after breaking things off with an abusive play partner.

Proper BDSM play is thoroughly negotiated beforehand and is likely more vetted with voiced, enthusiastic consent than vanilla sexual encounters. As Fowles says, “For BDSM to exist safely, it has to be founded on a constant proclamation of enthusiastic consent, which mainstream sexuality has systematically dismantled.”

Unfortunately, this distinction is lost with the corruption and erasure of the consent guidelines that underpin proper BDSM play and with “the proliferation of graphic crime shows on prime-time television and torture porn masquerading as ‘psychological thrillers’ in theaters.”

Some feminists end up arguing that, despite how private one keeps her desire to submit, a female sexual submissive is “not only complicit, but also key in perpetuating the acceptability of violence.” Moreover, they argue that a female sexual submissive’s fantasy is “merely a product of a culture that coerces [her] into believing that kind of violence is acceptable, or even desirable.”

It’s this real possibility of censure that makes Lily conceal her desire to submit. That and a misogynistic Internet culture poised to dogpile on anyone female.

One last thing: so you might be wondering, why doesn’t Lily deign to use an Eidolon-brand robotic companion? Well, one of the things I explore in Eidolon is how its main characters feel about trust, consent, and power exchange—highly prominent concepts in proper D/s play.

An Eidolon isn’t capable of feeling real emotions, of making moral judgments, or of disobeying a command from its only authorized user, so it would never refuse to meet Lily’s needs. It would never broadcast her identity or sexuality to the world at large out of greed or jealousy. Programmed properly, it would never continue after a safe word is used.

All of these qualities make an Eidolon safe, even trustworthy in a way that no human being could match. And they make an Eidolon incapable of violating Lily’s consent. But these qualities also make an Eidolon powerless—at least, that’s how Lily feels. BDSM involves a voluntary exchange of power, and since Lily feels that an Eidolon cannot truly participate in a power exchange, it cannot truly dominate her.

If you’d like to see how all of these themes and concepts fit into my story, consider buying a copy today. Thanks for reading!