Fighting for the of Equality Femme Women: A New Attractiveness Algorithm in the World of Online Dating

 

In America today, women face the gender pay gap, sexual harassment and assault, domestic abuse, the defunding of planned parenthood, prostitution- punishable by law, and for lesbians, stigmas against same-sex marriage and adoption, among other things. With the #MeToo movement shedding light on how large a problem sexual harassment and assault are in America, women come together and fight for this common struggle. Though admirable, the concept of women uniting together have historically left out lesbians and women of color, as they have been deemed deviant and irregular as the traditional women in America. The person who defines what the traditional women is, of course, not a women, it is the traditional man- the heterosexual, white, man – that ultimately has led women to also believe in this idea of what is natural and what is not, what is good and bad, deviant and normal. Today, as technology begins to define our lives more than ever before, the possibility of finding a partner has moved further into the online sector of our lives, making it easier to find someone without ever leaving our bedrooms. Our computer screens are open, and the phone that lives in our pocket is constantly on our minds if not already in our hands. Even the history of online dating beginning with Joan Ball[1], has been ignored with the popular version of its’ origins telling the story of Harvard men with an innovative idea. With that being said, lesbians and members of the LGBTQ community struggle to find partners online, with the attractiveness algorithm[2] coding them as not only unattractive, but altogether unwanted. As if lesbians didn’t already have a hard enough time finding a partner in their limited social spaces, the decline of lesbian bars has made it even harder, and now, as many turn online to find a partner, dating websites such as OkCupid and apps like Tinder, render them helpless in the human struggle to find intimacy. For these reasons, and on the behalf of femme lesbians and the LGBTQ community at large, I believe a new regulation must be installed that demands of dating websites and applications to make the data they collect publically accessible in order for it to be studied and used for academic purposes, and for a new attractiveness algorithm to be designed; one that not only allows for heterosexuals to find partners, but also for members of the LBGTQ community to do so as well.

The challenge that lesbians and LGBTQ community members have in finding partners online stems from heterosexist coding that declares everything outside of heterosexuality as irregular. The apps and websites believe their coding allows for the most people to find the right partner, and more importantly, the people the coders deem matter in American society are able to find partners. This leaves debilitating effects for those who don’t fit the constraints of what the ideal partner is and looks like. This idea of heterosexuality being the natural form of sexuality has been widespread throughout history and pervades everyday life. Our lives have become enthralled in technology and we can see now more than ever before how large a role heterosexism plays in every sector of our lives as it even enters the ever-present online sphere. Adrienne Rich argues that this notion of heterosexuality being natural as one far from the truth, and rather believes it to be imposed upon women and reinforced through various social constraints. Rich talks about heterosexism and how it has affected and hindered the woman throughout history. She talks of compulsory heterosexuality and goes on to talk about how this concept has ultimately led to the erasure of lesbian existence. Moreover, because women have accepted the idea that the natural sexuality is one where women want only men, lesbians have historically been deemed as either deviant, pathological or as emotionally and sensually deprived.[3] Rich’s argument rings just as true today as it did in 1980 when her essay was first published. The invisibility of femme lesbians on dating websites and applications is another testament to Rich’s argument.

The fight for women’s rights and equal opportunities known as feminism rejected the inclusion of lesbians at its beginnings. They were not the type of women that the traditional women wanted to be associated with during the middle of the 20th century. These beliefs, Rich argues, all stem from the reinforcement of heterosexuality, and while feminists may tolerate lesbians, they do not celebrate their existence as one that is inherent, therefore belittling them to less than heterosexual women. In order for women to stand as a united front, heterosexual women must believe that lesbians exist on an equal playing field, that they are not deviant from what is normal, but rather that their sexualities are natural as well. If all women can come together, this may be the answer for actually equality with men.

Eventually, feminists began to include lesbians and with this new inclusion, lesbian-feminism came to exist but even with the existence of lesbian feminists however, butch and femme lesbian women were excluded from participating because of the assumption that these types of lesbians were reproducing the heterosexual relationship that patriarchy designed and that women were fighting against.[4] The femme lesbian identity is considered as a gender identity that is used to describe lesbians that are traditionally feminine in appearance and behavior. Though Femme women are often feminine presenting lesbians and bisexuals, the gender can include feminine presenting women of other sexualities. Butch lesbians appear to be masculine in their dress and behavior.[5] It is for these reasons that people often think butch-femme relationships are reproducing heterosexual relationships, however it is the feminine women choosing not a man but a masculine women that is an action of fighting heterosexism, not reproducing it.

Lesbian feminism gave lesbians the theoretical sisterhood of all women but lesbians who identified as butch or femme were rejected from this sisterhood of women. The separation of lesbians and femme and butch identifying lesbians often was due to class issues. Femme and butch lesbians were often of lower class status than lesbian feminists.[6] The inclusion of femme and butch women in lesbian feminism eventually came about, but once again, femme women found themselves often invisible in social spaces that included heterosexual women as well. Though as many femme women do offer their gratitude for being able “to pass” as heterosexual in a country that has deplored homosexuality, the invisibility they face leaves them frustrated and further marginalized in an already marginalized community of lesbians.[7] Sometimes butch lesbians and lesbians in general have a difficult time distinguishing between heterosexual women and femme lesbians due to the traditionally feminine performance that femme lesbians take on.[8] Even while in lesbian spaces like lesbian bars, femme lesbians are often questioned for their presence in these spaces, claiming that they are either straight or ridiculed for not being gay enough. When they are thought to be straight, they become left feeling isolated because neither heterosexual women nor lesbian women can figure out whom and what they are. Their identities get lost and misunderstood. Even at the beginning of recorded lesbian history, femmes were unidentified as lesbians until the end of the 1800’s when butch lesbians came into the public sphere.[9] Next to their masculine partners, femme women could be seen as lesbians, too.

The fight for visibility has been a long one clearly for femme lesbians. While this fight began on the streets and in bars, a new, modern struggle has been unleashed on dating websites and applications. The concept of online dating, unknown to most, actually began with Joan Ball in England. Ball took on a job with the “marriage bureau,” a dating service similar to online dating but not online. She found herself to be very successful at the job and saw that instead of asking what people were looking for in a partner, asking what they are not looking for was more beneficial to finding them a good match. Eventually, she opened her own marriage bureau and her business flourished. Her primary customers were divorcees, widowers, and older unmarried people. In 1965 she ran the first commercial dating service and was successful for taking into account strong negative feelings when first determining matches. She went through many name changes such as Eros Friendship Bureau, to St. James Computer Dating Service, and ended up with the name Com-Pat II, shorthand for computerized compatibility. By 1970, Com-Pat II software was using better data and had a larger user pool. Eventually, Ball sold her company and her creation of the first online dating services became erased from the popularized anecdote of the Harvard men creating the first online dating services.

The three Harvard undergraduates, Jeff Tarr, Dave Crump, and Vaughan Morrill, as well as Cornell dropout, Doug Ginsberg, found themselves wishing it were easier to find girls to hookup with at parties. The parties and mixers they attended left them feeling awkward trying to find a girl and often without a girl next to them in the morning. They came to the conclusion that they could make things a bit easier by making a dating service that set them up with girls they had similar desires with. This idea became known as Operation Match and later became public for use by Harvard students the year after Joan Ball’s, Com-Pat was released into the public in England. The four men were asked about the software they initially used for Operation Match and all coincidently failed to remember the name of it- perhaps it was Joan Ball’s software. Ultimately, the dating service was too much work for these men to keep up with and later failed, but luckily for them, the popular story of the Harvard men creating the first online dating did not disappear from history, only Joan Ball’s story did.[10]

The concept of online dating continued to expand and today, apps like Tinder and websites such as OkCupid allow for many to find life-long partners or short -term sexual partners. With that being said however, it wasn’t until recently that dating websites and apps catered to LGBTQ people at all. OkCupid was one of the first to do so, and the company was applauded for their inclusion of a range of genders and ability to search for a partner based on gender and sexuality identifiers. This addition publically looks inclusive and helpful, but what the public doesn’t see, is that even with the inclusion for more genders and sexualities, the algorithm used to match people essentially leaves lesbians unable to find partners. This is due to the fact that the algorithm is based on heteronormative concepts. The idea that women naturally desire men, and that these men are white, heterosexual, cisgender males who are healthy and traditionally masculine, leaves women who are not searching for these men to be unable to find the correct partner.

The coding and attractiveness algorithm characteristic of these dating applications and dating websites is ultimately based on the notion of heterosexuality being the intrinsic sexuality for all. Until this notion is deleted from our minds, the invisibility that femme women feel in public spaces with heterosexual women, and even in lesbian spaces such as bars, will continue to occur not only in real life, but also online. A new code must be established, one that perhaps is created by a lesbian women herself, so that the invisibility lesbians often feel in the public sphere, doesn’t have to occur in the private sector of our online, technology ridden lives. Men fear that women could live lives on their own terms, and therefore disregard men and their needs altogether.[11] The issue of women coming together but not including all women needs to come to an end. Women of color and LGBTQ women are ostracized enough as it is by the men who control our society. Women fighting for their rights and equal opportunities would find themselves a lot stronger if they had all women included in the same fight. As long as any woman of any race or sexual orientation is being oppressed, all women are not equal with men.

The femme identity has faced many problems in finding their space and ultimately finding acceptance not only among men but among women, too. They found their space in bars and beaches[12], but it is not always summer, and lesbian bars began declining in the ‘80s, with previous issues of bar raids in the ‘40s[13]. Additionally, lesbians were often arrested during the beginning of the creation of lesbian bars, as the police often mistook them to be prostitutes.[14] This is just another example of lesbians being known for their deviant sexualities, much like prostitutes. As technology becomes more important in everyday life, more and more people are using it to find short-term sexual encounters, and even long-term partners. The future needs to see all women coming together, and when this happens, lesbians will be accepted and celebrated. One way we can pave the road to equality for all women is by creating a new attractiveness algorithm that allows for lesbians to find partners and allows them to ultimately feel as worthy citizens of America. Though a small step on a long journey, the new code ultimately will fight heterosexism and allow for lesbian existence to be celebrated and reproduced.

[1] Hicks, Marie. “The Mother of All Swipes.” Logic Magazine, Logic Magazine, 29 Jan. 2018, logicmag.io/02-the-mother-of-all-swipes/.

[2] Gieskeing, Jen Jack. 2017 “Messing with the Attractiveness Algorithm: A Response to Queering Code/Space.” Gender, Place & Culture, September, 1-7.

[3] Rich, Adriene. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” 1980.

[4] Smith, Elizabeth A. “Butches, Femmes, and Feminists: The Politics of Lesbian Sexuality.” NWSA Journal, vol. 1, no. 3, 1989, pp. 398–421. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4315922.

[5] Kramarae, Cheris, and Dale Spender. “Butch/Femme.” Routledge international encyclopedia of women: global womens issues and knowledge. New York: Routledge, 2000. 131-33.

[6] Smith, Elizabeth A. “Butches, Femmes, and Feminists: The Politics of Lesbian Sexuality.” NWSA Journal, vol. 1, no. 3, 1989, pp. 398–421. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4315922.

[7] Johnson, Matthew D., and Claude J. Summers. “Gay and Lesbian Bars.” Glbtq, Glbtq, Inc., 2015, pp. 1–7.

[8] Eves, Alison. “Queer Theory, Butch/Femme Identities and Lesbian Space.” Sexualities, SAGE Publications.

[9] Wolfe, Maxine. “Invisible Women in Invisible Places: Lesbians, Lesbian Bars, and the Social Production of People/ Environment Relationships.” Arch. & Comport. / Arch. & Behav., vol. 8, no. 2, 1992, pp. 137–158.

[10] Hicks, Marie. “The Mother of All Swipes.” Logic Magazine, Logic Magazine, 29 Jan. 2018, logicmag.io/02-the-mother-of-all-swipes/.

[11] Rich, Adriene. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” 1980.

[12] Nestle, Joan. “Restriction and Reclamation.” A Restricted Country, Firebrand Books, 1987, pp. 61–67.

[13] Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky. “The Hidden Voice: Fems in the 1940s and 1950s.” In Femme: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls.

[14] Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky. “The Hidden Voice: Fems in the 1940s and 1950s.” In Femme: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls.

Bibliography

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky. “The Hidden Voice: Fems in the 1940s and 1950s.” In Femme: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls.

Hicks, Marie. “The Mother of All Swipes.” Logic Magazine, Logic Magazine, 29 Jan. 2018, logicmag.io/02-the-mother-of-all-swipes/.

Rich, Adriene. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Exsistence.” 1980.

Gieskeing, Jen Jack. 2017 “Messing with the Attractiveness Algorithm: A Response to Queering Code/Space.” Gender, Place & Culture, September, 1-7.

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky. “The Hidden Voice: Fems in the 1940s and 1950s.” In Femme: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls. https://books.google.com/books?id=AdVQAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA39&lpg=PA39&dq=now you get this spot right here: butch fem sexuality during the 1940s and 1950s&source=bl&ots=R20iUMhavI&sig=4sQTamvHD0j09HOd73A7UY5iPbs&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjRgt3IgdTZAhUNnFkKHe6_DwcQ6AEILTAB#v=onepage&q=now%20you%20get%20this%20spot%20right%20here%3A%20butch%20fem%20sexuality%20during%20the%201940s%20and%201950s&f=false.

Kramarae, Cheris, and Dale Spender. “Butch/Femme.” Routledge international encyclopedia of women: global womens issues and knowledge. New York: Routledge, 2000. 131-33.

Wolfe, Maxine. “Invisible Women in Invisible Places: Lesbians, Lesbian Bars, and the Social Production of People/ Environment Relationships.” Arch. & Comport. / Arch. & Behav., vol. 8, no. 2, 1992, pp. 137–158.

Smith, Elizabeth A. “Butches, Femmes, and Feminists: The Politics of Lesbian Sexuality.” NWSA Journal, vol. 1, no. 3, 1989, pp. 398–421. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4315922.

Eves, Alison. “Queer Theory, Butch/Femme Identities and Lesbian Space.” Sexualities, SAGE Publications.

 

 

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