Stepping out of the Clean Well-Lighted Space

Reflections on Emily Witt’s Lecture at Studium Generale

Emily Witt’s book Future Sex[1] tells the story of a broken heart that leads to an exploration of modern-day sex relations and practices. On 12 February 2018 and in the context of an event by ArtEZ Studium Generale entitled “Sex and the Sexual Politics of the Gaze”, Witt gave a lecture[2] that delved into the gender-biased world of internet dating and how, more recently, many of these online apps have adapted their visual appeal to attract more women.  She recounted how in the early days of internet dating women were highly outnumbered on most dating apps, predominantly because the appeal was geared more toward a sex date rather than finding love. As a response, apps like Tinder endeavoured to offer a ‘safe’ space for women—for example, by not allowing users to send (dick) pictures and utilising the aesthetic of a white background to create the sense of a clean interface.  Witt compared these ‘clean well-lighted spaces’ to the black ‘dirty basement feel’ designs of sites like Pornhub, a site where the female visitor is heavily outnumbered by 74% male visitors (source: Pornhub 2016). In her talk, Witt scratched the surface of the effect of digital interfaces on our dating lives and proposed some interesting observations that prompted us to dig further into.

To be sure, interfaces of all kinds play with our physical and psychological reactions through the use of cool tones, popping red flags next to inboxes, and bouncing images to capture our attention. As media theorist Geert Lovink has recently argued, the overwhelming way in which social media appear to constantly address us can produce feelings of melancholy, a fear of missing out and of self-doubt. In his words, ‘the swiping finger is getting tired’.[3] In his book Irresistible, Adam Alter speaks of the addictive aspect of apps and the personalised dopamine released in the customer. In this way, a dating app works like a slot machine in the user’s search for a partner. [4] Finding a match releases dopamine, and a positive reaction on the first chat releases even more dopamine.

How is it then, as Witt suggests, that women are more attracted to the so called ‘clean well-lighted space’, and does that mean that men are drawn towards dark basement environments? Is this a fact, or is this an assumption implemented by specific developers? If we take a closer look at the actual numbers of men and women on Tinder, we see that there, too, three out of five people are men. (source: www.businessofapps.com, 2018).  And yet, this also has to be put into perspective. Tinder and other dating apps (i.e., OkCupid) that apply the clean, well-lighted space are, indeed, the first apps to successfully get large numbers of women to participate on their sites. So, there might be something to it after all. However, it also begs the question as to whether or not these sites also continue to confirm assumptions as to the sexual openness, preferences, and desires of men and women.

Although these clean, well-lighted spaces might give women a platform where they feel safe, they also give more weight to the belief that nipples and genitalia should be hidden and a woman having one-night stands is something to be frowned upon. There seems to be recoded in the interface the notion that when a straight couple begins to explore the world of an intimate relation, they each start from a different but gender-specific point. Of course this is not the result of the dating-app industry; it’s a deep-rooted, cultural issue which is confirmed and shown through the interface of these apps.

The classic stigma surrounding women who agree to and take pleasure in casual sex was studied and published in “Backlash from the Bedroom”[5]. This article investigates how the sexual double standard can be explained by a desire to avoid counter-stereotypical behaviours for fear of social repercussions­—for example, being slut-shamed—which can cause a reaction from the female users to censor themselves on digital platforms. The way society looks at sexual differences causes a vicious cycle in which men and women are positioned and behave according to these stigmas.

There’s another app that takes the clean, well-lighted space aesthetic a step further. On Bumble, if you are searching for love (or other things), it is the woman who has to make the first move. This creates ‘a safe, friendly place to meet new people’, according to the app’s statement (Bumble 2019). That is also why Bumble is one of the most heavily censored dating apps. For example, they do not allow shirtless or indoor bikini pictures. The goal of such measures is to shut down potential forms of harassment. Bumble turns the traditional gender roles around and creates a sheltered space for women. But there is a side effect to this. This tactic is keeping traditional gender roles and stereotypes alive. Bumble might aim to help women by creating a safe space, but with all its good intentions, it might also be reconfirming the status quo.

Designers can play a huge role in challenging social and political assumptions. This is just as relevant for analogue as for digital design. We are so used to seeing media interfaces every day that we forget that these are cultural artefacts built upon data. We see these spaces as neutral and designed primarily according to principles of technological function.  And yet, technology is never just a tool, it is intertwined in contemporary society and power relations. We live in a world where men and women are still largely brought up differently. This is visible in the physical space around us, and its re-inscription in the digital. Would it be possible to imagine an ungendered dating app, where both cis-gendered and non-heteronormative sexual desires could freely subscribe and assert themselves? What would this look like? Would such an app be able to survive in the very busy pool of dating services?

But the designer is not the only one guilty of re-inscribing sexual norms based on gender. Technology and healthcare theorist Nelly Oudshoorn argues that ‘designers are important for shaping the initial forms, functions, and meanings of objects. Users, by their different ways of interpreting, using and talking about technologies, further contribute to their social shaping.’[6]

A concrete example of a collaboration between audience and designer that Oudshoorn mentions is the famous Dr. Martens shoe. It was originally designed by a war doctor and worn mostly by policemen and factory workers. In the late 1960s, punks started wearing the shoes to display their warlike attitude against conformist society. This consumer shift made designers of the brand expand their target audience, creating a feedback loop between designer and consumer. Now in 2019, it is socially accepted for everybody to wear them. You can now choose from a wide selection of styles and colours, including cute pink ones.

This loop between designer and consumer presents us with insight on how interfaces are created. A designer is always reacting to consumer behaviour, whether it be consciously or not. Companies like Tinder and Bumble want to earn their share of the dating-app industry and, by using the clean, well-lighted space, found a way to lure in more women. An unintentional effect of this business strategy is that it’s not so much liberating but re-enforcing the existing image. But as Oudshoorn maintains, it’s not merely the designer who is influencing the product. It’s a back and forth of supply and demand. Emily Witt showed us that even something as simple as the background colour of a dating app already raises many complex questions. While the creation of respectful, safe spaces for all users is crucial in the future of internet dating apps, so too are the bending of gender norms and stereotypes based on heteronormativity and male pleasure.  Designers and users, with their sexual preferences and behaviours, can make a difference in how such interfaces continue to develop and are able to reflect a more plural scape of sexual desires from here.

Footnotes

[1]Emily Witt, Future Sex (Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc, 2016)

[2]Emily Witt, “A Clean Well-Lighted Space: The Visual Presentation of Sexual Identity” (ArtEZ Studium Generale, 21 March 2018)

[3]Geert Lovink, Sad by Design (Pluto Press, 2019)

[4]Adam Alter, Irresistible (Penguin Press, 2017)

[5]Terri D. Conley, Ali Ziegler, Amy C. Moors, “Backlash From the Bedroom: Stigma Mediates Gender Differences in Acceptance of Casual Sex Offers” (Psychology of Women Quarterly, 1-16 2012)

[6]Nelly E.J. Oudshoorn, Ann Rudinow Saetnan, Merete Lie, “On Gender and Things: Reflections on an Exhibition on Gendered Artifacts” (Women’s studies international forum, 4-24 2002)