Pesky fly problem: Deepfakes and the trajectory of technology within rape culture

Sukhnidh Kaur
10 min readFeb 15, 2023
Picture from The Next Web; “Deepfakes are being weaponized to silence women — but this woman is fighting back” [8]

Once upon a time, there lived a man, a woman, and a pesky fly.

The pesky fly would buzz before the man’s face every day, positioning itself between him and the woman. This irked the man, to whom the woman — on the other side of the pesky fly — became impalpable. On bad days, the unrelenting drone of its fluttering wings would send the man into a fit of rage. The woman and the pesky fly, on the other hand, grew to become good friends. She welcomed it into their home, fattened it, and appointed the pesky fly as her beloved house-pet.

As the years went by and his protestations failed, the man begrudgingly accepted the pesky fly as a permanent fixture in his once sterile home. Killing house-pets is looked down upon, and so he learned to cohabitate, keeping the woman appeased through confessions of his love for the pesky fly in bed and over dinner table conversations. He only confided his true anguish in his friends, recounting stories of an old life — a better one — lived before its arrival.

Still, he couldn’t overlook his innate disapproval. Every now and then, the man would attempt novel methods of ridding his house of the pesky fly. He would clap his hands, hoping to accidentally flatten it between them. He would scream, hoping to scare it away. He would even try to trick it into leaving of its own accord. Meanwhile, the elusive fly remained loyal to the woman. Often it sustained injuries, and sometimes it seemed to offer the faintest knock upon death’s door. But the pesky fly, battered or bruised, always reported back to the woman. It lived happily by her side for years and years.

Then, the fly swatter was invented.

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, the man looked at the woman — sitting right beside him — and invited her to witness his long-awaited swatting. In one swift blow, the pesky fly was dead.

The man turned to the crying woman and proclaimed, ‘I never liked the pesky fly anyway’.

I use the pesky-fly analogy to describe consent within patriarchal societies. Such societies, in which men hold power over women, normalize and celebrate male entitlement over women’s bodies. We call this rape culture. Within rape culture, sex is an enaction, manifestation, and symbol of power. I call the fly pesky because, within rape culture, the sexual consent of women — i.e. the ultimate denial of entitlement — is perceived by men as simply irksome. The invention of the fly swatter analogizes the advent of deepfake pornography.

Historically, every time new technology has been introduced into a global society plagued by structural embeddings of patriarchy, we have found a way to weaponize it against women. From rotary-dial telephones to video-enabled smartphones to security cameras, every time a new way of engaging with the world has emerged, we have figured out — ingenuously, sometimes — how to appoint it to the cause of harm to women. Let me give you some examples. When I was in college, I learnt that a male member of the cleaning staff had been harassing a female staff member via phone calls. When I got in touch with an old friend after five years of not being in contact, she told me that a groomer had taken non-consensual pictures and videos of her in humiliating positions in the event that she considered outing him for pedophilia. When #MeToo happened in India, we learnt that the co-founder of a popular media organization had secretly audio-recorded a woman he slept with. When I interview highly-visible women for my research, they tell me about men using social media to send dick pics and engage in trolling against them as if it is the most routine thing in the world. Countless times, young women — strangers I have never spoken to — have messaged me on social media, seeking information on how to navigate cyberstalking and online blackmail.

So, why does this happen? Male entitlement over women’s bodies is the cultural norm, and technology perpetuates cultural norms. Since people determine the ways in which technology is used, technology also gains the ability to influence the trajectory of evolution of these cultural norms. In the offline world, men of rational minds but patriarchal values routinely hit and rape and grope and manipulate women that they believe ought to be controlled [2]. In the online world, they engage in revenge pornography, online blackmail, location tracking, and gendertrolling. Since misogynistic actions remain consistent while tools and methods change, the primary pathology that gives rise to deepfakes is rape culture. The secondary pathology is the socio-technical design of technologies that allow — and sometimes encourage — misogynistic harm to fester. As technology advances, the ‘ways of engaging’ it permits become increasingly effective. Within the patriarchy, this means that they become more and more harmful towards women. Deepfake pornography is simply an example of this ascension of harm. It is a logical and predictable outcome of rape culture. Similar AI-based technologies have been used to perpetuate rape culture. Take for example the Coconut Kitty phenomenon. Diana Deets, a publisher of pornographic content, started using FaceApp to transplant AI generated pictures of her as a teenager on her adult nude body. Many others followed. There is little to no scholarship determining whether such morphing constitutes child pornography, whether the production and consumption of it is unethical or illegal, or if the platform that allows such morphing should be held legally liable. Consider DeepNude, an app that makes use of neural networks to turn any clothed woman of your choice naked [5]. Several such apps have raised controversy, and as one goes down, another pops up.

Now that we know this, we can better understand the pesky fly analogy: In a society that dislikes flies, swatters will be invented to address the pesky fly problem. In a society that dislikes consent, technology will be invented to address the consent problem.

There is a certain inevitability to such technological inventions, because they are born from necessity. Male entitlement over women’s bodies — rape culture — is a necessary condition for the existence of a global patriarchy. Violations of sexual consent are sanctioned under this culture. However, they have historically been laborious. Men have had to convince, tricke, coerce, and traffick women into the business of pornography [1]. They have stealthed and guilted and negged women into sex sans protection. Men have made up false ages and salaries and religious values to trade in exchange for one-night stands. In cases of female celebrities — compelling, un-ownable targets — men have suffered long waiting periods, cutting up pictures of their faces and pasting them onto pornographic magazines until they decide to display their nude bodies on film. When men have failed to tolerate the pesky fly, they have gone home and raped their wives.

Deepfake pornography has offered men born into rape culture the ultimate gift: it has annihilated consent in the most efficient manner yet discovered, and reduced the physical and mental labor of the exploitation required to elicit sexual servitude from women. Deepfake pornography has expanded the horizons of a collaborative rape culture by providing novel avenues for the ownership and entitlement of women’s bodies.

Men no longer require the consent of desirable women for sexual gratification. Between Emma Watson Blacked, Billie Eilish Creampied, and Ariana Grande Spread Eagle, the most impossible of fantasies have become achievable. All that is required, in each instance of gratification, is for two women to be dismembered. The body of the less desirable woman, i.e. the pornstar, is stitched together with the face of the more desirable woman, i.e. the celebrity. The outcome of this process is a body that is neither pornstar, nor celebrity, nor woman at all. This fragmented and altered zombie-thing is deemed — to the convenience of men — incapable of providing consent. In a healthy society, the incapability to consent would suggest that these dismembered women should not be consumed. Perhaps the consent of both women would be deemed necessary. Within rape culture, however, this incapability is an invitation to a free-for-all buffet of severed heads and torsos. The very obscenity of it all — forcing female celebrities into a position of sexual servitude when they have in actuality attempted to deny men access to their bodies — is the ultimate fetish driving the mass consumption of deepfake pornography. The man does not just kill the pesky fly to quickly get rid of it, he finds perverse pleasure in swatting it to death.

Despite it having been nearly 30 years since the advent of deepfakes [3], chatter about regulation has only picked up in the recent past. This is because rape culture has normalized the non-consensual consumption of women’s bodies for male sexual gratification to such an extent that we accept it as the one stitch holding our social fabric together. Hence, though there may be an obvious historical precedent for the gendered weaponization of technology, our society has lacked the willingness to address the inevitable future that deepfakes hold for women. The painstakingly slow regulation of the multi-billion dollar physical porn industry is proof. Our society longs for rape culture because it ensures men’s patriarchally sourced power. Regulating its byproducts with swiftness is counterintuitive to its sustenance. It is in the fly’s nature to be pesky to the man, and it is in the man’s nature to want to rid the house of flies.

There are, of course, several arguments in favour of deepfakes. These include their ability to reduce the physical exploitation of women in the porn industry while making pornography cheaper to produce, and their utility to advertisements, movies, animations, comedy, and the entertainment industry at large. Today, some countries and social media platforms have begun to criminalize and ban non-consensual deepfake pornography, while allowing the consenual use of deepfakes in other spheres [6, 7]. But the internet loves porn, in part because women’s role within rape culture — that is to gratify and serve men — is actualized through the mass production and consumption of cisheterosexual porn. As long as deepfakes exist, they will be used for pornography. According to one source, over 90% of all deepfakes are sexual in nature [4]. But ‘deepfake pornography’ is a misnomer, because all non-consensual deepfake pornography is sexual abuse. So let us rephrase our statement: As long as deepfakes exist, they will be used to sexually abuse women.

You may take a moment here to question whether something so intangible, accessed solely through a screen, can really constitute sexual abuse. Surely, if we must call it that, we should at least use the less scary phrasing of ‘online sexual abuse’. To this, I argue that colloquial understandings of rape and sexual abuse are determined by punition-focused legal definitions conceived in a society before the internet. These definitions can and must change with the evolution of technology. Today, we have adopted the idea that what happens virtually is somehow trivial in comparison to what happens in the offline world, and we assign lesser weight to categories such as ‘online harassment’ and ‘online abuse’. I suggest that it is vital to use encompassing terms such as ‘sexual abuse’ to underline the severity of the loss of agency caused by deepfake pornography. This emphasis helps us subvert the normalization of rape culture in the online sphere.

Understanding this, we arrive at a critical juncture, a question to which answers reveal the health of our society: Shall we allow the sexual abuse of women, if in turn we have better entertainment that is easier to produce? The history of a rape-culture society suggests that we can, we will, and we have. Just as a flower grows impossibly through a concrete sidewalk, sex will find a way to our screens. This hence becomes a problem that cannot just be solved by limited measures of regulation and criminalization. After deepfakes, other technologies and ways of engaging will emerge. These technologies will become more and more efficient at perpetuating harm against women.

What we need, then, is people — scholars, technologists, practitioners — to challenge how the foundational blueprints of new technologies are created, how these technologies are used, and what they seek to profit off of. A feminist approach to technology, alongside a larger societal movement against rape culture, can begin to stop or reverse this trajectory. However, putting this onus on feminists and women — no matter how well they carry out their duties — is futile until rape culture is challeged by the overwhelming majority of individuals who benefit from it. The ultimate onus is that of consumption by ordinary, everyday men. If you are a man reading this, you must ask yourself: Am I okay with consuming sexual abuse content? If you watch deepfake pornography and would like to continue watching it, your answer is yes. If your answer is yes, you must ask yourself: Why am I okay with this? Your answer will reveal everything you need to know about the rape culture you were born into.

Deepfake pornography is not a new-age moral crisis, a damning indication that technology has finally ‘gone too far’, proof that modern society has hurtled beyond the point of no return, or a signal of our arrival at step one of millions of tiny AI soldiers inevitably outwitting us and taking over the world. This particular weaponization of technology against women is neither uniquely destructive nor symbolic of a hypothetical societal downfall. It is simply a pitstop in the inevitable trajectory of technology within rape culture.

References

[1] By the Numbers: Is the Porn Industry Connected to Sex Trafficking?. https://fightthenewdrug.org/by-the-numbers-porn-sex-trafficking-connected/

[2] Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. https://ia600108.us.archive.org/30/items/LundyWhyDoesHeDoThat/Lundy_Why-does-he-do-that.pdf

[3] A Quick History of Deepfakes: How It All Began. https://q5id.com/blog/a-quick-history-of-deepfakes-how-it-all-began#:~:text=Deepfakes%20started%20with%20the%20Video,speak%20in%20the%20original%20version.

[4] Deepfakes are a real political threat. For now, though, they’re mainly used to degrade women. https://www.vox.com/2019/10/7/20902215/deepfakes-usage-youtube-2019-deeptrace-research-report

[5] This Horrifying App Undresses a Photo of Any Woman With a Single Click. https://www.vice.com/en/article/kzm59x/deepnude-app-creates-fake-nudes-of-any-woman

[6] UK to criminalize deepfake porn sharing without consent. https://techcrunch.com/2022/11/25/deepfake-porn-revenge-porn-uk-law-change/?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAG7aHcXfdU-AwpQy4gN0V1PcT14JxI3nFnToIuSYnLzewMptdltdQ0iWxe-WWLPKbKj8x16HXMH100DgL0LYCbtC2ZuawURmoX31wMZi4Ni-0FFwg-pQoAuH9Sv-T3RY1Z6I3yHOA_yrDtyMBnJ7BQF5TO6k3RzE2W87p1T2cjNP

[7] Reddit bans ‘deepfakes’ AI porn communities. https://www.theverge.com/2018/2/7/16982046/reddit-deepfakes-ai-celebrity-face-swap-porn-community-ban

[8] Deepfakes are being weaponized to silence women — but this woman is fighting back. https://thenextweb.com/news/deepfakes-are-being-weaponized-to-silence-women-but-this-woman-is-fighting-back

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Sukhnidh Kaur

Thoughts on the evolving internet, society, and gender with a sprinkle of pop culture and introspection// research fellow at microsoft