Is Google Sexist?
In the movie version of the TV cartoon South Park, the boys ask Chef how to make women happy. Without thinking about to whom he’s talking, Chef tells them the secret, and the boys go off in search of it. If they’d searched on Google with strict safe filtering, though, they’d never have found it, an anticlimactic event to which many women might sniff and respond, “typical!”
No, with strict filtering engaged, the word “clitoris” brings back zero returns from Google. This may seem like a no-brainer; chances are that word will bring back some rather explicit results parents would rather their kids not discover just yet. But strict filtering does allow results, 37.5 million of them, for the word “penis.”
Images, too, but nothing one might necessarily call erotic, at least, one would hope.
This does seem a phenomenon limited to Google. Yahoo, even though it was confusing exactly when safe search was activated (locking SafeSearch on doesn’t appear to work right), brings back 6.3 million results for this particular unmentionable, but no images. Live Search brings back zero results, but to be fair, neither does “penis.”
Google doesn’t treat words like “vagina,” “vulva,” or “breast,” with the same kid gloves, nor words like “testicles,” or “scrotum.” The image results come back in rather shocking display for those words, illustrating for the most part things that can go badly, badly wrong with one’s genitalia.
So what gives? Why does Google single out this one particular part as too sexually explicit to pass its filters, even if just for discussion, or to answer a question for someone too embarrassed to ask another human? Well, Google has no official comment on the matter, or at least did not return request for comment and/or explanation of why “clitoris” landed on the Google naughty word list, a list of words reminiscent of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on television.
This single portion of the female anatomy has been relegated to what Tony Comstock calls Google’s “sex ghetto.” This ghetto includes words one shouldn’t take out of the locker room and should never let slip in front of Mom, as well as some other borderline words one might understand a lack of images for, but at least should be defined for the clinically curious: nude, naked, erotic, bastard, anus, fellatio, cunnilingus.
But Google isn’t known for being overly puritanical, especially when it comes to sexuality. The company recently lifted a ban on alcohol advertising, joining Google’s storied history of allowing porn ads, but gambling establishments and gun sellers remain advertisers-non-grata. If one can advertise it and talk about it in doctor language, it’s not entirely clear why Google would place the clitoris on the naughty words list.
Go ahead. You can say it. It’s not filthy if half the population has one. Clitoris, clitoris, clitoris.
Other critics say such avoidance is something much deeper, a silent but felt undercurrent influencing what’s acceptable in society and what’s not, and in this case, what’s unacceptable is something not only so overtly “dirty” and feminine, but something that takes away power (or perhaps necessity) from men. At the basest level, the clitoris being so powerfully trumped by the penis suggests an age-old problem of male domination.
“It’s been clear for a long time that the giant obscene ‘F’ word in Internet censorship is feminism,” writes Susie Bright (NSFW, or as she would say, Not Safe for Prudes), whose latest book is entitled The Erotic Treasury. “…[W]omen’s bodies? Oh, you’re familiar with the filthy and unspeakable territory those will lead you into.”
It begs the question, then, is Google being sexist? That’s quite the loaded question, and it is possible whoever set up the filtering was being sexist without fully realizing it. After all, labeling the clitoris “unsafe,” isn’t quite on the same sexism level as say, assuming administrative work and bookkeeping are natural female occupations and that it’s okay, you big important businessman you, to call them “girls.”
Jody Lisberger, Ph.D., M.F.A., Interim Director of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Rhode Island and author of the short story collection Remember Love, intimated to WebProNews that subtle nuances of the language, such as relegating a part of the female anatomy to a list of naughty words, is inherently sexist because of what it suggests about power relationships.
“I’m not surprised to hear the word ‘clitoris’ is somehow conveyed as a ‘bad’ word,” said Dr. Lisberger, “After all, it’s outside the body and something women can use to pleasure themselves. The power of the clitoris (which many men also come to learn and use to pleasure their partners) goes against the patriarchal notions of what one might call ‘normative heterosexuality’ and the ‘coital imperative.’
‘"Normative heterosexuality" assumes the sex act involves a man and a woman and that male sexuality and desire are supreme and the norm. The ‘coital imperative’ assumes the sex act is defined by the penetration of the woman by the man. The idea that women could give sexual pleasure to themselves, or that two women might be involved in a most intimate relationship without the need of a man, or that there might need to be a whole discourse that in fact addresses the desires of women threatens the most primal and vulnerable thing men have going for them.”
I think she means our penises, but I was thrown by the word “vulnerable.” Grunt. Snarl. Growl. The word “vulnerable,” in my search engine, returns no results.
Whether it is sexist or not to exclude the clitoris from filtered search results is likely a lengthy, heated debate. Wouldn’t it be reasonable, though (dare it be said?), that Google be more like Yahoo, and at least bring back clinical, technical-manual type results and leave the images in their proper place: the imagination?