Tracking, Tracing, Leakage: Data and the Gendered Subject

By Miriam Guastalla

Not all women have periods, not all of those who have periods identify as women. And yet, the menstrual cycle has long been considered a principal indicator of sexual difference. With the increasing usage of smartphone apps designed to track menstruation, we might ask: how do these apps figure their menstruating users? And what effect might these apps be having on the gendered subject?

I’ve been thinking about what to write for this blog post over the past few weeks: the remit was to write a post which discusses an element of our current dissertation research. My dissertation considers smartphone apps which are used to track the menstrual cycles of their users and examines the ways in which these apps might nurture or shape particular subjective formations. That is, it asks who and what we become through the app and how. And in considering what to write for the blog, I discovered a little reticence within myself: I would, surely, have to write about menstruation, given its significance in my project. And, more to the point, I would have to produce a piece of writing on menstruation which would have an online presence associated with my name. I considered the idea, feeling somewhat narcissistic with it, that somebody (a future employer, for example) would put my name into Google and come back with: ‘periods’. And I didn’t entirely like the idea.

I am looking at periods and their tracking for a reason: given that menstruation is an under-examined and under-researched area of bodily experience, I would argue that there is significance in the modes by which new technologies come to frame or shape the ways we live with it. But I am also aware that it is an area which is somewhat taboo. I am aware of its sticky association with bodily fluids and sex and reproduction and stains and eggs and discharge and blood; I am conscious that this association makes it a subject area which verges on the transgressive. Indeed, on the subject of menstrual blood specifically, the Roman naturalist Pliny tells us:

“‘Contact with it turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees falls off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison…’” (Pliny, Natural History, p.549, in Delaney et al., 1988, p.7)

His was, perhaps, a position which inclined a little towards the extreme. But still, do I really want to leak an online trace connected to this sticky topic (even if I don’t believe that it will be associated in some way with the death of bees or, perish the thought, ivory losing its precious gleam)?

But we all leak. This blog post will become one part of an extensive trace that echoes my digitised encounters with the world. It will join my search and download history, locative data from various apps, my purchase history from supermarket points cards, the results of online quizzes or surveys I’ve taken, the content of my messaging on various platforms, among many other things, to form a profile, an ‘algorithmic identity’ (Cheney-Lippold, 2011), carved out of seepage. My data leakage, then, is already pretty prolific. But in planning this post, I asked myself if I might control that leak a little bit, shape the trace it leaves, and endeavour not to make it a bloody, visceral, menstrual, online stain. Of course, these questions of leaks and stains both visceral and virtual are central to the dissertation work I am doing. I am considering how people who have periods trace their menstrual cycles online, in digital forms. And so both the menstrual taboo, the first source of my reticence, and our data-leakiness, the second source, are key to my current research.

I am writing about leaking both visceral and virtual in my dissertation (and I use the word ‘virtual’ cautiously here, not wanting to set it up in strict contradistinction or in strictly mediated relation to the ‘real’, the ‘material’, the ‘concrete’). And I am considering this through the period tracking app ‘Eve’, an app which allows its users to follow all sorts of aspects of their menstruation. As we can see in the screenshots below, Eve allows us to trace our sexual activity, the consistency and colour of our discharge, our sexual desire, the heaviness of our flow, among other aspects of our cycles. Her algorithmic dexterity means that we can compare the traces of our cycles with those of others, we can get notifications to let us know when we ovulate or when we are about to bleed or when our sex drive is likely to be higher, we can be given advice and tips specified to the particularities of our own rhythms. Her data-gathering tenacity means that the information we have put in can be extracted as profit: the leak has use-value and exchange-value. Further, in our relationship to the app, we are both producer and consumer: we are related to Eve as users in relations of consumption and as producers of data which has a market value through her. A relationship of prosumption (Cheney-Lippold, 2011): Eve is a commodity we consume through leaking; leaking becomes labour and the leaked becomes commodity. And my question, I suppose, is what this all means specifically in relation to the idea of being a woman.

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Not all women have periods, not all people who have periods identify as women. And yet, the menstrual cycle has long been a mode by which sexual difference is concretised: this physiological specificity has been made one of the differences, the markers which tell us that there is some form of fundamental divergence in what is ‘man’ and what is ‘woman’ (Hasson, 2016). Indeed, whilst the menstrual has been neglected, under-discussed, and under-researched, I would argue that we might handle the undoing of this neglect critically. This entails a wariness of any strictly causal or delineatory theorisations about the relation between menstruation, the identitarian, and the biological. The way in which the tracing of our menstrual cycles engenders a particular gendered or indeed sexed subjectivity matters.

The screenshots we can see above and below demonstrate Eve’s deployment of particular tropes of femininity, indeed in ways which are fairly unimaginative: the use of pink, the slim, toned, curved, and digitised exercising bodies, the choice of food and beverages that might be craved. The name ‘Eve’ is certainly loaded with gendered meaning. But this gendered picture becomes a little more complicated when we really start to consider leakiness and what it is that we are seeping. Cheney-Lippold tells us that: “Online, a category like gender is not determined by one’s genitalia or even physical appearance. Nor is it entirely self-selected. Rather, categories of identity are being inferred upon individuals based on their specific web use” (2011, p.165).

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Our ‘algorithmic identity’ is composed of coded flows fed by data emerging from numerous tributaries (points card, search history, GPS data…) which, through processes of repetition and resemblance to human, normative schematics, come to figure in the identitarian (woman, man, mother, child…) (Cheney-Lippold, 2011). This is an identitarian figuring which can be deployed in further structures of consumption, production, and indeed prosumption. The different tributaries of data flow come to form a confluence which resembles a normative figuring of ‘woman’, for example, and which can be used to a variety of ends, such as targeting adverts at the individual to whom the figuring is algorithmically associated. But this figuring of ostensible identitarian wholeness is in fact one of divisibility: it is precisely through division and partition that this data comes to have market value (Raunig, 2016).

Raunig (2016) calls upon us to question how this partitioning becomes a mode of control. In order that a part has a market value, it needs to be the right part, the profitable part. And to engage a consumer in producing the correct and profitable leak can require an engineering of their participation in the platform via which they seep. If it is profitable to be able to extract data on sexual activity across the menstrual cycle, for example, it is important that the app is set up so that the user provides the correct data to meet that particular demand. The app makers need to incentivise the users’ prosumption and indeed to channel it correctly. The sexual activity is partitioned off as one data flow and channelled elsewhere, perhaps to meet the user again later on in another form, as advertising, or in research which the user might never read but whose effects they might unknowingly feel in other realms of their lives.

We are being engaged in the app, then, not just as ‘women’ in normative schemas of femininity, but as ‘dividuals’: as composite moveable parts to be rearranged, recomposed, recombined (and sold) (Raunig, 2016). In considering these apps we must think about how they figure the normative ‘woman’ and the effect this has on the way in which we understand ourselves in relation to our bodily experience. But we must also think about how they function to garner a profit through the engineering of a divisibility which might, too, affect the ways we come to be. We must, then, consider how these modulated leakages might open up or, indeed, foreclose our encounters with the world.

 

Bibliography

Cheney-Lippold, J. 2011. A New Algorithmic Identity: Soft Biopolitics and the Modulation of Control. Theory, Culture & Society 28 (6): 164-181.

Hasson, K. A. 2016. Not a ‘Real’ Period? Social and Material Constructions of Menstruation. Gender & Society 30(6): 958-983.

Pliny. Natural History. Book Seven. Trans: Rackham, H. 1966. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. In: Delaney et al., 1988 [first published 1976]. The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Raunig, G. 2016. Dividuum: Machinic Capitalism and Molecular Revolution. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)/Foreign Agents.

 

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