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Black Box Borders and Sexual Double Standards


In this post, two of this year’s undergraduate dissertation prize winners, Aleyna Prokudina and Molly Turrell, tell us more about their award winning research.

Unpacking the Black Box: Algorithmic regulation and the European management of borders and mobilities by Aleyna Prokudina

Commonly referred to as the ‘Fortress Europe’, Western borders are increasingly fortified by high-tech ensembles of surveillance mechanisms, biometric E-gates, and data driven analytics, to ensure the systematic tracking of all mobility flowing across European frontiers and to reinstate the ‘keeping out’ of ‘illegal’ migrant bodies. The proliferation of data analytics has already become evident in present day European security systems, such as the Schengen Information System 2015 (SIS) and Passenger Name Record Directive 2016 (PNR), falling in line with Australia and the US to get a grip on the possible consequences of the ‘low probability but high impact’ events of terrorism (Amoore 2006, Leese 2014, Ulbricht 2018). The justification for the deployment of automated systems comes from the assumption that high volumes of data and large scopes of information can deliver more accurate and precise results which can make potential ‘suspects’ more visible and identifiable, whilst offering a safety net to non-terrorist individuals (Leese 2014, McQuillian 2015).

Taking the concept of (in)visibility, I wished to explore how the deployment of automated security systems opened up further trajectories for processes of power and control to operate through digital undercurrents and act in and upon the individual in highly proximal, covert, and penetrative ways (Beer 2006, Lash 2007). This further led me to question how the logics of imperialism and the conditions of (techno)capitalism (Tyler 2003), have positioned the body as both a ‘resource’ for data extraction and a ‘key’ for verifying ‘if individuals are who they say they are’ (Btihaj 2015, Amoore 2006), whilst also rendering some bodies as more legitimate or disposable  than others (Tyler 2003, Amoore 2006). Infused by such interests, my undergraduate dissertation examined the impact of the state’s pre-emptive approach to risk management by centring on the deployment of automated information collection systems in the contemporary fight against terrorism and border regulation. I focused specifically on the Passenger Name Record Directive 2016 (PNR), which has become a prominent security system within European border control. Situating the proliferation of PNR and automated systems alike in the context of post 9/11 securitisation, I argued that automated systems project anticipatory governance that alters the management of borders and mobilities. Such processes render bodies as visible and ‘knowable’ through the rendition of personal data, enabling border control agencies to ensue identity screening before, during, and even after the individual has crossed the border, allowing some to cross freely, whilst others to be ‘pre-emptively illegalized’ (Odwyer 2018).

Building upon the works of Foucault, amongst various others, I demonstrated how risk management technologies exert biopower and are indicative of Foucault’s biopolitical governmentality. Adopting a postcolonial lens of Europe, I argued that although such systems are relatively novel, they are rooted in decades of colonial legacies which have informed and shaped the European management of borders. Alongside this theoretical approach, I adopted a qualitative text analysis (Kuckartz 2014) of a sample of five UK government reports ranging from 2008-2018, to offer insight into the arguments that were put forward to justify and legitimise the establishment of PNR, whilst also illuminating how the issues of risk and security are discussed by political actors.

The implementation of such technology, and the centrality of its role within the security sector suggests, at least in part, that there is a specific reliance on automated systems to identify and manage individuals (or things) that possess the characteristics conclusive of ‘risk’ or ‘threat’. The black boxed nature of algorithms has meant that there is no easy way to assess the reliability of automated calculations or what constitutes individuals to be ‘flagged up’ as suspicious (Klein 2017). These trends, particularly in the context of airport security, reflect deep seated imperial and nationalist legacies in which boundaries, temporality, and the sovereign powers of the state are all considered absolute (Kinnvall 2015), whilst also corresponding with longstanding corporate practises in which passenger data is utilised for commercial and monetary purposes. The aftermath of 9/11, complimented by a strong security impetus, provided enough pretext to render data collection initiatives as both necessary and urgent assets for the prevention of terrorism and other serious crime (Klein 2007, Graham 2009, Kinnvall and Nesbitt-Larking 2010, Klein 2017), demonstrating the convergence of corporate powers with the policing logistics of governments, opening up new economic and securitisation ventures as part of the rising ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Klein 2007, Cosas Cortes et al. 2012, Zuboff 2019).

I argue that the growing technological assemblage of tightened border regulation only reinstates the presence of pre-existing Eurocentric ideology and the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dynamic (Kinnwall 2015, Odwyer 2018) that has authorised divisive and racialised practises to continue. The profound, yet often background presence of data collection systems within the regularities of everyday life composes important shifts within modern securitisation and border regulation practises, where the movement of individuals becomes underpinned and directed by an array of non-human actors, whilst potential ‘risks’ and ‘threats’ become embedded in machinic ways of seeing. In doing so, automated security systems project anticipatory governance that leaves individuals, and their data, as open canvases for corporate and state extraction, creating highly visible, measurable, and predictable ‘dividuals,’ physically embodied human subjects who are endlessly divisible and reducible to data (Deleuze 1992), through the exertion of biopower.

'You're shamed if you don’t sleep with anyone but you’re shamed if you sleep with too many, it’s like I can’t win!' A critical investigation into how young women navigate their casual sexual experiences by Molly Turrell

For my final year dissertation, I chose to research the ways in which young women in today’s society experience casual sexual relationships. I wanted to investigate the massive contradiction that I saw existing between the narrative which claims that women’s sexual liberation and empowerment have been achieved, and the huge levels of sexual violence still being reported, evident for example in the explosion of the ‘MeToo’ movement into the mainstream.

My research aim was to interrogate how this contradiction influences the ways in which young women experience casual sex. I wanted to explore how young women navigate the messages that come from two very different value systems, telling them to be both conservative and sexually empowered; I did so through focusing on societal shifts in attitudes towards female sexual desire and the ways in which women navigate processes of consent. I hope to use this research to start a non-shaming conversation about casual sex that places women’s voices at the centre.

I conducted my research using two focus groups made up of friends who were all university students. This was done deliberately with the intention of removing some of the potential awkwardness when talking about sex by creating a more comfortable environment. Vignettes were introduced as a starting point for discussions in the groups. I discovered three key scenarios from the literature on female sexuality, and then sourced these as vignettes from existing material that I found online in the form of a short story, a blog post, and an extract from the ‘Everyday Sexism Project’. These were used as a way of drawing out the participants perceptions and opinions on the topics, and as a way of promoting discussion. These conversations were then analysed and key themes emerged.

The main finding of this research is that, contrary to the claims of postfeminism, which suggest that sexual equality has now been achieved, a sexual double standard continues to exist in the way that young women experience casual sex. This means that women are not able to enjoy the same sexual freedoms as men. Traditional expectations of femininity, which position women as sexually innocent and passive, still have a powerful impact on women’s experiences. This is important because it reveals the ways in which women’s bodies are still monitored and governed by societal expectations.

Another important finding is that although these expectations are still prevalent, a new set of postfeminist requirements, which demand young women to be sexually assertive and empowered, also now exist. This means that young women must constantly walk a tightrope of expectations and expertly navigate the fine line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ displays of sexuality. This finding is significant because it shows that young women have to make near-impossible choices when constructing their identities.

This research also found that the wider structural barriers, which can limit women’s sexual decision making, are often rendered invisible, meaning that unwanted or coerced sex may seem to be the result of personal failure and this dynamic can lead to feelings of guilt or shame. This finding demonstrates the importance of moving beyond the damaging individualising narrative that places the responsibility to make ‘good’ sexual choices entirely with women. This ties into the wider assumption that women are gatekeeper’s for men’s sexual desires, overall highlighting the need: to locate the decisions that women make within gendered power structures, to tackle the barriers that prevent them from making autonomous choices, to change the narrative and ultimately to hold men accountable.

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