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Alien sex tapes, robot rape and the evolution of consent

Engadget Engadget 13/05/2016 Christopher Trout
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A little over a week ago Engadget's EIC and I had dinner with a couple of friends at a Chinatown Thai restaurant in L.A. As I sipped on a Singha Slurpee, our dinner companions, Claire Evans and Jona Bechtolt of the band Yacht, gave us an off-the-record rundown of a bizarre and twisted plan for the release of their next single, I Wanna Fuck You Till I'm Dead. They'd created a One Night in Paris-style sex tape spoof with a twist: Instead of peeling off their clothes, the couple would peel back their flesh to reveal hypersexualized alien bodies.

To draw attention to the project, the pair conceived a multipart publicity stunt that doubled as a critique of celebrity culture and sensational, click-bait journalism. First, they'd alert fans and the media that a personal sex tape had been stolen. Then they'd announce plans to preemptively release the recording and make it available for download. Those curious enough to purchase it for $5 would receive a time-out error. Meanwhile, celebrity friends of the couple would take to social media to say that they'd successfully downloaded and watched the video. When the time was right, they'd released the video on Pornhub, and the jig would be up.

Yacht has a thing for elaborate, conceptual record releases, and this fit the bill. They said they'd send on instructions if we were interested, and we said goodbye. It didn't cross my mind again until I received a canned missive; the same one sent to various news outlets and the band's celebrity friends. I skimmed it, archived it and went back to work. The next day, when reports surfaced of the stolen sex tape, I quickly RT'd the band, not bothering to look at the statement, but not fully committing to the troll either.

And then shit hit the fan. What started out as a darkly humorous stunt poking fun at the celebrity-sex-tape market was now being characterized as an insensitive, capitalistic grab for media attention at the expense of revenge-porn victims.

In a world where sex tapes are a steppingstone to stardom and revenge porn is big business, how do we define consent?

Jezebel's Anna Merlin wrote a scathing takedown of the stunt, saying the band trolled "people's innate sense of horror, disgust and compassion when confronted with a terribly violating crime," pointing out that "revenge porn — the real kind, not the desperate, fake kind cooked up to attract extra attention to your mediocre art band — is that it ruins lives."

In a Medium post titled "Here Is What It Feels Like to Be Told You're Crying Wolf When the Wolf Is at Your Door," Bandcamp Managing Editor Jes Skolnik claimed Yacht actively set the work of victim's rights advocates back decades. The post's title references the doubt that many sexual abuse victims face following an attack. According to Skolnik, the band's false claims gave credence to the doubters:

"It is irresponsible and cruel. It is a false claim. And the band can walk away from it after their performance of victimhood, leaving real victims worse for wear."

Further coverage of the hoax revealed just how many people were in on the joke. Merlin was clued in by a coworker who was pitched the concept months prior; according to an article on The Verge, an editor there also knew what was coming. Celebrity friends like Miranda July willingly participated. It didn't appear to raise many eyebrows in the days leading up to the first Facebook post, and yet the popular reaction was vehement.

That disconnect highlights how important moments like these can be. Whether you see it as an attack on victims, a critique of celebrity culture or just an ill-conceived PR stunt, Yacht's actions drew attention to the moral ambiguity that defines an age of rapid innovation. We can all agree that violating another person's right to privacy is reprehensible, but in a world where sex tapes are a steppingstone to stardom and revenge porn is big business, how do we define consent?

It's a multifaceted argument playing out in courtrooms and academic institutions across the globe. And it's not just about revenge porn.

The Pacific Standard recently resurfaced an argument that has played out in the media and on TV (hello, SVU) and has a nation divided. The question at the heart of that debate is whether the consensual exchange of nude selfies between minors should be considered a crime. In many states, the digital equivalent of "I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours" carries with it the lifelong consequences of more serious sex crimes. Advocates of such laws argue that they protect teenagers from harming themselves and providing fodder for pedophiles. Opponents rightfully point out that adolescent sexual exploration is part of growing up and shouldn't be considered a crime.

If we can't figure out who owns a dead man's sperm or how to handle teenagers playing digital doctor, what of the future?

A recent New Republic article shed light on an equally murky debate. In what sounds like the plot of a particularly twisted Lifetime-SyFy TV crossover, bereaved families and wives are harvesting dead men's sperm for postmortem in vitro fertilization. Despite the first such procedure happening nearly half a century ago, Jenny Morber reports that the legal system is split on whether or not prior written consent from the deceased is necessary for retrieval of his sperm. Should a mourning lover be allowed to have a child with a dead man who may not have wanted children in the first place?

If we can't figure out who owns a dead man's sperm or how to handle teenagers playing digital doctor, what of the future? As we develop ever more human-like artificial intelligence, some argue that we should develop a robot bill of rights. It's one thing to kick your Roomba. Forcing yourself on an autonomous being, man-made or otherwise, is something entirely different. How should we treat the machines we're teaching to think like us? What does it mean to rape a robot? And what happens if someone hacks and takes control of your sex robot or internet-connected vibrator?

When it relayed its plans for an alien-sex-tape PR stunt, Yacht was likely not thinking about robot rape and teenage sext crimes. In fact, in an apology posted to Facebook, the band admitted it hadn't considered the negative consequences of "positioning ourselves as the victims of a leaked sex tape." Judging from the delayed reaction of many who knew of the stunt before it went live, they weren't alone.

Jona and Claire admit the stunt was an "egregious mistake." Yes, it was a mistake, but Yacht's "sex tape" was also a catalyst for a much-needed conversation.

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