Titstare, Pax Dickinson and the sexist web

Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo News
National Correspondent
Yahoo News

Disruptive news in the he-man woman-hating space!

First, over the weekend, at the increasingly creepy Silicon Valley conference TechCrunch Disrupt, an app was introduced that encourages the stagey ogling of women’s breasts. The app is called Titstare and hahahahahaha I still can barely contain myself long enough to explain it since it contains the word TIT.

Then, not one day After Titstare (A.T.), some other exciting stuff went down in that same hatespace: the Chief Technology Officer of Business Insider, one Pax Dickinson, was forced to resign after devising several tweets that mocked Christians, gay people, poor people, Jews, African-Americans and people who have been raped. A sampling of Dickinson’s poetry:

As Jessica Roy put it deftly on Betabeat, “This isn’t some no-name IT consultant echoing sentiments scraped from r/mensrights. This is an executive-level leader at a well-known, venture-backed publication who has become so comfortable and secure in his white dudeness that he fears no retribution whatsoever in tweeting stuff like this:

But getting back to other boobs: “Titstare is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits,” is how the app’s inventors, two twentysomething Australian guys, put it.

"It's the breast, most titillating fun you can have,” the Australians said, uproariously.

Their demo showed photos of dudes gawking, usually slant, at women’s clothed bosoms. In the photos, the women look unaware and the men look dorky and reflexive—the way men usually look when they’re semi-consciously checking women out. No one in the photos comes across great. But the happy-prurient framework of the app—We all do it! Ogling is life-loving and good for you!—gives a little shot of dignity to the photos, takes the shame out of them. So that is Titstare.

And I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world.

Sure, after the guffaws at the low-comedy presentation by the guys (real names: Jethro Batts and David Boulton) died down, everyone got kinda skeeved out by the misogyny, and TechCrunch even issued a 9th-step amends for letting Titstare make it to the stage. The New Yorker and The Huffington Post posted articles by feminist watchdogs ogling the oglers and condemning sexism in the tech business. Many heads were shaken.

I shook mine too. I really, truly don’t get why men regularly risk embarrassment to stare at breasts, and what is the exact nature of the pleasure those compromising glances afford. But talking to a starer is more like talking to someone with bad breath than it is like stumbling on tweets from a a hard-right social exterminationist like Pax Dickinson. The staring is annoying, in other words, but more like a goony joke, one that David Brent from the original “Office" might have made.

It’s a stretch to take the Titshare app as somehow defining the baroque and systemic sexism that keeps women from making money, being productive and finding happiness as tech entrepreneurs.

No, this is more intrinsic, deeply entrenched. Back to Roy in BetaBeat: “Mr. Dickinson is the most recent and potent example of sexism (and racism, and classism) in tech, but he’s certainly not the only one. Such a rancorous person doesn’t scale the corporate ladder–tweeting all the while!– without some sort of systemic acceptance (or at least tolerance) of his attitudes.”

To cite little Titstare as some kind of last straw is to diminish the sickening gaslighting experience that many entrepreneurial women and coders endure as they hack their way through profoundly sexist social and symbolic systems. In some ways, Titstare spoofs male desire and certainly trivializes it.

By contrast, the deification of figures like Elon Musk—voracious great-man Martian entrepreneur—helps to brick up a world of “achievement” that’s in line with a brutal set of wolfpack values. The writer Justine Musk, Elon’s first wife, describes the startup-alpha scene, to which all Titstare types can only aspire, this way: “The females who populated it were the young wives and girlfriends of wealthy men, or the personal assistants who catered to them.”

The Board of Directors for Musk’s Tesla, meanwhile, consists of nothing but men. And his isn’t the only one: A popular Tumblr, 100 Percent Men, run by the Washington Post’s Lydia Depillis, aggregates, in jaw-dropping detail, the boardrooms and executive suites for which no female candidate was found worthy.

Some Titstare-condemners connected dots between the loser app and MIT’s 1999 study of women in the sciences. That 14-year-old study touched on how it’s nearly impossible to maintain a lab and mother children, and how funds somehow didn’t flow to female research scientists.

This is big stuff, but it’s not Titstare stuff. In spite of invocations of “science” by the Batts and Boulton bros (who invoked a long-existing bogus study that is the stuff of chain emails and journalists who don’t fact-check), what they’re doing is nothing like science. It’s scarcely even technology. It’s punning on “titillating.” It’s sales.

Sure, Titstare, and Pax Dickinson’s Twitter shenanigans, are still not funny. But neither is the ubiquitous, strangling and yet maddeningly transparent sexist web that every woman in capitalism is required to outsmart in her own way.