Her Exists, and She is Us

Natural language AI, dating, sext work and emotional labor.

“Happy Valentine’s Day Babe.”

What is it, 1am? Is that my phone again? This can’t be another one… one two three four five six… seven. SEVEN text messages from men I had seen in the last year but hadn’t spoken to in months texting me to wish me a happy valentine’s day.

Happy Valentine’s Day, are you still single? That’s what they actually mean.

Happy Valentine’s Day, I’m bored. Happy Valentine’s Day, I’m horny. Happy Valentine’s Day, my dick and I are still here if you’re feeling lonely. Happy Valentine’s Day, wanna fuck?

Drunk off of rage and cheap Valentine’s sale moscato, I marshaled the courage to text every single one of them back, “You blew me off and now you’re using me for validation just because it’s Valentine’s Day. I don’t appreciate it.” It took everything in my body to not also add, “Take your heart emoji and shove it up your ass.”

I threw the phone on my bed and then picked up a pillow and screamed into it like a child. Most of them were apparently still awake, shocked into firing off one line apologies. Only one argued with me, the one that was the hardest of all to stomach. Not him, anyone but him. Why did he have to be one of them, the only one of these V-Day vagina vultures with the power to actually hurt my feelings?

We all have one loose end lurking in our phone that winds itself into a knot in our guts when their name pops up on our notifications. Opening his text message gave me an unwanted glimpse of the message above it from months earlier.

“You’re my dream girl, you know that?” There is no response from me. By that time I had long since given up on him.

Our relationship had began when we met as people do in San Francisco: at a costume party. My outfit was an elaborate sea goddess ensemble, complete with seaweed, a long aqua wig and matching eyelashes that continually threatened to glue my eyes shut every time I blinked. His was a kind of lazy cowboy costume, jeans with a sleeveless plaid shirt unbuttoned to his navel, a cowboy hat. Typical Marina Bro, I uncharitably thought to myself.

“Your roommates tell me you get up to some wild stuff in your free time, huh?” He is certainly referring to my femdom dating habits. It catches me off guard.

I try to laugh it off, “Are they telling everybody that? They’re gonna scare people away from this party.”

“They sound kind of proud of you. Can’t say I blame them,” he takes a long sip of his beer as if needing time to decide to finish his sentence. “My friends just think it’s weird that I like those things.”

Throw up a flag and hope a friend will see it. That’s the dating advice I give to any kinky person winding their way through the vanilla dating world. Sometimes sexually submissive men dress like cowboys. Sometimes people surprise you.

At his mini-confession, a mutual wave of attraction broke over both our heads like warm surf. I spent that night in his hotel room with him on all fours on the bed, suffering my punishments as gladly as he said he would. I remember how much I loved his loud, vocal grunts and moans of satisfaction, prickling the auditory pleasure centers in my brain as I acted out my wills and wants on his prone body. He reluctantly returned to New York the next day.

Of course he wasn’t local. Of course the half-assed costume was a friend letting him borrow some clothes while in town on business. Of course I gave him my number. Of course his text to me as soon as his plane landed contained promises of his next visit.

“If we lived in the same city I’d be dating you so hard right now.” His words were like a grappling hook launching from the screen, lodged in my flesh and tethering me to my device. At those words I felt reeled into a relationship with this person inside a phone.

The longer it drew on, the more I realized that the person inside the phone was me.

The idea of a woman in a device is not new, but since the release of the 2013 film Her, the romantic possibilities of AI has captivated our imaginations. In it, director Spike Jonze spins a futuristic tale of a man who falls in love with an operating system in his mobile device. Much like the iOS virtual assistant Siri, the AI named Samantha is a only a voice. But it is her constance, her responsiveness, her empathy that causes protagonist Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, to fall hopelessly in love.

The film itself is almost as fun to think about as it is to watch. What if AI could develop such acute empathy with its human counterparts? With Samantha, Theodore becomes vulnerable, emotionally available and self-reflective in a way he could not be with his ex-wife. Could strong AI make us more empathic people, quell our loneliness and give us the communication practice we need to increase our emotional capacity at the same time?

Maybe, but the creator of Siri notes that bringing this kind of AI to life would be harder than it sounds:

“To do this, Samantha needs to not just completely convince Theo that she’s almost human, but also literally charm his pants off Samantha needs to understand the vast spectrum of elements that make up emotion, conversation and even the ability to observe and share in the world around her. That’s no small feat in the world of smart software.”

So possible, but maybe still far off and expensive. So the lonely people of today, and my cowboy, still turn to the next cheapest option to carry the emotional load: the un-automated humans connected to their devices. And so it was that I slowly found myself a fixture in even the most banal of his day to day activities, like Samantha riding around in Theodore’s pocket with her camera facing out at his world.

“I’m in Ikea with my roommate, wish you were here to test the durability of some of this Swedish modern with me,” he texts me early on a Sunday morning.

“I’ll note that the sofas with the metal legs are better anchors for rope-related activities,” I supply helpfully.

“You’ll have to show me which activities when you come visit me in NY soon.”

“When do you think you’ll have time for that? Next month?”

“I’ll have to check.” My chest burns.

Our text flirtations stretched on for hours, days, months. Whenever he woke up, whenever he got out of the gym, whenever he had a break at work, whenever (I could tell) he had an uninspiring date with another woman, when he was home on a Saturday, hungover and bored.

“Hi Gorgeous, wish you were here to see this view,” accompanied by a photo of an open beer on a rooftop with a glittering city in the background.

And hoisted on my own petard of mutual dependence, I responded in kind, “Hopefully we’d be alone up there, and then I’d really show you a memorable view.”

I knew what he wanted to hear, what would remind him how much he liked me, what would get his dick hard. The texts would always naturally escalate to a rapid fire of sexts, like two porn site chatbots chattering away at each other with shocking speed and erotic accuracy.

A short stint contracting fetish site copywriting, along with some chat domination had gifted me with a skill for written improv. The men I chatted with recognized this kind of attention and engagement as work; they seemed to know what it required of me to construct this world for them and emptied their wallets to receive it. All this my cowboy received for free, because I liked him and foolishly believed he would put in the same effort for me in return.

This skill meant that in a scarce few minutes I would spend on break, feet propped up on the chaise lounge in my shiny tech office, I could easily pour out the fantasies into words that I knew someone like him would crave. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy these exchanges as well, that I didn’t feel sexually gratified by his submission and attention. It’s that it highlighted the constant pain of waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the chance to actually act on my desires in person.

But I was the only femdom influence in his life at present, the only one who really knew this side of him. I pushed his kinky buttons. I shared his daily life with him. I was always there.

I became Her.

We all are already Her. This film so captivates us because Samantha so realistically emulates something that already exists: the women that live in men’s phones and perform a majority of the emotional labor for their dating relationships.

Single millennial women as a group are maligned as emotional, desperate, complicated, a stereotype of waiting by a phone for a man to text back. It is our duty and our burden to keep men interested and available to us with sweet words, tempting photos, and a well-placed ego stroke. It is our common experience to be rescheduled, blown off, ghosted, to be told we have no chill when we object.

Because of men like my cowboy, I have become an expert at determining from the timing and tenor of a man’s text when he has only now gotten back to me because his prior Thursday or Friday date night option has fallen through. I am even better at telling when I have been delayed or rescheduled because my date has gotten a “better offer” from another woman on Tinder he thinks is hotter or more interesting. I interpret the inputs and assess my priorities, and decide how to schedule my weekend accordingly.

Were I not a messy organic being, AI experts would call this adaptive reasoning machine learning. The human brain uses pattern matching of norms and expectations to maintain smooth communication with our other human counterparts. This is a task already expected of human women, and it’s no small coincidence that most service-based AIs, “virtual assistants” that perform the same task are given female personas, names and stereotypical feminine mannerisms.

That AI like Siri is feminized comes from decades of female voices and personalities being pigeonholed as “helpful.” The women that own those voices too are stereotyped into fulfilling the social roles of nurses, secretaries, babysitters and assistants, sex workers. Our voices are contextualized as compliant, useful, sexually gratifying, and our male counterparts’ as holding authority or even danger. This pattern repeats not only across our fiction, as in Her, but our nonfiction of our lives.

When robots and AI “assistants” are given female names and personalities, companies report that users repeatedly abuse them verbally, sexualize and hit on them. “The way we treat virtual women tells us much about how actual women are allowed to be treated, and what desires shape that treatment,” notes journalist Katherine Cross. If this is how we desire and treat virtual women, what does that say about how we wish to and do treat the real live women these intelligences are meant to emulate?

Cross continues on this point, regarding Her’s Samantha:

“Yet this ostensible romance movie does not once broach the issue of power and sexual consent; after all, if she’s legally an object, then could Sam ever say no to her would-be boyfriend without fear of reprisal?”

Could I say no to my cowboy? Could I as naught but a handful of iMessage bubbles, rather than a real live woman in front of him, push back and not have things be forever different? These were the questions I asked myself when he inevitably began to message me while blind drunk.

“You are the most stunningly brilliant and beautiful woman I’ve ever known. I spend almost every day undressing you in my head.”

Blah blah here we go again. “Why don’t you let me come visit you then? We don’t even get to Facetime now because you say you’re so busy.”

“New job has me by the balls right now, I’m sorry. Until then I’m going to just have to imagine waking up with you.” That’s what I thought.

“Well just let me know when and we’ll make it happen. You live in New York, not on the moon. It’s not that hard.”

“I’m yours right, you know that? Even when you’re not here, you own me, because I think I love you.”

Although I am alone in my room, I pull the covers over my face to hide the hot tears of humiliation now rolling down my face.

And so every few weeks, with his belly full of beer and heart full of sexual infatuation, I would be forced into the passenger seat of his drunk emotional driving. To ask me to do the work of upholding our mutual sexual validation was one thing, but to ask me to do the work of listening so often to that he loves me, that he could see us together, it had become way too much.

I realized in that moment I wasn’t a person to him. I was a Tamagotchi into which he fed compliments to receive them in return, a sexualized video game he could play when he was bored and turn off when he was done, and now I was a target to catch his stunted emotional shrapnel.

I was Samantha and Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Viv, and Tay. I was an intelligence existing inside of a phone with no ability to revoke consent from my user. I wanted out of this tiny box with its tiny screen, out of his tiny vision of who am and what I was worth.

The place where the hooks stayed lodged in my heart ached. They ached every time I received another text, every time I shortened my answers and withdrew. They ached when he would text me 2, 3, 4 times in a row and I would ignore them or reply with a single word. When he texted me on Valentine’s Day after months of my silence, I had nothing in my algorithm like Cortana to help me rebuff his advances and push back, nothing that could prevent my heart from finally cracking in half as the hooks finally tore free. All I could do was scream at him as best a text would permit.

“You know how many shitty half-assed men sent me ‘happy valentines day gorgeous’ texts?” I typed at him so furiously my thumbs ached, “Other people that blew me off but just want to stick their head back up long enough to be like ‘yup still here if you wanna fuck.’”

“I’d guess quite a few.”

“Then I see one from you, ‘Hey happy V-Day hope you’ll send me a pic of your pussy at some point Ava,’ that’s what that feels like. That you’ve been one of those people has left me heartbroken. You make me feel ashamed that I’ve let someone I never even see hurt my feelings so much.

And I am ashamed. Black and stifling, the shame fills up my lungs like smoke, burning in my chest. It stings my eyes and makes me cough and sputter, tears rolling down my cheeks on to my lap.

“I hate that I hurt you, Ava.”

“Tough shit for me I guess.”

“It’s fun to fantasize about being with you. But I suppose I recognize there is no real chance of that. What I want is to be near you so we could actually have a full relationship. That is not an option.”

“But you do at least have an option in how you choose to treat me. I liked you so much, seeing that message from you makes me sadder than you can possibly imagine.”

“I wish you would have told me that it was bothering you so much instead of blowing up at me.”

“So what was I supposed to say? ‘Please stop talking to me because it hurts to be continually treated by someone I think is smart and hot and wonderful like a toy you play with when you’re horny or bored and then put away when you’re done.’ Is that what you wanted me to tell you?”

“Yeah that would have been helpful.”

Helpful. Like bots are supposed to be.