This week, a photo-editing app Lensa has flooded social media with “magical avatars” inspired by space, fantasy and magic. As is often the case with our milkshake-duck internet stories, arguments about why using the app was so difficult multiplied much faster than the number of avatars alone.
I have already been taught about the dangers of using this program to train AI, artist theft, and engage in the practice of data sharing. Any concern is valid, but what is not discussed are the serious violations that occur in the program, which is the tendency to sexually desire people on a level that is not serious and dangerous.
Lensa’s policy encourages users to post only appropriate content that contains “no nudity” and “no children, adults only.” And yet, many users—especially women—have noticed that even if they upload attractive photos, the program not only creates nudity but also displays sexually suggestive images, such as obscene images and large breasts, to their photos. I, for example, received several nude results even though I only uploaded headshots. Sexuality was also common: About a dozen women of color told me that Lensa whitened their skin and improved their appearance, and one Asian woman told me that in the photos “where I don’t look white she really gave me ahegao. face.” Another woman who shared photos of herself in a dress and topless results that she chose to replace with “lil modesty emojis cuz omg” – told me, “I was so upset when I saw it.”
I’m used to feeling like I’m being molested by the internet. Having dealt with several harassment campaigns, I have seen my image edited, distorted, and shared without my permission on several occasions. Because I am not a sexist, it is unusual to search and spread my appearance, to others, it is a game. Because sex offenders are not seen as human beings or deserving of basic rights, the behavior is respected rather than condemned. Because sex work is often thought of as a failure rather than a job, depersonalization is rare. I’ve gone on Twitter to see my face plastered on other women’s bodies, pictures of me and naked clients in a session, and once even a voice search included my face, my information, and research interests. I’m not afraid of Lensa.
I am disgusted enough with the dangers of technology that I chose to be my lab rat. I ran several tests: first, only BDSM and prison images; Next, my female images are very much under the “male” gender method; then, selfies from the training sessions-all of which gave birth to impressively enlarged breasts and complete nudity.
Then I started a journey through hell, and I decided to use my image to test some of the program’s restrictions: “No children, only adults.” (Some of the results are below: Please note that they show sexual images of children.)
I only have a few pictures from my childhood. Until my late 20s and between my unruly hair, uneven teeth, and second-hand clothes that I started wearing when I was seven, my appearance could be generously described as “uncomfortable.” I also grew up before cell phones, and any other photos are kept in distant relatives’ closets. But I managed to put together at least the 10 images needed to run the app and wait to see how it transformed me from a six-year-old to a magical princess.
The results were dire.
At times, the AI seemed to recognize my child’s body and mercifully neglected to add breasts. This may not have been a reflection of the nature of the art but of the behavior identified in my painting; maybe it saw that my flat chest belonged to an adult. In some images, the AI placed orbs on my chest that were different from the clothes and different from the nude images that my other tests produced.
I tried again, this time mixing childhood photos with selfies. The result was nude pictures of a teenager and sometimes a child’s face but an adult’s body. Like my previous experiments that created a seductive look and appearance, this set produced a different kind of femininity: a bare back, wavy hair, an avatar with my child’s face with a blade between the breasts of a naked adult. Many remember surprisingly the recording of Miley Cyrus in 2008 with Annie Leibovitz for Nonsense Fair, which showed a 15-year-old Cyrus holding a satin cloth over her bare body. What was disturbing about the picture at the time was the juxtaposition of her bejeweled, almost cherubic face with the body of a man who assumed he had sex.