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Editorial: Data and Sexuality

A digital illustration of networks, with many white lines criss-crossing, intersecting, and branching out across a grey-blue background. Wherever the lines intersect in the web of networks is a small white dot.

Given that most of us are affected in some way or the other by the COVID-19 pandemic and are experiencing anxiety, brain fog, exhaustion, and grief, while also trying to hold our seemingly disintegrating worlds together, we are publishing a pared-down issue on this month’s theme of Data and Sexuality. In the coming weeks, we will continue to welcome contributions for our monthly themes but will not actively seek out contributors. Why? Because there are some people who find solace in writing, some in reading, and some who would like to just ‘be’, to take a pause, to not have any more noise added to the ongoing din. We hold space for all.

These are strange and uncertain times. So much loss, of people beloved and of people unknown. Individual and collective mourning. Valiant attempts to procure and give care. Bungling on an absurdly colossal scale. Huge amounts of data floating about. And huge amounts missing. Who decides what kind of data, and about whom, is relevant and recorded? Does a system modelled on data promote and safeguard our Constitutional rights and freedoms, especially now when a large-scale response to COVID-19 is required? Brindaalakshmi K seeks to answer these complex questions by keenly examining the foundations of our digital framework system, and the ways in which data can simultaneously reduce and amplify the inequalities and marginalisations we face in the world. Incisively, and chillingly, they bring us to the conclusion that indeed, all is not well in the way the current system is functioning.

And so, what is needed for an adequate rights- and justice-based COVID response assessment? In lieu of an interview, Shikha Aleya starts with #covid to open a window looking onto a flowing stream of data traffic that leads to questions about what is known and still unknown about the impact of COVID-19 on gender, sexuality and rights. The view that she offers us through this window overlooking the data street shows us a motley group of passersby  – data-crunchers and international bodies, people with disabilities, LGBTIQ+ people, people seeking resources, and others simply and selflessly reaching out to help each other, including an autorickshaw driver offering free rides for patients, doctors and caregivers.

Lest we forget, data are a means to an end, not the end in itself. Using her experiences in dating online as a springboard, Asmi lays bare the complex web of data collected by and used to operate dating apps and websites. In the earlier days, unlike now, she tells us, dating apps focussed on human connection, and people were not mere data points to be fed into an algorithm, or numbers with which to categorise an array of lived experiences.

Numbers must serve a purpose. They can be put to good use to create a database of narratives and to highlight lacunae. Elsa Marie D’Silva dives deep into the film North Country, a fictionalised account of the landmark sexual harassment lawsuit in the United States, Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. Although the judgment paved the way for safer workspaces, Elsa draws from recent real-life examples to highlight how gaps in the amount and kind of data collected around women at the workplace influences not only their wellbeing, but also the agency and authority they exercise at work. Broadening the scope of Elsa’s suggestions, we share a Hindi translation of an earlier article by her about  crowd-sourced data as the first step to designing localised, context-specific interventions to make navigating city-life a safe experience for all.

While we are struggling with the vicissitudes brought on by the pandemic we are also forced to spend more time online, to look for resources in terms of health care or caregivers, to reach out to people and build a communities of care, to take a break, or to try and hook-up online for a while. The more digi-savvy we are, the safer we are. In Brushstrokes, we have a brightly illustrated guide on how to date online safely, and in the Video section, Feminism in India’s founder, Japleen Pasricha, unpacks and shows us how to tackle different types of online violence. In the Tech Corner, there’s a toolkit on digital-security and an in-depth look into the Principles of a Feminist Internet. In the FAQs Corner we bring you the implications of the Information Technology Rules 2021on our privacy and freedom of expression.

In the Blog Roll section, the first of our curated articles looks closely at the biases and presumptions that inform data-collection and interface design for period-tracking apps, and the second is a fresh and insightful take on data-driven issues faced by beauty workers on online platforms, especially when algorithms are created without taking into account the lived realities of a diverse range of individuals.

Lived realities. Data.

Yes, these are strange and uncertain times for all of us. These are also times when the best of the human spirit struggles to shine through. The times when we put our hands out so we can hold each other up.

Stay steady!

Cover Image: Pixabay

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