Google and the Vagina

A few weeks ago, we noticed that Google Ads were not displaying on certain pages of Revolver. This was troubling. Revolver is currently supported, in part, by ad revenue. Going through the Google support questionnaire, we were repeatedly directed to “Adult Content / Lewd or Provocative Images.” After more digging, we discovered that only Sarah Fox’s poem Decorum of the House” triggered the Google filters. To test this for yourself, scroll down a little on these pages and look on the right side: White Horses,” “The Magnet Conundrum,” The Blowdown.”

Now try Decorum of the House.” Notice the difference?

Anyway, we at Revolver found Google’s actions ironic considering the intent of the poem and the author’s motivations for writing it. We contacted Sarah and asked her to write up a response.

Here it is.

Who knows what word triggered Google’s algorithims to cause an automated censuring of my poem “Decorum of the House”? It’s not “fuck” or “cocks,” because those words appear in the work of other Revolver authors, alongside ads for, e.g., a Christian singles dating service, Jeep™, Mastercard™, and the state of Illinois. It’s not “cunt” or “dildo” either because those words—on sites such as the “Free” Online Dictionary—feature Google-supported ads for, among others, Merrill Lynch™, Amazon-dot-com™, Eli Lilly™, MakingHomesAffordable-dot-gov, “New ‘Miracle’ Fat Fighter” pills, and links to “Feed a Hungry Child” charities.

According to Google’s Ad Support Team, “Our system has certain filters in place to protect our advertisers from advertising on pages that could be construed as potentially negative, non-family safe or even offensive.” For all we know their system (like its paterfamilias, our government) actually got triggered by the word “vagina,” or, in maybe an algorithmic sense (I have no idea), my poem violated some policy about the number of times the word “vagina” is allowed per internet acre.

“The AdSense network,” Google continues, “is considered family-safe, which means that publishers aren’t permitted to place Google ads on sites which contain adult content [including] nudity or sexual activities.” I’m puzzled as to how Google AdSense modulates its moral compass when programming filters. I mean, just for starters, what is the family house if not a safe and sanctioned container for sexual activity?

Furthermore, what could be more family-friendly than a vagina?

This reminds me of a phenomenon my family calls “the ironic ironic mustache,” a term coined by my daughter during her residential tenure in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn (“the current de-seated hipster capitol of the country if not the world.”)

“Literally,” she said, “the ironic ironic mustache was a guy walking down the street wearing a paper mustache.”

Which I hadn’t known about until just the other day when I asked if I might quote her in my commentary on the pulling of ads by Google from the web page where my poem appears in the magazine Revolver. (I hadn’t known there was a literal paper mustache. But of course the literally literal is oft overlooked.) Maybe Williamsburg hipsters will soon be seen walking down the street wearing paper vaginas inspired by Williamsburg girls wearing them on the new HBO series, “Girls.”

“There were guys with mustaches everywhere,” said my daughter of her former neighbors, “which obviously was meant to convey some clever comment on ‘the mustache.’ But after like one day it wasn’t ironic anymore.”  

Which, obviously, is a familiar, if under-utilized, filtering system (i.e., if all the kids in the iPhone ad are wearing Rasta hats or yarmulkes, you can be sure the ironic cred granted the lay pedestrian wearer of such headpieces is next to nil). Although, again, I’m not super confident I know precisely what an “algorithm” is. Math, not vaginas, tends to trigger my alarm system. The difference is that biologically viable creatures do not emerge into our world out of a hole called “Math.”

Recently, I was forced to sit through an ad for First Response™ pregnancy tests on YouTube—I don’t know if Google and YouTube share algorithms, I guess I assume they do—that claimed, “Your body can tell you’re pregnant before you can. So can First Response™ .” I’m not sure how they managed to separate me from my body, probably Math, but I’m certain that you can’t separate family from vagina. Does Google really give a flying fuck about the safety of “families” and the precious, vulnerable, budding consumer-friendly children therein? Are Miracle Fat Fighters and Mastercard safe for our Earth family? I myself am living proof that Eli Lilly—a Google-protected advertiser—is as non-family-safe as it is mathematically possible to be. Eli Lilly manufactures Diethylstilbestrol (DES), a nonsteroidal estrogen (“sex hormone”) still in limited use among post-menopausal women, victims of prostate cancer, and nonhuman domestic animals, but widely prescribed to pregnant women for the prevention of miscarriage from 1940–1971. DES turned out to be the first transplacental carcinogen known to humans; it not only caused rare forms of cancer and significant physical defects in the reproductive tracts of female offspring (“DES Daughters,” like me), leading to upwards of 157% increased risk for miscarriage and infertility, but in fact DES caused more miscarriages than it prevented. Go figure!

This is the decidedly nonvaginal network in which acceptable human enterprise operates. Google, as well as biohazardous endocrine disruptors such as DES, are products of this system, and also handily illustrate how endemic, how grotesquely intrusive and ubiquitous the specter of capital has become in our public and private lives, how profoundly we all are infected by it.

Let’s take a closer look at the Google Ad Support Team’s description of its services: “Our system has certain filters in place to protect our advertisers from advertising on pages that could be construed as potentially negative, non-family safe or even offensive.”

The first half of this sentence provides a very clear, concrete statement, even if that statement—despite an abundance of similarly-themed statements we media-saturated members, young and old, of families, see and hear every minute of every day—is the epitome of irony. Why do advertisers need protection? How does protecting advertisers have anything whatsoever to do with family safety? Who actually benefits from Google’s noble oversight? Isn’t this just a fancy, family-values-sounding way of saying “show me the money”? The whole “potentially negative, non-family safe or even offensive” rhetoric is predictably opaque—what my family deems positive, safe, and civil (Cannabis? The word “vagina”? Shamans? Public breastfeeding? Dennis Kucinich? Astrology?) most likely doesn’t align with, for example, Nashville Republican Representative Mike Callan’s concept of family decorum, since he finds the word “vagina” so offensive he doesn’t even want to say it in front of women.

Alas, Google’s algorithm architects didn’t consult me when designing their filters. If they had, I could have explained that there’d be no advertisers to protect were it not for vaginas, from whence advertisers (not money) come.

Poets, much less walking vaginas, are rarely consulted in matters as vital to families as the safety and honor of our capitalist economy. But perhaps poetry—like menstruating, defecating, vomiting, sweating, lactating, emoting, birth-giving women—constitutes a filtering system of sorts, with its own innate algorithms and ethic of protection. By unwittingly violating the decorum of Google and its family of advertisers in my poem’s efforts to pin the ironic ironic vagina on the Elephant (or Donkey—same diff), “Decorum of the House” managed to plumb a few gold nuggets from the bowels of The System—and maybe there’s even something vaguely mathematical about it—namely, that money and patriarchy (or, if you prefer, “safety” and “family friendliness”) have dominion over common sense and the female body. Which we know…but a preoccupation with our mustachioed visage reflected in the windows of Target or Nieman Marcus, and its imagined ability to attract the envy and awe of passersby, tends to sublimate what we know. It also tends to prevent us from noticing that every passerby sports a nearly identical mustache.

If I can locate Google Support team’s address, I hope to rally my team in creating paper vaginas (and depending on where we’re all at in our cycles, these vaginas could be sporting menstrual glitter art) and sending them to the nice folks at Google.

From our house to theirs, just in time for the holidays!

Front page image by Carlos Luna

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Sarah Fox

About the Author

Sarah Fox lives in Northeast Minneapolis where she co-directs, with John Colburn, the Center for Visionary Poetics. Coffee House Press published her book Because Why in 2006, and will release The First Flag in Spring 2013. She teaches writing and poetics, contributes to the multi-author arts and culture blog Montevidayo, and also serves as a doula. Recent work appears, or soon will, in Conduit, Action, Yes, Fence, We Are So Happy To Know Something, Poetry City USA Vol. 2, Spout, Altered Scale, Rain Taxi, LUNGFULL!, and others. She performs poetry rituals and other intersubjective actions in public and private spaces around the Twin Cities and beyond.
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