Why I'm Renaming A Gem

Posted 17 Nov 2014 to ruby and has Comments

Almost two and a half years ago, I made a gem that determines someone’s most likely gender based on their first name. I named it SexMachine. It’s a machine that detects the gender (most often, the sex) of a person. The name seemed to fit, and it’s also the name of a song everyone has heard.

Two and a half years later, someone stepped forward to say that the name I chose was harmful.

While the comments on the Github pull request have inevitably spiraled into fatuous inanity, I do think there are a few items that are absolutely worth consideration.

First, to clarify, I don’t think it’s healthy to view the word “sex” with the prudishness that most Americans still seem to posses. Sex is not shameful, and it is not degrading. As to how appropriate of a name it is, I think that depends completely on the context. The question of whether or not the name is appropriate for a work environment isn’t one I think matters that much in this case. I’m not your coworker and my personal projects (made in my spare time with my personal resources) should not be conflated with anyone’s workplace. Github and rubygems are more like flea markets full of free art where you are welcome to take whatever you think is useful, but there’s no guarantee that you’re not going to stumble across a tasteless painting of someone doing something naughty with a banana. That’s part of what makes open source so wonderful - because someone may actually be looking for that exact painting, even if it’s not something you’re willing to hang in your corporate boardroom.

That said, I think there’s a much more convincing argument (that unfortunately has become conflated with workplace fit). I think the best argument basically boils down to a question of whether or not I, as an open source developer, want to be as welcoming as possible to a group that has long felt marginalized and uncomfortable. This is the one that I believe is worth substantial and thoughtful consideration. If enough people from that group claim that some words that I chose make it harder for them, who am I to question their feelings. I believe there is genuine sincerity in the request, and this means that I need to listen.

This is why I’m going to rename the gem. I’ve received a ton of emails and comments from both sides, and I want to make it clear that my decision has nothing to do with feeling the pressure of one group over the other. It’s because of comments like this, from a woman engineer that I corresponded with:

While the idealist in me would love to aim for a world where sex was treated more equally and openly, the unfortunate reality of tech is that it has been a haven for misogynistic men and the environment is heavily male dominated. While in an ideal world the name SexMachine would be something that both genders could joke about, the reality is that the tech community is not ready or capable of that today.

I want to bring about that day as quickly as possible. This is my contribution.

PS - If you have a moment, please take a second to fill out this short, anonymous survey. I’m a scientist and can’t help try to collect some data.