Zivity sparks Girl Geek porn panic

Cyan Banister's Zivity seemed a natural choice to participate at the second Bay Area Girl Geek dinner, a networking event celebrating women in tech. At the last one in January, over 600 guests assembled at Google's HQ to hear tales of ladypower from female CEOs, founders, engineers, and VCs. Banister, a former systems administrator and network engineer, is the cofounder of Zivity, a social networking site driven by female users sharing sexy photos of themselves. The Zivity motto is "It's not porn." Call what you will pretty women getting paid for making and posting naked photos of themselves. As Zivity's Chief Strategy Officer, Banister was honored to accept the Girl Geeks' invite over five months ago, including their idea to have Zivity bring two female photographers along to lens red-carpet style shots of arriving guests who were up for it. This is where the cocktail of sex, girls, tech, and cameras got complicated, and the collective panties of some female industry "thought leaders" got blogged into a painful bunch. And it had about nothing to do with porn.

Zivity has been accused of using female sexuality as a ploy to get attention. A ploy, or a business model, one might ask. Mary Hodder, founder of online video startup Dabble, wrote, "It's not that we object to porn, just to the using (or appearance of using) girl geeks to get back their cred. Even if that's not what's happening from their perspective, the rest of us who would like to *not* be sexualized and objectified in our work lives really find the Zivity association disconcerting."

So maybe it is impossible to separate selling images of female sexuality from the sexist tech scene, but when it comes to the question of objectification, Banister objects. "I don't think the opinion that Zivity demeans anybody is one that's held by the majority," she told Valleywag. "I'm a tech vet, and I used to be very similar — you want to strip your sexuality and just live in your brain, and be a talented, smart individual so you can compete in a male-dominated space. You become sexless — but why can't I be both? Why can't I be beautiful and sexy and be smart?"

And a legitimate executive. Zivity isn't just another porn site aping MySpace, which is precisely why it's threatening. Zivity has a Silicon Valley pedigree, which means for the first time, a company that openly embraces female sexuality is rubbing shoulders with Valley oldtimers and chasing Valley money — $8 million in venture capital so far. When female entrepreneurs feel as if they have to fight for equal time as it is, sharing space with Zivity is tantamount to being asked to sleep with the enemy.

But for women, the enemy in this case isn't porn: It's turning against each other based on what's between our own legs. Is it any woman's fault that tech pundits don't give women a fair shake? "I think there's a lot of resentment for how much coverage we get," said Banister. "But we did place at TechCrunch40, and we're venture funded — and it's not just because I took my top off. The investors and the press aren't that naive."

Nor are we. Banister didn't mention it, but Banister's husband Scott was an early employee at PayPal, and some of the funding came from Peter Thiel, Scott's former boss. Part of Zivity's assumption-challenging reality: The Valley's most prominent gay venture capitalist is helping women make money undressing.

Banister told us that though she offered to bow out of the speaking opportunity, the Bay Area Girl Geeks asked her to stay. Dinner organizer Angie Chang told a San Jose Mercury News blogger:

We invited Cyan to give a 3-5 minute introduction as she was voted Sexiest Geek Alive in 2000 (just like Ellen Spertus of Google won the award in 2001 — Ellen was invited by Google to give the intro talk at the first Bay Area Girl Geek Dinner). Cyan is also the cofounder of a Series A funded technology startup, which I respect greatly as a female tech entrepreneur myself.

That is, if embracing women in tech is really about changing the rules, then all women have to have a seat at the dinner party. Even if you don't approve of what they do for a living.

(Photo via takeitez)