University of Newcastle, Australia
The big question in regard to the Internet has long been its potential to provide "new forms of social space that might empower individuals in new ways" (Poster 1995). As it has developed, the Internet has enveloped existing social spaces, extending and reworking previous social practices. While computer-mediated communication does not cancel out the gendered relationships of face-to-face communication, the specific conditions of online interaction do introduce resistances and fractures in gender-power relations. The Internet also subverts a hierarchical information flow, allowing diverse social groups access to information and support that is not available from traditional news and information sources. In addition, the new model of marketing on the Internet is based on a mediated environment which provides relative anonymity, and allows consumers a degree of control over the 'content' of the shopping experience. The Internet also removes the gatekeepers from publishing, in that "it is a technology that puts cultural acts, symbolizations in all forms, in the hands of all participants" (Poster 1995). In short, in its various roles as communication tool, superstore, meeting place, information source, and independent publisher, the Internet provides "agency" (Hall 1998). The Internet can function as one place where, or one tool through which, individuals are empowered to act on their own behalf, challenging hegemonic discourses.
While, as Hall points out in discussing the development of digital communications in Africa, digital technology can support and extend elite enclaves by providing additional markers of access and possession, it can also provide entrée and ownership to the powerless. It was not only in Africa that "time and space were major barriers in the defence of privilege and position" (Hall 1998); however, the Internet has collapsed time and space, enabling novel interactions between individuals, communities, and ideas. The new communication links open up the possibility of access to social power, and the new forms of interaction bring with them new discourses of gender and identity, and new patterns of power relations.
Irigaray writes that patriarchy is not a structure but an economy, in which women are the primary commodities (1985: 193). This specular economy depends on all commodities knowing their place. For example:
Women know their place through discourses. In Foucault's terms, discourses create particular subject positions from which to make sense of the world, and at the same time discipline or regulate those subject positions (Foucault 1991). Hegemonic discourses of gender and sexuality are accepted as 'common sense' even though they might not fit individuals' experiences or beliefs. The discourses on gender and sexuality that have been disseminated through science and medicine, the church and the school, the family and the media, have constructed a moral code that imposes rules and prohibitions which are enacted by subjects with varying degrees of compliance. These moral discourses combine to constrain women's sexuality, and limit their participation in sex entertainment. One of the most common examples of such discourses is the notion that while men are interested in sex, women are interested in romance, an idea that increases the prohibitions associated with the consumption of sex entertainment by women. Another example is the belief that the representation of sexuality in itself degrades women, an assumption based on the notion that exploitation resides in the representation of female sexuality per se, rather than the conditions of its production and consumption and the ways in which sexual meanings are created. This works to deny women the right to construct and represent their own sexuality. Another example is the way that:
Yet another example is a belief in the 'moral superiority' of women, accompanied by moves to protect them from that which might distress or offend. This protection was historically contingent on the separation of public and private spheres, and women's role as moral entrepreneurs meant their confinement to the private sphere of the family. Dominant discourses also construct sexuality along binaries of active/passive, dominant/subordinate, subject/object, regulating it through gendered norms of behaviour which support a power-based system of sexual relationships.
Not all women, however, construct themselves as subjects along the lines of dominant social discourses. For many women, sexuality is an integral part of their identity and the Internet has offered a forum where this aspect of their lives can be more fully explored, opening up new possibilities for sex entertainment (Kibby & Costello 1999; Kibby & Costello 2001). One example is the way that many women's personal home pages display a sexualised persona (Kibby 1997) instead of, or alongside, other aspects of the woman's identity.
|Gender and the Internet|
Early research into online communication forums primarily involved the text-based virtual reality environments called Multi-User Domains or MUDs, which were originally game environments based on Dungeons and Dragons but grew to encompass a wide range of fantasy worlds. Role playing was the focus of the majority of these environments, with players going to great imaginative lengths to create their characters. Bruckman (1993) declared that "MUDs are an identity workshop" after studying the way that MUDders invented new genders and other identity markers as part of their role playing. Turkle (1995), also studying MUDs, described online gender swapping with enthusiasm, suggesting that experiencing the opposite gender encourages reflection on the nature of gender and its influence on our interactions. Most of the subsequent studies of gender swapping online have also focussed on the construction of identity in fantasy environments such as MUDs, or on the assumption that disguises are widely employed in closed forums such as women-only or gay spaces, but there is little evidence to suggest that it is a common practice in general Internet usage (cf. Kibby 1998).
The notion of widespread gender swapping on the Internet has been described as "dated" (Hamilton 2000) in that it depends on a reduction of gender to a costume that can be put on or discarded, a livery without implications for language use, conversational style, interactional methods and so on; and it relies on people believing in your online identity and being concerned about the authenticity of that identity. As Hamilton says, "Turkle's gender-swapping only works if you can 'fool' people with the quality of your performance. What happens when everyone assumes you are performing and doesn't care anymore?"
In practice, gender boundaries have become more, rather than less, concrete online. Gender is the first and major identifier in electronic communication, and "Are you male or female?" is the question most frequently asked in text-based forums (O'Brien 1999). O'Brien explains how individuals who are evasive in answering are not considered to be creatively exploring their gender options, but to be hiding something: "the failure to 'reveal' gender is viewed with suspicion" (1999: 79).
While the incidence of gender switching online is perhaps unknowable, significant gender policing is apparent, especially in sex entertainment forums. The policing occurs at a number of levels. Participants in romance and sex chat forums maintain a constant gender vigilance, asking specific questions of potential partners in order to uncover any gender fraud, and barring anyone who prevaricates from further interaction. System Operators on most sex entertainment forums require verifiable names and addresses, and participants are required to specify biographical details including gender and sexual orientation. Incidents where Sys Ops authenticate these details by way of phone calls and credit card checks are discussed in the forums, and one study of Bulletin Board Systems reports voice verification of participant biographies (Wiley 1995: 148). Policing is also inherent in the connections between the online interaction and real-life relationships. Whereas MUDs offer a fantasy space distinct from everyday life, many participants in online heterosexual sex entertainment are looking for sex and romance that is a complement to their real lives. For many people, the process works as follows: "once having met online, they soon exchange phone numbers and call each other, often exchange photos, followed by what we have termed a fleshmeet" (Albright & Conran 1998: 11). This progression to real-world contact works to limit online gender switching.
|Online sex entertainment|
The Internet provides a wide range of pornographic or erotic material. The majority of this is similar to traditional pornography, only published electronically; indeed, much of it is sourced from existing print and video pornography. The consumer pays for access to images, texts, conversations or movies, and most of these commercial pornography sites are male-oriented, even, or especially, those that are captioned "Lesbian Lovers", "Female Fantasies" and the like. However, there are growing numbers of sex entertainment sites specifically for women (Kibby 1999), while increasingly, 'Women's Issues' sites are including erotica alongside health, fashion and entertainment as just another area of interest to women. Another rapidly growing area is the provision of online shopping for erotic toys, and a significant number of these sites expressly target women, or have designated women's sections selling erotic paraphernalia that social inhibitions might prevent women from purchasing in their local adult stores, were it available. Women are developing their own collections of heterosexual male imagery, and most of these are personal home pages rather than commercial sites and contain amateur collections of pictures from a range of sources. One of the largest categories of Web sites providing erotica for women consists of those posting erotic fiction, allowing women to publish their own uncensored sex entertainment stories. Another area where women's presence is particularly noticeable is in the public, interactive forums where participants share erotic images, discussion or video with each other. Through 'hot chat' sites, women participate in what is essentially online phone sex, typing out erotic conversations or constructing elaborate mutual sexual experiences. CU-SeeMe is chat with the addition of a video camera, so that participants can type messages to each other while transmitting an image. Different participants use the various forms of online sex entertainment in different ways; overall, however, the level and variety of women's involvement suggests that the Net does provide a measure of freedom for women to experience and express their sexuality on their own terms, creating their own discourses of sexuality that challenge gendered relations of power.
|Online sex-talk forums|
In the adult chat forum, Smut Shack, women openly represent themselves as sexual beings. This representation is firstly through the handles they choose, with frequent use of descriptive nicknames such as "horny bored wife", "Crimson Mistress", "Extra Wet" and "Teenage Lisa". Secondly, it occurs through descriptions of their physical selves, for example:
Keera said to NY COP: ... long wavy blonde hair, big brown eyes and big pouty lips.
Thirdly, it occurs through their involvement in sexually explicit conversation, for instance:
In computer-mediated interactive sex entertainment, it is the simultaneous co-existence of intimacy and anonymity that suggests a reduced accountability for actions, and a liberation from social discourses of appropriate gender behaviour. The personal nature of the exchanges facilitates an 'among friends' ambience which, combined with the perceived anonymity, makes it doubly easy to ignore inhibitions. Interaction is via typed conversation and physical markers that are usually read as cues to age, personality type and social experience are not automatically present, so that participants have a certain freedom to construct the identity they depict. Even with CU-SeeMe, where participants can transmit an image of themselves while they type, they are careful to 'manage' their identities. The seclusion of the keyboard context and the distancing effect of the computer interface combine with the intimacy of the exchanges to create a similar releasing effect to that of masks and costumes at carnival time (see Danet et al 1997). Participants are freed to not only be other than themselves, but to express more of themselves than they usually can in a face-to-face environment. Safe behind the mask of computer mediation, women are empowered to express a sexuality perhaps rarely revealed elsewhere. The nicknames used are the equivalent of masks, sometimes disguising identity, sometimes highlighting a personal characteristic. Also, women's video images in CU-SeeMe are generally carefully constructed, as they dress up in costumes or erotic garments, light and choreograph their displays and choose, design, and arrange their backgrounds - thus framing their images to disguise and reveal simultaneously:
For many women this environment is one in which they can both produce and consume pornographic images: the anonymity provides security, the personal disclosure an element of danger. Some men have expressed surprise at the way their partners have become involved in CU-SeeMe:
People tend to feel "personally and technically secure" in computer-mediated communication and see a low risk in engaging in sexually explicit communication online (Witmer 1997). However, the security of anonymity is counterbalanced by the risks of not knowing to whom you are speaking, as image management online can involve deceptions over basic characteristics such as age, appearance and occupation. As suggested above, although gender swapping is an important element of the fantasy role playing in MUDs and similar text-based forums, there is little evidence that it is usual in other areas of the Internet, with a review of the literature on gender differences in computer-mediated communication finding that claims of widespread gender anonymity have not been supported by the research (Herring 2000). Clearly, where adult forums emphasise moving on to real-life interaction, gender swapping would be counterproductive. In CU-SeeMe particularly, there is a focus on the real, with participants discussing their everyday lives, and with strict rules preventing the transmission of still or video images, and occasional requests that suspected transgressors pan to reveal their faces (Kibby & Costello 2001: 363). The one area where women seem to have to frequently deal with males' cross-gender posing is in women-only forums, and here assessments are quickly made on the basis of language use, style, and the answers to gendered questions such as "What sizes do pantyhose come in?" In one case, a man lurking on the WebWomen list was unmasked by his strong assertions and rhetorical questions (King 2000).
Night has been described as a frontier, in that it offers a sparse, homogeneous population facilitating interpersonal linkages; a wider range of tolerated behaviour; and greater opportunities for concealment or escape (Melbin 1987). Parallels can be drawn between the 'frontier' of Internet communication and the night. Participation in adult conferences is, in effect, taking back the night: experiencing the danger and excitement, the forbidden expressions of sexuality, the risky liaisons. A Juliet Breeze cartoon shows a middle-aged woman at the computer in the early hours of the morning: her sweatshirt is emblazoned with the feminist slogan "Take back the night!" and she is exploring the dark alleys of the Internet (Pollock & Sutton 1999: 40). This is not to say that these sexually-oriented chat sites are a utopia for women. Far from it. Some women will find themselves harassed, intimidated, abused or patronised. But some women will find for themselves a community where they can engage in a playful discourse that suggests what could be.
|Online sex entertainment products|
The new model of marketing on the Web is a mediated environment created by participants. It is a fundamentally different way of shopping in that it offers a potential to diffuse the individual's identity and to increase the power of the consumer (Hoffman & Novak 1996). The anonymity hinders personalised selling, and in so doing allows consumers to distance themselves from the sellers, and the products. In shopping for personal products the Internet offers the safety of social distance, and protection from possible censure or embarrassment. This is a similar 'liberation' to that offered to isolated women by mail order shopping, whether their isolation is the effect of emotional, social or geographic factors. What the Internet provides is greater ease of access to a diversity of product ranges. The power shift in favour of consumers may be one explanation for the rapid development of female-oriented 'sex shops' on the Internet. The Eve's Garden front page says:
A Woman's Touch is operated by two women, a doctor and a social worker, and includes a question-and-answer forum as well as clothing, books, videos and toys for sale. Good Vibrations offers an online museum of antique vibrators in addition to products for sale. First Fantasies proffers "fantascripts": romantic role playing guides with theme lingerie and lounge wear for him and her, props and accessories, and "suggestions for mood setting décor". Romantic Inspirations sells products designed to "inspire" an erotic love life, and Pleasure Chest's Women's Wonderland features toys for women - including the nipple super sucker and the Mr Peter ice mould. The perception of anonymous shopping may be countered by the increasing use of data tracking to develop a profile of a shopper's interests, attitudes and behaviours. Most people, however, are currently unaware of the extent to which their Web surfing leaves behind a trail of cookies that provide a comprehensive picture of themselves (Clarke 2001) - and so the perception of anonymity largely persists.
|Online erotic publishing|
Self-publishing on the Web has allowed a diversity in the content and style of sex entertainment products that was not previously accommodated in mass-market publishing. In the introduction to her Sexuality site, Janis Cortese complains of the "constrained, narrow images that haunt the American sexual landscape", images of "drilling studs and bouncing bimbos", and asks: "where is the sex entertainment that assumes its viewers or readers to be female?" The site includes erotic fan fiction. In the tradition of slash fiction, such as women's homoerotic rewriting of Star Trek, women have written new narratives - based on the X-Files, Babylon 5, Miami Vice, Highlander and other series - that feature explicit sexual interaction. As Cortese says, it's not all "politically correct" soft-core erotica: "You'll find twosomes, threesomes, same-sex stuff, bondage games, rough stuff ... strong and gorgeous women ... gracile and beautiful men ...". Aurora Universe is a collection of erotic superheroine adventures, a rapidly growing women's genre. Madeline's Sex Offerings features well-written narratives and includes Madeline's own stories as well as submissions from other writers. Vanna Vechian's Erotic Fiction explores domination, exhibitionism and sensuality in exotic locations. Fantasy Forum is a site where women submit their own "fantasies, erotic fiction, personal experiences etc. from a woman's point of view", and visitors vote for their favourite story. One story voted 'most popular' was "Center of Attention" in which a woman and her husband meet a business acquaintance of his; over dinner she suggests a threesome and the men acquiesce, both focussing on pleasuring her. Ms Heathen explains on her website of the same name that:
Though there is a growing market in women's erotic print fiction which is often similar in plot and narrative style to the Web-published stories, online publication allows for a significant diversity in that the gatekeepers of print publishing are absent, and it facilitates connections with communities of shared interest. Interaction between writers and readers, and the facility for readers to try their hand at writing erotic fiction for a supportive audience, dismantles some of the reader/writer/publisher hierarchies of the mainstream print media.
Another form of female-oriented self-published sex entertainment consists of image collections put together by women. As stated earlier, these are generally on personal, not commercial, sites. Examples such as Jane's Gallery and Janis Cortese's Collection include nude photos of partners and friends as well as celebrity pin-ups of the likes of Brad Pitt and Trent Reznor (of the Nine Inch Nails) - though many of the celebrity nudes bear captions like "Fun with Photoshop". Again, many of these sites have interactive elements, allowing visitors to vote, submit their own images, or discuss the appeal of the pin-ups. This interactivity supports a feeling of commonality, encouraging women to feel that they are not alone in seeking sex entertainment:
Women are finding that support in the alternate discourses surrounding female-oriented sex entertainment on the Internet.
|Online sex and sexuality information|
Information in itself is empowering, and many women are finding that the Internet is a source of otherwise difficult to obtain knowledge on a wide range of topics relating to sex and sexuality. Information is easily, and privately, accessible from sites like Sex Laws, which is an extensive compilation of Australian, Canadian and US laws pertaining to various aspects of sexuality, as well as relevant laws in Islam; Web by Women for Women, which was a response to threats to women's ability to discuss personal issues - including matters concerning health or sexuality - from the US Communications Decency Act; and Gender-Related Electronic Forums, which is a directory of women-related email lists, including those focussed on sexuality or sexual orientation.
The Internet is not a new world. It has been constructed around existing social discourses and reflects the relations of gendered power that exist in the off-line world. However, the structural conditions of the Internet do allow for challenges to these discourses, and provide the possibility of translating power structures into new assemblages. While the Internet does not completely eradicate old power systems as it builds new ones, it reproduces them incompletely, and in online, female-oriented sex entertainment, the resulting fissures provide a space where women can write their own sexuality outside patriarchal narratives of gender and sex.
There is some evidence that new attitudes and behaviours developed in and facilitated by online environments can be transferred to face-to-face situations. For example, students who acquire discussion skills within the security and anonymity of online forums can consequently become more confident and outspoken in face-to-face tutorials (Monroe 1999). It may be that people who become used to women defining their own sexuality and actively participating in sex entertainment online, will work to create social spaces that facilitate women's sexual empowerment - at least in their own corner of Real Life.
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