Naked On The Internet

A fearless exploration revealing order within the seemingly chaotic world of online sexuality.

Today is my turn on the Naked On The Internet blog tour!

Naked on the Internet: The wordplay geek in me can’t help but wonder if the title were chosen partly for its acronym: NOTI — say it out loud: “Naughty.” Or, alternatively, “Not I.” The first reading suggests a certain subtext about coyness of women’s sexuality or about the way women’s sexuality is defined in mainstream culture. The second sounds a bit like what some women might say in response. Naughty? Not I. This is real, live, honest sexuality. It goes way beyond the simply “naughty” to the complicated, the routine, the tiresome, the exciting, from the infinitely diverse realms of self-exploration and self-gratification to the incredible range of efforts expended to meet of other people’s needs.

The greatest strength of Audacia Ray’s first book, Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads and Cashing in on Internet Sexploration (Seal Press, 2007), is that it makes widely visible a world that many of us only catch glimpses of. It vividly renders the experiences of women who use the Internet in an astounding number of ways, from dating to blogging, from escort work to making and consuming pornography, from searching for health information and support groups to exploring the world of cyberdildonics.

For those who are themselves well-integrated into the world of Internet interaction and exploration, the book offers company, empathy, and explanations for some of the strangeness we encounter online. And for us, the book also offers clear views of the parts of the Internet that we never see, or where we spend little time. The Internet is a “space” of such diversity that even the most “plugged in” can’t find their way through more than a fraction of it, and Ray illuminates several corners that I hadn’t explored before. Meanwhile, for those who are unfamiliar with the Internet and its sexual facets, the book makes an excellent guide to begin one’s explorations. In addition to Ray’s clear descriptions of activities like webcamming, escorting, and her easy-to-understand explanations of complicated things like funding rules and legal restrictions and relationships between regulatory agencies, the book also catalogs a large number of interesting and important web sites in the back, and provides a glossary as well. The book is unique in its ability to be both tour guide for the inexperienced and companion for the deeply-entrenched.

Another great strength of the book is its readability. I have the privilege of knowing Audacia Ray and I can tell you that as you read this book you can hear her speaking to you. She has managed to write a book that is very much in her own conversational voice, and she can do that with credibility because she is articulate and funny and thoughtful in her everyday speech. Academic writers often lose their own voices as they produce their work. Ray never gives up her conversational voice. She also never gives up her own presence: she is both heard and seen throughout the book. She turns her own life into a subject to be studied just as she has turned the experiences of those 80 women she interviewed into material for analysis. She is honest, courageous and she treats the lives of her subjects with care. She lets them speak in their own words, not substituting her judgment for theirs yet always giving the reader her own interpretation, and being clear about where she disagrees.

Where the book is not as strong, the things it lacks are in some ways tradeoffs for its strengths. Because of the conversational tone, perhaps, the writing can be a bit uneven at times. This is Ray’s first book, and she was writing it while completing her Masters degree in American Studies at Columbia University, working as executive director at $pread magazine, writing her blog, Waking Vixen, and writing and producing her first porn film (The Bi Apple). So if there are places, especially early on, where Ray sounds rushed, or where the transitions are a bit rough, that seems understandable. To finish a book like this in the midst of completing so many other major projects is something I don’t imagine many people could have done!

In addition, Ray interviewed 80 women for the book, and having been an interview participant I know that she took great pains to let her interviews be as open-ended as possible. She listens intently, and asks probing questions. As she says in her methodology statement, she tries to let the interviewee tell her story her own way. As a reader I was frustrated at a few points to come across generalizations where I knew Ray must have had solid data from her interviews to better support her claims, but as a qualitative researcher myself I know the risks of collecting so much rich information: it becomes overwhelming, and it can be difficult to go back through it all carefully to find exactly the bits that you need. And while she does sometimes resort to these generalizations, it is never the case that she resorts to cliche or stereotypical generalizations. Hers are always the sort that ring true even if they leave you wanting more proof.

And because it covers such an enormous scope of Internet activity, some chapters in Naked on the Internet feel a bit more shallow, a bit more glossed over, than I’d wished for. The early chapters, in particular, feel lighter in rich description and in analysis than I wanted. On the other hand, the chapters on sex work (she has separate chapters on “female-produced independent porn” and on the “harnessing of the Internet” by other kinds of sex workers) are extremely well developed, thorough in their use of evidence and rigorous in their analysis (without ever losing the conversational tone that makes the book so engaging). This makes sense because Ray’s academic work and her activism have focused on issues facing sex workers for quite some time. Ray is an indefatigable advocate for sex workers, and few people are as well prepared to fight for sex workers’ rights as she.

With Naked on the Internet, Audacia Ray has cracked open an extremely important sphere of inquiry and she has done so with a fearlessness that, all on its own, makes the book worth an important one. There is nothing that Ray shies away from because of controversy or stigma. She raises questions that touch on the involvement of children in 24/7 style webcamming (what do you do if you’re a cam girl with a kid?), on deeply ingrained cultural taboos (why did adult-oriented credit card billing services reject porn sites that featured menstruation when just about anything else failed to phase them?), on the politics of funding and providing sound sexual information to teenagers (how is Heather Corinna’s Scarleteen different from Planned Parenthood’s Teenwire?).

For answers to those questions, and for questions you’ve never thought of before, you have no choice: You must get Naked on the Internet, too!

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Filed under Audacia Ray, book reviews, culture, feminism, Gender, Naked on the Internet, sex, sex and the media