Category Archives: book reviews

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

Our kids are born sexual. Now what do we do?

My mother says I don’t write enough about positive things in this blog, and she’s right. So I’ve decided to start a book review section where I’ll tell you about books I think help to create a healthy and open sexual environment. This is a great moment to begin, because I just read a fantastic book about kids and sex.

The book is called Everything you never wanted your kids to know about sex (but were afraid they’d ask: The secrets to surviving your child’s sexual development from birth to the teens by Justin Richardson and Mark Schuster, published by Three Rivers Press (2004) and I think the title says a lot, but not enough. For one thing, the book is clearly intended to not only to help parents survive their child’s sexual development, but to help the child survive the parents’ anxiety about his or her sexual development. In that way it teaches parents how to help shape their children’s sexuality in healthy ways. For another thing, it acknowledges the fear that parents often have about dealing with their kids and sex, and yet I think for many parents the issue is the “afraid they’ll ask” not the “never wanted them to know” part. I think a lot of parents want their kids to figure it out without having to talk about “it.” This book helps parents figure out how to talk about “it.”

One reason I like the book so much is that it starts out with an important-but-difficult-to-accept reality: talking to kids about sex isn’t going to make them sexual. Kids are already sexual. They lead into this with a short bit about observing a male fetus on an ultrasound and pointing out that it has an erection: sexual arousal occurs even before birth. Sexual response is biological. It is shaped, structured, and channeled by culture and socialization, but it is at its base a biological reality and it exists in babies just as it exists in adults.

Richardson and Schuster, both doctors with very down-to-earth attitudes (a psychiatrist and a pediatrician/public health specialist both with very impressive resumes), take on subjects like childhood sexual development, kids and sex play, masturbation, the Internet, discussions about abstinence, safer sex practices. And in all these areas their main focus is on open discussion, accurate information, and remaining calm. They explain that their approach to sexual development is based on putting children’s health first and they define health in a very comprehensive way:

Our definition of health includes physical health, by which we mean the absence of sexually transmitted disease and unintended pregnancy, and safety from sexual abuse and violence; and emotional health, by which we mean the ability to take pleasure in sex, the freedom of mind to make choices about love and sex, the possession of a meaningful value system to guide those choices, and the presence of strong self esteem. (p. 9-10)

They do all this with great humor and an sensitivity to the real strain, concern, and fear that parents really feel around these matters. I discovered this book while browsing for parenting section of Books-a-Million with my sister, a mother of two young boys. We were so engaged by the book that we sat on the floor in the aisle and read out loud to each other. We read the section about what to do when your kid walks in on you when you’re having sex. One reason I’m telling you about this book: one real life scenario used as a model by the authors involved a same-sex couple — two men — and the authors presented this without comment on the sexual orientation of the couple. Instead, their focus was on the quality of the reaction that “Jack and Simon” had in the moment:

We still marvel at the composure of Jack and Simon. When their four-year-old boy walked in on them having sex, Jack managed calmly to say, “Oh, you found us doing the special thing that people in love do when they want to make each other feel good; now, which of us do you want to put you back to bed?” (p. 103)

They point out that the most important thing is not to hide, not to ignore it, to try an explanation that is simple and clear, like “When you came in we were having sex. It’s a way that grown ups like us show that they love each othe. Do you understand?” They recommend answering any questions that the child has, and then reminding the child to knock if the door is closed. In other words, they recommend treating it without alarm, as an everyday act, and moving on. (An example of the humor they bring to the book. They end that section with the remark, “You can now tuck your little one into bed, go back to your room, and perform CPR on your partner.”

Another reason I’d encourage you to take a look at this book is because of its strength in addressing questions about kids, sex, and the Internet. First, they point out that if your child or your teen is online in any interactive forum, there is a chance that she will be approached for sex. You can’t prevent this. What you can do is prepare your kid for it when it does happen. Richardson and Schuster recommend telling young Internet users that they’re safe as long as they don’t respond to such requests and don’t give out any personal information about themselves to people they don’t know. Teach them how to block senders of unwanted IMs and to let you know about the incident. (Then, when they do talk to you, don’t freak out, but calmly discuss it with them to get the details, and, I’d presume, to support them for having done the right things!) Second, Richardson and Schuster talk about the near-inevitable event that your child surfs to a porn site or some other site containing explicitly sexual content. They discuss the benefits and drawbacks of web browser filters and again focus on being open with your kids about sex so that they’re willing to talk to you about what they see.

There are lots of good reasons to check out this book. I can’t mention them all now but I’m sure I’ll be referring back to the book in future posts.

I encourage you to check out the website for the book. You can read selections from the book, read more about the authors, and ask questions, too.

It takes guts to talk to kids about sex. In this time of moral panic about kids and sex, though, it is as important as ever that adults step up to the plate early and create a healthy environment for their kids’ developing sexualities. This is truly the best way to protect them from harm.

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Filed under book reviews, culture, Education, Family, life, moral panic, public discourse, sex, sex and health, sexuality, sexuality and age

Coming Soon …

I know, I know, I just got back, and now here I am headed out again for a couple of days. I thought it might be nice to let you know what I’m working on so that you’ll know what’s coming up when I return:

  • A discussion on the treatment of sex offenders, specifically dealing with the recent signing of a law in New York allowing for ‘civil commitment’ of certain sex offenders after their prison terms are up. I’ll be asking whether we should treat pedophiles like regular criminals or like people who are considered too disturbed to be responsible their crimes, but who need treatment and to be confined. It seems in New York we want to have it both ways.
  • Some happier posts! My mother says I don’t write enough upbeat stuff, so in the coming week look for a review of the book “Everything you never wanted your kids to know about sex but were afraid they’d ask.” And also look for an interview with the guys from Nekked, a great electronica/pop band that I first mentioned back in September. (I’m thinking about making book reviews a more regular feature of Sex in the Public Square. Feel free to send recommendations. I’m thinking about books that contribute something interesting and useful to public discourse around sexuality, and that have a down-to-earth, sex-positive spin.)
  • A first post in a series about monogamy. Specifically, I’m talking about the kinds of nonmonogamous commitments people make in serious long term sexual relationships. (If you have a nonmonogamous relationship you’d like to talk about, drop me an email using the link on the sidebar!)

So that’s what’s coming up. If you’ve had a comment moderated and posted already, you can comment without moderation while I’m away. (Otherwise comments will be held until I can get to a computer.)

I’ll be back soon. Be good! (That means you, JanieBelle!)
Elizabeth

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Filed under book reviews, marriage, nonmonogamy, polyamory, sex, sex crimes, sex offenders