Category Archives: sex and the media

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

Meanwhile in The New Yorker

This week’s New Yorker contains a cartoon showing a man looking at Internet porn as a way of celebrating the online filing of his income taxes. The drawing includes a computer monitor with a naked woman on all fours looking behind her as if for the partner who is standing just off the screen. It’s a pretty explicit drawing, and the caption makes it as clear as it needs to be. And this is not exceptionally racy for The New Yorker, in that naked women, and couples in bed seem to be staples of New Yorker cartoonists, but it is interesting that this one actually depicts pornography itself. And I think it raises some interesting questions.

When it comes to all things sexual-thus-potentially-dangerous-to-unsuspecting-readers-or-children, is it the things in themselves that are presumed to the be danger, or is it the representations of the things? In other words, is it the woman having sex for money and an audience, or is it the representation of the woman having sex for money and an audience that is understood to be the danger?

Because if it is the thing itself, then one would imagine that any representation that does not condemn the dangerous thing, or warn against it, would be equally harmful.

And if it is the representation that we claim is harmful, how important is the context to deciding whether or not harm is likely? For example, if the New Yorker cartoon was not in The New Yorker but was instead in Playboy, would it be seen as more harmful for being located in a context that is more overtly sexual? (I can’t tell you how many cartoons in The New Yorker include naked people, especially women, and especially showing their nipples, these days.) Does being in The New Yorker make the cartoon safer, or does the cartoon make The New Yorker potentially more dangerous? Certainly The New Yorker hangs out in many doctors office waiting rooms and other places where children could accidentally see the cartoon. And then, too, there it is right online, where any unsuspecting child could happen upon it.

I don’t raise this because I want to see The New Yorker begin to censor its cartoonists. Far from it! I want to see less censorship around all things sexual. I raise it only to point out that when it comes to portraying sex in the mainstream media — or media in general — there is a system of privilege. And as with so many systems of privilege, I think this one needs to be examined and, perhaps, dismantled.

I wonder what the Terms of Service of The New Yorker’s ISP say about nudity and sexually explicit content!

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Filed under Art, censorship, culture, feminism, moral panic, public discourse, sex, sex and the media

You have the right to speak freely (in an increasingly limited number of spaces)

Whose Terms of Service control your access to the increasingly private “public spaces” where you express yourself?

Chris Hall of Literate Perversions recently made a very cogent comment on my post, “My Way or the Highway’s Way.” He was pointing out how much of the limiting of “acceptable use” of public spaces involves a shift from citizen to consumer as the model for the individual. When we think of ourselves as citizens, we are thinking of ourselves as members of a community and as having collective rights, responsibilities and needs that we must act together in order to protect. When we think of ourselves as consumers — or when governments and corporations frame us as consumers — suddenly our rights, responsibilities and needs are framed in individual terms. “I” need something, “I” don’t want to pay for something, “I” am offended and don’t think certain messages should be transmitted. I come first (or my family comes first) and I am not so encouraged to think of myself and my family as part of an extended network of people whose needs all need to be negotiated somehow.

That got me thinking about how much our “public” spaces have been privatized. The New York State Thruway’s rest areas are not really public spaces in the traditional sense. Really they are a collection of private businesses that team up to provide a public service. The mall has become the new town square. And no, I don’t mean “mall” in the sense of “wide avenue or grassy space where people walk, gather and discuss the events of the day.” I mean “neon lit enclosed commercial space where people walk, gather and discuss the issues of the day so long as they don’t offend the owners of the space.”

And then I started thinking about the Internet and got very optimistic and then very depressed. The Internet and the World Wide Web, are incredible tools for creating powerful, decentralized, democratic spaces where free exchange of ideas is managed across nations and continents, not just across towns and neighborhoods. But who controls our access to the Internet so that we can make our spaces on the World Wide Web available to others? It was in answering that question that I got depressed.

For me, the first “who” is Verizon and when I looked at their Terms of Service I was very disappointed. (To spare my regular readers I will not revisit my WordPress.com TOS discussion in this post.) Verizon, the vehicle I use to connect to the internet, not only prohibits my using their service for illegal purposes like, say downloading or distributing child pornography, but also prohibits using their service in a way that is “sexually explicit, or graphic in nature.” They can immediately terminate my service at their sole discretion if I am found to be in violation of their policies. There are things I like about Verizon. For one, many of its workers belong to unions. But I looked at their terms of service and realized that I could be regularly in violation of it and that they could, should they choose, terminate my access to the Internet.

That’s my ISP. But let’s say I find an ISP that won’t consider what I do to be a violation of their Terms of Service. I still need a place to host a web site. Powweb, a hosting company recommended to me by a friend who has used them for years, prohibits material that would commonly be considered indecent, or would appeal to the prurient interest, and would also prevent me from linking to sites that do those things. Open Source Host, another company recommended to me by a friend who has been happy with their service for a long time also prohibits “sex-related links” including sites that “infer sexual content.” Not only could I not post such content myself, but I could not even link to it. And again, the company will be the sole arbiter of what counts as “sex-related.” I did find some hosting services that did not expressly prohibit sexually explicit content. AN Hosting and DreamHost, both recommended by WordPress.org, only prohibited sexual content that was illegal — i.e., child pornography. Another open source host, Laughing Squid, actually took the time to distinguish between “erotic photography” sites and “porn membership” sites, and explained that they don’t host the latter because of traffic issues. But the breadth of the prohibitions made by companies like Verizon, Powweb and OpenSource was startling. And there were others. Yahoo! Hosting prohibits material that “(ii) is threatening, obscene, indecent, defamatory, or that otherwise could adversely affect any individual, group, or entity (collectively, ‘Persons’)” and later excludes material that is vulgar or obscene. BlueHost, a company recommended by WordPress.org prohibits “pornography, nudity, sexual products, programs or services. Escort services are not allowed or other content deemed adult related.” All policies make it clear that the company itself is the “sole arbiter” of what violates its policies. (And of course these sites all separately prohibit expressly illegal behavior.)

Is this insane? No nudity? Nothing that could “adversely affect any individual”? And with these companies being the sole arbiters of what might be harmful, enforcing their policies at their “sole discretion”? How many of us are in regular violation of the terms of service of the major corporations — or small businesses — that control our access to this otherwise democratic world wide web?

I am convinced that, sexually speaking, we are about as schizophrenic as we can be. Yesterday I talked with my sister in Atlanta who told me that when she got up in the morning morning and turned on the television the news was reporting the story of a veterinarian in Japan who had had his arm bitten off by a crocodile (the event happened on April 11th). This was on a mainstream media channel on a large screen television. They showed the crocodile with the man’s arm in its mouth. Before breakfast. This is not going to be disturbing to children? The same channel also showed graphic coverage of the man who jumped from the Empire State Building yesterday. Not disturbing for children? But let a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nipple escape onto the airwaves again — a nipple being something that lots of children are intimately familiar with and probably have happy memories of — and no doubt we will have another cultural panic about how disturbing that must be for kids. Severed limbs, okay. Healthy bodies, not so much.

Is there a cure for a schizophrenic society? I think there is, and I think we are part of it. We need to be inserting sensible, playful, compassionate, honest, difficult, and open discussions of sexuality (and bodies) into absolutely every cultural venue we can manage.

Of course in order to do that we may need to violate the policies of the companies that control our access to those “public” spaces.

Extra credit: Who controls your access to free expression online? Read the Terms of Service documents for the companies that control your Internet access or hosting. If you find that they are sensible and don’t exclude legal expression, drop a note in the Comments section below. I’d love to compile a list!

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Filed under activism, censorship, culture, moral panic, public discourse, sex, sex and the media