The Trifecta of Anxieties about Sex and Social Media
Syphilis is not dead: Dating apps, HIV pill, risky sex
help push disease to forefront again
Social media lures young people to engage in sex for money
Investigators say sex trafficker found victims through social media
Woman poses as a 14-year-old on apps and is bombarded with sex texts
New age social media apps, and a shocking problem of borderline sexual content
These are some examples from Google News search results for the query of “sex, social media” in July 2019. According to global (tabloid) news, sex and social media are
a match made in hell: Disease, exploitation, trafficking, transactional sex. In these headlines, social media is given monstrous agency to ruin people's lives. It is social media that lures reluctant youngsters into sex work; it is the dating apps that give people syphilis; it is the X-ray app that exploits women. It is not, according to these news stories, the people using technology for evil, building infantile apps, or foregoing condoms. The broader socioeconomic conditions these people live in do not seem to factor into their choices and circumstances either. No, it is the sinister, seductive, disease-riddled social media.
We could dismiss these titles as churnalism and clickbaitery, but the underlying anxieties feeding this discourse are not new. 7
Neither are they insignificant. Media scholars and sociologists have demonstrated again and again that media representations have normative, regulative power, which in turn has real, material impact on people's lives. Practices, identities, and lifestyles are celebrated, erased, or vilified in these discourses. A version of “normal” is created, solidified, and then used as a yardstick.
How we think of the interconnections between sex and social media, especially if we think that this interconnection is fraught with risk and danger, impacts on how we conduct our intimate lives, how much responsibility we take, how we treat victims and perpetrators of abuse, how we educate children, teachers, and parents, how policies and laws are made, what goes into the User Guidelines and Terms of Service
Agreements of social media platforms, or what kinds of content their owners and developers demonstratively police. Ultimately, the anxieties surrounding sex and social media impact our wellbeing and the diversity of our cultures.
We argue that the risk-focused rhetoric surrounding sex and social media emerges out of the convergence of older worries pertaining to sex, to public life, and to technology, and in particular to the overlaps between these. This is the trifecta of anxieties, which shapes and constrains how social media is experienced as sexual, and sex as socially mediated.
Trifecta of Anxieties
We can think of the three mentioned realms as a Venn diagram (Fig. 1
), which has – for the purposes of the discussion at hand – three key intersections: where sex meets public life, where public life meets the internet, and where the internet meets sex.
Fig. 1. The Trifecta of Anxieties.
Sex and Publicness
The intersection of sex and publicness is where issues around visibility and normative acceptability of certain sexual identities, lifestyles, and practices emerge. While it is common
to presume that our sexual norms have gradually become less and less constrained, it is not that straightforward.
Most everyone has probably heard the argument that the Victorian era was the pinnacle of sexual repression. French philosopher Michel Foucault (1990), who studied the period extensively, argued against this “repressive hypothesis.” He noted that the period actually saw an explosion of talk about sex. Although, to be fair, most of this talk did judge, shame, and stigmatize sexual behaviors and desires. He said that in the eighteenth century a science of sex (scientia sexualis), and concurrently a discourse of sexuality, as opposed to sex, emerged. Sex was made into science by many different authorities and institutions. Doctors, psychiatrists, and government officials interested in demographic control all incited individuals to talk about sex, but to do so in analytical, medically confessional ways. These prescribed confessions about sex served to hystericize desirous women, develop angst about masturbating children, construct a notion of perversion as a psychiatric diagnosis, and regulate the productivity of the population through prescribed procreation. Sex became a matter which required the population of a society as a whole, and each individual within it, to engage in constant sexual (self)-surveillance. Are we doing it right? Am I normal? Will I go blind now? The neighbors most certainly do not sound normal! Thus, the concept and the discourse of sexuality was born. If sex is a set of practices or ways of doing things, then sexuality is a labeling strategy. It is a way in which to categorize people not as doing things (e.g., enjoying being tied up while having sex), but as being someone (a “pervert”).
Surely then, the twentieth century heralded the beginning of increasing sexual liberation? Historians have indeed shown that the widespread use of the contraceptive
pill since the 1960s significantly increased women's freedom. According to the English sociologist Anthony Giddens (1992), this period led to an emergence of “plastic sexuality,” wherein sex became separated from reproduction – and from romance – and women's rights to sexual pleasure were more broadly accepted. Some versions of male homosexual self-presentation (the less flamboyant, high-class versions) also become more tolerated at the time, although other forms continued to be stigmatized for decades to come. 8
However, many of the patterns of repression observed by historians have taken on new forms instead of disappearing, and the sheer variety of different types of sexual regulation has arguably been on the increase. Some countries have regressed to narrow, ideological interpretations of religious doctrine regarding the sexual rights of LGBT individuals and women, the administrative and technological scrutiny of sex has increased manifold in many countries (e.g., sex offender registries, the UK government's failed plan to have the entire porn-browsing population verify their identity upon entering sites, etc.). Sex continues to be medicalized as new pathologies are invented (e.g., sex addiction as a disease, which generated a lot of attention in the 1980s).
This is why Gayle Rubin's conceptual framework of the “charmed circle” from 1984 is still a useful heuristic for making sense of the late modern norms around sex. Rubin imagined the sexual value system as two concentric circles. The inner – charmed circle is for “good,” “normal,” and “natural” sex, which is heterosexual, married, monogamous, reproductive, noncommercial, between people of the same generation, happens at home, does not
involve porn, objects, toys, or role play. The outer circle is “bad sex.” It might be homosexual, unmarried, casual, nonprocreative, nonmonogamous, commercial, masturbatory, cross-generational, among more than two people, taking place in public or semi-public places, and may include porn, toys, or role play. Rubin noted that only acts that fall in the charmed circle are seen as potentially nuanced and involving moral complexity. Sex in the bad circle is deemed so repulsive it can only be a uniformly bad experience. There is no cultural space for discussion around sex in the bad circle. While various sexual practices have become more acceptable since 1984, and the charmed circle model has since been updated by other authors, the basic logic still reflects many people's everyday experiences. As Katie, an ethically nonmonogamous woman in her early 30s from Canada, and one of Kat's research participants said:
I am lucky to have some people who are incredibly open-minded and progressive, but knowing that I am turned on by these things [group sex] would drastically change the way the general population looked at me. Sex that is outside of the boundaries of heterosexual monogamous intercourse is still stigmatized in our culture, and even illegal in others.
That the long history of normative ideas around the acceptability and visibility of sex (and what kinds of sex, and for whom) in public life would shape and constrain how sex on social media is experienced, articulated, and made sense of, becomes more obvious as we discuss the next intersection – that between public life and the internet. How acceptable sex is on the internet depends on whether or not the internet is a public space.
Public Life and the Internet
Discussions around the publicness of the internet contain multiple analytical foci – internet interactions and content as public versus private, the internet as a public
sphere, and the internet as a public good/service. All of these have their own tensions that inform how sex and social media are perceived.
We discussed the complex terrain of deeming social media either private or public, as well as the tendency of it to collapse our social contexts in the introduction. This means that there are people who are likely to argue that social media is always a public place, and individuals should behave accordingly. Others will argue that there are many different places and contexts on social media. Some of these may very well be technically public, yet experienced by their inhabitants as somewhat private, or at least not intended for observation by the uninitiated. Further, will people behave differently in a public place if they can be anonymous or pseudonymous? While most scholars tend to agree that anonymity shapes behavior online, there is no consensus on how. In 2004, psychologist John Suler proposed the concept of the “online disinhibition effect,” arguing that a combination of particular personality traits with the option of anonymity leads to lowered inhibitions, which may either increase prosocial behavior (likelihood of offering support) or antisocial behavior (likelihood to bully or harass). Emily has a “broken windows” theory of anonymity. She draws on George Kelling and James Wilson's 1982 argument on how in New Jersey, USA, the police worked from an assumption that if a window in a building is broken and goes unrepaired, it's a signal that no one cares, and more windows will be broken as a result. Once the sense of mutual regard is lowered, people are more likely to continue vandalizing the
neighborhood. Online, a similar connection can be argued to exist. Whether anonymous or not, people look at existing posts and comments for cues regarding what is allowed in a particular online space and behave accordingly. It's not simply a matter of anonymous people being up to no good: platform design and moderation has a lot to do with what kinds of behaviors are allowed, and thrive, on social media (we will talk about it in detail in Chapter 2). Overall then, a blanket diagnosis of everything on the internet or social media being public is erroneous.
Further, many scholars have asked whether the internet as a whole, or specific social media platforms, are social arenas where members of the public engage in diverse debates on issues that are relevant to them, which is what the German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas (1989) would have defined as a public sphere. 9
Most social media sites, apps, and platforms are built to make it easier for people to participate in conversations, gain attention, and be seen, so social media certainly has the potential to be something akin to a public sphere, or at least a set of partially overlapping public discussion spaces. 10
This, in turn, invites the question about whether the internet is, or should be, a public good; whether we need a public service social media; and concurrently, what social media is, or should be, from the perspective of sexual citizenship. The latter is a broad concept, but often used to discuss people's rights to sexual expression as well as how citizen rights are granted or denied to various
groups of people, for example, can two people of the same sex marry each other, can three adults form a legal family, etc. If social media is central for debate and opinion formation, it is important to ask whether (and to whom) it allows discussions of sex.
However, social media is increasingly platformized and concentrated into the hands of a few huge corporations. 11
This constrains the possible public debates. Platforms and apps are built to efficiently generate, datafy, streamline, and repackage human attention, to the extent that social media is now often called an attention economy, wherein value is assigned by capacity of attracting attention. What kinds of sex the attention economy foregrounds, and what the implications of it are from the perspective of public opinion on sex and social media, introduces our third and final intersection – between sex and the internet.
The Internet and Sex
Where sex overlaps with the internet, we find presumptions about how the internet is used for or should be used for sex, and what the role of sex is in the development of the internet. “Porn made the internet” is probably a statement that most everyone has heard. 12
In fact, when Emily's American, male, 45–55-year-old research participant Aborigen was arguing that social media is letting people down when it
comes to sex, he brought up the very idea:
I do not believe social media is doing enough to support mature conversations on sex; I believe they are censoring these discussions and persecuting those who deal in it […] it's transparently motivated by money, which is paradoxical because everyone knows porn built the internet.
But how is the internet used for sex? Early scholarship of the 1990s focused on (largely) text-based cybersex practices in chatrooms and MUD games, with a special focus on identity construction and (dis)embodiment, or comprised of large-scale survey research and clinical studies on who, how, and where partakes in sex on the internet. 13
Very often, the latter studies were focused on risks. For example, in 1998 and in 2000 the American television network MSNBC ran a massive survey of nearly 10,000 and 7,000 respondents, respectively, to study how risky online sexual activities are, and how men and women (the latter made up only 15% of respondents) partake in them (Cooper, Delmonico, Griffin-Shelley, & Mathy, 2004). Among other things, this study found that anonymity was conceived to be the biggest benefit of using the internet for sexual activities. The potential for anonymity continued to emerge as the key in people's readiness to use the internet for flirting, seeking, or keeping in contact with partners, reading erotica, viewing pornography, checking out sex ads, buying sex products, seeking support in sexual issues, seeking information, or having cybersex in studies conducted throughout the 2000s. Anonymous and pseudonymous participation was credited with creating less judgmental spaces, inviting experimentation, and diversifying people's perceptions of sex. Reviewing research conducted between
1993 and 2009, German media psychologist Nicola Döring (2009) highlighted six central areas of online sexuality – pornography, sex shops, sex work, sexual education, sex contacts, and sexual subcultures. These findings describe a large swathe of networked sex to this day, although from the last decade we'd need to add mobile, visual, and geolocative sexual practices like sharing nudes and using hookup apps (e.g., Tinder or Grindr), and sexual self-datafication accomplished via tracking apps.
Sexual behavior and public behavior, as we discussed above, are both heavily regulated by norms and morals, so while a glitzy, commercial, celebrity oriented version of sex talk is seemingly everywhere, most people feel the need to keep their own sexual practices private, and find it difficult to discuss personal issues, questions, or desires even within intimate relationships. Somewhat paradoxically, the internet, even if partially public according to many, has made people feel like they can bring their own real, lived, personal sex into the open with less fear. As Katie, Kat's research participants commented:
So many of us have interests that are taboo or at least considered private, things you might not share with all of your friends or colleagues. Tumblr for me has provided a way to really feel like I'm not alone. To assure me that there are many many many others out there who are interested in the things that I thought made me abnormal or strange.
The internet, primarily because of the option of anonymous or pseudonymous use, but also because of the multiplicity of different spaces, has quite profoundly changed the nature, makeup, and diversity of publi...