Kibby, M and Costello, B  (2001)  'Between the Image and the Act: Interactive Sex Entertainment on the Internet', in Sexualities, Vol 4  (3): 353 - 69.

The consumption of sexual images is a major leisure activity. It may also have effects on attitudes such as those involved in gender relations. A lot of sexual representations on the Net are no different from conventional images in magazines or videos, but there are some interactive sites which are different, and maybe more challenging and liberating.

Video conferencing software (CU-SeeMe) means that people can receive and transmit video images of themselves as in conference calls. The technology was designed for educational and business purposes, but there are now groups that meet to 'interact erotically' (355) -- 112 active sites in 2000, according to one source. Participants enter various rooms which may be public, or specialist and more private. Some sites insist that all participants display live video of themselves, while others permit lurkers.

The two researchers did a participant observation study, participating in various sites, making notes of impressions, and then drawing up  'a checklist of significant aspects of the interactions' which was then used to do a more structured study (355). Particular interests were 'gender coded behaviours... and behaviours attributable to the online environment' (356). All the chosen sites involved heterosexual interaction. Participants' details were kept confidential, and the researchers practised partial disclosure of their role.

Video conferencing permits a particular kind of sex entertainment, which may not be as common as the more usual image browsing or adult chat rooms. In particular, it permits a new relation between presence and absence, and the image and the act. All pornography involves imagery which substitutes for a real person, but real persons are rarely actually contacted, leaving the pleasures solely as a matter of fantasy -- and consumption. Photographic imagery played an important part in the early emergence of the pornography industry -- as technology became important, so sex entertainment became more dominated by commodity forms. As with other commodities, consumers are also subjected to a set of connected values and ideologies.

Feminist debates usually take one side or other of this ambiguous relation between image and act. Dworkin sees the construction of pornographic images as an act, as violent as any other. Other feminists emphasise the images that pornography presents, their stereotyped views, their domination by male interests and so on. Both agree that pornography exploits women and also 'prescribes a very narrowly defined masculine sexuality' (358). Interactive video sex entertainment offers a possibility to break from these conventions -- it  'has the potential to be liberating' (359).

Video conferencing can just offer pornographic images for consumption, but there are other possibilities, to present and consume images and acts. As a result, non-commercial participation  'cannot so easily be problematised as an act of violence or an exploitative image' (359). In particular, it offers a chance to break conventional divisions:
  • Producers and consumers are not tightly demarcated. There is a possibility for the  'mutual exchange of participatory pleasures' (359). This permits self-representation and a more 'active relationship with the erotic object', the possibility of producing pornographic texts and thus sexual identities  (360). In particular, women can be included as both producers and consumers, in spaces which are 'physically safe, free from censure, and protected from commercial exploitation' (360) [an extract from the chat involved has a woman assertively controlling male displays]. It is males that seem to be at a disadvantage, since there are no common conventions to guide their displays, except homoerotic ones --  'There is no style of men's sock equivalent to the fishnet stocking' (361). As a result, most male displays involve  'a close-up shot of their genitals... "crotch cam"' (361): participants often see this as 'a pejorative term' (361). Subject and object interchange, since one can see oneself as well as others on screen. People can frame their own bodies in their own ways, but they often accept advice from other participants on how to stage the show. This means that the classic voyeur relationship has to be rethought -- it seems to be combined with exhibitionism and narcissism as well. Overall,  'hegemonic gender relations are still enacted in some performances... [but]... this dislocation is creating the space where new relationships might be explored and practised' (362).
  • The body is both present and absent. Video technology presents unconventional representations, leaving a space 'for imagination and fantasy'  (362). Participants can conceal and reveal parts of their body. Poor quality imagery means that the pictures still need to be decoded and interpreted. Realism becomes less important than in text-based net sex, although participants still like to test to see if videos are life or not. Nevertheless there is a different relationship between fantasy and reality.
  • Identities still rely upon typed chat, but there seems to be much less deliberate identity performance compared to  'text-based fantasy worlds' (364). It is possible to gain an illusion of intimacy, that is that one is getting to know the other participants really well. Participants are concerned for authenticity [and think they're able to establish it, it seems]. Adult video conferencing often contains ordinary everyday text conversation accompanying erotic images. Backgrounds often consist of familiar domestic settings, for example or even  'the talk of children' (364) [could be rather tacky?]. Displayed bodies are also ordinary, compared to the perfect bodies in other types of pornography. Here, it is not perfection as such but an interesting 'show', that seems to attract viewers. This could be good news for those who experience low self-esteem as a result of viewing conventional pornography  [as Shaw suggests].

There is even a way of involving the sense of touch. This was part of the appeal of old photographic technologies in pornography, where one turned the handle of a machine to make a series of still images flick rapidly ['What the Butler Saw' is the generic name given to these old-fashioned seaside entertainments in Britain]. Here, participants also have to touch their machines -- keyboards, mice, cameras -- and display their own bodies. The pleasure lies in the  'spectator's simultaneous attraction to and dread of cyborg existence' (365). This also permit subjects to become objects, the viewer to become viewed. As a result, the experience becomes an encounter with oneself [as in Turkles' arguments that we learn about ourselves by adopting phoney identities on the Web]. The screen becomes a mirror as much as a window -- because your own image is also available alongside the images of others [some more examples of exchanges illustrate the pleasures of controlling the shows of others, and responding with a show of your own -- 366].

Overall,  'the self becomes both subject and object undermining traditional barriers between producer, performers and consumers in sex entertainment' (366). Images become fused with acts. Gender roles can be weakened. New definitions of sexuality and sex entertainment seem to be emerging. However, it is true that many participants also '"bring with them preformulated cultural scripts"  (O'Brien, 1999)' (366). Patriarchal culture still has an influence, as does experience of sexuality beforehand. However, at least a space has appeared which permits experiments and play, participation 'in the production of sexual representations of themselves and others' (367). The technology destabilises pornographic commodities. At least it provides a  'hope for a future where the categories and boundaries of sexuality are a little less inexorably structured, and sex entertainment is less rigorously a gendered leisure activity' (367).

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