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:
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).
back to key concepts