Young, R (2002) 'Sexuality and the Internet', in Science as Culture, Vol 11, 2: 215 - 233.
[The background to this is an attempt to apply Freudian theory to understand the social relations at work on the internet, including those involving sexuality or intimacy].
Orthodox freudianism sees the libido as the life force, responsible for all significant activity. However, object relations are now seen as more important: 'relations with the good and bad aspects of the mother and other important figures and of part objects', with 'relations with objects, rather than the expression of instincts, as the basic preoccupation of psychoanalytic thinking and clinical work' (216). This approach makes sex and sexuality much less important: 'object relations determine libido' (216). As a result, 'we relate to others as part or whole objects... Our object relations in our inner worlds determine how we experience the world and how we behave' (216).
Some examples of patients' use of the Web are provided. One prefers to masturbate while visiting spanking websites rather than make love to his female companion [his family background apparently explains his inability to develop intimate relations]. This is a fetishism [which, I recall, is explained by Freud as only being able to relate to a particular aspects of a person -- this is where object relations come in?]. For this person, 'Internet sex is the fantasy alternative to real intimacy. It is his defence against real relationships' (218). The inner object relations derived from his family background 'determine his libidinal choices' (219). Another patient preferred to watch internet videos of lesbian activity -- 'Neither his nor anyone else's penis was at risk' (219).
The importance of pornographic sites can be seen by referring to the number of hits on particular websites [using a service called WebSide Story Top 1000]. The University of Sheffield Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies averaged 763 hits a day [about half of what this site gets!], which makes it 'a successful site as academic sites go' (219). However, 'all the top hundred porn sides have over 20,000 hits per day' (220). Many of them feature fetishisms. They offer what Marcuse would call '"repressive desublimation" whereby we are allowed to de-repress taboo forms of sexuality... [but only]... in an alienated and repressive way' (220). Freud did warn us that perversion should not be used as a form of reproach, however, since human beings like to pursue variations in sexual activity. Internet pornography is commercially successful, perhaps because 'It is as essentially private as masturbation itself' (221). These contacts represent 'a very large number of part-object relations which are, by definition, far from wholesome' (221).
The internet is by no means always impersonal. E-mails can be extremely intimate, probably because they can be written quickly, informally and dispatched on an impulse. 'It is almost as if it is all occurring in the head. There is no physical artefact outside the screen' (222). In Freudian terms, sending an e-mail avoids the 'separation anxiety... of a real world action' (222). Complete strangers write revealing e-mails. Academics seem particularly likely to co-operate with each other and with students via e-mail. E-groups are easy to form and take part in. The Net 'is a perfect space for polemics', leading to flame wars or frequent interchanges' (223). It is also possible to get genuinely fruitful exchanges important if you 'care about teaching' (224). The Net is therefore erotic in the sense of serving a life force, and it can be 'extraordinarily intimate' (224). One patient is painfully shy in normal life but 'positively gregarious on the Net' (224).
Areas of the net such as MUDs and MOOs enable interaction with other people and with 'cyber-architecture' (225). Turkle has talked about how these facilities can help to develop identity via experimentation [a number of Turkle's examples are provided on page 226, including the one about a disabled woman who played a disabled woman in a MUD and thus learned how to react self-confidently]. However, using Freudian notions of object relations, these interactions can still only be based on 'part-object relations'. This can enable useful special interests, where people interact only because they share one aspect of their identity -- victims of city bombings, for example. However interactions on the same basis can also exist between right-wing militias or paedophiles.
Physicality, physical presence, can help to limit part-object relations, and it also discourages the belief in omniscience, even omnipotence (227). Turkle is right to suggest that physicality does not define the real self, but Freudian theory insists that 'we... [cannot]... settle for part-object relations' (227). Some experiments with identity are 'evasive, escapist and sometimes perverse' (227). Turkle needs to understand the complexity of sexuality [and here, Young insists that the oedipal relationship in real life is crucial -- maybe he is hinting that other identities gained subsequently can never be as profound?]. Turkle is optimistic about the possibilities of part-object relations and their experimental quality, but this quality must be limited by the 'existing object relations' [provided during upbringing] (228). Some people can use the possibilities to 'foster growth', while others might use the opportunity to develop 'vengeful and destructive feelings' in secret (228). [Earlier,Young wants to see pornography on the Web as offering an ideal chance for these fetishised relations]. There is no difference here between representations on the Net and those available already.
[An account of how the Web developed follows, 228 - 9]. There are now many 'imaginative possibilities, serving both conscious fantasies and unconscious fantasies... [offering a chance to communicate with]... low personal risk, low exposure, low commitment' (229).
There is a regular statistical survey of internet users which has generated some interesting data [much of it summarised 229 - 30. No details of sources etc are provided though! Sheffield Uni's?]. Most users are young and male, predominantly heterosexual, with fairly limited sexual experience. Large proportions seemed to approve of sexual activities including 'threesomes, S&M, orgies... [and even, but decreasingly] voyeurism, heavy anal sex, bestiality' (230). 40 per cent see the Net 'as a benign outlet for sexual frustration. 29 per cent have masturbated while online. 45 per cent believe the Net should be completely open.
Overall, 'sex on the Net is sexy to some and decidedly not so for others' (230), but it is undoubtedly growing and permanent. It is not clear whether it will lead to constructive human relations or not. Earlier technology, such as movable type, or the ability to reproduce works of art, tended to reduce 'reflection... authentic communication... hope for trust and solidarity' (231) [citing Benjamin]. On balance, the technology may 'give more good than bad results' (231).
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