Women, Sexuality and the Internet

By Ann Hirsch

“The new economy relies on the assumption that individuality can be recovered from mass society through the process of individuation via customization… Crucially, this participation comes about largely through the surveillance process—hence the equation of pervasive monitoring with creativity and self-expression that is one of the hallmarks of the current generation.“

-Mark Andrejevic: Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, 2004.

The popular embrace of surveillance presents a dilemma particularly for women, who have a history of problematic visual representation.  We are living in an era in which we are more likely than not to be publicly represented in some manner. Through self broadcasting over the internet, the notion that female representation could change to offer a less objectified picture becomes a more viable option. However, the disciplinary control of surveillance surfaces in these democratic new media platforms. The women who self-represent often portray the same conventions of television, films, and magazines. The women watching those self-produced broadcasts in turn imitate those imitations, illustrating a cycle of identification and internalization of stereotypes, rather than subversion.

Additionally, places for women to occupy on the internet are limited. In certain areas, we are told “tits or GTFO”. While in others we must not express our sexuality for fear of seeming like a “camwhore”. We want to after all, be taken seriously. For a woman to be taken seriously, she cannot be seen as wanting sex or asking for sexual attention.

There is not much space on the internet to express ourselves sexually without avoiding extreme objectification. The goal is to create instances which begin to transcend this problem.

Why is it that sexuality must still exist separate from intellect? One who exerts his or herself in an overly sexual manner is rarely taken seriously. Within normative culture, the sexual mindset and the intellect operate in two different realms. We can admit we are both sexual and intellectual beings, but never at the same time. We know this separation intrinsically, which is why we have come up with phrases such as “he was only thinking with his dick”. But rather than seeing them as two disparate modes of thinking or operation, they should be thought of holistically. Our brain and our genitalia operate together to help form our sense of self.

The internet is a place where for the first time (more or less) individuals are able to create imagery of sexuality in their own image and disseminate these images widely. We are also able to be part of communities who share our sexual interests without causing shame. The one-to-many hierarchy of traditional media no longer has to be the arbiter of normative sexuality, but can be figured on an individual level. Unfortunately, though, at the moment, as a collective force, we are currently struggling to create our own images while we remain slaves to the tropes of older models.

The internet did not create the patriarchal system that objectifies and humiliates sexual women but it certainly has had the ability to magnify it to the millionth degree. Pornography—a genre built on female domination and exploitation—is bigger than ever.  Women attempting to create their imagery anew are drowned out by pornography that asserts women are objects.

However, while the internet has simultaneously intensified our existing problems, it has, as mentioned, provided us with the medium to fight back. My hope is that more women will take up a form they feel comfortable in, whether it be blogging, vlogging, producing, updating, posting, etc and express themselves in a manner they feel is demonstrative of their whole person.