I’d expected Violet Blue‘s talk at ETech to be packed. After all, she’s a sex blogger, a professional sex educator, a columnist for the SF Chronicle, and her talk was on the topic of “Sexual Identity Online”. Perhaps it says something about the ETech crowd that competing talks on database structures were as well attended.
This might have been for the best, as Blue’s talk was much more provocative and political than it was tittilating. In essence, it was an extended discourse on the impossibility of online anonymity and the danger of believing that discourse about sex can be anonymous.
She began with an exploration of fetishes, which she defined as “any object, manner of dress, predictament that offers a sexual charge for the participant.” What’s challenging about fetish online is that many fetishes encourage “unintentional participation”. She offers the example of a Flickr group for people with a fetish for seat belts or purse straps that cross between a woman’s breasts – most of the women in this photostream had no idea they were included in this collection as objects of desire. This gets even more provocative as a concept when she shows a collection designed to appeal to people with a fetish for bald women. Some of the women are leukemia patients and certainly hadn’t intended for their images to be objects for desire.
Blue argues that it’s basically impossible not to be sexualized online. “Just join Facebook with a female name and you’ll find yourself getting sexual offers immediately.” Obviously, this comes with the territory when you operate a sex blog. “Why do we sex blog? Because we want to, because we like the feeling, because we’re in love. Because it’s fun. Because we want to help others with expressions of healthy sexuality, help people going through tough problems.” But it can be a real problem to write about sexual experiences when your lovers don’t want to be as public as you do. “Unless we can be truly anonymous, we have to ask our lovers first.” This is a very difficult negotiation, as it crosses all sorts of potentially hurtful public/private lines.
Much of Blue’s talk focuses on trolling. As a columnist on sexual matters for the San Francisco chronicle, she recieves a lot of anonymous attacks online. She thinks about how her sexual identity can either foil or feed the trolls. “My feeling is that playing victim is feeding them, while being ourselves is changing the culture one blogpost at a time.” She found the level of animosity to her Chronicle columns difficult “until the fairy godmothers showed up.” A group mostly of gay men, they sprang to her defense, accusing the trolls of using sockpuppet accounts and generally making fun of them. “The trolls thought they were dropping bombs, but they were pathetic.”
“Anyone managing a social networking website should either have some history with harassment or know someone who’s dealt with online or offline harassment.” Trolls often take advantage of sites where there’s a “trigger-happy profile deletion policy”, destroying the online identity of their victims by reporting them for terms of service violations. Blue specializes in documenting and tracking down these trolls, and reminds us about real world safety as well. “The last time I got a restraining order, the officer said, ‘You ought to get a gun too.’ I already had one.”
She believes we shouldn’t hide online. “Having your identity is your power – that’s why they want to take it away from you.” She maintains files on each troll she’s encountered, and has contributed to wikis that try to document trolling. California now considers online activity to be police evidence in making a harrassment case. She urges you to track your trolls – “they’re easy to find.”
Unfortunately, lots of people who think they’re anonymous can be easy to find online. She tells us about “the Craigslist experiment.” A troll – RFJason – took an ad from Craigslist in which a woman solicited fulfillment of an intense BDSM fantasy, and posted it on Craiglist in another city. He rapidly got over 100 responses, some of which included photos of faces and private parts, and he published all the responses on the Internet, including contact info. The experiment ruined several people’s lives, costing some people relationships and jobs. “The people who responded didn’t make a correct risk assessment in answering that ad.”
Posting an ad like the Craigslist one, she tells us, might be a form of online exhibitionism, pure fantasy. “Posting an ad like the craigslist one might be a lifeline for the person who posted it.” But “ust because someone has a fantasy doesn’t mean they want it to come true in real life.” It’s important to remember this in systems like Second Life as well – people might be engaging in sexual roleplay wearing avatars that don’t share their own gender – this isn’t neccesarily a way of engaging in homosexual impulses – it’s something more complicated… and it can be very disturbing for those attached to having cybersex with people who are the gender they’ve portrayed themselves to be. “Guaranteed gender matters to some – certainly not to all.”
Some bloggers have managed to write about their sex lives and remain anonymous – it requires being very, very careful. She lists Eros blogas an author who has protected her identity for several years. “Girl With a One Track Mind” wasn’t so lucky. She blogged as “Abby Lee” and documented her sexual experiences, eventually publishing a book based on the blog. She was outed in the UK tabloids three days after publishing the book. In her real identity, Zoe Margolis, she lost her job in the film industry, wasn’t made rich by the book, and had the embarrasing experience of having her ex-lovers read precisely what she thought of them.
“We should be participants, never victims. That’s me. I know that to be online is to be sexualized.” In her sex counseling, she talks about “safer sex” – sex is never 100% safe. People make poor choices, but we can educate them to the risks and help them make better ones.
So Blue uses her real name and talks about her blogging policy with all lovers. She now no longer will date people who want their sexual experiences to be kept out of the blog. “My events and experiences are always real. I own who I am. My lovers are real.”
She outlines some of the perils of sex blogging – her article on Wikipedia is vandalized regularly, and she’s received three death threats since she began writing for the Chronicle – all of which she’s posted on her site. The upside – she gets a lot of mail from people who thank her for publishing online, for speaking honestly and frankly about these matters.
Her talk was a bit staged and prepared for my taste, but hey, I suspect that if I stood in front of 200 people and talked about my sex life, I’d have some very careful notes as well. I can’t chalenge her assertions about the sexualization of online life, much as I’d like to – I’m not female, don’t write about sex, and there doesn’t appear to be a widespread fetish for balding, overweight geeks who write about foreign policy. But I would offer a mild caution on the subject of online anonymity. It’s not impossible to be anonymous online – it’s just very difficult to do it right. There are good reasons to try to be completely anonymous online, many of them non-sexual, but it’s a provocative challenge to think about whether one really needs to be hidden when people like Blue are this out in public.