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A Web of Sex & Power

Tech & Innovation | March 2, 2015

The Internet has twisted the politics of sexual power. There is a space for every desire and every desirer. One can find judgment-free zones for just about any kink or fetish under the sun, or even just a forum to express “vanilla” sexual desire without the anxiety or weight of face-to-face, living, breathing encounters. We are granted access to those like us. We have anonymity to allow us to admit to what we want without shame, to “be ourselves” the way we only can when we don’t know our true selves at all. And we gain control over the experience; we can close out of it at any time, disappear, be someone new today, find someone new tomorrow. What’s harder to come by online is trust.

Bill placed his trust in strangers, and he placed his trust in me.

I responded to a handful of personal ads from “domestic slaves” on Craigslist. The ads are surprisingly common. Search for “slave” in the “Strictly Platonic” section of any major city and you’re bound to find a few. These men (and they are invariably men) are straightforward in their intent: they just want to do your chores and maybe be humiliated by you in the process. A number of them will even pay you for the honor—the going rate is about $125 per day. Bill was the only person to return my email asking for an interview.

He felt that he couldn’t tell the people he knew personally about this kink—people with whom he might share every other little secret he had. But he would be candid with folks over the Internet who put “slave” in the subject line of their email—“Sure, ask away.”

Over the course of about 20 emails in just over a week, Bill filled me in. His prose was filled with ellipses that made his words seem hesitant, like he was skipping over the tough parts, when in reality Bill was anything but withholding. He told me I could call him Bill—actually, he told me to call him something else, but I’ve changed it here for his privacy, on the off chance he didn’t make that name up. He explains to me that he is in his mid 20s, a normal guy with his own business, who no one would expect to have these kinds of desires. And yet, Bill confessed: “I’d be lying [if I said] thinking about [women] dominating me isn’t a daily if not hourly thought.” He was looking for a woman who would order him around in exchange for the opportunity to rub her feet. He had done this kind of thing several times before, with fairly positive results. But the particulars of our interview are of less interest, even anthropologically, than you might guess. It was when Bill stopped responding to my emails that I was hooked. Suddenly, I found our roles reversed, and I felt myself under the microscope.

I never would have thought that it would be Bill who embarrassed me.

Bill had shared his sexual orientation, awkward experiences in the slave business, and so on. But he went silent when I asked: “Have you had these meet-ups while in a relationship?” I tried again a few days later, assuring him we could skip it if he’d like. His response was curt: “I’d rather not discuss those topics.” I thought back to what Bill told me the strangers he met with probably thought: “I could use help around the house and I’m curious to see who this ‘man’ is.” Had that remark been directed partially my way? Wasn’t I just curious to see who this ‘man’ was? I had wanted to understand the politics of sexual power in Bill’s experiences, but I had become suddenly aware of the power dynamic of our conversation—of interviewer versus subject—when the responses stopped coming entirely.

To be “humiliated” at the feet (ahem) of a stranger from the web was, for Bill, hot. For her to wonder “why [he’s] so fucked up” intrigued him. But to be laid bare on the page was something else. He had nothing to gain as I pried for spots of shame and juicy quotes, looking to pique the interest of my reader with a taste of the unknown, the taboo, and namely: the different from us. I stopped thinking about this Bill and started thinking about the Bills (or potential Bills) in everyone. As citizens of the Internet, we all have the potential to ask for what we want and put ourselves out, but is that privilege always entirely beneficial to those involved?

Emily Witt wrote a piece called “Are You ‘Internet Sexual?’” for Matter, detailing the often charming, often bizarre world of Chaturbate, a webcam site where at the click of a button you can watch people perform any number of sexual acts. More often than not, you’re treated to a view of someone sitting around cooking or listening to music in their underwear while they wait to hit a certain watermark of user-contributed tips. For many, the experience is empowering. One performer whom Witt spoke to explained that she has “complete control over the situation…I make my own rules, nobody’s telling me what to do.” The monetary reward is nothing that one could live off of, but it more than sweetens the pot for those who already reap the emotional benefits of control over their sexual experience, excitement from the exhibition, and participation in the community.

Protected by the two-way street of anonymity, we can be ourselves online in a way we might not be able to day-to-day. But not every stranger on the web deserves our trust. Just this year, a college student responded to a Craigslist ad offering to sell an iPhone. When he met up with the stranger on the other end, he was shot and killed by the three young men who had posted the ad. Another man used a male-for-male personal ad as blackmail last year. In Russia, an anti-gay group uses social networks to lure gay men into meeting, only to attack them and post videos of the incidents online.

But misplaced trust can be much subtler. Bill may have decided he had been wrong to trust me, that I hadn’t been merely curious, and that maybe I wanted to make him look bad. Access to a web full of people who will listen and respond to your darkest desires comes with the caveat that they may not be on your side. I’m still having trouble figuring out if I’m on Bill’s side, or rather if he would say that I am. He gave me the information I wanted to hear, and I was drunk with excitement at his sincerity—maybe I took advantage of his willingness to be forthcoming. His anonymity was likely behind his decision to share with me and just as likely behind my boldness to ask him about his sex life, relationships, and shame. The Internet as a medium always carries the potential to dehumanize the person on the other end. The world’s largest network, with all its incredible potential to tie us together, can be at times totally worthless as a tool for human-to-human communication.

It’s hard to tell if the access, anonymity, and control provided by the web empower us or make us more vulnerable than ever. To go on a kink forum, find people to talk to about something you’re into, and find out that you’re not the only one could be eye opening, but it also could lay you bare at the mercy of your audience. Bafflingly, though perhaps decreasingly with time, “the Internet” still has a dirty connotation (“She met him on the Internet!”) and as such, we use it as a space to stigmatize and marginalize non-normative desires. Thus the prevalence of online communities for all manners of “deviancy” may simply reflect a society that refuses to allow these groups space in the mainstream. In other words, maybe the Bills of the world keep their desires secret because the web lets them, and they’re suffering for it.

Of course the Internet is no longer a world separate from our “reality”; every day the two become more intertwined and less distinguishable. Memes jump out of the screen into the cultural landscape, websites become TV shows, viral stars become regular celebrities. We find people on the Internet and meet them in real life. Along this trajectory, we can pretend that certain “othered” groups ought to only open up within the confines of the Internet because they are dirty and ought to be kept separate, or we can acknowledge that it was exactly this process of “othering” that exiled those groups to the Internet in the first place and examine with an open mind the diversity of thought, and desire, that has developed there. This second option is optimistic but by no means a pipe dream. In fact, the (re-)acceptance of Internet “others” into our society feels only natural in a world where the web bleeds into our lives more with each coming day, and our lives become web-mediated. As we evolve alongside our web-enabled powers, it remains to be seen if we can minimize marginalization and anonymity-as-hiding and, instead, embrace a world—online and off-line—where we can be unafraid to be ourselves. For the sake of every Bill out there, we ought to at least try.

Image by Misako Ono.