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Cyborgasms – Concluding Travelogue 3

“The fashionable ideology that ‘artificial’ lacks the inherent goodness of ‘natural’ is an appealing, but hopelessly simplistic notion of the intellectually chic. Artifice is the result of a deliberate intent to make. Nature also ‘makes’ things…” – Syd Mead

Language, gender, ethics and social rituals of ‘real life’ – all appear to be ‘natural’, but are in fact ‘artificial’ – constructed by a society’s ideology and discourse, in a specific historical situation. These self-referencing systems of symbols are at once liberating (for some) and constraining (for others). Fundamental changes in artifice/technology are capable of transforming this landscape, liberating those who were once constrained. Those who were once marginalized now find themselves privileged. The ‘margins’ are thus ‘folded back to the center’. But this practice creates new margins.  In turn, some other people are marginalized.

That is my conclusion after three weeks of exploring the phenomenon of the use of the internet for sexual interaction.

In the modern society, norms in courtship rituals are defined by the commercial media. For those who are not ideal consumers – such as obese teens who do not fit mass-produced clothing, isolated individuals who do not belong to predefined subcultures, desperate  adults who have lost the ability to communicate – these rituals sometimes become impossible to negotiate. “How does Web 2.0 change these norms?” I asked.

Reality

The answers were surprising, as I became a regular reader and contributor to the ‘Casual Encounters‘ section of the free classified ads website Criagslist. From Jane Austin’s protagonists to veiled women of my third-world country, gender-role constraints make women focus whatever little power they have in courtship rituals for social mobility. On Craigslist this power becomes subversive.

“My body looks like a 51 year old fat womans body, like it should,” says one woman. She has no qualms about her looks and age and is incredibly honest about it. In fact she uses them as a source of power that she can exercise on a young boy, “and if he can hold my interest out of bed, I will keep him”. Earlier in the ad, she says: “I am… looking to have a sex partner that is a White or Latino male ONLY, either 18 or 19 years of age ONLY, and must have NYS ID to prove it.” Seeking an ID is an act associated with authority, especially the police, and is the ultimate expression of who is in control here. While she might feel marginalized  because of her age, skin color and body type in the meatspace, she is certainly in control on the web. Such women, my experiments show, have a sizeable fan following.

  • Ads by mature women looking for younger guys were the most successful of all the types I posted. On the average, they received 30 responses in the first hour after posting.

    "I am a classic BBW and I love my body..."

  • BBWs were surprisingly the second most popular, with 26 responses in the first hour. These ads did not include pictures and were firm, controlling and non-descriptive. Almost all men complied with the demand for a picture in the first email. This is significant because women with higher than average weight are portrayed as unattractive, and weight is a major concern with most women.
  • Straight white female under 30, without specifying a body type, followed closely behind with an average 25 responses in the first hour.
  • Ads for straight African American women without no specific body type only received 14 responses. While this is substantially lower than other women and implies racial biases, it is significant in terms of gender, as no ad by any straight black male got any response at all.
  • Young white girls looking for mature men, although conforming the gender-role norms, received a strikingly low response of only 7 in the first hour after posting.

Men, it appears, need major PR boost. Responding to female ads, a large number of men would send pictures of only their genitals either out of privacy concerns or because of a desperate attempt at re-gaining the lost authority that they have in ‘real life’ only because of their genitals. “So what’s the secret to getting some tail on CL?” asks a user posting in the ‘w4m’ category. “All I get is spam, dudes and working girls. what am I doing wrong?” the user asks. “If you can’t tell by now I am a MALE.” Maybe that is all you’re doing wrong, I said. Being a male. While it may be useful to be a male in the meatspace, in the virtual public space of Craigslist personals, it is apparently a major disadvantage. Women make the choice and they are in control.

  • Ads by straight white males received only 6 responses on the average in the first hour. But most of them were concealed ads for dating sites and even some prostitutes (who understand that men are ready to go the ‘real-life’ way and spend money for sex). Occasionally, gay men responded too. The average number of actual responses in the first hour was: 0.33!
  • Young males looking for older women received one response in the first hour, excluding spam
  • Large males, African American males, and older males looking for younger girls received no responses other than spam.

Queers received fewer replies than women, but more than men.

  • Men looking for men and women looking for women received an average of three responses each in the first hour. Lesbian ads received the most superior responses, they were respectful, description was precise, and included face shots.
  • Transsexuals and cross-dresses looking for other people like them received two responses in the first hour, with pictures and contact details.
  • Transsexuals and cross-dressers looking for men received four responses on the average, in the first hour after posting.

The number of responses received by queers is very manageable, compared with those received by women, and significantly higher than those received by men. I look at these results not in terms of how many people write back to queers, but in terms of their ability in the first place to reach out to an audience that might not be possible without Craigslist. Overall, I think Craigslist is the most workable for queers. “I know exactly what I want tonight,” said one woman responding to a lesbian ad. “And I could use the company as well.”

Reality 2.0

Like gender, the cyberspace is a social construct. It is at once a fiction and a lived social reality. Part of my research was to go out in the 3D virtual world of IMVU and live this reality in order to observe, talk about and participate in its sexual rituals. I played as many roles as I could, limited only by my imagination and time. I also attended a virtual wedding, bought and traded slaves, helped a woman with childbirth, flew naked with a fairy like me, and got abducted and sexually tortured by a dominatrix.

As a site of escape and fantasy, the audience that IMVU attracts the most is girls aged 18 to 25. For a large number of these girls, especially from countries where their social life is more constrained, IMVU is the exclusive space for intimacy and sexual activity. For others, it is a matter of choice.

  • Cyber sex risk-free. There is no risk of disease, no liability and no social consequences.
  • It takes much less effort and resources to connect to a person like yourself in a virtual world than in real life.
  • It is anonymous and thus liberating in terms of what you can say and how you can say it.

“Where else can a girl from India fulfill her bondage fantasies?” one user remarked. “It is like reading a comic book,” said a male user. “Only better because you can participate and be someone.”

Contemplating over an appletini at a strip club for cats

The meaningfulness of their sexuality and multiple identities that form their whole selves are tied exclusively to the web – where they play not only human roles, but become cats, foxes, fairies, or monsters, blurring the boundaries between humans, machines and animals. They are cyborgs.

But as the IMVU society is getting more established, these users taking their fantasies more seriously. They take their multiple identities as parts of themselves and owning up to virtuo-social responsibilities. People now have relationships online. Although they have never met or seen their partner outside of IMVU, men do not cheat on their virtual girlfriends. If they do, “that is SO real life”. Girls, like real life, go on to get married with loyal and caring men, and have children. Others make single men spend virtual currency on them by being strippers and prostitutes.

The virtual currency can be bought with real money, and thus like many of the ‘real life’ public spaces of the modern society, commerce seems to be eroding into IMVU as well, and certain fetishised goods become symbols of authority that mean nothing in themselves but are possessed because they invest power in whoever owns them.

But despite these tendencies, women seem to generally control these courtship  and sex rituals. Both the power that women can exercise in choosing a partner and the money as the last resort for men to gain some authority are remarkably similar themes in my experiments with both Craigslist and IMVU.

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7 Comments

  1. HoniehLayla 15:24, Mar 9th, 10

    H-

    I enjoyed reading your blog post, especially the inside reporting you did with the different characters your chose.

    As far as your research in the world of craigs list is concerned, I am stunned that there are generally more women on their and that they are taking on the commanding role.

    Also, in your virtual world your demographic was younger women. Do you know where these women may be located? I can’t help to think that many of them will not be in the United States.

    Your point about commerce was also dead ON. It is true, that this may be a virutal reality for some, but when the factor of money comes in, the lines tend to bleed when referring to artificial & natural.

    Awesome blog!

  2. Harris 16:11, Mar 9th, 10

    Thanks H2 :)
    There are far more men on Craigslist than women, that’s especially evident from the number of responses they get. Perhaps that contributes to more authority for women, because they have the power of choice. But that is certainly not the only factor. There are more women on IMVU than men – in fact two women for every man – but they still exercise authority and control, mostly responding to compliance with social or sexual favors.
    Demographic data on where users belong is not published, but from my own experience it looked like most users were from the US. But depending on what time I logged on at, I saw people from all over the world, the Middle East, Indians are a growing community, from the far east, some from Japan, pretty much from everywhere.

    What we see as ‘natural’, I believe, was also constructed in a historical situation and is therefore artificial. This new artificiality only enhances the old one – it retains some traits and reverses some others based on cracks that were already present. “The lines tend to bleed” :)

  3. Ryan 13:21, Mar 10th, 10

    As sad as this topic is for me, I enjoyed reading your conclusions and how you really analyzed the language used and the responses along with the different categorical make ups e.g. race, gender, age, etc. of the users trying to get responses.

    I think you are right to exclaim that the women hold more of the power and authority in this case and how men try to reestablish their power and authority through pictures of their genitals. I think these conclusions that you make point to deeper levels of insecurities and desires by both those who are marginalized and lonely who seek these encounters through Craigslist.

    As far as the IMVU thing, I don’t even know what to think.

    Great job though. I’m very curious to what your next topic will be after the first two… spreading lies on the web, researching casual encounter ads on Craiglist

  4. mushon 01:43, Mar 16th, 10

    This is a very interesting post Harris. I think you have some very interesting ideas there. I will start with my critique and continue to my reflections.

    I really like your hands on investigative researches into the margins of what society finds accepted and moral and how these margins are deepened and altered in online space. I do think though that you need to more prominently declare that this is far from being an emperic or professional survey. It is an exploratory research that generate non-representative examples that may conjure some initial thoughts towards a deeper research. It is enough for a blogpost, not enough for a more conclusive academic research. Meaning, it’s great in the context of this class, maybe less so in other contexts but I think this aspect of your researches should be acknowledged in your posts.

    The other issue I had with your writing is that it attempted to answer too much. I feel like Craigslist is one topic while IMUV is a total other topic. one way for them to be better connected is through your findings. If the post was less driven by your research stats and more about your research conclusions it could have probably better supported your writing.

    Now to the part where I muse on about the ideas you brought forward. I think your analysis of man sending pictures of their(?) genitals is weirdly poetic. I’m completely with you on the power of the image attempting to represent/replace the power of the ritualistic display of sexual organs. There’s something primal about it – away from the policing eyes of sexually repressing culture. I think this could definitely be challenged through the lens of evolutionary psychology. What’s new here is woman’s stronger hand, possibly protected by the telematic aspect of the (initial) engagement, the woman does indeed gain the control that she might have lost through the way the threat of rape and violence shaped male/female relationships for millions of years. Society have built systems of norms, laws and punishment to control and moderate sexual behavior and expression. This have helped to make sexual relationships less violent and oppressive and have allowed more development towards sexual equality. But to a large degree oppression was thought by repression. Religion and conservatism had and still has a great roll in this field, but so does certain types of feminism that take issues with degradating representation of women.
    While a lot of the debate around the role of sex online has been fixated about porn and the consumption of audiovisual representations, what seem to emerge here is a new type of social exchange. There were concerns that the porn industry, the absolute pioneer of Internet technologies and use might be loosing the game when it comes to web2.0 since there are less interests for the users to create “user generated content” and create authentic public sexuality (to be commodified through UGC platforms). But the social networking aspect is maintained even if the networks are less controlled. I would argue that Shirky’s distinction between the “filter, then publish” and “publish, then filter” approaches holds water here. When a woman can publish her sexuality without the danger of the social implications on one hand and the danger of sexual violence on the other, a whole new arena is opened within this very complex social field. When her initial act of public sexual offering generates numerous counter offers, she can filter for the partners she would be interested in like your first example illustrated.

    This is worth further investigation, possibly even a PhD dissertation ;)    

  5. Harris 10:34, Mar 16th, 10

    Dear Mushon,
    “Non-representative examples” is the keyword here. There is a debate in sociology around whether it is possible to statistically formulate human behavior. I like to believe that it is not. And since the tone of these travelogues was set by The Trap, I just assumed it was a given instead of having mentioned it clearly :)

    Let me explain my approach: For example, can statistics explain a wink? You can wink at me to signal a conspiracy against a third participant of our discussion. But he can catch you winking and then laugh, winking at you to parody what you did. And I can seem to wink but it might be just a twitch. Can statistics differentiate between these winks?

    They cannot. They can also not differentiate between an automated craigslist response – by a bot in search of a dating site sale, a prostitute in search of a client, and a woman in search of a sexual encounter.

    For me, a primary advantage of embedding myself in a cultural situation on the web is that I can differentiate between the winks and give them a meaning in a cultural context, albeit not an ‘objective’ one.

    This is Clifford Geertz’s methodology of Thick Description – which he says is not “an experimental science in search of law” but “an interpretive one in search of meaning”.

    As a semiotic concept, “culture is not a power – something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can causally be attributed”, Geertz believed, but a context in which individuals give meanings to their experiences.

    My job in these travelogues, I believe, was not that of a “cipher clerk” in the words of Geertz, but of a literary critic. I see social media situations as texts whose meaning I construct. “A manuscript — foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries,” not as written words, but in the form of transient behavior.

    I think this is also what you did in the second part of your response.

    I did try to imply these points in my posts and in response to some of the comments but did not clearly name Thick Description as my methodology. Now I think I should have. I also think I can go over some text from my concluding posts to elaborate my concept of social media situations as texts.

    > Craigslist is one topic while IMUV is a total
    > other topic. one way for them to be better
    > connected is through your findings. If the post
    > was less driven by your research stats and more
    > about your research conclusions it could have
    > probably better supported your writing.

    Agreed, 100 percent.

  6. Harris 10:49, Mar 16th, 10

    And honestly Mushon, some of the results on Criagslist were so surprising and unbelievable to me that I forced myself to be statistically more appropriate and try everything three times over – despite Criagslist’s two posts in 48 hours and one phone number per account rules.

    This is not one of the primary fields I intended to work in, but how this has turned out makes me want to continue exploring this. I am much more curious now than I was when I began.

    And in that way, yes it was “an exploratory research that generate non-representative examples that may conjure some initial thoughts towards a deeper research”.

    If someone comes across this online and wants to consider it for a PhD thesis, I will be delighted if they email me their dissertation :)

  7. mushon 03:03, Mar 18th, 10

    & CC me too :)