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Work by Annalee Newitz - Archives
Illustration by Jeremy Russell
By Annalee Newitz
IT'S STILL TRUE that one of the most-searched-for phrases on places like Yahoo! or Google or whatever search service you prefer is "free porn." For a while, the phrase "MP3" surpassed it, but once again the will of the web-using masses has reasserted itself. Porn is the most popular thing to hunt for online, especially if you don't have to type in a credit card number to get it.
I've been thinking about porn a lot in the past few weeks--that is, thinking about it as a cultural phenomenon, rather than something I need to get for my, uh, personal usage. I'm still pissed off about the way Yahoo! is censoring sex-related groups on its site, but I think the company's position is far from being unusual. AOL has long censored its chat rooms and other content, although I can't tell you how many perverts I know who have hooked up in AOL chat rooms. You can always find kinky types on the family-friendly sites, but the places you find them are under the radar, subject to suspicion and deletion. Thus it is that sexual outlaws on the web are able to fuel our fantasies and ignite our metasearches, but at the same time these outlaws cannot form a stable community. When their mailing lists and websites and web rings get too big and too noticeable, often they get shut down.
When an old friend of mine decided that she wanted to get a sex change (back when she was a he), she went to the exact sort of smut-oriented chat room that Yahoo! deletes on a regular basis. There, she found community, support and somebody who was willing to do discount electrolysis. Had she not been able to find such an "adult" community online--had all the tranny-related groups been deleted due to "sex-related" content--I'm pretty sure my friend would have had a much rougher time of it than she had had already. Of course, some people probably came to this tranny chat room just to trade "hot pix of chicks with dicks." Nevertheless, it was a community. Pornography was just one part of a larger group effort to create a safe place to be openly trans and openly sexual without fear.
On the Internet, pornography and community go hand in hand, if you'll pardon my turn of phrase. People who get together to swap dirty stories end up hanging around to talk with each other about gardening and goth music. I knew a guy whose friends all used to meet on an IRC channel called "Three-way sex!" just because it was a place they all knew and it was easy to find.
When places like Yahoo! crack down on adult clubs, it makes me wonder, not without a little paranoia, if they're actually just trying to discourage people from forming communities that don't espouse mainstream values. I mean, is this really about keeping people safe from nastiness, or is it about destroying the ties between people whose ideas are different and therefore threatening? After all, what could be more disruptive to the status quo than strong community bonds between people who are willing to openly provide something--"free porn"--that everybody wants? Maybe, without censorship, Internet porn groups could become, to paraphrase John Lennon, more popular than Jesus.
I think online porn helps create community for reasons that go beyond prurient interest, and that's what freaks out conservatives, who in turn bully the ISPs and portals into sexual silence. Pornography is educational; it tells stories about human truths that we all feel but often cannot express. I know this is true because I learned about sex from pornography back when I was a horny and information-deprived teenager. But I also learned about forming human ties across great distances when I started swapping porn and sex stories with other people on BBSes (back in the day). A few of these ties turned into enduring friendships with other nonconformists, friendships which never could have come about had I not been searching for free porn online.
Fact is, people who are willing to discuss sex openly also tend to be the same people who are willing to openly entertain ideas about how to make society in general more open, whether that's by unionizing workers or fighting for civil rights or making the streets safe for transsexuals late at night. I don't mean to say that pornography itself equals freedom, since the porn industry can be brutal. I'm merely pointing out that the free exchange of sexual information goes far beyond mutual masturbation. And when it comes right down to it, that's why so many online services are censoring sex-related groups. They are deleting dissent, not debauchery.
Annalee Newitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a surly media nerd whose pictures are available on a porn website called www.smartlust.org. Enjoy!
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