March into the archives : internet pornography



The following piece on internet pornography was published in Woroni, August 1998. Originally it was written as an essay for a womens studies class.

Variety is the spice of life and the Internet literally has it all. If you’ve ever wondered about female ejaculation, fisting, bondage, anal sex, sado-masochism, golden showers or penile enlargement - the Web can probably satiate your curiosity.

The vast amount of porn is perhaps hardly surprising. As an unregulated sounding-board for the online community, the World Wide Web offers cheap distribution of almost any type of information, and, similarly to photography - unlimited reproduction. The analogy is apt since the origins of modern pornography are closely linked to the unprecedented graphic realism offered by the medium. Over a century later a new technology continues the obsession and illustrates the promise of the Internet to change our lives in the next century. The possibilities for interactive business and entertainment are both staggering and developing quickly to satisfy that most basic of human instincts. Unsurprisingly, recent trends towards amateur pornography and exhibitionism have bloomed on the Web and radically redefined Feminist criticisms of the genre.

Pornography by its nature raises questions about accessibility and later I’ll discuss censorship on the Internet which, though lacking a single governing authority, has developed it’s own forms of regulation.

Pornography on the Internet assumes many forms through literally tens of thousands of sites which detail every possible fetish. From prosthetic limbs to lactation and elderly swingers to photographs of celebrities that may otherwise lead to court cases (including an infamous home video of Tommy and Pamela Lee). As a decentralised network, accurate statistics are impossible to ascertain. An estimate from the webmaster of Teen and Amateur Kingdom (http://www.atkingdom.com) suggested over 20,000 sites. Word searches using Infoseek ranged from 50,117 for porn to 438,842 for sex, however some sites were listed more than once and of course not all relate to pornography (including one humorous example which billed “wet pussy” and offered a drenched feline). Of these the majority are ‘anonymous’ sites because the webmaster is not represented within the images, unlike personal homepages which centre around the author.

To research both these types of porn, roughly two dozen e-mails were sent to webmasters asking questions about themselves, the source of their images and the origins of their site - to which there were five responses. Shedding light on the ‘anonymous’ sites were webmasters from ‘Who’s Your Daddy’, ‘Amateur and Teen Kingdom’ and a Nowegian named Kai Johansen. Exhibitionists Shelley and Risque Renee were both keen to discuss their homepages and the pleasure and profits they provide. It should be noted that whether the information collected from webmasters is true highlights both a fault and freedom of the Internet. Within chat groups gender and identifying information is offered as seen fit and it is easy for users to assume other gender roles. Representation is totally controlled by whomever is at the keyboard. However, the responses gathered offer a variety of reasons for creating and maintaining a pornographic website.

Kai Johansen’s site (http://home.sn.no/~kaijohan) offers nearly 200 ‘softcore’ pictures of naked women. The images are fairly tame in comparison to much of what the internet offers and could be compared to those found in Playboy or Penthouse. He described himself as a married, 26 year old Norwegian who works with the Internet and explained the site’s origin “As a test to see how many hits [or visitors] you can get when you have pornography on your site. I put up about 20-30 pics to start with and had a notice that my site was only a test so it would be down in a couple of weeks. The response was huge, people wrote to me and said that I couldn’t take it down. So just for fun I started to put up more pics and decided to leave my site up and running. I am doing this just for fun and my site is totally free and I don’t make any money on it. My material is sent in by the people who visit my site”.

This approach to material seems common on the Internet, where copyright and even acknowledgment of the photographer is virtually nonexistent. This is again reminiscent of early pornography during the late nineteenth century, when photographic negatives circulated freely without the slightest consideration for artistic copyrights. Legal precedents are still being set and a recent example is the action taken by Sony, as the record company of rock group Oasis, who ordered unofficial websites to remove band photographs, soundbites and lyrics.

Mister Grimm runs the site “Who’s your Daddy?” (http://www.whosyourdaddy.com) which offers explicit pictures of naked women, similar to Hustler or Black Label Penthouse. Grimm is an American college student majoring in computer science, from a “slightly conservative middle class family”. He started the site a year ago “Because there is a vast untapped market out there. I saw all of these porn sites on the web and I was wondering what the attraction was, beside the obvious, that would make webmasters devote this sort of time to a site. So I started mailing webmasters, asking questions and I found out the perk: MONEY”.

Commercial websites will pay two cents for each visit they receive through an advertisement. With this Grimm pays a licensing fee on the images, which can provide proof that the models are over eighteen and have consented to the acts and photos. In comparison, the Webmaster of Teen and Amateur Kingdom outlined his background as “a BA and MBA in Marketing and am an advanced doctoral student in Marketing. I also have 10 years full-time work experience in Marketing Planning and Research”. The site offers images ranging from amateur photographs to professionally photographed, sexually explicit material (or ‘hardcore’). “I started my site to test theories in information processing and the manner in which consumers integrate information over time. It provides an excellent test bed for my theories in the area of the impact or the order of presentation on satisfaction and subsequent choice behaviour. The adult sites represent a real-world field testing of the theories. As an academic, I am interested in developing theories that are initially not obvious and I have tested in other settings. There are a number of academic journal articles which posited theories and suggested a nomological network that was counter to my mode of thinking. So I set out to prove that my approach warranted further consideration”.

The site uses images “from many different sources, including photographers, image houses and CD ROMs. The Galleria represents an investment of over $110,000 in images - more than any other site on the net except Playboy, Penthouse, Barely Legal, etc. The server bills are over $30,000 per month. My site puts out 300 GB of data transfer every 24 hours” which is equal to the information on 450 CDs or over 3 Billion English characters.

The strongest complaint to make against these ‘anonymous’ sites concerns the lack of narrative to link their images. The material appears to be taken out of context to the point of being random except for the sexually explicit nature. Also, the ‘Money Shot’, a staple of contemporary pornography, was rare and limited to specialist sites, such as: “Blonde Cumshots”. Following the feminist interpretation of the absence of a male’s post-coital droop in XXX videos, this could be viewed as maintaining phallic power but it seems more likely to relate to the general lack of narrative within Internet pornography. This stems from the organisation of the material in categories of fetishism. Sites will specialise in particular images, such as “Asian Babes”, “Horny Housewives” or “Knocked Up Black Mamas”, and even larger sites offer a fetish-based search engine to make selection from their databases. The absence of narrative leaves it up to the viewer to use their imagination to create a context, unlike the ‘encounter narrative’ used in magazines and videos. This could be a potential worry in that a viewer may be indulging their selective tastes (eg: her size 8 foot) without any notion of the norm (eg: the female poulation). Personally, these sites make me grateful that I can have sex with a woman and not a characteristic.
Other feminist criticisms can be warranted, such as women presented as ‘decapitated’ through cropping and thus portrayed solely for their genitalia. As an object, they are easily identified in that they often acknowledge the camera and spread their legs for the viewer’s gaze. Interestingly, the same criticisms are true for Gay porn where the men offer their rumps.

For exhibitionists Shelley and Renee their personal homepages came about in a similar manner to that of Linda Lovelace’s debut in Deep Throat. Their boyfriends encouraged and orchestrated their first pornographic appearances but since then they have taken control of their representation and turned it into a business. Shelley’s homepage (http://www2.cy-net.net/~digitrix) centres on nude pictures of herself (or ‘softcore’), while Renee’s (http://www.risquerenee.com) provides sexually explicit material with a variety of partners and ‘marital aids’ (or ‘hardcore’). Unlike the other pornography encountered, the amateur pictures are linked by a narrative in that the same character (the webmaster) is present throughout.

Exhibitionist homepages offer amateur pornography in a way never before available through the potential for a global audience, interaction via e-mail and profit through mail order - exemplifying the Internet’s promise as a twenty-first century capitalist tool. The images, which range from nudity to sexual intercourse, are of the author. Though a boyfriend seems to frequently take the picture, the webmaster chooses to use it, creates the scenario and ultimately, maintains control over the website. It could be debated as to whether exhibitionism can be considered pornography but since these terms relate mostly to quality and motivation rather than content, it seems a matter of personal preference. As Shelley responded: “Porn is defined subjectively in our society”. Contrary to commercial pornography this introduces subjectivity and offers the object control over their image, possibly excluding any argument of exploitation (a point to be returned to later). Renee thinks of her site as offering amateur exhibitionism rather than pornography, a term which: “Should refer to some means of stimulant to produce sexual arousal. Instead it portrays a man locked in the bathroom jerking off to Playboy! I feel that what I am sharing via my site is my sexuality/sensuality and personality. It’s not really about sex!”

Instead she qualifies her site as offering “minor satisfaction” for people’s “yearnings” for “sex, sexual situations, teasings, etc”. Renee further argued her view as follows: “Would I change my definition from ‘exhibitionist’ to ‘pornographer’ if I were having [online] sex with my boyfriend? No, of course not. I think that we are both exhibitionists. Humans are designed to fornicate, it’s just a matter of whether the door is closed or open while you’re doing it”.

This follows an argument that early photographic pornography served to liberate attitudes towards sex by shattering the elitism of its previous formats as fancy, foreign erotic art. In a similar way, the growing movement of amateur pornography, visible not only on the WWW but also in magazines and videos, aims to reaffirm real sexual representations as opposed to the fantastic and stylised portrayals which have been popular for previous decades. Renee maintains that “Amateur porn offers an honest representation of sexuality because we are the girls next door! Commercially produced porn movies are fictitious in nature. Amateur stuff is usually scenarios that have been played out in our own bedrooms with the camera set up on the tripod. It happens everyday. People are sick to death of seeing these silicone-enhanced, pouty lipped blondes getting screwed by a guy with a 10 inch penis for 2 hours. That doesn’t happen in real life!”

Renee explains that the response to her site has been “sincere and encouraging” but dismisses any idea of it being a source of confidence or morale: “The person writing me e-mail or buying something from me could well be the ‘ugliest person on the face of the earth’. What confidence do I gain from knowing or not knowing that?”
In contrast, Shelley describes it as “Wild that so many guys around the world are hot for me, even though I’m nothing special - It makes me feel powerful”.

Renee describes the pleasure in appearing to viewers at her homepage as “like watching a thousand guys walk by and look at you, only you have this invisible wall that lets you be in control”. In essence she is manipulating the ‘male’ gaze, offering herself as she chooses and being photographed in relation to her “comfort level and the law”. A third influence, as previously mentioned, is consumer demand. As a “dream business” her site looks to earn between US$50 000 - $100 000 in the first year alone through mail orders (including videos and used panties) and membership to ‘Club Renee’. Her “club members seem to share the same likes and dislikes regardless of gender” wrote Renee. “The main turn-on for both the men and women is to see me with another girl”.

The poses and content of both sites mirror those of the ‘anonymous’ websites, and, though both Shelley and Renee reject their work as pornographic, there is an interesting parallel to the Greek origins of the word: ‘Pornographos’ meaning writing about prostitutes. A prostitute, as a member of ‘the oldest profession’, is both a commodity and a seller. Similarly exhibitionists are both object and subject in presenting themselves to the viewer through their homepage. This distinction between subject and object is at the core of feminist theory and pornography on the internet is blurring the boundary. Furthermore, exhibitionist homepages show more realistic depictions, not only of human sexuality, but women in general - something that both pornography and women’s magazines tend to lack.

Pornography, by its nature, raises questions of censorship. The censorship that exists on the Internet is held by commercial interests and local law. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) support websites and many have policies against pornographic material. However as Mister Grimm, the webmaster of “Who’s your Daddy?”, explained: “...They won’t do anything about it until enough people complain that there is a PR problem. I had an adult website up on an ISP that officially ‘didn’t allow pornography’ for four months and I never got one e-mail or complaint about it. The bottom line is money. If pornography can exist on their servers without costing them potential business, they will continue to take my money. It is very profitable [for ISPs], seeing as there are millions of porn sites and each of these is paying server fees. Now, when it comes to illegal material, such as bestiality and paedophilia, that’s a different story. In many European countries these things aren’t illegal. There is no ‘age of consent’ for instance in Amsterdam, which is where most of the underage porn comes from, which is very profitable. If I open a teen porn site in the US, I risk arrest but if I open it in Amsterdam I don’t, even though my audience would be the same either way”.

Likewise, any information downloaded into the memory of a computer is subject to the laws that rule its physical location. The difficulty of regulating the Internet is evident in the United States Supreme Court overturning the Computer Decency Act (1997) and US President Clinton’s call for the WWW to remain tax free. The Penthouse homepage (http://www.penthouse.com) praised the Supreme Court after the ruling for their “...Wisdom and their vision in concluding that ‘the content of the Internet is as diverse as human thought’. They have bravely discharged their duty to the people...”.

In her book Release 2.0 - Design for Living in the Digital Age, Esther Dyson argues that the Internet will develop it’s own form of regulation. Dyson also predicts that owners will give away their intellectual property and collect their profits from public appearances or other services, like the software companies who currently charge for upgrades but not the product (Shelley and Renee both use a similar process). Dyson also endorses the role of ‘data intermediaries’ who will vouch for a client’s credit. This practice is used at pornographic sites as a form of censorship to check a viewer’s eligibility - even amongst ‘free’ sites where it operates as an expense to your credit card.

If pornography is determined by censorship then perhaps the true pornography of the Internet is that which is unavailable, such as necrophilia and bestiality. However, such illicit images can be transferred without detection through IRCs (Internet Relay Channels) and chat rooms. Ultimately, there is some filthy stuff out there but the effort required to find is little different to a trek through Fyshwick or Mitchell. Assuming that the participants are consenting adults the other valid argument against Internet pornography regards it being viewed by minors. While it is difficult to accidentally arrive at such images, programs like ‘NetNanny’ can limit their accessibility. This illustrates that Internet censorship lacks a central authority to govern its content - much like the Web itself - because is an inalienable freedom of the medium that a viewer see or be offended by what they choose. You have been warned.

The Internet is redefining pornography. While ‘anonymous’ websites provide images taken out of context and can possibly affirm “abnormal” fetishes, in built mechanisms for censorship are regulating the frontiers of cyberspace. Meanwhile the opportunities for communication and distribution by individuals using the Internet are confirming it’s role as a twenty-first century capitalist tool. These possibilities are allowing more realistic depictions of sexuality and introducing greater subjectivity into pornography. Exhibitionist homepages are empowering webmasters and presenting financially rewarding business opportunities. The Internet represents an entirely new organisation of society, based upon common interest rather than familiarity or location, that may redefine many aspects of humanity outside of cyberspace. If you doubt this, think of the place of photography within Western society and consider the Internet as a similar technology with over one hundred and fifty years of development to cover. Roll out the optic fibre and bring on the millennium!