News  The cybersexual revolution

The Author analyzes how fears and regulations remap inequalities online

2 girls1cup might be the defining cultural artifact of our generation. Viral, disgusting, and utterly compelling, the video’s popularity speaks volumes about the visceral thrills of our digital age. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of having a friend surprise you with the video, I’ll fill you in on the details.

The Internet meme features two girls shitting into a cup, feeding it to each other, and then puking in each other’s mouths. The video is often posted as a flame on Internet boards, where a clueless surfer may click the link without knowing what’s in store. For most viewers, 2girls1cup compels us because of our fascination at our own disgust. The girls in the video are transgressing bodily boundaries and consuming one another’s feces, things ejected not only from their bodies but also from our society. However, 2girls1cup is actually a trailer for a scat-fetish film called Hungry Bitches. One woman’s Internet junk is always another woman’s treasure.

That cyberspace is full of weird shit isn’t a surprise to anyone who’s grown up in our information age. In fact, trolling the web for strange, glorious, and disgusting things is a common hobby among the young and the stoned. In terms of content, the Internet is mostly an unregulated space, and surfing it can be the equivalent of visiting your city’s seediest bar – without the physical risks. Online, you don’t have to leave your couch to be a voyeur or an exhibitionist. Our society’s fascination with the marginal is given free reign by the Internet’s vast archives of niche sexualities. As much as we revel in our own disgust at 2girls1cup, we must wonder at those who get pleasure from it.

The video also inspired a series of reaction videos. The manner in which the video has been passed around suggests that the people circulating the video take pleasure in other people’s reactions. Trust me, people’s reactions of disgust, shock, and horror are often the most titillating aspect for the fetishizer; the flasher or the exhibitionist get their rocks off on shock and surprise. Surfers passing around 2girls1cup for hilarious reactions are not as removed from the video’s target fetish audience as they may like to think.

Marshall McLuhan argues that all media is a narcissistic circuit. Narcissus, staring into his pool of water, didn’t fall in love with himself. The pool mediated Narcissus’s view and obscured his ability to recognize himself. Our modern media work the same way. Our technologies trick us into thinking that we’re interacting with one another, when in reality, they are reflecting ourselves.

The ironic stance taken to video memes like 2girls1cup masks our own fascination and compulsion toward sexual and bodily transgression. Mediating this fascination through a computer screen allows us to maintain an illusion of distance to these grotesque and sexual spectacles. An ironic stance is often coupled with a repetition and affirmation of how “funny” or “sick” something is. Trolling the Internet, we get to experiment with strange and socially unacceptable aspects of ourselves.

Often this anonymous experimentation gets wrapped up in the rhetoric of liberation. Bodies can travel unmarked in virtual space, and thus can arguably free themselves from the burden of racism or sexism, which limit their mobility in corporeal space. Many web utopists view the Internet as a safe space, emancipated from the structural subjugations that inhibit material life. This is one argument for why so many young queers experience their first coming-out online.

A seemingly infinite and unregulated space, the Internet is an ideal home for alternative sexualities. A quick Google search for polyamory, queer, BDSM, or dog dates (where people try to find dates for their dogs!) results in numerous networking sites that reveal large online communities for each sexual niche. We think of cyberspace as a place of increased democratization and equal representation. The wide array of marginalized sexualities on the net is evidence that this open forum is most obviously used to explore sex and sexual identity. The Internet and sex remain close bedfellows: porn kickstarted the World Wide Web and “sex” is still the most commonly searched word.

However, new media often just reuses the content of old media. Though the Internet may help build communities and raise the profile of marginal sexualities, the web does not cause these identities. Even child pornography, which the Internet is sometimes demonized for proliferating, predates the web. By putting child pornography online, people are simply updating the sex they would’ve been fantasizing about anyway.

Cyberfeminists Sadie Plant and Akkucquere Stone argue that while the Internet allows marginalized people to move freely and safely on the Internet, it also grants bigotry the same anonymity. A racist on the Internet has no fear of recourse. Hegemonic structures of power are often simply remapped onto virtual space.

The groups that have the most to gain from disembodied sexual exploration – women, queer people, sex workers, and teens – are frequently the purported victims of the unregulated Internet. “The kind of harassment that often plagues women in face to face communication has, not surprisingly, become perhaps too frequently a fact of life in computer mediated communication,” writes Laurie Finke in “Women: Lost in Cyberspace?” Virtual harassment is real. Female bloggers can receive comments that threaten gendered violence; sexual predators meet children online; avatars on Second Life are victims of online rape; a girl on (a site that connects users’ webcams at random) is confronted by demands to see her tits or shown a masturbating dick.

Because of these threats, women and children are told not to give out personal information online. However, advice cautioning on how to behave online can have the same drawbacks as the advice given to protect women from sexual violence in the real world: “Stay at home; avoid dark alleys, getting drunk, and wearing skirts.” While well-meaning, these warnings are misinformed and do little to protect women from sexual abuse. Sixty-nine per cent of rape survivors are assaulted by someone they know and sixty per cent of assaults occur in a private home, according to the Ontario Women’s Directorate. Fear-mongering about both virtual and realworld threats often does little to keep women safe, and only restricts their mobility on and off the web.

Zillah Eisenstein, a women’s studies professor at Ithaca College, writes of a woman student who entered a chatroom, gave a fake name to protect her identity, yet still felt uncomfortable – she was too worried about the possibility of sexual abuse.

The terror of virtual violence against women is a response to a variety of cultural fears surrounding the anonymity (and freedom) that the Internet gives to marginalized bodies. Our culture marks some strangers as more dangerous than others. One of the perceived dangers of the Internet is that we cannot classify and stereotype the “dangerous” and marked bodies of those who are raced, classed, or gendered as deviant or criminal.

Calls for increased regulation and stricter guidelines on Internet content can be to the detriment of the marginalized individuals they are intended to protect. For instance, the crimes of Phillip Markoff, dubbed the “Craigslist killer,” incited legislation in the U.S. that requires content on Craiglist’s erotic classified ads to be regulated.

Markoff has been charged with the murder of Julissa Brisman. Markoff met Brisman through her erotic services ads on Craigslist. According to an Associated Press article by Don Babwin, police believe Markoff may have been involved in other crimes against women who posted ads on Craigslist.

“This tragic incident will become yet another rallying cry for those who’d like to curtail freedom and openness on the Internet,” writes Leslie Harris, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

“A month after the killing of a masseuse who advertised on Craigslist, the classified ad site announced plans Wednesday to eliminate its ‘erotic services’ category and screen all submissions to a new ‘adult services’ section before they are posted,” writes Babwin, adding that under the new system, posting adult ads will also carry a fee. This legislation was passed in January 2010, but a quick browse over the Craigslist adult services section reveals that sex work and escort services are still regular content on the site.

If this legislation is enforced, it will put sex workers in danger. Craiglist provides a virtual space for solicitation that prostitution laws deny workers in the real world, and even a small fee makes the classifieds less accessible to those that need their protection the most. In Canada, while sex work is legal, public communication for soliciting sex is illegal. There is a correlation between the instigation of this law and reports of increased violence against sex workers. In both Canada and the U.S., online classifieds allow sex workers to make safe arrangements and decrease their chances of being put at risk. They can hash out who, what, when, where, and how much from the safety of their computer, and don’t have to worry about being apprehended for public solicitation. Sex workers can also request background checks and ask for references from their clients.

Increased regulation on erotic classified ads would force the sex workers currently online back onto the street, and would increase their risk of violence. “The Internet took a lot of sex workers off the street and created the entrepreneurial age of sex work. Now, it’ll drive them right back to where they came from,” explains Robyn Few, co-director of San Francisco’s Sex Worker Outreach Project.

The Internet, like real life, can be a site of both liberation and potential oppression. Increased regulation of the net will most likely harm those it’s supposed to protect. What’s really needed is equal access. Those who produce the software and hardware we use are a minority who make rules that govern the majority. A technocrati is currently being constructed as an elite club. Like most clubs of our society, it’s a boys club. Women are less familiar with computer technology – possibly in part due to the male-oriented computer game industry. In 2004-2005, less than 17 per cent of students enrolled in computer engineering, computer science, and software engineering were women, according to a report by the Software Human Resource Council. In order for the Internet to be a liberatory space for the marginalized, they must be instrumental in its construction.

Adrian Ringland, a 36-year-old man from the U.K., used his technical skills to force young girls to send him naked photos. He hacked onto their computers and threatened to crash their systems unless they obeyed his commands. The young women’s lack of computer programming knowledge increased their vulnerability.

Our media is a screen on which we can project both our fears and fantasies. Right now, we get to decide what we want the Internet to say about us – censorship and regulation or community building through the democratization of technical skills and sexual freedom? Let me put it another way: Do we want 2girls1cup to be erased from the Internet 4eva, or do we want 2girls1cup to be hacked on to a web broadcast of the Today Show?