For nearly 20 years we've had almost unlimited access to sexual speech on the Internet -- and an incredible blossoming of communities related to sex and sexuality. Now, in a perverse echo of the anti-obscenity fight that followed the last sexual revolution, safe spaces for discussing sex are in real danger of disappearing.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron made waves Monday when he announced that he was creating a system to block all new Internet users from accessing "adult" material unless they had specifically requested it from their Internet service provider. While the policy is the most aggressive in any major Western country, it's just the latest volley in a war on sexuality.
In the past few years search engines and social networking sites have worked aggressively to limit sexual speech. Websites flagged by Google as "adult" are routinely banished from top search results (unless, of course, you're a paid advertiser), Facebook suspends accounts for merely talking about BDSM, and on Friday Tumblr announced that it would no longer allow sexual content (which includes references to gay and lesbian sexuality) to be returned in search results or tags (the predominant way that information is shared on the platform). Sexuality is being sent back behind the Internet's beaded curtain.
For many people this doesn't seem like that big a deal. Some doubt that it will have much effect on people's ability to find pornography. Others, particularly those with small children or from socially conservative backgrounds, may cheer it as a good thing. It's not. We've seen this hackneyed plot before.
When I was a child growing up in the '80s -- a little gay kid in suburban New Jersey -- I could find almost nothing that talked frankly about sexuality. The library held a few staid titles that discussed sexuality, but so clinically that I regarded myself as a case study. What I saw on television presented sexuality as a morality tale. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but my '80s dark ages were the result of a backlash against a previous flowering: the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s.
Both revolutions were fueled by the availability of sexual speech -- including porn. For all their other flaws, films like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door were evangelists preaching that women, too, could enjoy sex. (In fact, the first films to survive obscenity prosecutions were documentaries about sex: Man and Wife and Sexual Freedom in Denmark.) Women showed up in force at those early films, in part because it was one of the few places where they could learn about the mechanics of sex. No one else would tell them about it.
For gay men the effect was even greater. At a time when we were told that to be gay was to be sentenced to a furtive and lonely life, gay pornography helped paint another picture, one that was free and attractive and unabashed. The 8-mm films produced by people like Chuck Holmes of Falcon Studios and William Higgins of Catalina were the "It Gets Better" videos of their day, a note slipped under suburban doors letting you know that your sexuality wasn't shameful.
At a time when there was little sexual speech that wasn't considered obscene, pornographic film -- gay, straight and otherwise -- taught us how to have sex. We may bemoan it now -- the dirty talk, the "O" face, the improbable positions -- but it's much better than the reverse, which was no knowledge at all.
What's worse is that attempts to block pornography are trawl nets that sweep up a heck of a lot of byproduct in their wake. In the '80s, the push to roll back dirty book stores and porn theaters also swept up AIDS education, Judy Blume, and Robert Mapplethorpe. Would the latter's infamous Cincinnati exhibition be safe on Facebook? Would it be flagged on Tumblr? Would Google return it in an image search result?
Sexually explicit imagery provokes a visceral reaction, which makes it one of the best ways to consider and debate sex. It turns us on, or disgusts us, or shocks us. It's also a validation of sexual behaviors that are marginalized and maligned by the larger culture. As gay men, we might have shown up to the theater for the film, but we stayed for the community that we found there. It's part of the reason that, even though it might stain my reputation as a serious journalist and filmmaker, I keep an explicit porn blog, GayPornBlog.com, to talk about not only porn but gay sex and sexuality.
If we're drawn to gay identity from a porn film (out of passing curiosity, I told myself), or if a bondage movie causes the first stirrings of an otherwise unarticulated desire, or if we see ourselves (or our desire) first reflected on a trans fetish site, is that worse than seeing no reflection at all? David Cameron may not like the idea that there are rape fantasies online, but I'd argue that it's better to talk about those fantasies than to, by fiat, tell women that there's something wrong with them if they have such fantasies.
And right now that's what we're facing, not by Reagan's obscenity commission or by anti-sex feminists this time but by corporations that want to make the online experience as safe for advertisers as they've made the cities for real estate agents. What happens to the rest of us, to those who aren't interested in the Times Square Olive Garden, is that we're forced to dig deeper and deeper to find reflections of ourselves. And with each successive dig, we're reminded that we're not fit for polite conversation.
As a gay man, I'm acutely aware of the danger of removing sexual speech, but you should also be aware, regardless of sexuality, because what gets swept up isn't just porn but safer sex guides and breastfeeding blogs and fat acceptance sites and the self-esteem that comes from being told that who you are and what you love isn't obscene and doesn't need to be hidden.