Participatory Porno: The Technologization of Sexuality
College of Communication
Author’s Note: A version of this paper was presented at the 2010 Popular Culture
Association conference in St. Louis, MO, and I would like to thank the numerous
people who offered questions and advice during the panel: Of particular note, thanks
to Brendan Riley, Joshua Comer, and Michael Lachney for their helpful
suggestions. I’d also like to thank Jonathan Lillie and the anonymous reviewers
for their helpful comments during the revision of this paper. Further, I’m indebted
to Jason Zalinger for help and advice during the writing of this paper.
Despite its prevalence on the web, Internet pornography is a
remarkably understudied area of web research. This paper investigates a new
avenue of pornography research, a critical/cultural reading of consumers of online
pornography. I argue that the Web
Sex Chat (WSC), a participatory, masturbatory experience, technologizes
sexuality, insofar as user participation in online sexuality becomes a tool for
producerly control over those users. Just as Soukup (2009) recently
demonstrated a sexualization of technology in contemporary film, so too has
there been a “mechanization” of sexuality on the web. At the same time, the
technology of the Web Sex Chat offers an interesting take on what Jenkins (2006a)
called a “participatory culture,” or one in which audience members have a say
not only in what occurs on-screen, but also within the construction of the text
itself. Namely, by subverting the active participation of consumers through
technology advancement, WSCs force a particular usage of the sexual text and
Web Sex Chats are videos of models situated next to
text-based chats (similar to an IRC or BBS chat room) on which users instruct
these models in sexual roles, positions, costumes or acts. The WSC, in effect,
constructs a community around the digitized sexuality of the model and the
participations of members of this community. In this paper, I examine Web Sex
Chats in order to show a tension evident in online pornography: namely, that as
users participate in the construction of their own sex show, they become part
of the sex text itself (see Kibby and Costello, 2001); but at the same time the
“sex” that is constructed remains a highly procedural, almost mechanized, show of
sexuality. I argue three main points: a) how the sex-model takes the form of a
machine; b) how the operation of the web sex chat is itself like a computer,
with basic input/output systems and processing and storage capabilities, and c)
how this mechanization uses a community’s participation as a form of economic
Participatory Porno: The Technologization of Sexuality
In a recent Critical
Studies in Media Communication issue, Charles Soukup (2009) effectively
demonstrated the ways in which contemporary Hollywood cinema—particularly
recent blockbuster films—fetishize technology (see, in particular, his
examples of Terminator 3 and Tomb Raider). This “techno-scopophilia,”
as he termed it, emerged from the intersection of “filmic representations of technology, pleasure, and
sexuality.…[For] filmic conventions have produced a new scopic, voyeuristic
gaze in many feature films, but in addition to the sexualized body, technology
is also an object of fantasy and pleasure” (pp. 19–20). Indeed, for
Soukup, what is most troubling about this development is not that the
sexualization of technology
represents a dangerous fetishization, but that “by evoking desire in the
spectator, the eroticizing of technological commodities further fetishizes
products and distorts their use-value” (p. 32). Indeed, in these films sexuality becomes an economic issue, as cinema producers have
adopted “the conventions of advertising [and] developed semiotic codes that
conflate sexuality with the power and control of technology” (p. 33). For
Soukup, just as mainstream contemporary culture has become more sexualized
(see, as McNair, 2009, puts it, the “Porno-Chic” in society which not only
accepts but also glorifies pornography) so too have the ways in which movie
producers use product placement to advertise technological power.
My point in describing Soukup’s article is not to deviate from
or invalidate it, but rather to introduce and give voice to the opposing side
of the argument: just as there is a fetishization of technology in the cinema,
I believe that there is also a technologization of sexuality on the Internet.
By this phrase “technologization of sexuality,” I refer both to the sense that
sexuality in and of itself is becoming mechanized, and also to the idea that
the very participation online pornography allows becomes itself a mechanism for
the economic control over its consumers. As I will show, by utilizing the
inherent capabilities of “web 2.0” user-generated content, the producers of
online pornography can harness the work of these users for their own economic
Although up-to-the-minute statistics are difficult to come
by, there is no doubt that online pornography is an immense industry. As of
2006, every second about 28,000 internet users viewed pornography, and the
amount spent on online pornography was $2.84 billion (Ropelato, 2006). In the intervening four years since that
survey, the number has only increased as more and more people transition to
online usage: Indeed, Döring (2009) summarized more recent findings to show that as much as 63% of
men (and 14% of women) have used or viewed online pornography.
Obviously, to make a claim about such vast collection of different types of
texts and audiences is difficult to validate: therefore, I wish to limit my
analysis in this paper to one particular type of online pornography: the Web
Sex Chat (WSC). In short, a WSC is an online, interactive experience where a
viewer watches, either alone or in an (implied) group online, a web cam of a
performer acting out the viewer’s instructions for the camera. This form of
sexual, textual interaction represents an amalgam of Kibby and Costello’s
(2001) analysis of amateur sex video interaction and Attwood’s (2009)
definition of “cybersex,” in which interaction is carried out “entirely through
text on various online services” (p. 279). WSCs are like cybersex in that the
sexual activity is usually masturbatory in nature, but unique in that video
allows access to visual stimulation from professional performers as well. In
many respects, this form of sex chat is similar to the type of Bulletin Board
System (BBS) chat analyzed by Wysocki (1998), but with the addition of visual
elements. These visuals, as I will show, however, may augment the experience
but at the expense of the interactive participation of the user of the
pornography. In a realm of online
sexual play, WSCs bring “the body” back into the online sexual equation,
likening the image of the body to a particular sexual fantasy or act. Like a contemporary multi-media peep
show (or, as Hubbard, 2009, calls it, a digital “striptopia”), the WSC
functions as “look-but-don’t-touch” sexual gratification, ritualizing sexuality
into a mechanical system.
But more so than merely receiving the visual stimulation of
nude bodies, viewers of WSCs can see and understand the instructions and
musings of other people watching the same WSC from around the globe. This form
of interactive communication helps to illustrate what Henry Jenkins (2006a) and
Jenkins, et al. (2009) described as an online “participatory culture,” in which
consumer/users can not only enjoy texts, but also create their own texts to
share with others. A participatory culture is a key aspect of what scholars and
web practitioners have dubbed “Web 2.0,” but as of yet scholarship on
pornography in this online, interactive environment is still nascent. Using
Jenkins’ investigation of participatory cultures, I examine WSCs as sites where
participation, so inherent to web 2.0 practices, is subverted. I also position WSCs
within the history of online “chatting,” and describe how the scopophilic
aspects of the cinematic apparatus (of those described by Mulvey, 1990, and
rearticulated by Soukup, 2009) translate to contemporary Web Sex Chats. I
integrate these lines of thought to demonstrate how Web Sex Chats mechanize and
technologize sexuality; which ultimately forces a reconceptualization of the economics
of participation in Web 2.0.
Indeed, with new technological developments happening in the
development of the web, it becomes crucial to understand contemporary issues in
this most popular of media. For example, during the writing of this article, ChatRoulette, an online service which
pairs strangers via their web cam and computers, has emerged as one of the most
popular new sites for people to visit online. By logging
on, one is virtually connected to another person who is logged on at the same
see the author’s recent ChatRoulette experience (he’s the one on the bottom,
with the poofy hair). As interesting as ChatRoulette is as a sociological
experience, what makes it relevant for this article is the way it is being used
for sexuality: as boyd (2010) writes in her blog, there are those out there who
are only too happy to show their body to others—or to lurk waiting to see
someone else’s (see also Anderson, 2010). I will return to ChatRoulette at the
end of the article, because although ChatRoulette may not be strictly a
pornographic site—yet—the mechanics of using it herald a change in
the way interactive texts are conceived and perceived online: a change made
visceral through Web Sex Chats in general.
In 2007, Henry Jenkins (2007b) wrote an online piece
he titled “Porn 2.0,”
which detailed the way pornography online was becoming more user-generated. He
described this user-generated pornography as a cornerstone of new, interactive
this points to some of the claims which people have made about web 2.0: that it
will result in a diversification of the culture as more people share content,
that it will enable people to feel more personal stakes in the culture that
they consume, and that it will add an important social dimension to the
circulation of media content. Once again, using porn as a base line, we can see
how shifts in media impact the culture that surrounds us. (¶28)
Ultimately, for Jenkins, what is unique about this
new form of pornographic content on the Internet is that more people, from a
variety of backgrounds, social situations, and with different physical
characteristics, will be able to create and post their own pornography online.
This is liberating to those currently outside the pornographic mainstream:
User-generated pornography “embraces women who are plump or even overweight,
who may be considerably more mature than you are apt to find in men's
magazines. On these sites, women often assert their rights as models to feel
sexy even if nobody wants to look at their pictures” (Jenkins, 2007b, ¶27).
What I find most interesting about this connection
between participation online and pornography online is that Jenkins sees this “Porn
2.0” almost entirely from the production side, not from the consumption side. Even recent research into online
pornography is based in an examination from the production standpoint: for
example, in Attwood’s (2010) recent book chapter about user-generated
pornography, participation in online pornography—no matter how
egalitarian the look of the model—is analyzed from the position of the
production of the pornography (pp. 89–92). It is certainly odd that
Jenkins, especially, would argue from this point of view, as much of his work
has centered on reevaluating the production/consumption dynamic: in his groundbreaking Textual Poachers (1992) he argued
from a de Certeauan standpoint that fans, active consumers of popular culture,
have “found ways to turn the power of the media to their own advantage” (p.
32). In other words, much of Jenkins (2007a) work has exalted consumers as “active
participants” in contemporary culture as users of popular media “create and
circulate media that more perfectly reflects their own world views” (pp. 361–2).
Fans, as explicit representations of an activity all readers do implicitly,
become powerful consumers that force a reconceptualization of the
production/consumption binary (Booth 2010).
Of course, this is not to say that Jenkins and other
theorists of pornography have slighted the consumption side of “Porn 2.0,” but
rather that up until recently most discussions about online pornography stem
from the production side: that is, they come from analyses of the texts, of
those that create the texts, or those who put the texts online. Scant attention
has been paid to the converse of the interactive dynamic of online texts: the consumers of pornography. In fact, this
inattention is an issue with media studies in general. As pointed out by Merrin
(2009), contemporary media studies has not caught up with contemporary media
today’s media users have grown up within a fluid,
connected, always-on, digital ecology of hybrid intercommunicating forms,
messages, content and activities—personalised and individually and
immediately available; controllable and manipulable at will and feeding-into,
promoting or giving rise to personal production, content and meaning-creation.
But contemporary media studies remains mired in
broadcast-era theoretics: studying “New Media” becomes merely “an addition to
the broadcast media ecology rather than as a fundamental transformation of its
systems of media production, distribution, consumption and use” (Merrin, 2009,
p. 21). Pornography is no exception. With the exceptions of Attwood (2009), who
examined consumer-to-consumer textual interaction, and Lindgren (2010), who
examined the interaction of fans of pornography, studies of porn have largely focused
on a top-down approach; even while speaking towards the positive ramifications
of the equality offered by the web (see, Attwood, 2010; Mowlabocus, 2010;
Jenkins’ (2006a) Convergence
Culture perhaps sums up this view of the contemporary media (both broadcast
and online) quite succinctly:
Convergence, as we can see, is both a top-down
corporate-driven process and a bottom-up consumer-drive process. Corporate
convergence coexists with grassroots convergence … The promises of this new
media environment raise expectations of a freer flow of ideas and content. (p.
Indeed, if we examine this quotation in reference to
online pornography, much can be revealed. For example, Jenkins described the
ways in which two contrasting views of media ownership are intersecting or
converging in the contemporary media environment. On the one hand, media
corporations are getting larger and larger, as a few companies are buying most media
outlets and technologies. The prime example of this is Rupert Murdoch’s
Newscorp, which owns not only the Fox brand, but also broadcast media like
SkyTV, print media like The Times,
and online media like MySpace.com.
On the other hand, and at the same time, Jenkins showed how grassroots
organizations and individual media producers are creating a web of
inter-related and authentically powerful amateur content, usually produced and
consumed on the computer (mainly online). As the top-downs get more powerful,
claimed Jenkins, they are matched by an equally powerful groundswell of
What is true for the larger media industry is true
for the pornography industry as well. As larger pornography companies—like Vivid Video, or New Sensations—branch into newer
technologies like Blu-Ray DVD discs and online HD streaming,
grassroots pornography is also on an uprise. According to Mowlabocus (2010),
the web is “democratizing” pornography, allowing amateur pornographers the
chance to post their own work online (p. 69). These amateur porn artists and
performers can now contribute on scores of websites that allow individuals to
post videos of their own sexual exploits for thousands—if not millions—of
viewers to experience. And sites like XTube, YouPorn and yuvutu offer online spaces like the more
popular (and supposedly cleaner) YouTube where amateur porn creators can “broadcast themselves”—every bit of
themselves, as it turns out. In fact, Mowlabocus argued that key to this new
type of online pornographic productivity is the “community that consumes it”: the
bottom-up community of porn users who support the amateur movement (p. 72). It
is no exaggeration to say that the production and distribution of online
amateur pornography has revolutionized the porn industries across the board.
Indeed, just as the production of pornography has
opened up to millions of people, so too has the consumption of online
pornography. Current trends in investigating online pornography make this point
abundantly clear: software that attempts to block the consumption of
pornography—almost always from underage viewers—is big business. To
investigate the users of pornography, one is met most often with discussions of
appropriateness, age limits, and censorship—all external factors on those
that consume. Perhaps Lindgren (2010) said it best: “The stereotypical image of
the porn consumer is that of a masturbating loner and it is still generally
assumed that most porn consumption takes place in individualized and private
settings” (p. 172). This popular image, spoofed in Dave Chappelle’s comedy sketch show Chappelle’s
Show, illustrates the solitary porn viewer who experiences porn when they “travel
a lot” by themselves. Told by a single man against a plain white background,
the image is telling: because he’s not with other people, he has to take
matters into his own hands (as it were). In other words, popular images of
online porn consumption depict either dangerous sexual predators, lone
masturbators, or merely the lonely.
One aspect of online porn consumption that has not
been investigated as heavily is the interactive potential and actualization
between viewers of pornography and creators of pornography online. Namely, through
what mechanisms does online interaction occurs on and about pornography? What
are the cultural and ideological ramifications of that interaction? And how do
chatting and pornography meld into one type of interactive, participatory
performance? By looking at Web Sex Chats, we can have a unique insight into the
mechanized way sexuality functions in online pornography, and the way that
performance and participation are inextricably linked. For, while there is a
clear-cut delineation between the performer and the audience, the interactive
nature of the chat belies a more complicated relationship between the two.
Ultimately, what WSCs show is not that online pornography allows users to find
others online with whom to share masturbatory experiences, but rather that
there is a change in the very nature of participation online. Participation, at
least in the realm of the Web Sex Chat, is merely a means to an end.
Web Sex Chats
A Web Sex Chat is a highly socialized, yet highly
technologized, aspect of online pornography. What I mean by “technologized” is
that the way interaction occurs on a WSC is not only mediated by technology,
but also resembles the automated and mechanized use of a computer or other
technological device. Further, the technology of the interaction itself becomes
a means of economic control over the users. Although WSCs give the appearance
of one-to-one interlocution, given the nature of the mediation and the acts
that this mediation suggests, the actual chat mirrors the basic
functioning of a computer. In other words, Web Sex Chats turn human sexuality
into an algorithmic and pre-scribed technologized function, not just because of
the mediation, but also because of the inherent mechanization of the sexual
There are hundreds of WSCs on the Internet, many of
which are linked to free or pay subscription-based databases of pornographic
content. Different types of Web Sex Chats exist in online pornography, ranging
from short text-based one-on-one sexual encounters (the classic “cybersex”
interactions on AIM, for example) to forums and comments on porn-based blogs
(like pornstar Kimberly Kane’s rather
tame blog), to group
cyber sex (link requires membership). In this paper I will be concentrating
on just one: Spankwire.com. Spankwire
is an online portal to a variety of pornographic texts: professionally-produced
videos, amateur work, sex chats, and pay-to-view content.
The basic format of WSC has two main components: the “window” onto the
performer and the chat box for the audience (see
). The windowed
performer also has a computer with access to the chat, and can talk back
directly to the audience. The individual participant writes in the box labeled “Enter
text here,” and the dialogue with the performer appears in the larger text book
on the right side of
. Window/Chat WSC
This form of immediate computer-mediated (but
human-to-human) interaction forms the basis for the structure of the chat. And
it gives rise to a number of different uses by the consumers on the chat:
namely, users can indicate to the performer what acts they’d like to see, how
the performer should present her/himself, and what the performer should say as he/she
performs. At the same time, performers have certain skills and performances
that they (claim to) prefer, and the choice of generic expectations is immense.
Web Sex Chat performers come in an almost endless array of shapes, sizes,
kinks, fetishes, attributes and attitudes. For example, while many performers
on the website Spankwire are solo female acts, some are couples performing sex
acts, while others involve more complicated arrangements (see
Bisexual Latino/a threesome).
. Bisexual Web Sex Chat Latino/a
The interaction between the performer and the viewer
on Web Sex Chats becomes a form of participatory culture, of the type Jenkins,
et al. (2009) detailed. As we have seen, a participatory culture is one where there
low barriers to [consumers’] artistic expression ... strong support for
creating and sharing creations and … members also believe their contributions
matter and feel some degree of social connection with one another. (p. xi)
Examples of participatory culture abound online, as
witnessed in the explosion of social networking, wiki-writing, blog authorship and Twittering: in all these consumer-driven
technologies, the production of material does not rest with professional media
producers, but rather comes from the hands of individual users (a mechanism
that Bruns, 2008, termed “produsage”). The term “participatory culture” comes
from the way in which individuals consumers can participate in the creation of
their own media: a practice which digital technology facilitates.
Web Sex Chats represent participatory culture writ large:
not only are the consumers of this online pornography able to effectively watch
the type of performance they want to watch, but they are apparently (and
literally) able to scribe that
performance into being. To be a consumer of a Web Sex Chat is to seemingly
participate in the sexualization process: one does not just watch someone dance
(a la dance hall peep shows), but rather tells the performer what to do, how to
sashay, what to wear, and what acts to perform. Of course, the performer is
free to not perform any acts he/she doesn’t want to, but the mechanism is in
place for highly structured interaction that features ritualized sexual
This structured interaction is not new: far from it;
for the most basic functionality of the web since its inception has been based
in the participatory logic of web chatting. As Gauntlett (2004) described, chat
is not only one of the most basic forms of internet communication, but has also
become integrated into most other forms of websites (p. 17). Further, online
web chat has often been situated as an aspect of web sexuality as well. O’Brien
and Shapiro (2004) showed how anonymous web chats, like Bulletin Board Systems,
MUDs [Multi-User Dungeons] and IRC communication can help facilitate dialogue
about sex and sexual-related issues (p. 115). Smith and Kollock’s (1999) edited
collection illustrates the importance of communities in online discourse. Past
research into computer-mediated communication has shown, for instance, that
human connectivity lies at the heart of the interaction, not technology: as
Walther (1996) shows in his classic article, computer-mediated communication
allows us to “selectively minimize or maximize our interpersonal effects” (p.
33). It’s not just that computer-mediated communication allows greater access,
but that it allows us to control the very nature of communication itself.
Thus, chatting online is a non-threatening form of
communication, as users are often anonymous and, especially in text-based chat,
identifiably only by their pre-scribed textual characteristics (see Donath,
1999, pp. 33–44). Indeed, what characterizes web chatting more than any
other feature is the way in which it is entirely voluntary: participants on
both sides of the chat have full facility to leave or enter the dialogue at
their own impetus.
The social relationships formed during any type of
web chat lie at the heart of forming online communities. By online community, I
refer to a group of people that share certain characteristics, affinities,
interests, or traits and that meet to chat or dialogue on the internet. As
Wellman and Gulia (1999) have shown, online communities are much debated in
scholarship of Internet space: and in the decade since they wrote their
influential article, the debate continues to rage. What has changed in the
intervening ten years is the rise and eventual dominance of social network
sites like Facebook or MySpace. Facebook, in particular, is (as of
Nov 2009), one of the most populated social networks online, with over 350
million subscribers signed up.
Unlike with web chats, however, and perhaps what has made them so popular,
social network site users provide personal details that represent their own
characteristics, including photographs and videos. By effacing the anonymity
that came with original web chats, social network sites have grown through
personalization. The net effect of sites like Facebook is the formation of
visible social networks: I can see with whom I am “friends” on Facebook, and with
whom my friends are “friends.” However, this is a different form of community
from what Wellman and Gulia describe in their article: for, as boyd and Ellison (2007) point out, it’s a community based in already-extant
networks. Indeed, as they write,
networking is possible on these sites, it is not the primary practice on many
of them, nor is it what differentiates them from other forms of
computer-mediated communication… On many of the large SNSs, participants are
not necessarily “networking” or looking to meet new people; instead, they are
primarily communicating with people who are already a part of their extended
social network. (¶5–6)
A type of communication common in web chats, as
indicated by the popularity of ChatRoulette, is anonymous chat, or chat with strangers.
But this isn’t networking; it’s investigation. This is not to say that
anonymous chat is the only chat online, or even the most popular (most SNSs
like Facebook have chat functions built in, and the email service Gmail,
provided by Google, has a chat integrated
into the interface), but rather that it’s a common—one of the most basic—ways
of communicating online. As boyd (2010) indicated in her blog entry about
ChatRoulette, it reminded her of
quirkiness of the Internet that [she] grew up with…. For most users of all ages
– but especially teens – the Internet today is about socializing
with people you already know. But [she] used to love the randomness of the
Internet… talking to all sorts of random people online. (¶1–3)
Ultimately, what Web Sex Chats have in common with
the traditional chats that formed the backbone of the pre-commercial internet
is the way individuals who are seemingly disconnected in the physical world can
come together anonymously in the virtual world. It’s a form of communalization:
by recognizing similar likes and characteristics, users of WSCs have recourse
to participate in their own form of community online.
And this is where WSCs become most significant: not
because they represent a new form of sexuality, or because they are a way of
integrating live performance in an interactive environment, but rather because
they very deliberately hearken back to “ye olde” days of the Internet, where
participation, interaction and community were anonymous, powerful and ubiquitous.
I believe, however, that WSC are a form of web participation that belies the
participatory culture of contemporary “Web 2.0” discourse. Instead, what Web
Sex Chats indicate is a turn towards the automation, mechanization and
technologization of sexuality in a form unlike what we’ve seen on the web. In
the next section, I describe Web Sex Chats more specifically, and provide
illustrations of what I mean by automated, mechanized, and technologized.
. Spankwire.com Main Page
Sex Chats on Spankwire
and collates numerous online sexual experiences. Spankwire.com is a free
service that offers streaming video, but also provides a pay service for
viewing additional content. Further, the videos that are advertised on the site
are a mix of professional porn and amateur posted porn In
see portals to a number of different locations in the Spankwire canon: at the
top of the page there are tabs for different video locations, including “Most
Viewed,” “Top Rated,” and, importantly for WSCs, the “Live Girls” tab, which
takes users to the Web Sex Chats.
. The Web Sex
Chats on Spankwire.com are not the pay-per-view files on the site, but are some
of the most advertised (a popup appears when one first enters the site).
I believe that Web Sex Chats represent an automated
view of human sexuality, one based not in interpersonal or human-to-human
interactivity, but rather in a computerized version of Human-Computer
Interaction. The basis of any form of computerized information processing
follows a simple IPOS formula: that is, any computer operation features Input,
Processing, Output, and Storage. In order to be a “computer,” at its most
basic, one must be able to input data (in whatever form that data takes); the
computer must do something to that data (in electronic computers, this is
usually done via algorithms, or sets of automated rules); the computer must
then display, in some form, that data; and there must be a way to record that
outputted data for a particular timeframe.
The Web Sex Chat fits into this IPOS model, and
becomes, by virtue of the same participatory impulses that have traditionally
been associated with an interactive modality of viewership, an automated
system. In other words, by themselves the users, performers and technologies of
Web Sex Chats do not form a technologized and sexualized system; but put
together in an interactive format, the three form a highly ritualized IPOS
model. Only through the participatory interaction between the users’s input,
the performers processing and output, and the computer’s storage, is the
pornographic act complete. It is, therefore, the perfect three-way.
For example, in
see how the mechanism of the WSC itself solicits input from the viewers (via
the chat box, at the bottom of the screen), to which the performer responds.
. Chat Window; she audibly
responds "I thought you'd say that!"
By inputting data into the chat system, the user
enters into what appears to be a human-to-human interaction, but because that
input is being read and processed in a particular way by this particularly
performer, it automates the process. The performer in
the input “can i see a tittle” [sic] over
her computer’s microphone to all the viewers with an “I thought you would say
that”—it should come as no surprise that by watching a WSC, a user is
interested in participating in the sex aspect of the show.
The output of the WSC is equally easy to spot: the performer takes the input
that is given to him/her and, after processing the request, outputs the
performance. For example, the performer in
in “private chat,” which means that the user has requested to see the output
processed from their input. Private Chat seems to be the goal of WSC
performers, for users must pay to see the performances. Thus, while it is free
to chat and see soft-core images of clothed performers talking about sex, it takes
a membership to see them actually perform. Importantly, only by participating
with the performer— interacting in a “web 2.0” manner—can consumers
view what they originally logged on to find: sexual content. Participation draws them in, but ultimately also closes them off.
. Private Chat
The storage stage of the IPOS cycle is characterized
by the way in which any information can be stored for a length of time. In
terms of Web Sex Chats, storage can be seen in the mechanized way that the user
views the performance and the computer hardware that captures it all. A viewer
of a WSC may not be actively having sex with the performer, but the interaction
between the two indicates a level of participation that mirrors a highly
ritualized sexual activity. This ritualization turns a normally participatory
medium into a highly mechanized and structured one.
By “mechanized” I refer to the fact that Web Sex
Chats offer a service that turns online sexual gratification into a
machine-like system of call and response. There is no surprise with Web Sex
Chat—no spontaneity, no unexpected or strange sexual element. It is much
like pornography on DVD in this case: the performer simply acts for the camera.
What is surprising in this case, however, is that this type of performance also
ultimately rests on the participation of the users to complete the machine.
This fact would seem to contradict the non-spontaneous nature of the chat: anytime
one gets a participatory medium, one should expect the unexpected.
Indeed, one would expect that, given the variety of
performers on the Spankwire Web Sex Chat pages, there would always be someone
new to view or something new to see. In
see the wide variety of performers under just one category: this is the
homepage for the Web Sex Chats, which features just female performers of a
particular, culturally-valued size, shape and age. The list of links on the left
offer many more types of people to view, from Redheaded, to Leather fetishists,
to Bisexual Guys. Yet, even given this variety there is only so much that one
can see in the Web Sex Chat: some nude modeling, some masturbation, sex (if the
viewer chooses “couples” or “group sex”) of various flavors.
. Spankwire.com Performers
Looking more closely at one of the performers,
), we can
see how her performance actually (pre)figures more closely the computerized
technologization of sexuality instead of a sex show. Yet, as we can see, the
level of participation in this chat is high: there are at least four people
chatting (and who knows how many more just lurking, or watching the chat), and
each requests a different type of “service”: benno999 wants her to take “the dress … off,” jimmybobob15
comments that she’s “hot”
her to blow him a kiss, dharm.kh writes that he/she would like to take a trip
to “vegas” [sic] with VIPBLONDE, and brian writes that he/she’s 27 and asks
where she’s from. The performer, VIPBLONDE, has therefore many options of what
act she’s going to perform—a striptease? A sexual fantasy? A masturbatory
kiss towards the camera?
. Mechanized Sexuality
What she chooses to do, however, is write “wanna
play? Join my pvt bb.”
words, she effectively subverts any type of interaction in favor of forcing the
consumer’s interaction into an already prescribed position of sexual observer. Her
performance, therefore, is already prescribed into being: by virtue of the fact
that she has particular attributes and styles of performance advertised, there
are only a few “varieties” of the act that she will do. Given this, the user may request a performance of anything,
but his/her participation becomes naught when compared with what he/she is
actually shown. The request is already predetermined by the very fact that the
performance occurs in this one spot by this one performer in this one website.
There is very little “participation” here; and although the users would appear
to have control over their sexual gratification experience, in reality the
entire presentation, show and performer is ritualized and mechanized. Users don’t
particularly chat with each other on Spankwire, although their participation
within the sex text itself becomes a necessary mechanism for entry into the
Ultimately, the use of participation in these Web Sex
Chats is predicated not on the way in which performers follow the requests or
the chat of the group of viewers that watch, but rather on the automatic,
mechanized way in which the performance is enacted. By granting the semblance
of participation, users are given the feeling that they are in control of the
performers—dance when they say dance, strip when they say strip. But in
reality, because the mediation of the performer prefigures the sexuality of
these Web Sex Chats, they become predetermined events of sexuality. The
participation extolled by Jenkins (2006a, 2007b) is subverted, as the end
result of the consumer’s user-generated participatory content is turned back on
itself to force a one-way interaction between performer and viewer.
Indeed, the act of participation is always already
performed via the gaze of the performer back at the participants that watch
that performance. “The gaze” figures most prominently in the work of Laura
Mulvey (1990), who in 1975 published the now-classic “Visual Pleasure and
Narrative Cinema.” In this article, she described the way that classic
Hollywood cinema focused “the gaze” of the audience on the women on screen by
focusing the camera on the on-screen women, focusing the attention of male (and
female) actors on the on-screen women, and by focusing the attention of the
audience on the on-screen women. In this way, women (at least in Classical
) were the “bearer[s]
of meaning, not maker[s] of meaning” (p. 29). Specifically, Mulvey asserted,
women onscreen were viewed as the passive receptors of a male gaze, which
objectifies and typifies the female present in the film: and this gaze is
dominant across filmic representations of women. Thus, it’s not that all films
articulate a male-centered narrative, but rather that all films inherently utilized
by default an established system of “gazing” that articulates and reinforces
the dominant ideological “gaze” of society at women. Articulating this “to-be-looked-at-ness”
of women in classical Hollywood cinema, Mulvey used Freudian psychoanalytic theory
to describe a visual situation where women were rendered powerless by the
dominant patriarchal structure of “looking” and “acting” in the cinema.
Mulvey’s (1990) critique of how images of women are subjugated
in Hollywood most heavily resonates with Web Sex Chats. There are numerous “gazes”
in WSC, none perhaps more forceful than the gaze of the viewer at the
performer. But what I believe is more interesting than this gaze (for, this is
the gaze of most dominant pornographic visual stimulation), is the return gaze.
I don’t mean the gaze of the performer back at the viewer (unless one is
playing ChatRoulette, the performer cannot see the viewer), but rather the
mirrored view the performer gets of his/her own words displayed in the chat. In
a sense, the viewer performs for him/herself during the WSC, articulating a
discourse of sexuality that self-reflexively contributes to the gaze of the
performer. The performance is not just of the sex act, but also the dialogue about that self-same sex act.
Yet, as we’ve seen, this dialogue is ultimately ineffectual: mechanized,
ritualized, automatic. Thus, unlike Mulvey’s assertion that the onscreen
personas of women posses a powerless, “silent image,” it is the onscreen
persona of the viewer whose
participation is ultimately silenced by the controlling image of the dominant
performer. Although Web Sex Chats may appear to be an active medium for sexual
performance, the underlying participation of the user is reflexively turned on
its head and reflects a passivity back onto the viewers themselves.
Web Sex Chats as one component of a larger system of online pornography reveals
an inherent tension: namely, the viewer of pornographic content must, by
definition, have control over the types of content he/she wants to view, but at
the same time, he/she must relinquish a certain amount of that control to the
performance. Participation becomes a means to an end: the economic control over
the users. As users participate in the sexual experience, forming their own
texts with the performer, they are drawn into an economic arrangement that
begins when the participation ends. This tension presents a situation mirrored
anytime one studies the way audiences interpret and investigate media content:
in studies of fans, for example (which interestingly parallels the study of
pornography users; see Lindgren, 2010) one must always negotiate the way fans
navigate through what media producers create (and of what they are fans) and
their own interpretation of that content (see the “moral authority” of fans;
Jenkins, 2006b, pp. 54–7). Studying online pornography, therefore, offers
us a way to peer through these thorny issues in, what is at its most basic, an
image-saturated, sexual text.
imagine, therefore, the future of interactive, online pornography. Is it the
consumer’s participation with a paid performer, one that hinges on the
interactive potential of a community of other consumers, all vying for “private
chat”? Or is it something more akin to ChatRoulette, where interaction is a
necessarily part of the experience? As I was researching this article, I spent
time on ChatRoullete, where I found many images of penis’s being flashed at me
); but I also found ads for a pornographic version of ChatRoulette (Figure 10
. ChatRoulette Penis
Interestingly, at RouletteBabes.com,
the participation here requires “verification” of age (and credit rating); yet,
the only interaction one gets is with the performer, not with other consumers.
I would argue, in fact, that RouletteBabes.com isn’t a Web Sex Chat at all, as
no real chatting occurs.
Web Sex Chats present one unique entryway into understanding a culture obsessed
with both images and technology: it is the perfect metaphor for the way new
technology interfaces with today’s human faces. By participating in a
completely ritualized and technologized performance of sexuality, the audience
of WSCs integrate themselves into the sex act; but in doing so, that sex act
itself becomes mechanized. Although contemporary media practitioners may, as
Soukup (2009) demonstrated, attempt to fetishize and sexualize technology, it
is technology itself that is changing the face of sexuality through audience
interaction, through mechanization, and, ironically enough, through
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Her analysis looked specifically at Norwegian
Waskul (2009) illustrated how visual pornography is
Interestingly, McKee (2009) looks at how scholars
look at consumers of pornography.
The DVD Pirates by Digital Playground is representative of this new upsurge in technological quality – not only
was it one of the first pornographic films released in High Definition, but it
also had extremely high production values (McGinn, 2005, ¶2).
Although there are many types, I focus on Spankwire
because its sex chat features both images and text, and utilizes both market
and social interactions.
This puts the population of Facebook as greater than
the population of the United States; and if it were a geographic locality, it
would be the third most populous country on the planet, after China and India.
Although, as we will see later in this essay, not all
Web Sex Chatters are women.
See Manovich (2001) for more on New Media
There are special sections set aside on Spankwire for
non-nude, non-sexual chat: where users can go online simply to talk to someone
else. However, given that these spaces are deliberately designated as
“non-nude, non-sexual,” they are not, by definition, Web Sex Chats, and do not
fall under the purview of this article.
The abbreviation “yh” in this context means “You’re
“pvt bb” refers to a private show, meaning a
Mulvey later problematized her own analysis: see