Participatory Porno: The Technologization of Sexuality

Paul Booth

College of Communication

DePaul University

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 technology.

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 control.

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 ends.

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. [1] 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 [2] 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 time. In Figure 1, we can 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.


Figure 1 . ChatRoulette

Participatory Cultures

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 technology:

All of 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 practices:

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. (pp. 17–18)

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; Slayden, 2010). [3]

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. 18)

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 [4] 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 bottom-up media.

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, [5] 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 process itself.

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 is an online portal to a variety of pornographic texts: professionally-produced videos, amateur work, sex chats, and pay-to-view content. [6] The basic format of WSC has two main components: the “window” onto the performer and the chat box for the audience (see Figure 2 ). 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 Figure 2 .


Figure 2 . 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 Figure 3 , a Bisexual Latino/a threesome).


Figure 3 . Bisexual Web Sex Chat Latino/a Threesome

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 are

relatively 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 performances.

Web Chats

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. [7] 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,

While 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

the 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.


Figure 4 . Main Page

Web Sex Chats on Spankwire collects and collates numerous online sexual experiences. 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 Figure 4 we can 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. [8] . The Web Sex Chats on 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. [9]

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 Figure 5 we can 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.


Figure 5 . 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 Figure 5 responds to 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. [10] 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 Figure 6 is currently 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.


Figure 6 . 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 Figure 7 we can 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.


Figure 7 . Performers

Looking more closely at one of the performers, VIPBLONDE ( Figure 8 ), 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” [11] and wants her to blow him a kiss, 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?


Figure 8 . Mechanized Sexuality

What she chooses to do, however, is write “wanna play? Join my pvt bb.” [12] In other 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 actual pornography.

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 Hollywood Cinema [13] ) 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.


Studying 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.

Let’s 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 (Figure 9 ); but I also found ads for a pornographic version of ChatRoulette (Figure 10 ).


Figure 9 . ChatRoulette Penis


Figure 10 .

Interestingly, at, 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 isn’t a Web Sex Chat at all, as no real chatting occurs.’s 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 participation.


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[1] Her analysis looked specifically at Norwegian pornography usage.

[2] Waskul (2009) illustrated how visual pornography is pedagogically effective.

[3] Interestingly, McKee (2009) looks at how scholars look at consumers of pornography.

[4] See “Who Owns What” at the Columbia Journalism Review:

[5] 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).

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] Although, as we will see later in this essay, not all Web Sex Chatters are women.

[9] See Manovich (2001) for more on New Media representation.

[10] 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.

[11] The abbreviation “yh” in this context means “You’re Hot”

[12] “pvt bb” refers to a private show, meaning a “pay-per-view” performance.

[13] Mulvey later problematized her own analysis: see Mulvey (1999).


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