New Media, Sex, and Culture in the 21st Century

Jonathan Lillie, special issue editor

Loyola University Maryland

Sex has a long history of being subjected to technologies of observation, regulation, enhancement, and representation. Certainly many of the discourses and technologies of the Internet have been preoccupied with it, even though there have been periods when U.S. government and other groups have tried to make it harder for people to find sex online. One of the messages of the "cyberporn scare" of the mid to late 1990s in the U.S. was: It's here, and it's bad! However in the years since this social scare has mostly played itself out online sex has become almost mainstream (Lillie, 2011). Foucault (1978) observed how sundry discourses of sexuality espouse a veil of silence and prudishness towards sex while at the same time positioning people to seek knowledge about it, observe it and talk about it. As I argue in a chapter of Miyase Christensen et al.'s (2011) new book Online Territories: Globalization, Mediated Practice and Social the "rhetoric of the cyberporn scare asked society to wall up and hide pornography, but ended up forcing people to accept it and engage it more directly, whether it is to talk about it, joke about it, actively seek it, or actively avoid it" (p. 44). More recently, web2.0 social media networks and digital production tools have made it even easier for people to publically talk about sex and to publish their own sex online for anyone to see.

The proliferation of sexual media has of course not gone unnoticed or unexplored and demands continuous creative and intellectual efforts to comprehend its significance and how it impacts us as individuals and a global society. With this goal in mind, Steve Coy and I have endeavored to collect and deliver a multidisciplinary exhibition, "New Media, Sex, and Culture in the 21st Century," drawing together perspectives from the arts, humanities and social sciences. The end result is this collaboration between NMEDIAC and the Museum of New Art, which features the work of scholars and artists who explore many aspects of online pornography, sexual identity and performance, technologies of desire and pleasure, family politics, liberation and repression, prostitution and sexual violence, and many other topics. My introduction to this special issue of NMEDIAC highlights a few of the thematic connections between the articles published here and some of the artwork presented in the companion online catalogue for the MONA exhibition.

The nude human body is often one of the first subjects objectified through new innovations in visual media due to the seemingly ageless human interests in both sex and making money. In his article, "Participatory Porno: The Technologization of Sexuality," Paul Booth (2010) considers the relatively new phenomenon of WSC (Web Sex Chats), which is the online world's version of live sex shows or strip clubs: online services that combine sexually explicit live video conferences with text chat. He concludes that WSC is a very useful object of study for developing deeper understandings of our culture's infatuation with visual media and technology. For Booth, WSC is "the perfect metaphor" for the interactions between humans and machines that are engendered everyday via people's sundry uses of new media. "By participating in a completely ritualized and technologized performance of sexuality," he argues, "the audience of WSCs integrate themselves into the sex act; but in doing so, that sex act itself becomes mechanized."

Similar, to WSC, Ian Haig's stop motion video, Super Human Factory, offers both a literal and figurative vision of the merging of human sexuality and machines. The video appropriates motifs from 1960s Japanese pop culture into a futuristic space-sex odyssey with "displays of artificial insemination, mutant breeding pods, alien sperm harvesting, and other assorted sci fi scenarios around sex, the body and technology." Another video in the exhibition, Auticko, by Ondrej Brody and Kristofer Paetau, speaks directly to the fact that so many contemporary experiences of sex are mediated by technology, but still continue to be predicated on dominant power relations. The video records the two artists' using mobile phones to give instructions to a person directing a sex show in the Jiri Svestka Gallery in Prague.

Two articles in the special issue address the potential impact on children from easily accessible sexually explicit materials on the web. In his essay, "Socialization and Acculturation Implications of Sexual Content on YouTube," Tony DeMars (2010) suggests that there appears to be no discernible shared ethical standard for posting sexually suggestive content on the hugely popular video-sharing site YouTube. De Mars notes that a large amount of "soft-core" video and text (user comments) are available on YouTube and similar sites that are publically available, which begs the question of how this might effect the sexual norms of the generation of children who are growing up using the Internet, and social media in particular. Although different research traditions, such as empirical and critical, can shed more light on this issue, de Mars observes that "a hegemonic battle is being negotiated regarding what constitutes appropriate sexual discourse and behavior in modern society," wherein the world of social media, with its underdeveloped ethical standards, will increasingly be a major player.

Samuel York's Nicebootydance explores the well-documented phenomenon of "booty poppin" videos on YouTube.  York's video shows a Firefox browser caught in an infinite feedback loop as it streams one of these dance performances. "I feel that the video peers into the infinity mirror generated by contemporary culture," York explains. He argues that the publishers of these videos tap into sexual themes because they are interested in collecting page hits. "YouTube users are in rapid exhibitionist competition for the most subscribers to their page, most views to their vlog," York concludes. These "videos draw viewers entering related search terms, interrupting their search for elusory sexual content." Artist Nia Burks is also intrigued by the cultural paradox that these videos present. She notes that digital production tools and online communities of interest allow people to creatively explore their unique selves. But the booty popping videos are typically done as copycat performances of other YouTube posters. "With the availability to perform for an audience to which we hold no accountability, we are truly afforded freedom of identity," she writes. "So why— when faced with the intoxicating possibility of the infinite—do we choose to imitate each other?"

The mainstreaming of sexually explicit representation has been accelerated by the Internet and most recently social media, but this process certainly began much earlier than the popularization of the web in the 1990s. Nicola Steffen's (2010) article, "'Porn Chic' – The Sexualization of Children and Young People," takes a historical and theoretical look at how porn has gone from totally taboo to chic over the last several decades. "These developments have not only altered our visual habits and moral norms, but have also resulted in profound changes in understanding of gender roles and stereotypes," she writes. "It is first and foremost children and teenagers who face the greatest challenges in confronting and dealing with this mass of sexual information." Cara Judea Alhadeff's video essay "Sexual Ethics: The Erotics of the Uncanny" offers an example of one person's attempt, from childhood through adulthood, to confront and understand discourses of sex (e.g., censorship and definitions of "beautiful" nudity) through her own artwork and reading of critical theorists such as Cixous and Bataille. The video essay overlays a reading of the text with samples of her photo shoots, which utilize the human body and other organic materials to explore these issues. "My intention is to move beyond the question of who is disfigured by whose power, and challenge how that disfigurement can be reconceptualized as a vibrant and affirmative collaborative social movement."

Two articles, "Alternative to What? Alternative Pornography, Suicide Girls and Re-appropriation of the Pornographic Image," by Matthew Wysocki (2010) and, "My Body, My Blog: Female Body Image and Sexuality in the Iranian 'Weblogestan'," by Leva A. Zand (2010) examine how individuals from certain cultural groups use new media networks to construct and perform their sexual identities. Even since the early days of the web, the platform has attracted publishers who offered pornography catered to specific sexual identity and orientation groups (e.g., see Balderston, 2004, on lesbian porn). Wysocki analyzes one of the many sites that allow users to express their own subcultural, "alterative," sexual identity by publishing self-made, self-reflective explicit photos and videos. "What can be made of a site that claims it is celebrating a nontraditional beauty of women yet presents them as nude models?" he asks. "Are the models presented in a way that does provide a true alternative, presenting the women as powerful subjects instead of passive objects?" Like Alhadeff's video essay, Wysocki's article examines the fact that nude and more explicit media representations today rarely escape the vast intertexual veil of mainstream pornography, its stereotypes, conventions, ubiquity, and gaze. Two nude photos in the exhibition taken by Hugo Fernandes seem to successfully take on this challenge. Fernandes asked posters found on gay sex websites to be photographed in their bedrooms. These photos counteract the hyper-real sexual identities performed on social media sex sites, focusing instead on human fragility and intimacy.

Not all Internet users who use new media to engage in sexual discourse do so to seek sex or post visual depictions of their sex. Some of earliest studies of text-based CMS (computer-mediated communication) predating the web observed people developing online communities where they could express themselves in ways that they did not feel comfortable doing in their homes and/or physical communities. This is one of the main reasons several women in Iran have started blogging about sex-related issues according to Leva Zand. Zand's article chronicles an intense debate that raged for one month in the Iranian 'Weblogestan,' over questions of whether it is appropriate for women to write about sex online, as well as issues of female sexual pleasure, sex education, and women's rights. While "some taboos were challenged," she writes, "women [bloggers] were criticized by other women for promoting this issue in the public sphere. The majority of women preferred to stay silent and respected determined social norms prohibiting the description of sexual acts and desires."

Foucault recognized decades ago that regardless of national or cultural variations, power relations are always at the core of sexual regulation. Tomasz Sikora's (2010) article, "Liaisons Dangereux: Pornography, Modernity, Power," looks at the legal history of pornography to better understand how sexuality has been disciplined thought the politics of the body. "Caught up in the operations of biopower on the one hand, and intimately linked to the development of contemporary mass media on the other," he writes, "pornography is alternately cast as a serious threat to modern bodies politic, or as a viable road to cultural transgression and liberation." Certainly both of these themes are referenced in some of the works of art displayed in the MONA exhibition and now in the full online catalogue, such as the work of Richard Joel Bannister, Linda Ford, Yuliya Lanina, and Kris Wlodarski.

Sikora concludes his article by arguing that pornography may help us to "rethink 'life' and 'politics' at large. What does pornography tell us about the allegedly universal condition called 'humanity'? About bare life? About sociality? About our political existence? But also: who owns and controls our bodies? Who metes out our pleasures? Who invents them?" Although pornography has been around in many forms for several centuries, today explicit media on the web seem to be public face or mirror of society's sexual interests, knowledge and pursuits. Freya Bjorg Olafson's video A/S/L (age/sex/location) "is inspired by the mantra 'I post therefore I am,' whereby Internet users legitimize their existence by documenting their lives and uploading this media to personal webpages and blogs." Olafson and other artists featured in the exhibition explore people's desire to share their lives through mass publication. Many cultural critics say new media technology is itself to blame for the eroding of private spaces in favor of public revelation of almost every detail of everyday life. However, the artists and writers featured here demonstrate the depth people's very active participation in revealing these private moments, especially sexual ones. Where this desire to "share" comes from is an important topic for study. However, it seems clear that it does not come from altruism, or technology, but rather through performances of sexual identity.


Balderston, M. (2004). Pornography Online, Lesbian Style. In David Gauntlett and Robert Horsley (eds). Web.Studies, 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Booth, P. (2010). Participatory Porno: The Technologization of Sexuality. NMEDIAC: The Journal of New Media & Culture, 7 (1).

Christensen, André Jansson and Christian Christensen (Eds.) Online Territories: Globalization, Mediated Practice and Social Space. New York: Peter Lang.

DeMars, T. R. (2010). Socialization and Acculturation Implications of Sexual Content on YouTube . NMEDIAC: The Journal of New Media & Culture, 7 (1).

Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage.

Lillie, J. (2011). The Domestication of Online Pornography: How Cyperporn found a home in our homes. In Miyase Christensen, André Jansson and Christian Christensen (Eds.) Online Territories: Globalization, Mediated Practice and Social Space. New York: Peter Lang.

Sikora, T. (2010). Liaisons Dangereux: Pornography, Modernity, Power. NMEDIAC: The Journal of New Media & Culture, 7 (1).

Steffen, N. "Porn Chic" – The Sexualization of Children and Young People. NMEDIAC: The Journal of New Media & Culture, 7 (1).

Wysocki, M. (2010). Alternative to What? Alternative Pornography, Suicide Girls and the Dominant Gaze. NMEDIAC: The Journal of New Media & Culture, 7 (1).

Zand, L. A. (2010). My Body, My Blog: Female Body Image and Sexuality in the Iranian "Weblogestan." NMEDIAC: The Journal of New Media & Culture, 7 (1).

New Media, Sex, and Culture in the 21st Century


MONA Detroit exhibition Oct. 2 - 31, 2010, with works by Ana Garces Kiley (above) and Brian Seldt (below)

Kris Wlodarski.


Booth's (2010, above) screencapture of WSC

Haig's Super Human Factory (above) and Brody and Paetau's Auticko (below)

Samuel York's Nicebootydance (above) and Nia Burks' Booty Meat (below)


Image from Steffen (2010, above)

Alhadeff's video essay (above). Read the full text of the essay here.


Image from Wysocki (2010, above)


Vincent, Fort Lauderdale, 2008, by Hugo Fernandes (above)

Iranian bloggers

Image from Zand (2010, above) and Richard Joel Bannister's Slumberparty (below)


Linda Ford's Self Discipline (above)

Yuliya Lanina's Mishka (above) Kris Wlodarski's Sistersmall (below)

New Media, Sex, and Culture in the 21st Century

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