Patrolling Sexuality and Gender in Digital Social Spaces

Sonja Vivienne, Brady Robards, Crystal Abidin, Paul Byron

Abstract


All social spaces are governed by rules, both spoken and unspoken. Gender and sexuality are especially subjected to policing and governance, both formally and informally. This panel presents four examples in which sexuality and gender are ‘patrolled’ in digital social spaces, through both explicit rules and implicit ideals: hook-up/dating app codes of conduct, informal digitally mediated sex education in Singapore, the circulation of pornography and ‘sexual storytelling’ on subreddit r/TotallyStraight, and boundary patrolling of memory and materiality in a trans and gender diverse (TGD) community. In the first paper, discourses of hook-up/dating app rules and etiquette are considered, drawing from focus groups with same-sex attracted young people from Sydney. Unlike in other social network sites, user conduct cannot be publicly discussed on Grindr and similar apps since these offer no space for public interaction beyond static profiles. This ensures that one’s 'rules of play' are developed through practice, and this encompasses ethical practices of self-formation (Foucault 1982) in which users consider how their ethical conduct reflects or departs from the suspected 'norms' of a platform. The communicative limits of these apps also ensures that 'private chats' bleed into other spaces, with screen grabs commonly shared among friends and peers. In focus groups, users described these apps as unregulated, gave examples of improper use, and discussed their personal rules of engagement. Drawing from Foucault's work on pleasure and the ethical subject, this paper highlights the hook-up/dating app dual process of negotiating one’s relation to self and others. Here, personal codes of conduct are recognised as unstable, yet are necessarily deployed for the app user’s ethical self-formation. The second paper examines how Influencers act as informal, digitally mediated educators of sex and sexuality in Singapore. Institutionalized sexuality education in Singapore undertakes a conservative, medicalised approach that preaches abstinence, and is premised on promoting healthy (heterosexual) relationships between married couples for reproduction purposes, to uphold the stable family unit. It assigns parents, the school, students, and the community as stakeholders in maintaining a comprehensive sexuality education. However, young people are increasingly turning to Influencers who are trendy, clout rich, and influential on the internet for first-hand ‘lifestyle’ information and advice. In response, some Influencers use personal experiences of sex and sexuality to lure traffic and increase their viewership. Through ethnographic fieldwork conducted with these Influencers and content analysis of one specific Influencers’ social media between December 2012 and July 2013, this paper examines how Influencers have stepped in as informal educators of sex and sexuality education to provide alternative approaches amidst a state-controlled hegemonic discourse. The third paper centres on a case study of the ‘Totally Straight’ (r/TotallyStraight) ‘subreddit’ on social media site reddit. r/TotallyStraight serves as a web forum for sharing gay pornography amongst men who identify as straight, governed by a strict set of framing rules that determine what is and what is not appropriate in this space. This paper draws on a small-scale study of the r/TotallyStraight subreddit, conducted over a period of three months. Analysis reveals that while r/TotallyStraight is largely used as a forum for sharing porn depicting men, it also serves as a space for affirmation and sharing personal narratives related to contested ‘mostly straight’ sexual identities. The moderators of the subreddit, and the users themselves, foster a supportive, non-judgemental discourse in the telling of ‘sexual stories’ (Plummer 1995). It is argued that this phenomenon could be representative of broader cultural shifts towards less rigidly defined sexual identities, and that this case study points to the potentials for digital social spaces to act as sites for organising and affirming non-dominant identity-projects. The fourth and final paper draws on a trans and gender diverse (TGD) case study in social media storytelling. It explores the ways TGD participants patrol the boundaries of personal and familial archives, and the digital trace that affirms or counters shared memories. It considers the turf wars that take place online between different stakeholders of material identity (including Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists or TERFS). Even individuals apparently united in the LGBTIQ acronym engage in disputes over collective representation and prioritising strategies aimed at legal reform. Regardless of a digital trace that can seem permanent and definite, memory and materiality are subjective frontiers that shapeshift in different contexts and with different perspectives. This paper argues that sophisticated negotiations undertaken by TGD people, particularly around coherence and congruence, demonstrate skills that constitute a kind of broadly applicable playbook for surviving modern networked sociality and civic engagement. Collectively these papers represent some fascinating ways in which definitions and performances of sex and gender are patrolled both by people inside and outside of arbitrary boundaries. While previously these boundaries have appeared self-evident (e.g male, female, gay, straight, private, public, normal, unusual etc.) these rich descriptions of networked social spaces reveal otherwise.

Keywords


gender, identity, queer, rules, sexuality

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