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Gender and the Internet: Sex, Sexism, and Sexuality
(Released May 1999)

 
  by Lisa R. Hoffman, M.A.  
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Overview

Theorizing about how the Internet is changing society as we know it has become a hot topic of sociological debate and research as the year 2000 fast approaches. Invented by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) in 1969, the Internet has evolved from a communication conduit between scientists and engineers engaged in defense work to an information dissemination tool used to resist human rights abuses worldwide.

In conjunction with its macroscale change potential, the Internet has generated sociological speculation over transformations it may unleash at society's microlevel. In particular, scholars theorize the way Internet use impacts how we come to understand the self-how we experience our identities in a disembodied form. And, while some view with excitement its potential for liberation, others see interactions with and in cyberspace as exacerbating already existing relations of oppression. One axis of power that has come under considerable scrutiny is gender. In terms of sex, sexism, and sexuality, it appears that the Internet solves some social problems, while creating new ones and magnifying old ones.

Social psychologist David Schnarch1 reports that sex is the most popular topic searched on the World Wide Web. Clearly, society at large is keenly interested in this subject. Sandra R. Leiblum2 asserts that the Internet can play a positive role in improving the quality of sex lives. Since disembodied users do not have to worry about appearance deficits, romance in cyberspace can help improve social skills and facilitate intimacy between people. The Web is extolled for its potential to serve as a sex education site for adolescent users. The Internet can be used as a sexual therapy tool as well, providing a sense of community for those suffering shame and disrupted lives due to uncommon sexual preferences.

By frightening extension of the last, the Internet has been used to further the activity of pedophiles. Peggy Y. Kim and J. Michael Bailey3 describe a case wherein a video camcorder in conjunction with the Web was used to tape and disseminate the abuse of a young child in real-time. Similarly, the Internet is used to spread pornographic images of violence toward women. Less violently, though also debilitating to human relations, Internet use can inhibit, versus facilitate, intimacy between people. As Snarch4 states, a cyberrelationship may approximate a real relationship but, then, so does sex with an inflatable doll.

Sexism in cyberspace manifests itself in multiple ways. The fact that the Internet was originally designed by the DOD and was male-dominated from its inception means that the few activities that take place were structured primarily by men. Not surprisingly, most Internet subscribers are men, resulting in a male-dominated cyberculture. Kimberly J. Cook and Phoebe M. Stambaugh5 state that the problem for women is that men got there first; thus cyberspace reflects male socialization and interests. A growing number of complaints about the hostile climate for women and unwanted sexual advances and sexual harassment has been reported by institutions supporting Internet access. And, in gender-balanced and, even in female-dominated discussion groups, men reproduce sexual inequality by engaging in dominant conversational styles, leaving far more and far longer messages.

Yet, conversely, women use the Internet to resist sexism and empower themselves by creating a sense of community. Women tap into its many e-mail discussion lists to exchange information and give and receive support. Moreover, the Web is replete with e-zines written by young women about issues of importance to them. Women can also access information ranging from reproductive health to domestic violence on a myriad of Web sites. And, while Internet access may be (middle to upper) class specific, other minority groups, such as diasporic Indian women, exploit its offerings for their benefit.

In terms of sexuality, some theorists view interaction in cyberspace to be liberating in that anonymous users can put on and take off gender identities at will. Sherry Turkle6 describes how this occurs when users join virtual communities known as MUDs. Entering a MUD entails creating a character by proscribing to it specific features, including its gender. This role-playing enables participants to explore different aspects of their sexuality beyond that limited to their biology. In one case, a male MUD player resolved his difficulty with assertiveness by practicing role-plays with his Katherine Hepburn-type creation in cyberspace. In examining the gay and lesbian community, James Weinrich7 points out that, there have been few segments of society that have benefited as much from the proliferation of the World Wide Web. By lurking, Usenet group participants questioning their own sexual orientation can experience in private and from a safe distance the gay and lesbian communities before deciding whether or not to join. And, in addition to sites for posting personal ads, the Internet serves as a library of information on gay rights legislation, position papers, and lobbying information.

Some academics are not convinced that transformations to sexuality take place because of computer interactions. Alan Ryan8 writes, if I pass myself off as a Chinese drag queen of uncertain age, I do not become any such thing, any more than I would do so if I played some part in a play. Similarly, in an ethnographic study of sexpics trading on Internet relay chat (IRC), Don Slater9 finds that more of the same is reproduced in terms of sexuality. He states that, while one would expect the construction of new kinds of bodies, identities and connections between them, a liberation, an experimentalism or at least a diminished conventionality, his study of sexpics trade on IRC found that participants reaffirmed heterosexual, male norms.

Thus, rather than representing a dichotomy between good and evil, oppression and resistance, the Internet and its use reflects society's complexity. Theoretically speaking, it therefore reflects the epistemological insights of feminist, postmodernist, and cultural studies scholars, who posit a multiple versus dualistic conception of society and social change. Moreover, it appears that the Internet and gender represents just one more case of how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Notes

Glossary

Editor

Lisa R. Hoffman

  • CSA Editor, Sociological Abstracts

  • B.A. (Political Science), University of California, San Diego

  • M.A. (Sociology), University of California, Davis

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