I’d bet my internet that one of your first experiences with the digital social had something to do with sex. Unsolicited nudity arriving in your inbox? Hundreds of sex-related IRC channels that popped up while you searched for your local radio chatroom? Pop-ups spiraling out of control on Internet Explorer?
Or maybe you went looking for it in a Lycos search. Or maybe you built a geocities site with gifs and midi music and a sparkling background over which you (barely visibly) wrote something about sex. Or maybe it was you who would connect to the #0!!!!!!!!girls_love_sex IRC channel on Dalnet back when hashtags were rooms and not keywords.
In dial-up beeps and expensive phone bills, we can remember a time when connecting to the internet meant a whirlpool of adventure. In chatrooms and simulated social electronic environments, you could connect as anyone – or anything – a different thing every single time. For years, the dominating word that would come to mind when thinking back at those early digital social experiences was “strange.”
Today, I’ve replaced it with “liberating” – perhaps in a nostalgic attempt to counter my controlled environment on the internet today – although the reminiscing feeling remains one of strangeness. But maybe that’s what liberation felt like to people like us, the curious teenagers, trying to find information about sex because it didn’t come fast or real enough from anywhere else. We experimented with gender because we could and because on the internet nobody knew if you were a girl or a boy or both or neither and performances flourished. Gender was exaggerated at times and subverted at others.
Fast forward some 15 years later and our relationship to the virtual has changed so radically that we find ourselves celebrating Facebook’s decision to include a long list of profile gender options that include varieties of trans*. The internet – now increasingly controlled and privately owned – doesn’t mind what your gender is as long as it’s defined and attributed to your real name, along with your real photo, your real job, your real feelings, and your real friends.
In the leap between IRC gender experiments and Facebook gender campaigns, feminists have always thought critically about how the internet relates to our struggles for bodily autonomy and liberation. The need for continuous (re)thinking about the digital contexts in which we live significant parts of our lives is what drove us to publish this issue on sex, rights, and the internet. We’ve built on conversations started at our #imagineafeministinternet meeting in April and bring you an issue that discusses surveillance, marginalized desires, digital activism, anonymity, and much more.