A Coy-Tale: Queer Cyber Intimacy And The Surveilled Subject

lara_mansour_-_genderit_dec_2022.png

Photo by Anne Nygårda on Unsplash

Cyber intimacy, especially video-based, is where we channel our emotions, imaginaries, kinks, and touch via apps, servers, and headsets. In a recent encounter, I had the chance to experience those channellings with a lover/friend, and through this new experience, questions and concerns arose. Questions that were technical; stemming from my work as a queer digital rights defender, others related to this encounter and its unfamiliarity to me. I am writing to unpack how the knowledge of surveillance in my Egyptian context of technology, culture and economy, shape this experience of cyber intimacy and, in particular, cybersex.

Around the 1990s, Egyptian middle-class families - which I belonged to - started having dial-up connection as part of the household. Usually shared, the desktops laid in one of the bedrooms or in the living rooms, where members exchanged times of surfing the internet from emails to music, to hacking into things, to the most common hidden act: watching porn. 

At this time, surveillance was not a known practice to me. Yet, as a teenager, I was able to find other family members’ traffic on that shared device. I loved digging up and finding the ‘treats’ of busty women, and different tastes of porn that my brother left traces of. I would check the watermark, to know what sites I can visit, but the golden rule was: leave no trace.

Sex was not wrong in essence in our household, instead it was an act for specific biological reasons. Talking about the human body and creation was simplified, yet not obliqued or demonised. After all, a practising medical couple, meant that their kids will be exposed to complaints that they had to provide an explanation for. And while sex was not a taboo, it had rules; rules that are bound by religious principles and science. But for some reason, intimacy was not part of the discussion.

Being Gay in Egypt

Being gay in Egypt is not legally criminalized, however, Article 10/1960 in the penal code, famously known as the debauchery law, is used to condemn queer and trans individuals. Working on LGBTIQ+ rights is not allowed by law, needless to say that since 2016 there has been a crackdown on civil society work in general, under allegations of receiving foreign funding to disrupt the system. The LGBTIQ+ members fall under state sponsored crackdowns, with infamous large-scale incidents such as: Queen boat (2001), Hammam Ramses (2014), and Mashrou’ Leila concert (2017). Everyday incidents of these crackdowns involve arbitrary arrests, entrapments using dating apps, thuggery, and random phone searches in the street. 

Igniting social fury against LGBTIQ+ members and allies is part of the state agenda, under the guise of حماية قيم وأخلاق الأسرة المصرية) Moral and values’ protection). The social forms of violence reiterate the state’s, even in tools. Through my work on digital rights among the queer community, I realised that society uses authority over cyber media to manifest power and control, incidents involving defamation in workspace, all the way to monitoring the victim’s phone, are examples of re-iteration of violence. Perpetrators of violence in this case could be the guy next door, an intimate partner, kins or family members.

This highlights the gap between the legal code and practice, one can also see how the state uses law as a systemic tool against those it renders disposable. To live in such a space, one can’t start explaining the complexity, or maybe the simplicity, of living in violence. How it infiltrates the sheets, the talks, the familial, and the perception of self, and imaginaries.

Growing up, my relation to privacy has been foundational. Privacy was not only a right, but a concept engrained in personhood, regardless of their actions. This concept played a great role in how I approached cybersecurity, human rights, relationships and the kind of data I shared.

Two incidents come to mind, to link these notions together.

>> Violence, confusion and curiosity

Around the age of 8 years old, I was molested by a neighbour, but the experience – unlike what I found written in psychiatry books as a teenager – was not devastating, or shameful; it was confusing, and the uncomfortable part about the confusion lead me to simply not go to that house alone again. The rest was sexually intriguing, and that was partially how I started exploring my own genitalia intimately. In my experience, then and now, I am interested in human bodies overall, and there I was, with my own body, exploring it in ways I don’t do or see in others.

Sex, I thought, was obviously not something that was private for sanctity or for the sake of privacy as a concept, but for cluelessness of handling socially.

While exploring my body as a field and a scape to navigate, I had my imagination; a field evergreen to help me explore beyond what words could handle. Meaning, I navigated self-pleasure before I found words for it, also realised I was gender-fluid, but didn’t have a term for it. I liked women, yet ‘lesbian’ was not necessarily a word I related to; even BDSM was imagined in my early teens, but didn’t know the term or the rules for it. This experience, made me realise how humans are vulnerable in sex and in relation to it, and that appeared in observations.

Firstly; this person who molested me was in a very brittle position, in desiring my child body – a child who will sooner or later out him to some adult. Secondly, society is vulnerable when it comes to child sexual abuse. Manifesting this was my mother, who acted like it was something ‘common that every girl has gone through’, when I told her 10 years later. Yet, she was also the person who had a triumphant voice while telling me how this person had died in a mental institution, calling his institutionalisation “even worse than death”. 

Sex, I thought, was obviously not something that was private for sanctity or for the sake of privacy as a concept, but for cluelessness of handling socially.

>> Impersonation and Vulnerabilities on the Internet

The other incident was when I was being threatened online as a teenager. MSN Messenger was popular in the early 2000s, and my usage revolved around meeting people from other cultures. One of those people was a person who posed to be a Lebanese woman. The conversation started off with getting to know each other, and I sent them a selfie without my veil.

Gradually, this person started sending sexual content and when I refused to reciprocate, they threatened to “hack into my accounts and share fake porn photos to my contacts.” I still remember the intense fear, followed by the sudden calmness when my brother said, “He will do nothing. Wait and check your messages and accounts after their threat, there is nothing they can access, and the photo, it’s an assumption. Don’t worry about it,” and he left to continue eating.

This incident marked the start of thinking about cyber threats: the analysis, systematic thinking, knowledge of what to give and when, and knowing to what extent the adversary can implement their threat. This is not luck, but pure knowledge of one’s own data print, and an understanding of the right to privacy. 

**

Intimate exceeds the nude and sexual, and the right to privacy exceeds the intimate. I am acknowledging that this comes from a place of privilege, due to parents who respected my body. In listening to others, they mentioned incidents such as, walking on their daughters when they are changing, or assuming their sexual activity. I, on the other hand, was not subjected to such incidents. My pressures involved, body image, femme-ness, and gender expectations, in acknowledging my privileges and upsets. Autonomy is a process you construct, deconstruct, detoxify, de-violate and de-heteronormalise; all while being vulnerable and empowered in tandem.

Sex and Sexuality in Digital Spaces

In recalling my earliest memory of cyber intimacy, my brain drives me to my first intimate relationship six years ago. I was almost 30 years old, with 6 years of experience in activism at the time and a job in cybersecurity. Therefore, I had my fair share of knowledge on how to transact intimate contents safely. I used end-to-end encryption chatting applications to sext, and an alias on a blog to write love and erotic poems. Gradually, end-to-end encrypted platforms became the main venue to communicate collectively without the worry of ‘being watched’. All this time, most of my sexual encounters were physical, until recently where I had the digital encounter that stirred up this article.

Intimate exceeds the nude and sexual, and the right to privacy exceeds the intimate.

Having First Digital Sex

As cam sex was new to both of us, we made sure to do check-ins during and afterwards, and creating a mutual gradual climate of intimacy.

For me, the nuances of the new experience were about the touches I won’t have, the blend between self-pleasure, and giving this act to the other person while receiving the same act back. Moreover, my experience involved more space for giving instruction than I have had in physical sex. Having online sex meant that we also had to be cognisant of technological glitches and failures, like the clarity of voice in headsets.

This last was particularly interesting for me as a person who was born with deafness in one ear. It wasn’t something I could call ‘an impairment’, yet it made several things a challenge, such as: hearing whispering voices, knowing the direction of sounds, or lip-reading – especially when I am not familiar with the other person’s pronunciation. All of these manifested in physical sex, and caused some cuts and glitches as I paused to ask what my partner had said. Digital sex allowed me to move past these challenges because of the headset that I was wearing that enabled clearer audio, so I was able to focus on my new experience.

As we went ahead, being present at the moment was a challenge in other ways rooted in my knowledge and work around digital security. I battled with the intrusive thoughts like: how secure is ‘secure’? What about the servers, where are they located? What are the permissions to the apps we were using in this performance? I managed to push these thoughts aside by constantly reminding myself that they were just stemming from momentary anxiety. 

The next day, I collapsed into continuous crying and ranting to my friend about surveillance and my constant fear of privacy and data breach. But on the other hand, I realised that there were two parallel lines of thoughts in this encounter: the one that made me anxious; and the other that started to deconstruct this intimate experience. Being in this mindset allowed me to look at the gains on the intimate level, the unexpected likings, the edits on the scene that I could probably enhance next time. I dived into details again, yet this time, it was the favourable details. 

I realised that there were two parallel lines of thoughts in this encounter: the one that made me anxious; and the other that started to deconstruct this intimate experience.

I wonder what would have happened if I did not have privacy and security as pillars in my values? I would like to ask cybersecurity and digital rights’ defenders: how does your work affect your intimate lives? What are the nuances imbued in queer cyber rights defenders versus non-queer ones in that aspect? And how are/can we disrupt them?

Bringing the personal to the political is something we don’t talk about in cyber rights defence conversations. I want to hereby invite that into our rights discourses, as it brings forward the effect of technology on our personal lives, and how this is the key to non-othering discourses of cyber-security campaigns, advocacy and trainings; and probably the key to finding exactly the angles of defence against the hegemony of surveillance capitalists that control the funding of vital online platforms of self-expression. Moreover, bringing this to the surface humanises us as cybersecurity trainers, and helps us break the hierarchy of trainer-trainee dynamics. Even as trainers, and techies, we are also subjects of desire.

By discussing this, we can transgress this to manoeuvrings around everyday surveillance, and walk around with the understanding that not only are we not alone in this, but also the potential subjects of manipulation – both technically and socially.

Acknowledgement: To Maie Panaga, without you I wouldn't have found the confidence to write this.

Add new comment