‘We believe everybody uses the internet in the same way – and that couldn’t be further from the truth’ – Maya Ganesh, Tactical Technology Collective
Within the arena of ‘women, sexuality and the internet’, the usual suspects of pornography, indecency, and non-consensual videography are often the first topics that come to mind. But women aren’t just subjects on the internet – they are users, too. A presentation at the EROTICS India workshop overturned some common assumptions by highlighting experiences of women online.
Research shows that the online world gives women agency in terms of their sexuality. Using social media networks, women portray themselves in different ways, play with the boundaries of speech, and dabble in online dating and relationships. What this agency does is to allow people to experiment with the idea of being sexy, which can range from wearing a sleeveless shirt to a towel in online images – because ‘sexy’, of course, has no universal definition. And it’s not only young people who are engaging in such online interactions. One woman in an unhappy marriage talks about falling in love online with a man she has never met, but chats to on webcam: ‘After [moving] after my wedding, I was so alone and I am still so alone… After marriage, children, no one is interested in you, no one is bothered and you also lose interest in your body. But the desire is still there for attention. When another person sees it and is interested then you also become more conscious and aware… I like it.’
Whether it’s a young woman putting up ‘sexy’ photographs of herself on Facebook or a married woman finding joy in an online relationship, what the Internet provides is not only a space to explore sexuality, but to find intimacy. Behind every photograph, chat request or ‘hot’ display name is the desire to get a response from other users online
But the internet isn’t just filled with women looking for love. Mummy-blogging – a trend that began in America and is spreading fast across the world – is a way for Indian mothers to share their lives and stories online. One woman interviewed for a research study undertaken by EROTICS India says, ‘There is no support system (in cities) that women have, and they are often all alone, without advice, and wanting some validation that what they are doing [raising children] is okay or that their experience is shared by others also.’ Through their blogs, Indian mothers are able to reach out to other women across the world, and for the first time, tell their stories on their own terms. However, these women also experience a lot of backlash from readers, who feel they are unsettling ideas of Indian womanhood and threatening the stereotype of what a mother is supposed to be.
Another group of people that has a complicated relationship with the virtual world and its inhabitants is the queer community. On the one hand, the internet has allowed LGBTQI people living in India the opportunity to mobilise, organise, and explore their sexualities through anonymous identities. But on the other hand, virtual spaces are not divorced from the real world, and the prejudices that queer people face offline extend online too, leaving many people to question what it means to articulate a queer identity, and whether the internet really is the democratic space many initially assumed it to be.
There are always tensions between the online and offline, though many Internet users may initially assume that the two arenas are entirely separate. Says Maya Ganesh, one of two women who worked on the EROTICS research study, ‘We believe that [the Internet] is a space that is completely divorced from the offline world, but I don’t think that’s true anywhere.’ Many young people often realise that their online activities aren’t as secret as they imagined, as parents or family members discover – often with disapproval – what they have been ‘up to’ on the internet. The idea of the Internet as being a safe space that is free from the hierarchies and harms of the real world is one that most users discover to be false along the way. Says Maya, ‘For many people, the offline world is very heavily policed by the physical fact of your body… If you are a woman, who you are, what you wear, where you go, you are being watched by people… On the internet, you can travel without people watching you. Or so they thought.’ While ‘the sexual stuff that people do online gives [them] the agency and space to do things, it is also the site of harm.’ This ‘harm’ can be anything from heartbreak to stalking (online and offline) to someone stealing and morphing your images.
The abuse of images is a big concern for many women on the internet, but does that mean that they stop putting up pictures of themselves? In a survey that asked young people whether they were afraid of their images being misused online, nearly everyone said ‘yes’. But they also all said they continue to display their pictures, which is interesting when we think about the way in which using the Internet entails simultaneous experiences of pleasure and risk – just like entering any other public space as a woman.
But women aren’t just victims of abuse; instead, they are constantly evolving innovative strategies to deal with new threats – or new versions of old threats – rendered possible by the internet. From fighting back to ignoring to finding support in online communities, women’s responses to the dangers of the Internet are diverse and inventive.