ADRC-W, Dr Ian Thomas

Digital sexuality: the Internet as an intermediary and mediator of sex

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Image credit: rawpixel, CC0 Public Domain

As part of the WISERD Cardiff lunchtime seminar series, Dr Ian Thomas reported recent findings from his exploration into the Internet’s effects on sexuality. He questions whether the Internet is an intermediary and/or a mediator, and whether it is altering our understanding of sexuality.

In my WISERD lunchtime seminar, I began by drawing on the distinction between the Internet as an intermediary and a mediator in order to understand these Internet effects. An intermediary transports meaning without transforming it, whilst mediators transform and modify that which they are supposed to carry (Latour 2005). As an intermediary, the Internet can act as another pathway to meeting sexual partners. Alternatively, digital venues based around digital communities of (sexual) practices, where fantasies and tastes are played with, illustrate the potential for the Internet and digital media to intrinsically alter sexuality, and become an active element in shaping sexual encounters (Race 2015).

From my own research into the digital sexual practices of men who have sex with men, the same digital venues were found to act as intermediaries or mediators depending on how they were deployed by the men using them (Thomas 2016). As an example, Craigslist, being a venue for advertising goods and services, was used by men (and women) to engage in sex work. In addition to being an intermediary between ‘sex worker’ and ‘client’ (ie, another pathway to this encounter), Craigslist was also found to mediate sex seeking, enabling men to proposition others for sexual services, or to sell their sexuality without having to adopt a ‘sex worker’ identity.

The intermediary/mediator distinction originated within a particular theoretical context; a way of approaching the social world known as Actor Network Theory (ANT). ANT explores associations between elements in a given situation. However, because of its focus on actual material elements, what ANT does not attend to is the existence of things that are real but have not yet taken effect (Müller and Schurr 2016) – memories, expectations, wishes, for example. These ‘virtual’ elements (not to be confused with virtual reality as things that are immaterial) come to structure what someone using the Internet can do, and are therefore, I suggest, important in understanding media effects. For example, past memories of using a particular sex seeking venue can come to affect present and future expectations and ways of interacting in that venue.

An attention to the virtual aspects of technology use mark a shift from thinking about the extent of the Internet’s effects on sexuality (ie, are more people using the internet for sexual purposes), to consider the more intensive affects and what media do or do not enable a person to do. There is an important difference between whether sexuality is being changed or not by media, and whether these changes mean that a person can feel and experience sexuality in different ways, or ways they were not capable of before. Taking this position further, by considering whether new sexual capabilities increase or hinder a person’s ability to do other things (ie, to form friendships, relationships, or experience pleasure and joy), is less prone to nostalgia for sexualities from ‘pre-Internet’ eras, and avoids moralistic judgements that see particular digital sexual practices as being intrinsically ‘bad’.

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