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The Impact of Private Sex Sites on the Web

Nicola Döring

Virtual Society? Get Real! Conference
4-5th May 2000 Ashridge House Hertfordshire, UK
organzized by the Virtual Society? Programme at Brunel University, UK

Conference Report


There are many sex sites on the web that sell erotic or pornographic material. But there are also many non-commercial sex sites offering sexually explicit content for free. Not a lot of money, skill or equipment is necessary to do web-publishing. In addition, it can be done anonymously or pseudonymously if so desired. Instead of just consuming or avoiding the ordinary male-oriented mainstream material, the Net provides us with the opportunity to actively participate in sexual discourses by sharing - via a private web-site - our own sexual experiences, preferences and fantasies with a larger audience. It is oftened claimed that the DIY or grassroots publishing that is possible on-line fosters emancipation and democratisation through empowering marginalized individuals and groups. However, we can hardly expect on-line publication to lead to some kind of sexual revolution because empowerment is not caused by the Net itself. Instead, empowerment comes through the determined and effective usage of the Net, which demands an effort not everyone is able or motivated to make. Does that mean private sex sites -  far from being revolutionary - represent just one more outlet for sex-seeking males? Do these sites not adhere to traditional heterosexist gender roles – often even propagating especially violent images that would be unacceptable off-line? Although not all web publishers who are socialized within the androcentric western culture try to resist or criticize heterosexist influences by means of their own web sites, some do just that. While mass media depend on their contents' marketability and therefore neglect alternative views, private web sites can cover all kinds of topics regardless of the existence or size of a paying audience.

So what kind of content do we find on private sex sites? What  intra- and interpersonal consequences does maintaining a personal sex site have for the site’s owners? How are private sex sites used and evaluated by the site visitors? These general questions were addressed in three separate explorative studies: a content analysis of n=300 private sex sites, a survey of n=40 site owners, and a survey of n=300 site visitors. The results of the studies confirmed the expectation that private sex sites can neither be claimed to be revolutionary nor reactionary, but that they cover a broad spectrum of views ranging from traditional to subversive, from harmless to potentially dangerous, from clear cut to obscure. It turns out that private sex sites not only are used to deliver content but also are a means of invoking discourses and building personal relationships. All site owners reported receiving meaningful feedback in response to their web sites, and most entered in online conversations and let people in their off-line environments know about their on-line activities. All site owners made it clear that sexual expression on the net was not a substitute but rather a reflexion and extension of their general sex-related activities. Going online and public with private sex sites has nothing to do with "virtualisation", on the contrary it stresses the realness of our hidden desires.

© 2000 Nicola Döring