This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
by Julie Bradford, University of Sunderland This paper looks at sex bloggers – men and women, but mostly women, who post explicit pictures and videos of themselves online, alongside tales of their sexual exploits or fantasies. Although blogs have been around since the late 1990s, female sex blogs have reached what could be called “critical take-off point” (Plummer, 1995) with the best-known turned into books and TV series. They are clearly striking a chord. Sex blogs are interesting because they are trying to do what pornography has long been castigated for failing to do - representing an authentic female sexuality (Williams, 1999). They do so in ways that defy existing theories of pornography, or least confuse them. Take Imelda, for example. She is a 25year-old single woman from the UK, who runs a blog called Imelda Imelda after her love of shoes. She says she does it to express her sexuality: ‘Women deny themselves a sexuality, society deny us our sexuality. My blog is because this annoys the hell out of me and I am a very sexual person’ (interview, 2008). Her blog is not easily reconciled with the radical feminist position, which sees pornography as representing men’s subordination of women. In the radical feminist universe, men define eroticism and women are always its object. As Simon Hardy wrote, ‘For a woman to speak the [erotic] discourse is to act not as a genuine sexual subject but as a whore’ (1998: 150). Crucially, the commonsense discourse that informs policy-making still revolves around this idea that pornography is exclusively male and sexual agency is dangerous for women. A recent UK act outlawing the possession of ‘extreme pornography’ was hailed as a ‘victory for women’s rights’ by the liberal Guardian newspaper. The UK’s best-selling Sun has run a series of stories warning of the twin threats of active female sexuality and the new technology of the internet. ‘Why Britain’s in the grip of an internet sex
epidemic’ was a survey by the Sun’s agony aunt Deirdre Sanders earlier this year (Sanders, 2008a), while another headlined ‘Sex and the shift key – the dark side of social networking sites’ (ibid, 2008b: 20-21) told how more and more women were sleeping with men they met through Facebook and writing about it. ‘It can be so self-destructive . . it usually stems from feeling bad about themselves.’ Current debates about the sexualisation of culture still revolve around whether it is bad for women. All this infuriates Imelda. She takes her own pictures, gets sexual pleasure from putting them online, and insists she is not objectified or degraded. She also stresses she knows what she is doing – she has two university degrees and is not to be pitied for her ‘false consciousness’. She says, ‘I’m saying it’s OK for women to have sexuality and sexual desire, and that it’s normal and a good thing’ (interview, 2008). If we were to be sex-positive, we could read her site, like anti-censorship feminists and others have done, as a woman subverting the male conventions of pornography for her own ends. Her size 16 (size 46) body could be seen to subvert mainstream porn by promoting ‘erotic identification with bodies unresponsive to social control’ (Kipnis, 1996: 120). But Imelda would be horrified to be described as transgressive or grotesque. She works hard to present her body in the most flattering light possible. ‘It’s exactly like you see on America’s Next Top Model, etc (I’m kinda living that fantasy in my own way), you gotta suffer for a good shot’ (interview, 2008). More recent academic research has looked at new forms of sexual address to women, described by Attwood as stylish, narcissistic, fun and communitybuilding, a new ‘taste culture’ (2005, 2007). But there is a danger here of the sex being tidied up out of sight – where self-fashioning ‘becomes or replaces the moment of sexual climax’ (Attwood, 2005: 400). Imelda likes to dress up, but she is doing it for sexual arousal – her own and that of the imagined reader. When asked if that is the point, she replies, ‘Yeah, duh! And it totally turns me on as well. Ultimately I post more on the blog when I’m horny. The blog is about me expressing my sexuality because I’m not in a relationship at
the minute and . . I REALLY miss the sex! The blog sort of fills that gap (Imelda, interview, 2008). All this is confused by the fact that Imelda, like other bloggers, insists that what she is doing is not pornography. To her, it represents something completely different in terms of motive, representation and relationship with the viewer. She says people who misread her blog as porn ‘just don’t get it’ (interview, 2008). It could be argued that this distancing from porn is a tactic to enable their blogs to circulate as legitimate material for and by women. But it might be more productive here to work from the basis that female sex bloggers are doing something new with sexual representation. And rather than take the academic high ground and voice concern about the risk of commodification, objectification and doubts about who it is all for, we could acknowledge that the bloggers grapple with these concerns themselves every time they post, and instead look at how this shapes what they do. How can they assert sexual agency and derive pleasure from sexual display without being accused of co-operating in their own objectification – or, at least, how can they try? From studying the posts and carrying out email interviews with bloggers (concentrating on Imelda Imelda, The Naked Truth, written by a 45-year-old single mother in Italy who works in higher education, and Always Aroused Girl, written by a divorced mother-of-three from the US Midwest), I began to see it as a sort of pact with the reader, with conditions on both sides. Firstly, the bloggers had to create a safe, non-judgemental space in which to assert their sexuality, and in return they promised the reader their authentic, whole sexual essence – not a faked, porn performance. The key features of this pact are: Identity Despite the headless images and the pseudonyms, the theme of pinning down an authentic identity through sex is important to bloggers. ‘I am as much Z as I am my real name. I would prefer those who interact with me to call me by my real name if I was using a persona to
write with . . but this is me’, (Z, ‘Up My Ass’, September 28, 2008). The diary-like format of the weblog cues in connotations of truth and identity, and the bloggers all use the first person “I”. They have a distinctive ‘voice’, and post pictures of themselves in their favourite underwear or with their favourite toys. In amongst the naked pictures, they tell stories about their hobbies, their favourite drinks or recipes, their families, their money problems, and their taste in music, art and books. By presenting their identity, they are distancing themselves from pornography. It is themselves they are portraying and their authentic sexual essence they are offering. Moreover, it answers the charge of objectification – how can a body be objectified if it has a voice, thoughts, ideas? Class, taste and aesthetics This is another way in which most female sex blogs and sites distinguish themselves from male-produced pornography, and place sex in a much broader cultural context. The bloggers themselves embody a certain status – all those I interviewed had at least one university degree, and could be said to be rich in ‘cultural capital’ even if they were not well-off economically as women and, often, single parents. Their blogs constantly reference intelligence and wider culture. Imelda enthuses about Triumph motorbikes and Agent Provocateur lingerie, while Z lovingly describes her taste in food, home decoration, art and books. Her photographs reference the still, self-possessed body of high art, and their titles again reference style and taste (‘crumpled bed sheets, soft suede and softer, gleaming skin’, ‘divinely beautiful boots’). Claims to aesthetic value help distinguish sexual representation from mainstream porn. But it could further be argued that the cultural capital of the authors is challenging ideas of how sexual representation is seen in general. By assembling the tropes of porn alongside expressions of taste and identity, female bloggers might contribute to a change in how those tropes signify.
Community-building Blogs have been compared to the ‘imagined communities’ of the mass media. Bloggers comment on each others’ posts, link to each others’ sites and receive and respond to instant reader feedback. A sense of community is especially important to female sex bloggers who ‘might otherwise be perceived (and perceive themselves) as engaging in discreditable activity’ (Bernstein, 2007: 479). I used to have a strong sense of almost physically entering another world . . It is like living in a town where there is no prudery, and people happily discuss their sex lives over a pint. (The reference to a town is deliberate – I see the blogosphere in very concrete terms) (Z, interview). This is seen in the phatic relationships set up in the blogs, where addressees are often constructed as like-minded friends (‘You guys would tell me if you thought I were acting out. Wouldn’t you?’ – AAG, May 1, 2008). Validation Community-building is not just a fun feature of new porn taste cultures, but is a necessary pre-condition of women’s sexual self-representation. When they are so judged in society at large, and when their sexual agency is seen either as a threat or self-destructive, they need to know they are not alone before they take the risky step of expressing it. The need for validation can be for the woman’s body and sexuality: It really helps my body image the comments I get back. Only one bloke on Xtube (where I host videos) has ever criticised my body. All the rest have been so lovely and that really helps my self-esteem. I’m a size 14-16 and any woman can understand that that’s not the ideal posted in the press etc . . . Basically it’s like having a bloke to perform for, and that makes me feel sexy and wanted. It is an ego boost. I’m soooooooo not the kind of girl that gets attention in bars etc so this attention from men (on my terms) makes me feel good (Imelda, interview). Or it may be for a sexuality or a way of life: In some ways, in real life, I’m something of an anomaly, in wanting to
keep my independence and having no dreams of finding the perfect man/woman to end up with, and the blogosphere is more receptive to that (Z, interview). It must be stressed that the concept of a supportive like-minded reader is more often an imagined rather than a real one. Ask the bloggers whom they have in mind when they write and they are at a loss. Their readers are at best anonymous, at worst a threat. They complain that readers do not always understand that their sexual display is not a come-on. The bloggers want appreciation, but on their own terms and at arm’s length. Also, by making demands, real-life readers are detracting from the blog as an authentic expression of the bloggers’ identity (‘the blog is always torn between what I want to do and the requests I get’ – Imelda, interview). Anonymity/safe space Of course, the themes of identity and authenticity seem at odds with the bloggers’ insistence on anonymity. But they have watched other bloggers hit the headlines or lose their jobs. Most have children, some have ex-husbands, some have professional or civil service jobs, and all feel they would have too much to lose if their blogs were revealed. As a result, most have at least two online presences, keeping their sex blog separate. Beyond the fear factor, though, the bloggers’ talk reveals a plus side to anonymity. Shedding their public identities frees them up to say what they want, in a space they feel is safe. The major opportunity the internet offers is anonymity and a degree of protection. It has a created a space where women can express their sexuality, if they feel sidelined about it in the ‘real’ world (Imelda, interview). Anonymously, they can assert their sexuality without the dangers that would await them in real life (being judged an unfit parent or a liability at work). They can display themselves as desirable without fearing disparaging judgements from others. They can talk about adventurous sex lives while still being a mother, or a daughter, or an ex-wife, or even a wife. When real life does
intrude – when a mother finds a blog, or a reader wants to make contact – they are horrified and feel threatened. The downside of this is that they end up in a virtual ghetto. For all the muchdiscussed collapse of the public and private spheres, women still feel obliged to hive off their sexual identities and keep them secret from their public selves. On top of that, their blogs are shunned by other blogs that deal with public life, which rarely link to them for fear of undermining their own credibility.
All these aspects have been described as part of porn’s new ‘taste cultures’ but often as little more than marketable features or unique selling points. To the bloggers, they are more than that – they are the necessary conditions for negotiating social constraints and prevailing notions of what women can and can’t do, to become sexual subjects. And it is about sex. I’ll go on now to talk about what they do with sexuality in their blogs. Sex and desire Most women aim to sexually arouse with their blogs, and they get sexually aroused themselves. That is the point. They frequently argue that female sexuality is not essentially different to men’s. Z, for example, says her take on sexuality used to be considered very male, but now she sees many younger female bloggers adopting the same approach. This is a reaction to the radical feminist idea that sexual representation requires the objectification and submission of women. It also goes back to the question of authenticity again. They are promising that the exchange is turning them on just as much as the reader – it is honest, it is mutual and it is not like pornography where the models and actors are presumed to be faking it. Hence the reader has permission to look and desire, without feeling shame or worry that it is a one-way street, and the blogger herself does not feel degraded because it is bringing her pleasure too.
Sex and fantasy What constitutes the fit stuff of fantasy is tricky question. Radical feminist Robert Jensen argues that typical porn numbers show women as ‘less than fully human’ (2007: 61). But bloggers detail and assert pleasure in all the acts Jensen describes as degrading – anal sex, orgies, bondage, deep throating, age play, rough sex and so on. They use and play with some of the language of porn – Z calls herself a ‘subhuman fucktoy’, and AAG describes her pleasure in being an ‘observant sex toy’ or ‘the meat in a married couple sandwich’. But the principal difference between their accounts and the stories found in pornography is that the focus is firmly on female desire. The lover hardly exists – he, she or they are often almost written completely out of the script: As I start to come I stretch, my arms above my head, and teeth clamp down on my breast. It’s as though my bruised and tender cunt and my nipple are both coming, separately and simultaneously, quite distinct. As if I’m strung up on a washing line, by those two points, and the pain is hideous, and heavenly, and there is nothing I could possibly want more, except to be able to breathe again’ (Z, Pain etc, July 15, 2008). They are inserting their own thoughts and desires into what could be standard pornographic scenarios, taking control of the scene. For example, AAG describes a threesome with a married couple with all the standard porn numbers – ‘endless combinations of boy on girl on girl, girl on boy on girl, girl on girl, boy on girl’ – but says the climax for her was watching the couple lock eyes and whisper to each other as the man was on the point of orgasm. ‘I got to see their intimacy, and that was the best moment of the entire night. How often do we get to see that kind of connection between two people? In porn?’ (Observant Sex-Toy, May 30, 2007). By using porn tropes and altering their meaning, again, women can hope to change what these tropes mean. Z says: ‘Women writing about sex makes it more difficult for women to be objectified by sex’ (interview, 2008). Picturing sex
Likewise, some of the bloggers’ photos and videos are similar in content to pornography – Imelda shows close-ups of her genitals, upskirt shots, and videos of her penetrating herself with sex toys. But, as we’ve seen, she insists they are not porn. This is not simply because she is an amateur: after all, she hates what she calls the ‘horrible readers’ wives stuff’ (interview, 2008). The difference for her seems to lie in how she represents herself. She stresses that she only uses props she has in real life, like pretty underwear and pleasurable sex toys . . even the PVC nurse’s uniform (‘the blog was a bit of an excuse but I would probably have bought it anyway’ – interview). She compares the photos to dressing up for a boyfriend. As she pleasures herself in her videos, she describes the thoughts and feelings that are turning her on. It is all about self-possession, authenticity and agency again. Even though Imelda loves porn, she says it can represent sex as a man’s need, not a woman’s. What she is doing is non-pornographic because she means it. ‘I’m showing that as a woman I really like sex for me, not just for him. That’s very different from both women’s mags and porn’ (interview). Sex and the everyday For all the talk of sexual pleasure, bloggers also stress what hard work it is. Their blogs likewise refuse to cut sex free from everyday realities. As mentioned earlier, they mix their accounts with tales of children, parenting guilt, money woes, divorce and health. This can be controversial. In theory, because it blurs the line between documentary and pornography and can confuse people. And in practice, after a male blogger called Jefferson was sued by his ex-wife for custody of their children when she came across his tales of bisexuality and promiscuity, other bloggers have agonised about describing family life alongside sexual escapades (‘Are you skeeved out by the interspersion of salacious and maternal love? Does it seem odd or uncomfortable to you?’ – AAG, ‘Thin Line’, August 12, 2008). But they still persist in confronting readers with sexuality embedded in their day-today lives. This could be seen as a rejection of ‘pornotopia’ – the kind of escapist, utopian pornography described by Linda Williams in Hardcore (1999), which fails to acknowledge problems in sexual relations. Also, as
Juffer points out, women are well aware they do not live in a ‘world of polymorphous, orgasmic sexuality freed of material boundaries’ (1998: 16). If they set all their fantasies in a utopian world, they would effectively be conceding the home to moral conservatives and the bedroom to dead sex, she says. Instead, she celebrates sexual representation that articulates the home as site of erotic mobility and identifies the mother as a sexual agent, something the blogs could be said to be doing.
Conclusion Female sex bloggers insist what they are doing represents a decisive break with traditional pornography. They deserve to be listened to, not least because they and their blogs throw what we think we know about pornography up into the air. Is commerce the defining factor? If so, it is hard to get round the fact that many bloggers accept advertisements and kickbacks, and ask for straightforward donations, on their sites. Is the sexual explicitness of the writing or images the deciding factor? Bloggers recount similar adventures and fantasies as porn fiction and readers’ letters, and their photographs and videos can be every bit as explicit as top-shelf magazines. Is it the objectification and degradation of women? That is difficult to square with the knowledge that women are making these images themselves, and getting pleasure out of them. Or is pornography the deliberate intention to sexually arouse? The bloggers do that, but promise much more, as well as deriving sexual pleasure for themselves. This is not just a problem of cultural definition, but also regulation and censorship. In her study of soft-porn magazines, Skordaki concluded that the UK law’s definition of visible criteria of unacceptable acts meant it was incapable of addressing the most contentious aspects of representation. Censorship, as it is practised now, refuses to address the meaning behind descriptions, the intention behind representations. As a result, it
cannot resolve two major areas of concern about pornography: its distorted view of female sexuality and its de-humanised account of sex as an act of mere physiological significance (1991: 199). What is important to bloggers is precisely the ‘meaning behind descriptions, the intention behind representations’. That is how they are different from what they see as pornography. Bloggers do see themselves at the vanguard of a post-pornography world. ‘Anonymity is the first toe in the water, but for those with less to hide, I think it will be discarded simply because of the growing swell of numbers and support. The longer one does it, and the more people there are doing it, the less marginalised it becomes’, says Z (interview, 2008). An optimistic conclusion might be that by giving the sexual body a mind and a voice, and by combining elements of pornographic fantasy with the artefacts of everyday life, female bloggers will help change how both signify in wider culture. At the very least, they must make us rethink where the borders of pornography lie. References: AlwaysArousedGirl, Available http://aablog.com Attwood, F. (2007) ‘No Money Shot? Commerce, Pornography and New Sex Taste Cultures’, Sexualities, vol 10 (4): 441-456 Attwood, F. (2005) ‘Fashion and Passion: Marketing Sex to Women’, Sexualities, vol 8 (4): 392-406 Bernstein, E. (2007) ‘Sex Work for the Middle Classes’, Sexualities, vol 10 (4)” 473-488 Hardy, S. (1998) The Reader, The Author, His Woman and Her Lover: SoftCore Pornography and Heterosexual Men. London: Cassell Imelda Imelda, Available http://imelda-imelda.blogspot.com Jacobs, K. (2007) Netporn: DIY Web Culture and Sexual Politics. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Jensen, R. (2007) Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Cambridge, MA: South End Press Juffer, J. (1998) At Home With Pornography: Women, Sex and Everyday Life.
New York: New York University Press Kipnis, L. (1996) Bound and Gagged: Porn and the Politics of Fantasy in America. (Durham: Duke University Press) Paul, P. (2005) Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Times Books Sanders, D. (2008a) ‘In the grip of a net sex epidemic’, The Sun, March 17, 2008. Available http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/article924883.ece [Accessed 18/03/08] Sanders, D. (2008b, April 2) ‘Sex and the shift key’, The Sun: 20-21 Skordaki, E. (1991) The Production of Men’s Magazines: Three Case Studies and a Sociological Analysis. London University: PhD Thesis number DX191168. The Naked Truth, Available http://www.thenakedtruthaccordingtoz.com Williams, L. (1999) Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible”. Berkeley: University of California Press