For nearly 20 years we’ve had almost unlimited access to sexual speech on the Internet and an incredible blossoming of communities related to sex and sexuality.
Now, in a perverse echo of the anti-obscenity fight that followed the last sexual revolution, safe spaces for discussing sex are in real danger of disappearing.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron made waves when he announced that he was creating a system to block all new Internet users from accessing “adult” material unless they had specifically requested it from their Internet service provider. While the policy is the most aggressive in any major Western country, it’s just the latest volley in a war on sexuality.
In the past few years search engines and social networking sites have worked aggressively to limit sexual speech. Websites flagged by Google as “adult” are routinely banished from top search results (unless, of course, you’re a paid advertiser).
Facebook suspends accounts for merely talking about BDSM, and on Friday Tumblr announced that it would no longer allow sexual content to be returned in search results or tags. Sexuality is being sent back behind the Internet’s beaded curtain.
For many people this doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Some doubt that it will have much effect on people’s ability to find pornography. Others, particularly those with small children or from socially conservative backgrounds, may cheer it as a good thing. It’s not. We’ve seen this hackneyed plot before.
When I was a child growing up in the 1980s I could find almost nothing that talked frankly about sexuality. The library held a few staid titles that discussed sexuality, but so clinically that I regarded myself as a case study.
What I saw on television presented sexuality as a morality tale. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but my ’80s dark ages were the result of a backlash against a previous flowering: the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s.
Both revolutions were fueled by the availability of sexual speech — including porn. For all their other flaws, films like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door were evangelists preaching that women, too, could enjoy sex.
In fact, the first films to survive obscenity prosecutions were documentaries about sex: Man and Wife and Sexual Freedom in Denmark.
Women showed up in force at those early films, in part because it was one of the few places where they could learn about the mechanics of sex. No one else would tell them about it.
Sexually explicit imagery provokes a visceral reaction, which makes it one of the best ways to consider and debate sex. It turns us on, or disgusts us, or shocks us. It’s also a validation of sexual behavior that’s marginalized and maligned by the larger culture.
Corporations like Google want to make the online experience as safe for advertisers as they’ve made the cities for real estate agents. The rest of us are forced to dig deeper and deeper to find reflections of ourselves. With each successive dig, we’re reminded that we’re not fit for polite conversation.