(Written in 2000 for the Ars Electronica symposium. The presentation was then entitled Brave New Porn)
We have all heard that sex is the most typed word on search engines (but no longer so). It’s also known that sex accounts for 80% of all web traffic. Anyone who’s tried searching for the word “sex” knows that all you’ll find is mainstream porn, industrally inflated males and females in plastic positions: the old, seen before mainstream pornography. It’s hard to believe that such predictable stuff would account for 80% of all traffic, considering that you can find it in any sex shop.
Also, this kind of internet experience (finding and downloading pictures) isn’t very interesting as far as exploiting the potentialities of the medium, and limits the partecipation of users to a passive role, except when the bill comes through: most of adult sites are pay sites.
In the old, pre-internet days you had two main types of pornography: softcore, consisting of nude pictures or simulated sex, and hardcore, where real sex was shown, often in crude detail. Then you could find, in some sleazy and obscure bookshops, fetish or extreme pornography. This included anything: S/m, bestiality, crossdressing, child porn, Betty Page… anything that wasn’t plain sex (straight or gay) was in that slot. Both types of pornography were produced, or at least marketed, by the Sex Industry, therefore there wasn’t much room for creativity. The gap between makers and users was very wide.
At the beginning of widespread use of the web, circa 1995, the first sexual group of interest to get organized were the BDSM people (Bondage, Domination, Sado-Masochism). They were already organized in some ways, expecially in England and in the US, so the transition to a digital community was very natural. Among their reasons to go online there was:
*) the need to find a larger community to share experiences, thoughts and tips;
*) the difficulty of finding complementary partners in daily life;
*) the need of group support for particular practices.
Most content of D/s websites was, and often still is, identical to the pre-internet S/m press – which itself was quite similar to other underground press.
The BDSM people started almost immediately to put original material online, for many reasons. Obviously the industrial pictures weren’t satisfactory; the awareness and partecipation of the people involved, in other words the “trueness” of the situation depicted, made any badly lit amateur image much more valuable than any glossy symulated shot. Also, Dominant/ submissive relationships often include a form of exhibitionism that belongs to both partners, and the web was a new and unique way to expose oneself to others. But perhaps the most important reason was that there is a large variety of BDSM activities, and that each person has his/her own special set; many of these practices (some don’t even have a name) had been very rarely photographed before – but were obviously crucial to some people. There was also a lot of technical data on on how to do certain things satisfactorily and safely; a wealth of D/s literature and poetry (mostly made by people in the community) and collections of references to fetishes and D/s in media, cinema, literature and online. I am saying all this because these sites somehow shaped the style of the ones we’ll talk about today.
In 1996/97, things started changing, for some very important reasons:
1) more and more people started not only going online, but learning how to use the instruments of the web;
2) many commercial internet companies started offering free web space for home-made sex sites;
3) digital cameras became cheaper and easier to use.
This triggered what you could call a movement and perhaps (we will maybe see in the future) a revolution.
The movement really started in the usenet newsgroups, with all their variety (The actual number is unclear, but there are thousands of different groups in the alternative section – and most of these are about sex); one good example is the subject of breasts:
there is the general alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.breasts, but also breasts.inflated, breasts.large, breasts.natural, breasts.saggy, and breasts.small.
In the end of 1998 something important (also symbolically) happened: yahoo! went porno. There had been already America OnLine offering web space to users, but for various reasons that never really took off. With yahoo! it seemed different. It offers a ready-made website (moderately customizable) where one can start a club in which you can post pictures, messages, links; you can chat and have a mailing list. People join simply by following a link and then they can post too. The clubs are divided into categories: you canb browse or use the site’s search engine. Let’s briefly overview the yahoo! adult clubs.
In this area there were 33 categories. The most popular on last aug 20th were “encounters” with 12.451 clubs, followed by “picture trading” with 6.563 and by the 6.298 “fetishes” clubs. “Porn stars” had only 1.776 clubs, while BDSM had 2.486 and “Amateurs” 2.153.
The “fetishes” folder contains 37 sub-categories, plus an “others” folder for stuff that couldn’t be categorized. Among the categories found here there are “Rubber” and “Lingerie and underwear” but also “Sweaters” , “Lifting and carrying” , “Adult babies” and “Unconsciousness”.
There are dozens of other sites that offer free space; the yahoo! case is interesting because it’s yahoo!, an otherwise family oriented portal very interested in large numbers, because it naturally attracts all kind of people, because it’s one large searchable site (instead of “stand alone sites”, very hard to find) and because it has a very neutral approach to some rather unusual things.
In the catalog presentation Gerfried Stocker has used the expression “the extensive variety and opulence of human desires”; it seems to me a very good description, and it certainly points out one of the biggest differences with industrial sex imagery, which is variety. Many of these photos, maybe even this one, portray situations that have never been photographed before. Another huge difference with industrial pornography has to do with the concept of truth (the “trueness” we were talking about before); if softcore was a simulation of sex and hardcore was real sex as far as the bodies, these images are definetly one step further. They often portray the inner feelings and mental imagery of the people involved.
Among those who make the most out of the web are two complementary groups: Exhibitionist and Voyeurs. While there often is an element of both, in some cases that’s the only motivation. After all, it must be like opening the raincoat in front of the whole world.Often there is no need to show nudity. On the contrary, many of these pictures not only wouldn’t outrage anyone, but often wouldn’t be even seen as related to sex.
In these website the atmosphere is rarely a seedy one; I would like to read you the first lines from the Hiccup Lovers page, located at
Welcome to the Hiccup Lover’s Web Site. We are a group of both male and female lovers of the hiccups.
We have found one another through the power and anonymity of the Internet.
Most of us had one very basic thought when we found one another: that we were strange or weird or that there was something very wrong with us because of our attraction to the hiccups, either in others or in ourselves. By finding others who share this powerful attraction, we found that we are not alone. We are not strange or odd and there is nothing wrong with us.
Not all practices are as safe as hiccups; if you want to mildly electrocute yourself you need to learn how to do it safely; I found dozens of pages of tips for safe fun with electricity, and the same goes for the many different activities that involve some degree of risk, from flashing to truckers to shit eating.
But not everything is as available as electric power or feces; there are practices that are simply impossible to do. A perfect example is the newsgroup Alt.Sex.Fetish.Robots. They (I am sure they have a name to describe themselves) love all mixtures of man and machine (and I am sure they enjoy Stelarc’s performances in a different way from me and you). It isn’t easy to become part machine, so their newsgroup is full of images from movies, and when the music video “All is full of love”, in which the singer Bjork changes from machine to human, came out, immediately somebody posted video captures of the entire clip in this newsgroup.
This “alternative interpretation of images” is very common (and not only in acceptable contexts; many images of children in underwear are grabbed from regular underwear sites): nose fetishists post images taken from nose surgery sites, and so do all cosmetic surgery fetishists. Raincoat lovers grab images from rainwear makers websites, and gas mask fans get them wherever they can. This can get to quite some extreme: I found a website that said:
CRUTCHES, CASTS AND CLOGS
This website is dedicated to all people who walk on crutches and relax their good foot in some clogs or exercise sandals. Though I know there aren’t many pics to show these two things, You’re welcome to send Your self-made fakes. Maybe we can start a contest chosing the best!
There is a huge number of sites online devoted to countless activities that are not in the average manual for a happy sex life; on the alternative newsgroups some 250.000 images are posted every day, and even if most of them are spam it’s still an huge figure, considering that a very small fraction of users actually ever post an image. The yahoo! adult clubs are 30.000 (only 100 users per group would make 3.000.000 people), and again most users don’t post. Not all of the posting are original material, of course, but the percentage increases all the time.
The industry is fighting back in two ways: offering broadband interactive websex (the internet porn industry is always on the cutting edge of technology, for obvious reasons) and featuring more and more amateurs, housewifes, etc. (I saw a banner ad that said “Amateur Pro”).
Of course in personal pages you’ll find a lot of objectionable stuff by many standards, but generally speaking the whole scene seem to be quite friendly and unaggressive, with crowded guestbooks and community areas. There are many guys, some ladies often with their partners, producing and publishing images; more: using the instruments of the digital age in a very casual and unaware way, as a mean rather than an end, to create their special community. They don’t do it for art, not for money, not for fame but to satisfy perhaps the most basic drive: desire. Most of these people seem happy people, somehow proud of what they do and very creatively using the net as a whole new medium that is actually changing their lives and desires, while naturally questioning concepts such as objective beauty and radical behaviour.