In an essay on Critical Sexualities Studies, Ken Plummer argues that we are living in an era characterised by a tension between sexual cosmopolitanism and sexual fundamentalism. As evidence of the former he cites a broad (though surely contested) global awareness of, and a willingness to live with, human sexual variety both within and across cultures. This impulse towards tolerance is matched by fundamentalist forces which reject pluralistic views of sexuality, promote conservative and traditional beliefs about sex in an absolute way, and which usually refer to a time honoured (often sacred) text in which there is a strict and single interpretation of what sex is about. At its most blatant, he says “it calls for maintaining a strong divide between men and women, the overwhelming superiority of the heterosexual, and the extermination of all perversities”. This tension, he suggests, is a long historical one and will not go away or be easily resolved. And it is likely to be a feature of social life that needs dealing with in each generation.
This generation also needs to deal with the fact that many aspects of sex have become commodified and subject to capitalist market forces: sex is on sale in pornography, in strip clubs, in tourism and online. And sexualized technologies (Viagra, contraceptives, cosmetic surgery), “mail order” brides, the “pink” economy and the sale of sex toys are informed by advances in digital communication technologies.
Sex, once hidden, is now “on show” thanks not only to more traditional forms of media like film, photography, radio, and television, but also through the new media of websites, smart phones, social media and webcams. All the new digital media “have been swamped globally by the erotic”. Pornography has always driven media technologies and is enabled by them and we now live – perhaps not so much love – in an era of cyber sex, including remote sex. I refer here not to notions of obligatory sex in a relationship characterised by lack of intimacy and communication, but to the availability of sex toys which are “worn” by person A but digitally switched on and off by person B.
Much of this has had the consequence of disconnecting sexualities from its assumed “biological essence” and reproduction. With the new technologies (and pharmaceuticals), there is a move to what Plummer calls a “sexuality that is more relational, representational and recreational.”
This may be debatable, but it is clear that information and communication technologies have a complex and two-way relationship with human sexuality, both shaping and being shaped by it. Gender relations (and related areas of gender identity and expression) are entwined with sexuality as they both construct and influence each other. And many of the “fundamentalisms” of sex and gender are being challenged (and this challenge is itself being resisted by essentialists) and this is enabled by the internet and other communication forms.
From the more superficial (though according to some nevertheless transgressive) gender troubling of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on television; to the availability of information, chat rooms and support for trans people and their significant others, families and friends; to the use of the internet by less resourced trans people to source hormones for self medication (known as DIYing), there is, in a sense, no going back.
Apps are used in the health domain to reach out to gay men to encourage HIV testing and treatment, and the adoption of health seeking behaviours and technologies, such as Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis to prevent HIV acquisition. There is an irony in this given that App technology has enabled the seamless finding of a sexual partner anytime and anywhere, allowing users to indicate, for example, that they wish to have “chemsex”, sometimes protected, sometimes not. This is not meant to shame, simply to acknowledge that while technology is “neutral”, its applications may be less than benign. Or at least unpredictable.
For queer people of all persuasions, and indeed for those identifying as heterosexual, the internet and its various manifestations, is an amazing source of information, support and wisdom. For the isolated rural lesbian in Nigeria this may be a window into a life of different possibilities and the working class trans woman in Bulawayo might be able to have her first class on hormones, denied transitioning technologies available to more resourced folk.
These are not frivolous matters. For the Sexuality and Gender Division, coming to understand the complexities and possibilities of sexuality and gender and how they are shaped by and contribute to communication and information technologies is our bread and butter. Not only because we wish to contribute to professional and social discourse on what constitutes “health” or “normal” or “variant” (mindful of the politics of these terms), but we are faced as practitioners on a daily basis with clients who are grappling with questions of sexual relationships and gender which are complexified by technology.
On any given day, a mental health practitioner in South Africa may be confronted with a queer learner who has been outed on Facebook by a classmate; a sexting flirtation gone wrong; an addiction to online porn by a husband who has been accused by his wife of cyber-infidelity; a bisexual person asking for advice on how to meet a partner online; and a gender variant client who has received contradictory advice from different online sources about transitioning.
And not only might we face these challenges in the therapy room, we also use the same technologies ourselves to meet some of our client’s needs. We may use Skype to offer intermittent support to a long term client who is on a temporary work assignment out of the country and we may participate as an expert in the “Facebook Friday” initiative of SADAG, furiously typing a sensitive answer to a complex question in thirty seconds!
The profession of psychology also requires its members to keep up to date with new information – here webinars are incredibly helpful – and CPD points can be acquired through a range of online platforms. From podcasts to Ted Talks, mental health professionals are bombarded with ways to stay ahead of their game on sexuality and gender, and our own Facebook page is one such medium.
It goes without saying that this engagement with information and communication technology should be as thoughtful and professional as possible and there is a myriad of ethical dilemmas which we are still getting to grips with. Questions of boundaries and limits abound, and it is incumbent on us to stay ahead of the curve. This is a challenge but we really do not have a choice.