Lebanon and USA: Where is the line for sex on the internet?
GenderIT.org contributor Mavic Cabrera-Balleza speaks with EroTICS researchers Melissa Hope Ditmore and Kevicha Echols as well as LGBT activist Nadine Moawad about the role of the internet in our sexual lives. They talk about the effect that filtering and censorship have on sexual expression and access to information, particularly for youth and LGBT persons.
Mavic Cabrera-Balleza (MCB): Hello Nadine, Melissa and Kevicha, thank you for accepting GenderIt’s invitation to this conversation. I read the outcomes of your EroTICS research on sexuality and the internet and I find a lot of the issues you raised very interesting. I would like you to elaborate on some of them. To start off, could you please tell our readers something about yourselves?
Nadine Moawad (NM): I am a community organizer from Lebanon. I’ve been involved in digital activism to make the internet more accessible and affordable in Lebanon for 15 years now. More recently, I’ve been blogging and using twitter as part of my engagement in citizen’s journalism.
Melissa Hope Ditmore (MHD): I'm a researcher based in New York and much of my writing is about how laws and policies affect people on the ground. I've worked on issues related to sex before but not new technology specifically.
Kevicha Echols (KE): I'm a doctoral candidate in the Human Sexuality program at Widener University. I've been involved with youth and sexuality issues for several years but more recently I've examined the technological dimension of these issues."
MCB: Nadine, your study examined the parallel development between the internet and the queer movement in Lebanon. Could you please describe the queer movement in Lebanon for our readers. How did it emerge? What are the issues that it is raising?
NM: The queer movement in Lebanon had been around for over a decade. It developed around personal identities, personal suffering and challenges queer individuals were facing in their families and society. Lebanese values are very strictly heteronormative. People are expected to behave under certain gender and sexual roles.
The queer movement struggles to find space in an extremely homophobic environment. It works to raise awareness within society about these problems and the need for acceptance. Article 534 of the Lebanese law identifies being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and queer (LGBTQ) as sexual acts against nature. It also serves as the anti-sodomy law. Under Article 534, suspicion is sufficient to arrest people. You will find the same law in a lot of countries colonized by the French and British. The queer movement is lobbying against this law.
MCB: How do you use the internet to advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and queer people?
NM: Before the internet, the queer movement was mainly providing information to raise awareness of the issues that queer individuals confront. With the development of the internet, not only that there is more tool for keeping the LGBTQ community up to date; but tools for organizing and mobilizing as well.
We post videos on YouTube, we conduct online campaigns, we tweet and blog; we maximize the use of social networks. The internet has now become the primary means for all of these –awareness raising, information sharing, organizing, mobilizing and national, regional and global advocacy. As a result, there is a growing shift in attitudes towards diversity; and towards a lot of issues that the LGBT community has been raising.
MCB: Melissa and Kevicha, the common perception of internet usage in the US is that there is no limit in terms of what one can upload or download. No restrictions whatsoever. What can you say about this perception?
MHD: People are often surprised to learn that information is actually restricted in the law to prevent minors from accessing "harmful" content. Harmful is typically interpreted to refer to things about sex. But restricting information about sex specifically from people who are at a point in their lives in which sexual experimentation is biologically and socially normal is dangerous!
KE: Though youth often rely on information about sexuality from friends and family, the internet provides a double check for the information they seek. As an educator, and sex educator, I've seen how young people engage with technology for entertainment, learning, and to pass the time.
Youth have far more time to navigate through the internet, and when they feel uncomfortable asking personal questions or those questions that may be embarrassing to them, the internet offers a safe space for anonymity, and areas of community where youth can find answers to common questions about sexual development and sexual feelings.
MCB: In your research, you mentioned that laws designed to protect young people from adult predators (i.e., anti-child pornography laws) can and are being used to punish young people for acts that may in fact, be better addressed through better privacy protections. Could you elaborate and give examples of how one could better protect her/his privacy?
KE: Young people often live in the now and cannot fathom how their current behaviors might affect their futures. The few cases in which youth have been charged with child pornography have prompted current public education initiatives led by youth that educate youth on the consequences of sharing sexual information and images via the internet or through mobile phones with internet connections.
MHD: There have been cases in which young people who made and sent pictures of themselves without clothing or without some clothing have been charged with making pornography. They lose control of these photos when they are sent to other people, and others who have shared these photos have been charged with offenses related to child pornography.
These offenses carry harsh penalties including in some places being registered as a sex offender, which affects where people can live and where they can go. Registered sex offenders who were found guilty of charges involving minors typically have to stay away from people under 18 years old, sometimes for ten years and in some cases for life. This has a huge affect on the life of someone who is a young adult, perhaps even a minor, or someone who has many friends near their age who may be minors. And that's without trying to avoid people under 18 years old.
Imagine never being able to go to the movies because a student might be there! And imagine having to find a place to live that is far from a school - this is why many sex offenders become homeless when they are released from prison. Now there are a few efforts to limit these long-term and severe punishments for young people, especially in cases of forwarding photos that might be deemed sexy.
KE: Another example: employers now refer to Facebook pages to gain a bit of knowledge about a person’s background or as a character reference. Youth post pictures, or even have conversations that might otherwise make an employer judge past behavior and character rather than job qualifications and skills. So, education is the first key to help youth monitor their own actions so that they will not compromise their private lives. They must first understand the issues before they can take action to protect themselves.
MCB: Nadine, do these restrictions that Melissa and Kevicha are talking about resonate with your situation in Lebanon?
NM: Certainly not in the same degree. Censorship is very strong in Lebanon. The internet enables us to navigate this restrictive environment. We believe in the power of internet especially in a situation like ours. Since the revolution started in Tunisia, spreading to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Morocco, the power of the internet in mobilizing, in articulating difficult ideas has been demonstrated internationally. However, it is still a very vulnerable space. Government has the power to harass bloggers. It has power over the private sector that enables them to control coverage. We don’t have the power to protect bloggers from harassment.
MCB: Kevicha and Melissa, you spoke extensively about filtering as a way of restricting online information in the EroTICs research report. Apart from filtering, what are the other ways in which restrictions to online information are carried out in the United States?
MHD: Most of the ways in which access is restricted are targeted at minors, in schools and libraries. But there are software packages that can be installed for parents to monitor what their children see online. There are a few of these applications for mobile devices.
However, children, all of whom are digital natives, are frequently more adept at finessing them than parents are at surveying them. And most kids have more time to work around these things. It's an arms race that people who want to restrict information will lose.
KE: One thing to note though, is that filtering doesn't resolve or address all possible types of information that might be inappropriate for minors. Sometimes violence and other material will be restricted, although to a lesser extent than sexuality information. So it appears that sexuality information has a higher priority for people who want to restrict access.
MHD: However, one school plan backfired terribly. The school had implemented a system that enabled school personnel to see the students in front of their computers. Using this program, some photographs were taken of students in their homes, some in their bedrooms, without their knowledge or consent! This egregious invasion of privacy is the flip side of attempting to monitor or survey activities.
MCB: Back to you Nadine. Quoting from your research report “Queer women used a large variety of available internet communication technologies to express their sexualities, tell their stories, raise awareness, demand equality and reach out to other women to join the community.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by equality? In what areas are you specifically demanding equality?
NM: By equality we mean equality in the legal system and in societal values including the reversal of gender stereotypes, challenging gender laws and personal status law. The issues of gender equality are a primary concern in addition to gender expression and sexual diversity.
MCB: If LGBT issues would find a space in the traditional media such as the print media, radio or television, will they be tackled differently from the way they are currently being projected online? Why and how?
NM: Absolutely. The traditional media has two important characteristics. One is that they are mainly interested in covering issues from a sensational approach. They do this by highlighting the life of a gay or transsexual person and not from a sociological point of view.
Two, they are very concerned with ratings or with readership. Moreover, in Lebanon, all of our media is controlled by political parties which are in turn controlled by religious groups. The media always bring in the religious perspective—whether Christian or Muslim. On the other hand, LGBT groups are more interested with self representation which allows us to show the nuances of LGBT and queer life in Lebanon.
MCB: You also mentioned that online forums on sexual rights in Lebanon, are aligning themselves with anti-censorship Arab movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and the Gulf. Do you also see the queer movement aligning with the recent uprisings in many of these countries? Are there issues coming up in these contexts that you consider parallel or related to the queer movement?
NM: The queer movement has definitely grown and developed in understanding the different forms of expressions and issues; and in addressing issues of sexism, fascism, sectarianism and freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is fundamental for the queer movement and it doesn't just benefit us. It is necessary to have a democratic and open society; to raise concerns, to voice our demands, to remove legal restrictions and demand equality and freedom.
This links to our demand for affordable and easy internet access. At the moment, internet access in Lebanon is very expensive and very slow. We have come to see the low speed of the internet as a form of censorship that prevents people from documenting and speaking about what’s happening on the ground. For example, if it is difficult to upload video on a mobile phone, then the government does not need to censor YouTube. If the internet remains inaccessible for a large percentage of the population, very few people will have access and will still rely on TV and newspapers.
MCB: Melissa and Kevicha, in your report, you conclude that “Access to information is not necessarily in the hands of the individual users”. Instead, third parties - library committees, software developers, interest groups and others - may be or are actually determining it. Do you suggest a total removal of control that allows individuals to visit any site they want to access? In other words, does the internet need to be regulated or left completely unregulated? Why or why not?
KE: Hmmm. That's a tough one. The internet has posed the same conflicting issues that obscenity laws have. What might be offensive and inappropriate for some may not be the case for all instances of sensitive or sexual information on the internet. It would be difficult to determine what information should be regulated or not based on the arguments about filtering in the first place.
However, I do believe that internet service providers should not restrict, which is common, when people are paying for their personal internet use. Similar to the idea of cable television, what is restricted on local television usually isn't restricted on premium pay channels through a cable service provider. Many believe that we should uphold our constitutional right of having access to information that is unrestricted, while those offended by certain information would rather have restrictions for that information.
MHD: And it's clear that the restrictions do not work the way they were ostensibly intended, in part because the people they are intended to restrict are often the best able to get around measures taken to restrict online access.
KE: So how do we come to a happy medium that satisfies all parties? I think it's difficult to say but one thing's for sure, we do already have restrictions and must deal with ensuring access to important information.
MHD: Perhaps the emphasis should be on having access to important information, rather than attempting to shield young people. Young people have perennially sought and usually found their parents' or other stashes of pornography. The internet is the newest format for that.
MCB: Nadine, in your report, you mentioned that “Because of the strong homophobic environment of other countries in the region [the Middle East and Arab world], the argument that an open internet has facilitated a strong LGBT movement in Lebanon would actually play in favor of censorship policies in other Arab countries, rather than influence decision-makers to abandon censorship.” Do you see this happening already? Where and how does it play out in the online environment?
NM: It is very important to understand the complexity of the Lebanese context when looking at the issue of censorship. The LGBT community benefiting from the internet is something that the government does not want to see. Therefore, we cannot use the argument that because the LGBT community needs internet access, the government should open it up.
The reactions that we could easily anticipate are that: We have to guard our traditional values, we have to guard the internet, we cannot have much freedom because LGBT people will be one step closer to gaining their rights. This argument is used to scare people from progressive rights and from opening up our country to democracy. Even on domestic violence, if we create a law that allows women to assert their rights, then we are allowing more LGBT individuals to come out. LGBT freedom is used to scare people, especially those who want to speak up and assert their rights under the law. The tension is everywhere.
Womens’ rights activists fear that sexuality is used as a scapegoat. If women have rights, they will become promiscuous, they will not want to get married, they will go against religion. These are the arguments used by conservatives to keep women in very narrow spaces. This is also why some women’s organizations don’t want to align themselves with LGBT and queer groups. Lately however, there has been a growing solidarity between women's rights, human rights and LGBT activists—it’s a give and take.
MCB: Once again, thank you all for your time and for sharing your thoughts.
MHD and KE: You’re welcome.
NM: Thank you for the opportunity.
Picture 1 (top) by Kevicha Echols.
Picture 2 (middle): The screenshot of Bekhsoos.com - Queer Arab Weekly Magazine