Sex and the Net -- It starts with rights

29 June 2011

What is the value of the internet in the exercise of rights? The question almost need no answer these days, with increasing evidence across the world on how people have gone online to organise protest, gather information, engage in open discussions and more. Yet, there is an aspect of the internet that does not receive the same recognition, despite being a central part of our everyday lives. That is, how the internet helps us exercise our rights as sexual citizens.

Sexual citizenship simply means the extent to which we can participate in public, political, cultural, economic and social life, depending on what gender or sexual identity we inhabit. For example, women in many parts of the world do not have the right to decide on their own bodies when it comes to the issue of abortion, or even the type of clothes that are considered appropriate without facing the high cost of sexualised stigma or violence.

Millions of transgendered people face incredible difficulty in doing basic things like going to a public toilet, visiting the doctor, getting a job or just filling in a form, because most of the world only recognises two genders: male or female. The right to security, privacy, family and in some cases even the right to life is taken away from women and men simply because they identify, or are identified, as lesbians or gays.

And overwhelmingly, children and young people are presumed as incapable of having a say or making informed decisions about anything related to sexuality, whether in terms of health or education, even though sexuality is a fundamental part of human development.

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."
Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The reality is, there is still a constant struggle to recognise and affirm the universality, interdependency and indivisibility of human rights. There exists a hierarchy of gender relations and sexual norms that result in inequality, discrimination and disparity in access to all kinds of spaces and resources to claim for the fulfillment of basic human rights. As observed by Nighat Daad's blog post in this edition, "society's response [sic] takes away their freedom [and humanity], by forcing [individuals] to define themselves as "gay" or "disabled" first, and a person second."

In the face of this, the internet becomes a key space that allows conversations, interactions and representations of sexuality that are not permissible or limited -- through law, culture or markets -- in other public spheres. Online, we can find a multiplicity of discourses, communities and engagement by diverse people who exercise their right to expression, information, and public participation. From here, individuals are able push the boundaries of “normal” and “acceptable”, seek information that is otherwise unavailable, meet and support people who share the same concerns, contest against discriminatory norms, laws and practices, and to participate in shaping a world that is inclusive of diversity and affirming of equality.

However, it is precisely this relative “freedom” that is resulting in an anxiety around the potential “dangers” of the internet. There is an increasing mobilisation of fear that justifies the regulation of the internet by the various actors. Laws that regulate internet content and enable surveillance are rapidly being passed in many countries, often with little consultation. One chief argument presented is the protection of children from sexual content and predators.

Often, the private sector become unwitting gatekeepers of what is being said or done on the sites and services that they host or provide. At the same time, market principles fuel greater disregard for users’ right to privacy through data collection, aggregation and retention for the purposes of consumer profiling and targeted advertising. The language of protection and fear similarly infuse marketing strategies for the sale of filtering software and solutions. Even parents, siblings and partners are practicing the culture of surveillance by checking up on the online communication activities of the people they regard as under their care, worried about the unknown but seemingly ubiquitous dangers that the internet holds.

Some of the dangers are real. Online harassment, sexualised manipulation of images, cyberstalking and tracking someone’s mobility and activities through technological tools are increasingly being faced disproportionately by women and girls. But in such an overwhelming climate of fear, it can become extremely difficult to dismantle the myths from the facts.

For example, years of advocacy on child sexual abuse have shown that most abusers are people familiar to the child such as family members and teachers -- a far cry from the spectre of the unknown stranger. Yet this root problem is rarely addressed in calls for greater internet regulation. The subject of sexuality is also complex, and is often restrained through culture from open and frank interrogation, especially when it comes to young people. Further, the predominant push for criminalisation under a protectionist framework potentially denies the right of every human being, regardless of their differences in age, gender, sexuality, able-bodiedness and more, to self-determination.

Bearing in mind the existing inequalities mentioned above, how can we work towards solutions that are based on diverse realities and needs, and does not take away critical rights and freedoms necessary to create a more just world?

This two-part edition of GenderIT.org approaches the challenging terrain of sexuality and the internet, and aims to present evidence-based research and analysis to guide the thinking and decision-making around internet content regulation. It presents the ground breaking research from the 3-year Exploratory Research on Sexuality and the Internet (EROTICS) project, conducted in Brazil, India, Lebanon, South Africa and the USA.

The first part of the edition features the executive summaries of the full reports, which gives readers a critical look into the key findings and areas of interrogation by each of the countries. It also features interviews with the EROTICS authors, feminist activists and academics who share their insights and recommendations based on the findings of the research, and discuss ways to move this debate forward.

The second part of the edition will publish the full reports that delve into the complexities of policy and legislative trends on internet content regulation measures, key actors and influences informing the process (including the state, private sector and conservative forces), and how sexuality figures as a central theme in this debate.

A diversity of users including women of different ages and priorities (India), librarians (USA), transgender men and women (South Africa), internet activists (Lebanon, USA & Brazil), lesbian and queer activists (Brazil & Lebanon), women’s rights activists (India), social network users (India & Brazil) and men who advocate for inter-age relationships (Brazil) are engaged with. This engagement uses multiple approaches in order to understand, document and render visible the value of the internet in the exercise of sexual rights and the advancement of sexual citizenship, the actual risks and dangers that are being faced, and strategies that have been employed by individuals to communities of users to respond to them.

Each report presents a rich and critical investigation on the current landscape of internet content regulation, as well as what is at stake when the framework of rights is eclipsed by the circulation of anxieties.

We hope that this presents a valuable resource to help catalyse and advance debates on the internet - whether in terms of its importance, potential or risks - in a way that firmly begins from a recognition of the human rights of all people, regardless of our differences.

Picture: Some rights reserved by Movilh Chile // www.movilh.cl

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