Sexuality and the internet: Findings from the global survey (2017)

24 December 2017

At three different times over the past four years, the EROTICS Project: An Exploratory Research on Sexuality and the Internet, by the APC Women’s Rights Program, sent out a questionnaire to its worldwide network of gender and sexuality activists, advocates, professionals and scholars, to learn about the role of information and communication technologies in their work. The survey was particularly designed to reflect about their experiences and responses to online violence and censorship. In this introductory note, we comment on the meaning of the survey as a tool to explore the potential, challenges and possibilities of the internet for the exercise of gender and sexuality rights.

The EROTICS project looks at the impact of regulatory frameworks and control mechanisms on the actual lived practices, experiences and concerns of internet users in the exercise of their sexual rights1. At its seminal stage, five case studies showed that while increasing online activity exposes users to certain risks and threats, individuals and collectives are successful in developing means of self-protection, regulation, and empowerment2. However, national and international Government, as well as business and user-based control initiatives aimed at curbing those risks––vaguely justified by the imperative of protecting vulnerable subjects––, end up generating restrictions to online activity and contents that could otherwise improve the thriving online experience and sexual expression of internet users––in particular, youths, women, and sexual minorities.

National and international Government, as well as business and user-based control initiatives aimed at curbing those risks––vaguely justified by the imperative of protecting vulnerable subjects––, end up generating restrictions to online activity and contents that could otherwise improve the thriving online experience and sexual expression of internet users––in particular, youths, women, and sexual minorities.

To assess the scope of this impact on sexual rights advocacy the EROTICS team designed and applied a global survey with two primary objectives. One was to map how sexual rights activists (on a variety of issues and from different countries) use the internet to advance their work. The other objective was to document and provide insights on the types of risks, harassment, content regulation, or censorship they deal with, and how they respond to them. That is, what gender and sexuality-related online contents, practices, and modes of interaction may be subjected to censorship, limitations, threats, or violence.

The survey reached out to respondents broadly self-identified as “working on” LGBTQI, women’s and sexual rights, which potentially included activists, scholars, experts and supporters; in other words, individuals who are particularly sensitive to issues around sexual rights and the internet. They were invited to respond to a questionnaire addressing issues of access, use of internet resources for advocacy, online safety, and censorship. The first global survey was launched in 2013, and a slightly revised version of the questionnaire was applied as a follow-up exercise in 2014. In 2017, a reviewed version of the questionnaire was again sent out, and an important innovation was introduced: in-depth interviews were conducted with individuals who volunteered to expand their responses (2017 survey results).

Given the global scope of this research, the results provide insights on the social, political and technical contexts of internet use by gender and sexuality activists worldwide, the security challenges they face, as well as current limitations to the exercise of sexual rights, and how they negotiate them.

Given the global scope of this research, the results provide insights on the social, political and technical contexts of internet use by gender and sexuality activists worldwide, the security challenges they face, as well as current limitations to the exercise of sexual rights, and how they negotiate them. The findings illuminate the connections between internet surveillance, online sexual sociability and expression, and how gender and sexuality markers, among others, mediate the access and meaningful use of information and communication technologies. They provide evidence to help explain the impact of internet regulation on sexual rights activists’ work, and make inferences about the exercise of gender and sexual rights in the contemporary online/offline continuum. Insights from the EROTICS survey might also help explore strategic ways for sexual rights activists to address digital security and advocate for gender & sexuality issues among internet rights activists.

The 2017 Survey

  • Sample

The basic demographics of the survey sample indicate some variety in terms of age, gender, and sexual identity; reflecting the reach of this research initiative, initially targeted at the networks among which the EROTICS project has resonated, without a pre-designed sample stratification device. The survey provides valuable data on some particular local contexts, as well as age and sex/gender identity categories. Given the size of the sample, broader inferences with some statistical validity can be made, considering the survey's characteristics and its targeted universe: gender sexual rights activists, with certain countries, regions, age groups, and sex/gender identities better represented than others.

Active dissemination of the survey had an impact on the sample, evidently dominated by LGBTIQ and feminist activism, which is consistent with the survey target. In all its three applications, most survey respondents were overall relatively young, cis queer female. World regions where EROTICS members are based or more active—largely within the Global South—were substantially better represented, highlighting the importance of networking for the success of the survey.

In all its three applications, most survey respondents were overall relatively young, cis queer female. World regions where EROTICS members are based or more active—largely within the Global South—were substantially better represented, highlighting the importance of networking for the success of the survey.

  • Matters of representation

The small number of responses obtained from transgender, intersex, or “other”-identified individuals does not permit any statistically relevant statements regarding those groups. However, strategies to reach trans people have been progressively more successful, with an increase in their representation in the most recent survey applications. To complement the survey data, in 2017, interviews were made with trans persons, among others not as strongly represented in earlier survey samples––in particular, invisibilized or silenced communities, such as persons with disabilities, younger and elder age groups, and migrants. The 2017 report quotes those interviews, offering their important and illuminating perspective. The report also presents the individual responses of trans and intersex people to the questionnaire in absolute numbers, instead of percentages, to account for their small statistical representation.

The small number of responses obtained from transgender, intersex, or “other”-identified individuals does not permit any statistically relevant statements regarding those groups. However, strategies to reach trans people have been progressively more successful, with an increase in their representation in the most recent survey applications.

  • Online presence

Most respondents worked for non-governmental organizations, followed by people who worked either as independent activists or are members of academic or policy institutes, focusing on issues related to women’s and LGBT rights, usually through policy monitoring, content production and/or dissemination, and direct actions such as training and capacity building—all these activities relying heavily on internet access. The survey sample shows that more cis heterosexual women work on women’s rights, and more cis gay men work on LGBT rights.

The report also shows how important an online presence is for people who face strong social discrimination. They use the internet to express their identities, to network, to search for and share information, as well as to advocate for their rights. This enabling role of the internet is evident in the use of social networks (especially Facebook), e-mail (especially Gmail), and instant messaging (especially WhatsApp). Despite its importance, Facebook is also perceived as a risky space, according to respondents, because of its lack of transparency on how personal information is handled, used––let alone protected.

The report also shows how important an online presence is for people who face strong social discrimination. They use the internet to express their identities, to network, to search for and share information, as well as to advocate for their rights.

  • Online challenges

The survey also asked its respondents about how safe (or unsafe) they felt, and the types of threats and violence they experienced online, as challenges to the exercise and expressions of their identities and their work on gender and sexuality rights. Social networks––again, majorly Facebook––are the main online spaces where these interactions take place, and much of the online violence reported occurs in interactions with other internet users, as opposed to, for instance, censorship or surveillance on behalf of the state or within their families.
For survey respondents, however, the most important factors influencing policies or monitoring their activities online in ways that limit their sexual expressions and activism are Government/State actors and internet providers. Thus, although the experiences reported do not show the State as a main actor, Government and business are perceived as potential violators of privacy, and other communications and sexual rights online. Religious authorities were also mentioned as an increasingly active factor in these violations.

Although the experiences reported do not show the State as a main actor, Government and business are perceived as potential violators of privacy, and other communications and sexual rights online. Religious authorities were also mentioned as an increasingly active factor in these violations.

Overall, respondents indicated a degree of uncertainty related to how secure their online presence really is, and cases of hacking, identity theft, monitoring, stalking, and harassment all add to these feelings, which were more prevalent among LGBTIQ respondents. The reasons underlying such acts of control, surveillance, and online threats, among respondents’ perceptions, show a process of moralizing the internet, where the protection of “vulnerable” subjects (women, youths, children) or institutions (the family, the State, country, public decency, and tradition) act as a strategic arguments to justify interference with the online activities of groups already discriminated offline.

The reasons underlying such acts of control, surveillance, and online threats, among respondents’ perceptions, show a process of moralizing the internet, where the protection of “vulnerable” subjects (women, youths, children) or institutions (the family, the State, country, public decency, and tradition) act as a strategic arguments to justify interference with the online activities of groups already discriminated offline.

Notably, then, the State, internet providers and religious authorities are perceived as potential antagonists; and other internet users—usually unknown men—are reported as the main sources of online violence. Therefore, institutional and official indifference to rights violations, combined with the increasingly open condemnation of minorities by some of those institutions (notably, church leaders and State officials), creates an atmosphere where individual aggressors feel emboldened in their acts of anonymous online malice. Unfortunately, for the survey respondents, options for facing these challenges are limited, unless they have the technical savviness to confront online violence and unwanted monitoring. Their most frequent responses are non-confrontational solutions, such as leaving the platforms or closing accounts. However, visibilizing those events, to gain political or legal leverage, was also mentioned as a viable reaction, and, when that fails, confronting aggressors was also considered an option.

  • So where do we stand…

Sexual morality evidently permeates most forms of state regulation, as well as public concern regarding online safety and security. Many legal, technological, community-sponsored and market internet regulation devices, as well as multiple less formalized everyday practices of protection and self-regulation are driven by moral anxieties, often of a sexual nature. The general findings of the surveys confirm those observations.

Many legal, technological, community-sponsored and market internet regulation devices, as well as multiple less formalized everyday practices of protection and self-regulation are driven by moral anxieties, often of a sexual nature.

The earlier ethnographic findings of the EROTICS Project indicated that neither the regulation devices protective functions nor their potential to unreasonably restrict sexual rights were at all self-evident to sexual rights activists, let alone internet users. The potential of such mechanisms to obstruct the exercise of sexuality and the promotion of sexual rights often go ignored, as their primary focus is the protection of traditional values, and especially of subjects conceived as vulnerable.

The EROTICS survey reveals, on the one hand, respondents’ perceptions and experiences regarding online safety, closer to the users’ point of view, their skills and digital literacy. On the other hand, the survey is also sensitive to technical and juridical/political forms of regulation, emphasizing security dimensions––located at the ‘hard’ level of technological, market, and State control. Both those perspectives are crucial to an understanding of the role of internet regulation as related to the exercise of sexual rights. It is the goal of the EROTICS project to generate data and develop activist interventions to help bridge the gap between those two dimensions, as well as the duality between freedom and protection.

In light of the online experiences mapped by the EROTICS Project, one can look at internet regulation as a form of discipline, made of rules and control mechanisms, but also of self-regulation and risk management devices both by collectives and by individuals. Our findings support the assumption that technical skill and knowledge about regulation do in fact contribute to a fuller exercise of sexual rights. In other words, that communication rights can and should also be envisioned, and advocated for, as a sexual rights.

Communication rights can and should also be envisioned and advocated for as a sexual rights.

To read the full report on EROTICS global survey click here.

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Footnotes

1. Kee, Jac sm. 2010. Introduction. In: Kee et alii “EroTICs: An exploratory research project into sexuality and the internet”. Pp. 1-2. See http://www.apc.org/en/system/files/Erotics_Exec_Summary.pdf. Go back

2. EROTICS: An exploratory research project into sexuality and the internet, conducted in five countries: Brazil, India, Lebanon, South Africa and the United States. See http://www.apc.org/en/system/files/EROTICS_Exec_Summary.pdf Go back

 

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