Getting It On Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Sexuality and Embodied Identity
Author: John Edward Campbell
Publisher: Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 2004
Review Published: August 2005
Despite the extensive use of internet services by queer populations, there has been remarkably little written about their online experiences. This book length study of three gay male identified Internet Relay Chat (IRC) environments is a significant addition to emerging cyberqueer research, in particular due to its focus on how the internet fits into day to day lives which are rarely visible in the mainstream gay media. John Edward Campbell has done a good job of depicting the norms and tensions of these communities of interest, drawing in theories from cultural studies and other queer studies, as well as showing how these IRC environments are a product of a particular era of internet culture. Campbell argues that, unlike in MUD culture, IRC users are not "players" and therefore do not conform to "play" culture. Instead the chat revolves around assuming that participants are all gay men, although they may not be open about their sexuality in other (often offline) contexts.
Using a formula that has become well used in internet studies, the author narrates the book as an unfolding story of his own immersion in these online worlds as a way to draw out the themes of the study. Thus Chapter 2 is "Getting Online," and the final chapter is "Getting Offline." The reader first is told about Campbell's own initiation into the world of a local IRC and his emerging technical understanding. Subsequently, he becomes a participant in the three IRC channels that form the core of the data presented in this book. Campbell refers to his IRC channels as "three distinct social scenes" although his study shows some overlap in membership and culture. The three are: #gaymuscle, for those interested in the muscular male body; #gaychub, a group which celebrates male obesity; and #gaymusclebears, a group referencing the gay "bear" subculture (which has an emphasis on "natural" -- often hairy -- masculinity) alongside the muscular or obese male body. During his time doing research on these channels -- which he frequented before the study started, and continues to visit -- Campbell conducted 42 interviews, 21 of which he draws on for this written account.
The study is premised on the desire to get away from the utopia/dystopia debate of virtual/real worlds that characterized early work on the internet. Campbell is careful to present the complex and sometimes contradictory ways in which the IRC environment both allows the discussion and celebration of non-normative identities, while also reinforcing exclusion from communities through the repetition of stereotypes, or merely ignoring those who don't seem to fit. It made me wonder that if in the early rush to focus on practices such as "flaming," we may have given too little weight to other blocking or exclusion mechanisms that can operate in online environments. In this study, such exlusionary mechanisms range from not being able to produce a good enough account of your body (e.g. body measurements or "stats" which are unconvincing) to software client blocking options.
The book also is written to counter any simplistic application of what the author calls the "online disembodiment thesis" (5), or the early proclamations of transcendence of the physical body in cyberspace. Although the reader from internet studies might be forgiven for thinking that we do not need another rebuttal of the predictions/commentaries of William Gibson et al, the extent to which talk about the body comes to dominate the transcripts which Campbell presents merits this contextualization. Indeed, the study as a whole is particularly interesting when read against the early heteronormative body talk of early writers on cyberspace, in which the problematic bodies were women who might not be women, rather than men who do not measure up to norms of heterosexual masculinity. Yes, certainly the IRC services provide a primary channel for talk about sex and fulfilling erotic fantasies, however, the issues of gender and sexuality are far less clear cut than most online studies reveal. This book would make a far more provocative text in the internet studies classroom than another retelling of the "Julie" story. Furthermore, Campbell has chosen men who not only are outside the heterosexual mainstream, they are also outside dominant gay culture. This focus leads to a fascinating commentary on how exclusion operates within gay subcultures. Many of the interviewees have turned to these online groups because of the lack of representation of their bodies (or the bodies which they desire) in mainstream gay media such as The Advocate.
Like Lori Kendall's (2002) well known study of a MUD, Campbell's interviews benefit from group membership which seems fairly stable over time. This allows him to get to know regulars, and also talk about the dilemmas of his own personal engagements with members of the group. Campbell is refreshingly upfront about the difficulty of confronting the erotics of fieldwork amongst groups who participate in discussions that are often highly sexually charged. He also talks at some length about an extended deception by one of the members of #gaymuscle who reveals himself as not at all as his impressive muscle "stats" would suggest. Hearing too much about the author's own internet experiences is not to everyone's liking, but throughout the book Campbell manages to interweave his own experience with segments from interview transcripts without either seeming to dominate the discussion. In this way, he manages to fashion a reflexive rather than merely autobiographical account.
In terms of findings, Campbell is at his most interesting when discussing the ways in which his observations and interviews open up new ways to theorize sex and sexuality itself -- something which many studies of online sexuality reach for but rarely attain. In Chapter 4, he explores the ways in which two sexual practices are constructed within and across the online groups. Gaining weight, or "gaining," is presented as an intensely erotic activity for those involved in #gaychub, with an associated vocabulary of "feeders." In contrast, muscle worship on #gaymuscle is a sexualized practice of highly charged attention to muscles, where gaining and displaying particularly sculpted parts of the body are part of a ritual between admirer and the admired. Although to the reader these might both appear simply to be about fetishistic practices, Campbell argues that they are part of a potentially transgressive practice in which "there is a focal shift in the erogenous zones of the body, a reconceptualization of what constitutes the erotic, and, finally, at least a momentary redefining of sex roles" (136). Unlike the accounts of much heterosexual and mainstream gay pornographic images circulating in digital formats, here the emphasis is not on genitalia: "the male genitalia no longer function in themselves as arousing features for those engaging in either worship or gaining" (143). Discussions are more likely to reference the biceps or the gut.
In his discussions, Campbell draws on the now classic texts on online worlds, such as Pavell Curtis, Nancy Baym, and Howard Rheingold. However, he also makes use of Michel Foucault to try and explain the ways in which gay male bodies are represented and regulated in online spaces. He draws more broadly on queer theory and studies of contemporary sexual cultures to show the political context in which these participants are embedded -- largely white subcultures in the US. Despite the restricted social demographics of his sample, Campbell makes a convincing case for the importance of looking beyond the communicative interactions in the IRC spaces, and reaching for the theoretical and political importance of the experiences of the men involved. My main criticism of this book is that it could have explored in much greater depth the theoretical and political ramifications of the data that is presented. For example, how does this narrating of non-normative identity relate to widespread cultural representations of "freaks" that dominate television talk shows in the US? What are the political risks of being represented through such (relatively public) IRC channels? I'm thinking here of the arguments about the dilemmas of visibility set out by Joshua Gamson in his book Freaks Talk Back, which would provide a fascinating sociological framework through which to reflect upon this data, including Campbell's own decision to write about it.
Overall, I would certainly use this book in a class on online methods -- to be discussed perhaps alongside Christine Hine's well-used book Virtual Ethnography, for example. However I think it would be a pity if its use were restricted to internet studies. Mainstream social research on sexuality has yet to take on the importance of internet services to researching and theorizing the lives of queer populations, even though many small scale studies have shown the importance for identity formation and political organizing in diverse national contexts. Where it is used, the internet still seems to be viewed as a venue to offer up queer respondents as sample, rather than a significant part of the social construction of day to day experience. Although the aim of this study was not primarily to engage extensively with contemporary queer theory, Campbell does show the importance of reaching beyond the usual set of internet studies references in order to study online experiences. My hope is that future studies in this area will push this tendency still further.
Lori Kendall, Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub: Masculinities and Relationships Online. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2002.
Nina Wakeford is Director of INCITE and Reader in Sociology in the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, UK. Her research projects include studies of internet cafes, queer discussion lists, and the use of ethnography by new technology designers. INCITE is a research unit which aims to foster collaborations between ethnographers and those from other disciplines, such as engineering, computer science, design and art practice. More information and the INCITE blog can be accessed at here. <N.Wakeford@soc.surrey.ac.uk>
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