The Joy of Cybersex: A Guide for Creative Lovers
Author: Deb Levine
Publisher: New York: Ballantine Books, 1998
Review Published: February 2000
In conservative right-wing discourse the Net is often presented as a digital version of Sodom and Gomorrah, where porn and perversity rule the data stream. Parents should take heed to protect their kids from harmful content (i.e. nudity) by installing filters, such as Netnanny, Net Sheperd and Cybersitter. So a book counteracting this narrow-minded portrayal of the Net and sexuality, could have meant a small but significant contribution towards toning down our culture's techno/sex panic. But to be honest, if I would have to employ the On Our Backs rating scale, ranging from "Better than sex" (excellent) to "Wash your hair instead" (awful), Deb Levine's The Joy of Cybersex falls in the last category. I expected to find a critical and pleasurable account of what the Internet has to offer regarding issues such as sex and sexuality, but was quite disappointed. The list of URL's Levine provides are quite standard and could have been easily retrieved by spending some time doing a search yourself. Plus it would have saved you the trouble of wading though the book's superficial prose.
While I can appreciate Levine's effort to break the cultural taboo by getting sex on the Internet out in the open, her book perpetuates traditional sexual mores rather than expanding them. The thin veil of sex-positivism, which is used more in a rhetorical fashion than anything else, maintains traditional sexual/gender stereotypes. This is not something one would expect from someone who claims to have been at the forefront of virtual sex education. Sex remains a very contested subject matter, whether it is mediated through digital or analogue means. Because the representation and practice of sex is very much suffused with cultural ideologies and anxieties, writing about it should not be simple and reduced to one-liners. Though the author has been working as a sex advisor in cyberspace for over 5 years -- first at the "Go Ask Alice" site and now as Delilah -- and has thus gained some experience in the subject area, she undoes sex/uality's complexity. This is best expressed in the fact that the text is saturated with moralistic biases towards what "healthy sexuality" constitutes. The further I read, the more irritated I became with Levine's prescriptive stance: sex is something that preferably happens between a monogamous heterosexual couple, and (oh please!!) it goes easy on the kink factor.
Such an attitude establishes very quickly what the sexual norm is supposed to be, and it doesn't exactly create an open sex positive climate, where departing from the norm is regarded as "variation," rather than "deviation." This is nicely illustrated by the chapter sequence. The sexual plot follows a traditional trajectory of how to flirt (Chapter 1: Emerging From Your Shell), how to get a relationship (Chapter 2: Looking for Love), how to sustain that relationship (Chapter 5: Hot Monogamy), what to do if you cannot sustain the latter (Chapter 6: Overcoming Sexual Inhibitions), and finally the politically correct last chapter "Beyond the Picket Fence", which actually claims to "go over the top" (212), and addresses subjects like "alternatives to monogamy," "gender bending," and "the future of sex." Add to this a couple of magazine-like tests, such as "Assess Your Current Status as a Flirt" (8-10), "What is it You Desire Sexually" (107-109), and a "Know Yourself and Your Relationship Quiz" (142-145), and you feel as if you're reading advice columns for spotty hormone-ridden teens.
What has all this got to do with cyberspace? Well, Levine's contention is that the Net is a "training ground" for "real life." It is in the safe and anonymous environment of the Net where people can experiment and explore their socio-sexual boundaries and skills (231-232). She is quick to add, however, that this should be done in a responsible way. Experimenting with sexual tastes -- or even sexual identities -- seems all right as long as it doesn't transgress the virtual boundaries, and as long as it remains functional. In other words, it is OK to cross-dress on-line for the purposes of getting to know the other gender better, or it is fine to hang out in a same-sex chat room in order to affirm your own sexual subjectivity. But the main idea hovering over modem and bedroom seems to be that heterosexual, relational sexuality prevails. Consider the following quote for example: "Chatting in a gay room doesn't mean a [straight] man is gay -- it means he's wise enough to know who to learn tips and tricks from about his own body" (126). This statement seems innocent enough, but actually plays on pejorative stereotypical depictions of gay men. In the first place the negation of homosexuality is confirmed by the straight guy's lurking in the gay chatroom, but being "wise" enough to affirm his difference and "their" otherness . . . he's only learning things about his OWN body, right? It is as if the straight guy's presence in the gay chatroom is strangely desexualized by stressing the knowledge acquisition part. On the other hand, the idea that these chatrooms only evolve around matters sexual, stigmatize gay men as being -- in general -- promiscuous, and all savvy about the pleasures of the male body.
It is true that Levine takes efforts to appear liberal and open towards sexuality; she notes, for example, "we need to learn about other options in order to stay objective. Being judgmental closes us up -- it shuts down sexual expressiveness" (213). Yet, in effect, the starting point remains monogamous heterosexuality, which functions as an "objective" norm. The mere fact that the collective pronoun "we" is utilized in the above quote, already distinguishes "us" from "other options." This covert dual logic neatly fuels the sexual ideology of the West in its present cultural moment. On the one hand, sex is overly mediated in advertising, video clips, and fashion, creating the semblance of a tolerant sexual climate. Yet on the other hand, the conservatism of the '80s, the impact and demonization of AIDS, millennial apocalyptic fever, and the growing influence of the moral right have all contributed to a backlash which is regressive in openness. The gap between how sexuality is represented in the media, and how it is practised and tolerated (or not) on an individual and community level, is quite disparate.
The strategy of "keeping up appearances" is utilized in the same vein when Levine discusses the Internet as an idyllic space where judgement and criticism are non-existent, and where egalitarianism is a sine qua non: "we're all equals in cyberspace" (p.232). This attitude reeks of uncritical technophilia, which not only has the effect that the technology is black-boxed, and hence all socio-economic, political and ideological processes are obliterated, but it also ignores issues as technological access, race and gender from the screen. If cyberspace is indeed the epitome of democracy, then why does Levine expand so much on conduct codes, which will keep you "out of trouble"? In other words, why does she then advise women to cross-dress to male avatars, or not to take on sexy female personae, since that might cause spamming, verbal harassment and the like? Probably a conduct-free zone is for Levine a place where you can play freely, as long as you stick to the rules.
The Joy of Cybersex fails on 3 levels: as a sex education book, it propagates conventionality rather than innovation. As a reference on sex links, it soon loses its actuality, considering the speed with which sites vanish and flourish. Moreover, the choice of URL's is, as mentioned before, rather dull and predictable. Finally, as a techno-cultural inquiry on the state of sex(uality), it lacks any sense of contextual and critical positioning. I certainly wouldn't like to find this book under my X-mas tree!
Nat Muller is a free-lance writer and cyberfeminist who holds a BA in English Literature from Tel-Aviv University (Israel) and an MA in Gender Studies from Sussex University (UK). She has published on gender and technology issues in digital and analogue media, and is currently obsessed with the effects of technology on cultural production. She lives in Antwerp, Belgium where she awaits her escape into the new millennium. <Nathalie.Muller@skynet.be>
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