The first video ever posted on YouTube was of co-founder Jawed Karim making a dick joke. Jennifer Lopez’s famous green Versace dress was basically what started Google Images. A picture of Playboy has been used for decades to test image processing tasks on computers. Sex essentially created the online digital world as we know it today, in ways you probably didn’t know. This is the thesis of Motherboard Editor-in-Chief Samantha Cole’s first book, How sex changed the internet and the internet changed sex.
It’s a story that continues to be written, but Cole’s book is a unique and complete take. The book tackles fundamental human issues and feelings such as consent and power, examining how the internet has played a role in relation to sex, such as with deepfakes, which are used to superimpose a person’s head on another person’s body. At times, the candor is overwhelming and hard to read, especially when it comes to descriptions of how the internet is used when it comes to sexual violence. But we feel that it is extremely important to know what is hidden (or not) behind our screens—depths that many of us have not even begun to explore. For example, the woman whose Playboy image was used, Lena Sjööblom, didn’t even know it was until several years later, when she was invited to appear at the 50th annual conference of the Society for Imaging Science and Technology in 1997.
I spoke to Cole, whose book comes out Nov. 15, on the subject of sex and the internet, technological advancements, censorship and upcoming internet trends.
How did you get involved in covering sex and gender issues?
I had a fairly sheltered upbringing. It’s surprising to me and probably people who know me that I cover this stuff for a living now. I started in journalism right out of college, and then I wrote a lot of stories and profiles and things like that, and I talked to people about their very human experiences. And then from there I moved to New York and started writing about science and space. I’ve really shifted gears over the past six years. I just focused on things like platforms and moderation and how the internet works and how people use the internet in particular, because so much of our lives now happens on the internet. There is no real life. What happens on the Internet is really our lives. The coverage I’ve done around sex, sex work and gender has been, truly, the most interesting part of my career. And that’s kind of the reason I’m sticking with it.
In the book you talk about how a lot of these technologies advances, such as message boards, were still driven by a need for sex and love. What do you think this says about humanity and our connection styles?
I think it says something very vulnerable and sweet about how we just want to be seen and known [and] the way we want to define anything. On those old text systems and chat rooms, you could describe the way you were and it could be completely different from what you are in real life. And you could kind of play with that online and see, you know, who that attracts, how it feels to be that other person that you want to be online. I guess we do to some degree, just in our real life interactions too. No one is really, fully, fully yourself, when talking to colleagues or in a professional setting or anything like that; you project what you want people to see. And I think people did, to an extreme extent, online when it was first formed. And people are doing it now on Twitter; no one is really who they really are on Twitter.
I think that’s saying people just want to be heard and understood on a very basic level, which is enabled by the internet in a way that we’re still grappling with, and still dealing with how to understand each other through this technology.
There’s a scene in your book that deals with a sexual assault. in a chat room. Essentially, players in the virtual room could type in what they were doing, but a hacker took over other people’s accounts and made them type in that they were doing graphic things related to sexual violence. While reading this part, I realized how awful it really was for the people who were online in this chat room. Can you tell us more about your thoughts on consent in these discussion forums?
This clearly showed how entangled people felt in their lives in the chat room. Like, it was really an extension of their very real life: it was their friend group, their social group. I’m not saying that’s the only thing they did. They have lives outside of that, but in that space they were there in a very real way. It’s kind of hard to draw a line on what is and isn’t aggression in a chat room like this. And I think we still have that conversation in a lot of ways. You are allowed to talk now about what is sexual harassment in virtual reality, like in a virtual reality headset, and the metaverse. You can remove the helmet, but have you been harassed in this situation? So I don’t know, I don’t think there’s an easy answer as to what is still and isn’t considered “bad enough” to be assaulted in a virtual space like this. But I think you have to listen to people’s stories and hear what they were going through and what they were feeling and kind of go from there.
What are the trends, good or bad, that you see emerging in the next five years or so when it comes to sex on the Internet?
The pessimistic view is that things will continue to be increasingly sterilized and censored. It’s hard not to see it that way. Because the current reality is that things aren’t getting more free and welcoming for sex, they’re getting more hostile. And more and more platforms are saying, “We don’t accept any form of sex. So I try to resist that view because I don’t think it’s entirely helpful. And I also think we have a say in how it goes; we’re building this thing, to some degree, as we go along. People can change the course of things if they feel passionate, that’s what gives me hope. Things can change for the better. We just have to be really loud about it.
We have seen the censorship of, as you mentioned in the book, for a long time. You trace this back to the erotic novels of the 1700s. What do you see as a line of passage Between these erotic novels and the current censorship?
You really have to go back to the puritans to understand how sex and anything remotely sexual is censored online. Because it’s a standard that started, as you said, with those old texts; forbidden books exist since books are books that are not the Bible. It boils down to conservative Christianity and this whole movement that really becomes the dominant force in saying what is and isn’t moral and moral and then dictating behavior and what you can and can’t do in your personal life. I think all of this feeds into what we’re seeing happening now, which is this big push of right-wing conservative Christian theocracy types who want porn, sex, nudity and everything on every platform on the internet. They draw on a very long history of censoring this stuff in all walks of life. And now the main area of life that we have is the Internet.
You mentioned that SESTA and FOSTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) are so detrimental to sex workers. But you also mentioned the 2019 Congressional House Intelligence Committee hearing on deep forgeries, that have been used to fake people porn. Do you see a role the government or law enforcement could play in online sex-related issues?
FOSTA/SESTA was designed as this sex trafficking prevention measure. It’s good to prevent sex trafficking, nobody in the sex industry says “Yes, no more trafficking”, and many people who work in the industry are victims or survivors of trafficking. And so they are all related. But these bills did not speak to these people, they did not take into account the views of the people who are currently working in the industry. These people have definitely made their opinions known. They went to Capitol Hill, lobbied against it; they always press against it, they always fight against it. I think that was the main problem. So if there were to be any government assistance, oversight, anything with respect to these industries, it should include these people, not just the people who want to see it abolished. If you are trying to prevent trafficking, you should start with housing and income and a lot of other very basic things that are much harder to solve than removing sex workers from the internet.
As you did earlier, and as you do in the book, you seem to adopt a position that resembles that of an activist, would you agree with this categorization?
This is the question I think a lot of journalists ask themselves, where is the line between activism and journalism? I consider that a lot of activism is also journalism. There is no impartial journalism. You see these things happening and you don’t necessarily take sides so to speak, but you know, you see what’s happening in these communities and you want to speak the truth about it. And the truth may not be what one side likes. So I don’t consider myself a full-time activist, although I think there’s a lot of activism to be done in journalism. We all make choices of how we’re going to frame a story, but you have to decide what’s really true to the situation. And with things like FOSTA/SESTA, it was very clear that the reality of the situation was that people were being hurt. And that’s not what the lawmakers were saying. That’s not the story they were telling; they said the opposite.
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