'Goal: play anal with butt plug' – New virtual prostitution and the limits to participation
Recently, I have thought about new forms of pornography and prostitution. The internet landscape in particular is changing rapidly. The old commercial porn industry is really in trouble; not only has it trouble finding a location for its filming after the ban from LA, sales have been going downhill – up to 80% have been lost since 2007. A big part of the reason for this decline is the boom of webcam sites, like Livejasmine and Omeglegirls. Private performers log in from a studio or even from home to perform one-to-one or group shows. Customers can design their very own live porn movie. The price for the private entertainment is quite high – up to £4 per minute. But some sites, like Omegle, use a group tipping-system, which makes it easy for free-riders to enjoy sex-shows without ever paying.
Not only do I think that this whole trend is worth thorough research as a dangerous new form of exploitative prostitution, I also believe that there is much to be learned about new ways of capitalising on sex and the body in more general. Many of the performers seem to come from Eastern Europe and Asia, sign up in cheap studios specialised on sex workers and sell their virtual body in minute-chunks to more affluent counterparts in the US, the UK and Germany. There is indeed an argument to be made about the free choice the performer makes and the minimised danger of diseases and physical harm. But is it really that much different from prostitution? Can we really abstract from structural parameters – student debt, consumerist desires and mere poverty – pushing young girls and boys into this trade, however, just because it is performed online? Worth thinking about is also how ‘globalisation’ works out in this sexual cyber-space: not equally distributed connecting people over the world but one-sided, hierarchically structured with money flowing from the global North to the global South.
The different forms of payment, barter and exchange used online excite and concern me as a trained economist in even more general ways. Do systems where the audience tips the performer collectively towards a common goal (‘Next goal: Play anal with a butt plug’) benefit the performer more than ‘real’ payments? What influence does the exchange of real money into virtual coins, points and likes have on the spending? How do customers prioritise their spending to be able to afford sprees of several hundred dollars? With all these questions, I can’t get two things out of my head, however. Both of them seem boring issues of methodology at first.
How to research the realm of internet pornography? The internet in general has become a focus point of research over the last years and so have several ways of doing virtual research. The internet is in a way nothing but a big archive – and archival work is well-known in the social sciences. Dig for documents (page, video, sound alike) and read them as historical ‘texts’. But particularly for interactive, live sites as the ones mentioned above, this static research does not seem suitable. Cromby (2004:799) rightly claims: “It is as though talking about an orgasm were equivalent to experiencing one, reading about drug experiences the same having them.”
Neither do surveys, statistical data nor interviews suffice; these methods form a necessary base and context but are not able to map the experience and intricate details of a webcam performer. How to do participant observation, however, without getting into ethical trouble? Where is the limit to participation? Would one need to ‘pay’ in order to participate and wouldn’t that support the possible exploitation? How does one build up a relationship of trust with a performer? How is one’s status as researcher negotiated?
Even more serious problems arise from my second thought: don’t people immediately think you are actually only doing this research because you are interested in watching porn yourself? After all, just hanging out in some porn-chat-rooms and talking to the performers seems like a great way of earning academic laurels. It is a complicated endeavour to research porn – and I think this is particularly so for men. Most of the sites above are focused on the ‘male gaze’ attracting predominantly male customers. A ‘male’ researcher would surely not have to justify his presence in any of the chat-room. Would he, however, afterwards in the seminar room?
This dilemma leads to a further paradox: in a way the skepticism of the genuine undertaking of porn research might even be justified but just as the involvement of men in feminism is in my opinion crucial, so is male research of what I called the new virtual prostitution. It is male people who constitute the majority of the users of these sites, it is male people setting these sites up and it is male people who are most likely to shut them down (if at all). I might be wrong with my idea of how people (and this is both male and female colleagues) look strangely at a man researching porn. But if I am not, shouldn’t we think twice? About the potential of participant observation on new prostitution and the potential of men doing it.
– Roberts, Darren (2012). The Unsexpected Story. New York: Clearly Confused.
– Cole, J., 2010. Sex and Salvation: Imagining the Future in Madagascar, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
– Cromby, J., 2004. Between Constructionism and Neuroscience: The Societal Co-constitution of Embodied Subjectivity. Theory & Psychology, 14(6), pp.797–821.
– Boellstorff, T., 2010. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human: An Anthopologist Explores the Virtually Human, Princeton: Princeton University Press.