All posts by elmyra

Call for Papers: Sex and Sexualities in Popular Culture: Feminist Perspectives

Sex and Sexualities in Popular Culture: Feminist Perspectives

Call for Papers for a 1-day postgraduate symposium hosted by the Digital Cultures Research Centre

Popular culture, as can be seen through the GamerGate controversy for one example, has a profound impact on feminist issues and discourses. Representations of sex and sexualities influence public opinion and individual attitudes and perceptions. Discussions – in both media and academia – are continuing to take place about the impact of Fifty Shades, sexism and misogyny in computer game and comic book fandom, the sexualisation of girls and the sexual desires of both young and adult women. Moral panics abound surrounding Fifty Shades and the “irrational” behaviour of One Direction fans, while LGBTQIA+ identities and sexualities are often represented tokenistically at best. Creative practitioners can easily come under fire for poor representations of sex and sexualities, as evidenced most recently by the reception of Joss Whedon’s treatment of Black Widow in The Avengers: Age of Ultron; equally they can be celebrated for their efforts, as was the case with BioWare’s inclusion of a consent negotiation scene in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

This one-day symposium will open up debates and explore the nuances of sex and sexualities within popular culture and will afford a platform for postgraduate students (MA/MSc onwards) and creative practitioners exploring these areas to meet peers, share work and learn from each other. We aim to create a space safe for experimentation – both with new ideas and with presentation formats. We therefore encourage a range of submissions, including workshops, discussions, pecha kucha, as well as the traditional 20-minute paper format.

Possible topics include but are not limited to:

  • Representations of women’s desire and sexualities in popular culture
  • Non-cis- and heteronormative sexualities in popular culture, especially beyond “gay and lesbian”
  • Representations of sex work
  • Infertility and sexual dysfunction
  • Sexual intersections: race, disability, religion, class and socioeconomic status, gender
  • Sex and sexualities in gaming
  • Sexual pleasure in popular culture
  • Invisibility: (a)sexualities unrepresented
  • Sex, sexualities and social media
  • Sex and sexualities in fan and transformative works

Please submit a 300-word abstract and a 100-word bio to and by September 27th, 2015.

Abstract deadline: September 27th, 2015

Conference date and location: November 7th, 2015, Digital Cultures Research Centre, The Watershed, Bristol

Eligibility: Postgraduate students (MA/MSc onwards) and creative practitioners

Send abstracts to: and

[Elsewhere] Things that keep me awake at night

I was asked to give a talk last week at the UWE University Research Ethics Commmittee training day about the ethical challenges of researching online. This turned into a blog post for the lovely people over at #NSMNSS, whom you should definitely check out if you’re doing any kind of researching involving social media.

These are some of the questions that keep me awake at night. Perhaps the biggest insight for me here is that the vast majority of them are not asked on an ethics application form. While going through the ethics approval process has been a useful starting point for me, I have had to put in a lot of thought outside of and beyond the framework of that single form. There certainly aren’t any universal right answers for these questions, and some days I am not even convinced there is a single right answer for my particular research. There are simply different choices I can make, with as much consultation with the community as possible, while being aware of the power imbalances and responsibilities inherent in my position.

Read more at #NSMNSS.

[Conference] Five Questions from Researching Sex and Sexualities

I think the five questions format works quite well for conference write-ups and reflections so I’m going to stick with it for now. I spent the last couple of days at Researching Sex and Sexualities at Sussex University, and my brain is absolutely exploding with thoughts and questions.

What is the researcher’s relationship with discourses of resistance?

This is a question I brought with me to the conference. It surfaced for me at Theorizing the Web and has only gained prominence in my mind since. I’ve been doing a lot of work on my research methodology recently and reading a lot about Critical Discourse Analysis and Foucauldian Discourse Analysis. When one of my supervisors suggestsed I use discourse analysis in my research about six months ago I felt very uncomfortable with it, for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. It was only in the last couple of weeks that I finally realised what was bothering me. Both Critical and Foucauldian Discourse Analysis are methods of reading for power. You analyse a text to understand how it constructs certain concepts, how it legitimises some ways of thinking while undermining others. And both methods are more often than not very explicitly and deliberately applied to texts of power, political speeches being the classic example. They very rarely engage with the texts and discourses of the marginalised, and for good reason. The couple of cases where I’ve seen discourse analysis and similar methods applied to marginalised texts and communities, they have tended to question some of the tools these communities use simply to survive, generally with little overt awareness of the potential harm involved in that.

The other issue with discourses of resistance is how quickly they get co-opted and assimilated into the neo-liberal order. You like yarn bombing things? Here, knit some hats for our smoothie bottles and we’ll donate some money to charity! You’re a woman trying to work out and navigate her sexuality in our culture? Have a prettily designed sex shop! So as we analyse discourses of resistance, and as we potentially drag them out of obscurity and into the public eye, what is our responsibility as researchers to the communities we research? How do we become facilitators serving those communities rather than unwelcome prying eyes?

How do we respectfully engage with non-academic knowledge production?

Again, this is a question I brought with me and I am grateful to other conference participants for helping me further tease out some of the complexities here. When I embarked on my PhD research I had a certain expectation that there would be a huge and thorough body of feminist theoretical work on sexual consent, that I could then take and apply to my case study of erotic fanfiction. This has turned out not to be the case, and I have come to realise that knowledges on consent produced in the fanfiction community are both more extensive and more nuanced than feminist academic work. These knowledges are not in a format that academia would necessarily recognise, and there is considerable potential value in finding ways to disseminate them beyond their current context (though, as evidenced by the previous question, there are also significant risks).

This raises huge questions about the role of the researcher in this space, and about the researcher’s relationship with the material and the community producing it. A lot of this material is theoretically rich and robust despite its unconventional (for academia) format. It feels wrong to simply treat it as “data”, to take it and put my own stamp on it. On the other hand, I believe it would also be wrong to treat this material and its authors as equal to theory and analysis published in a peer-reviewed journal and engage with it on that level. I have seen fandom scholars do this and it results in work which ignores the huge power imbalance between academia and the fandom community and holds fans’ work to impossible standards, while also giving it possibly unwanted publicity without the right to reply on an equal platform. A “researcher as curator” approach may have some merit here but is also mired in questions of ethics, co-authorship and what exactly the researcher’s own original contribution is. So how do we reconcile these tensions, and how do we engage with other knowledges?

What happens when we reach the limits of words?

There were a couple of really thought-provoking papers at the conference that have made me question the terminology I am using in my own research. What we choose to call things has immense power: it can open certain avenues of thought and shut down others. Mercedes Poell’s work on “relationships without sex” – which encompasses people who claim the asexual identity for themselves, those who don’t but may not be having sex for other reasons, and the huge grey area in between – is a fantastic example of opening up a space through word choice. Tanya Palmer’s work on sex and sexual violation, and particularly her decision not to use the word “rape” because in a legal context is has a very precise and limited definition, is another. In both cases the word choice opens up a space for experiences not traditionally considered as part of the same category and thereby allows for new questions to be asked.

The word “consent”, which is central to my own research, is a palimpsest of legal, social, cultural and individual meanings layered upon one another, and there is a strong case to be made for kicking it out and starting afresh. I am at this point inclined to stick with it though. While we may not have a single, common definition of consent (and to an extent if we did there would be no point in me conducting this research), it is nonetheless a recognisable cultural placeholder for something. I think it’s worthwhile attempting to tease out the different things it is a placeholder for while also being very aware that in many ways I’m already up against the limits of the meanings of that word. How do I reconcile those two positions, and where do I go when I break through the limits of the word?

How do concepts travel in a globalised environment?

There was a delegation of Chinese scholars at the conference who provided some fascinating perspectives on doing sexualities research in China. I was struck by how well or badly certain concepts travel across cultural contexts. The classic example is the word “queer” which has a very specific geographic and historical origin in the UK and US as a slur which was later reclaimed. I have met a number of older gay men in particular who do not feel comfortable with that word because it was hurled at them in the streets, and I try not to use the word as an umbrella term for the LBGTQIA+ community, and I don’t use it of anyone who doesn’t use it of themselves first. At the same time, through processes of globalisation, cultural imperialism and neo-colonialism (but also to an extent through a pull from the non-English-speaking world), the word “queer” has now crossed national, linguistic and cultural borders. Chinese scholars use it, as do LGBTQIA+ communities in many other countries, often without awareness of the origin and context out of which it arose. And while this original context may be lost when the word travels, it acquires new layers of contexts and meanings.

This is very much a half-formed thought for me at this point, but I do think it’s something worth being mindful of. What contexts and meanings are lost as concepts travel? What new ones are gained? Are we still speaking of the same thing?

How do we salvage academic conferences?

There was a somewhat snarky though some ways useful piece in the New York Times recently complaining about all the shortcomings of the traditional academic conference format. And while I am rather partial to a good game of conference bingo myself, I also found the tone of the piece deeply unhelpful. I can see how young early-career researcher may be put off by it because so many of the behaviours it criticises are born from inexperience (although the reason a fair chunk of them persist is that established academics perpetuate them and this make them acceptable). In many ways, that piece puts even more pressure on researchers to avoid risks and appear perfect.

This stands in sharp contrast to the format of Researching Sex and Sexualities. We were asked to submit short papers in advance and these were circulated to all participants a few weeks before the conference. (If you’re worried about finding the time for pre-reading, in my experience it takes a minimum of four hours to travel from anywhere in the UK to anywhere else for a conference. I guess the woeful state of infrastructure and public transport in this country does have some uses.) We were then split into discussion groups and used a round robin format (everyone speaks in turn and only speaks when it’s their turn) to pick up on common themes and issues, ask and answer questions, and share thoughts. Combined with the overall theme of the conference, which was very much about the process of researching rather than the results of our research, this created a space where conference participants felt safe enough to be vulnerable, to take risks, to talk about the challenges we were facing, and to admit that there were things we simply didn’t know. There is something incredibly powerful about showing vulnerability. It changes the quality of the discussion, opens up new avenues, and can give people confidence.

This format may not necessarily be appropriate for all conferences. One limitation of it is that it closes off the space to outsiders who are not contributing a paper. Other academics, or even members of the public can’t just drop in to listen. It may also be less suited to conferences which have a strong focus on research results rather than processes. But the approach also has a lot of strengths, and academic conferences really are in dire need of revamping. As I’m about to embark on a conference organising adventure of my very own, how do I challenge traditional formats? How do I encourage participants (and particularly postgraduates and early-career researchers) to take risks, experiment, and still feel safe rather than judged?

[Conference] Five questions I am left with after #TtW15

The purpose of New York based conference Theorizing the Web, now in its fifth year, is “to ask conceptual questions about the interrelationships between the web and society”. So after an intense two days, here are the five questions that I left NYC with.

1. When finding new languages to theorize the monstrous, mysterious and unfathomable, how do we make them preferentially accessible to people rather than capital?

One strong theme throughout the two days was the increasingly unfathomable and sometimes monstrous nature of the vast technological systems we are now immersed in in our daily lives. From the mysterious black box that is your car or your iPhone, to the arcane algorithms that shape your Facebook feed for maximum happiness (thereby unintentionally suppressing, for instance, news of the Ferguson protests), to the monstrous apparatus of mass surveillance (state, corporate, and even consumer-based), the language of magic may be an increasingly useful way of conceptualising the technologies around us. Of course, magic means different things to different people. This is partly what makes it such a useful and multi-faceted metaphor, but also one of its limitations. It is all too easy to declare complex technologies as magical and surrender the understanding and control of them to a specially trained an increasingly powerful technological priesthood. And so the key questions here are, how do we make that which appears to be magical transparent? How do we instil the values of transparency and democratisation of technology in those who aspire to priesthood? And, when theorizing magic and technology, how do we make these languages and concepts accessible to people rather than opening the doors to capital?

Sessions to check out:

Panelists to follow:

2. How do we decolonise the web?

There is something deeply colonialist about early conceptualisations of the internet as a “new frontier”, and even more recent neologisms such as “digital native”. While, unlike the frontier of old, the web is not built on land already belonging to a people, it is nonetheless a deeply racialised and colonial space. It’s a space where black girls as young as eight and young black women who post twerking videos on YouTube are harassed, propositioned for sex, and called ugly, but white women’s twerking videos get millions of hits and are described as sexy and cute. It’s a space where white American tourists can review their tours of Jamaican plantations on TripAdvisor to complain about the food, thereby reconstructing what is and is not important about the sites of the history of slavery. In the physical layer, the internet is a space where Caribbean islands have ICT infrastructure which vastly outstrips local consumer demand – reflecting their history as a trading hub between Europe, Africa and the Americas, but also the fact that this infrastructure is there for the benefit of white capital, not the local population. Conversely, Native American reservations are some of the most poorly connected places in North America. So how do we decolonise the web? How do we shed racist and colonial structures, in our language, in the physical layer, and in online interactions? And how do indigenous and racialised people and people of colour use the web to dismantle structures power?

Sessions to check out:

  • Racial Standpoints, <a href= #a3

Panelists to follow:

3. What is the cultural intervention necessary to undermine our collective belief in images (and data) as “proof”?

Pics or it didn’t happen! (And incresingly, metadata or it didn’t happen!) Of course the ubiquitous presence of smartphones with built-in cameras has helped, for instance, expose and document anti-black police brutality in the US and provide testimony of human rights abuses around the world. But our belief in and reliance on images and data as evidence is a two-edged sword. Even without the use of Photoshop, the photographer has power to frame an image to present conflicting narratives of the same scene. This is also the case even with what looks like a complete set of surveillance or metadata. An image in the hands of protesters may be a symbol of community, but in the hands of the police it’s evidence that you were there. In a humanitarian context, asking for images as proof is asking for images of another human body’s suffering. Documenting and archiving injustice becomes a form of humanitarian work, and gives the archivist power to adjudicate different suffering. At the same time, focusing on what is visible draws our attention away from that which is concealed. We see police point guns at young black men with their hands raised (which in itself encourages a kind of respectability politics), but we don’t see – and therefore don’t question – the 1.8 million black bodies incarcerated and brutalised by the US criminal justice system. So how do we neutralise or redistribute the power of data and images? How do we refocus attention? And how do we undermine our collective belief in the absolute truthfulness of images and data?

Sessions to check out:

Panelists to follow:


4. How does shifting medium shift the balance of power?

The internet is decreasing our attention span! It’s making us stupid! Yet more often than not, shifting medium – whether from offline to on or vice versa – can open new possibilities and give us new perspectives. If you assume text on the internet behaves like text in a book and compare comprehension rates then you may find the web performs badly. But if you look at text on the web as interactive, as something much closer to an oral, dialogic culture, then you can quickly see how it can improve learning outcomes and allow for new forms of creativity like the almost oral-like and folkloric storytelling you find in some communities on Tumblr. If you try to tell stories of hackers in a comic format, like Alyssa Milano’s “Hacktivist”, you may find that, for better or for worse, they quickly become superheroes. Printing content designed for the web, and searching Twitter for phrases you find on pen test pads in stationery shops can make visible the unique features of each medium, the disjunctures between them, and the inequalities in access and power. And taking Star Trek characters and writing stories about them having sex in a medium with different norms to mainstream culture may give you new infrastructures and languages with which to explore concepts like sexual consent. So how does shifting medium shift the balance of power? And how can we use such shifts to make visible, explore and challenge said power?

Sessions to check out:

Panelists to follow:
@elmyra (yours truly)

5. How do we create more spaces for healing and shut down spaces of harassment?

GamerGate is by far not the first organised hate campaign online, as anyone who’s ever been a member of a marginalised group in a public online space can tell you, but it has raised the visibility of online harassment to the general public. Platforms from Twitter to Wikipedia to popular online game League of Legends have come under fire for allowing or even enabling harassment. They have also, with varying degrees of success, tried to find ways to protect their users and shut down harassment, whether through architectural choices, human intervention or automated solutions based on machine learnings. Different online spaces, on the other hand, have enabled healing and community formation. Indie video games have allowed for the exploration of issues such as depression and the expression and sharing of personal narratives of trans people in a way not reliant on and aimed at the cis gaze. Online spaces like Tumblr and Twitter have allowed marginalised people to come together and develop communities which in turn enable forms of life-hacking, story-sharing and community-based self-care not otherwise available. We can learn a lot from the experiences of the Black Panther Party with genetic screening and healthcare, and from attempts by those classified as insane to gain a credible voice in society. How do we leverage the potential of technology while being vigilant of its excesses? How do we amplify marginalised voices? How do we build and nourish our online communities and ways that help with healing and shut out harassers?

Sessions to check out:

Panelists to follow:

All this is barely a glimpse into the huge variety and excellent quality of talks at #TtW15. Luckily, recordings of most of the sessions are already available online, with the rest hopefully coming soon. You can also check out the #TtW15 hashtag on Twitter, and follow most of the participants.

“Actually, it’s about ethics in games journalism.”

I did a lecture last week for first and second year “Media Culture and Practice” and “Media and Journalism” students on the potentials and limitations of the internet as a public sphere, using #GamerGate as a case study. It was a fun session, and I had great engagement and feedback from both the students and the module leaders, so I thought I’d post some of the content up here. I took students through a 101 on the Habermasian public sphere and then a brief history of thinking around the impact of the internet and social media on the public sphere, before introducing them to the case study of #GamerGate and getting them to do some work.

(Caveats: At least half of the below is useful, simplified lies. They work as an introduction to the concepts but anyone with a strong interest in issues around the digital public sphere may want to dig deeper. The lecture also deliberately doesn’t cover the effects of ubiquitous surveillance on the public sphere. That may well be material for another lecture.)

Juergen Habermas and the Public Sphere

“The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labour.”
(Habermas, 1989)

In its essence, the public sphere is about power: about how private individuals can come together to influence structures of power such as the state.

The public sphere is a concept in a very specific historical and geographic setting: Habermas is looking at the emergence of the bourgeoisie as a social and political class distinct from and gradually replacing the feudal system as the wealthiest and most powerful section of society. He traces the public sphere to British coffee houses, French salons and German Tischgesellschaften of the 18th century – this is very much a Western European concept. In the particular historical context Habermas is examining, therefore, the public sphere is one of the ways in which the bourgeoisie can challenge the feudal order. In Habermas’ original vision, the outcome of discussions in the public sphere is consensus, or a “public opinion” which can then serve as a mandate to influence decisions of the state.

Habermas is a philosopher, not a historian, so what he describes is something of a Platonic ideal of the public sphere, not necessarily something that ever existed in this particular form. He does identify some key “institutional criteria” which describe the public sphere and lend it legitimacy:

  • Disregard for status: the idea that your social status didn’t matter when it came to the value of your contribution or opinion within the public sphere. The idea here is not that everyone is equal but that inequality is checked at the door.
  • Domain of common concern: The public sphere discussed issues which were mutually agreed on to be of “common concern” or “of concern to everyone”. This opened up a space for discussion, for instance, of economic matters which were previously dominated by the state, but it also has a lot of potential for excluding matters which have a disproportionate impact on minorities and marginalised people.
  • Inclusivity: At least in theory the public sphere had to be accessible to all, as that is what differentiates it from the feudal order and gives the bourgeoisie the mandate to challenge feudal power.

Habermas does admit that these three “institutional criteria” may never have been fully realised in an actually existing public sphere, but he argues that they were an important part of the self-conception of the bourgeois public sphere and therefore had a tangible impact on how it functioned in practice.

By the time he was writing in the 1960s, Habermas himself felt that the bourgeois public sphere had declined and been captured by other interests. The capitalist economy, the shift from participation to consumerism, and particularly the commercial interests of the press and wider media were key contributing factors to the decline of the public sphere. The increasing reliance on advertising by the press was a particular blow: the press now no longer served as an enabler of public discussion by circulating important relevant information, but actively manipulated and manufactured public opinion to suit advertisers. (The recent resignation of Peter Oborne from the Telegraph is a good example of these mechanics playing out in the modern press.) With the emergence of mass media, the kind of face-to-face discussion that had characterised the bourgeois public sphere declined, and access to the public sphere became more difficult.

The Public Sphere 2.0?

With this story of democracy being captured by commercial interests, it is perhaps unsurprising that many saw new hope with the emergence of a new medium: the internet.

“Democracy involves democratic participation and debate as well as voting. In the Big Media Age, most people were kept out of democratic discussion and were rendered by broadcast technologies passive consumers of infotainment. (…) In the Internet Age, everyone with access to a computer, modem, and Internet service can participate in discussion and debate, empowering large numbers of individuals and groups kept out of the democratic dialogue during the Big Media Age.”
(Kellner, 1998)

Those of us who remember the pre-internet world will remember that our social circles tended to be limited both by geography and our position in society. We knew a limited number of people and could therefore only get exposure to a limited set of views, first-hand accounts and lived experiences. And even if we did know people in other parts of the world, communicating with them was expensive. As a migrant, I had family in a different country, and I remember saving up all the change and calling them from a payphone, constantly feeding coins into it.

With the emergence of the internet, suddenly we could talk to people on the other side of the world, instantaneously and at vastly reduced cost. We no longer had to rely on mass media to understand important issues, and we had much better access to different points of view. (It is important to understand, however, that this happened gradually, over about a decade. It started with academics in universities and research institutions and slowly spread to other parts of the population at what we would now consider a glacial pace.)

The internet not only made it easier to acquire information – it also made it easier to spread information. If you wanted to get your message across about an issue you cared about, you were no longer solely dependent on mass media picking it up: there were things you could do to spread information yourself. (Of course mass media would still vastly increase your reach, and even today one of the primary aims of a lot of online campaigns is to get the attention of mainstream mass media.) If you’re interested in some early uses of the internet for protest and activism, there are a number of case studies about the Zapatista movement and their involvement with online protests against the World Bank.

Early cyberutopians thought that certain features of the internet were particularly relevant to some of the institutional criteria of the public sphere. Disregard for status was made easier – in theory – by the fact that you simply didn’t know the status of the person you were communicating with. This may seem strange to people used to modern social networking platforms like Facebook with its emphasis on images and real names, but in the days of Bulletin Boards and Usenet, all you saw of your interlocutor was, effectively, a username and a block of text. They may be of a different class, race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, or religion to you, they may be disabled, or have a different educational attainment to you, but all you have to judge them on is their contribution to the discussion.

In terms of accessibility and inclusivity, the internet was seen as enabling people to talk to each other again, person-to-person, similarly to the bourgeois public sphere, albeit not face-to-face. As the Douglas Kellner quote above shows, this was felt to be a much more inclusive and empowering way of accessing the public sphere than through consumption of mass media content.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple, and there are challenges for the internet in terms of both inclusivity and the disregard for status. Groups who are marginalised away from the keyboard can be just as marginalised in cyberspace. Cost remains a barrier to entry into the digital public sphere. In the UK, 70% of people who live in social housing aren’t online, and 38% of people not online are also unemployed. The lack of digital skills, often correlated with age is also an issue, as 39% of people without internet access are over the age of 65.

Online environments are often also not terribly welcoming to marginalised groups. Chat users with female-sounding usernames get 25 times more malicious and abusive messages than those with gender-neutral or male-sounding usernames. And then there is the question of how desirable it actually is to check our differences at the log-in screen.

“The anonymity of the Internet can work both ways. True, no one can see what color I am, but no one has to see what color I am. Therefore, the touchy subject of race can be brushed under the mousepad.”
(McLaine, 2003)

Differences matter: We all bring our backgrounds and experiences with us into online spaces. They shape the way we see the world, and the contributions we can make to the public sphere. There are many social issues the we simply cannot address by disregarding status and bracketing our difference. In order to deal with racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, ableism, and a whole host of other issues, we have to first of acknowledge they exist, and listen to the lived experiences of those affected.

The final nail in the coffin of Cyberutopia – and therefore potentially the digital revitalisation of the public sphere – came in the early 2000s with Web 2.0. On the face of it, Web 2.0 should be good news for the public sphere: it does, after all, allow users with minimal technical skills to publish content online. However, the main driver behind Web 2.0 is the desire to commodify and monetise user-generated content, generally through advertising. So if advertisers want to place their products on sites perceived as family-friendly, and the image of breastfeeding mothers (somewhat ironically perhaps) are not perceived as family-friendly, then public debate about issues like breastfeeding is stifled. And suddenly, it looks like we’re almost back to square one, where advertisers’ interests can and do determine whose voice gets heard in the public sphere.

And yet there are plenty of case studies of the internet successfully serving as a public sphere, opening up debates and allowing marginalised voices to be heard. So how can we account for that? I went back to a 1990 paper by Nancy Fraser, which doesn’t deal with the internet at all but does reconstruct some of the basic underlying assumptions of the public sphere, for a possible explanation.

Fraser recognises and critiques some of the shortcomings of the Habermasian public sphere, particularly the impossibility of bracketing differences, limits to access and inclusivity, and – crucially – questions over who gets to define what are “domains of common concern”. She argues that marginalisation makes it very difficult to get certain issues on the table. A good example is the issue of domestic abuse which for a long time was seen as a private concern, a matter between (it was thought) a man and his wife which the public had no right or interest to intervene in. It was feminist campaigners in the 1970s who first brought this issue to public attention and successfully argue that this was indeed a domain of common concern. This led to legislation changes and the provision of domestic abuse services like shelters.

To explain this renegotiation of the boundary between private and public, as well as address other issues around accessibility, inclusivity and the disregard for status, Fraser introduces the concept of the subaltern counterpublic. Subaltern counterpublics are groups marginalised by the wider public sphere due to status, difference, lack of access or lack of recognition for the publicness of their issues. Not all such groups form counterpublics, but for those that do, subaltern counterpublics play a dual role:

“The points is that, in stratified societies, subaltern counterpublics have a dual character. On the one hand, they function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment; on the other hand, they also function as bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics.”
(Fraser, 1990)

And thinking about some of the things that internet is thought to be particularly good at, they do look a little bit like the structures that might create and sustain a subaltern counterpublic:

  • Bringing people together – particularly isolated people from marginalised communities.
  • Allowing concerns to be aired within safe spaces and issues to be verbalised and articulated.
  • Allowing lived experiences to be shared.

There is something very powerful about coming together with a group of people who have similar experiences and realising that issues we may have thought of as personal problems are actually wider social and political issues that can and need to be addressed on a larger scale.

One example is the lack of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people in offline spaces. One in four LGB young people have no adult they can talk to about their sexuality, either at home or at school (figures are from Stonewall, so I don’t have access to figures for trans young people, but suspect they’re higher). Many of them will therefore turn to the internet for information and support. For many LGBT+ kids today, the first space where they will feel safe being themselves will be online.

Effectively, despite all its shortcomings, the internet can actually be quite good at hosting and nurturing (at least some) subaltern counterpublics. Barriers to access still apply to many marginalised groups, commercial interests still dominate the space, and the nature of the internet as a public space is still hotly contested, but at least some subaltern counterpublics are leveraging something that looks at least partly like a digital public sphere to get their voices heard.

#GamerGate and the digital public sphere in practice

At the heart of the set of events that has become known as #GamerGate is a text-based game by indie developer Zoe Quinn, called “Depression Quest”. The game is intended to give players an idea of what living with depression is like, and it had positive reviews after its original release in 2013. Leading up to the Steam release of the game, Quinn was harassed online, mostly through hate mail and offensive comments on online forums, including parts of Steam.

Shortly after the Steam release in August 2014, Quinn’s ex partner wrote a blog post claiming that the reason Depression Quest got positive reviews was that Quinn had had a sexual relationship with a Kotaku games journalist. The harassment campaign against Quinn increased in intensity and now included doxing, hacking of several of her social media account and threats of violence made against her personally and her family. Harassment was also extended to game developer Brianna Wu and feminist games critic Anita Sarkeesian. The Twitter hashtag #GamerGate was coined.

Supporters of GamerGate present the controversy not as one over misogyny in gaming but over ethics in games journalism. They contend that there is an unethical conspiracy among games developers and journalists to focus on progressive social issues in games. They see this as a threat to the “Gamer identity” – which is traditionally conceptualised as straight, white, young and male.

I gave students examples of posts from both sides of the #GamerGate controversy and then asked them to write a short Wikipedia article about #GamerGate. I then asked different groups to swap and edit each other’s articles, and led a discussion on what #GamerGate could tell us about the potential and limitations of the internet as a space of public discourse. Here are a few of the points that emerged from the discussion:

  • There is obviously no neutral or objective way to explain what #GamerGate is about and how it arose. I asked students to think about whose voices they had privileged or marginalised in their accounts – and whose voices I have privileged in mine.
  • Students discussed to what extent it mattered whether Quinn had had a relationship with Kotaku journalist Nathan Grayson. The consensus was that this was largely irrelevant to the wider controversy and in any case impossible to ascertain.
  • Students also wondered to what extent the anonymity of online spaces and the impersonality of online communication created a sense of lack of accountability which in turn contributed to the online harassment generated by #GamerGate. We talked about whether regulation or technological solutions where posts could always be linked to a specific individual would be desirable. On balance (and with some prompting) we reached the conclusion that that would not be conducive to open public debate online.

A final vote showed that students felt that technology couldn’t fully revitalise the public sphere on its own, but neither was the potential of the internet as a space of public discourse to be completely discounted.

Further reading:

  • Fraser, N. (1990) “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy”, Social Text 26
  • Habermas, J. (1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society
  • Kellner, D. (1998) “Techno-politics, new technologies, and the new public spheres”, Illuminations
  • McLaine, S. (2003) “Ethnic Online Communities: Between Profit and Purpose”, Cyberactivism: Online activism in theory and practice
  • Rheingold, H. (2000) The virtual community: homesteading on the electronic frontier
  • Salter, L. (2003) “Democracy, New Social Movements, and the Internet: A Habermasian Analysis”, Cyberactivism: Online activism in theory and practice

(Personally, I would particularly recommend Fraser and McLaine from the above list.)



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Some thoughts on consent and empathy

[Trigger warnings for discussions touching on rape and sexual assault]

Compared to research on rape and sexual assault, research on consent is woefully scarce. I have been making my way through what there is of it, and came across a couple of interesting papers.

Jozkowski, K.N. & Peterson, Z.D. (2013) “Assessing the Validity and Reliability of the Perceptions of the Consent to Sex Scale”, Journal of Sex Research (January), pp. 37-41.

Jozkowski, K.N., Sanders, S., Peterson, Z.D., Dennis, B. & Reece, M. (2014) “Consenting to sexual activity: The development and psychometric assessment of dual measures of consent”, Archives of Sexual Behavior 43 pp. 437–450.

In both papers, Jozkowski and her colleagues are trying to quantify how college students communicate consent. In the first paper, they look at a different ways that college students use to indicate consent, and in the second they differentiate between consent as felt and experienced internally by the individual versus communicated to a partner. There are issues with the papers. The researchers analyse the results by gender, but only take the two binary genders into account. The assumptions that underlie the methodology are highly heteronomartive, and privilege penis-in-vagina sex over other sexual activities. In fact, in the questionnaires, sex as the act that is being consented to is specifically defined as “vaginal-penile intercourse”. The papers also only look at how consent is expressed by one partner, not how it is perceived by the other, though Jozkowski has other published work which touches on that and is on my to-read list.

Despite these limitations, something struck me about the first paper in particular. The paper establishes five categories of behaviours for communicating consent:

  • Non-verbal signals of interest, such as body language, touching, engaging in kissing or foreplay;
  • Passive behaviours, such as not telling your partner to stop, not resisting or pushing your partner away, letting your partner touch you;
  • Initiator behaviours, such as “making a move”, removal of clothing, moving your partner’s hands to your lower body;
  • Verbal cues, such as talking with your partner about sex, suggesting having sex, telling them what types of sexual behaviours you’d like to engage in, asking your partner if they have a condom or offering to get one;
  • Removal behaviours, such as taking your partner somewhere private, closing the door.

When they analysed the responses by gender, Jozkowski and Peterson found that women scored higher on non-verbal signals and passive behaviours, whereas men tended to score higher on initiator and removal behaviours. (There was no significant difference on verbal cues.) Jozkowski and Peterson rightly remark that these results fit within existing cultural sexual scripts, where men are expected to be the initiators of sex and women to be passive gatekeepers. All of which makes perfect sense, until you start thinking about empathy.

What we have here effectively is two groups of people using two completely different ways to communicate the same thing. Let’s take this down to the individual level (while staying within the cis- and heteronormative parameters of the research). You’re a man; you’re with a woman, let’s say at a party. You take her to an empty bedroom upstairs, you kiss her and touch her and maybe start undressing her. This is your way of saying “I want to put my penis in your vagina”. She hasn’t done any similar things. She’s maybe kissed you back, but she certainly hasn’t closed the door or started undressing you.

Take a step back. When you try to put yourself in other people’s shoes and empathise with them, what’s the first thing you think? I’m willing to bet that it’s something along the lines of “If this was me, how would I feel/act/react?” And from that you would try to extrapolate how the other person feels, or what their actions say about their state of mind.

Back to that bedroom at that party. You know how you communicate consent: you take your partner somewhere more private, you start undressing them. So when they don’t do any of the same things, why would you interpret that as consent? What this looks like to me is a complete breakdown of human empathy.

Here’s something else Jozkowski and Peterson found: Women who used passive behaviours to communicate consent tended to also believe in common rape myths such as “if a woman was flirting with a man and went home with him, he was justified in having sex with her regardless of her consent”. For men, if they tended to use initiator and removal behaviours, they also tended to believe in rape myths.

So instead of using our interpersonal skills and basic human empathy, when it comes to sex and consent, we tend to fall back on cultural sexual scripts and rape myths. They are so strongly ingrained in us that we stop seeing the other person as a fellow human being and start seeing them as an avatar of what our culture tells us “a man” or “a woman” should be or do.

The million-dollar question is, of course, how do we destroy those scripts and myths? How do we get to a point where, when faced with a potential sexual partner, we see them as a fellow human being, and we use communication and empathy to work out ways for everyone involved to feel safe and respected as well as have a good time?

[Reading] Textual Poachers

Jenkins, H. (2013) Textual poachers: Television fans and participatory culture (Updated twentieth anniversary edition), Routledge

First published in 1992, Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers is the other big fandom ethnography, next to Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women. Jenkins is slightly less clear about his methodology and the period his research covers than Bacon-Smith, but broadly speaking his snapshot of fandom is slightly more recent than that presented in Enterprising Women. Jenkins’ fandom is clearly on the cusp of breaking out onto the internet, and he does on a couple of occasions discuss online interactions and their impact.

Textual Poachers starts out on the defensive. Jenkins seeks to rehabilitate the image of the fan, epitomised in popular discourse by the Saturday Night Live sketch Get a life: people preoccupied with media or celebrities to the point of obsession, uncritical consumers whose passion for the object of their fandom has no value or redeeming qualities, and who struggle to form connections or relationships with others. He boldly positions himself as a fan and an insider of the media fandom community – a trick he, in my view, pulls off only partially as he fails to address the obstacle of his own gender in a women-dominated space.

Jenkins’ defence of fandom builds on Michel de Certeau’s concept of textual poaching: the idea that readers borrow elements from mass culture texts and rearrange them to make new meanings that better fit their concerns and their lives. He casts fandom as active, and fannish activities as a site of resistance to mass culture. He traces fannish activities from consumption of and in-depth engagement with the text, through fan critique and criticism of texts, to the various kinds of transformative works fans produce. Where de Certeau’s poaching is always ephemeral and temporary, Jenkins sees in fans’ transformative works a solidity and permanence given to this kind of poached culture.

Jenkins points out that fans develop a range tools and frameworks for analysing mass culture texts. They may be different to the tools and frameworks used by academics for the same purpose, but they are no less sophisticated or systematic. It is interesting that he identifies distinct, possibly gendered, approaches to fan interpretation of texts. Broadly speaking, he argues that men tend to focus on the text itself and extratextual knowledge about the author(s), the production process, etc. They seek explanations for mysteries or gaps in the text within it, in the Word of God, or in external factors such as ratings or actors leaving a show. Women, on the other hand, tend to focus on the text but also bring in personal emotional experience, while generally disregarding information about creators and production. Women tend to read a text as if set in an existing and larger universe that we can only see glimpses of in the actual text, and they tend to extrapolate from these glimpses with the addition of personal experience to account for gaps or interpret mysteries. Building on Elizabeth Segel’s ideas of gendered reading in childhood, Jenkins further suggests that women are particularly good at appropriating texts not necessarily aimed at them by rejecting the authority of the creator in favour of engaging in speculation and centering elements of interest to them which may be marginal in the original text.

Once, of course, you have started started such speculation and rearranging of elements in your own head, there is nothing stopping you from writing it down – or making a video, or writing a song about it. And thus, transformative fan works are born. (Or course, transformative work has a much longer history than modern fanfiction, one disrupted by Enlightenment ideas of authorship, originality and copyright legislation, but that’s a separate discussion.) Jenkins documents the fanzine publishing “industry” and the conflicts within it – conflicts between the desire to become more “professional” while still enabling inexperienced writers to get their work published or keeping costs down; conflicts between respecting a fanfic author or zine editor’s control over their work and making work as widely accessible as possible; and between the desire for financial reward and for acceptance within a community which broadly speaking operates a gift economy. Many of the conflicts Jenkins describes are driven by fandom’s tenuous relationship with copyright, and while technology has made some of them obsolete, many of them still play out in slightly different forms in fandom today. Of the early fandom scholars, I believe Jenkins is the one who comes closest to really understanding the impact of copyright on the fan community, but I would have wished for a more extensive discussion of this in Textual Poachers.

My first brush with fanfiction was with the anthologies of stories set in her Darkover universe which Marion Zimmer Bradley edited and published. However, as soon as I moved beyond that creator-sanctioned haven and out into the wilderness of the internet, one thing became apparent very quickly: this tings we were doing was probably not strictly speaking legal. I grew up in a fandom where every story was preceded by a copyright disclaimer assuring rightsholders that the author was not making any money and imploring them not to sue. It is easy to forget this in a world where the Organisation for Transformative Works’ legal team measures their success not only as “not sued yet” but actively lobbies for copyright exemptions and intervenes in other legal cases, but fandom’s origins as a community on the wrong side of copyright have been profoundly formative not just for individuals but for fan practices and the community as a whole. This is something I actually want to look at more closely in my research, but my gut feel is that this explicit marginality is one of the factors that enable fandom to tackle difficult issues in our fiction that commercial culture simply can’t.

In his discussion of fan writing, Jenkins dedicates a full chapter (delightfully titled “Welcome to bisexuality, Captain Kirk”) to slash. I am going to defer my main discussion of this to another post for reasons which will become apparent but I will note here that I found his engagement with the genre significantly more genuine and credible than Camille Bacon-Smith’s, even though I do not fully agree with his analysis.

A chapter I had planned to skim but ended up devouring was the one on filk. Jenkins puts filk in a folk culture framework which really helps crystallise some of the political potential of textual poaching. He rejects conservative myths of folk culture harking back to an idyllic neverwhere, and resituates folk cultural practices firmly in their context as acts of resistance. He combines this with the textual poaching concept to show how basing a resistive folk culture on imagery from mass culture makes it accessible to a wider audience and allows for the building of community beyond place. While this effect may be most easily visible in filk, I believe it is at play just as much in other fannish practices and works, particularly fanfiction, and this is something I am planning to explore in my research.

Textual Poachers is an overtly political project. Over the years, Jenkins has remarked that perhaps his early view of fans was overly optimistic and focused too much on fan practices as resistance, at the expense of exploring the the contradictions within fans’ relationships with source products. After all, as much as we prod them and poke them and poach from them and transform them, there is something that draws us to the shows, films and books we engage with, and in our own special way we do love them. That Jenkins doesn’t shy away from the political potential of fandom is, however, refreshing. Where Bacon-Smith goes to great lengths to deny that there is anything even remotely political about fandom, Jenkins puts our politics – our resistance – front and centre. To what extent a textual poaching model can be abstracted from fans and applied to wider audiences is still contested territory – and I must admit something I am only marginally interested in. The political potential of fandom, on the other hand, is something I intend to explore in a lot more depth in my research.

Quotes, notable passages, further reading

It is worth noting that the 20th anniversary edition of Textual Poachers comes with some very valuable additional material, including a teaching guide and a 35-page interview with Jenkins looking at the development of fan studies since the original publication of the book. If you want a quick guide to the field, you could do a lot worse than that.

Finally, this is the quote from Textual Poachers that broke me, because it cut way too close to home in terms of the promises that the television shows of my youth made and failed to keep:

The characters in these programs devote their lives to goals worth pursuing and share their hours with friends who care for them more than life itself. (p 282)

[Reading] Enterprising Women

Bacon-Smith, C. (1992) Enterprising women: Television fandom and the creation of popular myth, University of Pennsylvania Press

Camille Bacon-Smith’s book is a highly ambitious project, setting out to produce a comprehensive ethnography of the media fandom community. It covers research conducted mostly in the 1980s and is in many ways a useful time capsule of what fandom looked like before the Cambrian explosion that was the adoption by the community of digital communications. The book is split into three parts, each seeking to take us deeper into fandom until we reach what Bacon-Smith terms “the heart of the community”. A high-level introduction to media fandom, fanzines, fanfiction and material art is followed by a more in-depth look into community initiation practices, different forms of cultural output and the different ways of reading and constructing meaning that fans engage in. The final part looks at risk and identity in the context of what Bacon-Smith identifies as two key subgenres of fanfiction: slash and hurt/comfort.

A few things strike me about this book. After spending half my life with at least one foot in fandom and a significant chunk of that hiding from both rightsholders and the attention of the public, the discovery that there are at least a handful of academics out there who take fandom seriously is somewhat exhilarating; at the same time, being studied by someone who firmly takes an outsider position is a strange feeling. Bacon-Smith has been criticised for her positioning as “the ethnographer”, both by other academics and by the fandom community. There are passages where she comes dangerously close to passing judgement on the community she is studying, and the backlash against that is understandable. Her clear and visible identification throughout her field work as an outsider has almost certainly also had an effect on the levels of trust the participants in her study were willing to extend her and therefore the quality of the data she was able to get. I can understand this approach from a research ethics point of view, but arguably it hasn’t produced either the most ethical or most accurate finished product.

For me, this raises questions about the right and ethical approach to my own research. There are other approaches to fan studies which I am hoping to explore over the coming weeks and months. I feel a strong sense of accountability to a community which has given me so much insight and support over the years, and at the same time a desire to produce high-quality original research. It is still early days, but this has been a concern at the forefront of my mind since the inception of this project and a thread which I hope will continue to guide me over the next three years.

I think it is partly Bacon-Smith’s outsider position and partly her expectation to find a single “heart” that has led her down the wrong path in that endeavour. She identifies hurt/comfort stories as the heart of fandom, dismissing slash as a curve ball participants threw at her to misdirect her away from a more vulnerable, painful place. She sees, incorrectly I believe, slash and hurt/comfort stories as completely separate and independent of each other and, correctly, identifies that many h/c stories originate in the deep personal pain of the author. Here is where her analysis falls down:

But why do women write about the very things they fear? What benefit can be gained from stories that graphically describe pain and suffering, that offer comfort after the fact but do not postulate, do not reconstruct, a society free of deliberate torture? (p. 278)

Bacon-Smith comes close to partial answers to some of these questions but never really finds a complete and satisfactory one. She does, in her own way, explain that writing about our pain gives us power over it. What I think she misses is the crucial role that slash (and other subgenres) play as the flip side of writing about pain. In her haste to dismiss slash writers as single, celibate, divorced or never having experienced a relationship with a man, and extremely obese (p. 247, I kid you not), what Bacon-Smith misses is that slash often is precisely that reconstructed world free of pain, where relationships are between equals.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the book is the persistent denial that there is anything political about fandom. This is especially baffling given the language Bacon-Smith uses to describe fans and our activities. She consistently uses references to oppression and resistance, to power and silencing, and even once (quoting a fan) to terrorism. Through all that, however, runs the refrain of “fandom is not political”. I am not going to speculate on the reasons why she reaches this conclusion, and I’m going to leave in-depth counterarguments for my thesis, but I will say that giving a name to your oppression and imagining a world without it are deeply political acts.

The analysis in Enterprising Women that I found most compelling was that of the Mary Sue phenomenon. Bacon-Smith sees the Mary Sue as an attempt by writers to reconcile the many impossible demands that social expectations of womanhood and femininity put on them, while at the same time retaining an element of agency for themselves.

For the fan woman of any age, her Mary Sue story is her attempt, if only in print, to experience that rite of passage from the active child to the passive woman who sacrifices her selfhood to win the prince. (p. 101)

On the general absence of female characters in fanfiction, Bacon-Smith theorises that writing about women does not give fan writers sufficient distance from which to examine and reimagine their own condition. I would add to this that the dearth of well-written women in commercial fiction and media, and particularly of relationships between women, is another significant factor, on which I plan to expand in another post.

A final aspect of the book which I found fascinating was the time capsule effect. The community Bacon-Smith describes is one of predominantly middle-class, white American women over the age of 25 or 30. With fanzines costing up to $25 each, the expensive video equipment needed to even just access the source materials, and the travel required to meet and get to know other fans, these were the people who could afford fandom in the 1970s and 80s. Digital distribution has driven the cost of access to both source and fan materials to virtually zero, made source products available instantaneously and simultaneously anywhere in the world, and made finding fandom and a global community only a Google search away. The contrast is striking.

I had, briefly, one foot in the pre-digital fandom world. The first time I watched Season 4 of Babylon 5 was on tapes which were the copy of a copy of a copy of an NTSC to PAL conversion. They were black and white, with chunks of static across the bottom which meant I never knew what Marcus said to Ivanova in Minbari. My first exposure to fanfiction (and to delicious, delicious slash!) was through the anthologies Marion Zimmer Bradley edited for her Darkover universe. But as a teenager in a small Austrian town I would never have been able to get involved in fandom had I not been saved by the modem, and reading Enterprising Women has been a useful reminder of that.

Quotes, notable passages, further reading

Results of the AO3 demographic survey (2013/14)

Fanlore page about Enterprising Women

Further reading:

Gilligan, C. (1982) In a different voice, Harvard University Press. Psychological development of women; arguing against notion that women reached a lower level of moral development than men.

Russ, J. (1983) How to suppress women’s writing, University of Texas Press.

Lichtenberg, J., Marshak, S., Winston, J. (1975) Star Trek Lives! Bantam Books. Early fan history effort documenting Star Trek fandom.

Three  early-ish Star Trek het stories exploring power, relationships and consent:

Lorrah, J. (1976) Night of the Twin Moons

Wenk, B. (1980) One Way Mirror

Welling, L. (1978) The Displaced

And finally, my favourite quote from Enterprising Women, simply because it captures the nature of fandom so beautifully:

To speak of the commercial arm of the fan community is rather like discussing the dog subgroup of a particularly impressive tail. From the outside the comparison sounds inappropriate, but to insiders, only a few aspects of the commercial empire surrounding their favourite source products have any relevance. (p.31)