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A class on porn, anyone?

I realised recently that we have become so comfortable with our virtual selves that we have taken technology and innovation for granted. In fact, most of us don’t think or even know about the nineteenth-century Maxwell equations that not only made electricity a reality but also harnessed the power of electromagnetic waves. You might not see them but it’s these waves that light up your device and enable you to read from it, and it’s also these microwaves that carry Wi-Fi signals, and you already know what the latter powers. You have probably never thought about the rare-earth metals that make up the chemistry of your smartphone; yes, it’s smart chemistry that makes your smartphone, well, smart (thank you, Mother Earth!) I hope that the next time you are handling your device, you will smile in gratitude for the science behind making comfortable pocket-friendly devices that is usually forgotten about.

Why did I begin with this and what does it have to do with sexuality? I am nerdy about science and passionate about sexuality so please allow me to share some of my reflections about sexuality and innovation during this COVID pandemic-induced lockdown, in the hope that they resonate with you.

It’s the development of social media platforms like Instagram that has allowed us to connect with so many people around the globe. These platforms suggest connections with people who share similar interests, ranging from the educational to the intimate to the sexual. They work based on mathematical algorithms created by coding languages that customise Instagram profiles, and fundamentally, our deep sexual and gender desires. Languages that enable algorithms that reflect what we might desire, so when we ‘like’ a picture, this algorithm presents more of the same for us. You will see phrases like “You might like”, or “Because you liked” followed by a picture of a hunky hairy man, or a red-haired girl with curls, or a throuple, or other such images. Added to this, technology has made photo-taking and video recording easier and allowed us to share our creations extensively. It’s technology that has allowed me, amidst the lockdown, to connect with so many people and I dare say, sext and share photos. It’s technology that has allowed me and many others access to things like porn, fetish websites, and to buy sex toys and so much more without leaving our beds!

This innovation has woven a space to explore and express many different desires and shape sexual and gender identities. More importantly, it has given us a space to connect and find a common voice of inclusivity (most of the time) to assure many of us that we are not the only, say, gay, trans, asexual, or gender-fluid person in our social milieu.  It’s innovations such as virtual reality that have empowered many people, including people with disabilities, to express their sexuality and sexual and gender identities, and break away from socio-cultural taboos and pressures Such access aids in facilitating their introduction to a space where they can feel included and can find their truest selves and others with whom they share common ground.

Technology has also facilitated the establishment of platforms which aim to educate us about sex and gender, at just the click of a button. We are able to interrogate the browser with questions such as “I am gay and I don’t how to deal with it” or “I don’t feel I fit in my body, what to do?” or “I feel alone and scared and I don’t feel like living”, and find pages on the Internet to tell us that we are not alone, and advise us on what to do and how. A phone or a video call can save lives and lead us to embrace our sexual and gender uniqueness. The production of content with messages on gender and sexual diversity has provided the power to detangle constrictions placed on this diversity and it has equipped us to start revolutions to amplify marginalised voices. All of this has been made possible by innovation.

So yes, there are advantages of technology and innovations but they go side by side with its disadvantages. Take porn as an example. A lot of porn is produced and promoted using technology, and mostly presents content with toxic hypermasculinity, objectification of women, exclusionary categories rooted in and reinforcing many stereotypes, and exaggerated representations of sexual practices that don’t translate to reality. Some porn normalises rape and violent scenarios as ‘fetishes’ and upholds heteronormativity. When such content is consumed at a young age while we are still struggling with our identities and ideas about sexuality, it could have a strong negative psychological impact and create toxic feelings of self-loathing as well as perpetuate stereotypical ideas about gender roles. This is compounded when there is no provision of sexuality education and open discussion about sexuality.

We need to be aware that porn is not the commodity we consume, but that we become porn’s consumed commodity. When we entangle our arousal and pleasure with hardcore porn, it can result in diluting our gender and sexual expression to digitised forms, and when we start dating ‘real’ people, we may face issues in nurturing intimacy and achieving satisfaction. So while technology has created a three-dimensional reality that has connected humans more than ever, it has also disconnected us from each other and ourselves, more and more.

It has also done this through social media where we are exposed to ‘public figures’ who have bodies and lifestyles conforming to mainstream expectations. This can lead to unfortunate consequences because of the immense weightage that people seem to give to social media. When young people who feel alone in their sexual or gender identity are lucky enough to come across public figures who represent sexual and gender diversity, they may be reassured that there are others like themselves, but if they are unlucky and only find people conforming to the norm, such exposure may have a negative impact and result in them struggling to come to terms with their own identities. These young persons may form an idea of what their sexual and gender identity should look like and what image and lifestyle they should project, but when they are unable to do this, it may lead to a distorted self-image and to feelings of alienation.

So as it is a reality that innovations such as Wi-Fi, smart devices, and other technology provide tools that allow us to express our sexual and gender identities, it is also a reality that they have potentially harmful effects if we consume content without awareness and lose our sense of reality. But if we use critical thinking and choose our content judiciously, we can learn a lot about the diversity that exists in sexual practice. Porn itself can be a medium that dissolves heteronormative concepts of gender, sex, and power dynamics. For example, if in porn you see a man penetrating another man who is penetrating a woman, you can go ahead and imagine all sorts of combinations of genders and sexual practices.

Today young people have access to much material with sexual content so there’s really no point in pretending otherwise. Engaging young people in a discussion about porn and what they might have heard or seen is important, so that if they wish to, they can consume porn in a safe way. This means that they could learn to challenge the idea (present in most mainstream porn) that women are sex objects and that their sexual desires and pleasures are for the service of men. They could learn about feminist porn, ethically produced porn that keeps the mental and physical safety of porn artists as a top priority, and porn in which consent, safety, comfort and respect for people of different genders is emphasised. As young people are already consuming porn, why not use it as an aid in providing sexuality education that encourages them to challenge stereotypical concepts of gender roles, beauty, body image, and sexual power dynamics and learn more about intimacy, consent and relationships? Let’s have a class on porn! To this, Maxwell who may not have imagined the consequences of his equations, as a true scientist may well say, “Let’s try.”

Cover Image: Pixabay

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Article written by:

Abdullah is a Junior Scientist in Genomics and Drug Discovery in metabolic diseases. Besides science, he is passionate about steering discussions on sexual and gender diversity. He enjoys writing about the entangling effect of socio-bio-political power on sexualities and gender. He likes performing arts, dancing, and languages.

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