I Confess! Constructing the Sexual Self in the Internet Age – edited by Thomas Waugh and Brandon Arroyo (McGill-Queens University Press, 2019, 624 pages)
The era post-World War 1 saw a wave of sexual modernization and reform – from gender-expansive Flappers to women’s suffrage to campaigns (born pre-term) for homosexual rights and birth control. Let’s call that the First Sexual Revolution. Post-World War 2 came Kinsey’s bombshell empirical sex research and the homophile movement, constituting a Second Sexual Revolution and setting the stage for the late 1960s “Cambrian explosion” of sexual liberation. Despite phases of right-wing revanchism starting in the 1970s and decimation in the 1980s and ’90s wreaked by AIDS, a thread of post-WW2 continuity persisted arguably until the end of the millennium, outliving by a little the Cold War. That the transformation of the conditions of culture and identity wrought by the rise of the internet and digitalized media has ushered in a Third Sexual Revolution is the big idea offered and plumbed in a wide-ranging, provocative new anthology I Confess! Constructing the Sexual Self in the Internet Age, edited by noted Canadian gay film scholar Thomas Waugh (Concordia University, emeritus) and Brandon Arroyo (City University of New York, media studies), introduced by veteran UK sociologist of sex Ken Plummer (University of Essex, emeritus).
Over the 20th century, individuals’ sexual senses of self and personal story were increasingly conditioned by mass media. Plummer’s foreword recalls poignantly now-forgotten 1950s singers and actors who were poles around which his own prepubescent sexual yearnings sparked into awareness – performers whose sometimes disappearances after “morals scandals” hinted at worms in same-sex desire’s tempting apple. Today you’d have to grow up Amish or in pre-contact Amazonia for one’s first erotic and affectional yearnings to be fed only by one’s culture’s hand-me-down myths and attached solely to persons known face-to-face, without mediating influence – movies, magazines, movements, motion pictures, novels, comic books, porn. To that list of expressive forms, roughly adequate for most of the 20th century, the 21st has added now-proliferative digital media, saturating social life such that “face-to-face” plays second fiddle to Facebook. The world’s hyperbolically intense networked digital culturescape is supplied notably bottom-up by web-camming, smartphone-toting Digital Citizens, armed with selfie-stick and with trigger-fingers on the “Record” button. Compared to the internet’s Wild West 1990s, top-down corporate and state control is today ever intensifying – the Five Eyes have fat fingers on their own “Meta-Record” button. But all the way from gated commerical portals such as Youtube, Instagram, and Tumblr to the nether reaches of the Dark Web, the internet’s pipes pulse with sex, even if it’s no longer quite the driver of internet infrastructure as in, say, 1999, when some 40% of searches were for porn. The cumulative digital impact has been vast and sudden on a wide array of sexual identities, cultural forms, tendencies, practices, modes of expression, genres of porn, and social movements. The young always retranslate the culture they’re handed down, but the internet’s easy on-ramps and the skew of “driving ability” toward millennials (who today are at the ages most engaged in sexual experiment and identity formation) have given these new media outsized impact on sexual culture. The first cohort to grow up with these technologies as second nature has just now come of age, so what better time to take stock?
I Confess! tries to do just that, in a richly diverse collection of original essays by 33 contributors from Canada to Finland to Taiwan that is sure to provoke while it illuminates. Ecumenically embracing topics from trans bathroom battles fought on Twitter to horny teen self-imagers on Chat Roulette, from feminist rape narratives to the politics of “porn fasts,” I Confess! keeps its eyes trained, as the editors write, on both sides of net’s simultaneous “ominous implications of surveillance and control” and “utopian glimmers of community and liberation.” There’s a focus here on minority and marginal sexualities – “queer” is a possible cover term – to which digitalization has – not always unproblematically – afforded unprecedented Lebensraum, no invading armies needed.
The theoretical sky overarching the anthology’s varied offerings finds its beaming sun in Michel Foucault, whose “prophetic probings into the interwoven operations of confession, desire, identity, truth, and power,” the editors note, showed the paradoxes and instabilities of projects repressive and liberatory alike. Foucault famously argued how the early modern Catholic confessional – and its demand for a penitent’s detailed recountings of sin, for sake of priestly absolution – at once intensified desires and deepened the stain of the sinful acts notionally washed clean. Confession, Foucault said, is “a formidable tool of control and power.” (p. 141) Attendance at mass may be lower than ever, but the internet’s limitless channels more than compensate, unfolding virtually infinite confessional space. Culture abhors vacuum, and confession (of addiction, diseases, erotic minority, or victimhood) has become the lingua franca of self-assertion and recognition in the curated online personas now virtually required for social standing in the West.
“Whether Youtubers open up about their mental health, physical illness, or sexuality, loyal viewers are tendentiously quick to express acceptance and support,” writes Austrian scholar Silke Jandl. “Indeed cultivating a loyal fan base via confessions of any sort has proven effective for media producers off Youtube as well.” In “Yes I’m Gay,” she explores the case of Shane Dawson, a 20-something vlogger (a blogger working in the medium of video) who parlayed Youtube stardom into best-selling books I Hate Myselfie and It Gets Worse. Jandl explores how Dawson has attested his sexuality differently in different media, emphasizing his heterosexuality in more prominent standalone video pieces and books, and mobilizing early-days-of-vlogging low production values as “visual signposting of honesty and immediacy” in his more gay-themed “coming out” vlogs – a clever maximization of identity capital that for Dawson, at least, has paid rich returns.
Savvy mobilization of confession prevails on Xtube.com as much as Youtube. First-person presentations by porn actors – such as explaining why they’re doing porn – has become a staple of the genre, baked in to some successful “brands,” such as BrokeStraightBoys.com. That label not only makes porn with the conceit – and often enough the reality – of employing young, hard-up straight guys, but also produces “behind the scenes” reality-TV shows portraying the models interacting in “spontaneous” sex with each other – and sometimes painfully awkwardly, with girlfriends and siblings. The actors’ near and dear are – figuratively, at least – off-cam hovering in the wings, as the young men make money, often “to support their families or pay off court fees,” Nicholas de Villiers writes in his “Gay-for-Pay Confessional,” noting how “this latter aspect is part of the cross-class mystique of rough trade.”
Confession bakes bread and pays bills, via the “first-person industrial complex,” contributors to this volume report time and again, across genres from feminist blogs such as Jezebel.com to art house cinema. “Utilizing confession as the primary narrative mode of contemporary pornography allows internet studios to produce as many videos as they can in a shorter amount of time,” writes co-editor Brandon Arroyo, “while showing that they are still interesting in offering a compelling story.”
A term contrasting with confession, coming from Foucault’s engagement with ancient Greek ethics of self-care, is parrhesia – truth-telling in a context of openness and friendship. The internet has severely crowded into the time and space of friendship, upon which Facebook “friending” is almost wholly parasitic. Parrhesia is invoked in a number of essays here as one of digital culture’s still undead possible hopeful glimmerings. “Through the act of speaking truth to another ‘the individual constitutes himself and is constituted by others as a subject of a discourse of truth,’” Ingrid Olson writes, quoting Foucault, who invidiously contrasts modern confessionality to ancient virtues of parrhesia and friendship.
Waugh sees parrhesia bubbling forth in reviewing the oeuvre of a number of “auto-porn-artists” who have radically put themselves “out there.” Among them are Colby Keller, a buff fine-arts graduate from the University of Maryland who has filmed (ColbyDoesAmerica.com) his travels around the US and Canada after giving up almost all his possessions, hooking up for sex on camera with fans and new acquaintances. His artistically infused porn productions, involving Keller and men he meets travelling, are sometimes guest-edited by collaborators he also finds on the road. “[P]ublic sexual performance … can be inventive, caring, friendly, and exceptionally charged in the ethical and political arena of our still sex-phobic culture,” writes Waugh, insisting he will not be shy about the “affirmative and communitarian potentiality of queer hard core as we bring out its status as confessional utterance.”
If Foucault most brightly illuminates I Confess! the work of “post-human” philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari cast a full moon’s glow. Many of their key concepts, formulated in the 1970s, seem uncannily to anticipate the internet – their idea of “rhizome,” for instance. Based in its botanical referent, the rhizome is a tangled, multidirectional root system, massively interconnected, with multiple points of entry and hierarchy-free. The rhizome contrasts with the “arboreal” structure of the tree – famously apt for delineating bureaucratic lines of authority. For Deleuze and Guattari, chaos rules, and indeed, the helter-skelter underground rhizome invisibly sustains the tree above with water and nutrients. Throughout their philosophy, the two Frenchmen highlight dynamic processes and flows rather than fixed subject-object identities, as well as forms of awareness and knowledge lying outside the verbal and rational – or beyond the human altogether. Arroyo cites Gerald Bruns asserting one of the primary “regulating questions of recent European thinking: ‘Who comes after the subject?’”
Perhaps, the answer is “the animal.” There is the burgeoning world of “furry fandom,” a notably male- and gay-skewed subculture involved in dress-up and role-play – and often sex – among anthropomorphic, cartoony creaturely characters imbued with personality like Wile E. Coyote or Donald Duck. Arroyo leaves furries to one side but explores “a countermovement has emerged within gay pornographic media embracing the aesthetics of transience, opacity, and erasure” (p. 274) that he dubs “queer opacity,” evident in such tropes as porn performers wearing masks or the ubiquity of bodies without faces on Grindr. As gay and transgender identities are increasingly fixed, commoditized, and embedded with neoliberal corporate, state, and military structures, Arroyo invokes Deleuze and Guattari’s call to “become animal” as a form of resistance that emphasizes the raw body, beyond face or utterance, in order to embrace the “impulse to circulate within non-verbal planes of intensities signalling a rupture in the established social structure of identity.” Arroyo cites questions such as “Are you gay?” or “Are you transgender” as prompting answers that are “exemplary of the ways that language hails us into subjectivities and quashes queer sensibilities.”
Arroyo urges us to reconsider even the status of “the closet” – perhaps giving it a more positive spin as “den” or “burrow” for wily, self-possessed nocturnal carnivores of fleshly delight. “What is lost when we fail to think beyond the limitations of ‘the closet’ (a severely bifurcated understanding reducing us to either ‘in’ or ‘out’) is articulated by Cesare Casarino when he writes about the ‘sublime of the closet,’ and that to attain it the key is ‘not’ coming out. It is rather, an overcoming of the closet.”
The theme is echoed by contributor Tom Roach, in his against-the-grain reading of the “anti-confessional” discourse he sees promisingly in the stunted texts and sexts exchanged by men seeking hook-ups on Grindr. Roach quotes Emily Dickinson:
They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they like me “still”
Still! Could themself have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as well have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound –
Sure, this could be read as a poem against child abuse. “But might these words instead be a paean to the sublime pleasures, affects, and intellects produced in the closet?” Roach asks. “Might it be a song of praise for the closet, a space productive of an imaginative and sensual potential that knows no bounds?” (p. 561)
Taipei-based scholar Ron S. Judy invokes Deleuze on perversion in his essay “Hentai Confessions,” about Japanese filmmaker Akihiko Shiota’s 1999 Moonlight Whispers, an adaptation of a 1980s manga about a masochist high school boy and his classmate schoolgirl “top.” Their relationship explores the twists, turns, and recoils that make one-dimensional accounts of “power imbalances” so inadequate to human affairs. In the climactic scene, the boy vows to throw himself to his death over a waterfall, but demands the girl devote her life to his memory forever. Judy has a Deleuzean punchline at the ready: If “possession is the sadist’s particular form of madness,” then “the pact is the masochist’s.”
Judy epigrams his essay with another of Deleuze’s bons mots: “There’s a kind of mysticism in perversion,” Deleuze wrote in his 1967 Coldness and Cruelty. “The greater the renunciation, the greater and more secure the gains … [W]here pleasure ceases to motivate the will and is abjured, disavowed, ‘renounced,’” it can then be “recovered as a reward or consequences, and as law.”
Does this describe the diabolic productivity in conjuring and then renouncing “perversion”? Just such a binge/purge dynamic maybe drives what Ken Plummer notes is the persistence since the 1970s in the West of child and adolescent sex panic (albeit in constantly fresh forms) – serving as a kind of static grounding drone to profound transformations in other sexual attitudes. Amidst the internet’s erotic smorgasbord, US connoisseurs of Japanese cartoon anime – just a few clicks away at Google.co.jp – risk decades-long sentences. [E.g., https://bit.ly/2YyIBDX] Revolutions famously eat their children. Child protection has become the bog-standard rationale to shut down the internet freedom that was the Third Sexual Revolution’s very condition of possibility.
IF RADICAL RUPTURES DO ANYTHING, they cast a glow, elegaic or forboding, on the era just before, whose denizens never knew that they were “pre-rev.” In looking at artists active in the pre-digital 1990s, such as Derek Jarman and Bruce LaBruce, Waugh descries “the internet’s fulfilment of an almost teleological thrust palpable” in their works. Waugh cites LaBruce’s 1991 cinephile No Skin Off My Ass and 1994 Super 8-1/2 for their “DIY no-budget style and … shameful, lustful, and vigorous hard-core authorial bobbing and thrusting, a documentry aura so unique outside of the porn world at the time that critics did not know how to discuss the works.” (pp. 379 / 388)
The internet’s digital flows dissolve time and space into a rhizomatic assemblage. Waugh quotes Jarman as sensing such potential already slumbering in sexual connection:
An orgasm joins you to the past. Its timelessness becomes the brotherhood; the brethren are lovers; they extend the “family.” I share that sexuality. It was then, is now, and will be in the future. There was a night when I clicked into the ghost of one of my heroes, Caravaggio. It was an odd moment in which the past actually flashed into the present, physically – fucking with the past if you like. (Jarman, 1992)
“It is uncanny,” comments Waugh, “that pre-internet Jarman used the word ‘click’….”
In her “Letters to Nina Hartley,” Ingrid Olson looks at snail-mail missives sent by fans to the eponymous porn actress, who began her career in 1984, just as VHS was taking porn out of red-light districts – whose theaters were reliable gay cruising hotspots – and into bedrooms, the better for savoring and sharing among heterosexual partners. In 1985 Hartley created a fan club, whose archive is now preserved. “An attractive, white, blonde, blue-eyed woman with a voluptuous figure, she fits pop-culture stereotypes of Marilyn Monroe and the California girls of Beach Boys songs,” Olson writes. Hartley’s career soared, and she became an icon. The rise of videotape porn “is significant,” Olson notes, “particularly in feminist analyses, as it increased women’s access.” As well, VHS porn represented a pre-internet moment when titles were unique enough objets to garner sustained attention – the Niagara Falls of online porn, with almost every title ever made just clicks away, had not yet switched on.
Was the VHS era the sweet spot for porn’s therapeutic potential? Feminism’s puritanical wing sees porn as objectifying women, pedagogy for rape. But Olson finds in Hartley’s correspondents something different, noting “The intimacy of … letter writers’ ‘open-heartedness’ and ‘speaking freely’ regarding sexuality is commensurate with Foucault’s work on parrhesia.” Olson cites letters thanking Hartley for emboldening them to try new forms of intimacy. “A 1995 letter from Jack tells Nina she has ‘helped [his] sex life’ because he is ‘not afraid to try new and different ways’ of having sex. He adds that his girlfriend also enjoys Hartley’s movies and, through viewing them, ‘has learned to be more relax[ed] and enjoy sex more.’”
The letters also show a collegiality and comradeship between fan and performer that one might expect more in gay male contexts. Writing to Hartley in August 1997, Iraqi war veteran Robert relates how, in his M1A1 tank, he kept her photograph “wedged in between the firing trigger and gun camera computer box,” with the picture of her “hot body” keeping him “company through the long hot days and cold nights in the desert.” Robert sketches to Hartley his “Desert Storm fantasy scenario, describing how Hartley would be ‘wearing nothing but an Army cap and bandana straddling the 120mm cannon of the M1A1 tank with a sweaty GI in your mouth and one pumping in and out of your pussy from behind while your tits rub against the metal of the cannon” – scenes that perhaps raise questions about porn’s relation not so much to misogyny but imperialist slaughter.
THE INTERNET, AND THE CAMERAS AND SENSORS that feed digital flows into its insatiable maw and unblinking Gorgon eyes, seems like an inescapable presence, a new fundamental condition of being, forcing continual confessions about our lives – where we are, who we are with, what we’re seeing, listening to, reading, to whom we’re communicating and what. Is there any escape? And does preserving some semblance of freedom require finding the hatch?
In a tightly focused but revealing essay, “On Not Seeing All,” Finnish scholar Susanna Paasonen looks at the work of German documentarian Jan Soldat, whose films explore edgy Berlin sexual cultures: a portrait of a sex slave, men living connubially with dogs, male intergenerational relationships, elderly men’s BDSM sessions, diaper play, and men fantasizing about being killed and eaten “like pigs,” among others. Paasonen considers how Soldat manages, despite topics that seem tinder for tabloid TV, to show respect for his subjects “by detaching them from frameworks of secrecy and sensationalism.” One trick up his sleeve is simple juxtaposition: “[S]cenes of sexual play are not marked apart from other routines or exchanges,” she writes. Sex slave Wolf (tax advisor by day) in The Incomplete (2013) is shown mundanely puttering around the kitchen. Paasonen recounts a scene from Coming of Age (2016) in which “Accounts of first meeting one’s partner intersect with shots of eating their ass freshly unwrapped from diapers.” Soldat places no demand for confession or self-analysis on the men he portrays. In The Incomplete, Wolf “narrates no story of self-discovery or coming out” even as describes “slave role-play as personal healing and psychotherapy that necessitates no psychiatrist.” (p. 416) He “recounts at length the legacy of the Third Reich in his family, once heavily invested in its ideology and machinery, yet the documentary portrait remains void of therapeutic goals.” Rather than genitally focused, Wolf describes his quest as “inventing new possibilities of pleasure through an eroticization and intensification of the whole body.” (p. 417) Soldat is partial to a stationary camera with its precisely delineated frame – that subjects are free to, and do, shift beyond. Perhaps most important, Paasonen notes, is that Soldat’s films are shown only at festivals, operating “within a film culture of limited yet manifest public visibility.” She notes how “Media culture is increasingly focused on the speedy circulation, spreadability, and mashability of digital content as it is linked, copied, edited, remixed, and grabbed for novel purposes.” But “Soldat’s films have not been seen on either television or online platforms, and as such the work has remained inaccessible to those wanting to freely remix it.” (p. 412)
Tom Roach writes how the clipped, faceless, anonymous, to-the-point exchanges on hookup sites such as Grindr also offer tight, stylized, static frames for self-presentation that – as intimate as is the business at hand and as public the forum – offer unexpected reprieve from confession and exposure. Roach cites a debate between Deleuze and Antonio Negri, the latter techno-optimistic that new communication technologies can allow people to “speak out and thereby recover a greater degree of freedom.” Deleuze is unconvinced, arguing that, in “control societies,” information and communication are thoroughly commoditized, primary factors of economic production. Even while control societies step back from the overt methods of mass confinement – factories, schools, barracks, prisons – that are characteristic of “disciplinary societies,” it remains in Deleuze’s view, Roach writes, that “discursive politics, representational politics, are compromised once communication is subsumed by capital.” (p. 550) “The key thing,” says Deleuze, presciently in 1990, before the internet had broken out of the originary military-academic nexus, “may be to create vacuoles of noncommunication, circuit breakers, so we can elude control.”
While the West seems fully to meet Deleuze’s picture of control societies, with “incessant monitoring of one’s productivity, effectiveness, and health” the better to maximize “human capital,” it has hardly, especially in the US, with its vast carceral complex, given up on the “disciplinary.” Radically at-odds regimes of regulation seem peculiarly able to sit, unlike lions and lambs, side by side, or even chimerically to commingle – urbane Brussels to slaughterhouse Congo, or (for a time) festive Berlin to deathly Sachsenhausen. I Confess! can’t quite decide about confession’s valence, with contributors variably pointing up ways it liberates or straitjackets. Doubtless, in different circumstances and at different moments, confession can, Schroedinger’s cat-like, do either or both. But the universe is not about to run out of zeroes and ones with which our acts, utterances, and identities can be embedded, asserted, analyzed, transmitted, and archived. Perhaps the most we can hope – and fight for – is a fatwa against compelled confession, and preservation of differentiated landscapes: of air-gapped, un-data-mined spaces, accessible like city parks, free of distracting pop-ups or tracking cookies, where friendship and truth-seeking speech can still flourish.