Digital Intimacy: an end to the tyranny of distance – by Gary Dowsett

It was a long time ago, but I still vividly remember seeing my first pornographic film—and it was film, Super 8 film to be exact. A lesbian friend had taken me to an upper-middle-class, eastern-suburbs Adelaide home for a gay party. Such weekend evening parties in the mid-1970s had a long history connected to the six o’clock closing of pubs (abolished just a few years before) that had been par for the course in moralistic Australia designed to make workingmen having a drink after work go home to their families for dinner at a godly hour.

These gay post-6 o’clock parties were full of men, in the main, of all ages. At this one, a large entertainment space adjacent to a pool had been added to the classy 1930s California bungalow and featured a bar (with cute barman) with a Super 8 projector screening pornography onto a portable screen. Men, and some women, watched while lounging in comfy armchairs, sipping wine. The film featured at length (72 minutes in fact) hunky men fucking in sandhills, no holds barred, in colour, with sound. The film was the iconic Boys in the Sand (the title is a homage to the breakthrough off-Broadway gay smash hit, 1968 to 1970, Boys in the Band—get it?), filmed in 1971 on Fire Island, the famous holiday island, gay mecca off the coast of New York City. They also screened Behind the Green Door (1972) with Marilyn Chambers, the most famous feature-length heterosexual pornographic film of all time, so those gay men clearly had catholic tastes in erotica.

I was stopped in my tracks; it was a profoundly disturbing but strangely intimate moment. I had come across pornography before. At that time, I was a volunteer worker in Australia’s first and only gay bookstore, the Dr Duncan Revolution Bookshop, situated in leafy Hyde Park in Adelaide. Most sales came via the bookshop’s mail-order service that stretched Australia-wide, so there weren’t many walk-in customers. In between packing books and stocking shelves, I read voraciously. I was a young gay liberation activist, so I mainly read the burgeoning gay and lesbian liberation literature, both theory and polemic, related political theory, psychoanalysis, and Left history and politics. I also read my first gay pornography. There wasn’t a lot, but it did range from the Rev Boyd Macdonald’s publication Straight to Hell: The Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts (1973 to 2017, with various editors), a roneo-ed (who knows nowadays what ‘roneo’ means?) corner-stapled collection of misspelt, colloquial and personal accounts of illicit sex among working-class, rural and racial minority American men (sex between men was illegal in the USA then), all the way to Teleny, or The Reversal of the Medal (1893), an anonymous, eloquent, classically written account of sex among upper-class British men in late 19th century London, attributed to Oscar Wilde. There were also magazines, mostly from the USA, but some British, featuring good-looking, naked or near-naked Physique pin-ups of men, but no stills of sex acts as far as I can remember. That is another reason why the film at that party was so arresting. I even learnt something: I became convinced my knees could bend like that too.

I had never seen other people have sex (late teenage candle-lit groping notwithstanding). I had seen pseudo-sex in mainstream movies and television. Remember, I grew up in the era of Australian TV replays of I Love Lucy (1951 to 1957), a series in which the star Lucille Ball and her then real-life husband Desi Arnaz slept in twin beds, courtesy of the US Hayes Code. That was the closest hint of sex I can remember in daily life, unless you count seeing Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in swimsuits getting it on in roiling surf to the surging music in From Here to Eternity (1953). The boys in this bit of sand were certainly different. I was not shocked or embarrassed by that porn film; I felt enthralled and, strangely, privileged at being invited into such an intimate moment. That film was not like the performance-driven, narrative-thin, genitally focused, buff-bodied, Viagra-fuelled, mass-produced pornography that seems to dominate the industry today. There was something engaged about these boys in the sand (they were actually adult men). They were really having sex—slow, intimate, romantic even, sex with each other, and calmly sharing that generously with others. With me.

Pornography has come a long way since then. After Super 8, think VHS and Betamax, DVDs, the Internet and now live-streaming—all in my lifetime. What was so startling to me in my early 20s is now readily available to anyone, anytime, anywhere and from anywhere, and in such a vast array of versions, iterations, permutations and combinations that one can only conclude that one’s own sex life is abysmally lean and unimaginative, no matter how wicked and wilful it might appear to one’s grandmother and certain members of the Christian Right. Pornography watching, or ‘consumption’ as it is bizarrely termed by some commentators today, is beyond widespread; it is commonplace. While men are considered its main audience, women are avid watchers too. It has more ‘genres’ (another strange term) than the TV series. Yet, gay pornography is incredibly overrepresented as a genre, either indicating there are many more men interested in sex with other men than we might (like to) think, or that the sex that gay men have in pornography might hold interest beyond the confines of same-sex object choice. There is something to this second possibility, as women (heterosexual and otherwise) report enjoying watching gay men have sex in pornography for many and varied reasons, including the ‘equality’ or ‘democracy’ of the sex enacted. No one is dominated, apparently forced, or subordinated (BDSM aside). Penetrative sex is not always privileged and either partner (or both in turn) can ‘top’ or ‘bottom’. Such equality and democracy invite intimacy (not intimidation), engagement (not enslavement), inclusion (not individualisation), mutual pleasure (not masculine prerogative), and orgasm for both or many others (not just his onanism—the ‘money shot’). It’s a tasty mix.

I do realise other forms of pornography are abject, dehumanising, unethical, exploitative, hurtful, damaging and dangerous. It is important not to ignore that. However, it is also important to acknowledge that there are many pornographies, and these represent the sometimes-incomprehensible variety of human sexual interest in all its forms, good, bad and emerging. To make sense of pornography, its attraction, its performative effect and its potential requires coming to grips with the possibility that, overall, pornography might be bad because so much of it is so damn good.

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The ever-advancing technologies that make today’s pornography industry one of the world’s largest enterprises are not the first technologies to create pornographic images and erotic objects. Classic Greek pottery featured sex scenes of very diverse kinds. Roman statuary glorified the desirable male and female nude body. Houses in Pompeii were decorated with mosaics of erotic action. The Khajuraho friezes in India featured almost every imaginable sexual position. The Khalid Nabi cemetery in Iran was filled with a forest of large, erect, upright stone penises. The 35,000-year-old Venus of Hohle Fels sculpture is the oldest artistic depiction in a long tradition of honouring vulva. Imaginative erotic pottery was a major art form in pre-Colombian Peru (the collection in the Larco Museum in Lima is mindboggling). Fashion and decorative clothing profiled sexual aspects of the body in various cultures, e.g. ‘codpieces’ in Renaissance Europe, penis sheaths in Papua New Guinea, the exaggerating corset and bustle in 18th century Europe, the easy-access for sex underwear made especially for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the mystery and promise behind the middle-eastern veil. European art museums are awash with nude paintings, sculpture and artefacts from the ancient, classical, medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. Even Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is plentifully adorned with nudes (mostly male), whose genitals were covered post hoc with wisps of fabric, mostly removed in the recent restoration. There are whole galleries in the Vatican museum lined with statues of nudes (males and females). Most of the males have their penises chiselled off and the confected fig leaves that had once replaced them have been removed, creating a disturbing procession of mass castration. I have often wondered if there is a Vatican basement full of marble penises, awaiting ardent new vocations for the religious in many lifetimes’ work in sticking them all back onto the right statues. Clearly, even the celibate (sic) Roman Catholic church recognised the erotic and sexual intentions of art. Indeed, art in Christian Europe was the place to explore the sexual; one just had to paint a saint or a figure from a biblical story to get away with it—think Saint Sebastian or Salome.

These art forms are all technologies too. They rely on materials, advances in imagination that translate into materials, objects and processes, and human skill and ingenuity in the manipulation of all of these. It does seem somewhat prosaic and utilitarian to label them all as just technologies. Yet, that seems to be the state of play in rethinking sexuality in the early 21st century. That said, I haven’t even mentioned the advent of two technologies that completely transformed representation and literacy (of all kinds) in their time and ever since: the printing press and photography. In fact, it’s still print and photography that dominate our media, whether as text or image (still or moving) and on paper or digitally ‘published’.

What print offered sexuality was detail, thick description, intricate process, flights of fantasy beyond the real, and the minutiae of emotional and physical responses in/of bodies and by the people who inhabit them. The reader is there, right in the thick of it, often physically taking part—it’s not called the ‘one-handed read’ for nothing. One text stands out here, if controversial and for many years and in many ways censored, the Marquis de Sade’s One Hundred Days of Sodom (written 1785, published 1904). This is a compendium of almost all sex practices known to human beings at that time (only a few have been added since); it is an encyclopaedia of eroticism. Its history-bound patriarchal narrative can mask the broader anatomy of human sexual desire that de Sade explores. Paulo Pasolini’s also oft-banned film version, Salò (1975), does not assist in revealing this depth. If anything, Pasolini profiles the abject performance of sex rather than the performative intimacy that de Sade explores in ‘practising desire’ in its many forms.

This is not the place to detail the relationship between print, literacy and pornography; others have done that better than I could. I will also not attempt a similar analysis of the photographic image (still or moving) and sexuality; that too has been done by far better scholars than I am. What I am interested in exploring is the transformation in intimacy that erotic imagery and text including pornography—the distinction is a much-debated one—has produced.

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As I noted earlier when I first saw that moving image of sex between those boys in the sand back in the digital dark ages of the 1970s, I felt welcomed into something intimate, a sharing of men practising desire without shame and in public, even though no others were present. Well, that’s not right. Those filming were present, but were invisible, and stood in for the rest of us. These bodies-in-sex were without shame for all to see. I had experienced something like that proximity to others’ intimacies in reading Teleny, in which I felt all the tense, febrile and arousing moments of the characters as they explored the illicit desires that drove and hounded them in Victorian London. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) is more indirect and implicit in its homoeroticism than Teleny, but not in its representation of desire. Dorian Gray is merely tantalising; Teleny is downright erotic. What both have in common with Boys in the Sand is their inclusion of us in the pursuit, in the arousal, in the action, in the pleasure—anticipated, experienced or foregone. What was different about that film, though, was that it was not a representation; it was really happening right before our eyes.

Some might say this is still a poor substitute for the ‘real’ thing. What’s the ‘real’ here? All that ancient pottery, mosaic, statuary, painting and clothing, while representing sex, arousal, pleasure and satisfaction, are essentially abstractions. What da Vinci’s ‘La Giaconda’ promises is ineffable; that’s its attraction. Japanese Shunga Netsuke illustrates sexual athleticism that is ultimately reserved only for Olympians, not us mere mortals. Picasso’s erotic images fixate on dominance and disarray; it’s discomforting to associate with their pleasures. For all the wonder, there is a kind of distance that this artistic sexuality produces. In its abstraction, sex is placed beyond one’s reach. One’s own desire seems diminished by it. I’ve lost count of the number of gay men’s houses I have visited that have a small statue of Michelangelo’s ‘David’. Why? It’s beyond me. Is it a claim to alignment, to belonging, to ‘tribe’? Sex is ultimately a distant object in this kind of art, as beautiful and entrancing as it might be. Whatever the representation of human sexual desire in it, it is not mine. These sexual objects are to be viewed, desired, owned, displayed, but, ultimately, they belong to an aesthetic to which one can only aspire.

How can it be otherwise? For without objectification, there can be no desire. The very distillation of desire requires the formulation of focus. That is the object. This is not a simple process—just ask Freud. Objectification can settle in the most surprising places: on women as a group in patriarchal heterosexuality; on leather, velvet, silk or rubber etc. in paraphilias (love the term—tells us a lot about sexologists, don’t you think?); on difference in skin colour, age, physical attributes, race etc.; on the abject in various forms; on the illicit (when was some sexual action or object not illicit at some time in some place?); on refusal or sublimation. Objectification requires othering in order to beg proximity, closeness, even possession. That is desire.

The written text and photography (still or moving) do something more. These grant proximity, closeness, identification, interpolation. One is invited into minds, bodies, events, settings, affects and pleasures at a strikingly intimate level. Even the distance of time—in the aching need in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1590s) or in the futuristic inter-gender pleasures of Robert Heinlein’s I will Fear No Evil (1960)—does not push one away. Similarly, photography (still or moving) takes one into its embrace, whether into the ambivalent intimacies of Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985-86) or in the ejaculatory exuberance of Boys in the Sand. Distance dissolves in these moments and one’s interpolation is both voluntary and vocational—it is one’s fate to be there.

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When it comes to the Internet, to digital desire, are we just seeing an extension, an evolution, a new version of these previous technologies? I suspect something else is going on. Yes, we can now see every erotic art object, site and monument at the touch of a screen. Writing as I am in the socially isolated midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, access, immediacy and proximity are blessings. I can view things I might never see for real(?), such as the top of Mount Everest or the inside of a platypus’s burrow. Closed theatres, cinemas and arenas don’t prohibit me from viewing the online precis of exhibitions in New York City’s Museum of Sex or reading the British Library’s extensive collection of ‘obscene’ writing, which has recently gone online. I can watch Bette Davis’s wicked desires exercised implicitly in Jezebel (1938) or Joe Manganiello’s explicit callipygian gyrations in Magic Mike (2012). I can also conjure up veteran Jeff Stryker’s prodigious gifts in action (44 films from 1986 to 2001) or Asa Akira’s current 15 minutes of fame on Pornhub (the world’s major online porn gateway, which has reported huge increases in logins during the pandemic ‘lockdown’). I can choose from as much free access, subscription or pay-per-view pornography as can be fitted into a day (and a bank balance) in between incessant muffin baking, lounge room aerobics and OCD-level handwashing! As that catchy song from the long-running Broadway hit musical Avenue Q (2003 to 2009) tells us: ‘The internet is for porn!’ All this right in the comfort of my own home. Distanced? Not anymore. Intimate? Too right. Moreover, there are many millions of people around the globe doing just this on computers, laptops, tablets, mobile phones and other ‘devices’ (should we rename them ‘sex toys’?) at any and every minute of the day. Distance no longer exercises its tyranny.

However, there is something else on the internet that is new (relative to the long stretch of history I’ve been using here) and that is live real-time streaming, often using inexpensive webcams. This can take many forms, but they all involve individuals, couples or groups, of all sexual orientations and preferences, engaging in ‘sex practices’ (don’t you just love the social sciences’ distancing invoked in that term?), right now in ‘real’ time, as watchers live and breathe in tandem, from as far away as their devices’ screens in full colour and with interactive sound. The watchers can have their webcams reciprocating the action too. These interactions can be private just like a phone call between two people or involve many others like a party line. What becomes distance here? Add the multiplying affordances of teledildonics and the intimacy even reaches through the screen. Pleasures can be enjoyed and shared at a level of detail that would shock Robert Mapplethorpe. This is the ultimate 69! Everyone gets a money shot—and that phrase no longer applies just to men.

Are these webcam ‘models’ (as the porn industry calls them) merely objects to desire? Well, yes and no. Certainly, these people can be watched and desired and ‘used’ for personal pleasure. Yet, that is often their pleasure (and profit) too. Are they exploited? Some, undoubtedly yes—there are big pornography enterprises behind these apps. Others, no. The apps also facilitate a personally motivated adventure, whether it’s a dating or hook-up site such as Tinder or Grindr, or an amateur pornography streaming service such as LiveJasmine or Cam4. For some, such live online sexual performances are sought as a moment of both objectification and subjectification. Such pleasure is productive. The desired object is also the desiring subject. The technology performatively subjectifies as it objectifies, i.e. it creates new subjects of sexuality through the enactment of the self as an object. For without subjectification there can be no pleasure. These emerging sexual subjects, like those boys in the sand, are also without shame. Their bodies bear no stigmata. There is a refusal to be subjected to the privatisation of sex; these are not hidden guilty anxious pursuits (although they still might not alert their relatives). There is a pride and pleasure in these performances.

For some observers, this might constitute a shocking moment of self-delusion in which the performing subjects are manipulated and lose control of their images and identities as digital objects. There are one or two US congressmen who found that out to their detriment, but theirs were anachronistic and clandestine abject acts. These amateur pornographers can now develop careers from their streaming not just in making porn but as influencers, fashionistas, celebrities and gurus in the gig economy. The ‘hottest’ porn stars now have their own Instagram accounts and sponsored YouTube channels. The NYC Museum of Sex even featured an exhibition on Cam Life: An Introduction to Webcam Culture (2020) as COVID-19 struck. Exhibit? Culture? Art? Electing a politician who has not sent a ‘sext’ at some time might even become impossible in a few years. It may even become a mark of political esteem—I cum therefore I can! ‘Thou shalt not …’ holds sway no longer. Sexuality has finally become the truth of the self if not quite in the way Michel Foucault originally argued.

This is a signal shift in the history of sexuality. It’s not just that technology has brought sex closer, even bringing sex at a distance closer, startlingly close in the case of pornography. Sex with a stranger (or, many of them) has become differently possible in ways barely captured in that sex researchers’ term ‘casual sex’. We are welcomed into the bodies and lives of others in ways hitherto impossible and can return the privilege. They are hardly distant strangers anymore; they are one’s intimate familiars. In this cacophony of concupiscence, these technologies speed up the performative in sex, disturbing once iron-clad discursive boundaries, dismantling prohibition, hindering inhibition, offering enticements, expanding possibilities, and engendering pleasures through as many often-unforeseen means as possible. The categories of old, let alone the recent past, are revealed as the discursive nonsense they always were, made-up, contingent, whether gay, straight, bisexual, polysexual, asexual, male, female, intersex, trans*, non-binary, gender-neutral and all the rest of the alphabet soup of contemporary identity politics. These multiplying labels continue to fail. They are revealed as feeble stratagems—the last cry of ‘me’, ‘myself’, ‘I’ in the current mass culture of neoliberal individualism—that ultimately reflect a powerlessness that will be increasingly obviated by the insurgency of sexuality and its performative renovation of subjectivity. This subjectivity is one in which the embodied desiring self can only be experienced and exercised simultaneously as a desired object in an ever-expanding economy of pleasure. Who needs me when there is we? In the techno-sexual race for our future, the horse has bolted and there is no stopping it now. After all, even our queen, Elizabeth II, at age 94, recently showed us that we can all, post-COVID-19, ride astride a horse.

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Gary W. Dowsett, PhD, FASSA, is Emeritus Professor at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Melbourne, and Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Social Research in Health, UNSW Australia, Sydney.

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