Physically freeing: breaking taboos through online displays of the sexual self

Do a quick Google on ‘Sexting’ and you’re not faced with a critical examination of the commodification of the body for digital display, but rather headlines like “50 Sexting Ideas You Can Use RIGHT NOW!” and “Hottest Sexting Tips for Women”. Sharing digital imagery and engaging in sexual acts online are no longer for the marginalised and lonely but very much part of mainstream society. This does call into question, then, why many still regard online sexual engagement as being taboo.

For some, sex continues to be taboo (Roth, 2007), especially with regards to sharing one’s sexual self in public or overt representations of female sexual enjoyment (Walther, 2016). This flies in the face of a growing ‘pornification’ of many cultures (Dines, 2010) leading to a tension between how popular media presents the sexual self and the glorification of sexual presentation and traditional notions of sexual privacy. This research looked at understanding this tension and how technology is used as a means to break through social norms regarding keeping the sexual self private and the desire of some to overtly present their sexual self and the desire of [many] others to witness these displays of sexual self presentation. We call these online sexual experiences Technology Mediated Sexual Encounters or TMSEs.

Rather than focus on the growing professional porn and sex industry this research looks specifically at sexual self presentation that is freely distributed via technology and the impact that this sexual self presentation, via TMSEs, may have on users’ understanding of sex and offline relationships.

This exploratory study showed a number of reasons why people engage in TMSEs that go beyond the traditional rhetoric of ‘idiocy of instancy’ that goes hand-in-hand with technology use. For instance, our participants discussed the importance that Power plays in engaging in TMSEs. The female participants, in particular, felt that using their sexuality to draw attention to themselves and have their audience ‘begging’ for more gave them a buzz and sense of power that they could not find in their offline world. However, contrarily, those witnessing a sexual display believed they were in power as they just needed to throw out some platitudes and they’d see more from those displaying their sexual self.

TMSEs were also seen as not just a means of drawing attention to one’s self but also as a political act of defiance against conservative ideals of female sexuality. One participant used public displays of her sexualised self in online forums as a means of her own political activism against what she believed were oppressive social norms, further bolstering the notion that technology can be purposefully used to break social taboos. However, she also agreed that if she were ever caught that the impact of her online acts would lead to significant risk.

This is just one example of the darker side of TMSEs that was shown in the research. We also saw the abusive nature of TMSEs where sexualised imagery was used to control and dominate female partners when they shared sexualised imagery. In this way ‘Revenge Porn’ was used as a means of dominance and control in an abusive manner where the imagery was never meant to be used in this way. However, once shared it was impossible to remove the imagery created in the original TMSE. Whilst in the moment the TMSE was seen as a quick way to share something intimate, but this can quickly result in a detrimental impact to one’s offline self.

TMSEs are no longer something only the minority or the deviant engage in. However, the lack of public engagement in the subject does call into question whether the taboo regarding sex, especially when mediated through technology, has been broken. We see a growing engagement and consumption of Technology Mediated Sexual Encounters but little in the way of preparing the vulnerable in managing their sexual self presentation or how best to understand sexualised imagery online without it affecting their understanding of offline sexual encounters. We call for not only more research on the area of TMSEs but also for a greater understanding of how sex education can focus on both online and offline sexual encounters.

Read the original research article: Veer, E. & Golf-Papez, M. (2018). Physically freeing: breaking taboos through online displays of the sexual self. Journal of Marketing Management. 

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Ekant Veer

Ekant Veer

Ekant Veer is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His work primarily focuses on social marketing, transformative consumer research, CCT research and digital marketing. His work has been published in numerous journals including the Journal of Marketing Management, European Journal of Marketing, Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Marketing Letters, Journal of Research for Consumers and Journal of Consumer Behaviour.

Maja Golf-Papez

Maja Golf-Papez

Maja Golf-Papez is a doctoral student in Marketing at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her research interests lie in enlightening the dark sides of consumer behaviours and consumer–brand relationships.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.