Slut shaming and safe sexting

Safe sex used to be simple. Step A: take one vending machine prophylactic. Step B: use it.

These days, everything is much more complicated. These days, protecting yourself from “going viral” may also involve checking for hidden webcams and erasing your ex-partner’s flash drive.

Most of Australia is now familiar with the case of the 18-year-old Australian Defence Force Academy cadet whose peers called her a “skank” and a “dirty whore” after a male cadet secretly recorded the two of them having sex.

This modern day Romeo beamed the footage live via Skype to an audience of six caring and sharing mates, some of whom snapped photos and circulated them round the ADFA campus.

The multiple inquiries that have since been launched into defence force culture are all steps in the right direction. But it’s a mistake to think that high-tech sexual humiliation and privacy violations are only problems in the army.

This is not an isolated incident in a single workplace. What we’re witnessing is the extraordinary impact technology is having on intimacy, and on the divisions between the public and the private. Also evident is the sexual sadism that can ensue when new gadgets are combined with old misogyny.

But first things first. If you’re of a certain age and Luddite status, you may not be hip to the techno tricks of today’s sextually active youth. Here are three things that rarely happen on the dating and mating circuit anymore: 1) meeting a stand-up lass or lad over a nice Jubilee Jig at a bush dance; 2) writing romantic love letters any longer than BTWITIAILWU (which translates – swoon – as By The Way I Think I Am In Love With You); and 3) taking wallet photos of one’s romantic interest from the neck up.

Here, meanwhile, are three things that do happen quite a lot: 1) Facebook “poking” before the first date; 2) outsourcing internet flirting to “click magnet” professionals; and 3) sending Tropfest-style films of one’s secondary sexual characteristics as a sweet, getting-to-know-you type gesture.

The reasons behind these trends are complex. For starters, there’s the exuberant legacy of libertarianism left by all those contraception inventors, free lovemeisters and hirsute Joy of Sex manuals from the 1970s sexual revolution.

Technology is also key. Digitisation, in particular, seems to facilitate disinhibition because amateur photographers and filmmakers are now in charge of their own happy snaps and home movies. (The visual steaminess that ensued once we stopped having to drop our little rolls of film off to an ogling chap in a lab coat down at the local pharmacy was nothing short of eye-watering.)

Yet despite the potential for increased privacy, many of us are opting instead for exponential publication: choosing to expose ourselves to pervillions of potential viewers via the internet.

For many participants in the self-publishing revolution, this is a positive development which permits sexual expression and freedom from shackling shame.

Women, in particular, finally have the chance to experiment with the making and viewing of racy material on their own terms.

Self-pornification is also part of the DIY sensibility of the reality TV and wiki era. After all, stars such as Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson have used their home-porn exposure to enhance their brands, successfully parlaying notoriety into celebrity.

But there’s always the risk that risqué footage will return, like a scary nude poltergeist, to haunt its protagonists.

The internet is notoriously immune to control. Once you upload material online, you have no say over where it travels and who will see.

Stories abound of people who’ve posted provocative images of themselves into cyberspace and then suffered dire consequences at school or at work. (“It seemed like a good idea at the time” has become a common lament.)

It’s critical, however, to emphasise the distinction between consensual amateur production, and non-consensual voyeurism and harassment.

Covertly recording and broadcasting footage of someone nude or engaged in an intimate act is not, as Bob Ellis suggested, an example of harmless frat house slapstick. It’s a gross breach of sexual ethics.

But the issue of consent gets complicated if an amateur porn star consents to a single viewer, then discovers the distribution agreement has changed.

Enter the trusted-sexual-partner-who-turns-out-to-be-not-so-trustworthy scenario.

Canberra legal academic Bruce Arnold cites a number of significant overseas legal cases involving the unauthorised uploading of amateur porn footage – footage that was originally filmed consensually in a relationship because of the understanding it would only ever have an audience of two.

“[But] after the relationship has melted down, sometimes because the victim discovered that the partner was showing the video to his or her mates, the video has ceased to be private,” he says.

“Sometimes it is available on the former partner’s blog, usually with derogatory comments. More typically it appears on a dating site or a [porn sharing] site. There are also a handful of revenge cases where the ex-partner has pretended to be the victim and put the video on a site such as Facebook, usually accompanied by what purport to be invitations to engage in group sex, violent sex… and so forth.”

Most of this dodgy digital distribution occurs after a romance has ended. But some 21st Century cynics advocate the taking of compromising photos as a kind of insurance policy.

One contributor to an internet discussion about breaking up in the e-era urges those in relationships to “get naked pictures now, just in case”. Another suggests that lascivious visuals of a couple in action are weapons of mutually assured destruction.

The latter might hold true if the sexual playing field was an equal one. As the ADFA Skype sex scandal has shown, however, the vicious stereotype of the “scarlet woman” still reigns – and there is no “scarlet man” equivalent.

Females are more vulnerable in sexual cyber warfare because of the persistence of the hoary old double standard that sexually active men are studs, while sexually active women are sluts.

This is why it’s difficult to imagine a female army officer secretly videoing a liaison with a male peer and sharing it with a bunch of girlfriends (though the recent internet posting of naked football players by a Melbourne schoolgirl suggests everyone has the potential to be held digitally accountable for their actions).

The unfortunate truth is that no degree of caution will assist if some cyber savvy miscreant is hell-bent on recording you without your permission. But, where possible, it’s probably best to adopt Arnold’s new version of the safe sex message.

When it comes to sex and recording devices: if it’s on, it’s not on.

- originally published in The Australian on 5-03-2011.

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