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Cory Silverberg

Conference Explores the Intersection of Feminism, Social Media, and Sexuality

By March 31, 2008

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There are so few safe public spaces for people to explore, challenge, and share their thinking about sexuality that whenever I hear about a new conference giving people a chance to come together and talk about sex my heart lightens a little bit. Sex 2.0 is a one day event in Atlanta in April, focusing on the “intersection of social media, feminism, and sexuality.” I virtually sat down with organizer Amber Rhea to find out more about Sex 2.0 and what attendees can expect.

On your website you describe Sex 2.0 as focusing on "the intersection of social media, feminism, and sexuality." What does that mean exactly?

I hate to give an obtuse answer, but the truth is, what it means will be different for each individual. That's why I'm excited that we have such a diverse group of people participating; everyone will get to offer their own perspective on how these things intersect in their own lives. Attendees can expect, first of all, not to be just passive attendees! Everyone is a participant at Sex 2.0. The focus is on interaction and discussion, rather than sitting back while "experts" talk at you. One of the fundamental concepts here is that everyone has things to teach and to learn. We have sessions scheduled on topics ranging from erotic writing to queer identity online to the effects the internet has had on the escorting industry, and much, much more!

Can you talk about why the word feminism was important to include in the mandate of the conference? What does it mean for conference organizers to identify this as an explicitly feminist space?

When I first had the idea for Sex 2.0, a friend and I were talking about possible challenges in pulling it off. One concern was how to mitigate what I call "the creepy guy factor" - and my friend pointed out that simply by putting "feminism" in the title, we'd probably scare off 99% of would-be creepy guy attendees!

More seriously though, it's important to identify Sex 2.0 as a feminist space because there is a real dearth of venues in which women can talk about sexuality without feeling judged, stifled, or stigmatized. Women are at the forefront of innovative uses of online technology for sexual purposes, and it's important that we make our voices heard on the variety of issues that affect us in doing so.

I’m a bit surprised by that response. The “creepy guy” stereotype is such a well worn one reinforcing patriarchal dualistic ideas about gender, I think it’s one of those things that keeps a lot of queer and trans people away from feminist blogs and maybe conferences too. It’s also something I know a lot of sex workers rally against as it is so often used to shame their customers. What sort of “guys” are you hoping to attend Sex 2.0?

I had a feeling you might say that about the "creepy guy" comment! I agree, there is definitely a negative, harmful stereotype that often surrounds men and sex. And I want to smash that stereotype along with all the others!

What my answer was referring to, though, was the unfortunate fact that there are guys who are just, well, creepy. I know this pseudo-explanation is painfully non-specific and non-empirical, but there it is. I can't articulate it very well, but pretty much every woman I've ever spoken to about this has experienced it; the effect these guys' presence has on women is, usually, to make us feel uncomfortable in speaking openly and/or being openly sexual.

In fact, Steve Eley (the aforementioned friend who made the observation about putting "feminism" is the title) is leading a session called "How Not to Be the Creepy Guy: Social and Sexual Etiquette at Conferences and Events."

As for what sorts of guys I'm hoping will attend Sex 2.0? Well, at the risk of offering another answer that will potentially piss people off... non-creepy ones. (A word of comfort to guys thinking of attending but worrying about this: the fact that you're even worrying about the fact that you might be creepy probably means you're not.)

It's exciting to see such a mix of presenters and in particular to see so many sex workers presenting a conference that isn't specifically for or about sex workers. How did you manage to bridge what often feels like a large gap in these sorts of public sexuality discussions?

One of the things I wanted to guarantee was that Sex 2.0 would be a safe, welcoming, judgment-free space for sex workers. I already mentioned that women don't have many places to talk openly about sexuality; sex workers face these same challenges, but also often have unique challenges related to protecting their identities. My top priority throughout the entire organizing process has been ensuring people's privacy and confidentiality, so that they will feel at ease and be able to speak freely.

I've also noticed that even in some self-identified progressive or feminist communities, there's a lot of "othering" that goes on with regard to sex workers. There's no way I was going to allow those kinds of arbitrary barriers to be part of Sex 2.0.

Can you talk about what you mean by “othering”?

Often in online feminist discussions about sex work, right from the start the conversation assumes there are no sex workers present. The language is all about "them" and "those women." I don't think this is done with active, malicious intent; I think it's just ignorance.

From there, it's almost like ticking off boxes on a checklist. Well-intentioned feminists will talk about how sex workers aren't in the industry "because they got tired of their six-figure investment banking jobs" (that is an actual quote from a feminist blog), they'll propose brainstorming solutions so that "these women" won't have to go into the sex industry in the first place (with the assumption that all sex workers would do something else if only there were options available), and they'll mention that we all do what we have to in order to survive in a patriarchy. All in all, it creates a very hostile, unwelcoming environment for sex workers, and replicates power structures of paternalism and the rescue mentality.

Given the theme of Sex2.0 can you give us some tips on where to find the most interesting intersections of social media, feminism, and sexuality?

In particular, two recent examples come to mind. Last month, Sex In The Public Square hosted a week-long online forum on sex work, trafficking, and human rights. The forum allowed internet users from all over the world, with a variety of backgrounds and experiences (but almost all of whom identified as feminist), to talk about realistic solutions to human rights problems often associated with the sex industry. The forum was a massive success in moving the dialogue forward and I happen to know that some very important people were reading!

Secondly, a few weeks ago the Eliot Spitzer story broke in the media. As Regina Lynn describes in her recent Sex Drive column, sex workers' rights activists began organizing behind the scenes using mobile technology. Thanks to this technology, activists were able to push back against negative media portrayals of sex workers, in a way that had never been seen beforehand! It was extremely exciting.

Learn more, and register to attend Sex2.0

April 1, 2008 at 12:47 am
(1) Tara says:

Well said Amber! Sex Workers have a voice, and it’s getting louder.

April 1, 2008 at 6:35 am
(2) Elizabeth says:

I’m so looking forward to Sex 2.0 and I’m very grateful to Amber and the others for organizing it. And Cory, thanks for writing about it!

I just wanted to say that for me the most important reason to include the word “feminism” in the title of the conference is because it is so important to support a definition of feminism that assumes openness – rather than hostility – to a wide range of sexualities and that approaches the intersection of sex and work from a human rights perspective rather than a prohibitionist one.

I don’t know the work of every single person coming to Sex 2.0 of course, but many of the people whose work I do know are explicitly feminist in their work, though not in ways that might sit easily with more mainstream feminists.

I think this conference will provide a bunch of important opportunities for “taking back” feminism for all of us who have been excluded in one way or another by mainstream feminism.

Elizabeth Wood
Sex in the Public Square

April 2, 2008 at 1:39 am
(3) Pranav says:

These type of activities are really essential to make the people aware of sex on which the whole world is based.

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