the rites of online courtship
EXCHANGING NAKED PICS
MALCOM HARRIS & HELENA FITZGERALD
Harris and Helena Fitzgerald are managing and contributing editors
at The New Inquiry.
HARRIS: Is there a difference between nudity on the Internet
and online pornography?
FITZGERALD: The ubiquity of one necessitates a more precise
definition of the other. An image of a naked body is no longer
necessarily categorized automatically as pornography. More and
more people can say, “Well, there are naked pictures of
me on the Internet, but they’re artistic, not pornographic
or dirty.” It was easier to see the distinction in previous
generations when there were very clearly different contexts
or frames for art and for pornography. Porn was defined by being
available only in contexts in which arousal was the goal.
HARRIS: The Internet fucks with this because it’s not
in control of its context. All visitors experience an art gallery
in more or less the same fashion, but visitors to a website
come as they are. Maybe that’s masturbating, maybe it’s
FITZTERALD: Mostly masturbating.
HARRIS: Maybe, but they could be masturbating to spring break
beach photos on Facebook or artsy nudes on Tumblr or gang-bang
videos. To call all three of these porn because people get off
to them would be overreaching. So by remainder we have a category
of nudes that may or may not be particularly erotic but would
be inappropriate to call pornographic – thus a site like
Art or Porn?
FITZTERALD: I don’t know if the division is particularly
useful anymore. Somewhat surprisingly, a lot of women use Tumblr
for reblogging porn or what could be considered porn. This implies
that women — or people in general — didn’t
have a problem with porn so much as bad porn with its plastic
mounds of robotic flesh.
as a user-directed medium, releases porn from those traditional
visual cues. It allows the viewer to look at porn without feeling
like she is, you know, looking at porn. Without the surrounding
ads for dick enhancement or phone-sex pop ups of commercial
online porn, looking at naked bodies becomes a much less urgent
or anxious activity. One doesn’t necessarily have to feel
that looking at naked bodies has anything to do an orgasmic
teleology. At least not consciously, anyway.
HARRIS: Big-budget pornographers are going to stick to the proven
formulas, so it seems there will be much more amateur work on
Tumblr. What’s nice is that advances in consumer electronics
have made high-quality images and video easier to produce. So
any photographer — or even any college couple with a nice
cell phone — has access to the entire means of pornographic
production and distribution. An anticorporate porn movement
seems more possible than ever. Maybe we are the porn we’ve
been waiting for.
FITZGERALD: Well, we have, and will likely continue have, a
great historical record of what photographers’ girlfriends
look like topless. But the whole public discussion about Internet
nudity as distinct from porn starts with celebrity sex tapes
— I mean, how grassroots or anticorporate could a medium
be if its pioneer was Paris Hilton?
HARRIS: That’s a good point, but with the celebrity sex
tape what we have is more celebrities behaving like normal people
than normal people behaving like celebrities. As Us Weekly
reminds us: They’re just like us. And people have
recorded themselves having sex, no doubt, for as long as the
technological capacity has existed.
celebrity sex tape doesn’t so much normalize the making
of sex tapes but the discussion of them in public. Camera phones
mean nude pictures, but it’s newsworthy only if the media
can link it to public figures or crime.
FITZGERALD: Right, okay, Anthony Weiner. Multimedia sexting
has now become a standard-enough practice that whenever there’s
a scandal, we wait for the phone pictures to leak.
HARRIS: This was something people were always already doing
(sending each other nudie pics), but how does all this publicity
affect the practice?
FITZGERALD: On the personal level, people seem to expect that
they can just ask for naked photos from a sexual partner at
an early point in the relationship. It has become not a particular
or intimate activity but almost an obligation. Sending naked
pictures has gone from an experimental thing between committed
partners to a standardized stage of flirting. Having seen someone
naked in person seems to lead immediately to the assumption
that one therefore has the right to a digital copy of that image.
HARRIS: That sounds like a negative turn, and no one like the
idea of creepy exes showing nude pictures of them to their friends.
But eventually no one is going to care. So our flirting and
sexual practices change in relation to technology — so
what? The cops and parents will get over kids sending each other
“show-me-yours” pics. No one is better about getting
blasé about such things than teenagers. There’s
nothing wrong with it.
FITZGERALD: But what about when they grow up? Who wants pictures
of themselves at 18?
HARRIS: Or 16.
FITZGERALD: Or 16 being online forever? What about future employers?
HARRIS: When I was in college, I was an intern at a nonprofit
in D.C. In a conversation it came out that almost everyone in
the office had at least one tattoo. Now, even a few years ago,
serious people said getting a tattoo would mean ruining every
real job interview forever. It’s just not true anymore,
if it ever was.
FITZGERALD: And the more pictures there are on the Web, the
smaller the chances that you run into any given one. It’s
like hiding in plain sight. And when we do turn up pictures
of people we know, hopefully we’ll judge them like art,
on compositional quality or lighting rather than simply be outraged
by the sight of exposed flesh.
HARRIS: It’s certainly not unprecedented. Carla Bruni
Sarkozy has plenty of topless photos out there, but they’re
nice and she’s French, so no one is angry. Why can’t
that work for someone you recognize from Human Resources or