When is it in to be out?

Michael's picture

Women, Sex and Blogging

Earlier we have written about the difficulty many bloggers and people working in stigmatised trades and professions have with maintaining multiple identies. We have also frequently described the tragedies that unfold when people are outed by zealous media, bigots or jealous colleagues.

This solstice season, a time for reflection and coming together, has been marked by an enthusiasm that at times borders on a feeding frenzy, to out bloggers, or suggest that they may be not be quite who they appear to be in their blogs. This raises many concerns.

Sex blogging by women, particularly about sex work, represents a special case of sensitivity, and many women sex bloggers prefer to remain anonymous, out of concerns that there may be repercussions in terms of their careers. A popular construction is that anonymous women sex bloggers are usually men. My colleague here, Elizabeth Wood, who has studied and written about this subject, describes the important cultural and social roles played by women sex bloggers, and the difficulties in verifying their authentic voices. The most famous sex work blogger of all is Belle de Jour, a British sex worker whose blog became the subject of several books, a TV series and helped shape popular constructions of independent women sex workers in the UK.  Guessing Belle's identity became a popular sport, and many eminient people assured us they were in possession of the facts, and that Belle was neither a sex worker nor a woman. When Belle outed herself, partly it is understood under duress from a colleague threatening to expose her, all the experts were proven wrong. Belle was an eminient woman scientist, who had been able to use sex work to help finance her  personal and intellectual dreams.  

While other bloggers have been exposed as being completely fictional, the Belle story should make us cautious about making assumptions. In order to maintain anonymity, it is necessary to be very cautious about any images and to change many facts in one's blog to prevent giving away clues to one's identity. This in itself can lead to either claims to know one's identity, or claims that one is a fake.

The consequences of being outed can be severe and include breakdown of physical and mental health, and relationships, loss of jobs, destructions of careers, verbal and physical violence and indirect consequences for families. Exposing bloggers therefore, should not be addressed lightly. 

Anonymity in literature has a long and venerable tradition, and women were often forced to adopt other identities and gender in an era when it was almost impossible for them to have careers or be taken seriously. Therefore anonymity should not per se be considered to be either wrong, or to detract from the validity of what one writes. Nor should the general public presume that what they are reading is true, or accurate or autobiographical, any more than they have that right when reading a book. Caveat Lector.

The Campaign against Faux Hos

There is little point in us naming names, since others have done so many times, and because we deal more with general principles and lessons to be learned here. There are many lessons to be learned from the campaign that has erupted over the last month and spread virally at least amongst the sex-conscious internet community. A number of wise and a number of unwise things have been said.

It is perfectly understandable that sex workers who face danger to various degrees in their everday lives feel uncomfortable about other people claiming to be sex workers, particularly if they appear to be claiming front of stage and to have had very different experiences from themselves. Other causes of irritation include breaking unwritten laws such as discussing clients.

Questions of copywrite, intellectual honesty and netiquette

Some more general concerns have been aired too, such as net etiquette when it comes to posting images derived from elsewhere. Questions raised include whether one should only post one's own images, whether all images should be attributed, whether all internet images are copywrite, and whether there is an obligation to make explicit disclaimers that one is not represented in the images. The various arguments advanced in support of or against all these issues have some merits. However one wonders whether the law of 'Who shall throw the first stone?' applies. Can all detractors swear they have never done anything they accuse others of? I doubt that we could verify the provenance of every image used on this website. 

What are the consequences?

It is not just unseasonable to attack other bloggers' credibility over Christmas that concerns me. It is fear that someone is going to get seriously hurt, it is fear for the principle that literary criticism should  address substance and not be ad feminam. It is fear for the legal principle of the presumption of innocence. It is fear of mobbing (some of the comments posted on blogs raise serious questions about civil society) when guilt is presumed proven. When someone attacks another person, it draws the attention of mobs that, like those in Golding's Lords of the Flies, rapidly deteriorate to anarchy and hate. It is fear of a ripple effect in that one person who defended the blogger, herself became a target of the campaign. It is fear for other people's privacy (one presumably innocent individual has already been positively identified as the blogger and had their personal details posted in comments before others cast doubts on this). Finally it is fear that when blogggers turn against each other, and in particular when sex workers appear to turn against each other, as to whether they damage the credibility of the community, and by internalising conflict detract from the external battle for rights. 

What are the harms of blogging?

Relevant questions have been raised on both sides  as to whether blogging about sexuality and sex work creates harm, is a social benefit leading to mainstreaming or is merely just one piece of information or misinformation floating in the sea verbal flotsam that makes up the internet. Surely the onus of proof of harm rests with the critic?

A plea for freedom of speech, standards in literary criticism and civil society

Before we throw any more stones, I think there are a number of questions we need to ask ourselves. Are we angry because we feel deceived if we gullibly read every word as gospel truth, and now seek to lynch the author once doubts are raised?   Are we totally innocent ourselves? Are we opening the door to a form of behaviour that could easily be used against ourselves? Are we indulging in mob behaviour that could lead to public lynchings, and serious damage to the lives of a number of people? Are we engaging in a form of censorship that could have serious repercussions on blogging in general? 

Perhaps we should all take advantage of the Christmas break to pause and reflect for a while before we escalate the verbal violence further, and consider the long term consequences for all concerned.