Small Pornographies

This short article was published here:

Halavais, A. C. (2005). Small pornographies. SIGGROUP Bull., 25(2), 19-22. doi: 10.1145/1067721.1067725  


Online pornography has largely been defined by its negative, by the social and regulatory restrictions it engendered. This has helped to obscure the everyday sexual discourse that represents a common and important part of many online communities. A better understanding of the every day sexual discourse, these “small pornographies,” may provide the keys to comprehending larger social organization and the links between our virtual online identities and our corporeal existence.


Online pornography deserves to be studied precisely because it resists investigation. Indeed, the word “pornography” itself inscribes opprobrium, and suggests a topic that is somehow beyond discussion or research. Because pornography is in part defined by its legal and social exclusion, the conditions of exclusion provide the most obvious point of entry for discussing the social history and effects of sexual materials. Unfortunately, those who investigate information and communication technologies have too rarely moved beyond this obvious entry point.

The practices of communicating about and through explicit sexual content are inextricably woven into the fabric of online interaction. The communication of sexually explicit material represents a kind of open secret. Avenue Q, the Tony award-winning best musical in 2004, featured a song entitled “The Internet is for Porn,” a paean to what it suggested was the most popular activity online. The song plays upon the common idea that the most frequent use of the internet is seeking and transmitting pornography. That the internet provides for an extraordinarily public sphere of engagement, and that such a sphere is frequently utilized in ways that have traditionally been intensely private, leads to an uncomfortable inversion.

At a fundamental level, investigating explicit sexual practices and communication online represents a vital tie between the offline and online worlds. Sex remains, for many, the sin qua non of embodied interaction. The intersection of this embodied experience with the “virtual” relationships and communities found online represents an important venue for learning more about the communication practices of sociable media.

Unframing Pornography

Even the Meese Commission final report, released in 1986, before examining the legal history of pornography in the United States in some detail, suggests: “Most historical study to date has not been about the social practice of pornography, but largely about control of that social practice by government. If the use of sexually explicit material is to be understood fully, the scope of thinking about the issue should be broadened substantially” [2].

With some rare exceptions [5], there is little evidence that the scope of thinking has been broadened. By and large, discussion or research related to sexual content online is framed by the need to draw clear regulatory lines to control such communication. Much of what is written about pornography appears in relation to other scourges of the internet, like spam and organized crime. There have been early attempts to probe the relationship between sexual materials and the development of new technologies industries, but these often do so explicitly in order to affect public policy [4] [8].

Part of this may be the recognized difficulty of conceptualization and definition of the word pornography, along with the host of related terms that are often used with equally little clarity: erotica, sexually explicit material, adult content, obscenity and indecency. In practice, the definition of these terms has been with a particular end in mind, and often that end is establishing a metric to help determine what is acceptable or legal for a particular community. Even here, however, the courts have failed, variously, leaving it to the common sense of the judge, or to the collective sense of the jury17.

This definitional battle tends to reify legal descriptions of pornography, and to focus our attention on the most extreme, and sometimes criminal, forms of sexual discourse online [9]. Ironically, then, the most marginalized forms of sexual exchange online are those that are also the most common, the everyday exchange of sexually provocative chat and images in narrow communities rather than the broader net. The formation of intentional communities based on sexual identity and interest, as well as the sexual elements and exchanges that are incidental to various communities, represent a “small pornography” that can be contrasted with the more than $1 billion mainstream commercial online pornography industry that more often becomes the focus of public discussion and policy18.

Big porn, despite being the most significant source of regulation, and the most salient example of e-commerce, remains largely understudied. The everyday small porn that exists within the interstities of existing virtual communities, as well as in pockets of more intensive exchange is even less noticed.

Technology and Small Pornographies

It is a truism among those who study technology that pornography is one of the earliest uses of many new communications technologies, both shaping their development and being shaped in turn. From the earliest daguerreotypes to the original instant cameras, some of the first content created was erotic in nature. But these two technologies are emblematic in another way as well. The expense and expertise required to create a photograph early in the development of the technology guaranteed that both the creation and consumption of erotic materials would be restricted to relatively small numbers, even if contemporary mores did not. As Edgley and Kiser [7] suggest, the Polaroid camera opened up both the production and consumption of pornography, and helped change the nature of sex.

While few technologies may suggest themselves to the process of producing pornography as directly as did the Polaroid camera, there can be no doubt that certain kinds of technologies provide for particular social and sexual uses. In particular, it seems that the way in which communication technologies cause interpenetrations of public and private spaces leads to new formulations of content that might before have been limited to either sphere exclusively. The natural assumption, when it comes to pornography, is that this causes the private to become public, but in practice it is much more complicated. For example, while the distribution of “stag films” was relatively limited, they were generally viewed by groups of men in smoke-filled rooms, and later in theaters. The video cassette recorder shifted the viewing environment to the home, and changed the way in which pornographic films were distributed, watched, and—eventually—created [15].

Waskul reminds us that the internet represents a radical extreme in terms of access for those seeking out sexual materials: “Never before have so many people had such easy access to so much sexually explicit material” [14]. And yet, it is not the first time that a new technology has been taken up by the masses. Television and the telephone (each of which has its own relationship to sexual material), have been even more widely used, and for much longer.

What makes the internet particularly interesting is not just that it can host new forms of sexual interaction, but that it can support interaction within dispersed communities of significant size. While it can also provide for broadcast-like communication, akin to major television stations, and point-to-point interaction, similar to that provided by the telephone, the World Wide Web and a variety of other applications, from Usenet to massively multiplayer online role playing games provide structures of interaction that could not have been supported, or even imagined, before the widespread use of the internet (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. The internet supports a range of communication network structures.

As a result, an individual who wishes to explore her own sexual interests now has a way of doing so that provides her with the means of remaining relatively anonymous (or at least maintaining an identity that is bound mainly to a single group), and engaging not just one-on-one, but within a virtual community, where she may connect with those who share her interests.

The effect of the internet on the shape of sexual discourse can be seen as two-fold. First, the exposure to wide variety of material that would otherwise be expensive or unavailable allows individuals to actively engage in shaping their sexual identity; or, allows them to co-create that identity within a community. The history of pornography is largely a story of social class. If we accept that pornography is defined by its regulation, we can trace the history of pornography to revolutions against the ruling classes of Europe, and the use of the pornographic image as a mark of sexual freedom often tied to political freedom19. Much later, the VCR brought pornography into the average living room and bedroom, but the material available had to appeal, due to the economic structure and the means of distribution, to a fairly wide audience, leaving particular proclivities to the purview of the privileged.

Second, and closely related to exposure to a variety of sexual content, small communities actively engage in co-production of pornographic content.

For Us, By Us

There are a range of characteristics, from the cost of equipment to the ease of use, that allow for individuals to engage in the production of content, sexual or otherwise [10]. Perhaps of more importance than the technology is the social framework that supports the exchange of materials. The net has frequently been referenced as supporting a “gift economy,” based largely on the free exchange of materials [3]. While the majority of public attention on the internet has focused on the commercial distribution of porn, and the various problems this has caused, many of the more pervasive and more interesting communities supporting sexual exchange have gone relatively unnoticed.

Virtual communities may come together for other reasons, but find that this extends into the exchange of sexual materials, just as it does in “real life” communities. Just as sexual unions emerge out of the day-to-day interactions among those in work and social environments, virtual communities provide an opportunity to engage in sexual behaviors, which are frequently also virtual either at the initial stages or to the exclusion of physical interaction. Moreover, because virtual communities tend to allow for a great degree of homophily, and those who share similar perspectives in another area may find they also have likeminded views on sex.

Some of the strongest online communities form around discussion software. From early Bulletin Board Systems to longstanding listservs, the history of virtual communities is closely tied to sexual discourse. The development of the alt.* hierarchy on Usenet owes much to the forum, and the hundreds of sub-groups that discuss sexual topics and exchange images and multimedia. The history of synchronous “hot chat” runs from Minitel, the earliest Internet Service Providers, and Internet Relay Chat, through to present day instant messaging.

For some, playing with identity means playing with sex. We need only be reminded of Julian Dibbel’s classic Village Voice piece to remember that MUDs and MOOs support sexual encounters from the mundane to the physically impossible [6]. Graphical online role-playing games that provide for verbal interaction (like also become a venue for hot-chat, through the projection of an avatar.

More recently, games like the Sims Online and Sociolotron—an online role playing game that makes orgasm one of the objects of play—provide opportunities for sometimes very explicit sexual interaction. Virtual characters, whether created in erotic literature, video games, or hentai comics, allow for the ultimate hacking of sexual relationships and behavior.

While in some cases, commercial pornography is antithetical to communities that are based on or engage in sexual discourse, there are several counter-examples. and Suicide Girls, for example, have capitalized on a supportive community, and grown quickly. Despite commercial success, all have cultivated continued exchange by the members of their community, and have provided opportunities for minimizing the distance between producers and consumers of sexual content. Of course, social networking and dating sites, ranging from Friendster to BiCupid provide the structure for virtual community and exchange, often explicitly sexual.

Perhaps the most striking feature that makes all of these cases similar is that they are always so dissimilar. Even as we see an amazing fragmentation of interest in sexual material, we also find communities gathering around these sometimes narrow interests. The most striking examples of this have been communities that have supported gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered youth who may live outside of urban areas where they would find likeminded peers and mentors20. But this extends to the most unusual fetishes. It takes very little to find “the ultimate snow bondage and shivering site,” or a site dedicated to “nostril exhales.” No matter how unusual the interest, there are likely others on the net seeking out company. And perhaps more than in other sorts of communities—virtual or otherwise—deviance is the norm.

A Cyberporn Theory

We might assume that the creation and exchange of sexual content online represents a major form of online communication and community. Anecdotally, this certainly seems to be the case. Yet there is very little scholarly work that examines cyberporn within the context of everyday lived existence. Escaping the frame of regulation is difficult enough; attempting to get at answers without expressing a clear moral position is likely to draw fire from all sides. Moreover, gathering data and observations from subjects who are frequently wary of their privacy and eager to maintain social boundaries can be extraordinarily difficult. Despite, or perhaps because of these difficulties, it is vital that we gain a better understanding of how people engage individually and in groups with sexual content.

What we learn from such an investigation is not just the role of sexually explicit materials in the use and development of the interenet, though that alone would be valuable. Because sex is often seen as the most obvious marker of embodied interaction, it provides us insight into the broader structure of interaction and community dynamics online. This intersection between the machine and the sexual human has already been engaged theoretically by scholars like Claudia Springer [12] and Allucquére Rosanne Stone [13], and their work shows the promise of developing a theory in the middle range: an explanation of how individuals engage in groups through sexual materials and technologies within the context of their own histories and communities.


17 That is, Justice Stewart’s famous “Casablanca test”—“I know it when I see it”—and the Miller test, part of which relies on community standards, usually interpreted by the jury.

18 There is a lack of credible information regarding the revenue of various sectors of the pornography industry, though there seemed to be some consensus that $1 billion, claimed by Forrester Research in 1999, was a reasonable estimate [1].

19 This ignores much of the rest of the world, of course. As noted below, sexual discourse exists only within a particular social and historical context. Nonetheless, as Salman Rushdie recently has argued, pornography sometimes becomes a “standard-bearer for freedom” [11].

20 Few would identify these communities of support with “pornography,” even if they may include frank discussion of sex. This speaks, perhaps, to the lack of utility of the term, rather than any clear conceptual difference between these and more prurient uses of the internet.


[1] Ackman, D. How Big Is Porn? Forbes (25 May 2001).

[2] Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography. Final Report. July, 1986. U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., 20530.

[3] Barbrook, R. The Hi-Tech Gift Economy. First Monday 3,12 (7 December 1998). http:// issues/ issue3_12/ barbrook/

[4] Coopersmith, Pornography, Videotape, and the Internet, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine (Spring 2000), 27-34.

[5] Cronin, B., Davenport, E. E-Rogenous Zones: Positioning Pornography in the Digital Economy. The Information Society 17, 1 (January 2001), 33-48.

[6] Dibbel, J. A Rape in Cyberspace. Village Voice 38, 51 (21 December 1993).

[7] Edgley, C., Kiser, K. Polaroid Sex: Deviant Possibilities in a Technological Age. The Journal of American Culture 5, 1 (Spring 1982), 59-64.

[8] Johnson, P. Pornography Drives Technology: Why Not to Censor the Internet. Federal Communication Law Journal. 49 (1996), 217-226.

[9] Kizza, J. M. Civilizing the Internet: Global Concerns and Efforts Toward Regulation. McFarland, Jefferson, N.C., 1998.

[10] Rogers, E. Diffusion of Innovations (4th ed.). Free Press, New York, 1995.

[11] Rushdie, S. The East is Blue, In XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits (T. Greenfied-Sanders, ed.), pp. 98-99. Bulfinch, Boston, 2003.

[12] Springer, C. Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age. University of Texas Press, Austin, 1996.

[13] Stone, A. R. The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age. The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1996.

[14] Waskul, D. D. Sex and the Internet: Old Thrills in a New World; New Thrills in an Old World. net.seXXX, pp.1-8. Peter Lang, New York, 2004.

[15] Williams, L. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.” University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989.

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