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Masturbate Online!

By Annalee Newitz

IN THE we're-not-sure-we're-part-of-the-U.S. Bay Area, we like to enjoy a little masturbation with our free speech. Politics should feel good! That's why Carol Queen and Robert Lawrence, founders of the nonprofit Center for Sex and Culture, are hosting a public Masturbate-a-thon on May 15. All proceeds from the event--which is set up like a Walk-a-thon, with sponsors donating a certain amount for each masturbator--benefit the Center, which is raising money for a permanent space. And what's truly cool is that the whole deal will be broadcast live on the web (www.masterbate-a-thon.com). It's just one way that the Internet allows us to share our Bay Area values with the world.

Queen, a sexologist, says, "Masturbation is coded as a very private act, and there's this idea that it's second-best or a lonely alternative to sex. But we want to poke holes in that set of assumptions." Not only can masturbation in a public venue be a form of erotic free speech, it's also educational. It dispels damaging myths, demonstrating that healthy sexuality includes solo acts as well as coupled ones. "People can see that everyone masturbates, and there are a diversity of ways to do it," Queen asserts. "This is really an event about not being alone, about sharing something that's taboo breaking in a fun, safe way."

But if certain members of government get their way, the Masturbate-a-thon would never find its way to the web. Congress is slowly ramping up a new campaign to squelch so-called obscenity online. Those of us interested in digital liberties have been so distracted by attacks on our privacy and freedoms from industry groups like the RIAA that it's been easy to forget those dark days in the mid-1990s when the Communications Decency Act (CDA) threatened to turn the Internet into Disneyland. Free-speech sex nerds have also been taking a well-earned breather after winning the porn wars of the late 1980s and making the United States safe for free erotic expression.

But it's time to stop enjoying our victories by rewatching Bend Over Boyfriend and clicking all over DarkPlay.net--U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns and his pals are throwing down the cybersex gauntlet. On May 6, Stearns, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, held a hearing called "Online Pornography: Closing the Doors on Pervasive Smut." Invited speakers included Kevin Lourdeau, a representative from the FBI, and Martin Lafferty, CEO of the Distributed Computing Industry Association, as well as Norbert Kunkel, director of the University of Florida's student residence halls, and Penny Nance, president of the Kids First Coalition. In other words, Stearns is looking to squelch porn on as many fronts as possible: among people who worry about exposing kids to adult material (which is reasonable), to university administrators and industry leaders involved with peer-to-peer applications. If you couple this quiet hearing with Attorney General John Ashcroft's public statements about wanting to clean up the net, you can see the makings of a new CDA or possibly something worse.

My theory is that the new battle over Internet obscenity will be fought over community standards. States, large institutions and other communities will attempt to create Internet pockets or gated communities where Stern's "smut" can't go. The problem is that it's hard to set up virtual walls on a network like the Internet, which was designed to facilitate distributed communication rather than hinder it. Of course, you can use abysmally bad censorware programs that filter dirty words out of your web surfing, or you can use programs like AudibleMagic at universities to peer into every student's data stream and check whether he or she is passing porn around.

Or you can go an even more extreme route. In 2002, Pennsylvania passed a law that requires ISPs to block all IP addresses associated with child pornography. Unfortunately, upholding this "community standard" means that if merely one website connected to an IP address has child porn on it, all other websites associated with that address would be blocked too. In the case of something like Geocities.com, where thousands of websites are hosted on one IP address, this law leads to wholesale blackouts of vast swathes of the web for people in Pennsylvania. One Pennsylvania ISP, Plantagenet, has already challenged the law. Oral arguments in the case are set for May 14.

If Stearns, Ashcroft and their allies get their way, we will be sacrificing the world-wideness of the web. We will return ourselves to a limiting Main Streetness that blocks out good information along with what community standards fundamentalists deem "bad." In the history of the Internet, this is an old argument that we're going to revisit again: how do we define community on a global communications network? In the future, will Carol Queen be able to bring her message about sexual acceptance and health to anyone outside San Francisco?

Or will the Masturbate-a-thon's regional uniqueness be consigned to the digital ghetto?

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who still believes the Oxygen Destroyer could one day help mankind.

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From the May 12-18, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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