EroTICs: An exploratory research project into sexuality and the internet
What is “harmful content” on the internet? The definition is contestable, subjective and open to a range of interpretations, and the majority of interventions to combat it are mostly concerned with obscenity and child pornography. Sexual rights workers are troubled by the growing role of conservative forces – supported by religious extremists – and their attempts to encourage new legislation that would treat all online sexual exchanges as sexual predation and all adult content on the internet as pornography. This protectionist approach overshadows other important aspects of the internet that directly impact on internet users’ lives and their ability to access to vital information on sexuality, sexual health and sexual rights. EroTICs, an exploratory research just starting at APC, aims to narrow the gap between political assumptions and a better understanding of content and “harm” based on women’s real experience of sexuality online.
Starting in 2005 the APC’s women’s programme (APC WNSP) began to investigate issues related to sexuality and the internet especially in the context of content regulation and women’s communication rights. EroTICs, a two-and-a-half year research project taking place from 2008 to 2010, will conduct cross-country research to answer the question:
How may the emerging debates and the growing practice of regulation of online content either impede or facilitate different ways women use the internet and the impact on their sexual expression, sexualities and sexual health practices, and assertion of their sexual rights?
(Or expressed differently: In what ways do internet and ICT policy shape the sexual practices of women living in different socio-political, economic and cultural contexts?)
The complex nature of the topic means that we must tackle the research from two directions:
- Online practices and internet use in select digital spaces, and how they affect notions of sexuality rights in society at large.
- The impact of regulatory policies and censorship practices on sexualities, sexual health and sexual rights.
The study population
We will be focussing on networks, communities and groups working online in awareness-raising, advocacy and service provision involving the advancement of sexual rights and sexual health and sexual education. We will pay particular attention to communities at the margins of sexual rights. These groups are key stakeholders to content regulation debates because they are most invested in the continued capacity to access, shape and define the purposes and accessibility of the internet. From here, we have identified two specific groups: young people focusing on young women and girls, (one of the most visible named groups identified in content regulation interventions) and lesbian, bisexual or queer women (as one of the typically most invisible sections of society).
When looking at sexual rights and their expression, we will also target online platforms like Facebook, Orkut, Second Life and online spaces of sexual expression and socialising, such as message boards, online chat rooms, “closed” and “open to public” mailing lists, blogs and personal ad websites (e.g. sites for mail-order brides, websites to get a partner or have sexual affairs).
The national studies
Rather than aiming for balanced global representation, we are selecting countries that can demonstrate the conditions that we want to investigate including high rates of access, extent of internet filtering practices, the availability of research partners and the prevalence of public debates on sexual rights issues. The countries currently identified are:
Africa: South Africa
Arab region: Lebanon
Latin America: Brazil
North America/Europe: USA
The primary audience of the research findings
Sexual rights and communication rights advocates and networks, especially those who participate in and influence ICT policy processes – including child protection groups mobilising around the internet, sexual and reproductive health groups that focus on advocacy at the United Nations, researchers working on the internet/sexuality interface in countries that are likely sites of research, and key players currently using and investigating the use of the internet for sex education.
The application of the research findings
In addition to carrying out the research, EroTICs will:
- explore the impact of regulation of internet content on human rights and fundamental freedoms (specifically related to sexuality rights) that is grounded in the lived experiences of affected groups
- promote and encourage rights-based policy formulation by creating opportunities and developing platforms for critical reflection on the impact of content regulation on sexuality, sexual health and sexual rights and to act upon the evidence produced
- build a network of researchers, communication rights activists and sexual rights advocates on the issues of content regulation, privacy and security and freedom of expression and its relationship to sexuality, sexual health and sexual rights
- support current efforts to build understanding and common ground between the apparently diverging concerns of sexual rights groups and the communication rights movement in policy spaces shaping regulatory norms and mechanisms relating to content regulation, privacy, freedom of expression, and access to information in the online environment, and
- help build an informed advocacy campaign and network to promote and secure women’s sexual rights in relation to content regulation, privacy, freedom of expression and access to information in the context of emerging internet governance debates and practices that effectively underwrite censorship in the online environment.
Read more about the background to the EroTICs project.
> Brazil: Sonia Onufer Corrêa, Marina Maria Ribeiro Gomes da Silva and Jandira Queiroz e Cavalcanti (Sexuality Policy Watch) and Bruno Dallacort Zilli, Horacio Federico Sívori and Anna Paula Uziel (Latin American Center on Sexuality and Human Rights, CLAM)
> India: Manjima Bhattacharjya and Indira Maya Ganesh (independent reserchers)
> Lebanon, with a comparative component with Egypt: Nadine Moawad (independent researcher)
> South Africa. Researchers: Jeanne Prinsloo, Relebohile Moletsane and Nicolene C. McLean (Rhodes University, Grahamstown)
> USA: Melissa Hope Ditmore and Kevicha Echols (Sex Work Awareness)
Photo by Paul Watson, used under the Creative Commons license