In the "we're not sure we're part of the United States" 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 May 15. All proceeds from the event -- which is set up like a walkathon, 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.masturbate-a-thon.com). It's just one way 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 erotic free speech, but it's also educational. It dispels myths, demonstrating that healthy sexuality includes solo acts as well as coupley ones. "People can see that everyone masturbates, and there are a diversity of ways to do it. 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 Recording Industry Association of America 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.
Now it's time to stop enjoying our victories by rewatching Bend Over Boyfriend and clicking all over DarkPlay.net -- Rep. Cliff Stearns and his pals are throwing down the cybersex gauntlet. On May 6, Stearns, chair of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, held a hearing called "Online Pornography: Closing the Doors on Pervasive Smut." Invited speakers included Kevin Lourdeau, from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 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 quelch porn with the help of as many groups as possible: 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 Stearn'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 Web site connected to an IP address had child porn on it, all other sites associated with that address would be blocked too. In the case of something like Geocities.com, where thousands of Web sites are hosted on one IP address, this law leads to wholesale blackouts of vast swaths of the Web for people in Pennsylvania. A 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 worldwide-ness of the Web. We will return ourselves to a limiting Main Street-ness that blocks out good information with what community-standards fundamentalists deem "bad." In the history of the Internet, this is an old argument we're going to revisit again: how do we define community on a global communications network?
In the future, will 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 a digital ghetto?
Annalee Newitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a surly media nerd who still believes the Oxygen Destroyer could one day help mankind. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.