Monday, November 18, 2013

My Life Online: Shadow World

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Two weeks ago I took a trip to New York for some graduate school shopping and while I was there I stopped in at the Museum of Sex, affectionately referred to as MoSex (Mo' Problems, amirite?).
MoSex, located off of Madison Square Park, is dedicated to the cultural significance of human sexuality. It consists of several floors of exhibits, a bar and lounge and a gift shop featuring the kind of items you would expect at a museum dedicated to the cultural significance of human sexuality.

The museum is more than just rocking beds and phallic art (though it has those too, natch). The top floor is comprised of an interesting exhibit on sexuality and reproduction in the animal kingdom (did you know there are single-cell creatures with as many as 7 genders? Neither did I) which focuses mostly on the more atypical habits in nature, such as male sea horses giving birth, ubiquitous self-gratification among primates and Roy and Silo, the two male Central Park Zoo penguins who built a nest together and tried to hatch a little rock-baby. Their story was also transitioned into the children's book "And Tango Makes Three," which is as adorable as you would expect a book about two gay penguins raising a baby would be.

Sidenote: perhaps the 2014 sequel to My Life Online should be my adventures with an imaginary rock girlfriend, "And Trisha Makes Two." /Sidenote.

But the most fascinating part of MoSex -- and the part that relates to MLO -- is the "Universe of Desire" exhibit, which is based on the research of Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, who collected and analyzed internet search data from July 2009 to July 2010 and published their findings in the book "A Billion Wicked Thoughts."

As the puppets of Avenue Q have made abundantly clear, the internet is for porn, and not surprisingly Ogas and Gaddam found that of the more than 400 million internet searches they gathered, roughly 55 million (or 13 percent) were for some type of erotic content.

The exhibit breaks down these searches, ranking specific terms by popularity. "Breasts" were number 4, separate from "small breasts" at number 81. "Buttocks" came in at number 23 and "feet" ranked 54th.

Many of the terms I had never even heard of. For example, there is, evidently, an entire sub-genre of humiliation pornography in which a naked man is ogled and ridiculed by clothed women. I'm not entirely sure who would be into that, but I've never really understood the feet thing either (my brother used to joke that mid-90s singer Jewel had great feet. At least I think it was a joke).

Universe of Desire also included installations on the rise of the sext. A transcript of Anthony Wiener's extra-marital Facebook chats was displayed, as was an email exchange between two coworkers that was meant to be private before it was accidentally reply-all'd, the horror of every intra-office romance writ large for the world to see.

From the museum website:
"Type. Swipe. Search. Upload. Download. Post. Stream. These are the new verbs of desire. Our most intimate thoughts, fantasies, and urges are now transmitted via electronic devices to rapt audiences all over the world. These transmissions -- from sexts to webcam masturbation feeds -- are anonymous yet personal, individual yet collective, everywhere and nowhere, and they are contributing to the largest sexual record to date. In short, desire has gone viral. But what does this mean? And what does it reveal about us?"
Dating, too, has gone viral. Online relationship sites love to tout that half of all new pairings begin online, though I assume that claim -- much like the claim that half of all marriages end in divorce -- is mostly unquantified myth. Regardless of the hard numbers, the way we meet and interact with each other is continually shifting away from "real life," and it is a well-accepted fact that the first thing you do after meeting someone is stalk them on Facebook, comparing their number of friends to your own and digging through years of old photographs to see how they look in all four seasons.

Sex, money, religion and politics are the ever-present subtexts in a modern society that is increasingly digital. We shop online, we vote on computers, we stream sermons and a sea of skin is always only a mouse click away. I don't know what it means, or what it reveals about us, but it is the pixelated reality of the world we live in.

As it happened, I got back from my New York trip just in time for the latest anti-pornography White House Petition to start gaining steam. A person identified solely as M.G. has a beef with porn, and is asking the government to step in and require service providers to only allow access to adult content if a customer "opts in." M.G. is not alone and as of Monday 34,000 like-minded individuals had signed on, although one has to wonder if they've really considered the near-impossibility of the proposal or the unprecedented government intrusion into the private sector that they're calling for. (It should also be noted that the vast majority of signatures come from Utah, a state notorious for 1) it's opposition to pornography and 2) it's highest-in-the-nation pornography consumption).

Then there was the news last month that Silk Road, a relatively unknown-to-the-lay-person corner of the deep web, had been shut down and its facilitator, known online as the Dread Pirate Roberts had been allegedly arrested. For years the site had served as the Amazon.com of online crime, allowing individuals to purchase everything from illegal drugs to child pornography to assassins in convenient secrecy through the exchange of bitcoin, which functions as the digital equivalent of cash.

I don't have the technological head to comment on bitcoin or Silk Road, suffice to say that it's a fascinating example of something that exists unseen in the world around us. If you're curious, I suggest listening to this podcast by the Stuff You Should Know guys.

But there's the lighter side of the internet as well, even when it comes to sexuality. I recently came across the site GhostSingles.com, a satirical online dating service that plays at arranging relationships between the dead. If I search as a male ghost, seeking a female ghost, between the ages of 18 and 200 who died "tragically," I get six matches, including deadgrrrl, whose profile reads as the following:
Hi guys! My real name is Dorothy, and I'm from West Virginia. Do I say where I'm from as where I was born or where I died LOL?
ANYWAY, I used to like to sew, and miss it so bad! I also miss honey butter like nothing else.
I used to miss my cat until she died. That was like seventy years ago, and then she was fun to have back around. Now she disappears for like a decade at a time, then comes back for a few years. Don't ask me what a dead cat's doing. Hey, I thought they had 9 lives! lol!!
Anyway, shoot me a message! XXOO
The take-away message? It's nice to no there's a niche online dating service out there if this project kills me.

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