Sexual Expression: Breaking Down The Barriers

This piece was motivated by an amazing session on Sex and Freedom of Expression Online (transcript and video) at the 2016 Internet Governance Forum.

I wrote this immediately afterwards but as with most controversial subjects, I dilly-dallied on whether or not to publish. However, thanks to the insistence of the best friend and an amazing young woman in tech who I had review this for me, I became convinced there was something here to be shared and decided to go for it.

For the sake of context, I should probably clarify two things before I jump right in:

First, there is this thing about the human mind and behaviour. We are the big problem with most free expression issues. There are very few willing to damn all consequences and fully stand in their truth ie who they are as sexual beings. A major consideration when people choose safety/privacy/censorship (however those apply to them) is the reaction/attacks/harm that come with electing to openly and freely express themselves.

Second, I am a Christian. Some would say a liberal Christian. Some would say there is no such thing and as such my Christianity should be questioned but the labels matter not. Jesus has been my ride-or-die, long before I acknowledged Him or even came to know and understand exactly what that means. That raises a question of why am I talking about free and safe sexual expression instead of advocating for no sexual expression or sexual expression only in marriage? Well, much like my views on sex itself, yes, advocating for abstinence and purity comes first but what’s plan B?

I acknowledge that celibacy or abstinence is not everyone’s cup of tea and people are not automatically bad for choosing sex and sexual expression. So, the next best thing is safety and security. With sex, we go to condoms, birth control, regular testing, etc. What would be the solution(s) for safe sexual expression?

Now, to the crux of this discourse. During the aforementioned session at the conference, one of the immediately acknowledged facts is that even amongst human rights/free expression advocates — even those from the developed parts of the world (the Global North) or those considered ‘Westernised’- free sexual expression is viewed as an illegitimate child of the free expression/human rights movement. When issues arise, the morality and sexual behaviour of the victim is called to question while the violation of privacy and the right to free expression is ignored or at best becomes secondary.

Why did you take nudes at all?

Why weren’t you more careful?

What was the point?

If you wanted to share, why are you complaining now?

We’ve all seen these things and even worse, maybe been a part of it. These things which should not even be parts of the discussion in the first place are given pride of place. It’s ridiculous. 🙄🙄🙄

There’s an unbelievable extent people would go to expose or share your private material where that might be pictures, conversations, videos, you name it!

Yes, technology is evolving and with it, more tools for practically everything.

For example, BBM has given us timed messages, retractions, the self-destructing private chat. With many communication tools now come the option of video calls where you don’t put your pictures in the hands of someone else, trusting them to delete, hide or not share it.

But then again, human mind and behaviour. You have people mention your name in the middle of a conversation to tie you to it, pair your nudes with your other pictures to draw a parallel, take screenshots even within limited timeframes, use another device to capture what’s going on while video calling.

Then there came Snapchat! 24 hour limits, timed snaps and screenshot notifications. Some of us thought “Finally! We’re a tad safer” but alas, our dear dear Snapchat is no longer that safe. There are now ways by which people evade the notifications which I will not be mentioning for the sake of not informing someone who doesn’t already know as well as a few worrying updates that deviate from the initial idea because updates and advancement. (This was one of my problems while writing this. How do I not give people ideas they do not already have while increasing awareness for those at risk? You’re reading this now so obviously, I decided it would be worth it to make some people safer and more aware.)

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”
Thomas Jefferson

Sexuality is a tool often used in regulating behaviour which speaks to how significant it is to begin with. You don’t understand how closed-off your mind is when you shut out the topic or idea of sexuality in the name of safety and purity. Yes, the Bible says to flee every appearance of sin and guard your heart. I definitely agree with the Christian belief that you don’t go to the edge and test how far out you can go or resist temptation but instead flee completely. Yet, somehow, I also think we can find a balance by being open to and tolerant of ideas rather than shut them out even before they are argued for.

Not-so-aside: I have been privileged to listen to African men discuss Nigerian, Kenyan, Ethiopian and Ugandan women and I am amazed at how the Nigerian woman was portrayed even with a Nigerian man present. We are apparently raised to be difficult and never indicate even the slightest interest in a man — say no when we really mean yes and all that. It definitely makes it hard to continue speaking against men going against a woman’s will when she does not, as a rule, explicitly state what that is. While this might be a free sexual expression issue, it’s a huge conversation on its own — one I cannot fully delve into now. If you do not think this is a problem, this will not be the piece where I tackle that so I’ll just hope I’ve sown enough of a seed to spur deep thought about it.

The Internet, for many, is a space to exercise their sexual rights but how do we make it safe from the threats of intimidation, privacy violation, disseminating information without consent, and bullying?

The Internet and mass media are important tools for young people (especially) to find information on sex as well as sexual and reproductive health issues. People find love and romance, go on dates, build relationships and generally explore their sexuality through the Internet. Young and unmarried people have relatively poor access to knowledge and information on sexual and reproductive health issues. From what I hear, pre-marriage counselling sessions and programmes are not doing a fantastic job either.

The Internet gives people the chance to find out things they are otherwise not bold enough to ask or have no one to ask. Why then do we want to or try so hard to restrict or narrow this space?

Even within the confines of the bright and brilliant unicorns called “safe, trusting relationships”, how many times do people consciously and explicitly have conversations in which they discuss and definitively agree upon the safety, security and privacy of information shared within that space. Do you lay down procedure for dealing with and sharing information and material shared such that when that is breached, the other party would be in clear violation of a previously agreed upon arrangement however unenforceable that might be?

Another thing, have you noticed how the kinds of sites you learn about sex from go on to shape your sexual experience, knowledge and behaviour? Indeed, some of the perpetrators of these acts are themselves victims of the material available to them that taught them that this was okay. However, rather than restrict or remove sexual expression totally, I vote we try to making it safer.

This is such a huge and yet hardly discussed topic. I don’t want this article to be too long though (yes I know it’s already rather long 🙈🙈🙈). Or academic. Or boring.

What I really want to do is open up the conversation.

Here are some resources that might be useful if you’re interested:

  1. How to send nudes more safely
  2. Safer Nudes, A Sexy Guide to Digital Security 1, 2
  3. The Art of Digital Security for Pakistani Women
  4. A DIY Guide to Feminist Cybersecurity

TL, DR or you read and you’re wondering what the hell it is I’m going on about?

Well, here it is in a few short paragraphs.

Rather than say don’t sext, let’s promote safe sext practices and behaviour. Let’s encourage people to do these things because they want to and feel comfortable doing it not because they are pressured, and let’s make people more aware of the issues, dangers and consequences.

Naked bodies are not inherently harmful. It’s important to look beyond imagined harm and move towards actual harm such as trolling, bullying and the consequences of suicide, depression, censorship and paranoia. We need to highlight the importance of consent, privacy, freedom.

Sexual expression is a valid form of expression and we need to advance it too! When someone is murdered, you don’t ask them why they got murdered. We need to transfer this understanding to victims of sexual crimes.

So in that light, yes, risk management is a key part of the conversation but aside from trying your best to choose the right people (which you can never be completely sure about), leaving out your face and distinguishing marks, what tools, tips and tricks for safe and free sexual expression are there? What have/do you use? What works best?

I’d be looking forward to insightful tips in the comment section that I can share widely personally and professionally to make many more feel a little bit safer. Maybe that can be the stepping stone to making people more confident to freely express themselves and we can begin to talk about ensuring justice and even setting standards.

Here’s hoping we break those barriers.

Thanks to LordSleeK and Drasaq01 for the last minute review.