‘Writing Sex Online is Great’: Sam George-Allen
A favourite headline, in the ‘quality’ press and tabloids alike, concerns the evils of young people, technology and sex. With the easy availability of porn on the internet and the ability to share nude images with a swipe of the smartphone, new generations of young people are said to be exposed to sex too early and in too much detail.
Image by Chelsea Gomez.
You can very easily find polemics detailing the evils of the internet, especially with regard to sex, pretty much anywhere — just as previous generations could find polemics everywhere about the evils of the telephone, typewriter, printing press, papyrus, and clay tablet. You don’t need to hear more about how bad the internet and sexting, and writing about sex, and young people doing sex, is. All new forms of existence – and the internet does count as a new form of existence – have their positives and negatives. I want to demonstrate how writing sex online is great.
I’m a feminist, heterosexual woman, a writer and an editor, and I work almost exclusively online. I edit two online publications, one of which is the literary magazine Scum, which describes itself as ‘feminist-friendly writing for people who haven’t figured it out yet’, which could be everyone, depending on your definition of ‘having figured it out’. I’m a member of the last generation of people to remember a time before the internet, however hazily, which means I’m almost (but not quite) a digital native. Still, I live on the internet. Like most of my peers, and the rest of humanity, I am social online. I read online. I write for online formats – blogs, online journals, Twitter, Tumblr. I engage with sex and sexuality online, and have for my entire adult life. I care about sex writing online because sex and the internet are prominent aspects of my life as a human person, and as a writer.
Why do we write at all? To connect with one other? To seek truth? Sex and the internet is all part of it. So I want to start where so many of us start learning about sex: porn.
I first encountered porn when I was 11. I found it in the spam folder of my very first Hotmail account. It was the email pornography equivalent of a Big W catalogue: it was called ‘Lesbo 101’, with pictures of smiling girls pressing pastel-coloured dildos into one another’s orifices, and then links to see more of the same. I was thrilled.
Polyamory, demisexuality, transgender, non-binary, genderqueer – these are terms I would be totally ignorant of were it not for the internet.
Now, as an adult, I keep seeing a particular discourse pop up, in the opinion pages of mainstream newspapers, on hand-wringing websites written by and for middle-aged white ladies, in endless Twitter conversations – the idea that that porn has ruined the sexual minds of my generation. That we are a group of dribbling addicts addled by eternally hard cocks and hairless pussies, a generation of John Ruskins afraid to consummate relationships with real flesh creatures. That young men are brutes who’ll accept nothing less than physical perfection and total subservience, and that young women are allowing themselves to be subjugated in our pursuit of desirability above all else.
This just isn’t true. I’m 24. I’m at the top of Triple J’s target demographic, sure, but I’m still a young person, and since that early encounter with my spam folder I have regularly watched and read porn and taken nude selfies and I am now a veteran sexter. I also have a sex life that is nothing like the pornography I consume, because I understand that porn is not real life. And so do you. To think that a whole generation of people – especially writers – who have grown up on porn have also grown up uncritical of it and unexposed to the difference between sex in real life and as it is portrayed online is naive. And young writers writing about sex tend to be anything but naive.
Eleven is young, but no younger than any of my peers, and this early exposure to pornography can make for a deeper understanding of the breadth and nuance of sexuality. For example: were it not for the internet, and the porn therein, I wouldn’t know about queerness, or at least not until very recently. Polyamory, demisexuality, transgender, non-binary, genderqueer – these are terms I would be totally ignorant of were it not for the internet. Were it not for watching and enjoying lesbian porn as a young straight girl, I probably would never have questioned my own sexuality, and by doing so become aware of the sexuality of others. Young people are not ignorant or uncritical of the cultural artefacts they are given, including pornography; once we’ve caught our breath, we can consider our porn, and our sexual practices, in a sociopolitical context as well as a pleasurable one.
And yet seems to me – it has seemed to me for a while – that while sex is clearly a part of our lives, literature tends not to engage with it in the way in which it engages with pretty much anything else. I read novels to learn how to be a person. Literature has taught me vast amounts about ambition, failure, joy, art, despair, race, gender, love – but little about sex. Not about how to do it, but about it as a phenomenon that occurs between people. The sex I’ve read in traditional literature is either pivotal – a plot point – or it’s rape. It’s rare for me to read about the kind of sex that I have – regular, non-earth-shaking sex or routine sex or bored sex or mutually satisfying, mid-week sex. I’m not the only one who feels like this either, as I’ve learned from editing Scum.
Part of the reason it’s exciting to read about sex online is because in sex more than anything in our lives, the spectre of what is and isn’t ‘normal’ hangs over us. But online, we find that normal is a fallacy.
Since we started Scum, it has existed as a place for writing by people who are still figuring it out – whether it’s writing by previously unpublished authors, or whether it’s writing that addresses difficult topics, or whether it’s writing that asks questions we’ve all been wanting to ask but haven’t been able to – Scum has tried to fill what we saw as a gap that existed there in the literary landscape. And, almost by accident, Scum seems to also fill a gap in which we can address sex in a way that is honest, awkward, complicated – everything that sex in porn and in mainstream literature isn’t. Authors feel safe sending us work that talks about the crinkles in sex, the uncomfortable bits, the elbows in the eye, and it’s part of a movement online that is fostering an understanding of sex and its role in our generation that’s rich and complex. This kind of writing is digitally native, it lives online – not just in Scum but in alt lit publications like MuuMuu House, on blogs like Lena Chen’s ‘Sex And The Ivy’ or Rachel Rabbit White’s ‘Slutever’, on the Tumblrs and Twitters of writers like Mira Gonzales, Marie Calloway and Megan Boyle.
As Emmie Rae said during a panel discussion we both took part in for the Digital Writers Festival, part of the joy of this movement of internet sex writing is the depictions of average sex. Not bad sex, but ordinary sex, what Emmie called ‘really real and interesting, great, average sex’. Emmie writes poetry, and some of the most interesting stuff I’ve read about sex on the internet has been in the form of poems. The internet lends itself to poetry, and poetry to the forms of online writing – tweets, Tumblr posts – tiny snippets of a life experience, digestible and rebloggable, instantly recognisable.
Part of the reason it’s exciting to read about sex online is because in sex more than anything in our lives, the spectre of what is and isn’t ‘normal’ hangs over us. But online, we find that normal is a fallacy. We find these instantly recognisable sparks of familiarity that assure us that we’re not alone, we’re not abnormal – other people have ordinary sex, or have built Geocities shrines to Leonardo Di Caprio, or are heavily invested in the perceived romance between Captain Kirk and Spock. It is a pleasure to see yourself reflected in the vast network of written identity that is the internet.
I mention Kirk and Spock because along with my spam folder, the other cornerstone to my burgeoning sexuality was fan-fiction. For those who are new to the term, fan-fiction is fiction written by a fan of, and featuring characters from, a particular film, TV series, piece of literature, etc – essentially, fans using the world that an author has built to further their engagement with the characters – and often, it’s turned out, in a sexy way. As a young teen, while visual porn was driving home the sexualised nature of women’s bodies, literary porn – which is what makes up a vast majority of fan-fiction – was introducing me to what would become a lifelong pleasure: sexy men. Let us look at my first great fan-fic love: Harry Potter. For every sexy Harry/Hermione escapade in the astronomy tower, there are ten Harry/Draco, Harry/Ron, Harry/Snape, Snape/Dumbledore, Hagrid/Dumbledore, and Hagrid/Dobby erotic stories, most of them incredibly filthy, most of them luxuriating in the description of male bodies. This happens in few other areas; porn for gay men is one of them, but fan-fiction’s audience has always been dominated by women and girls. This is sexy gay writing for ladies, and in this sense, fan-fiction occupies a queer space.
During the Digital Writers Festival discussion, Kat Muscat raised the excellent point that by playing with familiar characters and narratives in queer contexts, fanfiction allows queer youths a way to normalise their sexuality. And this is just one example of how subversive writing sex online can be – we use it to flip the dominant social ideas about sex, and doing that is so important. We know that sex is not shiny, it’s not always heterosexual, it’s not always groundbreaking, and now we’ve started to write it like that.
More than anything, the internet is a place where ideas are disseminated, and we all know how powerful ideas are.
So we’ve entered an era where we can acknowledge that sex is not always the most beautiful moment between two people in love where there are mutual orgasms and everyone is deeply fulfilled and at peak pleasure – we can acknowledge that sex is funny and ridiculous and sometimes it’s incredibly mundane, and that is worth writing about. The normalisation of sex is so important. When we write about sex like this, we can approach an accurate depiction of genuine intimacy.
But this can be a double-edged sword, especially when you’re writing about your own life. When you’re accurately depicting the genuine intimacy that you’ve shared with particular people, the question of ethics is raised. How can you find a way to write about sex without exploiting others? How private is too private? When does it stop being your story, and start being someone else’s? A piece we published on Scum by Kat Muscat called ‘So Your Dick Isn’t Perpetually Hard’ manages to talk about sexual dysfunction in a way that is reasonable, personal, and respectful to all parties involved – not an easy feat, but one that all writers attempting to broach topics like this need to attempt, especially in non-fiction. We need to take care of the people we’ve been intimate with, including when we choose to write about them.
But writing about our sex lives can also be a way to take care of ourselves, whether through fiction or non-fiction. Part of the beauty of writing online is that we write while being simultaneously aware of being watched and of being alone, which makes for unself-conscious and devastating statements like this one, from Megan Boyle’s ‘Everyone I’ve Ever Had Sex With’, a piece that reads as memoir but was published as fiction: ‘One night after we broke up he sexually assaulted me and I dropped out of school.’ That’s the only sentence that mentions it, out of the entire piece. And maybe that is an accurate depiction of this character’s experience with sexual assault – a one-line event. Or maybe not. But living and writing on the internet allows a level of control over one’s experiences that’s unparalleled by other media – you’re in charge online not just of your written words, but your ‘internet presence’. You choose how to be, in your literature and in your interactions with others. We’re still in a golden transition period in that sense, where it still feels like the internet isn’t quite real life, and we can make the person who we appear to be online into a better person than we are – or a healed person, or a safe person. And then maybe we can start to be them IRL as well.
More than anything, the internet is a place where ideas are disseminated, and we all know how powerful ideas are. Now more than ever, we have access to discussions about consent, gender, feminism, queerness – all enabled by our obsession with writing our experiences and ourselves online, including our sexual selves. This is a good, good obsession. As writers, we learn to live in stories; our sex lives are no different. Sex is part of who we are. The internet just allows us to realise that part in all the complexity it deserves.