What I saw was Binks on stage, behind a sheet, cumming. What I didn’t see was any serious discussion of what this kind of voluntary self exposure means for feminism or for the liberation of people in general.
A young woman with an awesome mohawk volunteered from the audience to get fucked on stage by a robot. Or more specifically, by a robot operated by someone who appeared male and by a “Fucks-all”, a modified “Saws-all” with a dildo on the end. From the time it took them to get the stage ready after she volunteered, I think she was a real volunteer and not a plant or a paid performer. She did all this onstage behind a sheet, to avoid the USC 18 2257 restrictions on what can be included in the webcast of the event. She ended by having a great orgasm, and right when she did, the “Lick-a-Chick” (basically a tongue chainsaw) on the robot was still running and apparently threw some of her ejaculation up in the air above the sheet, which was a pretty awesome sight. It was hot. I was physically hot just watching her orgasm in the room with all of us. She asked for more and proceeded to have another orgasm while the DJ began playing music.
While this was surely the height of opening night, and possibly the height of the conference for some people, it was a bit disconcerting. Sure, she volunteered to get fucked by a robot. Although, in the ensuing moments, there was some negotiation about what she was going to do, while she was already onstage. It seemed like there could be an important discussion had about safe space in this regard.
She was asked who she thought was hotter, c3po or r2d2 and she said r2d2. The person who asked the question replied with “don’t you think r2d2 is a whiny little bitch?”, to which she replied “Don’t you be messin with my man!” At this point, I felt like there were definitely people in the audience who had paid to come to see a conference about porn, who didn’t necessarily have any feminist concerns. I don’t actually even know how much the volunteer is concerned with feminism, but the comment made me uncomfortable. I realize that I am approaching porn from the viewpoint that it empowering to reclaim our sexualities, which I see as part of third wave feminism. Still, I realized that not everyone in the room agreed on that point. I stayed, though, and didn’t give up on the event because I realize that a little discomfort is good. I know that a lot of my work makes people uncomfortable and I consider that valuable, challenging people’s accepted notions of gender, sexuality and desire. Also, I believe that it is valuable to have a diverse movement, that difference is important and generative, and that the current pro-porn movement is diverse ideologically. But did Binks feel safe, or empowered or something else?
One thing definitely left unmentioned at the conference as any serious critique of the hosts of the space, Kink.com. It appeared that everyone was so grateful to have such a nice dungeon for the conference, or maybe so grateful to be in close proximity to the “real” porn industry, that there was no critique made of Kink.com. Yet, even in Monochrom‘s opening night talk about their punch, there was a lot of critique made of capitalism and the bourgoisie. Kink.com is a profit oriented business, fully supporting and benefiting from capitalism. As a web business they are fully benefiting off of virtual capitalism, surely making lots of money from international viewers. In addition, in the videos that I have seen from Kink.com, their “talent scouts” as they were referred to the first night, seem to think that talent means fitting within the oppressive beauty standard doled out in mainstream media and mainstream porn. Anyone who is not very skinny, with perfect skin and a hairless body will not be chosen by the Kink.com talent scouts. On opening night, an employee of Kink.com stated that they hosted the conference because a main part of their mission is to support people in finding their kink. I would argue that their mission is currently only supporting a small subset of people with specific body types, and the people who are attracted to them, to engage in their kinks.
What I saw was Mark Dery’s coneptually in depth keynote, discussing commodification of sexuality and the more recent move towards gore porn and war porn and a critque of Pornotopia. What I didn’t see was Mark moving beyond what has already been said. While he showed some interesting examples of particular water fetishes like the guy who got off on bathing in his business suit, he discussed water bondage as if it was obscure, while the water bondage tank of Kink.com sat in the next room. While raising the spectre of warporn, he didn’t go beyond the descriptions of it I’ve already read from Mateo Pasquinelli. Still, Mark’s talk was one of the most conceptually rigorous and most critical of porn as a panacea, which was important as an opening keynote at this kind of event.
I saw Violet Blue‘s talk, which continued to explore some of the current dangers resulting rom a lack of online sexual privacy. She said flatly tha the LGBTQ(IA…) community need their online privacy and that women need their online privacy because they are all targets of violence. She also went on to explain how USC 18 2257 endangers people by violating their privacy. Hopefully the recent ruling against 2257 is a beginning of a positive change in that direction. Violet Blue’s talk was possibly the best example I saw at the conference of addressing the issues of gender and sexual inequality. Her talk actually addressed some of the dangers that face queer people and women specificaly and then went on to discuss how those dangers are worsened by current laws regarding online pornography. Still, I don’t think I heard the word feminism or feminist all weekend, which seems strange to me. There are feminist porn awards, so its not like there’s some inherent conflict between gender liberation and porn. But there are no feminist technology awards that I know of. Could some of the latent mysoginy at the conference be thanks to the high tech community’s unaddressed gender inequality?
What I didn’t see was Violet Blue seriously challenging Eon McKai of Vivid Alt. Throughout the interview, he answered questions by rambling on every direction and name dropping porn industry all stars constantly. Eon showed a trailer for his film the Doll Underground which purports to be radical. It shows a radical underground group of women who make the call to “Don’t buy anything! Don’t sell anything!” One of the “communiques” in the film talks about how women have been duped by men into being wives and housekeepers and how this has to end. But I asked him, “Is this video going to be sold by vivid alt? Do you think it is radical or transgressive at all?” And yes, this video with heavily make up’ed skinny white girls pulling up their skirts while making anti-capitalist communiques will be sold as a DVD by one of the biggest mainstream porn companies and the profits will go to the old white men who own it. Eon’s answer to my question as mainly “as an artist, if you can find an audience for your work in your lifetime, that’s a big thing,” which I can understand, but I don’t see why that necessitates totally violating the principles of your work in the process. As far as I’m concerned, the Doll Underground is an excellent example of industry co-optation of radical imagery and discourse for profit. It clearly shows the limits of radical porn production when the content is the only radical part but the anti-capitalist or the feminist values are not extended into production and distribution.
What I saw was Annalee Newitz‘s talk about a history of sex and technology which laid out the clearest question and challenge that I heard all weekend. She said that the vibrator had introduced a wholy new sensation into our sexual vocabulary and asked what sex toys of the future might do to similarly add an entirely new experience.
I saw the talk by Slashdong which introduced me to a few new topics like DIY electrostim and biosensor technologies. What I didn’t see in that talk was addressed in a later talk by Amanda Williams. She spoke of a more holistic approach to sexual technology, thinking beyond devices that attach to the genitals or other specific parts of the body. She showed examples of new interfaces, made from wood(!) for tactile interfaces and other devices like a hugging machine designed by an autistic woman. Her talk called for interface designers thinking about sex and technology to approach the problem more holistically, including the whole body and aspects like breath.
Another thing I didn’t see was much in depth discussion about transgender relationships to sexual technology, or much in depth discussion of gender and how it affects sexual technology in general or how more fluid conceptions of gender might spur new thinking about sex tech. Annalee did talk about having sex as an octopus, referring to conceptions of gender identity outside of male and female that are common in spaces like Second Life.
Overall, my impression was that Arse Electronica was mostly populated with geeks interested in studying and talking about sex. I didn’t see all of the talks. The schedule was very difficult in this regard, with something like 10 hours of talks a day. I think that I was expecting, or hoping for, more artists and theorists to be there, engaging in more nuanced discussions of the significance of these technologies for queer theory, for feminism, for other disciplines and trans-disciplinary practices working towards what Homi K. Bhabha calls “liberationist aesthetics” and what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls “a larger effort to make the world more socially just”. I found the talks interesting, if not totally satisfying. What was mostly on display at Arse Electronica were practitioners who are making and using and writing about sex tech, and that’s not bad. Still, it is my hope that at the next conference about sex and technology that I go to, we can all have a more nuanced, informed dialog. As the first event of its kind in the US, this event was fun and fascinating. My call to all those who were at the conference or who wish they were and plan to continue to develop or write about sexual technology is this: consider the stakes, consider who the intended audience is and who is excluded from that audience, consider who is being liberated and empowered by these technologies and who is being left out of that liberation and consider how to make your discourse of liberation inform your entire process from research to production to distribution.
Annalee Newitz said in the conclusion of her talk that, i’m paraphrasing here, “we will take these technologies into our own hands and shape them to increase our own pleasure”. The statement was empowering, if also consciously ironic and sly, but my question is who is the “we” that she is talking about and who will get to use these new technologies? What I’m talking about here is not some simple reference to a “digital divide”, but a request for us to really look at the operation of exclusion that happens through jokes and other levels of operation outside of spoken discourse, like infrastructure, decision making structures, licensing and access control. Who gets to play in our new virtual-cyborg-sexual wonderland, who gets invited, who even knows it exists and what are we challenging?
 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, p. 19
 Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Time of History and the Times of Gods, in The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, eds. Lisa Lowe and Daivd Lloyd, p. 35