The complex universe of sexuality on the internet

*by Flavia Fascendini
Originally published at

Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW) and the Latin American Center on Sexuality and Human Rights (CLAM) teamed up together to conduct the EroTICs research in Brazil. In this interview, they talk about their participation in the project as an opportunity to address the nuanced impact of new Internet legislation on sexuality. They approached this complex issue from two sides: looking at legislative and public policy on the one hand, and at expressions of sexual minorities on the other. Their next step will be to discuss the findings with other researchers and actors in the fields of communications, gender and sexual rights.

Exploring research findings

Even when debates on pornography, child abuse and sexuality had an important place in Internet regulation discussions in Brazil, participation of feminists as well as women’s rights and sexual rights advocates went from moderate to none, contrasting with their involvement in other fields. What do you think are the reasons for this?

There are structural and technical reasons that explain the absence of women’s and sexual rights movements in Brazilian Internet regulation debates. From a structural point of view, the public sphere and the political discussion in contemporary society are fairly divided. Actors organise around different issues, and what happened in relation to Brazilian discussions on Internet governance and regulation stems from this division. Agendas are specialised and building common fronts and sharing guidelines is never easy.

It is also important to mention that it wasn’t sexuality or sexual rights, broadly speaking, that erupted in Brazilian discussions on Internet regulation. The main question that emerged was paedophilia or child pornography, which is in itself a controversial issue. Moreover, in the course of Internet regulation debates, conservative sectors, who have historically positioned themselves against the claims of feminist and LGBT movements, have often framed the problem of web-based child abuse in their own terms. These overall conditions did not favour a more transparent and inclusive debate around this particularly controversial matter.

Additionally, the differing approaches of each of these two fields do not facilitate a dialogue across movements. In the discussion of web regulation policies we observed that, among feminist and LGBT activists, knowledge of Internet governance mechanisms and the tools to activate them is insufficient; which seems to also explain why they were not present during the intense debates that evolved between 2008 and 2010.

What are your suggestions to promote the involvement of these actors?

Instead of thinking about this lack of involvement as a failure, we might as well ask, what can we learn from this? We might ask which discussions mobilize each of these movements, and which ones can generate a dialogue across them as Brazilian Internet regulation debates evolve. The answer to these questions might show a path to enable conversations and enhance partnerships between cyber activists, feminists and LGBT rights advocates. Given that the feminist and women movements’ agendas favour reproductive rights and violence against women and the LGBT rights agenda privileges the struggle against homophobia and the right to non-discrimination, we could explore, for example, how the approach of risk and intervention through criminalisation relates to the kinds of claims these movements make, and the kind of recognition they seek. Another way to move forward in terms of research is to examine the proliferation of ‘sexual’ modes of expression on the Internet and how they relate to rights claims in relation to the free exercise of sexuality, beyond conventional means of offline political mobilizing and organizing.

For instance, our study showed the value of the public online consultation for the construction of a Civil Rights Framework to guide Internet regulation as an innovative tool, genuinely open to the participation of many political actors. However, its rules were burdened by the traditions of the legislative process. It couldn’t be otherwise, since its aim was the construction of a legal text, which requires formal agreements. On the other hand, the call for sexual freedom by the participants of social networks takes place in a much less formal way, but it is in now way less relevant or meaningful.

Your research shows how mobilisation against the Azeredo bill  — against the censorship and invasion of privacy it was bringing — challenged the tendency to regulate through criminal law and police surveillance. The legislative discussion on Internet regulation then moved towards a Civil Rights Framework. The Ministry of Justice implemented an online survey which, theoretically, would generate the participation of a wide range of actors. In this scenario, how did cyberactivists approach sexual policy issues?

The fact is that, during these debates, cyber politics actors did not openly or directly address sexuality or sexual rights issues per se. The activists we talked to often mentioned the unacknowledged role played by the spectre of paedophilia when cyber regulation was addressed by lawmakers. But they did not elaborate much further on this aspect. This is not surprising since, as we mentioned before, child pornography is such a delicate issue.

Moreover, while it is true that cyberactivists confronted the surveillance aspects of the Azeredo bill without hesitation, to our recollection they have not mentioned the need to guarantee freedom of expression or privacy in relation to sexuality in a direct manner. In contrast, conservative groups involved in the same discussions systematically tried to turn the discussion on regulation into a platform to spread their moral views. And, as it often happens, their goal was beyond the actual problem of child pornography on the Internet. It aimed, for instance, at agitating the spectre of a connection between paedophilia and homosexuality.

Which conditions do you think are necessary to establish a dialogue between advocates for children’s rights, LGBT rights activists and feminists on sexual rights and Internet regulation?

The first condition is to open a space for dialogue in which actors from those fields — and others, such as child protection advocates — may collectively debate the meanings, but also potential benefits and risks, of Internet regulation with regard to contemporary sexual politics issues. Prior to a direct dialogue with the government, it would make sense to have a collaborative dialogue among civil society actors. It should be organised and carried out by the movements, within their own sphere, in ways that enable each set of actors to: (1) recognise the relevance of the Internet as a key domain of the public sphere and investigate how it is structured; (2) share ideas and information about Internet regulation; (3) share concepts and broaden the understanding of sexual rights from different perspectives.

This process to broaden the discussion and mobilise new actors will certainly demand significant efforts on behalf of many.

Your research intended to see in which ways ‘sexual uses’ of the Internet that are inherently political are affected by Internet regulation debates, and how users become politically involved, but not always through governmental channels. In this sense, why Orkut?

This social network created by Google became a major online phenomenon in Brazil. Orkut allows its members to create and take part in “communities”, whose main focus is on social interaction within the platform. We considered that Orkut, as a medium for sexual expression, can be a favourable space for the exercise of sexual rights, and a key space to analyse how notions of sexual rights are constructed collectively and individually. We looked for communities where different sexualities were being expressed and performed, in tension with discussions which incite violence based on sexual prejudice and the control of sexual expression. We observed discussions around lesbophobic speech, on the one hand, and debates around the meaning of “paedophilia”, on the other.

How does lesbophobia relate to the expression of women’s sexuality in online social networks?

It had come to our attention that some Orkut communities are used as a vehicle to deploy hate speech and other forms of violence against lesbian women, usually through mockery based on the idea that female homosexuality is a result of unsuccessful sexual intercourse with men. Further observation of these communities showed that many female Orkut users openly confront and contest the (male) authority of those who make lesbophobic remarks.

This kind of response and mobilizing that takes place in Orkut—while not necessarily conceived as “activism” in terms of established conventions in offline politics—represents a meaningful kind of engagement in terms of sexual affirmation and of the struggle against hate speech and prejudice. This finding contrasts in many ways with the observation that Brazilian feminist and LGBT activists and organizations have not invested in Internet regulation debates. Moreover, it challenges rigid conceptions and expectations regarding what is recognized as “activism”.

While Internet regulation debates centred on paedophilia, your findings point to other approaches in the context of social networks. How is that distinction made?

Rather than explore the criminal or security aspects of activities linked to child abuse or child pornography, we focused on expressions of freedom regarding the notion of “harmful content”, and initiatives to control it. We analysed an Orkut community called “Against Inter-Age Prejudice”, which is an example of how a new sexual identity is formed; in this case, the sexual identity of men who feel sexually attracted to male “adolescents”, as they term it. Members of this community go online and openly disclose their convictions about “inter-age” love and sexual attraction, and advocate for the legitimacy of such liaisons. They argue for a differentiation between sexual attraction to “adolescents”, which they try to legitimate, and sexual attraction to “children” (as paedophilia is usually defined), which they recognise as a criminal offence.

However, as expected, they do suffer harassment by other Orkut members who reject that distinction. Their reaction is also very straightforward: they engage their accusers and try their best to defend their position. Their main argument is that adolescents are not children, and in some cases, are mature enough to be able to consent to sexual relations, even with older people. The “Against Inter-Age Prejudice” community is actually the only virtual community that has publicly addressed recent political-legislative developments aimed at controlling Internet activity in Brazil in its intersection with paedophilia.

What is the role of privacy rights as a key premise for sexual rights in Brazil?

We need to be cautious about this, as we don’t have enough empirical information or a consistent body of research at hand to easily draw conclusions about the perception of privacy in Brazilian society. The EroTICs research, in fact, strongly suggests that it is urgent to further examine how people perceive the boundaries of the private sphere and the right to privacy. This applies not only to the LGBT, feminist or cyberactivist movements, but to the construction of privacy in Brazilian political culture, broadly speaking.

On the one hand, Brazilian social and political culture seems more or less liberal, without important restrictions or limits to the expression of affection and sexuality, in either private or public spheres. On the other hand, not many political actors are openly and consistently engaged with the defence of the right to privacy, as defined in international documents or the Brazilian Constitution itself. The right to privacy does not stand, in general, as a cornerstone of citizenship, or a guideline for common good or personal development. Equality and freedom of expression have, evidently, a greater appeal in society.

Another aspect to be taken into account is the way that State institutions and public officials approach this issue. As a result of a long-standing political tradition of state authority, a certain degree of consensus prevails about the right of the State to invade an individual’s privacy, especially under the suspicion or accusation of criminal activity. As our research verified, this was and will be an important source of tension in respect to Internet regulatory frames.

On the other hand, the mapping of the uses of the Internet—as a space for sexual exchange, sexual performance and community building around sexual identities—suggests that it may be productive to expand the understanding about existing legal frameworks. Especially those, like the proposed Civil Framework, that are guided by the promotion of and respect for freedom of expression and the right to privacy; and aim to guarantee the right of users to determine by themselves the boundaries of their interactions.

This step forward is important because, while in the field of sexual rights some discussions have already taken place in relation to the right to privacy and intimacy, they are still far from exhausted. It should be noted, for instance, that more open and systematic conversations around privacy and intimacy might generate disagreements between feminists—who ask for state intervention in the private sphere—and other actors who give higher value to privacy.

Trends, gains and next steps

What have been the main impacts and benefits of having developed this research in Brazil?

A unique quality of the EroTICs project in Brazil was certainly the cooperation between two groups from two research organizations in the field of sexual rights. Both groups are interested in building a reflection about sexuality and sexual rights that is grounded in empirical research.

Sexuality Policy Watch brought a fine understanding of debates on governance and legal frameworks, political culture, and of the actors and interests involved in the contemporary dispute about internet regulation in Brazil, and briefly explored the state of these discussions amongst feminists and LGBT activists. Researchers from the Latin American Centre on Sexuality and Human Rights brought a different perspective, as they are focused on observing the everyday use of TICs, where power operates in a more subtle way.

This combination enabled questions challenging conventional ways of relating politics and life, regulation and the exercise of freedom. The value of this exploratory exercise has been to map unsuspected connections and blind spots, generating new research questions. One example was the shift of focus from policy questions regarding state protection and censorship to a more subtle and fine understanding of different, and complex, challenges that are also at play in the realm of so-called “self-regulated” virtual communities. In other words the study delved into the many layers of meaning involved in the idea of online security.

Participating in the EroTICs project has also enabled both groups to open a research field looking at the relationship between sexuality and Internet regulation, which creates an opportunity to examine how Internet regulation affects the field of sexuality, and identify connections as well as differences among different contexts where regulation is at play. From now on, both groups will pay more systematic attention to ongoing debates about Internet governance, which constitute a fascinating universe whose dynamics deserve consideration. It must be said, however, that a more thorough understanding of this field is required before consistent advocacy is possible from the sexual rights perspective. This was just the beginning and it is also necessary and important to share and discuss our findings with other researchers and actors in the field.

Although this phase of the project has ended and the environment changes rapidly, could you give us a notion of current trends?

It is not possible to identify clear new steps and trends, among other reasons because the policy-making dynamics and processes we observed are still underway. The processing of the Civil Rights Framework, for example, is not yet concluded. The text hasn’t been sent to Congress, and the Azeredo bill may eventually be revived, which means that the legislative struggle is not over. However, if and when the discussion around the Civil Rights Framework returns to the Congress, a window of opportunity may open to promote a dialogue among cyberactivists, feminists, LGBT activists, and other groups.

Thinking about the future, what are the next steps and plans for CLAM and SPW in relation to this research?

We plan to continue disseminating research results in academic and civil society forums and publications. Along with this, we applied for funds from the Internet Agency Committee in Brazil ( to publish EroTICs reports from all countries in Portuguese.

We are also looking for additional funds that may allow us to organize international and national seminars aimed at enhancing the dialogue across the different fields involved in sexual rights conversations and internet regulation debates. The first seminar will ideally be international, designed to bring to Brazil APC Women’s Programme affiliates and the other country research teams, and also involving local voices in the discussion. So far, these are ideas that still need to be polished.

* Editor at