May 9, 2006

A webcam named desire: Ellis Hanson surveys the 'moral panic' around the new virtual sexual revolution

According to Ellis Hanson, around 1994 we were transformed into cybersexuals. The transformation was brought about by the explosion of digital technology, most significantly by the webcam, with its ability to transmit and receive live pictures over the Internet.

The Web, says Hanson, a Cornell associate professor of English, in the opinion of some people has transformed the world into "a fishbowl where all were accessible to all, and sex became an arena of free polymorphous perversity."

One view of this innovation is a kind of cybernetic utopianism. In that view, he said, "We are all connected; we are all circuits in a global network. Vast resources of information are available to us. We transcend sexual shame; there is no guarantee of privacy nor any real need of it."

But another narrative of this innovation takes the opposite view and is even more dubious. He called it paranoid technogothic, in which a gadget "tells our secrets to precisely the wrong people, the innocent people who will be traumatized and the scary people who will traumatize us, since there are no other kinds of people in the melodramatic world of the Gothic gadget."

Hanson offered these views of the new sexual revolution in his lecture, "Sex and Gadgets," in Lewis Auditorium May 2. The lecture, which was part of the Mortar Board Society's "Last Lecture" series, explored the "paranoid technogothic melodramas" seeking to police the boundaries of acceptable erotica. This semester Hanson has been teaching a popular course, Desire (English 276).

Those who would police the Internet demonize the medium and its gadgetry as "tools for stalkers, killers and lurking pedophiles," said Hanson. This, in turn, he said, manufactures a storm of moral panic around constructions of child sexuality.

To illustrate this point, Hanson showed an Ikea commercial that had a small boy playing with toys who suddenly starts joyfully gesturing with a vibrator. The final tag line comically warns women to "tidy up." Through this Hanson explored the connections between child's play and the injection of adult shame at the possibility of traumatizing the child.

"In order for this ad to make sense, we would have to assume in advance that there is something obscenely dangerous about the sexual pleasures the vibrator is meant to serve, that the child's well-being is woefully vulnerable to even the slightest suggestions of sexual pleasure," Hanson said, "and that the buzzing gadget is preternaturally capable of communicating the most dire news to the audience least likely to comprehend it." He pointed out that the owner of this vibrator is probably assumed to be the child's mother, and the ad suggests that her "sexual pleasure needs a stricter discipline, better housekeeping."

Hanson also referenced the Korean film "Phone" (2002), focusing on the ubiquitous cell phone as an instrument of sexual horror and corruption. The female protagonist is not only "phone-stalked" by a sexual predator, but is also pursued by the ghost of a dead schoolgirl, seeking to entrap the woman's brother. Domestic peace is restored only when the phone is destroyed.

Ultimately, these "technogothic, paranoid fantasies" cannot purge human desire but provide false resolutions, leaving society wringing its hands while unconsciously enjoying the drama of corruption, Hanson concluded. Moral panics don't solve anything or address morality rationally or coherently. "They simply paralyze, allowing the ideological spectacle to avoid the complexities surrounding social constructions of child sexuality," he said.

Paul Hansom is a freelance writer.