Textual Interaction as Sexual Interaction: Sexuality And/in the Online Interview
by Danny Beusch
University of Warwick
Sociological Research Online 12(5)14
Received: 20 Sep 2006 Accepted: 3 Jul 2007 Published: 30 Sep 2007
In this article, I draw from my research into the users of a Nazi fetish Internet site to examine the potential sexualisation of the online interview encounter by informants and the implications for ethical research practice. Firstly, I consider how the process of talking about, and confessing, sex can be erotically charged. Moreover, since many of my participants were heavily invested in sadomasochistic sex, with the majority self-identifying as sexually submissive, I had to recognise that the online interview encounter, facilitated by the invisibility of the researcher and the researched, extended subject positions to these men that paralleled their erotic interests. Finally, further dilemmas arose because of the 'unknowness' and physical invisibility conferred by cyberspace since this potentially influenced the (mis)framing of the interview by some participants.
Keywords: Online Research; Interviewing; Internet; Cyberspace; Sexuality; Sadomasochism; Power
Introduction1.1 In their discussion of ‘queer interviewing’, Kong et al (2001) argue that researchers have been relatively silent regarding the question of how sexuality impinges on research practice. Whilst a few researchers admit to, and even advocate, having sex with respondents (Bolton, 1995; Carrier, 1999; McLelland, 2004) such examples are relatively rare. The silence on sexualized interactions with research subjects in online research is if anything even more pronounced.
1.2 There is burgeoning literature dealing with ‘virtual’, ‘CMC’ (computer mediated communication), ‘online’ and ‘Internet’ research methods (see for example, Bassett and O’Riordan, 2002; Chen and Hinton, 1999; Hine, 2000, 2004; 2005; James and Busher, 2006; Illingworth, 2001, 2006; Mann and Stewart, 2000; Seymour, 2001; Sharf, 1999). Central to these discussions are the potential (ab)uses and (dis)advantages of online research, and the applicability of existing ethical frameworks. However, the subject of sex has so far remained elusive. Further contributions to various aspects of the ethics of online research are essential as research involving CMC continues to grow.
1.3 This article aims to fill a gap in the literature by identifying the potential for online interviews to become (to various degrees) sexualised and discussing the implications of this for both researchers and informants. The failure to recognize the potential for sexual interactions within online research reinforces the notion that cyberspace is disembodied. Whilst this assumption dominated early discussions of the Internet, researchers have more recently highlighted that bodies are central to online interaction (Whitty, 2001; Campbell, 2004). Moreover simply talking about sex and sexual activity may be experienced in terms of embodied sexual pleasure, and this may partly explain the sheer number of explicitly sexual forums that facilitate (cyber)sexual encounters between people who have never laid eyes upon each other (Campbell, 2004; Mills, 1998; Shaw, 1997).
1.4 If textual interaction can be sexual interaction in the experience of so many users of the Internet, why should internet interactions for the purpose of research be any different? Online interviews, particularly when concerned with issues of sex and sexuality, are potentially erotically stimulating for both the researcher and the researched. The following discussion draws from my own experiences of grappling with online methods for a study into sex and sexuality. This research focused on ‘GaySS’ (a pseudonym), an online group aimed at gay men with a fetish for Nazism.
1.5 Whilst GaySS is officially a ‘fetish’ site, it attracts people with a range of political views and sexual tastes. Most notably, the appropriation of the Nazi as an object of sexual allure also provides a space for those who subscribe to fascist/Nazi politics. As Skeggs (2004) notes, proximity between differing groups necessitates the performance of identity work and boundary maintenance. The main focus of the research was on how those who participate in Gay SS negotiate their identities and the techniques that they use to assert their sexual or/and political motives for joining the forum.
1.6 However, over the time I was conducting online interviews, I became aware that a number of my interactions with respondents were sexualised in particular ways. These encounters form the focus of this article. Firstly, I examine the apparent sexual ‘kick’ that my participants got from telling me about their sexuality. This was, no doubt, facilitated by the non-normative, stigmatized and secretive nature of their sexual fantasies and behaviours. Secondly, I examine their construction of the power relationships involved in our encounters. My participants were invested in forms of SM sex and it would seem that the (online) interview format may have been sexualised by participants who had an erotic investment in forms of power that are at play in interrogations. Thirdly, this sexualisation was, in two cases, so troubling that I take a closer look at these particular encounters and argue that online interviewing, as a solely text-based interaction, may exacerbate what Goffman (1974) has termed ‘framing troubles’. In other words, it is possible that these two participants may have (mis)understood and (mis)framed the interview encounter(s) to be something else altogether; not a process of knowledge acquisition but an act of (cyber)sex.
Researching Sexuality/Researching Sexually2.1 The topic of researchers’ sexuality and their sexual relations with respondents is a highly fraught one. Some researchers have placed their own sexual relations with informants quite firmly at the centre of their research agenda (Kullick and Wilson, 1995). For instance, Joseph Carrier (1999: 211), who had been conducting research on male Mexican homosexuality since the 1960s, notes:
Much of what I know about the homosexual behaviours of ‘cantina men’ I learned while having sex with them […] I have never been able to gather much information about cantina men’s sexual behaviours and family life through structured interviews.
2.2 Similarly, Ralph Bolton (1995) conducted what he terms a ‘sexual ethnography’ to ascertain how Belgian gay men were responding to the AIDS crisis. Bolton freely engaged in sexual intercourse with many of the men in the population he was studying, although he argues that he did not have sex with them in order to obtain data. Nonetheless, he found such interactions to be very telling about how successfully (some) gay men were internalizing safer sex advice. More importantly, Bolton argues that sexual activity was vital in order to fully immerse himself in the field. He asserts that:
The taboo on sexual involvement in the field serves to maintain a basic boundary between ourselves and the Other in a situation in which our goal as ethnographers is to diminish the distance between us […] Indeed, good sex creates a physical and emotional connection in which it may be difficult to determine where ‘I’ stop and ‘the other’ begins. (Bolton, 1995: 140)
2.3 For Bolton, sex was a technique for eradicating differences between himself and the ‘natives’, and traversing the methodological limitations of being an ‘outsider’. Of course, this is problematic; not only in terms of (sexual) ethics, but also because it romanticizes sex. For a start, not all sex is ‘good’. Can mundane sex, or drunken sex, really create such a sense of ‘emotional connection’? Secondly, it assumes that the sexual act takes place outside of wider social relations (Jackson and Scott, 2001). Consequently, the account neglects the differences (such as social class or ‘race’) between the self and the other which may be brought to the sexual encounter.
2.4 Other researchers (perhaps not coincidentally, women researchers) have discussed their resistance to the sexual advances of informants and potential informants. For instance, Sabine Grenz (2005), in her research into prostitute users, found that a number of her participants overtly sexualised various parts of the research encounter. After advertising her study, Grenz several telephone calls from potential interviewees that were of an undesirably sexual nature. For example, one man requested that he be allowed to masturbate during the interview, another asked if he could show her his penis, whilst a further caller wished to refer to her as ‘Madam’ (Grenz, 2005: 2094). Similarly, during the encounters themselves, one participant asked he could kiss the researcher’s feet. As such, discussions of sexuality in the offline interview should go hand-in-hand with issues of safety.
2.5 Deborah Lee (1997) highlights some of the vulnerabilities and dilemmas that result from women researchers interviewing male participants about sex. Lee’s research was particularly ‘sensitive’ since some of her participants had been accused of sexual harassment against female co-workers. She was therefore acutely concerned about her safety and took precautions that included interviewing all men in public (although sometimes this was not possible) as well as paying close attention to her dress and general self-presentation. Her chosen form of attire (‘prim scruffiness’) meant that these men would have no excuse if they wanted to harass her (Lee, 1997: 559).
2.6 Recognising the problems and vulnerabilities that can come with women interviewing men (especially when the subject matter is sexual), and the impossibility of asserting full control over the proceedings, Lee (1997: 564) suggests that more use should be made of the ‘two interviewers/one informant’ strategy. It would seem that online interviews may also allow researchers to ensure their personal safety whilst alleviating feelings of (sexual) vulnerability. Nonetheless, this article argues that these encounters may still be sexualised in very overt and sometimes troubling ways.
2.7 There has been comparatively much less suggestion of sexual interactions in Internet research, or their legitimacy. This is surprising since the determination of the appropriate ethical frameworks for CMC research is so frequently debated. The only two examples I know of is research undertaken by Mark McLelland (2002) and John Campbell (2004). McLelland (2002) conducted research into Japanese gay men’s internet use. Advertising for participants on online bulletin boards stirred so little interest that McLelland decided to meet potential participants not as a researcher but as a ‘sex friend’. Unsurprisingly, McLelland found that far more men wished to arrange offline meetings with him, although the resulting encounters yielded data of varying ‘quality’:
Once I got to Ken’s apartment it soon became apparent that he felt uncomfortable and was unsure how to negotiate his way from preliminary conversation to sex […] we were still chatting after 30 minutes […] we spent most of the time talking about his recent trip [to Spain] and looking at his pictures. I was quite happy to do this because although I was happy to have sex with Ken, my primary motivation was to get to know him a little and possibly ask him to tell me his life story […] Ken finally instigated sex. It only lasted a few minutes and I didn’t orgasm myself. After Ken returned from the shower, we continued to chat about travel and after another 30 minutes I left (McLelland, 2002: 399).
2.8 Unlike Bolton (1995), McClelland explicitly arranged sexual encounters for the purpose of data collection. Despite the obvious criticisms that can be made of this study, McLelland’s (2002) honesty and openness demand admiration considering the judgment such activities might provoke from the wider academic community. As Kong et al (2001: 251) argue, ‘[T]his is a controversial area, but it is one that surely needs to be confronted and scrutinized rather than methodologically and morally silenced’.
2.9 Another example of online research into sex and sexuality that involved sexual interactions is Campbell’s (2004) work on gay male chat rooms. Campbell had long participated in the spaces which he studied and had previously engaged in sexually explicit ‘talk’ with some of his informants. Disappointingly, however, there is little sustained engagement throughout his work on how this influenced the research dynamics and findings. Whilst his acknowledgements are a step in the right direction, I would argue that there is a greater need to talk about sexuality and/in the online research encounter. .
2.10 I wish to approach this topic from a slightly different angle. This article takes up the issue of how my participants sexualised the online interview. I myself did not engage sexually with, or feel attracted to, my participants. Whilst my participants and I are all gay, conceptualising our sexualities as the ‘same’ is overly simplistic. I am neither a Nazi fetishist nor a SM practitioner. However in several cases recognition of my informants’ sexualisation of the interview could scarcely be avoided. This should not be ‘read’ as a sign of my own self-flattery; I do not for one moment believe that my participants were lusting after (cyber) me. In contrast, I argue that the interview relationship, as well as its inherent power dynamics, may provide a source of eroticism. Sexualisation was so explicit in two particular cases that I was left feeling both confused and uneasy. This was no doubt facilitated by the text based nature of our interaction which made it difficult to ascertain ‘just what was going on’. It is to literature in this area that I now turn.
Framing Troubles Online3.1 In Frame Analysis, Goffman (1974) attempted to ascertain how individuals make sense of the world around them: how is what exactly is going on determined? He posited that we make use of primary frameworks, employing schemata of interpretation to recognise a situation. These frameworks render ‘what would otherwise be a meaningless aspect of the scene into something that is meaningful’ (Goffman, 1974: 21). Goffman also advanced the notion of ‘keying’, which he defined as ‘the set of conventions by which a given activity, one already meaningful in terms of some primary framework, is transformed into something patterned on this activity but seen by the participants to be something quite else’ (Goffman, 1974: 43-44). For Goffman, the concept of keying is always based around a mutual awareness; all parties must be conscious that the primary framework has been transformed. If, instead, a false belief as to what is happening has been induced, then this is a case of ‘fabrication’ (Goffman, 1974).
3.2 Frames may be particularly vulnerable in online settings. For instance, in Slater’s (1998) ethnography on the trading of sexualised representations (‘sexpics’) in Internet chat rooms, he notes that the authenticity of online relationships and identities are constantly questioned. Participants have to ask ‘How can I trust or believe anyone or anything? How can I accept the other, or be myself accepted, as an ethical subject?’ (Slater, 1998: 105). In textual interaction, when the material body of other may be invisible, how can we ever truly know what is going on?
3.3 The veracity of participants involved in online research projects is frequently debated: how do we know whether they are who they claim to be (Hine, 2000; Mann and Stewart, 2000)? The idea that cyberspace is a place where people can (potentially) play with their identities, particularly the gender identity conventionally associated with their anatomical ‘sex’, has no doubt fuelled this conception (Bassett, 1996; Danet, 1998; Turkle, 1995). Similarly, the term ‘cyberspace’ may contribute to the assumption that there is a opposition between online and offline presentations and obscure the fact that Internet users ‘exist online and offline simultaneously’ (Illingworth, 2001: 10.2).
3.4 There is increasing evidence that online personas usually mirror offline, corporeal ‘realities’ (Illingworth, 2001; Hardey, 2002; Mann and Stewart, 2000). Whilst fabrication and deception are entirely possible, a cultural assumption that offline and online lives correspond dominates many Internet spaces (Campbell, 2004). There are also reasons to believe that research participants would take the encounter seriously and answer to the best of their ability. From her online life story research into women’s experiences of infertility, Illingworth (2006: 6.1) characterises the (longitudinal) virtual encounter as ‘a site where the self was often re-constituted and re-negotiated through a process of reflection and interaction’. That the interview encounter can be a space for identity work need not imply that participants engage in the projection of intentionally false identities.
3.5 Of course, it is not just the researcher who seeks to ascertain the veracity of the researched. The identity of the researcher is not taken for granted by those who occupy online spaces. Academics are not the only people who seek information on the Internet. Journalists may also lurk in forums or conduct interviews in order to publish sensationalist material that acts against the interests of the researched (Sanders, 2005). As Hine (2005: 20) comments, ‘Establishing one’s presence as a bona fide researcher and trustworthy recipient of confidences is not automatic’. Prospective informants who are members of particularly vulnerable communities, such as sex workers, may be particularly distrustful of online researchers (Sanders, 2005).
3.6 In this article, by examining instances when the interview was overtly sexualised, I explore whether it is possible that these particular participants framed the encounter incorrectly. In other words, how is the interview(er) understood by the researched? Can we always be sure that the encounter has been ‘framed’ as an interview, or can it be misinterpreted? Is it possible for participants to assume that the researcher is actually ‘keying’ the interview procedure for another purpose? Drawing from my own research experiences, I question if the online interview can ever be (mis)understood as, and entered into in the belief that it is, a form of (sexual) play?
The Research Method
4.1 Researching the GaySS archives allowed for many of the benefits of traditional ethnographic research although my methodology had to evolve gradually as I learnt more about the site and its members. After joining GaySS, I cut and pasted its contents onto a word document and printed it out for close analysis. Like other forums, which are, as Hine (2000) says, ongoing projects that change as new messages are posted to them, the content of GaySS grows on a daily basis so this process had to be repeated frequently. The transcripts of activity were carefully read and analysed for common themes, images and vocabularies. Identifying the sexual and political identities that are performed on this forum was important for recognizing those areas, concepts, ideas and practices which required greater understanding.
4.2 The ethics of online forum analysis have been much debated, especially the issue of obtaining subjects’ informed consent. In her analysis of a breast cancer discussion group, Sharf (1999) sought out consent from all those members who she wished to directly quote in her research publications. Whilst this was a time consuming process, it meant that explicit permission had been given for the use of other people’s narratives. Bassett and O’Riordan (2002), from their experiences of researching an online lesbian community, criticise such an approach for constructing authors as synonymous with the ‘text’ that they write. They argue that consent is not required before quoting from books (fiction or not), films, magazine articles, or even from the letters page of a local newspaper; should Internet texts be any different? Of course, and as Rutter and Smith (2005: 89) insightfully comment, ‘Just because talk takes place in public it does not mean that that talk is public’. Users of online forums may be unaware of just how accessible and visible their posts are. Moreover, they are unlikely to expect their narratives to be researched, appropriated and quoted out of context. For such reasons, Sanders (2005: 72) notes that observing online forums seems less ethically problematic than ‘taking data’ from them.
4.3 With regards to the ethics of forum analysis, it is important to keep in mind that the Internet is used by a wide variety of people for a huge range of purposes. This necessitates that researchers work with ethical frameworks in relation to the specific ‘communities’ that they encounter. The posts on GaySS are not narratives of personal experience(s), but highly sexualised personal advertisements that exist for the purpose of consumption and this eased some of my worries about conducting this research. Furthermore, since all members of GaySS use pseudonyms, individuals are not personally identifiable.
4.4 Forum analysis alone was not sufficient to understand the sexual identities performed on ‘GaySS’. Interviewing was identified as a key research method through which to engage directly with some of the forum’s members and to explore how they understand and ascribe meaning to their sexuality and sexual practices. This is not to privilege the interview as a window to the ‘truth’ of sexuality, or to posit that individuals have an inner, authentic sexual core that can be uncovered. Instead, a greater understanding of sexual identities can be reached through a multi-faceted approach that combines research methods: both examining the performance of identities on the forum and discussing such performances, and the subjective meanings attached to them, with a sample of these performers.
4.5 I decided to recruit a sample through emailing all of the members of GaySS (over 4000) to request an interview. Whilst their email addresses were not visible, it was possible to send them a message through clicking on their ‘username’ (a full list of which were available in the ‘members’ section of the group). My recruitment email explained that I was a gay, British male conducting research for a PhD in Sociology. I detailed the aims of the research and the issues that I wished to explore. Potential informants were also invited to ask questions about the research project. This email was not sent out to all members simultaneously but over a period of eight months, between September 2005 and April 2006. Whilst the sheer volume of members would have made it difficult and arduous to email everyone in a short period of time, this method also allowed me to obtain constructive feedback from participants and to modify my approach. The wording of my email became more informal in response to some who said that this style would make prospective informants feel ‘safer’ and ‘more comfortable’.
4.6 I conducted online interviews with 22 members of GaySS. A larger number did express an interest in the research but disappeared before the interviews began. Whilst inconvenient for the researcher, the ease through which people can withdraw from online research is no doubt comforting and empowering for those who, for whatever reasons, decide that they no longer wish to participate. Six of the interviews were synchronous (through the use of a ‘chat’ programme), whilst sixteen utilised email communication. There are important differences between these modes of CMC (seeChen and Hinton, 1999). My participants tended to produce larger chunks of narrative when communicating via email. Nonetheless, this process is undoubtedly time consuming and the increasingly brief responses offered by some suggested that they lost interest over time (Kivitis, 2005).
4.7 One of the things that the two forms of interviewing had in common was their capacity to become highly sexualised encounters. In particular, there was a definite sense in which some of the participants were obtaining erotic stimulation through engaging in talk about their sexuality and sexual lives. As I now discuss, even talking about sex can be an intensely erotic experience.
Let’s Talk about Sex
5.1 Interviews are social encounters and, as such, can also be fun. This is particularly the case with qualitative interviewing which often resembles a ‘conversation with a purpose’ (Burgess, 1984). For instance, one respondent and I tended to ‘chat’ around midday whilst he was on his lunch break. When arranging our next encounter he commented that ‘we can “lunch” together again - sounds brilliant’.
5.2 Interviews can be sexualised, whether they are conducted online or offline. Talking, writing or reading about sex can give people a sexual ‘kick’. For example, McClintock (1993) argues that many men receive sexual stimulation from writing about their fantasies in SM magazines. The potentially sexual nature of the online interview encounter became apparent as I drew one particular ‘real time’ interview to a close:
Interviewer: ok Peter – feel like I have asked you enough deeply personal sexual questions!!!!!
Peter: Actually - i find it interesting (and stimulating) to be asked
Peter: It’s always exciting to talk about man-sex
5.3 Whilst Peter was unique in so openly expressing his ‘excitement’ at talking about sex, other participants were less explicit. For example, several men mentioned how much they had ‘enjoyed’ the interview. Similarly, the sheer detail of some of the answers provided, and the complete lack of prompting required from me, gave me the impression that these men could literally not wait to talk about their sexual escapades and fantasies. It could be argued that this was because of the use of the internet as a means of communication. McClelland (2002) asserts that people, including himself, feel less inhibited in textual encounters than they do in verbal or face-to-face interactions because the invisibility of their physical body during text-based interaction means that many are able to ‘lose themselves’ without worrying about identity blemishing. This may not be true for individuals who access the Internet in public spaces (such as in libraries or at university). Moreover, the potential dis-inhibiting effects of online interaction may vary, depending on whether it takes place in a public chat-room or in private interaction (Mills, 1998). However, many people enter into relationships and engage in forms of talk that they would not do offline because they feel in control of their own anonymity. As Mikey, a 43 year old, British engineer, noted:
[O]nly a very small group of people know of my sexuality, and even fewer know of my particular fetishes. I would never even contemplate talking to you or anyone else about this area of my life if there was any risk of my identity being exposed.
5.4 The following transcript extracts demonstrate that my participants held few inhibitions in talking openly and explicitly to me (a complete stranger) about their sexual activities and fantasies:
[C]an only tolerate a little pain, but I’ve learnt, for example, to enjoy having my balls hit while I am wanking or being fucked, and I like it more and more […] I like to fuck hard and long – but that usually doesn’t cause pain as I am only 17cm in length. (Robert)
5.5 Well, with pain it’s my testicles. He squeezes them sometimes until I can’t stand it, or more regularly, he’ll start a light slapping that grows in intensity until pain is radiating upward towards my kidney, a very interesting effect. Eventually the fight or flight response kicks in and I try to flee, but he has me bound. Since he can tell that I’m not acting when this happens, he knows I’ve reached my limit, and usually starts to fuck me. (James)
5.6 Of course, it should not be surprising that these men found it ‘exciting’ to talk about their experiences and desires since they are highly stigmatized (as homosexual, sadomasochistic, and centred on the eroticism of Nazism). These interview encounters were one of the few times when my participants could discuss their sexuality and sexual experiences in a non-judgemental environment. For example, one participant was too afraid to reveal his fetish to his partner for fear over how he may react. His only ‘Nazi’ sexual experiences came from engaging in online role-play with an older man who, he presumed, was married. However, since both of these men classified themselves as ‘bottoms’ they had to take it in turns to occupy the ‘dominant’ role (which neither found particularly erotic). The cultural silencing of these men’s sexual desires sexualised the process of revelation.
5.7 The confession of one’s sexual ‘truth’ is, as Foucault (1976) has argued, reliant on its prior concealment. Of course, some things are easier to ‘talk of’ than others, and some activities are more ‘acceptable’ to confess. The process of confessing a highly stigmatized activity is likely to follow a longer period of prior concealment, involving an anxious wait until the moment when this ‘sex’ can finally be spoken about, when the individual can ‘come out’ about the ‘truth’ of their sexual desires. Furthermore, these men were not just talking about ‘sex’ (which in itself is erotic), but talking about a sex which, in wider culture, is barely intelligible as ‘sex’ at all. Whilst I aimed to provide a non-judgemental climate which would enable my participants to feel a sense of comfort and ease, this does not in itself alleviate the fact that both my participants and I were aware that these are non-normative activities. Following Foucault, Grenz (2005: 2102) argues that ‘It is more exciting to do things that are forbidden and it makes one feel good to do things that deviate from what one thinks is the norm’. The confession of transgression has in itself an undeniably sexual charge. Expecting the encounters with my respondents to be de-sexualised may have been rather naïve.
5.8 Only two participants questioned me directly about my own sexual fantasies (which they tended to assume involved Nazi fetishism). One queried, ‘So how about u, wot do u like? How perverted do u go etc etc?’, whilst another asked, ‘Is it an area that crops up in your fantasies? At your age, you are horny all the time; and like most guys need to wank a lot. Do you see yourself enjoying some of this?’ Whilst I was very happy to talk about my own sexuality (especially since these men were being so open and honest with me), I was aware that I could not give these men the answers that they were looking for. When confronted such questions, I found it ethically important to stress the purely academic nature of my interest in these sexual practices. I often textured this by describing the trajectory of my research journey and the story of my arrival at ‘GaySS’. Once I told these men that I was sexually uninterested in SM, I received no further questions about my sexuality. Whilst the interviews did not follow a strict question-and-answer format (the vast majority of participants asked me numerous questions), I felt like these were attempts to engage in a more sexualized and sexually satisfying dialogue. Interestingly, both of these men could be broadly classified as sexually dominant (or ‘tops’). However, the vast majority of my participants were sexually submissive (or what is often termed ‘bottoms’) and it is for these men that the online interviews may have provided the greatest eroticism for. It is to these interview dynamics that I now turn my attention to.
Online Interviews and (Eroticised) Power Relations
6.1 Feminist researchers have been particularly influential in drawing attention to the hierarchy inherent in interviewer-interviewee relationships (Oakley, 1981). In recent years, qualitative researchers inspired by feminist criticism have striven to democratise this relationship by empowering research participants. Yet many of my participants were aroused by powerlessness.
6.2 GaySS is a space where men advertise their sexual fantasies, often involving forms of sexual domination and subservience. In SM terms, the majority of these men identified as ‘bottoms’. Drawing from the work of Foucault, it would seem that such stark differences in power are more implied than ‘real’, especially since SM activities are often meticulously negotiated beforehand (Langdridge and Butt, 2004). In actual fact, many argue that SM ‘bottoms’ or ‘subs’ wield the most power since the encounter centres on their pleasures, desires and limits (Taylor and Ussher, 2001). The power of the ‘bottom’, however, cannot be overtly acknowledged since this would disturb the intensity and fantasy of the SM scene. Many of my respondents highlighted the painstaking work that goes into denying the consensual nature of these sexual acts. This work includes historical research and the use of uniforms and props, all of which add a sense of ‘authenticity’ and ‘realism’ to these role-plays and deny their inherent ‘playfulness’. Simon (who is discussed in greater detail later) noted a difference between ‘master/slave’ and ‘maSSter/slave’ scenarios:
I have done interrogation scenes with a Master several times but they have usually been done in the kitchen or a separate playroom in the house. While not a complete turn off to me these scenes appear to me to be just play acting whilst a scene done in an unfurnished basement or attic or some other darker and more ominous looking place is much more realistic and therefore much more satisfying.
6.3 For Simon, maSSter/slave relationships are characterised by particularly stark forms of power and domination that create a far greater sense of intensity, severity, and ‘authenticity’. Paradoxically, this ‘authenticity’ requires a great deal of work on the environment in which the scene takes place. The use of Nazi props allows SM practitioners to create a far more realistic sense of power and powerlessness, escape the mundane world of everyday life and thus lose themselves in a euphoric sense of pure fantasy.
6.4I would argue that the online interview encounter, facilitated by the invisibility of the researcher and the researched, extended subject positions to these men that paralleled their erotic interests and, as such, bestowed their interviewee role with sexual potential. This is not to deny the importance of context; SM practitioners are not sexually stimulated every time they find themselves occupying a position of relative power or powerlessness. As one of Taylor and Ussher’s (2001) respondents noted, being a masochist does not mean that visiting the dentist is sexually stimulating. However, there were undoubtedly some subtle parallels between the research relationship and the sexual activities that these men commonly engaged in.
6.5 As with Simon, many of my participants perform or fantasise about prisoner interrogation scenarios. The following extract from a sexual story sent to me by another participant (Mikey) illustrates how such scenes ‘work’:
After a few hours have passed I return to the room and check the prisoner, he does not hear me enter, I walk up to him and put my hand on his head. He is startled by this and tries to pull away. I connect a microphone to the white noise unit and switch the noise off and ask him if he is prepared to co-operate. His tone is much less aggressive now, he begs me to release him, I reply by saying that he must answer the questions.
6.6 This activity is based on the extraction of information from one individual by another(s) and relies heavily on verbal abuse. It tests psychological limits, although it may also involve forms of restraint, bondage and physical ‘punishment’. What I wish to suggest is that the power dynamics of interviewing appears to resemble these instances of eroticised powerlessness and therefore has definite resonances with many of my participant’s sexual encounters (online and offline) and sexual fantasies. After all, despite attempts to democratise research encounters, interviewing can still be framed as a form of interrogation whereby information is extracted from one party by another. .
6.7 Such a conceptualisation arose from a number of separate incidents over the course of my research. For example, Daniel (white, 29 years old, middle class, British) frequently fantasised about two male teachers to whom he was sexually attracted whilst at school. In these imagined scenarios, a school-aged Daniel is sexually dominated by one or other of these men as punishment for his ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. I am not arguing that this is ‘perverse’; teacher and pupil fantasies are a common theme in SM sex, and also amongst many who would never consider themselves to be SM practitioners (Taylor and Ussher, 2001). However, there was an obvious parallel between the persona Daniel adopted in his fantasies and his self-presentation in the online interviews. For example, when discussing his pornography consumption, Daniel repeatedly referred to himself as ‘naughty me’ or ‘bad’ and labelled his sexual fantasies as ‘shocking!!!’. Furthermore, until the end of the final interview (we spoke on six occasions, each lasting approximately an hour), the only question that he asked of me was my age. I increasingly wondered whether I was being constructed as (or in line with) the teacher figure of his fantasies; the object of authority who was questioning him, and exercising judgement, about his ‘bad’ behaviour.
6.8 Daniel was the first person whom I interviewed and the experience quickly led me to question the relationship between the interview and the SM encounter. This link became more overt during interactions with two different respondents, Simon and Rex. What was interesting about these interviews was that both men referred to themselves in the third person, as ‘it’. After agreeing to participate in the research, Simon (a 68 year old, white, American gay man) informed me that:
in most correspondence this thing refers to itself in the 3rd person. it hopes it can do that here without causing undue problems. […]
it will be 68 in early April of this year […]
it considers itself a gay slave
6.9 ‘It’ stands in stark contrast to the more common, autobiographical ‘I’ and alludes to notions of the inhuman, or subhuman. A very small number of GaySS’ members use ‘it’ as a strategy for conveying a very particular presentation of self. Simon said that he relishes submissiveness and powerlessness and has endeavoured to literally mark this on his body. For example, he has ‘a slave registration number’ tattooed on his stomach, and an ‘ownership tattoo’ which states that he is the ‘property’ of his online ‘maSSter’. In one of our final correspondences, Simon described himself as a ‘worthless piece of sewer slime slavemeat’. He explained that he likes men to make him feel ‘like the lowest form of life on the planet (perfect)’ and that he likes to be referred to in ‘very derogatory terms (wonderful)’. The interview encounter provided Simon with an opportunity to perform the submissiveness that he finds so intensely arousing.
6.10 Interviews are frequently two-way and dialogic, although it is still (arguably) interviewers (and their careers) who benefit most from the encounter. As such, it could be argued that Simon was subverting interview procedure in a positive and empowering way. Through openly and confidently using the ‘third person’ as a self presentational management strategy, Simon was clearly asserting his right to influence the direction and format of the interview encounter in a way that (sexually) satisfied him. Furthermore, it is possible that, through his use of the pronoun ‘it’, Simon requested a form of exchange or ‘one favour for another’ (Grenz, 2005: 2109). Whilst I was gaining the opportunity to conduct another interview, Simon was grasping the chance to sexualise the encounter and to obtain sexual satisfaction from it. Furthermore, Simon interacts with other online contacts in such a manner; should the researcher expect special treatment?
6.11 Internet researchers have recognised that power relations are still prevalent in online research, but that this medium offers opportunities to transcend these and to create a more empowering and democratic experience for research participants (Mann and Stewart, 2000; Seymour 2001). I would argue that my online interviews enabled subject positions that both verified and contradicted assertions that CMC facilitates greater equality in the research process. The interview encounters empowered and dis-inhibited some participants to adopt positions of powerlessness, something that would prove far more difficult in offline research.
6.12 Despite this, Simon’s strategy of self-presentation caused me worry; was I expected to refer to him as ‘it’? The interview encounter may have proved empowering for Simon who was able to self-present however he wished, and in ways that would not be possible in most of his offline, day-to-day interactions. Nevertheless, this did not alleviate my sense of unease. If I referred to Simon as ‘it’, I would be engaging in explicitly sexual talk with him since he obtains sexual pleasure from being referred to in ‘derogatory terms’. Upon receiving Simon’s above email, I replied and stressed that, whilst he was welcome to refer to himself in whatever way he wished, I would feel more comfortable directing my questions at ‘you’. He replied that this was ‘perfectly fine’ and actually referred to himself as ‘I’ in all future correspondence.
6.13 The case of another participant (Rex) was even more problematic. Rex (a gay, white, fifty six year-old male from the US) also referred to himself as ‘it’ and a ‘slave’. That said, unlike Simon, Rex never consciously acknowledged his use of ‘it’. Moreover, he continuously called me ‘SIR’ (capitals intended) throughout the encounter. This was one of my first interviews and I was unsure how to proceed. I felt particularly uncomfortable and attempted to coax him out of the ‘role’ he was adopting. However, he replied ‘it is not comfortable out of its place’. He later commented that ‘it has nothing to hide and is happy to be what it is’. Rex’s use of ‘SIR’ made me feel particularly ill at ease, since his eroticisation of the interview’s power dynamics was so visible and overt. After one real-time encounter I decided that I felt too uncomfortable to continue this research relationship. I emailed Rex to thank him for participating but also to politely terminate the relationship. This is not to deny the usefulness of the ‘data’ that was/would have been obtained. My encounter with Rex provided me with potentially valuable insights into his (sexual) relationships, both online and offline. The data itself felt particularly ‘authentic’: he was not just telling me about his sexuality, I was experiencing it. The fact that this was so explicit made me feel uneasy; how could I stop it, should I stop it? The encounter refuted interview conventions to such a degree that I was left feeling unsure as to what exactly was ‘going on’; was it even an ‘interview’ at all? Whilst Simon’s eventual use of ‘I’ eased some of the dilemmas and anxieties that I was experiencing, this was not the case with Rex who continuously referred to himself as ‘it’. Such experiences necessitate that more consideration is given to how participants (mis)frame the interviews that they consent to take part in.
(Mis)Framing the Interview
7.1 Can participants ever mis-understand what the ‘interview’ encounter is all about? Did Simon and Rex’s use of the pronoun ‘it’ indicate that they were mis-framing the interview encounter as something altogether different?
7.2 As already noted, Goffman (1974) developed the concept of ‘keying’ to explain interactions wherein all parties are aware that a primary framework has been transformed. Was it possible that my participants believed that we were ‘keying’ the interview; transforming interview procedure from an object of knowledge acquisition into a form of role play? In other words, were these men not only eroticising the encounter themselves (something that, as I have discussed, occurred in many of the interviews), but assuming that I was also using the ‘interview’ as a source of sexual stimulation. Was the ‘research’ relationship framed as a pretence for an online sexual encounter that involved playing with power?
7.3 Consent cannot be taken at face value if it appears that the participant may have misunderstood the nature of the encounter. If Simon and Rex were not positive that I was actually ‘interviewing’ them then this has serious ethical implications. What exactly did they believe they were consenting to? Simon may have (correctly) framed my objection to his use of ‘it’ as indicative that this was solely a research relationship. Similarly, his decision to move to using the more auto-biographical ‘I’ may suggest that he was framing the encounter in the correct way. In other words, reverting to the first person signalled an understanding that this was really ‘research’ and ‘work’, as opposed to ‘(cyber)sex’ or ‘play’, or a combination of both. It was less clear how my role was framed and understood by Rex. Was it assumed that I was actually conducting research or was my claim to be a ‘researcher’ read as no more than a role in an online SM game; a virtual interrogation in which Rex was a ‘virtual bottom’ and I was a ‘virtual top’? These questions are impossible to answer but are important to pose nonetheless.
7.4 I am not claiming that Simon and Rex did frame the ‘interview’ as ‘sexual play’ but that the invisibility of the researcher, the absence of social cues, and the already sexually charged nature of ‘sex talk’ may have contributed to a potential mis-framing. This is not to argue that online research is less worthy than that conducted offline, or that it should be viewed with greater scepticism (especially since I am a strong advocate of such methodologies) but that all researchers (both online and offline) need to question how the specific methodology(s) adopted may influence interview proceedings. If it cannot be ascertained that participants are aware of what they are participating in, then the idea of informed consent is clearly contentious.
8.1 In this article, I have suggested that my participants sexualised the interview encounters in a number of ways. The process of talking about, and confessing, sex can be erotically charged. Moreover, many of my participants were heavily invested in sadomasochistic sex, with the majority self-identifying as ‘bottoms’. I would argue that the online interview encounter provided subject positions for these men that paralleled their erotic interests and, therefore, bestowed their interviewee role with sexual potential. This was undoubtedly facilitated by the use of an online methodology (although as Grenz’s (2005) work highlights, this is not a precondition for the sexualisation of interview encounters more generally). Finally, the extent to which two of the interviewees (Simon and Rex) so overtly eroticised the encounters led me to suggest that the relative ‘unknowness’ of cyberspace makes it difficult to ascertain ‘what is going on’.
8.2 Whilst the offline research experiences of researchers such as Lee (1997) and Grenz (2005) may lead some to adopt an internet based methodology in order to study sex and sexuality, online encounters can and are still sexualised in ways that may be very uncomfortable for the researcher. The lack of physical co-presence may make CMC a ‘safer’, and hence preferable, research method but it must not be romanticised. This article highlights that CMC does not exist outside of (potentially eroticised) power relations, or sexuality (even when sexuality is not the focus of research). The text-based nature of CMC means that sex may become manifest in unpredictable ways that the researcher may be unable to foresee and which they feel unequipped to respond to. Unwanted sexual(ised) encounters are distressing, whether or not they involve physical co-presence.
8.3 This article has also asserted the necessity of continuing to examine the ethical issues arising out of the use of CMC. Although most researchers take careful steps to ensure that their work follows ethical guidelines, online research poses particular dilemmas regarding how to translate these concerns into practice. Tellingly, the British Sociological Association (2002: 6) urges caution for would-be online researchers:
Members should take special care when carrying out research via the Internet. Ethical standards for Internet research are not well developed as yet. Eliciting informed consent, negotiating access agreements, assessing the boundaries between the public and private, and ensuring the security of data transmission are all problematic in Internet research […] Members who carry out research online should ensure they are familiar with ongoing debates on the ethics of Internet research, and might wish to consider erring on the side of caution on making judgements affecting the well-being of online research participants.
8.4 This paper argues through a discussion of my own research that Goffman’s (1974) concept of ‘framing’ is useful in highlighting the potential for misunderstandings that researchers and online informants have of each other’s purposes. This would seem to correlate with other people’s experiences. For example, researchers of online sex-work ‘communities’ have been framed as tabloid journalists (Sanders, 2005). Similarly, a colleague in my department conducting research into the online ‘stop the war’ movement has had to go to various measures to convince her activist participants that she was not monitoring and collecting information about them for the government. It would seem that ‘frames’ are extremely vulnerable online; research participants may feel particularly anxious that they are being taken advantage of, deceived and ‘taken in’ by fabrications (Goffman, 1974). As such, Internet researchers must ‘prove’ themselves to potential participants, providing evidence that their ‘identity’ and research are ‘real’. However, the implicit consideration of framing with regards to recruitment should not be taken to imply that once informants ‘consent’ to take part in a research project then all ethical issues are resolved.
8.5 As I have argued, even those who seemingly ‘consent’ to research may have misunderstood what it is that they are taking part in and thus proceed with the ‘interview’ despite having potentially mis-framed its intent and purpose. This has implications for all manner of research projects, both online and offline. For example, individuals may enter into a research relationship (and hence give up their valuable time) under the impression that any findings will directly inform policy and will in some way address both their individual circumstances and that of their ‘community’. If research findings are not widely, or only very narrowly, disseminated then this too could constitute unethical practice.
8.6 It is difficult to pre-empt whether and how individuals make sense of and frame the projects which they are asked to participate in, and how their understandings change as the research progresses. Clarity must be ensured throughout the process so that informants can make (and reassess) informed choices concerning their involvement (whether they would like to enter into and/or continue a relationship with the researcher(s)). Such concerns are exacerbated in online research where the text-based nature of interaction and the absence of visible cues can throw open new and unexpected forms of communication that makes it difficult to ascertain (both for the researcher and the researched) ‘what exactly is going on’. Whilst the ‘unknowability’ (Phoenix and Oerton, 2006) of cyberspace may make it impossible to entirely eliminate mis-framing, it is undoubtedly true that providing accurate and understandable information to potential participants about research aims, objectives and processes increases their ability to exercise informed consent. Although there are numerous ways of recruiting participants for online projects, referring them to detailed yet transparent, jargon-free and continuously updated research home pages could provide one avenue for ensuring that instances of mis-framing are minimised.
AcknowledgementsI would like to thank Carol Wolkowitz and Andrew Parker for their comments and insightful contributions to earlier drafts of this article and for all their help and support with the work from which it draws. I am also grateful to the ESRC for the studentship (PTA – 030 – 2003 – 01259) that made this research possible.
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