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social sciences

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Computers, the Internet, and New Media  
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Sex and Relationships

Sex-related websites, particularly those offering pornographic content are ubiquitous on the Internet and have made a wide variety of sexual representations available to all. While gay (and to a lesser extent lesbian) pornographic magazines have been available since the 1960s and videos since the 1970s, their sales were restricted to specific outlets. Moreover, due to their expense and other restrictions, they were generally unavailable to young people. Also, due to commercial factors, their contents were usually limited to a narrow range of "ideal types." Many people--especially those who do not conform to ideals of age, race, beauty, gender role, or desire--did not find themselves reflected in these products.

Online pornography, however, is available to all adults with computer access and is frequently free. Websites such as BananaGuide (for gay men) and CyberDyke Network (for lesbians) offer reviews of some of the Internet's best porn sites, both free and pay, and help users locate material suited to their interests without running the risk of coming across illegal material or endless porn loops that make it impossible to shut down the browser.

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Internet porn offers a much wider range of body types and activities than does conventional pornography, so it is possible to find sexually gratifying images and narratives to suit almost any persuasion. Sexual interests considered "abject" even within lesbian and gay communities, such as water sports, sadomasochism, genital piercing, cross-dressing, intergenerational sex, and a variety of fetishes, are well represented in specialist galleries on many porn sites; and many amateur communities dedicated to these activities produce and disseminate their own porn.

Also, Internet users can participate in the world of pornography not simply as consumers (or voyeurs) of other people's products, but also as producers. This can range from the posting of stories, still pictures, and video clips on a personal home page, to "real time" web cameras that allow visitors to watch a site owner engaged in sexual activity, or for two or more site owners to watch each other. For many users, this can be an empowering experience and enables queer men and women to explore their sexual fantasies in a safer environment than that offered by clubs, bars, or saunas.

Research suggests that cybersex has been particularly liberating for women who have conventionally been stigmatized for showing too much interest in sex or in sexual acts considered "dirty" such as the use of sex toys for self-pleasure. While porn sites catering to gay men are overwhelmingly visual, many sites featuring erotica by and for women are more textual in nature and include a whole genre of "slash fiction" where online communities of women fans imagine sexual scenarios taking place between the male heroes of well-known television shows and movies.

Perhaps most importantly, the Internet has offered women the opportunity to explore and develop their sexualities in community with other women outside the confines of a male-dominated economy.

The Internet has also facilitated offline sexual encounters by making it easier to find partners. Sites such as CruisingForSex are non-commercial ventures (although this site does also offer members' areas for a fee) that cater to men who have sex with men. They offer regional bulletin boards where users can post their profiles, pictures, and preferred sexual activities and enable men to contact other men in their area or to arrange a meeting while on vacation or a business trip.

These sites are especially important for a wide range of men who enjoy sex with other men but who do not identify with the categories "gay" or "bisexual" and who would never step inside a gay bar or purchase a gay magazine. These sites are also important means of communicating safe-sex information to men who have little or no contact with the gay community.

Also included on cruising sites are advertisements from commercial sex-workers known as escorts who are available in most major cities. Particularly useful are boards that offer reviews of these workers where clients can evaluate the services offered. "Instant sex" is also offered via real-time chat sites where men can either engage then and there in textual sex (humorously referred to as "one-handed typing"), or arrange to meet up offline with participants in their locale.

Research suggests that lesbians are also using the Internet to meet partners, but that their use differs from that of gay men. Lesbians are more likely to use the chat feature of a website in order to get to know a prospective partner before organizing an offline meeting, whereas gay men often prefer to negotiate a sexual interaction immediately. Lesbians are also less likely to post pictures of themselves, particularly those of a sexual nature, due to fears about their security. This suggests that the Internet may not be experienced as a "safe" space by everyone.

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