Saturday, February 7, 2009

Digital Diversity - Whose Contributions are Recognized?

As part of our unit on the Digital Divide, we are also exploring Digital Diversity. How are women using the Web? What are communities of color contributing to the Web? To what extent are the contributions of women, of people of color, and of other marginalized groups recognized?

We are starting by studying the slide show below and will be exploring the web to assess its accuracy and to see if there are more examples that should be added.

Digital Divide

This week we will be studying the Digital Divide. In the past, the digital divide has been viewed mostly as a matter of access to computers and/or the Internet. Today, however, many argue that physical access is not sufficient; we must focus on the "gap between those who benefit from digital technology and those who do not." [] In the U.S, almost everyone has access to a computer - if not at home or workplace, then in a public library. But many are not in a position to benefit from this access:

  • Information may not be presented in a way that is easily understood by those with limited formal education - text written at college level, too much text and not enough audio & visual material.
  • The Internet affords access to vast stores of information, but if people don't know how to use search engines, they are unlikely to benefit from the information.
  • Every school may have a computer lab, but are the students encouraged to create content for the web or are they limited to spelling and arithmetic drills?

The slide show below addresses some of these issues. Our class will be trying to update the statistics and find additional examples so we can improve the slide show.

Women Porn Site Operators: Liberation for Sex Workers?

Much has been written about how the Internet has been a boon for women trying to start small businesses (selling online much cheaper than running a brick & mortar store). In her article "Mistresses of Their Domain: How Female Entrepreneurs in Cyberporn Are Initiating a Gender Power Shift," CyberPsyschology & Behavior, Vol. 3, No. 5, 2000, Kimberlianne Podlas raises the question of whether the opportunity to run one’s own porn site on the web provides women sex workers with similar advantages. Women owners of cybersex web sites interviewed by Podlas reported that their earnings had increased, they had greater control over their hours of work, and their conditions of work were much safer and more pleasant.

Regardless of increased earnings and safety, not all feminists would see the growth of women operating sex sites as liberating. As one student noted, activists like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin would see all web sites where women perform sexually for the gratification of men as inherently oppressive, whether owned by women or men.

We also looked at an article describing the perspectives of African-American women porn site owners. The women interviewed felt that an important advantage of owning their own web site was the ability to control the images of themselves – to decide exactly how they would be photographed (in contrast to how Black women and other women of color are often portrayed on the most visited cybersex web sites). Like the women in Podlas’ study, these Black women also appreciated the opportunity to work in safe, indoor conditions and the possibility of better earnings. However, the article pointed out that women of color acting in porn films are generally paid half to three-quarters of what their white counterparts earn and that the Black women porn site owners were not necessarily getting rich because there is stiff competition in this industry.

For a more in-depth look at how one woman became involved in running her own cybersex web site – how she got started, her developing technological skills, what her customers pay to view, and the growth in her earnings to an estimated $90,000 per year - we can read a lengthy interview with Becca of Kentucky. I was interested to note that the link to her web site, provided in this 1999 article, still works in 2009 – indicative of a long and financially rewarding career.

The Internet and Sexual Exploitation of Women

We had a good discussion in class of Donna Hughes’ article "Use of the Internet for Global Sexual Exploitation of Women and Children" (1998) in which she describes very clearly how the web is used to perpetuate prostitution and sexual trafficking of women.

  • Web sites where men can exchange info about “desirable” prostitutes and where to find them
  • The promotion of sex tourism
  • Mail order bride web sites (cheaper on web than old fashioned print catalogs) and concomitant “X-Rated Escorted Tours”
  • Live sex shows via video conferencing

A student raised a concern that Hughes’ seemed overly focused on regulating the Internet, ignoring the dangers that over-regulation might bring (like filtering software that prevents students from doing research on breast cancer or possible censorship of sites run by human rights advocates attempting to stop international trafficking). I was pleased to see the student related her concern to Patricia Hill Collin’s concept that we must analyze both the oppressive and the liberatory aspects of an institution. While the Internet can certainly be used to oppress women via forced prostitution, it can also be a powerful tool to resist the sexual exploitation of women.