Queer Intimacies: Configurations of Gender and Sexuality in the Digital Anthropocene (A panel report)
by Katharina Neumaier _
At the biannual conference of the German Anthropological Association (GAA), held virtually at the University of Bremen from 27–30 September 2021, the Working Group “Gender and Sexualities | Queer Anthropology” organised the panel “Queer Intimacies: Configurations of Gender and Sexuality in the Digital Anthropocene”. In their opening, the panel organizers and speakers of the Working Group Claudia Liebelt and Max Schnepf emphasized the ambivalences of digital spaces for the creation and transformation of intimacies and their effects on how gender and sexualities are re-negotiated. According to the panel organizers, the digital sphere opens up opportunities for change, but also helps in reinforcing social norms and normativities. The digital sphere makes it possible to connect, create a (digital) safe space and advance activism through social media campaigns. Due to the corona pandemic in particular, many analogue areas have shifted to the digital. Faced with closed (queer) meeting places and curfews, the actors were forced to meet social and sexual needs through the digital Anthropocene: for example, dating apps, online parties or pornography. To explore these ambivalent dynamics, the panel brought together four presenters from Belgium, Denmark, Argentina, and Austria to talk about their different notions of (queer) intimacies and digitality. Professor of Media Studies Susanna Paasonen (University of Turku, Finland) provided insightful comments on the ethnographic explorations of digital intimacies in her discussion of the four presentations.
Boundaries of Intimate Research
Researching the sensitive and often private topic of intimacy brings up questions of methodology and positionality. Doing digital ethnography on a male-for-male escorting platform in Paris, Kostia Lennes (Université Libre de Bruxelles), talked about how he positioned himself in the field and how his research participants reacted to that. To enter the field, he created a user profile for the dating platform PlanetRomeo. In order to create a minimum degree of trust with potential participants, the profile included basic private information such as recent picture, age, sexual orientation, and relationship status. He decided not to mention in his profile description that he is a researcher. Instead, Lennes opted to reveal his status as a researcher in a first private message to potential interlocutors. During the research, participants questioned his role as a researcher. Lennes recounted one instance when he was still online late, outside of business hours. This seemed suspicious to one participant who questioned him about it: “Why are you online that late?” – the title of Lennes’ presentation. To the interlocutor, Lennes explained, his PlanetRomeo usage seemed more like someone looking to engage in sex rather than doing research. Reflecting on the question posed by his research participant, Lennes explicated his understanding of the intimacy in ethnographic research as it is found between the escorts and the client, but also between the researcher and the participants.
The Ethics of Mixing Bodies
Mia Lundig Christensen (University of Copenhagen) presented her research on “remixing bodies in pornographic deepfake online communities”. Following a non-participatory approach, Christensen used a multi-sited online ethnography, including fieldnotes, text and screenshots as well as a mapping tool. Deepfaking is an umbrella term for videos (and audio-content) created with AI-tools that swaps faces, mostly used to forge celebrity pornographic videos by merging sex workers’ bodies with the faces of the desired celebrity. The deepfake network, according to Christensen, is a decentralized network of communities and sites which was forced to migrate into the so called “darkweb”. As stated above, social norms are recreated on and through the internet. In this regard, deepfaking is no exception, since the content provided as well as asked for reinforces cis-heteronormative stereotypes. According to Christensen, there is a contradiction between the desire for realism and authenticity (e.g., bodies should be “more realistic, not the plastic porn star type”) and how fiction and fantasy is enhanced through the creation (e.g., the usage of well-lid, high-quality pornography instead of using “amateur pornos”). Christensen further analysed the ethical stances within the deepfaking sphere referring to the contradictory standpoints of understanding the digital (celebrity) bodies as either persons with rights or as public property that can be freely used. In her exploration of the rightfulness of creating and consuming bodies online, Christensen thus opened ethical questions about the intimate entanglements of AI-technologies, creators and users of deepfake porn, and the people whose body parts are being mixed in the process.
Local Appropriations of Intimate Technologies
Maximiliano Marentes (Universidad de Buenos Aires) talked about his work “Not just a Gay-Date App. Meanings and Appropriations of Grindr Among Argentinean Gay Men.” Instead of focusing on the profiles in the dating app, he conducted qualitative interviews with the users of the dating and hook-up app Grindr, focusing on their personal experiences beyond the virtual chatting. In order to analyse love as only existing when it is performed, Marentes reconstructed love stories with his interlocutors. Analysing the gay hook-up app as reinforcing neoliberal logics, Marentes argued that the hypersexualized interactions on Grindr can be seen as a market of sexual exchanges. In this market logic, the profiles are reminiscent of ads that describe “what is on offer”. Marentes, however, challenged this one-dimensional interpretation, presenting Grindr as a platform fostering homosocial bonding in a variety of relationships – between friends, acquaintances, neighbours, and boyfriends. Lastly, Marentes focused on the situated usages of this global technology, referring to the local idiom of “histeriqueo”. The Grindr histeriqueo includes a variety of conflicting and contradictory practices, such as using the app for getting horny and feeling desired, without necessarily perusing an offline encounter. Thus, Marentes showed the intricacies of intimate technologies as well as their ambivalences in their local appropriation.
Ambiguities of/in Online Dating
In her presentation “Queering Identities and Relationships: Dating-Apps, Courtship and Mobilized Intimacies”, Andrea Newerla (University of Gießen) followed the emic understanding of her interview partners when defining intimacy. In German “intim werden” means sexual intercourse, and thus many of her interlocutors equated intimacy with sex. Newerla conducted qualitative interviews with people differing in their gender and sexual identifications as well as relationship forms (monogamous and non-monogamous relationships). According to her findings, dating app users date with different motives. While most users search for a romantic, committed relationship, others look for personal recognition, fun or sex. Newerla positions her research in contrast to a love-sex-dualism that presents love as pre-social and non-commodifiable, whereas sex is supposedly purpose-driven. Instead, she argued that such a dichotomous model is pessimistic towards digital technology and characterised by heteronormativity and mononormativity. The participants in Newerla’s research often presented an openness towards a variety of possible outcomes when using dating apps. Because of an ambiguous back and forth between commitment and autonomy, hedonism and care, togetherness (as couple/diverse intimate relations) and being alone, Newerla defied an interpretation of relationship practices and experiences as linear or teleological. Instead, she argued that this variety of relationship constellations offers queer potentials for change and transformation of intimate relationships and (sexual) identities. Yet, in the face of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Newerla is rather sceptical. A new form of exclusivity under health arguments emerged which does not allow for more diversity and experimentation.
Intimacy as a concept
In her discussion of the presentations, Susanna Paasonen focused on the question of how we understand intimacy conceptually. According to Paasonen, the presentations opened up a plethora of different understandings of what intimacy is and how it may be approached. The consideration and discussion of a (supposedly) private matter, intimacy, makes it possible to reveal connections between, for example, socio-cultural gender norms, cis-heteronormativity, (queer) activism and their reflection in the digital sphere. It is precisely within the digital Anthropocene that the ambivalence of intimacy becomes apparent. On the one hand, one can move into a “safe space” online to meet up and connect, but on the other, social norms and normativities such as the gender binary are recreated in digital spaces (e.g., in the programming of popular dating platforms and apps). Changing technical infrastructures such as social media, online gaming, dating apps and sex bots can create new forms of mediated intimacy that enables the emergence of new sexual and porn cultures. The digital Anthropocene shows how our way of being in the world and connecting with others is increasingly being mediated through digital technologies that foster new human-machine entanglements, cyborg incarnations, and posthuman subjectivities.
Throughout the presentations it became apparent that the subject of intimacy is an interesting and important research subject in Social and Cultural Anthropology especially in the field of gender and sexualities. To the extent that intimacy involves a private issue, accessibility is difficult and thus, researching the subject asks for adapting our methods accordingly. Researching intimacy also raises ethical and practical questions: With regard to research ethics and comfort, how far can and should the “participant” of participant observation go? For instance, is it ethical to enter the sensitive space of a digital dating platform? At what point do you abandon your role as a researcher and which boundaries are being crossed thereby? Researching intimacy (online) presents us as anthropologists with new challenges in terms of methodology and ethics and involves a difficult balancing act – especially when it comes to trust, vulnerabilities and the relationship between the scholar and the informant. Each researcher has to negotiate these aspects in the context of their field and regarding their own positionality.
About the author
Katharina Neumaier is currently studying for her masters in Cultural and Social Anthropology focusing on Visual Anthropology at the LMU in Munich. She holds an undergraduate degree in Cultural and Social Anthropology and Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the same institute. Her research focus includes Queer Anthropology, Intimacy, Digitality and Anthropology of Gender. She is a scholarship holder of the “Deutschlandstipendium”. Contact: email@example.com