Electronic Fans, Interpretive Flames:
Performative Sexualities and the Internet

Allison Fraiberg

Turn to the back pages of almost any computer magazine and you'll see advertisements for a variety of online services focusing on sex. "Hustler Online," "Sexy Modem," and "Odyssey: Where Adults Come to Play" are just a few of such ads found in the latest issue of MacUser. On the Internet, it is common for female IRC (Internet Relay Chat) users either to avoid or to seek out the HNG's (horny net geeks) of the night depending on one's relative interest. The HNG's even have designated spaces to wait: #sex, #netsex, #phonesex. And all sexualities can be accommodated: #gaysex, #bisex, #lesbian. On the Usenet front, Michael Braun lists over 25 groups devoted to postings about sex in his Internet Directory. From archive sites for textual and graphical sexually explicit material, to private chat rooms, to sexually based discussion lists, the net has become a very sexy place.

Moreover, the popular media has highlighted this aspect of the Internet: numerous television talk shows have produced segments devoted to online love and dating ("I Met My Mate Online!"). And while the tenor of those shows seems always to be along the lines of such interaction being forced, awkward, and somehow not quite real, the dynamic has caught producers' attention. Prime time and video share an attraction as well: a recent Aerosmith video featured two online teenagers recreating themselves as morphed and action-bound lovers; and an episode of the NBC sitcom Mad About You caught the main characters living out sexual fantasies through the wonders of cyberspace. The actual sex-charged discussions and spaces, coupled with the popular media's sudden fascination with the sexuality in online environments, can make the sexual nature of the net seem ubiquitous. What are the complexities that make up the net's sexual content? How is sexuality enacted on the net? What differences, if any, emerge in the performances of sexuality in cyberspace versus face-to-face encounters? If cyberspace sexualities alter the hegemonic "real life" configurations of heterosexism, how can locating the dynamics of queer net sexualities challenge those assumptions?

Since "cyberspace" is, at its core, an interactive environment, the structure of sex must depend upon the presentations and agents of sexuality. For my purposes, talking about the sexual nature of cyberspace demands discussion of the configurations of sexuality, discussions that consolidate around the question: how does a sexy place accommodate presentations and negotiations of sexuality?

Sexuality may be all over the net but once a geography of cyberspace is mapped out, the distinctions within and among representations of those sexualities become more apparent. When the popular media speak of "cyberspace" they often refer to some sort of monolithic entity: the Internet, the information superhighway, the online community. Whatever the trope invoked, viewers and readers are invited to think of online interaction as a kind of baffling strange world, somewhere out there, on the verge of infiltrating the lives of normal people who were doing just fine thank you. Part of the confusion lies in the presentation of online communication as a singular, dense, and impenetrable space‹a huge world populated by hackers and the like. What the popular vision doesn't include is the idea of "cyberspace" as a multifaceted, multilayered, and very segmented place. If I can press a metaphor, "cyberspace" isn't so much a community of cutting edge, relatively wealthy and connected computer people as much as it's a dizzying array of small towns, some of which are more populated than others and others of which are easier or harder to get to and get around in.

When Mark Dery, in his introduction to Flame Wars, draws his map of cyberspace, it seems just a little too neat. Dery argues that cyberculture is "divisible into several major territories: visionary technology, fringe science, avant-garde art, and pop culture" (566). As umbrella tropes, these work, but the polymorphous cacophony that seems to abound within the interconnections seems repressed by the neatness of these categories. On the Internet alone, just in terms of genre, there's the e-mail crowd, the newsgroup gang, the real-time chatterers, and then there's always the individuals who ftp and gopher their ways to databases and archives. Not to mention that Web crawling has become the hippest thing around (newest pick-up line: "Have you got a home page?"). There's a lot to do on, in, and with the Internet but those who participate usually have their section of town. And I haven't even mentioned private networks such as Ame rica Online, Compuserve, Genie, Prodigy.

A number of publications have sought to guide online users through the cybercultural terrain that has emerged. The journey online, represented as both horrifying and tempting, offers fictional visions taken up recently in the mainstream hacker mag Mondo 2000. These visionaries of the net have a real cynical yet captivated epistemological take. Mondo 2000's User's Guide informs its readers that "this is a historical time when computers are TAKING OVER many human functions, and when humans are TAKING IN much more machine-processed information. There is a massive human/computer symbiosis developing faster than we can even think about it realistically" (9). Mondo 2000's editors will help us try, however. Mondo 2000 declares its audience as those on the "New Edge"‹the hip, prophylactic users trying to skate the edge of a post-industrial dialectic. And while this subject in cyberspace is the default picture of a user, there are so many more types.

Cyberspace may be sexy, but its terrain is more messy than monolithic and its occupants more diverse than Mondo 2000 would have us believe. Reading expressions of sexuality within the sex-drenched dissonant landscape demands an attentive ear. Not all expressions of sexuality within the diverse spaces of the net are of the "sexy modem" variety. Braun's Internet Directory, for example, distinguishes discussions of sex and sexuality in terms of "prurient postings" and "scholarly discussions of" (693). Prurient places are not hard to find, but neither are more theoretical places of interest. There are wonderfully lively and provocative scholarly debates about sexuality on the net. While real-time MUDs (multi-user domains) and archive sites provide places for the exchange of both ideas and information on sexuality, I think a huge resource for academics has been electronic mailing lists. Organized around disciplines, specialties, and periods, mailing lists offer lucrative queer-centered or queer-friendly environments. The QUEER STUDIES LIST, now run out of Buffalo, offers a space for the exchange of ideas relating to academic queer theory and research. WOMEN STUDIES LIST, operating out of Maryland, offers a multi-disciplinary platform for educators in women studies, and is certainly queer-friendly. These lists are academic in their focus offering places to exchange research, teaching, and administrative information. In addition, there are more general discussion lists such as SAPPHO and GENDER organized for exchanges on the matrix of sex, gender, and sexuality. The popular lesbian magazine Deneuve has even run a list of "hippest hangs in cyberdyke space" in its latest issue and included such spots as DYKENET-L, GLB-NEWS LIST, and POLITIDYKES.

In the above cases, whether the forum is mailing lists, usenet groups, or IRC channels, the places devoted to both "prurient interests" and "scholarly discussions" situate sexuality as the central topic. In either environment, the topic is sexuality so the negotiations that might bring sexuality to virtual consciousness have already been mitigated. They offer a space to discuss queer sexualities‹and I do not mean to underestimate the value of these projects because there are so few spaces set aside for this type of discussion. The difference here is the genre of space: the discussion of queer sexuality will happen virtually rather than face to face or through publication. Net spaces devoted to the discussion of sexuality instantiate an always already scenario, foreclosing on figuring out the dynamics that actually bring queer sexualities to the net surface and how the net affects the performance and presence of queer sexualities. When the topic of the virtual discussion is already queer, the project of queering space has already been established by the FAQ file; the question of how cyberspace becomes queer is never really addressed or enacted.

The potential for performance space opens up when the topic that establishes the list or newsgroup isn't based on sexuality. In those realms, the queering of net space becomes not a given, but a site of contestation. Entertainment-oriented sites offer a rich field of inquiry in this respect because the participants in these forums come from a wide cross-section of cyberspace. Net spaces devoted to discussions and debate about music, television, and other forms of popular culture attract subscribers from a wide range of online services. Students participate through their school accounts; users from such commercially popular services such as America Online and Compuserve join in to discuss favorite acts and shows; and people using less commercial private providers such as pipeline, netcom, and primenet, make use of these entertainment features. These sites are organized around entertainment and subscribers are fans. While a number of usenet groups and mailing lists are devot ed to television and film, hundreds of sites and lists focus on musical groups. The interest is so great that record companies and artists recognize the marketing potential inherent on the net and the number of web sites established by record companies increases daily.

Musical electronic fan clubs share information about concert appearances, bootleg trades, lyrical interpretations, musical arrangements, and of course, some good old fashioned gossip. One music list subscriber describes the difference between these and other fan clubs by suggesting that "the technology allows people to share their questions and thoughts on that stuff instantaneously rather than having to wait for the next issue of Teen Beat or a traditional fan club newsletter." A nice analogy, but there's a lot more to the actual electronic discussions. In terms of queering net spaces, for instance, what happens when the topic of the list, a musician for example, comes out? How do these entertainment net spaces contextualize the dynamics of sexuality? How do subscribers make that sense of sexuality known to others?

I joined two lists devoted to the discussion of musicians who had recently come out as lesbians: the Melissa Etheridge List and the Indigo Girls List. If the subject matter of the lists were lesbian, would the participants discuss issues relating to sexuality? What would they say? Would the discussions mirror each other since the artists came out within a year of each other? What were list members saying about lesbian sexuality? Were these lists "queer spaces" and, if so, what were the dynamics that enabled the queering of those spaces?

The discussions I refer to took place between November 1993 and July 1994. There were about 700 subscribers to the Indigo Girls list and 400 to the Etheridge list. An average of 20 posts per day appear on the Indigo Girls list and about 10 per day appear on the Etheridge list.

Writing about the "flame wars" that often erupt on these types of mailing lists, Dery suggests that posts often function like "bathroom graffiti, [as] their authors are sometimes anonymous...and almost always strangers" (561). While some subscribers to the Melissa Etheridge and Indigo Girls lists (from here on "ME and IG lists") do use pseudonyms, a persistent effort not to regard each other as strangers dominates. Last spring, buttons were made for IG list subscribers so that they could identify themselves at concerts; list members regularly meet up before and at concerts; and one member of the Etheridge list claims that the thing she "enjoys most about the list is getting a sense of who we are and what we do."

Dery also suggests that online "users can float free of biological and sociological determinants" (561). In fact, he calls this type of interaction "incorporeal." Dery is a regular contributor to Mondo 2000. Vivian Sobchak, in reading Mondo 2000, offers an important counter to Dery's position. "Information," she advises, "is never pure. And it is always materialized" (583). Rather than transcending material relations, the electronic interaction of these music lists offers a materially inscribed plane, the same plane that compels list members to get beyond the "stranger-liness" of those to whom they are speaking. It is a vision of the net in which technology, as Anne Balsamo might say, "isn't the means of escape from or transcendence of the body" (703).

In her analysis of lesbian bodies and postmechanical reproduction, Cathy Griggers examines the mechanisms and dynamics of corporeal dispersal and inscription. When Griggers suggests that "lesbian bodies in postmodernity are going broadcast; they're going technoculture; and they're going mainstream," (179) she isn't particularly thinking of electronic mailing lists like these but her comments invoke that context nonetheless. In the vein, I take her initial question to the two lists: "what signs mark the presence of the lesbian body?"

On any mailing list, it is common for list members to have .sigs that accompany their notes. Sig is short for signature but posters often include more than their logon name and email address: lyrics from songs, various quotes, and catchy sayings are just a few examples. Sigs function as reflections on the online writer, not identification descriptors as much as a reflective offering, something that speaks to the author's experience but speaks beyond it as well. Sigs provide a marker that spirals inward but remains an electronically dispersed address as well. On the IG and ME lists, sigs mark lesbian space. Among the icons of triangles, participants have recently shared these sigs: "hate is not a family value"; "love is never wrong"; "you're not out until the people you respect know the truth of you"; "the dyke's top five list"; and my personal favorite, "it's 1 am. Do you know what your children are?"

These posters put the space of the sig to work by marking and remarking the presence of lesbian materiality of the net. Rather than eliding the materiality of the author, these sigs remind subscribers of the queer matter that constitutes the list. The sigs, like electronic bumper stickers, speak of the author; they also, however, speak to the reader, reinforcing the idea that the net isn't beyond the dynamics of sexuality, but can function rather, as Balsamo suggests, as "the means of communication and connection with other bodies" (703). Sigs on the ME and IG list make visible the connective materiality between list members, activating lesbian sexuality rather than eliding it. Contrary to the beliefs of William Gibson's infamous console cowboy Case from Neuromancer, the "meat" of the body is not to be transcended; the sigs ground the message in the meat of the body, if you will. Sigs make the meat matter, in both senses.

It is common for private email to get started based not just on the content of someone's post, but on the markings in their sigs. These sigs offer a good example of what Diana Fuss has described as the complex negotiations of being both in and out. "To be out," she suggests, "is to finally be outside of exteriority....To be out is really to be in‹inside the realm of the visible, the speakable, the culturally intelligible" (4). To post on a list is to mark your presence. To post with the sigs I mentioned is to be both out and in: sigs mark the poster as out and they legislate visibility online.

But sigs are never offered just once. Every time the list member posts, the sig is repeated. Its outing content marks the poster as well as the list. Each time the sig is offered there is a coming out and a coming into visibility of the queer space of the list. The continually changing content of the list reinforces that queer presence. The performers and their music, in effect, function as the texts over which the posts are constructed.

Since Etheridge's coming out, for example, list members regularly discuss issues of sexuality. Posters report on representational citings in queer magazines, on gay and lesbian television shows such as In the Life, and at awards benefits sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Association Against Defamation (GLAAD). There is also a suggestive vocabulary to the list, as posters play with sexually charged language. One subscriber, for instance, was said to have "Come out of the Streisand closet" because she compared an Etheridge tune to the sound of Streisand. When another subscriber lists Streisand as a favorite, a third member mimics a common queer slogan to summarize the discussion: "See," she writes, "I told you we're everywhere." And then there's the gossip mongering of this list that casts participants as National Enquirer-like reporters of private drug orgies at the Etheridge household and romantic interludes with famous female sitcom stars.

Etheridge, as text, as performer, often serves as a springboard on the list for larger discussions of sexuality. In particular, when participants began wondering when Etheridge had declared herself out, a long discussion ensued over how one defines being "out." When one list member recalls Etheridge saying she's always been out, the conversations exploded, and another list member remembers Etheridge saying she wouldn't do some cover tunes because of the gender specificity. "Afraid to even do a cover tune with gender-specific pronouns?" she says. "So much for 'I've always been out.'" "She came out in 1978, when she was 17" says another. Still another: "I thought she came out in 1993." The conversation draws to a close when one subscriber asks: "I guess I wonder how many people have to know before one is 'truly' out?" When list members argue over the definitions of what it means to be out, they draw the discussion of lesbian sexuality onto a more experiential level to which posters can contribute. Because the conversation continues, the discourse intensifies exponentially.

The "when is one considered out" thread began by focusing on Etheridge and text as was drawn out onto an experiential discursive plane that established queer sexuality as its parameters‹text had exploded into experience and sexuality was the boundary. Conversely, another sexuality-based conversation erupts when a list member offers a personal anecdote about a record store. In this case, the personal experience ushers in a full-blown abstract debate grounded in a theory of sexuality.

On his latest trip to the record store, the poster had a conversation with the clerk who told him a story about a woman who was going to purchase Etheridge's 1993 release Yes I Am. The poster writes: "The woman asked her, the clerk, whether she had heard the rumors of Melissa being a lesbian be cause if it were true, she wouldn't buy the CD." The poster then catalyzes a heated debate with the sign off "any comments?" Of course comments abound and a new thread concerning sexuality and fandom erupts. The first response is from someone who misreads the original quote, thinking that the customer purchases the CD because Etheridge is a lesbian; he turns the situation around and, as is typical on both the IG and ME lists, erases the homophobia from the anecdotal text. He then uses his misreading to be devil's advocate to other list members. "I wonder," he chides, "in a rhetorical way how many of the readers here would have approved the clerk's action in that case." The poster is reluctant to grant the homophobic scene but criticizes his peers by assuming list members buy records based on the artist's queer sexuality. Another poster takes the bait, admitting that she will buy something if she knows the artist is queer. She compares being gay or lesbian to "coming from a small town." She argues, "you are just pleased to see someone from there make it, regardless of other considerations." To emphasize the recurrent homophobia of the discussion she offers a telling sig from an Etheridge song: "life is full of wonder...love is never wrong."

While the range of discussion about lesbian and gay sexualities can sometimes dismay, sometimes encourage, and sometimes just overwhelm, no one on the Etheridge list deems any of the discourse "inappropriate" for subscribers. No one calls for an end to the debates about sexuality by saying, "This is supposed to be a list about the music."

As the Etheridge list remains a very queer place to be, the Indigo Girls list has witnessed a more turbulent recent history. Even before Amy Ray and Emily Saliers came out, the electronic forum had acquired a certain queer net rep. List members would regularly refer to gay and lesbian magazines such as Deneuve, Out, 10 Percent, and the Advocate. When the list engaged in designing a t-shirt for members, one person suggested a line from Ray's holocaust memorial song "This Train (Revised)" because as she says, "for some reason, this reminded me of the list." The line: "100 people/ gypsies queers and david's star." In December 1993, a graduate student sent a call for lesbian and bisexual survey participants out to the IG list because she "knew that the IGs have a big following" and that she "might be able to reach a few people out there." Regarding Saliers and Ray themselves, list members seemed a little tired by what they perceived to be a feeble sense of ambiguity. "Didn't they come out at the Washington march last year?" asks one subscriber. "Nope," sighs another and adds, in caps, "What are they waiting for?" "Coming out?" offers a third person. "Is it such a big secret anymore?"

When Saliers and Ray did come out in the spring of 1994, a whole new textual era on the list began. One list member announced: "Greetings! I just received my newest issue of Deneuve...this month's ['lesbofile'] column discusses the fact that the Girls came out and has a small picture...anyway." So while it seemed fairly benign on the list to mention, even joke about, the "secret" before they came out, the electronic conversations afterwards took on a different tenor. Subsequent discussions became so heated that the personal lives of Saliers and Ray became electronically off limits; due to comments from Ray regarding privacy, the list administrator, in conjunction with vocal participants, decided that the discussion of sexuality was no longer appropriate for the list.

When a new subscriber innocently asked one day if either of the IGs was married or "otherwise involved", a lull fell over the list. The first post to respond brought out a textual nervous giggle. "The beauty of this," she says, "is that I can't wait to see the answers to this question over the list ;-) !!!!!!!" After a brief discussion in which people asked how the original poster defined marriage, someone offered a fitting response: "Carefully. Real carefully." And then another skulked forward, intentionally avoiding the explicit explanation: "The answer is in some of the recent interviews that A&E have given to various magazines. Several of them were posted to the list, so you can look in the archive for them or ask and I'll send you the ones that are still in my active memory." Ushered into a game of Internet Clue, the person who asked if they were married would have to find the answer in a file in an archive, somewhere virtually far away from this list. Subscribers felt tentative answering within this forum.

A strong discussion about sexuality did, however, get started when one person asked if list members preferred an original version of a song, written by Mark Knopfler, or the version covered by Amy Ray. The song, "Romeo and Juliet," offers a love struck modern day Romeo serenading a too too hip Juliet. What list members focused on, however, was the shift in gender and sexuality of the Romeo. Chuck says he "appreciates the way Amy maneuvered the song to fit her sexual preference" but that "as a heterosexual male" he is "moved more" when he hears Knopfler sing it. "Well, Chuck," responds another, "I'm a lesbian...and...I much prefer Dire Straits' rendition." Almost immediately, the direct correlation between identity and identification is blasted apart: in other words, just because you're a lesbian you don't automatically prefer Amy Ray's version. Rick chimes in: "Whether sung by a heterosexual or a homosexual, the song's message is universal" ‹ to which Chuck replies: "Oh, come on. Amy's version is clearly a lesbian singing to a lesbian." The debate over sexuality and gender lasted for days. Here are some of the highlights:
1) Why all the fuss over the sexual orientation of the singer? Did it ever occur to you that it just might be a song taken from the play?

2) Uh...my sentiments exactly. Sheesh. Read some Shakespeare.

3) Get a life Rick. Sexual orientation has as much to do with music as anything else‹you can never NOT be straight or gay or lesbian. It's always with you. Don't be such a homophobe.

4) Yeah? What about bisexuals? I am NOT straight, nor am I gay or Lesbian. I also agree with Rick, the song's message is universal.

5) If it's okay for the singer to be either male or female, why do you assume that Juliet must be female?
When Judith Butler writes about being "troubled by identity categories" her sentiments resonate with the structure of feeling of the list texts. There is no "lesbian position" within this discussion of Romeo and Juliet. The analysis offers a spiraling array of opinions, positions, and performances‹starting what Sally Munt would call "lesbian theory's need to evoke its own polyvocality" (xiv). The identity categories are multiple and the identifications within those categories are multiple as well. The textually represented differences and overlappings embodied in those positions propel, not a flame war, but prolonged analysis. Sexualities are written on the net and put to use to complicate the queer space that had ostensibly been shut down earlier.

The Romeo and Juliet discussion draws to a close when an exasperated Chuck asks: "I'm being criticized for thinking the song is sung by a lesbian to a lesbian. Why is that? Are we talking about the Indigo Girls in an electronic closet?" On the one hand, Chuck is being criticized for being rigid in his identity categories, of not, as Butler might say, "promoting them as sites of necessary trouble" (14). On the other hand, however, Chuck is right. The list uses the closet all too effectively. But this electronic closet is one without any weather stripping‹it is a drafty closet, one with a well-used keyhole.

The queer spacing of this list isn't shut down as much as it moves away from its central textual figures, Saliers and Ray. In fact, when discussion of a possible Indigo Girls performance at Stonewall last summer was mentioned, that post appeared not on the IG list, but on the Etheridge list. The sexualities of Saliers and Ray become "inappropriate topics" but lesbian sexuality continues to permeate the list. Writes one person: "MTV was doing a review of Stonewall, and during one of the segments, they played the beginning of TMF." TMF is "Touch Me Fall," a song off the latest Indigo Girls release. What's interesting here is the nudging wink of the poster's commentary: "Exciting, huh? ;)" Another poster, a few days later, writes in a p.s.: "the Gay Games were amazing! My team didn't fare well, but my gf took the BRONZE..." And at the end of the Romeo and Juliet debate, one woman writes in her sig that she "wants an Earring Magic Ken so that her GI Joe will have a boyfriend." And the response to her? A man who writes in caps with a certain sense of humor: "I'M REALLY CONFUSED."

Which, in some ways, is exactly the point. The sexuality debates on the list don't end: they turn into interpretive flame wars that disperse and reinscribe queer space with each post AND they shift onto other topics relating to sexuality. A perpetual, and often disagreeing, lesbian presence is exerted, without being extinguished. Queer net space depends upon repeated performance, consistent reinscription, but not in the sense that substantial repetition may create a stable space. That the discussions and performances of queer sexuality in these popular net spaces usher in a type of textual negotiation continues to destabilize the virtual terrain. As queer list members highlight their different takes, experiences , and beliefs about sexuality, they shake up the foundations of a non-changing and stagnant view of queer sexuality. The performances of lesbian sexuality on these music lists highlight the multivalent epistemological takes of participants as they queer the net space itself. The textual materiality of these music lists foreground what I like to call the "netonymic" effect of queer space‹that is, lesbian sexuality functioning in a metonymic way on the net. Each queer sexual performance works to establish lesbian space on the net but that performance also serves to propel the discussion further, into another performance. That sense of discursive movement creates the dynamic that enables queer sexuality to constantly mark and yet always be up for grabs on these popular lists.

As the Internet gains increasing popularity among the general public, and as the entertainment industry continues to capitalize on the marketing potential inherit in online interactions, the idea of performative identities will delineate more and more discussion arenas. Popular culture lists, I believe, will offer polyvocal negotiations of all sorts of performative experiences of identity, making the materiality of the Internet not only apparent, but inescapable. Net spaces created to specifically address topics of lesbian, gay, and bisexual concerns give queer users a discursive place free of homophobia. Popular culture spaces, however, shouldn't be dismissed in attempts to identify queer net space. The Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge lists are just two net discussion groups that offer a continued instantiation of queer space. Net spaces designed expressly for queer users, in their form and topic, ground theories of sexuality on notions of identity. These music lists, as well as other popular forums, orchestrate a theory of sexuality based on performance, both in Butler's sense and beyond. Taken together, they offer a continuum of queer and queering space on the Internet.

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