Emerging threads and common gaps: Executive Summary

What is the value of the internet in the exercise of rights? The rapid development and growth of internet access and services in the last two decades indicate its central role in current social, political, economic and cultural life. The internet has been a key space to facilitate the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms, especially to access critical information, build knowledge, express thoughts and beliefs, form networks and communities and mobilise for change. For people who have little access to other kinds of publics due to the multiple forms of discrimination that they face - including their gender, age, class or sexuality - the internet can be a particularly important space to negotiate and claim for the realisation of their rights.

However, the internet is increasingly being regulated by governments, private entities and other actors. Often, efforts to regulate the free flow of information, expression and practices online are argued from the need to regulate and preserve gender and sexual norms. This is also supported by conservative forces that often act from a moralist standpoint. The most familiar forms of restricted content and high-risk activities online centre around pornography, and increasingly, the protection of children from sexual harm. However, policy debates and developments rarely take into account the perspectives of these intended beneficiaries .

The EROTICS research aims to bridge the gap between policy and legislative measures that regulate content and practice on the internet, and the actual lived practices, experiences and concerns of internet users in the exercise of their sexual rights. It aims to promote evidence-based policy making by engaging in on-the-ground research with a range of internet users - especially those most affected by internet regulation measures, including young women and people of diverse sexualities - to inform and guide policy making for a more accountable process of decision-making.

The project is by the Association for Progressive Communications and was was conducted in five countries - Brazil, India, Lebanon, South Africa and the United States - from 2008 to 2010 to answer the question: How may emerging debates and the growing practice of regulation of online content either impede or facilitate different ways women use the internet and the impact on their sexual expression, sexualities and sexual health practices, and assertion of their sexual rights?

Or expressed differently:

  • How does the internet facilitate the exercise of sexual rights and the expression of sexualities, particularly of women living in different socio-political, economic and cultural contexts?
  • How does emerging regulation online affect this ability?

Each country research documented and studied particular communitiesand issues that were found to resonate most strongly with the main research questions. As such, a rich body of knowledge has been produced that forefronts the voices, concerns, perspectives and experiences of a diverse range of internet users who are invested in the use of the internet in the exercise and expression of their sexuality and sexual rights, which are analysed against the policy and legislative landscape and current trends in internet regulation in the country.

Some of the highlights that have emerged from the research include:

  • The unexpected and deeply engaged ways that young women in Mumbai negotiate risks online as they strategically use the medium to explore, define and challenge boundaries of gender and sexual norms. How does emerging regulation online affect this ability?
  • The contradiction between constitutional protections and legislative measures that have the impact of censorship, and how this can constrain the internet’s democratising and empowering potential for lesbians and transgender people in South Africa who use it to construct and perform their identities.
  • The parallel development of the internet and the queer movement in Lebanon, how this has supported the critically valued self-representation of its politics and identity, and how the openness of the internet is currently under threat with the introduction of new punitive legislation.
  • The arbitrary and unaccountable nature of mandated internet filtering in publicly-funded libraries in the United States, and how this may not only fail to meet its intended objective of protecting young people from potentially harmful content, but may place them under further risk by denying them access to critical information.
  • The disjunct between the centrality of sexuality in the dynamic and complex policy shifts on internet regulation in Brazil, and the relatively muted awareness and participation by women’s rights, feminists and sexual rights movements in the debate offline, in contrast to the vibrant activism, investment and engagement in the topic demonstrated by a diverserange of individual users online.

To read the introduction to the full research report discussing emerging threads and common gaps click here.
Emerging threads and common gaps: A synthesis
Jac sm Kee

Or skip directly to the country reports:

Brazil: Internet regulation and sexual politics in Brazil
Sonia Corrêa, Marina Maria and Jandira Queiroz (Sexuality Policy Watch)
and Bruno Dallacort Zilli and Horacio Federico Sívori (Latin American Center on Sexuality and Human Rights, CLAM)

India: Negotiating intimacy and harm: Female internet users in Mumbai
Manjima Bhattacharjya and Maya Indira Ganesh

Lebanon: Who’s afraid of the big bad internet?
Nadine Moawad and Tamara Qiblaw

South Africa: The internet and sexual identities: Exploring transgender and lesbian use of the internet in South Africa
Jeanne Prinsloo and Nicolene C. McLean (Rhodes University)
and Relebohile Moletsane (University of KwaZulu-Natal)

United States: Restricted access to information: Youth and sexuality
Kevicha Echols and Melissa Ditmore, Sex Work Awareness