Online platforms bring new possibilities for sexual knowledge and expression

24 May 2022
Meet our SSSHARC Fellow: Susanna Paasonen
Hunt-Simes Chair in Sexuality Studies Fellow, Professor Susanna Paasonen speaks about navigating sex and consent online.
Susanna Paasonen

Susanna Paasonen is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Turku. She is a 2022 Hunt-Simes Visiting Chair of Sexuality Studies at the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC). As a visiting chair, she is conducting innovative research on intimacy, sexual expression and platform governance in social media.

Tell us about what you have been working on during your fellowship with SSSHARC?

I’m here to further my research in digital intimacies within platformed environments. I am very interested in the impact of moderation on sexual content particularly in the context of the pandemic when people have been in lockdown and unable to meet other people.

My research focuses on what happens when the platforms we traditionally use for sociability begin to frame out sexuality. I have also been working with legal scholars looking at sexual rights as a human rights issue. This involves thinking about content generation as a broad social issue rather than declaring “that’s obscenity” or “that’s pornographic.”

I'm interested in questioning how one learns certain pleasures and how the sexual self transforms as we live in mediated environments.
Professor Susanna Paasonen

What is your approach to sexuality studies?

I approach it from the point of view of feminist theory and queer theory – an approach that is critical towards certain kinds of norms and assumptions that are often taken for granted.

Traditional sexology has tended to be framed through very binary notions of gender, that is male and female, whereby sexuality has become tied to reproduction. In this framework, a book published 20 years ago arguing that sex is also about pleasure was framed as providing a new and controversial theory whereas both pleasure and issues of power had long been key to queer-feminist analyses of sexuality. 

I think about sexuality as variations and transformations rather than taxonomies. I'm interested in questioning how one learns certain pleasures and how the sexual self transforms as we live in mediated environments.

Are the terms sexuality and intimacy interchangeable, or do they signal something different?

Following Lauren Berlant’s take on intimacy as connections on which we depend for living, intimacies can be sexual or they can be different kinds of attachments, such as friendship or family ties. An attachment to one's dog, for example, can be very intimate in the sense that it is essential to how we are or how we want to be, whereas not all forms of sex are intimate in the sense of, say, emotional closeness. One way to think about it is that intimacy occurs when there's something at stake. There’s an element of risk and vulnerability involved. 

In media studies, digital intimacy is often used as a kind of synonym for sex. Because people don't want to say that they are studying sex, or hook-up cultures or porn, they sometimes say they are studying intimacy which sounds more respectable. 

I’m leading a project called Intimacy in Data-Driven Culture, which looks at the different kinds of vulnerabilities that emerge in data culture among different groups of people. We're exploring how social media influencers use intimacy as a form of currency. For example, we see many YouTubers using confessional tones to open up about their private lives. There are lifestyle vloggers on the platforms opening up about their relationships, mental health and other struggles. They are effective in establishing a parasocial sense of intimacy and closeness with their followers.

If we think of the network connections that enable these communications, then there's an interesting way of thinking of intimacy as a matter of infrastructure. That infrastructure of mediated intimacy is something we really depend upon.

How can young women work towards normalising and facilitating healthy discussions about sex and intimacy?

I would return to the classic question of consent but not as something understood in terms of a binary between “I agree or I don't agree,” but more so as a process that involves experimentation and the discovery of our sexual identities. The sexual self changes as we encounter different kinds of people and media. This points to how consent needs to be understood as something processional within any encounter.

As we go along in our sexual lives, there should be ongoing communication about boundaries and possibilities. I think it’s about bringing in nuanced discussion of what it means to consent and the possibilities of that consent. There are two ways of thinking about consent as one’s right, either in a negative or positive sense.

On the positive side, you have the right to sexual self-expression and sexual knowledge. Whereas on the negative side, you have a right to not be harassed. I think that when it comes to discussions around media, we are primarily constrained to the negative sense of rights and there is much less discussion about positive rights. And this is particularly crucial to women. 

There's an idea that women need to be protected and sheltered but that might also go against their own interests. An example is content media policies that don't allow images of female breasts, unless related to breastfeeding, cancer, or political protest. You have counterarguments from people who say that seeing nipples is natural and healthy, but there is no space in that discussion for women who want to show their breasts because that gives them pleasure. 

I'm not saying that there should be no content moderation, but that we need to rethink the logic of rights so that we have possibilities to exercise our positive rights, as we do the negative. Towards this, platform content policies should involve the possibilities of opting both in and out of engaging with sexual content, rather than just removing such context altogether, and for all.

Susanna Paasonen is a 2022 Hunt-Simes Chair of Sexuality Studies. Funded by the late Dr Gary Simes—a linguistic historian, bibliographer and University of Sydney graduate—the Hunt-Simes Chair of Sexuality Studies bequest enables a number of fellowships per year. Applications for 2023 Fellowships are currently open and close on 30 May. 

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