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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Women Turning to the Web to Explore Their Own Sexuality

While spammers stuff e-mail in-boxes with unsolicited invitations to porn sites and an innocent online search can lead unintentionally to X-rated content, another revolution on the Internet has taken place. Women increasingly are turning to the Web to explore their own sexuality. The Internet’s immediacy, ease of use and sense of privacy make many women more comfortable using the Net instead of going to their doctor or the library for sexual information. Some experts applaud the availability of women-friendly adult sites for health, education and entertainment, but others worry that the sites could do more harm than good if misused. “The more accurate information we have about sex, the fewer sexual problems we have,” said Lynn A. Vice, a psychologist and certified sex therapist based in Milwaukee. “But not everything that comes across the Internet is true,” added Vice. Nor does everything online promote the positive aspects of sexuality. And even accurate information on a Web site is no substitute for real relationships, said several experts interviewed for this story. Women who create and run these sites, though, say their goal is to help other women educate and empower themselves. “There is a very unfair double standard in our culture … based in nothing but abject fear of the freedom women would have if they had equal footing when it came to their own sexuality,” said Heather Corinna, who runs a number of popular sites geared toward women, including ScarletLetters.com and Femmerotic.com. Many of the women-friendly adult sites focus on education. Dorrie Lane, a 50-year-old grandmother in San Francisco who has worked on women’s health issues for 20 years, started the online Vulva University to fill gaps she saw in sex education. More than one million people from around the world visit the site monthly, and more than 8,000 students have registered for mostly free online courses on such topics as orgasm and masturbation. After registering for free _ though donations are encouraged _ students can access pages that discuss everything from the history of societal views on the topic to visualization techniques and other exercises to help women understand their bodies better. “My site is for men and women to come in and have that kitchen table you always wanted to have, where it’s comfortable to talk,” said Lane. Much of this is information women would be embarrassed to seek from a health care professional or local library. And search engines can make the information quick to find _ another factor behind the Internet’s growing popularity as a sex educator. “If you want to ask your doctor, you have to make an appointment _ that means calling the office and getting the receptionist,” said Russell G. Robertson, associate professor of family and community medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin.”I doubt a lot of women would feel comfortable leaving a message.” As the number of such women-oriented sites grows, so does the percentage of women visiting them. According to industry analyst Adult Internet News, women represented 14 percent of the online adult entertainment consumer base in 2001, up from only 3 percent in 1999. Sites that focus on erotica tend to attract equal numbers of male and female visitors, according to the sites’ reader surveys. For educational and health-related sexuality sites, women make up the majority of visitors _ at Lane’s Vulva University, for example, 80 percent of registered students are women. Sex-themed Web sites are intended for adults only _ but not every such site falls into the traditional definition of pornography. The often-disturbing imagery many people may associate with “Internet porn” is the “hard-core” genre traditionally made by men, for men, and catering tomale preferences, such as a visual focus on intercourse, limited and often derogatory descriptive text and fantasy “Barbie doll” body types. “Hard-core” Web sites represent only one extreme end of the cybersex spectrum. At the opposite end of the continuum are educational and health-oriented sites such as Vulva University, which contain explicit text and imagery but focus on providing information women can use to improve their sex lives and sexual health. In the gray area between hard-core and education sites is the broad category of erotica, and it’s here, especially, that women-run and women-friendly sites have been taking off in number and popularity. “Overall, we’re seeing much more material that is either designed for women, or is designed in a way that is more female-friendly than I saw, by far, when I first started pulling together ScarletLetters.com in late 1997,” said Corinna. Erotic material featured on sites such as ScarletLetters.com and the online magazine Clean Sheets include photos, short fiction, first-person accounts and poetry, ranging in explicitness from tamer than the current newsstand issue of Cosmopolitan to graphic imagery and text. Typically, the site’s home page is text only, asking visitors to verify they are 18 or older before clicking through to the table of contents or site map. When listing the available content, some erotica sites also include a symbol or mention in the summary that alerts readers to the more graphic material, which they can avoid if they wish. Letting women choose the degree of explicit material they view is the goal of many women-run, women-friendly adult sites _ filling a long-empty void, say experts. “Most women are comfortable with it and turned on by erotica,” said Milwaukee psychologist Vice. “What I see in my practice is that most women don’t know where to go to get erotic material. … Most of the erotica we see is at the supermarket checkout: it’s Danielle Steele.” In the past, most women felt uncomfortable venturing into adult entertainment stores or theaters, feeling that their privacy and even personal safety might be threatened. The Internet, offering access from the comfort of home, removes that concern _ particularly the free sites, which do not require visitors to enter credit card numbers or register personal information. “The privacy … is certainly a major factor,” said Corinna. “And that alone makes the Net ideal for women.” Key among the growing numbers of women-friendly sites is a wider range of body images and more diversity in content and sexual orientation. “We’re all different, and standard male porn rarely addresses this,” said Clean Sheets’ editor Susannah Indigo. “I believe that it’s not true that women are less sexual and erotic than men _ we’re perhaps just more complex and interesting.” Women’s comfort levels with online adult content tend to break down along generational lines, with surfers in their 20s and early 30s making upthe bulk of the audience for women-friendly sites. The Internet’s ubiquity on college campuses -and the prevalence of online adult content – have combined to erode many of the taboos once associated with explicit sexual material. “It’s changing our culture a great deal,” said Duvall. “The younger generation is growing up feeling less victimized, more like equals in sex … My daughters are going to grow up with healthier ideas than my generation did.” Some experts applaud the availability of women-friendly adult sites for both education and entertainment, but others worry that the sites have a potential for misuse. While the Medical College’s Robertson sees value in Web sites that provide accurate information for patients, he’s concerned about women taking information found online at face value. “The problem with the Internet is you just don’t know who’s answering the questions,” Robertson said. “How do you determine who’s credible?” ScarletLetters.com founder Corinna said smart sex-ed surfers will check out a Web site the same way they’d research a face-to-face therapist. “Check credentials, clips, media and other places which support a given person’s work,” said Corinna. Some experts are leery merely of the proliferation of sex-themed sites geared to appeal to women, both as educational tools and pathways to erotic exploration. Milwaukee-based sex therapist Vice looked at a number of women-friendly Web sites and gave mixed reviews. “The good part is that we have Web sites that are attempting to provide information,” said Vice. “That normalizes sex and gives women permission to be sexual, to talk about sex and to know they’re not alone … In general, we as a culture need more information.” Vice added, however, that even the most accurate information on the Internet is a supplement, not a substitute, for sex therapy for women with significant sexual problems. She felt that the majority of online adult material she viewed focused on the physical without addressing deeper issues. “All the Web sites I saw were lacking in the emotional and mental aspects of sex,” said Vice. “Simply knowing the right techniques is not enough to overcome sexual problems.” Medical College family physician Robertson found the sites even more problematic. “The availability of accurate information is certainly reasonable, especially … in the context of a healthy sexual relationship, i.e. marriage,” said Robertson. “But I’m extremely anxious about the pursuit of sexual stimulation … which is actually a form of almost drug addiction,” Robertson added. “Once you separate the physicality of sex from an intimate relationship, you’re really heading into fairly dangerous territory that will perhaps expose an individual to potential physical harm, the acquisition of a sexually transmitted disease and in many ways, would stunt their growth as a human being and as one capable of entering into a long-term relationship with real substance.” The women who run the new breed of adult sites will be the first to agree that the content they provide is meant to enhance, not replace, real relationships. “I think that women who are looking for sex information and thinking that it’s going to be a magic pill aren’t going to find it is,” said Vulva University founder Lane. “Sex is not the same as love. They’re two different emotional feelings,” Lane added. “I promote self-love and good sex.”