Chatroulette has swept the the nation. I say “swept” because, like many things on the Internet, the novelty and hype surrounding chatroulette is proving ephemeral. That’s not to say that chatroulette is going away any time soon. In fact, we should expect Internet culture to continue to produce new opportunities for the random interactions at the heart of the chatroulette experience. Fellow Sociology Lens commentator Nathan Jurgenson not unfairly described chatroulette as a “downright capricious and aleatory experience.”
Perhaps the most contentious and reported aspect of chatroulette is the regular frequency with which one encounters people engaged in sexually explicit activities, particularly men masturbating. Clearly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Casey Neistat, producer of the video embedded here, divides chatroulette users into three categories: “boys,” “girls,” and “perverts.” While I don’t want to directly criticize this wonderfully made mini-documentary, I think it is good launching point for a discussion about the ways in which the norms and values of Internet culture may be transforming human sexuality.
If we go back to Foucault, we can define sexuality as a set of socially constituted knowledges and practices associated with erotic pleasure. Follow this definition, Seidman argued that queer theory is concerned with “those knowledges and social practices that organize ‘society’ as a whole by sexualizing.”
Traditionally, masculinity/femininity and heterosexuality/homosexuality have been the primary foci of queer theory. However, the objects of our sexual fantasies and mores are far more diverse than these two binary categories can capture. The tradition of queer theory invites us to ask the question: Why did chatroulette almost immediately become a hub of [sexual] exhibitionism and voyeurism, and why are social commentators so quick to dismiss it as perverted?
The Internet is a world whose fabric is constituted by freely circulating information. Increasingly (at least for those on the more affluent side of the digital divide), it has become a social imperative to subject every minute detail about oneself to the gaze of others. Our obsession with living in public extends from the most trivial acts (e.g., posting one’s latest meal on Twitter) to the most profound (e.g., mourning the death of a loved one by commenting on her Facebook page).
Isn’t it possible that [sexual] exhibitionism and voyeurism are just natural and logical extensions of a social system that places a premium on transparency? If such behaviors are consistent with deeply held social norms (however recently these norms have become part of our culture), can we call them perverse? I think not. Instead, I think we should reserve the term “perverse” for a social system that imbues certain activities with value and meaning, and then punishes, or even ostracizes, those who are only doing what society has disciplined them to do.