I am a documentary film director. Subjects of my films have included love, sex, 9/11, indigenous fisheries, hurricanes, refugees, HIV/AIDS orphans, and visualization of God. I am best known for the Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series of documentaries that simultaneously explore the vital role of sexual pleasure in committed relationships and the problematic place of explicit sexuality in cinema. This is my "Safe" blog.

Is the theory of Climax Ecology a useful tool for trying to understanding sexuality on the internet?

Posted: June 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

James Fallows at The Atlantic seems to think it’s an idea worth considering:

The long message below and after the jump is from film director Tony Comstock, of Comstock Films and the Intent to Arouse site. His argument is about not governmental controls but what he sees as unaccountable private controls on expression by Internet companies, above all Google. He contends that, out of concern about being seen as pornography-mongers, they end up suppressing legitimate discussion of “sexuality, especially sexual dissent,” which is his field of work.

You can read my message at TheAtlantic.com, or right here below the cut:I hope you would notice that [comstock films] and [tony comstock] do not autofill. Compare that to typing in [stormfront], which Google provides additional help in finding through autofill.

If a search string is in Google’s autofill database, it engages a whole series of Google helper features: it ensures the name is spelled correctly, suggests potentially relevant variations, and in its own subtle way adds Google’s imprimatur to the search. Of course it’s a small nudge one way or another, but these sorts of nudges add up.

Conversely, the sites that do not autofill (whether or not SafeSearch is on) all seem to suffer from prejudicial treatment by Google’s algorithm. In the course of my work, I’ve discovered various other facets of how Google’s search algorithms treat sexuality, especially sexual dissent: two-word vs. three-word search returns, [penis] vs [clitoris] under Google’s SafeSearch, and others. From my own little corner of the internet I’ve watched the disintermediated internet give way to an internet with powerful gatekeepers who use rather unsubtle tools to sift information, most especially alternative or dissenting views on sexuality.

In 2009, Seth Finkelstein wrote about the various search anomalies around sex for The Guardian, citing some of my research and writing:

The result is that the formerly disintermediated, gatekeeper-less internet that seemed to offer so much promise for disseminating our particular view on sexuality has become all but useless to Comstock Films in the simple “nuts and bolts” work of marketing our films, making money, and being able to continue to put our point of view in the pubic discourse. Before their big overhauls, Google search used to bring us visitors who spent a lot of time on the site, read lots of pages on the blog, and who bought DVDs.

Now, other than [comstock films] and [tony comstock] our search-driven visitors arrive mostly on odd search strings and seem to be (based on page count and time on site) mostly not finding what they’re looking for. We are caught in the endless battle between Google’s efforts to keep their search results “clean”, and spammers’ efforts to game the system.

These days we sell our films the old fashioned way; through Amazon and Blockbuster and other retailers. We pay the gatekeepers their cut, and value their role in helping us break through the clutter. (Indeed, one of the primary reasons I am looking to shift my work to an academic environment is that I see the world moving increasingly towards parsing images and ideas mechanically, and if I can, I want to carve out a place for myself where images and ideas are still parsed by actual human beings.)

I used to have a fairly self-righteous take on all of this, partly because of where my bread is buttered, but also because, like a lot of other people, I was pretty swept up in the “utopian promise” the early days of internet seemed to offer.

But more and more I’ve let go of the idea of prudery or sex-negativity or censorship on Google’s part and come to see this through a different lens, drawing on the work of Tom Atzet, former ecologist for the Siskiyou National Forest, and his application of the “climax ecology” theory.

I think analogies between biological phenomena and sociological phenomena are full of pitfalls, but I have found the climax ecology concept is a useful framework for examining the underlying conditions that give rise to certain creative outcomes; especially Atzet’s emphasis on distinguishing clearing events, which radically, but temporarily effect the flora, but do not effect the underlying ecology, and events so sweeping in their scope they effect the underlying ecology and destroy and/or create new niches.

It’s through that lens that I see the 1934 case “US v Ulysses” as creating a new niche for the exploration of sexuality in art, but see the post-Hays Code era (roughly 1968-1975) and the early days of the internet as mere clearing events. It’s from Justice Woolsey’s decision in that case that I took the title for my research project that I now hope to pursue in a more
formal academic environment: US vs. Ulysses: The origin of “intent to arouse” as legal doctrine.

I was also struck by Professor Wu’s [Timothy Wu, of Columbia Law School, in this original post] comments about utopian hopes giving way to disappointment and even distopias. Again, borrowing from Atzet, even if a new technology sweeps in like wildfire, if the technology does not actually change the underlying social ecology, the dominant species will reassert themselves. That would also seem to be contained in your opening comments, “Just a few years ago the answer to the dissenter/dictator question would have seemed so obvious we didn’t think it was a question worth asking.” In the early days of the internet it seemed self-evident that it was a change to the underlying social ecology that would shift power from the strong to the weak, but now that doesn’t seem so certain, does it?…

And just as I see similarities between the “clearing event” of the post-Code era and early internet, I see connections between Hollywood’s rationalizing their industry in the late 20s/early 30s and Google’s rationalization of their search product; and I think simply calling it self-censorship misses important aspects of the underlying “ecology” of commerce.

Both film and the internet swept in like wildfire, but the underlying ecology of commerce in sexually explicit images was not changed by either technology, and within a few short years, utopian visions of what would be possible gave way to the form reverting to what film studies people call “actualities”; filmed depictions of events bearing little if any
resemblance to any other form of cinema. Here’s a 2009 article from the New York Times with Steve Hirsch of Vivid Video, one-time top studio for “feature-style” adult films declaring the future lies in 3-5 minute, contextless clips, which more or less brings explicit depictions of sexuality back to the loops and smokers of the Hays Code era, any utopianist thoughts about sexuality and cinema the dismantling of the Hays Code might have inspired long since forgotten: Lights, Camera, Lots of Action. Forget the Script.

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