Do We Need New Sex Rules For The Digital Age?

06/01/2011 12:03 | Updated 22 May 2015

In Laclos' 18th century epistolary novel, Dangerous Liaisons (the basis for Cruel Intentions), the Marquise de Merteuil's life is destroyed when the Vicomte de Valmont releases her venomous letters detailing how she used sex to humiliate her fellow aristos. But it took awhile for the word to spread, and even then, it was pretty much limited to France. Imagine the damage that could have been inflicted if the internet was around back then.

A modern-day version of that story arguably occurred recently when Duke University graduate Karen Owen's unofficial 'senior honours thesis' went viral. Chronicling her sexual exploits, the 42-page PowerPoint entitled "An education beyond the classroom: excelling in the realm of horizontal academics" describes 13 men Owen supposedly slept with during the course of her studies at Duke in graphic detail. And people took notice, not only because she's a woman, but because she spared no feelings, naming names and including photos of each of her bedfellows.

Sex was once something that happened behind closed doors, an intimate act with plenty of taboos surrounding it. Now it seems to be everybody's business, with sex blogs aplenty and homemade porn accessible with every keystroke. Sex always came with risks attached - STDs, pregnancy, performance anxiety - but now there are new ones: youthful indiscretion like covert taping or branding someone a sexual pariah can have lasting consequences, sometimes tragic ones, that stem from humiliation, betrayal and ruined reputations. The digital age has made sex more dangerous than ever since anyone with a computer and a webcam can potentially destroy someone's life.

While my assets won't be making an appearance in the next Girls Gone Wild video, if someone else chooses to flash the cameras while on holiday, I'm certainly not going to object (I mean, I find the whole enterprise distasteful, but it's their business, not mine). Likewise, I may not want to share the intimate details of my sex life like Belle de Jour blogger Dr. Brooke Magnanti, but I can't fault her for chronicling her sexual exploits - and I'm not sure that her lovers can either, since she had the courtesy to keep them anonymous.

I accept that nothing is sacred anymore when it comes to sex and that part of the whole Twitter/Facebook obsession with deluging the world with the minutiae of our own lives involves delving into the deeply personal. What I'm totally against is the idea that it's acceptable (or even applauded - Owen has been called a "hero" and is rumoured to be getting a book deal) to invade someone's privacy by publishing details about their sex lives for the entire world to see. Sending a nude photo or broadcasting someone else's sexual act (without their permission) is completely unacceptable and immoral, yet some view it as their right as a digital citizen. Many, like Owen, dismiss this kind of behaviour as a joke (even though she has apologised). I don't think there's anything funny about violating someone's basic rights to privacy and humiliating them in front of their peers and the world.

Owen only emailed her "thesis" to three friends; one forwarded it on and the rest is history. And that's the problem with the digital era, and the reason there needs to be a new sexual rulebook: no one has any control over where things end up, which means we need to be more careful to begin with. And it's not only about trusting others not to take advantage of us - we need to moderate our own behaviour. Remembering a drunken striptease is bad enough in the harsh light of the next day's hangover; seeing your naked body on YouTube for all eternity because someone taped you with their mobile is far worse.

In Dangerous Liaisons, at least Mme. de Merteuil could flee to Holland after society cast her out. Unfortunately, going back in time to a pre-digitalised age won't be quite so straightforward.

By: Jennifer Barton


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