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Concerns over the availability of sexually explicit material in what has come to be termed "cyberspace" have recently blossomed into a national debate on the subject. Attempts to restrict access to the sexual side of the Internet have expand ed to involve universities, access providers, and the Federal Government, which enacted substantial new restrictions upon Internet content as part of the 1995 Telecommunications Reform Bill. These restrictions, which were ruled unconstitutional recently by the Supreme Court, were enacted in part due to research suggesting that the Internet is a veritable smorgasbord of pornographic entertainment, available to anyone, regardless of age, with a computer and Internet access. While there are serious questio ns regarding the research project which provided much of the press and governmental officials’ information on the subject, the issue is important enough to warrant more research before the social science community can claim to be informed. This pro ject assesses the content of images contained in one of the more commonly accessible Usenet newsgroups: alt.sex.stories.
The Internet, as it presently exists, is a interconnected network of computers owned by government, business, and education. Originally a small number of government and education computers interconnected for the purpose of exchanging defense-related d ata, the Internet has exploded in size in the last five years. Some estimates today place the number of primary, or server, Internet computers approaching ten million. Personal computers linked to these servers account for at least ten times that number. The data that are transmitted over the Internet consist mainly of electronic mail messages and file transfers, where data is transmitted from one computer to another. For example, banks can transmit information between branches, end users can download s oftware for their own computers, and business transactions may be performed.
Another major aspect of the Internet is the dissemination of information to a large audience through an aspect of the Internet called Usenet. Usenet, or the User’s Network, began in the early 80’s as a way for users and programmers of the UNIX operating system to exchange information and ideas. However it quickly grew to include discussions and information about a wide variety of topics. The Usenet architecture is that of a bulletin board system: users can leave messages "on" th e board, where they can be read by others. Each topic has its separate board, thus Usenet today has upwards of 15,000 bulletin boards, or "newsgroups". Online services such as Compuserve, America Online, and Prodigy, as well as most other Inter net access providers, have access to the Usenet newsgroups, including the groups dealing with sexual topics.
There are newsgroups on Usenet dealing with almost any topic: sports, computing, politics, recreation, education, and sex are all represented on this system. While the overwhelming majority of Usenet groups do not deal with sexual material, some of th e most widely accessed groups have names clearly indicating their sexual focus, such as:
However, one group which claims a general focus on sexual topics is alt.sex.stories. This group is purported to be one of the most frequently read newsgroups on the Internet (Elmer-Dewitt, 1993), a fact which is difficult to substantiate because of th e difficulty in monitoring "lurkers" (people whom do not post stories but simply read them). At any rate, alt.sex.stories is intended as a newsgroup where amateur sexually oriented written material is posted for viewing by others. As there is no particu lar slant evidenced by the title of the group, this material is likely to be varied in nature, encompassing a variety of sexual topics and material. The topics of each story are sometimes posted in the subject line of the posting, which is available in t he groups directory. Some of these abbreviated indications of story content are: pedo (pedophillia), pain, torture, n/c (non-consentual), beast (bestiality), f/m (heterosexual), m/m (male/male sex), f/f (female/female sex), and variations on the last two themes, such as m/m/m, f/m/m/m, f/f/f/m, etc.
An extensive literature review on the subject of Internet accessible depictions of this nature reveals very few systematic research projects. An upsurgence of interest in computer pornography and the alt.sex.* bulletin boards has been expressed in sev eral articles in the mainstream press (Elmer-Dewitt, 1993, 1994, 1995; Turner, 1990). A recent research project conducted at Carnegie-Mellon University (Rimm, 1995) examined hundreds of thousands of images of online pornography, but these were almost exc lusively photographic images, and were overwhelmingly culled from examination of private dial-up bulletin boards, rather than from Usenet images. Another project dealing with internet pornography (Mehta and Plaza, 1994) also examined Internet graphic ima ges. However to date there has been no published analysis of written pornography on the Internet.
As the Internet becomes more widely used, and as literally millions of people now have access to the Usenet groups, there is an increased need for a systematic analysis of this material. It is also important to realize just how easy it is to access the se newsgroups. From most university computer systems or Internet-linked home computers, it only takes a few mouse clicks and commands to access these Usenet groups.
In planning this study, several methodological decisions were made. First, due to the lack of prior research in this area, primary data collection was essential. The principal investigator (PI) (the first author) performed a content-analysis of 196 s tories, categorizing each story by what appeared to be common themes in the postings: pedophillia, homoerotic, nonconsensual sex, pain, bondage, torture, and other fetishes. Most stories contained more than one element being categorized. For example, a story about an adult man forcing sex upon a young female child would be categorized as "pedophillic" and "nonconsensual sex." Any other unusual or interesting aspects of each posting were recorded by the researcher.
A second methodological decision made by the researchers was to consider each posting as a separate piece of data for analysis purposes, due to the fact that some stories might consist of several postings over time periods as long as a few months. Thu s rather than 196 separate stories, the analysis consisted of 196 separate postings. Postings on alt.sex.stories which constituted narrative "stories" were considered valid data. Any posting which was in reply to posted story or a request for a story to be reposted was ignored for the purposes of this research. It was also decided that the most important element was the existence of discrete types of material in each story. Thus no effort was made to calculate percentages of each story sp ent on each topic or even the number of times an element was present in each story.
There was no attempt to place the data collection within any specific time-frame or time period. It was decided that a sample of two hundred stories would provide adequate data for a content analysis. As such, the PI began data collection at a conven ient time during the semester. Once the project was begun, all stories which were copied to the alt.sex.stories group on the news server (the server location is not being disclosed for reasons of confidentiality) were downloaded and analyzed for content until the sample size had been reached. The data collection took approximately two weeks, giving approximately one hundred usable postings per week to the newsgroup. Four postings were deemed unusable (incomplete or duplicates) leaving 196 postings for final analysis.
The results of this analysis were quite interesting in several respects (see table I). The most prevalent thematic element dealt with non-consent. This element was present in 40.8% of the stories. The non-consent element consists of stories of rape, child molestation, forced slavery, mind control, and other similar themes.
|Category||Percent of Stories|
|Totals exceed 100% due to multiple categorizations.|
The next most common element, present in 35.7% of stories, was the female/female homosexuality element. This not only included interpersonal relationships defined as lesbian, but female/female sexual encounters that include a male or males as well. T his is not a surprising statistic considering the popularity of pornographic movies that contain female/female sex.
Twenty four percent of stories analyzed included some element of bondage and 23.5% included some form of discipline, while 21.9% of the stories contained some element of intentionally inflicted pain. Stories in this category contained mild inflictions of pain such as spanking. Only incidences of pain that did not cause any permanent damage were included in this category.
A rather disturbing finding was that 19.4% of analyzed stories contained at least one incidence of pedophillic sex. The majority of these stories involved very young children having intercourse and oral sex repeatedly with one or more adults. Frequen tly, the adults depicted in the postings were sexually involved with more than one child per posting.
The torture element, which was present in 11.7% of the stories, involved very violent, sadistic types of sexual activity. Story plots ranged widely, from a man who tortures women by pulling out their toe nails and smashing their feet while engaging in sexual activity with them, to a story about a rapist who would pour molten plastic into his victims vaginas while video-taping the incident.
Other specific fetish behaviors were noted as well. The most prevalent of these were the following: Group sex was present in 8.2 % of the stories. Five percent of the stories involved an interesting, yet relatively undocumented fetish known as "fur ry." This fetish involves various sexual activities with anthropomorphized animals such as weasels and cats. These animals posses extensive human qualities such as speech, cognition, and the ability to walk upright. Five percent of stories involved som e kind of mind control (such as hypnosis, the use of mythical mind control machines or drugs) used to acquire sex and/or sex slaves. Four and a half percent of the stories contained some incidence of incest between close family members. The remainder of the sub-elements in the other fetishes category each comprise 2% or less of the total percentage of this element within the analysis.
Potential effects of the pornography available on the Internet can only be generalized from existing research on effects of pornography. An overview of research concerning the effects of pornography indicates that while the effects of "erotica" and no n-violent pornography seem to be minimal, the effects of violent pornography upon subjects attitudes towards women, coercive behavior, and realistic view of sex might be extensive and detrimental (Donnerstein & Linz,1986, Boeringer, 1994). However, l ittle research has been done upon the effects of written pornography. In one study, no effect was found for the exposed group as opposed to the control group. However, the study utilized "erotica" as opposed to hard-core written pornography (Malamuth, et al., 1980). In another study, Slade (1980) found that video pornography was relatively nonviolent compared to written pornography. Existing research done using pictorial pornography and film indicates that aggressive pornography does have a detrimental effect upon the attitudes (and possibly actions) of subjects exposed to it (Donnerstein & Linz, 1986; Demare, et al.., 1988).
In all likelihood little experimental research has ever been done using pornography as violent or as deviant as some of the postings available on this internet newsgroup. This is understandable considering the ethical problems of exposing subjects to such materials and the possible permanent effects that subjects might suffer. The extreme violence and brutality sometimes present in postings on the internet cannot be over-emphasized when discussing the potential effects upon viewers--especially young viewers. The PI of this study found it necessary to seek professional debriefing through the counseling services offered at the university after conducting this analysis. Caution and careful preparation is advised in expanding and replicating this resear ch.
A literature search in the area of cognitive and perceptual psychology also presents some interesting implications where computer pornography is concerned. Some researchers have found that subjects whom are computer literate and view computers in a po sitive manner at times absorb information more quickly and view it as more interesting than the same information presented on paper (Wang, 1989). It seems reasonable to assume that if someone is spending time on the internet that they are computer litera te and, more likely than not, view computers in a somewhat positive way. The interactive nature of computers as opposed to the static nature of pictorial, film, and text pornography could also play a role in a possible increase in effect upon the viewer. Future research should focus on this possibility.
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Copyright 1997 Electronic Journal of Sociology