- People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet by Katrien Jacobs
The last decades of the 20th century saw a series of debates around sex and sexual expression: in the 1980s there was the feminism versus pornography debate; in the early 1990s there was the attack on the National Endowment for the Arts; and in the mid-1990s there were the public panic attacks over sex on the Internet. Accounts of these struggles were largely in English and entirely centered on the United States and Europe. Katrien Jacobs has done a great service in her new book in the contribution it makes to understanding the struggles for sexual freedoms and expression on the Internet in China and Hong Kong, within the sociopolitical and cultural contexts of Chinese-speaking Asia.
Many might dismiss cybersex as a frivolous topic, given other social and political challenges Chinese face in daily life. But that very dismissal is one of the issues that scholar/activists like Katrien Jacobs call into question. Sexuality in all its complexities, contradictions, compulsions, and creativity is a fundamental aspect of human life, and its modes of expression are necessarily political and resonant with other sites of contestation.
Indeed, the entrenchment of sexuality within larger questions of civil and political freedoms has a very specific configuration in China, one that Jacobs illuminates as one of the rationales for her study. She writes,
Sex and pornography have become central forces in China’s twenty-first-century politics, in its technology and cultural policies and in its blueprints for Internet governance.… The Chinese Communist Party aspires to control activism and political movements, yet it also promotes a specific type of netizen activity through commodity fetishism and/or consumerism.(pp. 13–14)
Jacobs’s aims in the book are courageous and ambitious. Because of the highly sensitive nature of the investigation, a good deal of the book necessarily focuses on her research methods and the constraints that the focus itself imposes upon the endeavor. Furthermore, because the Internet is so vast and the modes of expression not only various but also at times elusive or quixotic, Jacobs was careful to map the individual aspects of her topic across clearly defined subfoci in five chapters. Not only does she spell out the aims of each chapter in the introduction, but each chapter itself occurs between an introduction and summation of what [End Page 168] happens in it. So that this review can proceed with a similar clarity, I begin by following Jacobs’s own blueprint.
The first three chapters maintain the typical academic distance from the subject they cover: (1) “the changes in sex industries and commercial porn sites that affect consumption in mainland China,” and “the work of artists and netizens who uncover China’s burgeoning sex/porn industries”; (2) sex blogging; (3) interviews to determine the “potential of pornography as a politically transgressive force and educational tool” (pp. 20–21). Chapter 4, however, documents Jacobs’s own experiences as a “participant observer” and interviewer of other members of a “massive sex-and-dating website.” While chapter 4 is perhaps the most controversial in both topic and methodology of research, Chapter 5 is the most eclectic, covering Japanese-inspired costume play, female fans of male same-sex romances, and transgendered and gay and lesbian alternative digital venues (p. 161).
The first two chapters are extremely successful in making the book’s major arguments overall. It demonstrates the importance of sexual expression on the Internet from a variety of angles, particularly in terms of who figures in these struggles and the strategies they adopt—particularly important as these struggles are intimately (no pun intended) related to the struggles for more broad-based civil and political rights. Prominent in this chapter is the figure of artist Ai Wei-wei, whose international reputation has not included his championing of sexual expression online. His strategically staged seminude self-portraits are clearly modes of political activism consonant with those actions he is better known for abroad (pp. 82–84...