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Compartmentalize, or you'll get 20 lashes! (unless you're into that sort of thing)

Recently I was interviewed by a graduate student who was working on a thesis about representations of female sexual empowerment in popular culture. Much of our conversation centered on women's usage of the internet. One of the first questions she asked me was whether I thought there was still a stigma against women being openly sexual online. After stumbling over my words because I couldn't get the "yes" out fast enough, I gave her an example that shows just how much of a problem this is.

I go to a lot of conferences, unconferences, and all variety of social media-oriented events. Frankly, I'm feeling a little conferenced out at this point. Anyway, at each of these events I go to, there's almost always a panel or session or discussion group focused on the question of how to "present yourself" online – usually framed in a business context. And even if there isn't a session nominally devoted to this topic, it ends up coming up sooner or later. It's obligatory, just like the incessant "bloggers vs. journalists" debate.

These discussions can get quite heated, with people becoming very earnest about not wanting to look "unprofessional" online. Women in particular tend to get very worked up about it (which isn't surprising; there are expectations placed on us that men won't ever experience). Without fail, the ultimate example of "unprofessional" is always something sexual. Someone will be ranting about the presentation of their professional demeanor online and attracting new clients and blah blah blah, and it's only a matter of time before they make an offhand remark like, "So, I'm not going to go around posting naked pictures or anything!" Such comments are usually received with much laughter and nodding in agreement.

So, YES, if one's sexuality is the ultimate representation of what it means to be unprofessional, then absolutely we have a problem here.

Don't think the situation is quite as dire as I'm making it out to be? I'll give you just a few more things to chew on.

A few weeks ago we completed a new, thoroughly awesome press release for Sex 2.0, and I circulated it to several local news outlets. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which is the major newspaper in town, bounced my email; as it turns out,'s spam filter automatically rejects any message with the word "sex" in it. Anything vaguely sexual isn't newsworthy, I guess.

I emailed a potential wifi sponsor for Sex 2.0 and didn't hear back for several days; when I did hear back, the person explained that my email had gotten caught in a "wildly undersexed spam filter" (complete with winky-smiley emoticon). Also, they turned down the sponsorship because the company was "probably too prudish."

Comments from Figleaf and Kochanie of the thought-provoking blog Real Adult Sex always get marked as spam by Akismet. Before I upgraded to the latest version of WordPress, I had the Akismet With Local Whitelist plug-in, and it was a lifesaver in this regard. Unfortunately it's not compatible with the new version.

Viviane, proprietress of the popular sex blog Viviane's Sex Carnival, had her MySpace profile unceremoniously deleted simply for having a text link to her blog.

While we're pointing fingers at MySpace, how about this weird message, which comes up when you click the link to The Sensual Vegan's web site from their MySpace profile (click to enlarge):

Here is the "very naughty" page in question (shockingly offensive, I know):

Meanwhile, MySpace's own homepage is just fine and dandy:

The Sensual Vegan situation is a perfect example of what Lux Alptraum was talking about in her recent Boinkology post, The Pink Ghetto: The Mainstream Media, the Madonna, and the Whore:

The media is all too happy to cover sex when it's sensationalistic, when there's a scandal, when they can cluck their tongues about what this world is coming to while simultaneously showing us Paris Hilton's goodies for our masturbatory pleasure.

Bring on your sex toy busts, your celebrity sex tapes, your teen sex scandals: the media will eat it up and serve it back to us on a platter.

But try discussing sex in a healthy, rational way: try talking about sexuality in a rational, intelligent matter, giving the topic the sensitivity and insight it deserves. Suddenly you're perverted, you're sick, you're unmarketable. (emphasis mine)

It's exactly this frustration that led me to organize Sex 2.0 in the first place. After a particularly maddening incarnation of this debate at SoCon07 (in a session entitled "Women and Blogging"), I resolved that I would not keep having this 101-level conversation over and over again.

We have to keep chipping away at these arbitrary walls that define what constitutes "professional" and what doesn't. Being an eternal optimist (sometimes to a fault), I can't not believe that social media will help us transcend the bullshit stereotypes we've been dealing with all our lives. But it's not going to do it on its own; that's where the "social" part comes in, after all.

Oh, and one last thing. For those of you headed to SXSW this week, be sure to check out these panels:

Tags: conferences, identity, MySpace, professionalism, Sex2.0, sexuality, socialmedia, SXSW, unconferences, women