31 December 2007 by Jennifer
Some thoughts on the politics and practicalities of anonymous writing, jumping off from the “Sex Blog Girls” documentary on the UK’s Channel 4, 11 December 2007.
I rarely watch TV, but I knew about this particular programme from reading Bitchy Jones’ blog, and I was interested.
To begin with a one-sentence evaluation: I didn’t think the programme itself was that great. (TV rarely is, i.m.o., which is partly why I watch it so little.) This is no disrespect to the bloggers who appeared on it, who of course weren’t in charge of the editing or the voiceover narrative.
But the area it was about, I think is pretty fascinating. So I thought I’d write about some of the things the programme makers didn’t say, as well as pick holes in what they did say (and show).
A key event which the programme covered was the outing of Zoe Margolis as the writer of the “Girl with a one track mind” blog, and the book of the same name. She originally wrote under a pseudonym, but a mainstream UK newspaper named her in in 2006 – for no good reason i.m.o., but we’ll come to that.
By way of back-story, here are a few links to places in her own blog where she talks about it: (a) shortly afterwards, (b) a year later, (c) quoting an email sent to her at the time by the newspaper in question.
Off topic in a way, but it’s probably a good place to say here that I have a lot of respect for Zoe and her parents for how they dealt with the “outing” and its results.
Now I want to talk a bit about the politics and practicalities of writing anonymously. I felt that this area didn’t get much attention in the programme – and some of what they did say about it, I think they got wrong.
It seems odd to me in a way that they didn’t take the opportunity to talk about that more, because it’s an area that’s only recently become potentially relevant to so many people. For anyone with an internet connection, the chance to communicate anonymously can potentially become part of daily life – which, for most people, is unlikely to have been the case pre-internet.
There are lots of people on the net now who are known by pseudonyms for lots of different reasons, and with varying degrees of anonymity. (One example is the common situation whereby your close friends know it’s your blog, but you aim to ensure that your workmates don’t find it. You can also get into conversation with readers without them necessarily ever knowing your real name.)
I think that’s an interesting area even when those people aren’t writing about sex.
Web anonymity and me
When I was planning this blog, I did quite a bit of thinking about whether I would ever want an anonymous blog, or at least an anonymous identity to comment on other people’s blogs from.
If I did, it would probably mainly be in order to talk about sex. I think sex is a valid topic of conversation, and I’m interested in the politics around it. And I’m not ashamed of my sex life; I just happen to have this compelling sense that it’s none of your business, unless you’re someone I’m having some with.
(Plus there’s the tricky issue of protecting other people’s privacy, of which more below.)
But I came to the conclusion that long-term anonymity would be unsustainable for me. I foresaw the likelihood that one of the following things would eventually happen:
- Someone would go to the trouble of doing back-end internetty analysis stuff, or some other kind of deliberate snooping, in order to out me.
Probably not very likely unless I got famous.
- Or someone would just “twig” from the writing style that it was me.
I could avoid that by deliberately writing in a different style under my pseudonym. I’m fairly sure I’d be capable of that. But that would be annoying to have to do.
- Or, by far the most likely: I would get into an interesting conversation with someone under my anonymous identity, and then I would want to say: “Here is some other stuff I wrote”, and it would be something I’d written under my ordinary name. (When starting this blog, I already had a fair amount of similar earlier writing up on the web.) Or I would get to be friends with someone under my anonymous identity, and want to meet up with them.
And gradually there would be more and more people who knew who I was, and it would be more and more of an “open secret”.
To sum up points 2 and 3 above from a slightly different angle: How I think about sex is indivisible from how I think about everything else, so writing about sex would naturally connect up with all the other writing I do. So to keep them separate I would have to do quite a major amount of “reining myself in”. Otherwise, a post that started off about sex would evolve into being about all the other stuff, and to anyone who knew me, it would really obviously be me!
And if I were convinced (as I pretty much am) that the two identities would eventually join, then even under my anonymous identity, I’d still have to be careful of what I said. So in that case it makes more sense just to get my “what I will and won’t say in public” boundaries clear in the first place.
Those same factors wouldn’t necessarily apply to everyone, or lead to the same conclusion for everyone. I’m just saying I know myself well enough to see which way the wind would blow.
Web anonymity and other people
But at the same time, I think it is an excellent & cool thing that some other people are taking that opportunity which the net provides, and using it to talk honestly about sex and sexual practices and the politics thereof.
Note that what I’m talking about here is not synonymous with porn, and I’m not saying I think all porn is excellent & cool. (In fact, I don’t even think it’s possible to say very much useful about porn-as-a-whole at all. If I get around to doing an article about that, it’ll mainly be about not lumping together all porn, and how I think that different types of it are very different phenomena.)
On the other hand, there could well be some things in the “Honest talk about sex” which some people find sexually arousing; so that and porn aren’t entirely separable, either.
But what I’m enthusing about here is the “Honest talk about sex”, especially coming from women and queer people, unbiased by commercial considerations and unedited.
My favourite articles and blogs tend to include some element of political analysis, too – but even without that element, the very fact that these experiences and descriptions are being written down for public reading is political.
Is it a revolution?
The voiceover towards the end of the programme suggested that if people can still only write about this stuff anonymously, then not much has changed. We’re talking about a question of scale here (how big a change counts as a revolution?), but this swerve towards dismissing its significance struck a false note for me. I think this is one of the places where the programme missed the mark.
OK, anonymous writing is not new. What’s new is the sheer number of people participating anonymously – in not only blog articles, but the discussions that arise in comments, and the resulting nodes of community and mutual support. (And that’s just within the territory of blogging, which is a small subset of all the places on the net one might choose to be anonymous.)
Sure, it would be good if the social cost for putting your name on honest writing about sex weren’t currently so high. But the fact that people are writing it at all, and putting into words different truths which haven’t been said before, is still progress worth having.
In any case, as the Girl says (in the first of the three articles I link to above), you simply can’t write in the same way if everyone knows whom you’re describing, because other people’s privacy is involved as well as your own. So although obviously there is some connection, the desire to write anonymously for some purposes doesn’t always measure the liberation of society.
To elaborate on that a bit: The idea that any use for anonymous writing would disappear “come the liberation” seems to imply that the only motives for desiring anonymity are shame or fear. This reminds me of an argument for Big Brother-esque cameras and databases: you’d supposedly only care if you were doing something wrong or illegal.
What about the idea that people want to keep some things private because they’re special? Or because people have affirmed that the right to a private life is a human right? Or just for no reason?
Or, as is an aspect of the case here: because you want to share your experience of being with someone, for reasons which have nothing to do with them personally, and therefore without attributing the description to them, which might be unfair or burdensome to them?
I’m not saying that the results of anonymity are always good. It can be a way of avoiding being held to account for what you’re saying, and for what your words cause in the world.
But in the area of non-commercialised talk about sex, I think it is (and has been) on the whole a good thing.
This is partly why I think the outing of Zoe/Abby was such a pernicious act: it’s obviously going to squash that conversation down significantly, by scaring off potential writers who can least afford to be outed. We’ll all be paying a hidden cost of that, in the loss of voices silenced before they were ever heard.
See, to get people to shut up, you don’t have to go round dealing with them all one by one. You just have to make an example of the one who steps out of line. You can bet the rest will be paying attention.
So, yeah, bit of a gaping political hole in the TV narrative on that front.
I was pleased that they did include one interviewee’s opinion (which I share) that there was no public-interest justification for ending Zoe’s anonymity as a writer.
(“In the public interest” doesn’t mean “Some members of the public might have been interested” – it means “For the good of all of us in the long run”.)
But i.m.o. there was a whole other programme there waiting to be made – about the people who decided to out her, the justifications they came up with in their own minds, the commercial pressures on them, and so on, analysed critically via other interpretations of what happened (e.g. societal policing of women’s sexuality).
It was not foredoomed
Also, in an early bit of voiceover, there was a reference to Zoe/Abby’s “leading a double life”, which from its tone, seemed to imply that her actions were (a) sinister, and (b) foredoomed to a nasty come-uppance.
That was drama at the expense of accuracy: in fact, (a) there was no ethical reason why she shouldn’t write anonymously, and (b) she was sensible and consistent about protecting her anonymity, and it was only destroyed in the end by deliberate snooping.
At the beginning, she never expected to be famous; it would have taken quite some foresight to imagine what eventually happened.
We are not all the same
The programme commentary also included references to “revealing the true nature of women’s sexuality”.
Do all women have the same sexuality? No.
Are these few specific people, writing in the main about their personal experiences, revealing the hidden nature of all of us? No again.
Hard though it might be for some people to believe, not all women are exactly the same as each other.
Breasts in question
And as for that headless naked typing woman…
Well. I am curious. Does anyone want to pipe up here and say “Don’t be so cynical Jennifer, I am a sex blogger and I really do all my writing with no clothes on, even in the UK in winter, it’s a fact”? (And if so, do you live in a really well insulated house or something?)
Because I must admit my initial interpretation was more along the lines of
Person A: Oh dear! We have “sex” in the title and our programme is not sexy enough!
Person B: Don’t worry – I have the solution! We’ll find a thinly-plausible excuse for some recurring naked breasts! That will fix it!
(Not to say there is anything wrong with breasts. Breasts are wonderful. But hey, there is a time for looking at breasts, and a time for not looking at breasts. And also I like it more when the whole person is there, not just the breasts and no head.)
But, on the other hand, and not to end on a down note, let’s celebrate Bitchy Jones’ pyjamas – well, not the real BJ, the person playing BJ in the “reenactment”.
“Finally, a woman like me has got an unprecedented 3 seconds on the telly.” – BJ’s pointy and entertaining commentary on the representation of women in the programme and of dominant women in the media generally.