Evangelicals and sex on the Internet: a book review

Kelsy Burke
Christians Under Covers. Evangelicals and sexual pleasure on the Internet
Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016
978-0-520-28633-7

[This review first appeared at Reading Religion. What follows is a shortened version]

Evangelicals, we are led to believe, have a problem with sex. On both sides of the Atlantic, if the mainstream media knows anything about Christians and their views on sex, it is that Christians cannot agree, and particularly on the status of gay relationships and the nature of marriage. These debates are complex, but the stereotype of the Puritan, whose conservatism covers not only the contexts in which sexual intercourse is permissible but also which forms it may take, has tended to color all evangelical thinking on sex a single shade of grey.ch-under-covers

Kelsy Burke’s new study of evangelical sexuality websites tells a new, finely nuanced and wholly convincing story. Her raw material is close readings of a group of websites — message boards, blogs, and, yes, sex toy stores — supplemented by extensive survey and interview evidence. In them Burke uncovers a “new evangelical sexual logic”, in line with an older principle: that sex is to be between married, monogamous heterosexuals. Within those bounds, however, the Christians Burke observes find spaces online in which they are available to work out, individually and in dialogue with others, the most pleasurable and fulfilling ways to enjoy their relationship with their spouse. Here is there no Manichaean duality of body and spirit, no ascetic mortification of the flesh. Users present their own prayer, personal testimonies, and interpretations of scripture in an iterative form of “lived religion,” that fills in the empty spaces within the bounds of official interpretation on matters that are rarely broached face-to-face in local churches.

For scholars of the Web and of the Internet (Burke rarely distinguishes between the two), there are many suggestive and intriguing lines of enquiry here. Acting anonymously might, on the face of it, be expected to present difficulties to the Christian. Burke’s subjects short-circuit any unease by means of a stress on the omniscience of God. One might be acting anonymously, but God is one’s witness as to the integrity with which one conducts oneself. Evangelicals have often attempted to create safe spaces and alternatives to the cultural products of a corrupt world—Christian film, Christian holidays, Christian heavy metal. Here, we see Christians creating safer stores for sex aids, in which they may be purchased without the unacceptable messaging that would surround such a sale in a secular store. Also interesting are the ways in which authority is constructed. Evangelicalism has historically been amongst the least clerical among Christian traditions in its control of which voices are heard and which may be trusted. Here, even that relatively loose emphasis on external validation by an institution is unpicked; those who create and maintain these sites do so on the basis of their marriedness, their personal piety, and their sense that they are under the gaze of an omniscient God.

If there is one area in which I would have wished to see more, it is on the nature of the Web itself. One of the governing myths of the Web is that it is a boundless space of infinite possibility, free from control, in which users and site owners may create their own reality. But each website is in fact an amalgam of conscious and unconscious design choices made by site owners, embedded in the software applications they develop themselves or license from others. These choices are made both in anticipation of and in response to the needs of users, insofar as they are known. How a website looks, and the things it allows users to do and not to do, are part of this story, into which the author might have gone further. It would have made an already fascinating and suggestive study even richer.

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Religion in Web history: a survey

I am currently working on a chapter contribution to the forthcoming Sage Handbook to Web History, edited by Megan Sapnar Ankerson, Niels Brugger and Ian Milligan. Although the inclusion of the paper is subject to peer review, here’s my abstract. It should appear some time in late 2017.

“This chapter seeks both to assess the state of current scholarship on online religion, and to suggest potential directions for future research. There are now 20 years of research in the field of Internet Studies in relationship to religious organisations, faith and practice. However, it is less clear that this body of work yet represents a specifically historical inquiry about religion on the Web, although it will in many cases provide the foundation of such work. Much of the research to date has concentrated on the nature of emerging communities of individuals: communities that were either an alternative or a supplement to face-to-face relations in particular localities. This chapter draws out trends emerging in this scholarship over the 25 years of Web history, as the affordances of the Web have developed. Attention has also been paid to the balance of institutional authority and individual self-expression in a religious space that is unregulated, or at least that must be regulated in new ways. The chapter asks how far this scholarship may be integrated into wider histories of offline religious authority and practice, which have themselves undergone shifts and transformations of perhaps equal significance.

“Rather less prominent in the literature so far is the institutional history of religion. Making use of the archived Web in particular, the chapter sketches the outline of a new area of inquiry: the evolution of the religious web sphere, both as a global whole, within each of the global religions and denominations, and at a national level. To what degree has the nature of the Web, a decentralised international network system which contrasts with the hierarchical nature of most religious organisations, moulded the religious web sphere into a different shape? Early studies in this area have suggested that, in certain key ways, the religious web sphere can be read as a reimplementation of older structures of influence, attention and esteem that were visible before, and remain visible offline. Insofar as the religious web does not mirror the traditional offline structure of religious organisations, the chapter also reflects on how far this changed shape may be accounted for by broader trends in religious history, in a period of rapid change. How far does it relate to the recent history of religion in the media more generally?

“At a more abstract level, the chapter will attend to the degree to which the myths of the Web, and indeed of the whole Internet – of a pluralistic, idealistic, liberating force with an agency of its own – have shaped understandings of the Web’s religious history. It examines how far the last quarter century has really been a period of rupture and discontinuity, and how much has in fact stayed the same, or continued on a path on which it was set before the Web appeared. It will also assess how far the field has so far been focussed to excess on the new, to the neglect of understanding the histories of how practices and technologies that were once new become mainstream.

Review: Society and the Internet

Earlier this month I wrote again for the LSE Review of Books. Since the Review is admirably free in the reuse it will allow, I republish it here under a Creative Commons licence.

Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives.
Mark Graham and William H. Dutton (eds.)
Oxford University Press, 2014.

The word ‘revolution’ is at a discount when it comes to discussing the impact of the internet, but current reactions to what is undoubtedly far-reaching and permanent change fit a longer pattern. Societies in the midst of rapid technological change often perceive the change as both radical and unprecedented. Previous technological shifts in communication have before been greeted in the same way as the internet, being understood in terms of utopia and dystopia. For some, the internet is a new technology in the vanguard of the inexorable progress of such abstract nouns as Freedom and Democracy. It dissolves the power of old elites, putting the power to communicate, publish, mobilize and do business in the hands of any who should want it. For others, it provides dark corners in which criminality may flourish out of reach of traditional law enforcement. It undermines the business models of cherished institutions, saps our powers of concentration, and indeed threatens the alteration of our very brains in none-too-positive ways.

These two mutually contradictory narratives have one trait in common: a naïve technological determinism. Both stories radically overestimate the degree to which new technologies have inherent dynamics in single and obvious directions, and similarly underestimate the force of the social, economic and political contexts in which real human beings design, implement and use new applications to serve existing needs and desires. It is the great strength of this stimulating collection of essays that at every turn it brings such high-flown imaginings back to the bench of empirical research on the observable behaviours of people and the information systems they use. Given the rapidity of the changes under discussion – the commercialised internet is only now reaching the age of an undergraduate student, as it were, with social media still in junior school – this kind of very contemporary history meets sociology, geography, computer science and many other disciplines in a still fluid interdisciplinary space.

The volume is very much the product of the Oxford Internet Institute, with all but six of the thirty-one contributors being associated with the institute in some way. The twenty-three essays are arranged into five thematic sections: everyday life; information and culture, politics and governments; business, industry and economics; and internet regulation and governance. Whilst the grouping is convenient as an orientation to the reader, the effect of the book is best experienced as a whole, as several themes emerge again and again. In this review I examine just three of many such themes.

One such is the complex geographies of the web. Gillian Bolsover and colleagues examine the shifting geographic centre of gravity of internet use. The proportion of total users who were located in the United States fell from two thirds to one third in a decade, and the proportion in Asia grew from a tiny 5% to nearly half over the same period. Bolsover and colleagues find that this shift in numbers is accompanied by distinctive geographic variations in the uses that users make of their internet, and attitudes to its regulation. Reading this chapter in conjunction with that by Mark Graham would suggest that these patterns of use map only loosely onto patterns of knowledge production (the “digital division of labour” between nations). These patterns of production in turn relate only inexactly with patterns of representation of places online; the “data shadows” fall unevenly. That said, the Global South both produces a small proportion of the content online, and is itself underrepresented as the subject of that content.

Many businesses, and media businesses in particular, have found the last ten years a time of particular uncertainty about the impact of the internet on long-established ways of doing business. Economists will be interested in two chapters which seek to address some of these issues. Sung Wook Ji and David Waterman examine the recent history of media companies in the United States, and point out a steady fall in revenues, and a shift from a reliance on revenue from advertising, to direct payment by consumers. Greg Taylor’s valuable essay examines the ending of the traditional economic difficulty of scarcity of goods by the advent of an almost limitless abundance of content online. This has created a different theoretical problem to be understood: the scarcity of attention that consumers can pay to that content.

Perhaps the most coherent section in the book is that on government and politics. Several governments (mostly amongst those western nations that were the early adopters of the internet) have placed considerable hope on online delivery of government services, and on social media as new means of engagement with voters. At the same time, both the chapters by Margetts, Hale and Yasseri, and by Dubois and Dutton examine the uses made by individuals of electronic means to organise and to influence government independently of, and indeed in opposition to, the agenda of that government. Governments have often expected greater benefits and lower costs from e-government; and political activists have tended to lionise the role of the self-organising ‘Fifth Estate’ of networked individuals to which Dubois and Dutton point. These five chapters situate all these hopes firmly in empirical examination of the interaction of politics, culture and technology in specific contexts.

Individually, the essays in this volume are uniformly strong: lucid, cogent and concise, and accompanied with useful lists of further reading. As a whole, the volume prompts fertile reflections on the method and purpose of the new discipline of Internet Studies. The volume will be of great interest to readers in many disciplines and at all levels from undergraduate upwards.