Is it too late in the game to say “the internet changes things?” I know that’s very late-nineties-trend-piece of me, but it’s still going on and we’re still discovering what it means. Our dull, meaty monkey brains just move so much slower than the things we make with them. So, for now, I’m going to keep saying it. The internet changes things. Today, what I’m interested in is the way that it has changed our words. And not just consonantal, sputtering things like “jklol” but much heartier fare like “voraphilia.”
Just over yonder, Noah Brand has written a compelling piece about how life-affirming he finds the existence of weird porn to be. I think he’s right, but I want to talk about something a bit more technical. I want to talk about vocabulary.
The internet is a machine that churns out sex. It churns out sex in infinite, often impossible, varieties. It comes up with new kinds of sex and then gets really into them and crosses their mutant offspring with yet other kinds of weird sex. All breeding and humping and making things like furry goo girl vore porn. Furry goo girl vore porn about Doctor Who characters.
Despite this crazy crossbreeding and spawning of infinite variety, something really awesome happened: we all started using the same words to describe these things. Because all of that infinite sex would’ve been unreachable without terminological standardization. We have to standardize because the way to find things on the internet is to search them out.
Search engines make variety accessible, terminological standardardization actually makes that variety locatable. We would sidle up to Dogpile (remember Dogpile?) and ask “how many pictures of sexy women wearing suits are there?” And Dogpile would, ever the unjudgmental librarian, do its damndest to find us all the sexy pictures of women wearing suits that there were. Imagine, if you will, that instead of being merely demographically a lesbian, young Charles Emrich had actually been a lesbian. The vague search term “women in suits” would probably have lead him, eventually, to the word “butches.” And, thereafter, alternate universe lesbian me would have known that butches are what she liked and who she was attracted to, and she’d have been likely to use the word “butch” when seeking out or describing her desires.
It behooves the people looking to find, and those looking to be found, to use the same words. Take something like “CFNM,” which is “clothed female naked male” for those of you who find that following links disrupts the flow of your reading. It’s a pretty specific thing where submissive-ish guys eroticize situations where guys are not wearing very many clothes and women are wearing more. There ends up being a kind of selective pressure against a website using “women garbed, dudes ungarbed” to describe its content. As CFNM gains popularity, WGDU becomes less locatable.
And somehow this selective pressure has been enough to bring everyone into line. Everyone uses the same word, the same acronym for CFNM, for butches, and for most other sexual niches besides.
Standardization is the fertile matrix on which subcultures and identity flourish. As much as they talk about rebellion and counter-cultural resistance, subcultures work because at some point the words get standardized.”Cyber goth” and all the other barbarian tribes nearby it could never have taken root without “goth.” The net made the process even more necessary, and also much faster. So whole identity groups and sexual subcultures can spring up overnight.
Better and more interesting than their proliferation is what the invention of identity terms does for the people holding them. Standardization allows us to package complex ideas into compact words. Instead of saying something like “I like goth culture and fashion, but I’d like to emphasize the science fiction and technological elements of it, as inspired by books like Snow Crash,” we can now say “I’m a cyber goth.” This is doubly powerful when terms like “genderfluid” become standardized. Cyber gothery is easy to explain. Genderfluidity is not. It’s a term that doesn’t even mean the same thing to most of the people using it, but enables those people with a similar set of interests to find each other and discuss what what their genderfluidity means to them. It’s a term that packs up ideas so that they can be unpacked later.
I was watching a cute documentary about gay “bear” culture recently. Nearly every person they interviewed had some version of this story: “I was alone. I desired men who didn’t look like most gay men. I could neither explain nor describe that desire succinctly. Then I went on the internet. Then I found out about bears. Then everything made sense.” The power of monolithic words like “bear” or “goth” is that they set up a common flag for people to fly. And even though terminological infighting about the exact meaning of the word will always start and usually never stop, that never seems to diminish the power that identification has for those who suddenly find that they belong.
I owe the internet my identity. I’d never have come up with the words on my own. I’d have been stuck with “I love you and sometimes that means I want to punch you a lot but only if you like it?” Without the internet, my partner would be stuck explaining herself to people with a monologue about her experience of desire is really, really specific but not absent. Instead, we both stumbled around a bit until we found the words. And then, amazingly, we belonged.
Infinite variety requires some taxonomy. But the creation of that identity taxonomy does more than create boxes for us to sort things into. It creates spaces for us to sort ourselves into. Spaces to find and be found. Every time new sexual Newspeak gets fixed in the slang-space, it opens that opportunity for identification. And with identification, a feeling of sanity. Sometimes all you had before was a slur for what you liked. Sometimes you had nothing at all. But the instant that you find an accepted word that people are using like it’s just another word, you’re better off.
That’s why we need a word like “unbirthing” to exist.