Polyamory: gender and non-monogamy on the Internet

Prezi

 

Text

Fernando Cascais

FCSH-UNL

 

Daniel Cardoso

FCSH-UNL / ULHT

 

New identities, new problems

Identities have an advantage and a disadvantage, all rolled into one: it is through identity that one can engage in identity politics and the reclaiming of rights and recognition; but it is also through them that one becomes a subject, and thus becomes subjected to normalization. The ability to engage in identity politics is the ability to exert power, but also the unavoidability of having power being exerted upon those who do so.

Therefore, first we need to explore what “polyamory” is and what it means, not only to polyamorists as such, but also from a meta-linguistic standpoint, so that we can understand what is at stake when talking about this specific identity. This presentation will begin by exploring briefly the several meanings associated with polyamory, then describing the research project, its main results, and how issues of sexual (and identitary) otherness are associated with how gender is perceived and interpreted, expressed and even ignored. We will then focus on particular instances where such interplay can be observed, and use them to comment on the theoretical background.

The basis for these results is the mailing list alt.polyamory, the first ever mailing list on polyamory, and one of the birthplaces of the word. This research was conducted in the context of a Master’s thesis in the field of Communications Sciences, which tried to understand how a moral identity and community was built within this virtual space, and the possibilities (as well as challenges) it posed to those that participated in it.

What is polyamory?

Although the adjective “polyamorous” has seen sporadic use since 1953 (Cardoso, 2011), the word “polyamory” only came about in the last decade of the 20th century, in two very different contexts: once associated with a neo-pagan inspired workshop on relationships, and again as a neologism used to create a mailing list (the first occurrence in 1990, and the second in 1991). None of the people involved knew about the others, and yet the meaning attributed to the word on both occasions was practically the same. Due to this, the internet became one of the main expression and organization points for polyamory, enabling people who were reflecting and doing activism about it to get to know each other and work together.

«Polyamorous people openly engage in romantic, sexual, and/or affective relationships with multiple people simultaneously», says Sheff (2005). «Polyamory […]is the desire, practice, or acceptance of having more than one loving, intimate relationship at a time with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved», according to the English version of the “Polyamory” entry on Wikipedia (2008). The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2009) defines it as «the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time».  Although these definitions might seem quite similar, there is one easily verifiable difference: how much agency and praxis each one allows for as a route to defining polyamory. It should be noted that this last one is the only that emphasizes «the state or practice» as a necessary element. Wikipedia joins practice and acceptance with one other element: «the desire [to]», and leaves behind the semantic field of “openness” to make clear that which in the other definitions is only present as sub-text: «full knowledge and acceptance».

Still, dictionaries and encyclopedias usually present a more utilitarian view of what identities are – a more academic meta-analysis is in order. Haritaworn et alia (2006: 518) define it as «the assumption that it is possible, valid and worthwhile to maintain intimate, sexual, and/or loving relationships with more than one person». The main point in this definition is that polyamory can be defined fundamentally as an assumption – in other words, as an ideological background or moral bottom-line from which an identity can then be formulated.

Polyamory’s relationship with sexuality, heterosexuality and monogamy is fraught with rupture. As Pepper Mint (2008) states, even if the people involved were to remain sexually monogamous or sexually inactive (as is the case with asexuals), the challenge to mono-normativity would remain: this challenge isn’t related with actual practices, but with the aforementioned assumption – in a way, it is the contradiction of yet another assumption, one that states that (romantic) love (and sex) must be lived only in exclusionary (or exclusive) pairs. Veaux’s (2010) “Map of Non-Monogamy” shows how several interceptions can be thought of between polyamory and other sexualities, also considered as deviant sexualities. From hereon we can posit the notion that polyamory is transversal to all other forms of sexual difference, as it is a relationship identity, rather than a sexual identity, but one that directly appeals to sexual practices and to sexualized notions of the subject. Polyamory is, therefore, situated outside Gayle Rubin’s (2007) “Charmed Circle”, and is stereotypically seen as a bad or deviant practice, as many sexual identities and acts are.

Polyamorous ethics?

So, what is the main guideline, in ethical terms, when it comes to polyamory? Well, it is said, jokingly, that the mantra of polyamory is “communicate, communicate, communicate” – this of course raises the question of what has to be communicated, and promptly raises the suspicion that this communication is, after all, just another form of confessional discourse (Foucault, 1994b). But, actually, the kind of discourse we find in blogs dedicated to polyamory, in forums and mailing lists, is not so much the typical hierarchical truth-game between the specialist and the analyzed (the game of confession works like that: someone talks to a specialist in order to be interpreted and to be told the truth about oneself) (Cardoso, 2010), but closer to what Foucault termed the epimeleia heautou, the ‘care of the self’ (Foucault, 2006b). Within the logics of the ‘care of the self’, subjects necessitate one another to form and develop their own subjectivities, and discourse isn’t a form of decryption, but enacted in search of commentary, of self- and hetero-reflexivity. Discourse is meant to be commented upon, reflected upon, not dissected in search of a higher truth. Both commenter and commented learn from this dialogic exchange. Foucault (2006a) talks about “writing of the self” as a form of epimeleia heautou, where a friend is fundamental for the subject to constitute himself as such, by using παρρησία (parrhesia), which means frankness. This writing comprises everyday events, the person’s own thoughts and feelings, unlike confessional discourse – it is ethopoietic, it produces ethos, by transforming truth into that very same ethos, empowering the “addressee, arming the writer – and eventually any other readers” (Foucault, 2006a: 148). Such an attitude has the potential to bring about an “intellectual ethics, a letting go of oneself as a form of constant self-refashioning”, where the subject can aim to form a co-incidence between his words and his actions (Cascais & Miranda in Foucault, 2006a: 25).

In much of this, polyamory seems to be interwoven of several characteristics presented by Giddens (1993) as part of the “pure relationship”, a relationship that is maintained for its own sake, only while all those involved feel fulfilled by it – and that contrasts starkly with the traditional view of marriage as a forcefully lifelong commitment.

As defended elsewhere, and employing here the four aspects that constitute a moral subject according to Foucault (1994a: 33, 34) (determination of the ethical substance; mode of assujetissement; elaboration of ethical work; subject’s teleology), the polyamorous ethical subject is linked to his own honesty or frankness; connects with groups of other polyamorous subjects so that he can constitute himself as a subject; he cares for the self, in order to (from the insider’s point of view) attain more freedom, independence and, ultimately, self-control (Cardoso, 2010: 63).

Within this frame, the subject seems, indeed, to be conspicuously without any gender markings. Even so, polyamory can be seen as a form of feminine empowerment (Cardoso, Correia & Capella, 2009) in two separate ways: first, its theoretical background entails the end of the moral double standard that accords men the possibility of having more than one sexual or romantic partner and be seen as more empowered by it whereas it demeans women who do the same; second, it brings to the foreground of discourse (the discourse that should be founded on parrhesia) the topic of emotions, feelings, of the private sphere, beyond the stereotypical rationality that is supposed to dominate male speech. Indeed, if (frank) communication is a corner-stone of polyamorous ethos, then such communication is only possible and effective under conditions of parity – a subdued alterity does not allow for the constitution of the subject. At the same time, this erasure of gender can generate other problems, namely that of invisibility. By disregarding the importance that gender has in our construction as social subjects (which is to say, we still live in a gendered world, even if we contest the standard binary gender system), one loses the ability to specify the problems that people of different genders have to deal with in their lives. Being a polyamorous woman is not the same as being, for instance, a polyamorous man, just like being a polyamorous heterosexual isn’t the same as being a polyamorous pansexual, asexual, bisexual, and so forth, with any possible combination of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious background, socio-economic status, etc.

Methodological approach to alt.polyamory

To collect the data for this presentation, all the conversation threads that related to newcomers presenting themselves where collected for the whole of 2009: a total of 26 threads, containing 2501 emails. From those, 13 threads were randomly selected in order to be subjected to Content Analysis. Due to inequalities in the number of emails per thread, this represented a total of 580 emails, containing 46.448 words (cf. Cardoso, 2010: 54).

The coding table used was a modified version of the one Keener (2004) used, whose main topics were Monogamist Prejudice, Mainstream Culture, Intimate Relationships, Core Relationships, Selective Social Circles, Self-Identity, Learning and Growing. The whole coding table was inserted in NVivo 8, along with other categories that were more topical and not as much related to the constitution of subjectivity itself. Such categories included, for instance, “BDSM”, and also “Gender differences” as conversational topics.

A sub-set of those 13 threads was then analyzed qualitatively, at the discourse level, trying to understand the ideological and latent structures present in the text, and how those could better help to understand community building within that mailing list. Likewise, here a few excerpts of text will serve as an example of the points raised before, and will also allow us to draw some conclusions as to how gender is seen to operate.

Alt.polyamory – general results

Considering all the messages exchanged in the given period, it’s interesting to see that one of the most frequent categories was one added to the original coding scheme: off-topic. Indeed, off-topic conversation is the single most frequent item in the corpus, in a mailing list that’s supposed to be single-themed (29% of all coded text). Although it is beyond the scope of this article, it should be noted that this ‘off-topic’ is far from irrelevant: it is through it that older members reassert their belonging to the community created there, offering support and giving their opinions about matters that are interesting to them as multifaceted people, not only as polyamorous (from open-source operating systems, to Microsoft-bashing, or the state of USA’s economy). This kind of off-topic messages is particularly frequent amongst old members, and absent from the mails that come from new-comers, thus separating a core group of users (some of them have been on that mailing list for more than ten years) from the new-comers, who usually come in, start a thread concerning a specific problem of theirs, for which they receive feedback, and then leave.

In second place, contemplating 28% of the coded text (almost as much as the off-topic category) is the “Honest communication is vital!” category, reinforcing the importance that honesty (meaning, frankness, parrhesia) has within polyamorous discourse. At a considerable distance comes the third topic (14%) – “Learning and Growing from Tough Experiences”. “Distribution and Exercise of Power” comes in 6th place, with 12% of text coverage, for example – another very relevant topic overall.

Overall, a few main themes can be seen as dominating most conversations: besides the off-topic issue, which we’ve covered, the “communicate mantra” appears (directly referred to as such) but with a twist: apparently, communicating is especially difficult (and subjective) since there are various kinds of communication within frank communication – the participants referred to those as ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ styles of communication – and people with different styles of communication can clash, thus making even honest attempts at communicating more difficult than it would be assumed. Indirect communication is also potentially associated with violence – passive-aggressive behavior that might (or might not) be behind indirect communication (communication that is based on latent meanings, rather than manifest). This is a topic that is associated with stereotypes of femininity, so we’ll return to this later.

One other topic that permeates the discourse of those who participated on the debates was that polyamory is hard work – emotional work, scheduling work. But all with a clear goal: to reach a greater level of perceived empowerment. What exactly is the measure of that empowerment? Control – emotional control as it implies control over one’s life, control over the origin of those very same emotions; not necessarily a suppressive form of control, but one that would shape one’s emotions by reflexively (and rationally) analyzing them and thusly mastering them. As feelings have power over these subjects, as they feel feelings as something within that acts upon them, so do they search for a way to have power over those feelings. This raises a problem: others might try, also, to control one’s feelings, instrumentalizing them and thus the person to whom they belong – in this sense, mastery over oneself and one’s feelings is also a safeguard against the loss of autonomy due to external malicious action.

A minor, but still present, point is that of exclusion. How does something become not-polyamory? Most references to ethical breaches, in the situations most people present when they first join the mailing list, are related with matters of attitude: when someone believes they’re being pressured or surreptitiously influenced by another person – meaning, when there is a suspicion that the principle of parrhesia is being violated – then the fundaments of polyamory are being violated, and the subject’s autonomy as well.

Markers of gender (trouble)

Let us now approach more specific results dealing with gender itself, and how it manifests in the text, firstly by looking for specific gendered textual marks; and then by seeing how gender organizes discourse around some of the themes we’ve mentioned before.

Some of the terms in the table below are expressions common enough in English when making general assumptions about gender – others require further explanation.

Expression

Frequency

Threads

"men are"

0

0

"women are"

0

0

"feminism"

0

0

"feminist"

1

1

"zir"

14

2

"zie"

8

3

"females" / "female"

12

4

"males" / "male"

2

2

“gender”

3

3

Table 1- Frequency of expressions (excluding quoting repetitions)

It is interesting to see that results don’t all point in the same direction. If we were to assume the notion that polyamorous discourse is deeply feminist (as it embodies many feminist principles, like we’ve seen to an extent (Cardoso, 2010; Cardoso et alia, 2009)), then we’d have to conclude that it isn’t specifically feminist, as many concepts central to feminist discourse (and even the expressions “feminism” or “feminist”) are virtually absent from the analyzed threads. Those that appear, do so only rarely – bear in mind that the frequency indicates the absolute number of times each word appears on the corpus.

Does this mean that gender markings are wholly absent from discourse? Not at all: “her”, for example, shows up 859 times (not discounting repetitions in quotes), and “she” appears 812 times. “Him”, on the other hand, shows up 398 times; “he”, 627. It’s obvious these word counts cannot, by themselves, explain or give an adequate picture of how gendered discourses circulate through all those e-mails, but they do give us a notion of the overall tendencies. Again, men are less referred to (through pronouns) than women, which can be read in contradicting ways: are women the outsiders that need nothing more than a pronoun to be talked about; or are they the main authors and characters? The same applies to “male/males” and “female/females”. Is there an assumption of masculinity as the pattern that needs not be named, needs not be identified as such?

There are a few other details that need further exploring: the words “zir” and “zie”, specifically. Both are words that technically constitute neologisms by corruption of German words, and mean to replace pronouns, that carry a gendered weight in English. It’s possible to see, especially comparing with the gendered versions of the pronouns, that their usage is minimal, focused on some posters who could be more attuned with Judith Butler’s notion of causing “gender trouble” (Butler, 1999). Even so, let it be noted that there are more subtle ways to make gender grammatically inexistent used here – for instance, the practice of replacing the names of people with first letters serves, at the same time, to ensure privacy, but also to conceal the gender of the person in question (when associated also with phrasal constructions that avoid the usage of pronouns).

Gendered discourse – communication

As said before, communication is both one of the cornerstones of polyamory and, at the same time, one of the hottest topics in debate, since honest communication is a goal to achieve, but there are many ways to do so, many different styles to practice frankness. One of the threads collected dwells precisely on this point. The part about how to communicate starts with a user – Serene Vannoy – saying:

I've become more willing to be what I call "a mind reader" after having a few relationships with indirect communicators, to whom a lot of what I have historically seen as passive-aggressive hinting looks like perfectly clear and obvious communication. […]"When you're communicating with someone you love, the goal is not to get them to communicate in a way you're completely comfortable with -- the goal is to *communicate*."  That helped me to remember that the *listening* part of communication is as important as the *communicating* (speaking) part of communication.  If I *know* what my partner is saying, or am pretty sure I know, but I dig in my heels because she's saying it in a way I think is passive-aggressive, then *I'm* the one who's being a bad communicator.

A following reply states that direct versus indirect communication has more to do with personal preference, and that the aggressiveness is in trying to force others to engage in one specific kind of communication when they prefer the other. Further bellow, on clarifying situated uses of direct and indirect communication, Serene Vannoy exemplifies:

During the last big argument I had with an indirect-communicator partner, one of the things that was hardest for me to take is that zie said that I was "shutting [zir] down" in trying to make zir talk to me directly about zir feelings and thoughts. It was inconceivable to me that I, who pride myself on always being willing (nay, eager) to talk out relationship problems, was seen as the reason why my partner was becoming less and less willing to talk about the relationship problems.

 

But then the conversation takes a gendered turn, as one of the participants says that there is “a definite gender bias toward IC [indirect communication] in the females I know, and to an extent that’s a social norm […]. I find this creeping up on a subject irritating, especially when it’s clear that there is an implicit request embedded in there […]”. To that, another user replies confirming the anecdotal evidence.

Afterwards, the conversation continued on the topic of communication (and on several other topics, such as medical research in the USA), but there was no further comment on the issue of gender when it comes to styles of communication. Also, the choice of those two types of communication as analytical categories was even put into question by another user:

The distinction often made here between "direct" and "indirect" communication strikes me as ill-conceived; there are myriad styles of expressing oneself, after all, not all of them easily intelligible to everyone. If I fail to understand someone, I might be tempted to ask him or her to be more "direct", when the reality may be that we are simply used to communicating differently.  

 

The end of the thread, on the other hand, is quite telling, as it involves a statement around the function of alt.polyamory, and the shaping force that it constitutes as a practice for the care of the self. Again, it’s Serene Vannoy who says:

I was more likely to do that [take a hint as an opening for conversation, or possibly offer to do something] before alt.poly alerted me to the possibility that not everyone means things that way.

 

This small email contains the possibility of change, mentioned before, and of this specific community as a resource for change, something to be harnessed and that can be mobilized by the subject for his own self-fashioning, in a sort of educational interaction that’s not so different (schematically) from its Greek initial background.

Gendered discourse – poly-problem-solving

One other thread we wish to discuss concerns a young college student, male (which bears relevance to the matter at hand), who went to the mailing list because, as many other newcomers, he had a problem that needed solving.

Now for the poly-ness of the situation:  Jennie and Misty recently became intimate.  It took a great deal of courage on my part as I have had several horrible experiences with the matter (mostly because I don't approve of my partners becoming involved with people they have no feelings towards, or have no feelings towards them).  Misty's new boyfriend, Fred, and myself had front row seats to the event.  We wanted to keep it a group activity while allowing the girls as much privacy as possible. I need to admit something odd: it wasn't exactly sexually arousing (which in itself is odd), but it was the most beautiful thing I've ever witnessed. […] So we are already in a vee where Jennie is the pivot and Misty and myself are not involved with each other.  My wish is to bridge that gap and start something more serious with both of them. […] I've talked to Jennie about bringing someone in to our relationship and how I feel that it's something that I really want for myself.  She was very supportive of the idea, as she enjoys the company of women greatly, and is just self less like that sometimes. I haven't, however, confronted either of the girls about my feelings for Misty, as I fear this might not be the right time for that card. What do I do?

 

Vicki Rosenzweig is the first to reply, and in the midst of a very lengthy e-mail, this user deals with gender:

It may be that she and Misty have talked about relationships and she knows how Misty's boyfriend would be likely to react. [It's not impossible that he'd be bothered by her having another boyfriend, even though he doesn't mind her having a girlfriend: either because gender matters to him in this context, or because he doesn't think she'd have enough time for three partners and her schoolwork, or for some other reason.)

All I'm sure of is that _we_ can't tell you what he, or Jennie, or Misty thinks. Only they can do that.

 

Following up on some comments being made, as well as suggestions, the original poster replies:

I meant exactly that, socializing as a foursome, where the two fem partners are both sexually involved.  But ultimately I would like for the relationship to be only the girls and I.  This sounds rather selfish, but I want them both in an entirely romantic way, and thus cannot consider myself to be over indulgent.[…] Jennie and I are indeed serious,  but I am not interested in having Fred involved in any way.  Yes, I am talking about screwing over a friend and taking his happiness from him.  And yes, I do feel horrible, but I've come to terms with the fact that this is simply my truest desire.

 

The responses were, to a point, contrary to the original poster’s expectations, making him complain that he felt attacked, and that a lot of people hadn’t given him any useful advices. To this, one of the regulars there replied:

This is your statement about yourself:

"Yes, I am talking about screwing over a friend and taking his happiness from him."

If you think coming into a group on polyamory, which is all about loving multiple people, and NOT about breaking up existing relationships, and talking this way is not going to raise some serious objections, then it's *you* who don't understand the atmosphere of this group.

 

Vicki Rosenzweig brings gender, once again, to the table, inasmuch as it relates to expectations and sexual stereotyping:

OK, another question: do you realize that there are a lot of men who think a triad with them and two women would be wonderful and exciting, and that one with them, a woman, and another man is unthinkable?

If you hadn't realized that, think about how it's likely to affect women's reactions to this sort of thing. Het[erosexual] women tend to see that as "he gets more than one partner, and I don't," and lots of bi women have run into the version where either they're expected to have sex with the other woman in front of the man, or only as part of threesomes. Most of them don't like it much, even the ones who enjoy threesomes some of the time.

 

The contours of this conversation raise several important issues. First of all, there is the (misogynist) stance of the original poster, who intends to find out the best way to impose upon others his own will and planning (he goes as far as calling himself “a douche”), regardless of even his own ethical standards; second, the fact that his plan involves a re-centering of those women’s sexuality around himself, where he could be a spectator or a participant, but in both cases, a commanding force in their desires. Against this, several posters commented in defense of the need to acknowledge the autonomy and self-determination of all involved. Again, communication is presented as being the key, and polyamory works only when (according to one of the participants) all involved get to be agents in the decision-making of the things that affect them, rather than being forced to react passively.

This in turn leads us to the third aspect: the women’s reactions, to which we only have indirect access, and the speculation that is initiated, is based on their categories as gendered subjects and as sexualized subjects (namely, the categories “woman” and “heterosexual” or “bisexual”).

So, here, gender is anything but invisible, anything but unimportant to the conversation, and both gender and sexual orientation can be seen as framing different sets of expectations and, therefore, posing separate and specific challenges.

Where’s gender in alt.polyamory?

As we’ve seen, there is no clear answer to the question “Is gender present or absent from alt.polyamory?”, there are a lot of different factors that have to be weighed together. And we’ve been looking at three separate elements: the role of emotions within the polyamorous ethos (as something that is imported into the public, masculinized sphere); the different ways to communicate frankly (and how some might relate to gender stereotypes); the sexual mores and autonomy, and its relation with preset stereotypes about gender and sexual orientation.

Emotion is indeed present in this mailing list, as a conversational topic, and as something that needs to be put under control. This very same injunction to control (to autonomy from feelings, in a way) gives this topic an uncertain standing. If, on the one hand, it is not shunned away in favor of a pure rationality (something that our Cartesian cultural frame makes it hard to accomplish), on the other hand feelings are meant to be kept under control, and function in an apparent externality to the subject itself (some posters commented on the chemical and neurological aspects; others on more metaphysical aspects of feelings and their relation with rationality), and so even the fusing of (stereotypically) male and female themes is diminished by  this instrumental take on feelings and their relation to how the subjects see themselves.

Communication, and different models of communication, seem to be linked, here, to gender roles as well. Although this detail did not generate a lot of dialogue, it also didn’t generate any opposing points of view, which is indicative that it’s seen as something that goes without saying, that a consensus exists around it, or that it was not seen as important enough by other mailing list members to merit further discussion. Still, it bears reminding that even this association between the category of “female” and “indirect communication” is not seen as essentialist, but framed in terms of social conditioning. Here, no studies or relevant reasons are given, beyond each person’s private experiences, and those serve as anecdotal evidences, that in a way support themselves, argumentatively. At the same time, the notion that indirect communication is somehow inferior (less explicit, and thus less rational than objective-oriented direct communication) is discussed and revoked at length, which in a way undermines a possible broader condemnation of women for being supposedly more connected to indirect communication. Also, in keeping in line with what was said before, even this social conditioning is unable to sustain a subject’s will to reshape oneself, as Serene points out.

What about sexual mores and sexual behaviors? What about the view, held by some, that polyamory is nothing more than a post-feminist attempt from patriarchal culture to establish a politically correct speech that benefits men’s sexual behavior? The above example shows that whenever that happens, in some form, the core group of users quickly dismounts any argumentative attempt at setting a double standard – inasmuch as that double standard would impede the fundamental notion of epimeleia heautou, of the care of the self, and thus attack the other’s possibility for self-fashioning, for self-improvement and, ultimately, for the other’s autonomy. Differentiations are also made for specific identities and how they might respond differently to this threat upon one’s autonomy.

So, yes, an idea of what a woman usually does, or is usually taught, or how she usually perceives a certain situation does, sometimes, appear within polyamorous discourse in alt.polyamory. But it is only seldom that this does happen – most of the times, at critical points, in response to some central point. Even so, such ideas are nothing if not secondary to concerns about the central role of the subject in shaping itself. This is in line with the low number of specific key-words found: feminism as a philosophy, a theory or an activist movement does not make itself present in such conversations, and doesn’t seem to be part of the interests of those who participate here (be it the core group or the neophytes).

Attempts to purge gender out of the conversations are few and sparse and, as we’ve seen, can indeed create a silence that decontextualizes the subject, and the subject’s life, its places in the microphysical networks of power where he is embedded. At the same time, gender as a specific problematic within polyamory is also widely absent. We are not presented either with the undoing of gender, nor with the total disregard for a gendered social and personal experience – and although the most frequent stances and opinions voiced here drink deeply from a feminist notion of equality and responsibility, an obvious and reflexive take on gender and gender politics is, overall, not present in this corpus. Gender is, here, a phantasmal experience, a web of presuppositions and, seemingly, lacking self-reflexivity except at the cusp of more confrontational debates, where it becomes a data-point to be taken in consideration.

Afterthought

Even though this study encompasses hundreds of emails and dozens of different people, covering different topics, it is not possible, from these results, to generalize. It is important to bear in mind that, as many of the users were online for a decade or more, many of these matters may have already been debated a long time ago: still, this would only reinforce the idea that feminism here functions only as a background scaffold, seemingly transparent to newcomers. This raises a question: can gender equality (apparently so fiercely defended here) be upheld and fought for as a side-note of the subject’s self-fashioning? Does this lack of specificity contribute towards troubling the notion of gender and to a deconstruction of its role in contemporary western society?

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