XXX.4 July - August 2023
Page: 18
Digital Citation

Can We Break the Horizontal Lines of Whorism?

Jaz Hee-jeong Choi, Martyna Miller, Susanna Paasonen

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For the first time, this column has more than two named authors. This is consequential to the last one Jaz and Susanna wrote, to which Martyna contributed images from her art project Sexinsitu (see images 20–22 here for examples of the work: The original images we had chosen to include in the column were replaced to meet ACM's content policy requirement, which states:

While acknowledging the subjective nature of what constitutes indecency, or obscenity, or bad taste, ACM regards inappropriate content as material—images, video, audio, or text—that would present explicit/exploitive, obscene or degrading text, pictures, and/or illustrations related to sex, drugs, or alcohol.

ACM is not alone in its content policies among publishers. For example, Taylor & Francis, as the publisher of Porn Studies journal, regularly omits illustrations of the materials studied with the rationale that some readers may find them offensive, and that minors may obtain access to them—despite the journal being dedicated to the study of pornography and requiring paywall access. We note that publishing houses are under many constraints and the editorial team we have been working with has shown genuine understanding and support; in this piece, we want to draw attention to the materializing of these constraints and exclusions as an invitation to seek fundamental change that will benefit authors and publishing houses. The erasure of sexual content and communication from public view is somewhat endemic to contemporary networked media, from electronic journals to social media platforms, where nudity is controlled in a horizontal manner. For instance, Meta's community standards construe sex as an arena of risk, offense, and potential harm; consequently, Instagram and Facebook disallow nudity, sexual suggestiveness, and sexual communication.

This comes with multiple worrisome implications, most evident of which is the context-blind conflation of visual content featuring nudity with sexuality, obscenity, and even pornography. A radical articulation of this was recently witnessed in Florida, where a principal was fired for showing images of Michelangelo's David to sixth-grade students ( At play here is the same horizontal, context-blind logic observed in online content policies. The ubiquity of this horizontal logic highlights that its risks are wide-ranging, from cultural heritage to contemporary self-expression and communication.

As such, we should question how largely U.S.-based companies by ownership hold sway in construing ethical values for some of the largest global online platforms, informed by culturally specific local sets of moral norms. As the film studies scholar Linda Williams argued in her seminal book Hard Core [1], the abstract yet affectively loaded figure of obscenity literally stands for the ob-scene, the off-stage: content deemed unworthy for public display as something best, if at all, consumed in private. The horizontal labeling of sex as obscene, then, is both premised and supports the problematic positioning of sex as external to public matters when it directly and fundamentally concerns human and civic rights [2].


Can nipples be redeemable? Uneven and unequal consequences of the effacement of sex from the public eye particularly concern female bodies, as seen in 2018 when Tumblr, once rich in sexual displays of all kinds, banned "female-presenting nipples" specifically. In the eyes of prurient interests, female nipples are sites of titillation and obscenity that must be tamed if redeemable or shunned with the power of the "cult of female modesty…the belief that a woman's worth, value and respect depend on her bodily modesty" [3], situating those non-modest-conforming women in the whores category. The cult reverberates in Meta's policy on images containing women's (or "girls" in their words) swimwear and underwear made in alignment with a Victoria's Secret campaign (, or AI systems trained to recognize pornography through datasets focusing on young, thin, abled female bodies and defaults to seeing them as sexually suggestive (

Robert W. Gehl et al. [4] point to an underlying premise at play, "that pornography is limited to images of naked women; that sexuality is largely comprised of men looking at naked women; and that pornographic bodies comport to specific, predictable shapes, textures, and sizes." Central to this kind of ocular selectivity is whiteness, which, Sara Ahmed argues, orients "bodies in specific directions, affecting how they 'take up' space, and what they 'can do'" [5]. Which female bodies are the default bodies that are redeemable, more so than others? Which bodies might be deemed cheekily acceptable or hypersexualized? When the horizontal lines between these remain rigid, when non-white(passing) and ethinicity-related words such as Asian, Korean, and Japanese, remain top search terms on porn sites year after year, it does not take a sensitive analytical eye to figure out which bodies may be cast as pornographic objects or otherwise obscene sights in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal [6] narratives. And what does all this mean for artistic work?

Can an image be a shelter? Let us return to the Sexinsitu project, which seeks a new visibility for sexuality. As an archive of sexual experiences made of video recordings of individuals performatively re-creating their sexual memories, it focuses on experience rather than fantasy, hence affirming the social dimensions of sex. Participants face the matter of their own bodies and the virtuality of their memories collectively forming a macroorganism that is the evolving archive. Sexinsitu is a story of intimacy, cosmic possibilities, circulation, and movement, and a motion picture that takes the shape of our imagination.

The project stems directly from the social reality that prevents us from presenting images of and discussing nudity and sex in virtual, public spaces. Each participant comes with different motivations and experiences that are not always fully shared with Martyna. Some people decide to take part impulsively, and understanding the meaning of their participation comes much later; others need a long time before deciding to participate. This makes the interconnection between the participants and Martyna not easily reducible to a prescriptive analysis of the "product" that is the visual image of their performing. Individual Sexinsitu recordings are in a sense antivisual or "visually weak," offering no transgression, no directness or immediacy. We see only one body, captured in a peculiar situation that is too abstract for visual interpretation. What matters is that it cannot be seen.

The creation of an image for Sexinsitu is thus also a practice of carving out social and visual spaces free from the horizontal logic discussed earlier. It vibrates in ways that render resonance as "a connection through which bodies—human and other-than-human alike—move together, shape and affect one another" [7]. Here, the images become spaces for seeking not pornographic truths but rather safe places where we can attune to ourselves and our interconnections at multiple levels, from the social to the cosmological.

Initially, the further development of Sexinsitu was to take place in virtual reality, serving as both an archive and a place for people to meet and exchange. But, perhaps paradoxically, the only place to do this involves face-to-face meetings during recordings in the studio where we may encounter transformative materials together, have conversations, and connect the practice of Sexinsitu with other branches of our personal lives. This could be the shelter from what alienates us from issues of our hearts and bodies, and pushes issues of sexuality, pleasure, and cohabitation beyond the margins of systemic organization, not least on networked media platforms.

A question for the readers: Which kinds of bodies, desires, and sexual cultures are likely to be rendered altogether invisible? Or, to rephrase, the implications for feminist ecologies should be evident. So what are we going to do about this? Let's create and hold spaces; let's break the horizontal lines of whorism, together.

Editor's note: While ACM makes every effort to accommodate the image requests of its authors, we must always err on the side of caution. In particular, with an increasingly global readership, our print magazines must meet the restrictions on mailing sensitive content imposed by countries outside the U. S.

back to top  References

1. Williams, L. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible. Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, 1989.

2. Choi, J.H. and Paasonen, S., Kinky, leaky, opaque: Sexual intimacies and data. Interactions 30, 2 (2023), 16–17;

3. Bateman, V. Naked Feminism: Breaking the Cult of Female Modesty. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, 2023.

4. Gehl, R.W., Moyer-Horner, L., and Yeo., S.K. Training computers to see internet pornography: Gender and sexual discrimination in computer vision science. Television & New Media 18, 6 (2017), 529–547.

5. Ahmed, S. A phenomenology of whiteness. Feminist Theory 8, 2 (2007), 149–168.

6. hooks, b. Killing Rage: Ending Racism. Penguin, London, 1996.

7. Paasonen, S. Monstrous resonance: Affect and animated pornography. In How to Do Things with Affects: Affective Triggers in Aesthetic Forms and Cultural Practices. E. van Alphen and T. Jirsa, eds. Brill, Amsterdam, 2019, 143–162.

back to top  Authors

Jaz Hee-jeong Choi is director of the Carefull Design Lab, Vice-Chancellor's Principal Research Fellow, and an associate professor in design at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. [email protected]

Martyna Miller is an interdisciplinary artist, filmmaker, and anthropologist with a Ph.D. in art based in Warsaw, Poland. In her artistic inquiries, she studies memory and the body and explores healing mechanisms at the intersections of nature, technologies, and community. Since 2016 she has been developing the Sexinsitu project, an archive of sexual experiences based on the method of memory reconstructions performed by participants. [email protected]

Susanna Paasonen is a professor of media studies at the University of Turku in Finland, with an interest in studies of sexuality, media and affect. She is the author of NSFW: Sex, Humor, and Risk in Social Media (MIT Press, 2019) and Dependent, Distracted, Bored: Affective Formations in Networked Media (MIT Press, 2021). [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2023 ACM, Inc.

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