Keynote: Sharif Mowlabocus – bored and horny at the bus stop

Sharif Mowlabocus, Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Sussex

All members of society, according to Pat Califia are meant to possess all the legitimate pleasures that are there to keep people happy – with the private world of sex happening in the appropriate private place.

However, prior to the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967, gay men had no legitimate place in which to seek pleasure – and were forced to do so in dedicated commercial and often semi-legal – and public – locations. In space terms, therefore, gay sex has often been associated with public places – and understanding the impact of changes to the geography of those spaces (from changes to public lighting to the situation of street furniture) is key to understanding interaction.

Sharif has been interested in looking at how the use of digital technology has become a tool both for opening up public spaces – and also, to some degree, to close down the options permitted. He has looked at how gay men have used digital technology – including app culture such as Grinder – for digital cruising in order to satisfy the three ‘F’s – friendship, flirting and fucking.

Example given of how a gay man in Madrid without access to gay community is using app technology to meet others on a tube train travelling through a known gay area. Mobile technologies are enabling physical encounters in real time between individuals unable otherwise to access the gay community: the technology is creating a new (hybrid) gay space.

However, while this technology has enabled and empowered, there is also some degree to which it is used to close down communication. For instance, a gay man last year went to update his Grinder App – and Google “suggested” he might wish to download a sex offender identification app. The app locates on a map current known sex offenders – is a form of digital panopticon, subjecting both individual offenders to policing and also generating fear amongst users.

There is a serious danger, however, with these apps: the underlying data is very shaky, so mimicking the real time locative aspects of current mobile technology, without actually providing it. But is this reallyhelpful or about generating fear.

Even more dangerous is the way in which these apps, while providing inaccurate data on supposed sex offenders request permission to use the current location of the person potentially downloading it. In other words, both by generating fear and by asking individuals to own up to their current location, the app encourages individuals to self-police.

Thus, instead of opening up spaces, digital technology is now being used to re-inscribe public space as a place of danger and deviance, mostly through exaggerating and reifying very marginal risks.

jane fae xx

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