Filtered Feminisms: Cybersex, E-commerce and the Construction of Women's Bodies in Cyberspace

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2001


The Feminist Press at the City University of New York


Beaver College, a small liberal arts school in the Northeast, recently embarked on a public relations effort with the principal goal of changing the school's name. On its surface, this gesture appears a bit odd, if only because students, staff, and alumni have long expressed pride in their school's offbeat name and because while unusual, the name does its job of attracting and maintaining public attention. However, over the years members of Beaver College have been beleaguered by sexually explicit jokes, as the school's name is also slang for a woman's genitalia. In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, school administrators reported that prospective students were having difficulties accessing the school's main Web page, as it was being blocked by filtering programs that mistook it for a pornographic Web site.1 By November 2000 a new name, Arcadia University, was chosen. While this incident shows that these increasingly popular filtering programs are hampering access to important information (an ironic effect, given the Web's success in decentering the base of information and increasing public access to otherwise obscure databases), this incident with Beaver College is a fairly innocuous example of the programs' negative effects. However, for women and others who have traditionally been marginalized from mainstream politics and who've looked to the Web as a source of alternative organizing, as a place where the inherent anonymity of cyberspace allows for greater flexibility in identity and a freedom from the traditional markers of race and gender in spoken word, these filtering programs present a formidable challenge. As we will demonstrate in this study, the proliferation of these filtering programs has often restricted access to women-centered and feminist-friendly Web sites. While filtering programs have satisfied the needs of parents, educators, and librarians concerned with protecting children from the growing numbers of pornographic and sexually graphic Web pages, they have often cast their net of protection too wide. In this essay we examine how the filtering of women's activism on the Web is compounded by the proliferation of pornography and the commodification of women's bodies in the burgeoning market of e-commerce directed at women. Ultimately, it is our contention that the proliferation of women-directed e-commerce and sexually graphic pornographic sites coupled with the increasing obstacles presented to women's political expression have transformed the once abundant opportunities for feminisms to flourish into a realm of filtered feminisms.