Professor highlights links between cyberspace, sexuality

Photo by Yingjie Hu |

Ben Sifuentes-Jáuregui, an associate professor at Rutgers, spoke yesterday at Alexander Library in a talk entitled “The Scandal of the Disappearing Body: Cyber Identity and Culture.”

While sitting in a bar, Ben Sifuentes-Jáuregui noticed a man was typing on his phone animatedly.

After a while, the man got up and walked over to another man in the bar. Sifuentes-Jáuregui realized it was the man that first had been texting.

The days of walking around looking at people’s bodies, making eye contact and starting conversations are gone, Sifuentes-Jáuregui said.

For the second annual Tyler Clementi Center Humanities Lecture, Sifuentes-Jáuregui, an associate professor of American Studies and Comparative Literature, spoke yesterday in a talk titled “The Scandal of the Disappearing Body: Cyber Identity and Culture” at Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus.

Throughout history, sex has been associated with three different definitions: reproduction, intimacy and pleasure, Sifuentes-Jáuregui said. Different eras have emphasized different definitions. In the mid-to late 1800s, the focus was intimacy. Society switched to pleasure in the 1920s.

“I had begun thinking about cyberspace as it pertains to sexuality,” Sifuentes-Jáuregui said.

He speculated about what happens to the body when meeting someone online.

In cyberspace, he often comes across two websites: Christian Mingle and Ashley Madison.

Each of the websites has a signup process where a person provides a description and answers basic questions such as height and weight.

Ashley Madison has many more gender options, he said. The user can list as a man seeking a woman, a woman seeking a man, a man seeking a man, a woman seeking a woman and others. It also asks about the user’s sexual limits because it caters to married people.

Christian Mingle only offers the options of a man seeking a woman or a woman seeking a man, making it much more restrictive. Sifuentes-Jáuregui said it also asks where the user goes to church, smoking and drinking habits and if he or she wants children.  

Each website makes an assumption about what type of relationship is permitted, he said.

“The user will find him or herself in a position to decide how they fit in the options given,” he said.

Sifuentes-Jáuregui played a parody of a Christian Mingle advertisement starring two men who met on the site. The men both loved pleated pants and dancing in the kitchen. They found each other because one accidently clicked “man seeking a woman” during the signup.

He said the parody shines a light on the clichés of the original advertisements, he said. The lesson is to game the system.

Nothing is what it seems, and one can take the system and adjust it to their liking — this is what makes cyberspace so fun and so risky, he said.

 “I have begun to imagine what it means to ‘own’ a body in the digital era,” he said.

When people think about sex, they picture a physical body, he said. So he posed the question: What happens to the body when meeting someone online?

“What called my attention was grasping how we experience the body in cyberspace,” he said. “Now I have to think about existence without a body to anchor it. This is what I call the scandal of the disappearing body.”

Sifuentes-Jáuregui explored the radical misalignment between how a person represents themselves online and who they really are.

He then showed another clip from the movie “Closer,” when two men visit a sex site and one of them pretends to be a woman. The one man calls himself Anna and the other is Larry.

The two have a suggestive conversation and decide to meet in person. Sifuentes-Jáuregui points out that Larry does not ask Anna if she is real, as in whether she has a body. Also, when the man describes Anna, it becomes a fantasy about how some men desire women as objects without a real body.

“The real body has disappeared. Body parts are presented not as something real, but rather as a promise of what’s to come,” Sifuentes-Jáuregui said.

He argues the online body must be more interesting than the real thing.

The online profile represents the pleasure of description and the risk of possibly encountering something disappointing, Sifuentes-Jáuregui said.

Eric Becker, a recent Rutgers graduate, was curious to hear what his former professor had to say, because he knew Sifuentes-Jáuregui would give a good, honest insight into this relevant issue.

“I feel it is a very current issue [and] is something our generation can definitely relate to,” Becker said.

Christine Reilly, a School and Arts of Sciences junior, said she was going into the lecture with an open mind.

“[Sifuentes-Jáuregui] always has something interesting to say as far as sexuality issues and subjects in the contemporary world,” Reilly said.

Kelsey Weidmann

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