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Heritage's “Name that Community? Critical Reflections on the Ethics About Disseminating Research into Online Fetish Communities” (2022)

“Name that Community? Critical Reflections on the Ethics About Disseminating Research into Online Fetish Communities” [PDF]

[I]n research which explores extant online data (e.g., content analysis of online I), researchers become either overhearers or eavesdroppers – that is to say, usually researchers are not-ratified and data producers are usually unaware that they will have their data looked at by such people (though, see Coimbra-Gomes & Motschenbacher, 2019).

[W]hat happens when members of the community (a) do not anticipate that there will be eavesdroppers and (b) do not want to be found/researched? How do we, as researchers, respect the wishes of these kinds of sex-based communities of practice, while simultaneously still doing research within ethical frameworks? In addition, how do we take a sex-positive approach to such data?

As a community, the data creators were sex-positive – often sharing images or videos of themselves having sex, pictures of themselves naked, or posting about having sex. However, the community was cautious of outsiders commenting on such content, possibly because they had previously faced backlash for their fetishes. In itself, this brings to the fore important ethical considerations: if a community wants to remain anonymous, should we as researchers be naming them? Although researchers might be sex-positive and be ready to embrace the sexual practices of this community, others may be less willing to do so (e.g., employers, friends, family).

However, members of this community also considered the potential for a small number of eavesdroppers – e.g., people who might either target them with sex-negative harassment or who they might have a personal connection with and did not want to compromise that relationship. However, it also appeared as though they may not have considered the potential greater number of eavesdroppers – such as academic researchers and the people to whom researchers might disseminate their data.

An exploration of the data quickly revealed that I was able to pin-point the location of some of these users to within suburbs of major cities, and in one case even pinpoint the user’s exact location of work. Importantly, when I returned to the user’s account, I discovered that this specific user did not feel comfortable sharing pictures of their face because they were worried about potential backlash from sex-negative work colleagues discovering their fetishes and seeing pictures of the user having sex. This was just a single case, though deeper analysis might have revealed several more – and, if the community were named in disseminated work, other researchers, journalists, or members of the public might have been able to misuse this information to the detriment of the data producers (see Proferes et al., 2021).

[D]isseminating the name of this community and potentially endangering their professions would not only be problematic from a sex-positivity perspective, but would likely run against most researchers’ definitions of what is considered ‘ethical’ research.

One such example of the challenge this presents to those interested in how power is negotiated in sexual-based interactions comes from the most frequently used words and keyword lists (i.e., lists of what words the community used statistically more frequently than words in a comparable dataset, such as on Twitter more broadly). The community I investigated were so heavily tied to specified titles and roles that the language they used immediately revealed the broader community. Similarly, linguistic examples from the community could not be changed in a way that retained the exact lexical and grammatical features without the same data being able to be found via a Google search.

[O]ne potential way might be to anonymize the community, such as using a pseudonym or broadly referring to it as ‘a fetish community’ (as done in this paper). However, doing this might mean that important elements of that community’s social structure are removed. For example, in some communities, specific terms are used depending on the sexual role people fulfil, and this might also have to be removed if it could otherwise identify the community. Such a role might be important for the construction of gender and sexuality or might denote in-group markers. For linguistic analysis, this also presents problems as changing the lexico-grammatical structure changes the meaning associated with such constructions.

Anonymizing the community means that those researching that specific community might struggle to make connections to their own research, while anonymizing any language or visual data might mean that analytical points or systematic frameworks are less obvious in how they are applied to the data. An issue of transparency also emerges with regards to evidencing that such data collection and analysis has been thoroughly and methodically conducted.

[I]t is also worth noting the positionality of sexpositive researchers within their exploration of these kinds of communities. Researchers who are part of these communities may also be privy to additional information and concepts that inform their decisions. For example, if I were already a member of the community I explored, I would have known not to disseminate the findings, due to a number of members not wanting their information shared.

Within the context of sex research, one possible way we can continue to research communities like this might be to limit our readership to researchers who we know are sex-positive. This includes, for example, sex-positive reading groups, conferences where sex-positivity is enshrined in attendee agreements, and academic journals specifically read by sex-positive researchers. This last method of dissemination still carries some risk of communities being identified (especially with the growing nature of open-access journals), but the likelihood of sex-negative readers finding such journal articles is likely to be much lower.

[A]s academic researchers, we must remember that we benefit from researching potentially vulnerable communities. While these benefits may not always be short-term monetary benefits, such research can lead to promotions, tenure, and/or other acknowledgements for our research. As such, we have a duty to protect the communities who afford us such benefits and ensure that no harm is brought to them through miscommunication or allowing them to become the victims of online harassment. Part of this protection also comes in the form of being selective with non-academic dissemination work. Articles in far-right newspapers might lead to the identification of such communities from people with historically sex-negative stances. As such, all forms of publication, including non-academic pieces, Tweets, and blog posts, should continue to be scrutinized for the degrees to which they identify possibly vulnerable communities.

I propose that, sometimes, one of the most sex-positive acts a researcher can do is to allow a community the privacy to continue to flourish, away from the eyes of (possibly) sex-negative unintended audiences.

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