When I introduce myself to people, I use a different name. I have quite a few – I like them. One of them I wear so often it feels more comfortable than my ‘real’ name – I wrap it round me like a blanket, and it makes me feel safe.
Unfortunately, one of the questions I’m asked most frequently is: “is that your real name, though?” Like somewhere deep in my heart there’s a secret and special name, and the people I’m speaking to will be elevated above the status of mere acquaintance and into, I don’t know, God, if they can determine what the deep and immutable truth is. Problem is, knowing my real name doesn’t give anyone special powers, it just gives them a fact. And hand-in-hand with that fact comes a fairly big problem for both of us.
When I first started blogging I decided that anonymity was the best way to go – for a whole host of reasons, but primarily employment. We still live in a world where talking about buttsex on the internet and holding down a job at a company that gives a shit about your social media life is, if not impossible, at least tricky. As time wore on, there were more reasons, and then more. Recently, Kilted Wookie wrote a post about anonymity on his sex blog and it got me thinking about a lot of stuff. The primary thing was that there are far more reasons to be anonymous than I’d considered when I first began.
Reasons to be anonymous
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of reasons to be anonymous:
- Work. I don’t have a ‘day job’ any more (get in touch if you want to pay me to write stuff for you!), but I did when I began the blog. My day job gave a massive shit about ‘bringing the company into disrepute.’ It’s possible that at some point I’ll need a job like that again.
- Family. Although most people in my family are incredibly understanding and supportive, understandably they probably don’t want to hear in detail just how much their sister/daughter/granddaughter enjoys getting fucked in the arse.
- Simple separation. Sometimes being ‘that one who writes/talks about sex’ means that it’s hard to talk about things other than sex without having people respond with innuendo. Or to have a place where I can talk about things which are not interesting to you who follow me for the sex. By keeping separate channels for ‘real-life me’ versus ‘GOTN me’ I have a space online where I can chat shit without worrying that I’m being irrelevant.
- Presentation. This one hadn’t occurred to me until more recently, but I think it’s significant: as GirlOnTheNet I am far more interesting than I am as me in real life. It’s a fudge, and it’s one that I try to temper by telling you about my mistakes as well as my fun times, but I’d be a dick if I didn’t admit that it’s clearly a factor. I did a radio debate recently, and one of the journalists who was there pointed out that in real life I’m “just a person,” and that that’s quite a boring thing to be. He’s right.
- Respect. The people I write about have the right to own their own stories just as much as I do. If I make myself identifiable, there will be people who automatically become so too. I appreciate I probably can’t be anonymous forever, but along with following my basic rules on how to kiss and tell without being a dick, I also want to try not to ‘out’ any of my lovers if I can help it.
- Safety. I’ve left it for last because it’s the biggest and most significant. When I first started writing the blog I was genuinely surprised that people got in touch to ask me to fuck them. I was briefly flattered. Then I was nervous. Now I am terrified. Some people send nice emails saying ‘hey I wondered if I could take you for a drink?’ not realising just how much email I get that’s along these lines. Others are a bit more demanding: ‘I need to meet you in a hotel. Tell me when you’re free.’ Others still more so, and I’m not going to quote them here because I don’t want the individuals who’ve sent them to know just how much they affected me. I doubt most of the people who send this stuff realise just how scary it can be – how something which they’ve phrased as a promise can sound more like a threat. I understand how people who stumble across one blog entry, which details my love of a particular sex act, can – through the horny blur of lust – think they’re doing me a favour by offering to fulfil my fantasy. I hope in turn you can understand why I don’t think writing about my desires should make me a target for people who threaten promise to fulfil them without my consent.
It’s this final point that I dwelt on when I read Kilted Wookie’s post. He makes a lot of great points about openness, and why it’s crap that we live in a society which makes it hard to talk publicly about sexual desire (and particularly kinky desire) without being shamed by some arseholes. I agree with him. But I also think there’s much more to it than that.
As a general rule, when anonymity comes up we talk mostly about that point – the reactions of employers and the like. But to focus just on that is to miss the wider impact of living in a society that treats sex with a certain level of shame.
We all need our spaces – anonymous or not
I’ve been incredibly lucky in my time of sex blogging: I’ve rarely had out-and-out threats, I’ve rarely had people getting deeply angry in my email inbox. I get a huge range of interesting, thoughtful, and genuinely welcome criticism in the comments section here, and very few comments which are outright hostile. Likewise on Twitter and Facebook.
Others aren’t so lucky. I may not be so lucky in the future.
I am very privileged, in a number of different ways. I am the product of a very fortunate life, and while I’d love to give you some bullshit about how I work hard and how I have overcome adversity, in reality I have worked no harder than you have, and my own adversity isn’t unique or special. If I ever am outed (and, again, allow me to reiterate that it’ll be quite a let-down) then I’ll probably survive, after perhaps a week or two of panicking and a lot of apologising to people who have now read things they’d rather not.
But the point here is that it’s a boundary I’ve set, and a compartment I’ve built in my life. Not everyone has the luxury of maintaining separation between parts of their life that they don’t think will mesh well together, but I think everyone has the right to try. To say ‘I’m happy to discuss this with you, but I’d rather not talk about it with them.’ In short: to tailor our stories to our audiences, and have certain contexts and spaces in which we can explore parts of ourselves that we cannot talk about elsewhere.
So when people discuss anonymity and say ‘it’s a bit hypocritical, isn’t it? Saying we should be more open about sex but doing so under a pseudonym?’ I can’t help but think they’ve missed a pretty crucial point. Yes, it would be lovely if we lived in a world where we didn’t have to do this: where there were no shame in expressing our desires or being open about our kinks. But we don’t. We live in a world in which people will get wildly different reactions to their sex chat depending on a whole heap of factors – their gender, their age, their job, their status as someone either ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a particular group. In short: we all have different kinds of privilege, and myriad reasons to try and keep those separate spaces. I think saying it’d be nice if no one was anonymous (or that it’s hypocritical to retain anonymity or pseudonymity) does a disservice to the people who genuinely cannot be open: to those who’d potentially get trolled, abused, or ripped to shreds when two or more of their worlds collide.
What I think is nice is that the option to be pseudonymous is open to many people regardless of their reasons. I think it’s nice that people who go to Buzzfeed and comment via their FB name can – when they come here – pick a pseudonym and comment anonymously. Want to be Jane Doe over here where you talk about gardening, and Janet Dee over there where you talk about fisting? Why not? It’s a perfectly rational way to organise your life, because it’s your life, mate. If you’re not engaging in hypocrisy (and I don’t think I am – I’d never say one thing as GOTN then the opposite under a different name), then who am I to tell you what you do and don’t have to tell me? Why should I only respect your thoughts on sex if you’ve also told me which school you went to and what town you grew up in?
I am accountable
When it comes to the anonymous blog debate, by far the thing that annoys me the most is the conflation of anonymity and a lack of accountability.
As GirlOnTheNet I am only anonymous insofar as you don’t know the name on my birth certificate, what my Mum calls me when she’s annoyed, or what my lovers whisper to me while we fuck. But you do know me, and I am not anonymous. I am here, I am contactable, and most importantly I am accountable. I’m not a swiftly-created Twitter egg screeching opinions around the internet: I’ve been here at this url for over 4 years, and the same on Twitter. I’m on facebook. I’m contactable on email. If I say something appalling then you can call me on it. If you have a question, you can ask it. My opinions have impact – not that they’ll change the world or anything, but they’ll be online for a long time, and so I have to be able to justify them. If I change my mind on something (which I often do) then I can be called to explain why I’ve done that.
What’s more, I actually have far more conversations, state far more of my opinions, and tell people more about my emotions via GOTN than I do in real life. Barring late-night chats with a few very close friends, this site is where I do most of my talking. If you ask me, face to face, how I am or what I’m up to, you’ll get a cut-and-paste polite answer: “I’m fine. Busy. Working. Writing.” If you ask me as GOTN I’ll tell you far more. There are plenty of people who know my real name but who could be said to know far less about me. There are people in my life who don’t know what it is I do for a living, or that I’ve spent the last few months writing a book. They’ve just been confused and – horribly, horribly – occasionally hurt when I’ve brushed off their requests to meet without giving a good reason why.
So back to the start – when people say ‘is that your real name, though?’ my answer isn’t going to be a sigh and a long speech about how I just wish I could tell them the truth. I don’t wish I could tell them the truth. I like having a space where I can talk about fucking and fun, where I can try to work through ideas that I wouldn’t elsewhere. I like having a fake-name buffer between me and those people who ‘promise’ to fuck me. There are lots of reasons to want to be anonymous, as there are reasons to want to find out just who is behind the mask. Curiosity is natural and understandable, but it can also put people in difficult positions: if someone presses me really hard on my ‘real’ name, they subsequently become someone I’m going to struggle to connect with and hang out with. Because as soon as you have my ‘real’ name you become the bridge between one space and another – you can put details to things that I’d rather not link, for any of the reasons I mentioned above. Each question you ask from then on sounds like an interrogation, and each secret you tell me is a red flag that you’ll be spilling mine to other people. So I don’t tell people my ‘real’ name because I never want them to feel like they’re somehow a risk. As soon as someone knows my ‘real’ name then even by mistake (because I doubt it would be malice) they could easily crush something that’s incredibly important to me. Torch that safety blanket, and give me reason to curl up into a ball of panic and want to hide from the world.
I don’t think I’m entitled to anonymity, by any means, and I’m grateful to those few who do know for helping to keep it secret. But there are lots of reasons to use a pseudonym, and we never know what those reasons are – our best guesses will be tainted by our own assumptions and experience. Even their reasons for anonymity might be things they’d prefer to keep private.
Just because someone reveals one truth, they’re not obliged to reveal the whole.