General overview of the research
Backlash interviewed Dr Rachela Colosi and Dr Nick Cowen on their ongoing research, and the development of their Sexualised Marginalised Bodies Toolkit. In this interview, Dr Colosi and Dr Cowen outlined the purpose and aims of their research, as well as some initial findings, expected outcomes and benefits of the resources informed by their study.
Dr Colosi is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Lincoln’s School of Social and Political Sciences with research interests in sex work, sexualities, ethnography and gender studies. Dr Cowen is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Lincoln’s School of Social and Political Sciences with research interests in human rights, social justice and political economy.
Background of research and study details
The starting points for this research were borne out of Dr Colosi’s work with colleague Dr Billie Lister (Colosi and Lister, 2019 [https://www.britsoccrim.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Kinking-it-Up-PBCC19.pdf]), which focused on people who practice Kink and their engagement with the online social networking sites (SNS). The findings of this study revealed that Kink practitioners are aware of the attitudes and labels associated with their sexuality, and as such employ several techniques to alleviate and manage stigma. This included limiting their online presence, and limiting disclosure of the Kink facet of their identity online to alternative SNS including FetLife.
Dr Colosi further states that she had ‘interest in exploring other minority groups…then we developed this idea of creating a toolkit potentially that tackles online discrimination. So it’s really about exploring and identifying online discrimination directed at sexual and gender minority groups’ (Dr Colosi).
This research was also informed by some Dr Colosi and Dr Cowen’s previous work together (Cowen and Colosi, 2021 [https://doi.org/10.1108/JEPP-03-2019-0009]) on how sex workers use SNS, within which they discovered that SNS/platforms are arguably ‘encouraging people to kind of develop and kind of disclose a great deal of their identity constantly and reaffirm this on their platforms’ (Dr Cowen). Whilst the research highlighted the positive potential of SNS for making connections with other sexual minority individuals without being limited by geographic location and celebrating marginalised identity, it is believed that this data gathering on sexual minority characteristics of users may benefit these platforms in financial ways. Dr Cowen states that platforms ‘want people to feel safe…but ultimately, what are they going to be using that kind of data for?’ (Dr Cowen). This outlines the significant concerns of those who are part of sexual and gender minority groups, as the mishandling of their sensitive data can lead to vulnerability, discrimination and risk of harm from both at the hands of SNS/ platforms and the general public.
Building upon their previous research, Dr Colosi and Dr Cowen identified that there was room in existing literature and research to explore how identity can be ‘specifically sexualised by…society as a whole’ (Dr Cowen). Even more specifically, how this related to online treatment of sexual minorities, and subsequently has the potential to have serious real-life implications.
The aims of this research are primarily to ‘open up a dialogue about different [sexual] minority groups’ and the ways in which they are labelled and interacted with online (Dr Colosi), and to contribute to ‘more equitable treatment of people online’ (Dr Cowen). A significant consideration for the researchers on this project was to avoid homogenising and using language which homogenised and perpetuated the labels (and misconceptions) assigned sexual minority groups. As such this study paid careful consideration in differentiating between different sexual minority groups and the specific online discrimination each of these groups faced, whilst exploring how those with alternative sexual and gender identities are sexualised on an individual basis. In this study, there is strong emphasis on the fact that just because these communities are sexualised, does not mean that their identities are exclusively sexual in nature, with the researchers highlighting that the sexual side of their identity ‘may not be present at all, but if it is present, it’s only an aspect of their identity…it doesn’t mean that they are…a sexualised creature’ (Dr Cowen).
The researchers achieved these aims through firstly ‘Identifying different examples of online discrimination on different social networking sites’ (Dr Colosi). Secondly, using focus groups to facilitate an open discussion on the concerns of groups who are marginalised on the basis of their sexuality or gender. They also used participatory action research with the collaborators of their research to better understand the specific difficulties faced by the communities and gain insight on the real world applications which would assist the communities in overcoming these difficulties. Thirdly, through further collaboration and knowledge sharing with stakeholders and interested parties including SNS platform Conveners, the police, legal professionals and teachers/ lecturers who can communicate the findings of the research to their students. Dr Colosi places particular importance on teaching current and future generations that ‘people have multiple different identities, and that’s OK!’, explaining that ‘it’s not necessarily with the focus on sex, it’s just a focus on identity’ (Dr Colosi). Dr Cowen reiterates this point stating that ‘it’s interesting how pervasive…heteronormative ways of demonstrating sexual interests are in ordinary life…’ as everyone assumes that straight/ heterosexual is the norm and are not considered inherently sexual or trying to sexualise others (Dr Cowen). It is only ‘when people start using different codes and presenting themselves in different ways…in order to signal potential interest in sexual partners or the kind of relationships they might be interested in…they become a sexualised body’ (Dr Cowen).
The toolkit, in its final conception, Dr Colosi explains, will provide a set of guidelines and advice ‘in relation to some of the issues that have been confronted by different sexual and gender minorities, and perhaps, some solutions or recommendations that could be taken on board by different stakeholders to improve the current situation’ for those in sexual minority groups (Dr Colosi). Adding to this, Dr Cowen explains that the guidelines and advice will instruct on ‘how the general public can better be more inclusive’ of sexual minorities online, as well as ‘advice on how platforms can better set policy which will be more inclusive for sex and gender minorities online…advice for the sex and gender minority communities themselves on how to better protect themselves and use existing resources to protect them’ and how personnel and human resource departments (especially in public sector organisations) ‘can better handle their own conduct and the conduct of their employees, and the people they interact with online’ who are part of sex/gender minority identity groups (Dr Cowen).
In relation to sexual and gender minorities in general, the research indicates that participants in these groups are at increased risk of discrimination than those who are cis-gendered and seemingly heteronormative. As a result, the research found that for ‘some of the participants in the focus groups, there was actually quite a lot of almost self-stigmatization’ and identity management strategies in an effort to protect themselves from stigma, labelling and potential abuse when using online platforms (Dr Cowen).
This was particularly evident in the focus group conducted with Kink/ BDSM practitioners. Dr Colosi noted that although the findings of the focus groups were as expected, that ‘of all the different gender and sexual minority groups that were included [in this study], people that practice Kink are stigmatised in different ways to other identities’ (Dr Colosi). When asked to expand on this, Dr Colosi underlined that whilst other sexual minorities seek acceptance and rights, the Kink community are more likely to be seeking tolerance and the ability to participate in their consensual activities without interference from the law and social ostracisation. This is because ‘Kinkiness is likely to be pathologised and risks discrimination, but not in a way that is politicised and noisy as with other sexualised marginalised communities’ (Dr Cowen).
This is supported by the findings that suggest that ‘kinksters are not tolerated on mainstream social networking sites as a result rarely disclose their sexual interests’, and as such they are often ‘forced into these more alternative platforms such as FetLife’ (Dr Colosi). This is also reflected in the participants disclosing that, particularly in the Kink communities, they ‘actually need to be careful what bits of the scene we identify [with]…and what we show publically’, as they ‘don’t want to give the impression that everyone here is just interested in having sex with lots and lots of people. We want to emphasise the heteronormative elements’ in a bid to normalise alternative expressions of sexuality (Dr Cowen). Dr Colosi explains that as the ‘Kink label covers such a broad range of sexual and non-sexual behaviours as well…it’s a far more complex group of minorities…there were different kinds of levels of stigma associated with different types of Kink’ (Dr Colosi). Dr Cowen builds on this to state that the way alternative sexual expression is perceived can build stigma, ‘if there’s any ambiguity there, then that can attract some kind of concern’ (Dr Cowen). Due to Kink and BDSM practices being so highly stigmatised, the researchers have identified that there may be difficulty in including Kink practitioners in the Toolkit and guidelines overtly.
What the research can do for Backlash audiences
As well providing an insight into the online discrimination faced by the Kink and BDSM communities in the UK, this study and the subsequent Sexualised Marginalised Bodies Toolkit, is focused on being actionable in alleviating stigma, raising awareness and influencing policy for a range of sexual minority communities. Dr Colosi stated that it is hoped that the Toolkit will provide a starting point for more private and localised policies, with the view for extending this to larger policy change efforts in the future. Additionally, Dr Cowen presents the potential for the Sexualised Marginalised Bodies Toolkit to provide the basis for a ‘common framework for privacy and filter controls’ for SNS/platforms (Dr Cowen).
Dr Cowen explains that although SNS may benefit from some controversy to increase traffic to their sites, there can be better outcomes for everyone ‘by allowing for more flexible filtering…content choice and representation of people’s identities online’ when informed by people’s experiences of discrimination and hate crimes in online spaces (Dr Cowen). Making the case for privacy is valid, as sexual variation is a natural part of the human experience and it is important for people to ‘realise that your [consensual] sexual practices don’t imply that you’re a dangerous person’ (Dr Cowen). Citing the cases of R v Peacock (2012) and R v Walsh (2012), Dr Cowen outlines that the decisions made by the juries in these cases showed tolerance for sexual variation through determining that people have a right to privacy, ‘it doesn’t matter if someone is a senior lawyer…it also doesn’t matter if someone is a sex worker…its really no one else’s business’ (Dr Cowen).
The development of the Sexualised Marginalised Bodies Toolkit would be especially effective for the Kink communities, as it is a step towards seriously acknowledging and ‘official recognition of the harm that they have suffered’, rather than Criminal Justice efforts which can often perpetuate victim blaming narratives (Dr Cowen). Of course, there are instances where people need to be held accountable for their non-consensual sexual activities. However, people practicing consensual and informed Kink are often grouped with those who are engaging in abusive behaviour due to lack of understanding and stigma by law enforcement. Dr Cowen highlights this, stating that ‘At this point, the criminal justice system is not really in a position to penalize…to effectively target and sanction people who are committing bad offences within the community because they are not very well set up to gather evidence’ of actual abuse.
The toolkit and the guidelines within it will serve as an alternative mechanism for discouraging abuse in online spaces. The toolkit will also focus on how people within sexual minority groups, such as the Kink communities, can buffer themselves from potential discrimination and abuse through informing them on ‘how to use social resources…[and] the conduct of behaviour on platforms in order to generate better outcomes and to protect people within that community’ (Dr Cowen).
What we can expect next
Dr Colosi and Dr Cowen have outlined a number expected research outputs of the study which you shall be able to read and inform yourself with in the near future. As well as combined papers on the study and the release of the full toolkit, Dr Colosi will be releasing papers on identity affirmation and the stigmatisation of the sexual and gender minority groups included in the study. Whilst Dr Cowen will be releasing papers on the potential harms of data collection by large SNS/platforms on sexual and gender minority groups. These outputs can be expected towards the end of this year.
Dr Rachela Colosi
Research gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rachela-Colosi
University Profile: https://staff.lincoln.ac.uk/472fffef-9c10-4118-ab30-4f390b44912a
Dr Nick Cowen
Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Nick-Cowen-2
University Profile: https://staff.lincoln.ac.uk/98ca5cad-7810-4d5b-8103-f52058acca4f
For more details on this project, please contact the researchers, Dr Colosi and Dr Cowen.
Thank you to Dr Colosi, Dr Cowen and their colleagues on the Sexualised Marginalised Bodies project for sharing insights of their study with Backlash UK at such an active stage in their research.
Colosi, R. & Lister, B. (2019) ‘Kinking it up: An exploration of the role of online social networking site FetLife in the stigma management of kink practices’, Papers from the British Criminology Conference 2019, Vol. 19, available at: https://www.britsoccrim.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Kinking-it-Up-PBCC19.pdf
Cowen, N. & Colosi, R. (2021) ‘Sex Work and Online Platforms: What Should Regulation Do?’ Journal of Entrepreneurship and Public Policy, available at: https://doi.org/10.1108/JEPP-03-2019-0009