Webinar: Sex, intimacy and technology during COVID-19

In June DruGS Program Lead Professor Suzanne Fraser took part in a webinar entitled Love from a distance: Sex, intimacy and technology. Hosted by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) at La Trobe University, the webinar explored the role of new technologies in shaping sexuality and intimacy, issues that have been starkly highlighted during the restrictions on social contact imposed globally in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moderated by Dr Jennifer Power from ARCSHS, the event brought together three sexuality and gender researchers to consider these issues:

  • Unexpected intimacies by Professor Suzanne Fraser, Director of the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University
  • Reaching out for connection while locked in: Online behaviour during COVID-19 by Dr Amanda Gesselman, Associate Director for Research, Head of Research Analytics and Methodology Core, The Kinsey Institute, Indiana University
  • Digital intimacy, gender and sexuality by Dr Jamie Hakim, Lecturer in Media Studies, University of East Anglia

Introduced by Jennifer Power, Suzanne opened the event with her presentation on unexpected intimacies. This presentation analysed the ways technologies may be implicated in the production of forms of intimacy even where their intended role is not related to intimacy. Drawing on two examples taken from research projects focusing on illicit drug use, Suzanne offered some theoretical resources for understanding technology generally, including its role in human relationships, social dynamics and political problems. Mobilising Bruno Latour’s (2002) contribution to affordance theories, Suzanne analysed injecting fitpacks and take-home naloxone devices – two distinct but related technologies – not as passive, neutral tools that can be deployed to fulfil our goals, nor as wholly determined by human agency in their use and outcomes. Instead, analysing interview data from people using one or other device, she argued that these technologies produce what Latour terms ‘affordances’ – opportunities and tendencies. In doing so, Suzanne highlighted the ways intimate relationships afford particular uses and purposes for these technologies, and reciprocally, that the technologies also afford new forms of intimacy and care. This presentation drew attention to the multidirectional, unpredictable, yet far from arbitrary relationship between technology and intimacy, to the affordances of technologies, both positive and otherwise, and to the many, sometimes ignored, ways technology and intimacy make each other.

As Suzanne reflected in a recent interview:

Contemporary life offers an array of technological means of reaching for and enjoying intimacy. Those means are also routinely deployed for ends that would seem not to have been intended or predicted by the makers, and which might diminish intimacy, at least for some. In the process, the very terms of the engagement come to be redefined – the nature of intimacy, for example, is no doubt undergoing change in response to the advent of social media, particularly under pandemic-related quarantine conditions.

For those interested in this event, interviews with all three presenters are available in the latest issue of Bent Street. Guest edited by Dr Jennifer Power, Henry von Doussa and Dr Timothy W. Jones, the issue shines a light on the role of technologies in shaping human intimacy within the broader frame of COVID-19 and lockdown.