If you had any doubt that the pen is mightier than the sword, the recent release of classified US diplomatic cables by Wikileaks should forever put your doubts to rest. An international outcry the likes of which has not been seen in at least a generation erupted over the issue. And now WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, is officially bigger than Jesus.

What may be far less obvious to most people than the affirmation that knowledge is power is just how much sexuality has figured throughout this entire Wikileaks saga—and what lead up to it. For months, people have wondered whether one of Wikileaks’ possible sources, the imprisoned Bradley Manning, is a transperson. And then there was the arrest in absentia for Assange’s alleged rape under notoriously confusing Swedish law, a quick retraction, and then a re-instatement that has, this week, resulted in Assange’s jailing awaiting an extradition hearing.

If only the governments of the world actually cared about sexual violence against women as much as they pretend to in this one, very questionable instance. And even if the allegations are proven true, legally and with due process, would that make the facts Wikileaks published less true? News reports raise far more questions than answers—even going so far as to cite STD concerns as the root of the rape claim. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

But none of this is what the First World Infowar is really about. And it is a war. This Sunday, EFF-founder John Perry Barlow published the tweet heard ’round the world:

The first serious infowar has now been engaged. The field of battle is Wikileaks. You are the troops.

Barlow’s point is well-made, his sentiment shared. But the view from a sexual freedom activist’s perspective is different. We are seeing, in the infowar against Wikileaks, a dramatic re-enactment in real-time of the attacks against free speech and freedom of expression that have spanned the past decade, if not more.

Like all wars, this infowar did not spontaneously spring into being. It began because the conditions for it were put in place, step-by-step, with one violation of civil liberties after another. For many sexually vocal people, what’s happening to Wikileaks feels eerily familiar, if massively amplified: delegitimization (“Wikileaks isn’t really journalism”), demonization (Fox News’ standard line for Assange seems to be “the Wikileaks rapist”), direct and indirect censorship, political and legal attacks, and even death threats.

These tactics are not new. What’s new in the Wikileaks case is the scale, speed, and level of coordination of the actions against the organization, as well as the actions in support of it. So it’s very easy to draw some parallels between the attacks on Wikileaks and what many sexual and other “minorities” face all the time.

When sexually vocal people try to do pretty much anything online, we do it under a fearful spectre of having it taken away from us without even a moment’s notice. When PayPal suspended Wikileaks’ use of their service, it didn’t surprise anyone who deals in sexuality-related media. Back in 2008, the folks at the charitable New York City Sex Blogger Calendar had this to say about PayPal:

We believe what has caused PayPal to twice now review our account is the word “sex” in both our email address and the actual calendar title…. It is obvious to us and many others in this community that PayPal is not good to use for anyone in the adult industry. We were aware of others who had had their accounts frozen and their funds taken by PayPal for what PayPal felt was a violation of their TOS. We did not think when we set up our Paypal account we would have this problem because there is no nudity in our calendar. As a matter of fact our calendar shows less skin than the Sport Illustrated calendar does but we do not want to take the risk of having the funds in our account seized.

Being “in violation” of an acceptable use policy is very, very familiar territory for anyone who deals in sexuality-related content, whether the violation is objectively justified or not. That’s why it’s been fascinating for me to see the eruption of contempt at America’s government and their corporate and foreign friends for so blithely attempting to wipe Wikileaks off the face of the ‘net. Independent pornographer Furry Girl expressed similar feelings on her Twitter account:

It’s interesting to see WikiLeaks get a taste of what we fringe pornographers have been choking on for years. Companies are the real censors

Example: menstruation porn might not be illegal, but if you can’t find anyone to host it, link to it, or bill for it, it might as well be.

When Wikileaks was unceremoniously ousted from Amazon’s servers, Amazon said it was because their material could “injure others,” despite even Pentagon officials’ admissions that no one was harmed by Wikileaks’ actions. If others’ paranoia over the potential danger of your content doesn’t sound familiar to you, it’s because you don’t talk about sex loudly enough. And not even transgressive sex, necessarily, just good ol’ fashioned heternormative sex.

The Internet has become a virtual city where sexuality-related content is segregated, complete with its own safe-housing projects. Facebook is so hostile to sexuality—they banned web celeb’s Violet Blue’s “Our Porn, Ourselves” page—that entire networks of social networks supporting sexuality have sprouted, but are often disconnected from the rest of the web (like the un-Googleable FetLife). And yet, in a cheer-worthy move, Facebook says they won’t ban Wikileaks’ page. Is this because Wikileaks is a media entity? I don’t think so.

I think it is because it is safer for Facebook to side with Wikileaks than it is to side with TOS-abiding sexually vocal users. As Violet Blue said at this year’s Gnomedex, “If you want to see where [a system] is the most vulnerable…make the conversation about sex.” Violet has also had run-ins with Flickr, but she has the privilege of web celebrity. How many other less privileged than her have faced similar online censorship woes that we do not hear about?

Did you really think Internet censorship couldn’t—didn’t—happen in the Western so-called liberal democracies? In many of these countries, legislatures have been trying to ban content from the Internet for years under various guises: “combating copyright infringement,” “defending national security,” “eradicating child pornography.” These causes are routinely misused and abused to support a pro-censorship agenda, I say as someone who would support legitimate efforts to do all of those things.

While I’m thrilled to see swarms of people suddenly cry out against Internet censorship, it also makes me want to scream. Where has your voice been all these years? It was 1996—nineteen-ninety-fucking-six!—when John Perry Barlow railed against American legislation of the time, the Telecommunications Reform Act, whose Title V euphemistically nicknamed the “Communications Decency Act” had chilling effects on free speech online.

And although you may be reading these words at my blog, you wouldn’t be able to do so today if you were at the public libraries in Providence, Rhode Island, or Austin, Texas, where this blog is censored even on computers specifically reserved for use by adults. Internet filtering at public libraries is actually mandated by a 2003 law known as the Children’s Internet Protection Act despite numerous reports, including this one by the United States Government, saying Internet filtering is actually bad for kids and their education. Such misguided attempts at “protection,” I said in a speech at KinkForAll Washington DC, result in a sexuality information deficit that causes terrible emotional damage to the very youth they claim to be protecting.

Perhaps, in the government’s mind and the mind of other pro-censorship groups, Julian Assange is to “terrorist” what a sex and relationship educator is to “pedophile.” Indeed, I have suffered that label on numerous occasions for saying things such as this in University venues.

The Wikileaks story is important, but far more important is the way it has galvanized long-overdue and uncompromising support for free speech more generally. Even many of Wikileaks’ detractors are now fervently fighting for it to stay alive and online. Open source software advocate Simon Phipps, who has “great misgivings” about and is “not a massive fan of Wikileaks,” nevertheless finds himself defending them, in his words, “Not because I agree with them, but because the misguided attempts to plaster over the fault-lines they stress and expose will inhibit or remove the freedoms upon which internet freedoms – of innovation, of expression, for software and more – all fundamentally depend.”

What Phipps identifies in Wikileaks is the technological equivalent of what sexual speech is to culture: it stresses the fault-lines and exposes innovation, alternative expressions, and far more. To use feminist professor Constance Penley’s words, “Isn’t porn [and sexually explicit expression] supposed to offend? Doesn’t it have a lot of its challenge to sexual and moral taboos and also isn’t it supposed to use lewdness and lewd humor to challenge political authority?” Further, as Penley also points out:

With every technological advance we have seen a greater democratization of culture generally, but certainly sexually explicit expression. […] And that’s the great fear represented by the Internet. It’s just the most recent wave of hysteria that’s around the democratization of sexually explicit expression.

Thanks to Wikileaks, it is now clear to far more people that freedom of speech is under attack. But what’s lacking in the media narrative, and even the blogosphere’s narrative, is that this is a war free speech, and especially sexual freedom, activists have been fighting online for a long, long time. It is long past due for everyone who cares about their own freedom to recognize that being protected from offense or disgust will only enslave you to people in power who spoon-feed you “comfort” and “security” while denying your basic human rights.

Moreover, Wikileaks itself has shown this to be true. In a 2008 press release, Wikileaks announced it was publishing the list of over 3,800 websites “voluntarily” censored by Danish ISPs that allegedly contain “child pornography,” according to police. “Unaccountability is intrinsic to such a secret censorship system,” the press release said, noting that many of the sites had since switched owners, moved entirely, or were even wrongly added to the list in the first place. And, as the press release argued, the effects are more insidious than unaccountability:

The list has been leaked because [similar] cases such as Thailand and Finland demonstrate that once a secret censorship system is established for pornographic content the same system can rapidly expand to cover other material, including political material, at the worst possible moment — when government needs reform.

Two days ago Wikileaks released the secret Internet censorship list for Thailand. Of the 1,203 sites censored this year, all have the internally noted reason of “lese majeste” — criticizing the Royal family. Like Denmark, the Thai censorship system was originally promoted as a mechanism to prevent the flow of child pornography.

In Australia, Julian Assange’s home country, the same cyber-firefight over a government-mandated Internet blacklist has waged for years, with the government’s line being a protection from child porn. In America, new Internet censorship legislation spearheaded by the entertainment industry (COICA) is currently making its way through the Senate, and while sexuality has not been used as a weapon in that instance, mark my words, it will before the fight is over. In England, Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act outlaws the “possession of an extreme pornographic image,” which is defined so vaguely as to mean whatever the State finds objectionable it has actually prompted legal scholars to suggest that “there are many books it would be safer to mutilate—or destroy altogether” than be caught owning.

Again, no civil individual argues in favor of child pornography, so propaganda asserting its prevalence is used as a rouse to whip an ignorant and frightened populace to demand that “something must be done” when perhaps nothing does. The over-the-top fear-mongering kills sexual speech like a “pervy poison pill” kills good bills. And when sexual speech is attacked, so is the basic human right to enjoy freedom of sexual self-expression.

Recently, amid a fury of controversial remarks about religion, British writer Hari Kunzru said, “I believe that the right to freedom of speech trumps any right to protection from offense…. Without freedom of speech, we, as writers, can have very little impact on culture.” Since publishers of sexual speech are in the vanguard of anti-censorship efforts, we are also almost always the first casualties of attacks on freedom of speech, and we suffer in many more smaller ways long before something like Wikileaks suffers in larger ways.

Larger injustices are enabled, step-by-step, by neglecting to fight smaller injustices. If the media had not done such a piss-poor job of creating actual accountability and transparency in our civic institutions and our corporations, Wikileaks would not be necessary, and the media may not have done such a piss-poor job if the same number of citizens would have fought smaller injustices nearer to them as we are doing to fight this larger one relatively further away. This is a point Dan Gillmor hinted at all-too-subtly when writing about Wikileaks this week:

No, Amazon is not bound [to host Wikileaks] by the First Amendment. But if it’s bowing to government pressure, it’s helping a panicked government tear up one of our most basic freedoms. […]

And, no, the government’s campaign is not fully working. Internet “mirror” sites are springing up to host WikiLeaks’ material faster than governments can take them down. But WikiLeaks is the beneficiary, in this respect, of a wide swath of support from people who will make it part of their life’s mission to help prevent this particular instance of censorship from succeeding. How ready or able will they be to defend free speech every time it’s threatened in the future?

Indeed, free speech is threatened every day, but a paltry few defend it when it is sexual in nature as voraciously as we are defending Wikileaks today. Could Amazon’s defense of, then rejection of “the pedophile book” from its virtual shelves have been an indication of their future stance on Wikileaks? There are countless publishers, either individuals like my friends and I, or independent groups, not newspapers or academic journals, but zines or other cultural artifacts whose works are routinely threatened or obstructed merely for their sexual content, even though we also loudly condemned “the pedophile book” and any non-consensual sex, especially of that nature. But if you want to support free speech, you need to support the free expression of sex, too; “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

So sex has everything to do with the First World Infowar. It has been on the front lines all along—and it always will be. Those involved in anti-censorship efforts and the circumvention community need to be talking to sex bloggers a lot more than I suspect they are (Chinese women are a great, long-standing example of why), and free and open-source software advocates need to make space for sexuality researchers, thinkers, and publishers to more openly join their ranks (as the debate over Diaspora’s gender text-field instead of drop-down menu makes clear). Unless that happens, Barlow’s 1996 declaration that, “In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits,” will not be fully or justly realized.

As of this writing, there are more synchronized mirrors of the Wikileaks website than there are released Cablegate cables. Censorship is losing this battle. The only remaining question is whether censorship will lose the war.

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