Crass but Cool：
Examining Online Sex Chatting and New Constructions of Masculinity among Hong Kong Youth
By John Nguyet Erni
Fung Hon Chu Endowed Chair of Humanics
Head, Department of Humanities & Creative Writing
Hong Kong Baptist University
Through examining the highly popular practice of online “sex chatting,” this paper attempts to understand the rapidly changing forms, norms, and values of sex as an important facet of internet chatting culture. Internet-based “sex chat” refers to the casual exchange and creation of vernacular views about sexual beliefs, behavior, rumors, and fantasies. Sociological, popular culture, and gender studies have suggested that it is an informal social practice pursued mainly by men, and as such, the chat room or forum is considered a space for the ongoing construction of particular modes of masculinity. This study is based on a detailed empirical netnographic study of the Hong Kong Golden Forum (GF), a highly popular internet chat site in a city known to have a vibrant culture of internet forum chatting. I investigated the main recurring themes in sex chatting conducted in GF and the specificities of the language used by the chatters (including written and visual slangs, metaphors, tones, and registers). I then explore how the themes and language of “sex chat” contribute to the construction of a “vernacular masculine culture” specific to youth culture in Hong Kong in the larger social context about sex education and media portrayals of chat forums and their users. Like a colloquial language, the notion of “vernacular masculinity” speaks the idiom of the curious, the obscene, and even the vulgar. It is hoped that this study helps to reframe our theoretical and political understanding of sexual values shaped by a profoundly quotidian source of meaning-making.
Online “sex chat” refers to the casual exchange and imaginative creation of vernacular views about sexual beliefs, behavior, rumors, and fantasies, conducted either synchronously or asynchronously within a monitored or unmonitored environment.The chatting can arise from any initiation made by the chatters themselves, or it can be triggered by social controversies and moral panics about sex. The chatting often involves written text and visual icons that are generated by the users, often forming its own universe of linguistic and visual slangs, metaphors, tones, and registers.
The overall aim of this paper is to take a fresh look at contemporary sexual values in Hong Kong through an empirical ethnographic analysis of internet social chatting made by social actors who engage in “sex chat.” Research in Sociology and Social Psychology tells us that social chatting about sex is an informal social practice – on the internet or not – pursued mainly by men (the gender of the chatter is at least self-identified as such) (e.g. Adamse and Motta, 1996; Bowring, 2005; Gill, 2012; Greenfield and Subrahmanyam, 2003; Wolak et al, 2008). Critical popular culture studies regards this lack of formality as socially significant, because it affords the particular practice of “sex chat” in the first place, while actually constituting the very cultural character of the content of the chatting (e.g. Kammeyer, 2008; Ray, 2007; Waskul, 2003, 2004). Meanwhile, gender studies regards the “maleness” of sex chatting as something originating from a general cultural permissiveness that often positions men to be more outspoken than women in the public pursuit of explicit sexual conversation (e.g. Del-Teso-Craviotto, 2008; O’Riordan and Phillips, 2007; Ringrose et al, 2013; Soukup, 1999). At any rate, the chat room or forum where sex chatting takes place is a predominantly male space. To be more precise, it is a space for the ongoing construction of particular modes of masculinity, which enjoy wide circulation.
A conception of sexual values through investigating internet sex chatting is necessary as a response to rapidly changing forms, norms, and values of sex as a result of the digitalization of everday life. Meanwhile, this digitalization of virtually all walks of life, especially in social communication, is itself a result of the changing contour of a consumer society that emphasizes creative interaction, social efficiency, instant gratification, and so on. This digital life, as well as the consumerist ideology that underpins it, have not gone unnoticed by the regulators of culture. The intense social and legal scrutinity of the dynamic space where sex and the internet mix, is by now commonplace. If consumerisim and regulationism form the important context for understanding how internet chatting flourishes, it is equally important to stay close to the user level to examine the very discursive processes through which sex and the internet mix, and with what cultural impact.
This project is based on a detailed empirical study of a highly popular internet chat site in Hong Kong known as the Hong Kong Golden Forum (hereafter “GF”) (香港高登討論區). Ranked as a top site in Hong Kong by Alexa (2009), GF is a chat site well-known to be visited mainly by youth (and older adults). To date, there has been little ethnographic research of cyber-masculinity and issues of sexuality in Hong Kong. The handful of existing work that looks at the construction of Chinese masculinity appears in cinema studies (e.g. Enns, 2000; Lo, 1996; Shu, 2003) and media consumption studies (e.g. Lin & Tong, 2007; Young & Chan, 2005). This study was first of its kind to take an in-depth look at the specific forms of local masculinity articulated through a popular and enduring pastime. I focus on the main recurring themes in the sex chat, and the specifities of the written and visual language used by the chatters, including slangs, metaphors, tones, and registers, that seek to reconstitute the meaning of sex (e.g. terminologies, behavior, relations of sex) as a function of the chatting (as opposed to the normative conceptions of sex in society). Through looking at the themes and language of sex chat, I examine how they may be contributing to the emergence of a “vernacular masculine culture” specific to Hong Kong and unique to its internet chatting culture. I define vernacular masculinity as a casual “lad culture” characterized by a continuing curiosity toward all things bodily and sexual, a non-contemplative, even unrefined sensibility, and a “social cool” built not on class distinctions or educational attainment, but on street knowledge and popular taste. Like a colloquial language, this masculinity speaks the idiom of the curious, the obscene, and even the vulgar.
The Culture of Internet Chatting in Hong Kong: Popular Problematizations
It is perhaps useful here to present a brief view of the local discussion of youth internet chatting as part and parcel of the broader emergence of internet “idling culture” in Hong Kong. Surprisingly, there has been little news reports and columns that focus on the discussion of internet chatting in Hong Kong. When it does appear, most of them focus on internet crime, slander and sexual harassment; in other words, local news rarely provide any in-depth insights into the activities conducted in chat culture.
Most netizens in Hong Kong claim that people should be responsible for their comments and statements. News of police report on the rise of sexual harrassment and even rape cases connected to internet “friends making,” continues to fascinate the public (see “Problematizing,” 2010; “30% of secondary schools,” 2010). Many related reporting condemns irresponsible behavior on the internet.
With respect to cyber language use by local youth, the media generally claim that cyber language is negatively affecting the proper language skills of teenagers. But some journalists regard the development of cyber language as an inevitable social process of language evolution. Many teachers complain that their students use “the language from Mars” in their written work (“Strange homonyms,” 2009). Also, since most teenagers use Chinese input methods, such as Cangjie and Pinyin, while chatting on the internet, they develop the habit of inputting by the keys and the pronunciation of words instead of the actual writing of the characters. Further, reliance on the provision of related characters by the input software encourage the users to forget how to write those characters in the absence of the computer. Local media call this a phenomenon of “neo-illiteracy” (Lau, 2010). The Hong Kong Daily News regarded the creation of “non-mainstream” language as irreverent to the Chinese language (“Popular slangs,” 2009). Increasingly, the education and media sectors encourage parents to learn their children’s cyber language in order to combat linguistic generation gap (Leung, 2010; Ha, Lam & Ng, 2009; “Using internet slangs,” 2009).
Meanwhile, other columnists and journalist have defended the development of cyber language as a process of local language evolution. They argue that clearly, informal “bad language” has been an effective communication tool on the internet among teenagers; it would be replaced once it loses its utility (Ling, 2009). Besides, creativity abounds, such as the combination of both English and Chinese in an expression.
With respect to gender and sex, internet chatting in Hong Kong helps proliferate a number of popular expressions. Some of them are misogynistic and homophobic, while others carry meanings of gender and sexuality that are deliberately vague. In the last few years, internet criticisms of “Kong girls” (港女) flourished, a phrase used to complain about materialistic and self-centered women and girlfriends. Netizens have also used “Gongju Byeong,” which is a Korean term to describe women who want to be treated like a princess. A demanding and overbearing person, the “princess” is said to suffer from a disease (公主病) of fantasizing their lovers to be like the prince in the story books, satisfying their every demand of expensive goods and devoted attention (Tung, 2010).
As a reaction to the criticism, young women joined the retort on the attack of the “geeky” men. Using the term “duk lam” (毒男), which originates from the Japanese language, the counter-attack aims to criticize men and boys who lack basic social skills and who typically hide in their own apartment indulged in lonely activities of video game playing and porn consumption. The character “毒” (meaning “toxic”) is a homonym to the character “獨” (meaning alone or lonely). It is in this terrain where internet sex chatting flourishes, for it is said that the the geeky “toxic males” form their own cyber community to chat about sexual fantasies (“Hong Kong poisonous males,” 2009).
In sum, like in many other contexts, Hong Kong local culture expresses its concern about the proliferation of negative trends arising from the indulgence of internet chatting. Yet many of the criticisms lack a clear empirical grounding that goes deep into the cyberworld. Chat forums, such as GF, offer a particularly rich space for investigation.
What are the Sexual Linguistic Innovations on GF?
One of the features of language use in the chat forums is the extensive use of icons, short phrases, and idioms that form the web culture of a particular discussion forum. The usage of visual icons in GF shows great originality and creativity. Conversations in GF epitomize the distinctive language usage in all local online forums.
Visual Icons: Sex and Mockery
Many of the visual icons seen in the chat threads are a direct substitution for a certain commonly used expression, such as the inputting of [ ] to mean “fuck you” and of this bouncing icon [ ] to mean a big bouncy female breast. Not all icons are crudely referential, though. Some of them express hidden meanings and are distinctive to the culture of GF. One of the core icons of the forum is the icon of the “Clown God” [ ]. Its Chinese expression “膠神” (pronounced as “gaao sun” in Cantonese) is comprised of the Chinese characters膠gaao and神Sun. Gaao is a phonetic approximation to the word “鳩” (pronounced as “gao”) in Cantonese, which refers to the male genital (and more broadly anything stupid), while “神” (pronounced as “sun”) means god. “Gaao Sun/Gao Sun” is therefore a playful linguistic construct to mean the god of the penis or the god of stupidity. And as the icon looks like the face of a clown it is also called the 小丑神 or the “Clown God.” This icon is used very frequently in GF as a shorthand to respond to something stupid or lame in chatting. The icon has been so much embraced by the chatters of GF that they will venerate it as god and recreate it on t-shirts, mugs, and other objects to be adorned among chatters for easy recognition in offline contexts.
Another visual icon that is unique to GF is the hand-waving icon [ ]. This icon has multiple meanings beyond a simple hello. It can signify agreement to or acknowledgement of a certain viewpoint in the conversation. It is also frequently used in the so-called “留明” (leaving name) culture on GF. When someone replies to a particular discussion thread in GF, this thread will be saved automatically by the forum operational program into the personal archive of the respondent. Therefore if someone is interested in a particular post but do not have time to engage at a particular moment, or if they would like to archive a particular post for later reference, they can simply respond to a conversation by inputting an icon, a word, or any way that is the fastest and most convenient so it can be archived into their personal account. This procedure is called “leaving name.” In this case the icons are always used to archive a particular conversation and the hand-waving icon is one of the most frequently used icons for this purpose. However, the hand-waving icon also carries another specific usage distinctive to the sexual contents among chatters in GF. As it is a criminal offence in Hong Kong to directly post nude pictures on discussion forums revealing private body parts (such as the nipples or genitals of a female), chatters who would like to share such materials would only post a web link that leads to the actual sources with explicit sexual contents. But when some chatters who are unaware or ignorant of this offense post a violating material directly on the forums, or accidently post a nude photo instead of the web link, other chatters would mock him by threatening to hand him in to the police through the forum administration. At that time, posting the hand-waving icon issues a mocking expression of saying “bye bye.” Yet, since this gesture is a sheer sardonic expression, those who post it do not really intend to report such violation to the authorities. It is not even a good-willed reminder of the law-breaking nature of the action. All of this conforms to the bragging, teasing, and bullying culture of GF, even as they faithfully practice the use and re-use of those icons.
Alongside the inventive use of visual icons, GF chatters also adopt their own set of idioms that are distinctive to the chatting of sex. Generally, these idioms can be distinguished into two groups: one group draws from original Cantonese phrases with innovative changes with changes (phonetically or semantically), while the other are phrases that are crystallized from layers of transformation and sequences of development within the GF chatting culture. A popular set of terms, for instance, is “filial son” (孝子) and “un-filial son” (不孝子). There are a lot of posts in GF that are commentaries on different sexual materials, including sexual experiences and pornography. Chatters would expect the postmaster – the person who started the post – to paste the link to the source from which to retrieve the sexual materials under discussion, or else they would curse him for not doing so. The curse most often used in Cantonese is “fuck your mother” (屌你老母). So a chatter who starts a sex related post along with a link for easy downloading would be hailed a “filial son”; he is “filial” because he avoids his mother from “being fucked.” As such, the “un-filial son” is a curse hurled at those who forget to or fail to provide the convenience to fellow chatters. From this practice springs a whole range of related idioms in GF, such as the phrases “There are three un-filial acts and the most un-filial act of all is to not provide a seed [for downloading]” (不考有三, 無seed 為大) and “Please lend your mother to us for a while” (借你老母一用). All are crude and misogynistic idioms that extend from a community of chatters tied together by a sense of brotherhood built upon a shared interest in sex. What remains remarkable is the continuous sense of linguistic creativity and communal bonding, eventually allowing for a different, problematic, if not subterrenean, sense of masculinity to emerge.
In GF chatting culture, an unrefined but realistic sense of male bravado persists. We need to develop a critical understanding of the emergence (or reformulation) of chatroom-specific masculine culture framing and framed by sexual discourse. This perhaps requires a temporary suspension of value-judgment to either become indifferent to the taken-for-grantedness of male “sexual nature” (the “boys-will-be-boys” thesis), or to condemn this whole segment of popular masculine culture as none other than a hotbed for sexual objectification and misogyny. I suspect that in the end, this kind of vernacular masculinity – unrefined, cavalier, hollow, informal – exhibits both tendencies. The question remains though: how is this masculine sensibility, crude as it may be, distributed and operationalized across the vast sexual terrain opened up by the chatroom culture, and what does it tell us about the nature of meaning of “sex” as something being constantly reformulated in virtual space?
One of the most salient topics among the chatters that demonstrate a predatory masculine culture is the one related to the female body and appearance. Many of the posts open up conversation threads that share, comment on, and fantasize the female body (with these posts mostly attached with sexual images and sometimes videos). Here are a few examples extracted from GF:
(update!! Episode III – 8 sisters with Mr. Jam – Round 6 (photos on page 6)
(My special interest is in mature women!! Update p.3, p.6 (photo), p.9 (photo))
((one photo per person) Pretty girls J photos/ Ugly girls photos for vomitting)
([J time] creating the best J photo post in the history)
(Goddess Fala’s boobs are so round and sleek!)
(which type of girls do you think is the hottest ?_?)
(are you fond of the female private parts? (excluding pubic hair)
We can identify from these examples a few types of sex chats that center on the female body. The first type are posts that share sexual materials, such as examples (a) and (b). These posts contain images of pornographic materials and are in most cases accompanied by videos or links to the relevant websites and downloading sources. These posts can easily generate conversations of over tens of pages and over 100 responses. The second category of criculated materialis is similar to the first type, in that they are posts for sharing, discussing and commenting on female bodily and sexual materials. But the chats are over the images of female celebrities and public figures. Most of them capture accidental exposure of the breasts, underwear, private parts, “upskirt” images, legs, toes, stockings, and so on. There are also images that reveal the body figure of women in swimsuit or tight clothing.
Finally, in our findings, an issue in popular chatting that might also raise questions about moral values is the chatters’ fondness for sharing their experiences in visiting sex workers. These so-called reports would contain a detailed description of the whole occurrence of the incident, from the place of the brothel, the description of the female sex workers, and the whole engaging process. Sometimes these reports are presented as novellas, in which the webmaster would even add additional details into the whole story, complete with a story line, narratives of conversations, and descriptions of feelings. For example, the “Dongguan Woods” story turned out to be based on the writer’s real life “chicken calling” experience. Because it was of such enormous popularity and because of its writing quality akin to a popular romance novel, it was made into a commercial film entitled Due West which was released in mid-2012.
“Sex chat” offers a useful site of investigation of a series of cultural contradictions that seem to reign in the cyberworld: ideas and speech that are communicated publicly among strangers, yet experienced as something intimately related to our bodies and private sexual subjectivity; an act of presentation and representation that is produced as quickly as it is consumed; a way of constructing and reconstructing identity in the flowing time-space of the internet; an encounter that is afforded by the conjoinment of bodily and technological imaginations, yet flesh, speech, and technology seem autonomous from one another. These are the conditions for the creation of a strange but fascinating gender performance, especially the performance of “vernacular masculinity.” Thus, reading cyber-speech, gender, and “diverse eroticisms” (Attwood, 2006) as inter-implicated entities is a complex interpretive task. This study attempts to open up such a model of analysis through grounded online ethnography of a highly popular chat site, where a rarely studied form of masculinity has emerged and is thriving in Hong Kong. It is hoped that the study of “vernacular masculine culture” can reshape the direction of gender studies in Hong Kong, placing less emphasis on well-worn ideological modes of construction of maleness (e.g. through the family, schools, sports, business environment and the media) and more on the fluid flow and interaction of sexual speech constituted out of freely unscripted lines of imagination.
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1.In this study,six university male research helpers were employed and trained to perform participant observation in the GF site. The period of observation and participating in the chatting lasted for six months in 2018. The average amount of time for engaging with the chat sites was about ten hours per week.
2.This study adopts netnographic methods for a critical qualitative study of sex chatting. Traditional ethnographic studies are firmly situated in the offline social world. Yet drawing on the tools adopted by cultural studies in conducting ethnography,with a commitment to what Paula Saukko calls a practice and a mode of cultural analysis “to be truer to lived realities of people” (Saukko, 2003, 56; see also Gray, 2003), netnography has become an increasing influential qualitative research methodology that adapts ethnographic research techniques to study cultures and communities that emerge through CMC (Kozinets, 2002; Langer & Beckman, 2005). It is important to note the specific considerations necessary in adjusting traditional ethnography to netnography. Besides the usual need to manage a large quantify of data pool, and to rigorously maintain confidentiality of the informants,it is important to note that since online ethnographers are not physically co-present with the targeted subjects,they must develop a strategy for accessing the online community with minimal disburbance made to their discourse, and for managing their identity and presentation of self in the textual and visual media. Much of this has to do with the researcher’s ability to display cultural competence of the norms of the group they are studying. This requires an appropriate shift from an initial period of conventional participant observation to a more formal period of what Walstrom (2004) usefully suggests as “participant experiencing.” This means an active and ongoing reading and posting of messages to the group, after making an initial effort (known as “lurking”),so as to discern the online chatting environment, including a patient observation of the kind of conversation that is happening, the clues to pick up on, and the extent to which participants may become reluctant to speak about a certain subjects. Although there are many problems and dilemmas that researchers face in this fast changing virtual space, we are far from reaching consent on a universal set of guidelines, precautions, and remedies.
3.In this project,I forgo the idea of recruiting the chatters for face-to-face interview,because that would have significantly lengthened the project. Besides, this project’s precepts rest in examining sexual speech and a masculine culture that arise from the modalities of chatting, and not from offline follow-up reflections.
4.A heightened and intense scrutiny of chat forums appeared in Hong Kong as a result of the anti-extradition law movement that broke out in summer 2019. LIHKG, a popular chat forum that was an outgrowth of GF, became a diabolical space for the protesters to create messages and quickly circulate them to mobilize actions. It has also become a target for government regulation and control (see Hui, 2019; Kang, 2019; Lai and Wu, 2019).
5.For example,thephrase “升呢” combines the Chinese character of “升” to signify “raise” and “呢”,which is a Cantonese phonetic adaptation from the English word “level.” Together, the phrase signifies “raising of levels” commonly used in video game playing, as well as signifying “let’s improve ourselves” more generally. As such, cyber language adequately represents the local Hong Kong culture, by showing that Cantonese is a living language (“Chinese territories,” 2009).
6.This icon is originally used in the Snitz Forum 2000 developed by an American company Snitz Communications. The Golden Forum at that period used the same forum operational program so the icon could also be used by Golden users. Those who did not know about this history would think that this icon was created by the Golden Forum. Nevertheless the icon has since been widely used by Golden users and it is now recognized as the representing icon of the forum. (http://evchk.wikia.com/wiki/%E5%B0%8F%E4%B8%91icon)
7.The phrase “不考有三, 無seed 為大” is a modification from the old saying of Mencius: “不孝有三, 無後為大” (“There are three infilial acts and the most infilial act is not to have an offspring.”),a creative connection of the act of sharing sexual materials with traditional Chinese ethics of filial piety. The phrase “借你老母一用” (“Please let me borrow your mother for a while.”) is another way of saying “fuck you,” since in Cantonese the expression “fuck you” is the same as saying “fuck your mother.” In this way,to say“let me borrow your mother for a while [so I can fuck her]” is just a playful way of saying “fuck your mother.”
8.See the media coverage (in Chinese) of the transformation of Dongguan Woods from a GF post into a popular film:http://www1.hk.apple.nextmedia.com/template/apple/art_main.php?iss_id=20120313&sec_id=462&art_id=16150337).