Public Sexuality and Private Privilege
Belmont Library Regular Computer Lab

Image by Sarah Houghton via Flickr/Creative Commons

I got a surprise during a recent visit to a public library to use a computer. I looked up from my screen and thought I saw a naked behind on another computer screen a few rows ahead. Then the butt started moving. Then I could see it was moving on top of another person, which was when it finally clicked: someone a few rows ahead of me was watching porn on a public library computer.

Another surprise: that person was a woman. She had a big hairstyle and probably thought her hair hid her viewing interests, but the library has wide computer screens, and she did not have enough hair for this. Or maybe she wasn’t trying to hide at all and was unaware that her behavior is not socially acceptable, which means she also could have been crazy. You’d have to be mentally ill to watch porn at a public library on one of about 100 computers set up in long rows on the entrance floor, right?

I posted something about this on Facebook the day it happened and told a few people about it after the fact. (The woman wasn’t watching child porn, so I didn’t report her to library officials.) Everyone who commented on what I had seen—self-included—was shocked that the library didn’t have filters to prevent patrons from watching porn, but for a woman to do it was almost unfathomable. My online and real life communities and I have thought of all types of reasons (or excuses?) that a woman would be bold enough to watch porn on a computer at a public library. Why would she take that risk? This was in the daytime on a weekday, so there could have been preschool or toddler children around. Library personnel could have seen her and at minimum kicked her out. At the very least, she risked some serious embarrassment. So why do it?

☜ Sexuality continues.

Image by Nick Sherman via Flickr/Creative Commons

I suggested she may have been looking for instructional videos. When I looked up from my computer again 10 minutes or so later, I could see she was on a website that had a pink background and a photo of man and woman embracing in the foreground. To me this indicated she was on a site for sex toys and that site also sold videos, and maybe it let customers preview the videos before buying them. Others said if instruction was her aim, she should’ve checked out Joy of Sex from the library, and she was probably just crazy.

That’s what’s so funny about this situation. Women’s sexuality is so frightening, and their public expression of sexuality, sexual curiosity or sexual desire even more so, that mental illness becomes a viable suggestion for understanding a woman who goes there.

This happening at a public library makes it even more curious to me, because I’m aware of who uses its computers in the daytime on a weekday. It’s not people like me, who carry mobile devices like they’re surgically attached, will always work wireless internet access into the home budget, and who use the library only when they need a real screen in between appointments. It’s people who don’t even have dial up because they don’t have their own computer.

What if I wanted to buy some sex toys or instructional videos that a brick-and-mortar store didn’t have, and I couldn’t do it from home? What if none of my friends had computers either, or if I was too afraid of their judgment to ask them if I could come over and shop online?

sex shop Hans

Image by Dave H via Flickr/Creative Commons


As someone on Facebook noted, the woman, the porn and the library made for an interesting discussion about the intersection of gender, sex and class. I can do what she did at home and not shock anyone or be called crazy or endanger my status as a library patron. Bottom line: It’s amazing just how much a little economic privilege can allow you to hide.



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