SOC/SEX: Open Source Sex

From: Chris Rasch (
Date: Sat Apr 14 2001 - 05:20:24 MDT

Open Source Sex
Annalee Newitz,
Salon May 31, 2000

At a recent San Francisco sex
party, I found myself kneeling
rather rapturously at the feet
of three charming naked men
whose level of arousal seemed
unimpaired when our conversation
suddenly shifted from
pornographic fantasies to the
implementation of the Web server
program Apache on offshore
computers. While people began to
have (safe) sex on the mattress
next to us, and I continued to
caress my companions with a
lascivious wink, I found myself
in the surreal position of
discussing the nature of social
freedom in the software industry
while wearing sexy lingerie. I
don't mean to imply that the
conversation about code itself
was somehow erotic for us, but
rather that our sexually
liberated environment seemed as
good a place as any to chat
about something else we all had
in common -- our love for free

Free software is software in
which the underlying source code
to a program is made freely
available to the general
public. It's a development
methodology that sharply
contradicts the way companies
like Microsoft or Oracle do
business. At first glance, the
idea that free love and free
software would come together as
smoothly as so many sex-party
comminglers might seem odd, but
the scene really wasn't that
unusual. As my own regular
participation in both the party
scene and the world of free
software frequently
demonstrated, free software
hackers aren't all that uncommon
in the "sex" community, a group
that includes people in open
relationships, queers, S/M or
kinky fetish fans, and anyone
else whose sexual proclivities
fall outside the mainstream.

Coders suffer an unfortunate
reputation for living
disembodied, asexual lives; they
are maligned for being
passionate only about their
computers and often deemed
incapable of non-virtual
lust. But the stereotype doesn't
hold true -- the geeks I know
are getting some, and not
infrequently with utter
disregard for conventional
social mores. Most
intriguingly, that subset of
geeks who are passionate about
free software may well be
leading the way: Some of the
same free software programmers
who eagerly experiment with new
methods for developing software
are also gleefully dallying with
alternative ways of developing
sexual relationships.

The people at this particular
sex party -- a private, monthly
event that many of us attend
regularly -- were in search of
freedom, or at least a relief
from social convention. They saw
no need to constrain themselves
to a sexual status quo just
because the boring majority
doesn't know how to have
fun. Likewise, many advocates of
free and open-source software
describe themselves as
nonconformists, rebels or as
just generally more open-minded
than your average person. In
terms of software, that means
that they delight in engaging in
practices that challenge the
staid old proprietary capitalist
way of doing software business.

The ideals that underlie free
and open-source software are
applicable to more than simply
coding and business -- they get
at the very nature of what
constitutes human
community. Free software is a
shared resource that nobody can
selfishly hoard; open-source
software is an alternative form
of production that involves
groups of people who work
together rather than in
competition with each other.

When programmers see that
software production is
dramatically improved in a
shared, non-competitive, free
environment, wouldn't it be
natural for them to apply what
they've learned from coding to
what they practice in their
everyday lives -- including
their sex lives? And the logical
extension of free and
open-source software in the
realm of sex would certainly
include publicly shared sex at a
sex party, for instance,
alternative ways of building
relationships (such as queer
sexuality) and non-monogamy (or,
to put it another way,
non-proprietary sexual

One need look no further than
Richard Stallman, the most
prominent advocate of free
software, to see how
technological and sexual
experimentation can
merge. Stallman has both awed
and frustrated the open-source
and free-software communities
with his incendiary opinions
about why developing free
software is not merely
pragmatic, but also morally
imperative. But his
intransigence isn't limited to
code. "I've been resistant to
the pressure to conform in any
circumstance," he says. And that
includes sexual conformity.

Stallman says he has never had a
monogamous sexual relationship,
and he's also observed that
programmers tend to favor
polyamorous or non-monogamous
relationships more than people
in other jobs. "It's about being
able to question conventional
wisdom," he asserts.

He confesses with a smile that
he doesn't consider himself an
expert on sex, but he recognizes
that the unconventional choices
he has made as a software
engineer are analogous to the
choices he's made in his
romantic life as well. "I
believe in love, but not
monogamy," he says plainly.

Stallman's specific beliefs are
his own, but the nonconformist,
experimental nature that guides
his work is shared by a
not-insignificant portion of the
coder community.

Stallman is often dismissed by
mainstream software developers
as an oddball who is not to be
taken seriously -- so it
wouldn't be surprising for
defenders of the sexual status
quo to do the same. But Stallman
isn't unique in his hacker
polyamority. Author and
programmer Eric Raymond is both
a leading evangelist of free
software and a expert on geek
anthropology whose credentials
are second to none. "Hackerdom
easily tolerates a much wider
range of sexual and lifestyle
variation than the mainstream
culture," writes Raymond in "The
New Hacker's Dictionary." "It
includes a relatively large gay
and bisexual contingent.
Hackers are somewhat more likely
to ... practice open marriage,
or live in communes or group

Of course, no one's been
counting how many hackers
frequent sex parties or
calculating the percentage of
open-source contributors who
also enjoy open relationships,
but there does seem to be a
crossover. "This [alternative
lifestyle] group is a healthy
contingent of the hacker
culture, and has been even more
influential than its size would
suggest," says Raymond.

At the very least, it's safe to
say that not only are many
open-minded open-source hackers
unafraid of the anything-goes
mentality of the experimental
sex community, but that they
also positively embrace it.
There's even a crop of online
open-source pornography,
memorialized in J. Stile's hoard
of erotic "Linux slut" images,
which you can find on his Webby
award-winning Stile Project. The
overlap between the languages of
programming and kink is a source
of humor on a bondage Web site
known to fans as the BSD BDSM
Site. As an advertisement for
the "Cat5 o' Eight Tails" reads,
"Light and fast, perfect for the
home or office where
multitasking is vital. Eight
individual strands to transmit
your message interference-free."

This entire free software/free
love scenario would seem to
challenge the conventional
wisdom that holds that there is
something lacking in geek
sexuality. According to
stereotype, geeks are celibate,
disinterested in pleasures of
"the meat" or too socially
awkward and unattractive to find
partners. And sexual pioneers
are supposed to be
gutter-dwelling crackpots or
beautiful porn stars. What
reason could they have for
mingling with bespectacled
programmers who gripe endlessly
about such problems as coding a
free Perl script that will work
flawlessly with a proprietary
Oracle database?

Of course, most free-software
advocates will tell you that
conventional wisdom is no wisdom
at all. For some of the select
group of techies who have
devoted themselves to free
software and open-source
projects, free love and creative
sexuality are part and parcel of
their dedication to communities
that value openness, sharing and
collective pragmatism.

"There's no causal connection
between being into open-source
software and being sexually
adventurous. Let's dash the
implication that open source
causes bisexuality or anything
else," laughs Eli Silverman (not
his real name), a longtime
programmer who worked
extensively with the GNU Emacs
text editor at a Silicon Valley
company devoted to open-source
development. He is also a
self-described "pervert" whose
collection of gray-market
lesbian fisting videos is much
admired in the sex
community. Adds Ed, a queer
Apache developer working in San
Francisco: "Just because you
know other freaks in open-source
doesn't mean that being into
open-source makes you a

And yet both admit that the
ideals that motivate a person to
get into open source or free
software might also motivate
them to be sexually
experimental. Open-source "is
not the textbook solution," Ed
explains. "It's an alternative
mode of economic production, and
being queer or non-monogamous
are alternative modes of having
relationships. Perhaps people
who can consider alternate modes
of production are willing to
consider other kinds of

Another Apache developer who
preferred to remain anonymous
noted that while he isn't a part
of the sex community, he does
see how the mindsets of the two
overlap. "I suppose the two
groups do share a common sense
of rebelliousness caused by
marginalization by society, a
marginalization due to
deliberate choices made by the
individuals involved."

Even as the craze for free
software saturates the market,
spurring stock market public
offerings and inciting fear and
trembling in industry giants,
opting to go the free or
open-source route is still
difficult. Although lately free
software hackers have been more
likely than not to get rewarded
for their labors with stock
options from aspiring Linux
companies, the usual result is
more intangible, like getting to
build communities or creating
better code just for the sheer
joy of it. Therefore, it is no
surprise that mavericks and free
thinkers are the lifeblood of
open-source and free software
development. And thinking
outside the box is, of course,
exactly what is required of
anyone whose sexuality doesn't
fit into cultural norms.

Yet the notoriously debate-prone
open source and free software
communities are as divided on
the question of sexuality as
they are on whether Debian or
Red Hat is the better
distribution of GNU/Linux.
While people like Raymond and Ed
see the communities as open to
alternative lifestyles, others

Deirdre Saoirse, a former
employee of Linuxcare and
founder of a Bay Area users
group for people who use the
Python scripting language, feels
strongly that people involved in
open source can be just as
conservative and closed-minded
as any other part of the
population. "Some of my female
and/or queer and/or
transgendered friends have felt
very out of place in the Linux
community," she says
emphatically. "I've seen a lot
of sexism and not a lot of
openness to alternative
lifestyles among the community
as a whole, even in the Bay

Goolie, a programmer who works
on open-source community
development projects at a San
Francisco start-up, warns that
an ability to connect
open-source sensibilities and
open-mindedness about sex "would
take a particular type of coder,
one who felt that open source
gets at some basic, fundamental
expression of humanity."

Richard Stallman, of course, is
just this sort of person. Free
software is not a business model
for Stallman, nor is it a
technically superior method for
creating software. Stallman has
made his point of view very
clear -- he doesn't care if the
software he uses is actually
technically inferior; for him,
free software is a moral
imperative based on the
principle that people who share
code are ethically better
people. His commitment to an
unorthodox romantic life extends
even into the realm of family.

He says he distrusts the idea of
traditional families and
criticizes the idea that having
children is necessarily a
positive contribution to an
already overpopulated
civilization. "As a child, I
rebelled against parental
authority," he recollects. In
his view, traditional family
structures are predicated on the
opposite of freely-given
love. His point of view is
shared by many people in the
queer community, where "family"
often means long-term friends
rather than biological
relations, and having children
isn't regarded as the logical
outcome of marriage.

Like many social renegades,
Stallman has had to create a
home life out of his work and
friendships. He remembers that
back in the 1970s he flirted
with the idea of joining a
commune devoted to creating
"families" who practiced
polyfidelity (committed, but
relationships). But he was
concerned that he wouldn't fit
into any of the families.

Instead, he created his own
family of sorts with his Free
Software Foundation, a nonprofit
devoted to the sharing and
creation of free software
resources and
information. Rather than sharing
food and shelter with a
biological family, Stallman
shares his famous GNU software
with an international group of
like-minded individuals.

When queer San Francisco network
consultant Richard R. Couture
created a Linux-based Internet
cafe known as CoffeeNet, one of
his wishes was "to create the
kind of space where socializing
and sexuality and an interest in
computers could come together."
And yet Couture, who also
founded the Linux user group now
known as the Linux Mafia, mourns
the fact that Linux users seem
so, well, straight. "People call
me a pervert jokingly in the
Linux cabal," he laughs. "It's
because I'm openly homosexual
and I sometimes enjoy freaking
everybody out by commenting on
sex. I do it to shock
everybody. Sometimes, I just
can't keep my mouth shut."

Couture's friend Rick Moen, also
a network consultant and member
of the Linux Mafia user group,
contends that the connection
between hacking and open
sexuality goes back to the
1970s. In a free zine called the
Node, published by San
Francisco's now-defunct Kerista
commune, he found a "mix [of]
articles about computers and
technology with pieces on
polyamorous/community living and
all sorts of other oddities. I
read it whenever I could find
it," he says.

"Geeks are introverts, we read a
lot of science fiction, and we
have bizarre socialization,"
says Muffy Barkocy, a
non-monogamous bisexual working
with Apache and Perl at She believes
that a geek's stereotypical lack
of socialization encourages a
more experimental sexual
life. "Because of our lack of
socialization, we don't learn
about the monogamous
imperative. It just doesn't
occur to us."

Barkocy's point about science
fiction bears
examination. Speculative
fantasizing has always been a
passion for geeks of any
kind. For some free-software
enthusiasts, there is a clear
link between the bold visions
common in science fiction and a
tendency toward experimentation
in both coding and sexual
practice. Lile Elam, a member of
Linux Chix, a women's Linux user
group, suggests that many
proto-free software geeks grew
up imagining a world where
societies weren't necessarily
driven by the profit motive --
or by compulsory heterosexual
monogamy. Elam adds that many
hackers are also pagans -- yet
another data point indicating an
openness to alternative ways of

Adds Stallman: "A lot of
programmers are science fiction
fans, and there's a tendency in
science fiction fandom to accept
non-standard relationships."
Science fiction is a genre
sometimes known for its utopian
musings on what a more liberated
society than our own would look
like. And reading about alien or
unknown worlds can inspire fans
to go beyond the realm of
imagination and explore
alternative realities and social
arrangements in everyday life.

Not all free software geeks are
science fiction fans, of course,
nor are all open-source software
developers likely to be ready to
strip down and join a three-way
at the drop of a Red Hat. But
that's not the point. Part of
the essence of the open-source
and free software communities,
ideally, is that they are open
to experimentation of all kinds,
both in terms of practical
engineering -- the compilation
of efficient code -- and social
engineering -- the construction
of new ways of being in the
world. And these new ways of
being are certainly not limited
to the sexual
variety. Open-source enthusiasts
are likely to see applications
for open-source strategies in a
vast number of arenas, including
politics, the creation of
literature and even hardware

But when you get right down to
it, sex is always near the top
of the list.

"Computer people talk about two
things: code and sex," says
Barkocy. "You discuss
alternatives to what your
company can do with code, or
alternatives to sexual norms."

Annalee Newitz is a writer and
lecturer living in San

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