If code is free, why not me?

Some open-source geeks are as open-minded about sex as they are about hacking.

Published May 26, 2000 6:30PM (EDT)

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 software.

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 affection).

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 homes."

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 pervert."

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 alternatives."

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 disagree.

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 Area."

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 non-monogamous, 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 Egreetings.com. 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 living.

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 design.

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."

By Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a writer. Get the gory details at Techsploitation.

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