Virtually Speaking

Second Life along with the First.

Second Life, Second Gender

One of the things I’ve always been intrigued about in Second Life was the issue of gender.  In an anonymous environment like SL, honesty can sometimes become a victim to one’s subconscious desires.   I say that not as a moral judgment, but as an observation of fact — a surprising number of Second Life residents are probably not anything like they portray themselves.   For many, the anonymity allows them to explore facets of their personality that are repressed by social inhibition.

One of the common ways some SL residents explore is to roleplay as the opposite gender. How important is gender-honesty in a virtual world?  If mechanisms were put in place to force gender honesty, would it destroy the fantasy element of SL?  Would it make it harder for people to explore their own sexuality in ways that are not permissible in real life?

I know quite a few residents who have female avatars but who openly admit they are male – some of them transsexual or transgendered individuals who find a wonderful method of release in SL.  Others feel that they have feminine characteristics they want to explore.

In my opinion, the degree to which this is simply roleplay as opposed to deception  depends on the nature of their relationships — how much do their friends and virtual lovers risk by trusting them?  If the truth comes out, will anyone be hurt by knowing of the deception?  It’s the difference between a casual acquaintance dancing at your favorite club versus that hot blonde you fell madly in love with and proposed marriage to, only to discover they have a tab instead of a slot between their legs.

I submit that this issue is far more widespread in Second Life than most of us believe.  Though I like to think I’m worldly-wise and a bit cynical, I think the real breadth and depth of gender deception would startle most residents if the truth were known.  It would probably even startle me.

So what motivates someone to pretend to be the opposite sex?  What is their Second Life like?  I went to someone who would know.   This individual worked at a club with me right after I joined SL.  I was a manager at the time and they were one of the dancers.  The club had “VIP” rooms where girls could take clients for escort work if they so chose, with the club getting a small percentage of the fee. In a moment of candor, this girl confessed to me that she was really a he.  (For the record, she wasn’t the only one – and we added screening questions to the hiring process to try to prevent a recurrence, hoping they would be honest).  I had to encourage him/her to resign or be fired in view of the damage to the club’s reputation if it slipped to a client that we employed gender benders as escorts. 

It wasn’t personal.  I kept him on my friends list.  He was always an intelligent, sensitive person with a great deal of wisdom to impart — intelligent enough to slip past most people’s “guy-dar”.  His fundamental deception aside, at heart he was still an interesting person with feelings and motivations of his own.

I believe that every human being has varying degrees of male and female in their makeup — I believe that gender is not a black-and-white, male OR female phenomenon.  I think of it as a spectrum.  All of us are somewhere along the spectrum between all-female and all-male.  None of us are completely 100% one or the other.

I’ll call my friend “Doug”.  I won’t reveal his SL identity here or his real name, as I promised him total anonymity in order to do this interview.  I’m posting this heavily edited for the sake of clarity and to give you some insight into a mindset.  I don’t think his case is unusual.

Cindy:  “Doug, how long have you been playing a female in SL?”
Doug: “About three years.  Maybe longer.”
Cindy: “Do you tell people you’re really a guy?”
Doug: “Most of the time no.  It just never comes up. ”
Cindy: “Has anyone ever guessed without being told?”
Doug: “Not yet. ”
Cindy: “Why do you think that is?”
Doug: “I’m not sure.  At first I was sure people would spot it.  I have usual male hobbies like sports and beer.  But I also think I have a female side in me that’s been dormant most of my life.  SL gave me the chance to explore that female side.”
Cindy: “Explore it how?”
Doug: “Sexuality, mostly.  For lots of men, there’s a layer of homophobic attitude that has been programmed into them.  It prevents them from even wondering what it’s like to be a woman, to have periods, to be penetrated, to be pregnant.  It takes some major social deprogramming to ponder those things.  Exploring them has been a major life experience for me.”
Cindy: “And SL has helped you move across that barrier…”
Doug: “In ways I never imagined.  And it’s true what they say about women being placed on a pedestal on the one hand, treated like royalty, protected … yet on the other hand not having their opinions valued and being viewed as the “weaker sex”.
Cindy: “What’s your biggest challenge in trying to keep your ‘secret’?
Doug: “Hmm.  Probably guys who think they’re in love with me.  I like doing cyber – I’ve worked as an escort and it can be exciting.  But when they stalk you it can be scary.   I was a little concerned about ID verification but they haven’t done anything with it.  Now it’s voice.  I don’t voice for obvious reasons but I’ve heard there is software you can use to modify your voice to sound female.  I have to decide how far I want to take this.”
Cindy: “Do you ever have qualms about deceiving people you know?”
Doug: “I try to avoid that if possible.  In the end I try to remember that this is just a fantasy.  If someone falls in love with my cartoon pixels, that’s their problem.”
Cindy: “I’ll assume that you don’t do anything to encourage that?”
Doug: “I try not to.  But when you work as an escort or a stripper, part of the job is appealling to male vanity.  Flirting, making yourself attractive.  I don’t have any talent as a builder so this is how I make money in SL.  I kind of remove myself from my avatar, mentally.  When I’m cybering with a guy I feel more like I’m making my avatar do things and I’m watching her just like the guy is.”
Cindy: “Do you think being male gives you some insight into what men like, more so than a genuine woman?”
Doug: “I think so.  I don’t talk sports.  That would be a giveaway.  But I dress my avatar the way I, as a man, think is sexy.  I gave her a hot body and blonde hair.  Guys dig the Pam Anderson look.”
Cindy: “What will you do if and when the day comes that we have ID verification and you’re forced to prove your gender?”
Doug: “I’ll either leave SL or start over, I guess.  It would ruin most of the fun I’m having right now, making money and exploring what it’s like to be a virtual girl.”
Cindy: “You and I talked about this when I had to let you go from the escort club.  You told me at that time that you were ready to move on anyway and knew what would happen before you confessed your real gender to me.  I had suspicions at the time but wasn’t sure enough to ask if you hadn’t told me.  Have you had similar experiences with other clubs?
Doug: “No.  Every experience like that only teaches me lessons that I apply later.  I haven’t been found out since then by clients or managers, but I keep my mouth shut. ”
Cindy: “What about guilt?”
Doug: “None. *smile*  I’m not out to hurt anybody.  This avatar is my alter ego.  She’s my inner woman.  Sometimes I wish I could really be her but a sex change operation isn’t in the cards for me.  I hate knives *smile*.  So I guess you could say she really is me – a part of the real me.  That part is real and genuine.”
Cindy: “So what advice would you give to guys out there about figuring out the real gender of that hot Barbie blonde they are chasing?”
Doug: “I won’t give away all my secrets *grin* but for one thing, if they’re a Barbie blonde with huge hooters, they’re probably a guy.  If the relationship is really getting serious I would just urge them to make real contact outside of SL.  Phone calls, face-to-face, that sort of thing.  Even if they turn out to be a real woman you don’t know what their physical reality is until you experience it.  And you can’t do that in a virtual world.”
Cindy: “And if it’s not serious?”
Doug: “Then I don’t think it matters.  It’s just a fantasy, after all.”

September 20, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | 10 Comments

The Next Life

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged here.  Most of my posts have been over on the Grid Grind, where several writers have been keeping the discussion flowing and reporting on the latest Second Life developments.

Lately, the hot topic has been ID Verification. Within the next few weeks, SL residents will have the option of going through third-party firm Integrity  to confirm personal details such as name, address, and gender.  I understand that you will have the option of enabling some of these details on your profile.   Other residents will be able to see that you are “verified”, but you can also reveal your RL gender, location, and age if you so choose.

Linden Lab continues to stress that this move is meant to “build trust” in the community.  In one way, that’s true.  No longer will those who engage in adult activities in SL or who sell adult merchandise, have to worry about the legal age of their partners or customers.  Or so the theory goes.

But is that necessarily so?

I’m still waiting to hear how it’s harder for little Johnny to steal his Dad’s Social Security Number than it is to steal his credit card.  The main thing Integrity will give Linden Lab is some legal protection.  From their website: “merchants using Integrity, are indemnified for violations of laws relating to underage access“.

Naturally, that doesn’t indemnify landowners directly (indirectly? I’m not a lawyer, I’m open to input).  And that’s the real issue once this system goes into place. 

Says the Linden blog:

“If Residents and businesses choose not to do this, we expect that such behavior will be reported by the community itself. As has always been the case, Residents are morally, socially and legally responsible for their actions and content in Second Life.”

Translation: not only are landowners going to be held responsible for flagging their land as “adult” if it contains anything regarded as remotely questionable, but the Lab is issuing a blanket invitation to everyone else on the grid to go around looking for things they consider questionable.  An errant nipple?  Abuse Report.  One of George Carlin’s 7 Words you can’t say on TV?  Abuse Report.  Pink and blue poseballs?  Abuse report, youbetcha.  It almost sounds like a good idea to pre-emptively flag your land as adult even if you don’t have anything “broadly offensive”.  Lord knows if you own a combat sim, you’d better put your shields up.

I remember after the June of 2006 removal of verification requirements on signup, there were official comments about how the AR traffic wasn’t as bad as people made it out to be.  The problem was, that blog entry was based on one short week of data.  In the ensuing months, entire resident groups were banned and returned to be banned again.  Club owners reported such a rise in griefer traffic that the BanLink system came into being so that they could have some control over repeated griefing and share information.

Now, Linden Lab is about to do it again.  However many Lindens are working their enforcement desk,  they need to double the staff.  Of course, they won’t.  Perhaps the only thing that might save us as freedom-loving residents is that the AR load will skyrocket so badly that LL can’t check each and every one.

There is another ramification to this new feature.  One that some residents are applauding, but in my opinion will have a far more negative affect on the grid than they realize.  That is, the sex clubs and free sex areas are about to take a major traffic hit as are the combat and dueling sims (“adult content is that which is overtly, graphically, or explicitly sexual in nature or intensely violent.”).  We may not see every one of them closing the way gambling casinos had to shut down, but there will definitely be a reduction in their numbers.

No, I’m not saying that’s going to be a bad thing necessarily.  It won’t be the doom of SL.  But consider that for every 10 newbies who join to try out the sex clubs, more than one of them eventually get tired of the cybersex and come to realize that there are other things to do.  Some of them build.  Some of them start endeavors of their own — I remember one person who I met through Archan, who joined to see what the sex was about and ended up buying a sim where he offered help and cheap rent for residents under 90 days old.  Another one went on to develop his own line of aircraft for sale.  Another developed a very clever chat tool that has been sold widely.  Just because someone is curious about the sex doesn’t mean they have nothing else to offer.

So what happens when these people stop joining SL?  We’ll likely not see much of a decline in population.  In fact we may not really miss them, because we won’t know what we lost.  But it will be a loss.

How many of you honestly believe that the poseball business — the art of posing and animation that gives us non-sexual cuddles, lounging, and AO animations — would have ever been as lucrative and driven without a market in the sex biz?

The grid has been a marriage of the PG-rated and non-sexual with the deviant, the sexual, and the fetish communities for a long time.  Most members who belong to the latter also have strong ties and business interests in the former.  They are inextricably entangled.

I am one who will not miss the crowds of naked, prim-penis wearing newbies at some clubs.  But at the same time, I have to wonder how many of those could have developed into productive, creative Second Life residents.

We may never know.

September 6, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | Leave a comment