You don’t become a woman by adopting a female identity in cyberspace if you are a man in real space. Cyberspace has been seen as the site of certain cross-dressing, or swapping of identities, that can only be phantasmatic or supplementary. But while entering cyberspace does not make a man a woman, it may make him see other possibilities for being a man.
Elizabeth Grosz, Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space (MIT 2001) 21.
As I have written here before, I have a job working in the virtual world platform Second Life. I work as a guide at the Swedish Embassy, Second House of Sweden, showing avatars around, chatting to their human backdrops and answering questions about Sweden, Second Life and myself. Last weekend I was working a very quiet shift from 7am until 9am, rather early but Second Life is across time zones and this is the shift for the USA. I think I had had about two visitors in an hour. I was bored and wanting to log out and do something more interesting. Then, right beside my avatar a female form appeared with someone teleporting almost on top of ‘me’.
I (I will call my avatar me from now on) moved back from the visitor who seemed to be wearing a Little Bo Peep costume with long white stockings and stiletto heeled boots. I introduced myself and started the usual spiel about “Welcome to the Second House of Sweden. If you have any questionsâ€¦..” But ‘she’ seemed to be ignoring me. She moved around a bit, I was having trouble seeing the sign over my avatars head that states I am an ‘Official Guide’ and asked her is she could see it. She replied in Swedish so I continued the chat in Swedish. I soon sorted out the problem with the sign but by this time my visitor had moved about three meters away from me, standing directly in the double doorway to the embassy facing towards me. I though some problem was happening with my browser window as the clothes on the visitor’s avatar seemed to be fading in and out. Her blouse became transparent and I could see the intricate underwear she was wearing. There was no conversation from the avatar, just the clothes fading back and away until she was naked (with a high detail torso), apart from a floral hat, the long stockings and the boots. She then moved toward me, pushing against my avatar.
At this point, behind the nude female avatar another (standard Second Life male) avatar appeared in the doorway. Wearing the white T-shirt and jeans that marks the new comer to Second Life, although he had obviously done some appearance work on the body of the avatar as it resembled the heavy form of someone who does hard physical labor. Heavy arms, thick but hunched shoulders, square hips crowned by a bulging belly. His name was Bengt and when he appeared I immediately greeted him in the same way I had greeted Lina (the female ‘stripper’ standing next to me). Lina moved away from me as Bengt returned my greeting in Swedish and he was soon greeted by Lina, still naked and now moving towards him. The avatar Lina pushed herself agains Bengt and asked if he would like to follow her somewhere. He replied immediately “Yes, but where?” Lina replied that it would be somewhere ‘cozy’ (in Swedish ‘mysigt’). She said she would offer him a teleport to ‘the cozy place’ and the avatar soon disappeared while Bengt waited a few seconds and then teleported out of the Second House of Sweden. I was left with sense of perplexed wonder.
Had I just witnessed virtual prostitution? Or was it a pick-up similar to the performances that take place at public beats in the queer community? Maybe it was just avatar exhibitionism. As Lina was using Swedish (if the user was located in Sweden) did it mean that there was someone, somewhere looking for cybersex in Second Life at 8am on a Sunday morning (the local time)? I wondered if it was a man, woman or otherwise operating Lina. And why, when there are thousands of places used for sexual communication in Second Life, someone had chosen the site of the official Swedish government presence to find a partner?
I think without doing considerable research on the subject (and I really hope someone is) the whole area of simulated sex in embodied virtual spaces is a somewhat mysterious one. My opening quote from Elizabeth Grosz’s excellent book Architecture from the Outside is designed to provoke perspectives on some of the issues involved. Some of these perpectives could include the symbolic performance of gender/s, which is a staple of such 3D worlds as Second Life. As well I have encountered several Furries (the community of fur costumed anthropoids who can exhibit transgressive sexualities), at the Swedish embassy in Second Life. Even a simple search for a term such as ‘Indian’ returns many sex related sites with the Second Life inworld search engine. But I wonder, how are these virtual practices are being integrated into real life or if they are at all?