Sunday, December 14, 2008

Second Life: Thoughts on Gender in Second Life

I have recently been considering the issue of gender as it affects a residents experience of Second Life. It could well be that the thoughts and conclusions I have arrived at have been thought of before or even superceded, but as far as i know they are original to me.

My consideration has led me to the belief that in terms of the depiction of gender in SL there are two functions performed by anatomical parts of the avatar. These are the sexuality component maleness and femaleness and the more identity-related femininity / womanliness and masculinity / manliness. While thinking up my theory, I mentally referred to this latter component as the 'Emblem'.

Both male and female initial avatars are devoid of any features in the crotch region other than a little pubic hair on the skin texture. This elimination of detail obviously greatly simplifies the addition of clothing layers for pants for both genders.

This presents no big problem for female residents in my theory since the vulva represents only the sexuality component of gender and the much more important identity component of gender is catered for by the female avatars breasts which are quite easily handled with clothing layers. Anyone who doubts the basis of this conjecture may care to reflect on women that they know / have known who have had health problems such as cervical cancer and those who have had breast cancer that might require mastectomy and recall which women were the more devastated and felt their identity more threatened.

Unfortunately for male residents the penis serves double-duty (yet again!) and represents both the sexuality and identity gender components and there is no alternative external physiology that can really substitute the masculine identity function so the intentional omission of a penis (etc) is at a probably sub-conscious level a source of distress for male residents. It’s not that we want to have it there all the time, but it never being there is just a constant ‘not quite right’ feeling.

I believe that this emasculation is probably the root cause for observed compensatory male avatar characteristics, unrealistic height, geeks with builds like Olympic athletes, strong "5 o'clock shadow" (since the avatar obviously shaves every morning). I am not in the least criticising any male avatars who evince any or all of these features, on the contrary, I understand completely. I think that this might even be behind some new male avatars eagerness to acquire the infamous ‘freenis’ with the justification of using it for sex, maybe it is really just an attempt to put something that they know is wrong to rights.

It's not even that any kind of 'funtionality' is necessary, but I can't help but wonder how many male residents have been lost due to the the choice of living a SL life with a neutered male identity or be thought of as a sex-fiend and get a penis

In closing, I would ask female residents who have female avatars to ask themselves: If the default female avatar was as flat as an ironing board, how long would it be (in minutes) before you went looking for boobs? ‘Frewbs’ anyone?

I welcome all comments and alternative viewpoints.


Anonymous said...

I'll comment, although I only stayed with Second Life for a few days! I feel as a female that I would not have cared two hoots (pun??) about looking as flat as an ironing board as I believe identity is more bound up with how I feel inside and how I interact with others. I would see it as a reflection of the other SLifer's character if they reacted to my flat-chested appearance! I would be really interested (as a health researcher) to see if there is a difference in how identity is constructed between females who populate Second Life and females for whom it has little appeal! There's a PhD for someone!

UnderLord said...

Hi murfomurf,
In RL I have never defined my identity by my body but by my mind, so I don't much care about having a penis in SL, but I also know I'm not a good representative of the average guy and potential SL male resident. Fwiw, I have a refinement to the theory that the nipples might actually be a sexual component of the otherwise identity representing breast and that is why all manner of skimpiness is allowed in bra's etc in RL so long as the nipples are covered.

Faery Sola said...

that did get me thinking, but the argument seemed to turn to prim attachments as the defining way a man could display/express his masculinity.

To which I tend to disagree. Woman do have very specific sliders to enhance their feminine shape ie waist, hips, thighs,belly and yes, breasts. Boys *cough* sorry, MEN, have can express their virtual masculinity through muscle definition and size, as well as the "coin purse" slider... which still cracks me up... but no need to go out and buy the first whopping big schlong you find! The male crotch is well defined enough through that to give one the thought of "wait up, we have a guy here".

The idea that a womans' sexuality is more threatened by the loss of her breasts than that of her reproductive organs is absurd. I am sorry but as a woman I will emphatically disagree with that. Our genitals may not be exterior, and we don't feel the need to take "stock take" every so often, but these are important to us. But I suppose that that is a failing of societies philosophical base, given the castration of a woman does not appear to be deemed nearly as horrific as that of a man.

As for avatars and how the keyboardist reflects their own sexuality through that of their avatar appearance... my avatar lost quite a few cup sizes when I was customising her, she is based on my RL self. Do I consider myself to be any less feminine than woman with a massive rack? HELL NO!!! *hears the tune "I am woman" in my head* heehee :D Anyways, just my thought, feel free to rebut, agree or whatever *grins*

marfita said...

Having been raised female, I can attest that the surgical loss of breast would be a devastating event for two reasons: they are only removed because of devastating disease and because it's sudden. If our SL avatars came without breasts or the sliders to create them, I might possibly consider paying to attach them. The rack I installed myself notwithstanding, I am not surprised by the mammaries I see in SL and think it a shame that male avs don't have the opportunity to come equipped with and adjust their own penis just to see what effect that would have across the population. (God, I LOVE discussions like these!) And this would be despite the fact that women are not really attracted by the variations in shape and size of The Package but that it would be a competition for alpha-malehood on the grid. Indeed, I suspect that a lot of the over-development of the emblematic male elements are rooted in this and that even with the largest Idaho-potato in their shorts, male avs would still be competing with each other for the social level with the secondary accoutrements because if anyone can have an enormous willie, it becomes meaningless.
Thanks for the posting! Love the comments! and "murfomurf" -whatta great handle! Wish I'd thought of it!

UnderLord said...

Hi Faery,
I agre that a womans' sexuality is more threatened by the loss of her sexual organs than her breasts. What I am saying is that gender is both sexuality and the emblem of womanliness/manliness and the womanliness is what is presented to the world by breasts. And that a lot of a persons identity is invested in the emblem.

Hi Marfita,
It's odd that we have such a taboo against prominent displays of 'the package' and much criticism of speedos etc' when in Elizabethan times there was huge competition amongst the males with fantastic codpieces. I wonder what the women of those times thought of them? :-)
I have been cogitating on the inequality of overt gender emblems in SL for a while and a recent line of Tee-shirts with a slogan diss'ing the freenis blazoned across a whopping pair of mammaries was just enough to push me to post.
My wife is well endowed and if she ever tried SL (which I doubt she will) would probably gladly choose more comfortable proportions.

Moggs Oceanlane said...

Hasn't thought deeply about it... but I do think it's un-natural to be Barbie and Ken's with no "privates" what so ever. It's not like we don't have them in real life... and we see ourselves naked on a regular basis.

Our society has gone a little nutty I think - all nudity seems to be equated with negativity (porn, paedophilia); sex also is often equated with being a negative thing when both nudity and sex are very natural states of the human experience. It's awful that people are made to feel guilt about these natural aspects of life and I really for the life of me can't see why it's not ok to have gender appropriate features in a virtual environment. Particularly an environment where education takes place.

Some people prefer to remain genderless in second life, so there really needs to be the option of male (comes with male parts); female (comes with female parts) and androgynous (for those that wish not to be of any specific gender).

I believe that by making things such as nudity and sex taboo subjects and continually putting them in an unhealthy light, society is more likely to encourage the negative aspects (and create psychological issues and negative attitudes relating to body image, sex, nudity, etc) than remaining rational and pragmatic and thinking of them as natural.

Give the guys their privates, I say (while allowing people to choose "no gender" if that's what pleases them).

I strongly believe the option of "no gender" is important too - as many people embrace Second Life as an escape from the judgements and constraints they experience in real life based on gender, physical appearance, disability, race, sexuality, etc.

Moggs Oceanlane said...

After note: I agree strongly with Faery Sola.

I don't think the loss of a breast is worse than the loss of a uterus.

Many woman undergoing hysterectomy face fears that they won't be a woman any more; the lose the choice of having children - it's quite a traumatic experience.

If you had to weigh things up, there are breast transplant optins - but no uterus transplant. However, I don't believe they can be weighed up, each operation comes with lots of personal emotional and psychological trauma.

UnderLord said...

Hi Moggs,
For sure, people are all different. My wife never wanted children anyway and ovarian cancer runs in the family so she is mighty pissed off that her requests to have the liability plumbing removed has been rejected.
At the same time I have a friend with breast cancer and the whole chemo' thing going on who impresses me with her stoicness.

Seikatsu Koba said...

You post is very interesting and thought provoking. Based on what I have observed in SL, gender identity is in the mind more than in the body of the avatar. My first avatar (Seikatsu) is female because I’m a woman, and when I signed up for SL it didn’t occur to me to use a male avatar or a furry. The second avatar that I created was a male, and his purpose was to be a photography model. I was, and still am, at odds with him. I can’t figure out how to dress him properly, I can’t find a good hair for him, and he doesn’t have privates. I know where to buy what he needs, but there is something missing in my mind because I cannot dress him well.

As a woman 80% of the avatars I have met are male, and 98% of those men at some point have had (or currently have) a female alt. For whatever the reason these men have, it is a matter of the mind that they chose a female avatar while keeping the male mentality. I don’t think that the fact that they are using a female avatar makes them feel less of a man, and more importantly I don’t think that the lack of privates affects them either. It is intrinsic within us, our minds, to be who we are, and that is why our appearance sometimes is not so important. Think about transgender people, they may look like a man or a woman, but the feel different.

It took me four months to buy my first skin, and I bought it because I didn’t have nipples. The first time a friend saw me naked the first thing she said was ‘you have no nipples’ and it was the first time I was embarrassed about the skin I had. The woman behind the keyboard first embarrassed for the first time in her SL.

Valiant Westland said...

I'm Comfortable In My Skin

in SL, but I give a lot of credit for that to a female friend of mine (MG). On my first day in SL she took me shopping for skin, hair, eyes, etc. She asked me what my goals were in SL (Business 80%/Social 20%) and if I wanted my AV to be identifiable with my 1st life persona.

With her help I put together an Avatar whose body type, proportion, hair length, eye color, etc. allowed me to recognize "him" as "me." She then helped me pick out clothing that "suited" my image.

During this whole process, I of course noticed my AV was genderless below the waist. Because I already viewed SL from an "Augmented Reality" perspective, I made a conscious decision to "render" my AV with a complete set of male genitalia, color coordinated with my chosen skin and as realistic looking as possible.

I completely agree with Moggs OceanLane when she says:

"I believe that by making things such as nudity and sex taboo subjects and continually putting them in an unhealthy light, society is more likely to encourage the negative aspects (and create psychological issues and negative attitudes relating to body image, sex, nudity, etc) than remaining rational and pragmatic and thinking of them as natural."

I've never regretted my decision to "fully equip" my Avatar and make him like me and fully male. I'm comfortable in my skin and enjoy the "me" that I am in SL, just as I do in my 1st Life.

Visit My Plurk Page!

Learning Teacher said...

Personally, I don't think I'd feel that my avatar was a female unless she looked like a female. And part of that is having breasts, but also the general curviness of the anatomy - which is visible despite layers of clothing.

Likewise, a male avatar wouldn't feel male unless he looked male, but since men don't walk around with their, um, "parts" hanging out of their clothing, I don't know how important it is that the male avatars don't come equipped with a penis. Maybe for males it's just the subconscious thing of *knowing* that a penis isn't there... but rest assured, I've always *assumed* it's there because like I said, in RL you don't normally get to see it, except in intimate situations :P


UnderLord said...

Thanks Valiant and Quaintly,
Those are all valid points.
I think that all of us who stay in SL MAKE ourselves comfortable to do so.
I wonder though how many people (guys mainly) get perturbed by their initial experience of lacking genitalia and either don't ask or ask and get derided for it and then don't come back.

UnderLord said...

Interesting info', thanks very much for that. I seem to find more females, I must be going to the right places ;-)
I know for sure that I wouldn't have a clue how to dress a female avatar, I have enough trouble with the single nominally male one that I have.