Gender and Disclosure in Second Life

This is a collection of thoughts that sprang out of an interesting thread on the SLU forums, in which the OP lamented the fact that as a lesbian woman, she found it incredibly difficult to find other genuine RL lesbians with whom to form relationships, and instead was disppointed by the number of “lesbians” who were, in fact, straight men with female avatars. The purpose of this post is to correlate my thoughts on this and related matters, and expand on them a bit. Be warned for tl;dr.

This whole issue is an ethical minefield, and because of my own situation it is also one that touches very close to home.

The main question that seems to arise from this situation is, if your RL gender does not match the gender of your avatar, at what point, if ever, does it become mandatory to disclose this fact? And at what point does failure to disclose it become an act of deliberate deceit? The general consensus was “it depends”, and the things it depends on vary from one person to another, and one situation to another.

It is fairly accurate to say that the majority of SL users fall into one of two camps.; On the one hand you have people who take other people’s SL avatars at face value, and they do not mind if reality differs from that; they treat the other person as though they are who their avatar appears to be. On the other hand you have the group of people for whom SL is a tool for interacting with a RL person, and for that group, the identity of the typist is far more important than the identity of the avatar. The problems arise when a person from one group hooks up with a person from the other group and one or both of them have not made their position clear from the outset.

The situation that arose in the original post is clearly one of deceit. A straight guy wanting a bit of hot girl-on-girl pixel-porn dresses up in a girl’s avatar, goes to a lesbian club and picks up another girl and starts dating her. Only after several days does he confess that he’s really a guy. Kudos for him that he actually admitted it at all, many don’t, ever. But to string her along for days, to take her on dates under false pretenses… the deceipt began with the first IM, and I think that is despicable.; The amusing thing about all of that is the thought that two blonde lipstick lesbians hooking up are actually two straight guys both of which would be absolutely horrified if they thought they were wanking off to another bloke.

This leads to the development in SL of the A/S/L – pics – voice – webcam conundrum, where many guys are just too afraid to get involved without knowing for absolutely certain that the female avatar they’re chatting with is a female in RL. It starts with A/S/L – but the girl might be lying. So they ask for RL pics. But they might be pics of someone else – so they ask for Voice – but that might be cheating using a voice modulator – so they demand web-camming… and so it goes on. (And makes me wonder why they are even bothering trying to pick up girls online at all if their paranoia is so great that they distrust everyone they meet).

But there are other reasons for guys (or girls) to have avatars that do not match their own RL gender, and here’s where the ethical waters start to get murky.

Lets take situation two. Woman A is, in RL, a bisexual female with a slight preference for other women. She is of the type of player that really doesn’t care about anyone else’s RL identity – she takes everyone at face value, and states openly that she does not mind if the person behind the keyboard is male or female. Woman B is in RL a straight man who is experimenting with a female avatar for fun and personal curiosity, just to see what it’s like. He choses NOT to tell woman A that he is male in RL. They hook up and have a lot of fun together. Is that deceipt too?

Now lets look at situation three. A post-operative transsexual woman, who was born biologically male, but fully identifies as female, has completed medical transition and has offically changed gender and become female. She has a female avatar in SL. Is this deceipt? Is there a point at which it becomes essential for her to disclose her previous gender?

Situation four – same woman, with a female avatar in SL, but ten years younger, and this time still pre-op. Maybe cross-dressing full time in RL, and identifying internally as female, but still having a RL body which is physically male.Is this different from situation 3, and if so, on what grounds?

This is the situation that matches my own, except the other way round, gender-wise. I regard myself as transgendered, female to male; I cross-dress near enough 24/7/365, but for practical reasons (mainly financial ones) I have not and probably will never make the magic medical transition. So… is it unethical of me to not disclose this to all I meet in-world? It’s an odd situation, being transgendered in SL, because I don’t feel that it’s my SL avatar thats the wrong gender. My SL gender is right, it’s my RL avatar that’s wrong. I cannot possibly say that I’m female in RL because this is blatantly not true – there’s nothing female about me except for my reproductive organs. At the same time, I can’t honestly say that I’m male because physically, I am not. The only way out of this dilemma I can find, without deliberately lying, is to be completely up-front and honest about being transgendered. Unfortunately doing that has totally ruined any chance I might have had of any sort of relationship in SL – straight girls and gay guys don’t want to know because I’m not male. Lesbians and straight guys don’t want to know because I’m not female.

In the end, I’m fairly unusual as far as transgendered/transsexual people in SL go. Most of them do not disclose at all, partly because it ruins the immersion, and partly because in many cases SL is the only place where they can truly pass as being the gender they feel they should be. I certainly would not expect a transgendered person to disclose their RL situation. As far as I’m concerned, a TG man is a man and a TG woman is a woman, regardless of the genitals they were born with. But then again I am bisexual and it really makes no difference to me if my partner is male, female, or somewhere inbetween. I can understand it being different for someone who is 100% gay or 100% straight, where the mere thought of being with someone of the wrong gender is a complete physical turn-off. So I can see how, for some lesbian women, that a transgendered woman doesn’t quite meet the required standard.

The problem is not everyone who has a male body in RL and a female avatar, is either TS or TG. Some of them are just straight guys wanting to watch a bit of hot girl-on-girl porn and they figure the easiest way to get it is to be one of those girls. Its these straight guys playing sexual games for their own entertainment, those are the asshats that are being deliberately deceitful. But where do we draw the line, if the other woman (as in Situation #2 above) says that she doesn’t mind? Would it be deceitful for a guy (maybe a closet gay or bi-curious guy) to put on a female avatar and pretend to be a straight girl for me? I’m inclined to say no, I don’t consider that deceitful, because gender isn’t a deciding factor for me. Likewise I would believe it’s not deceipt for the woman in situation 2 either.

One thing is for certain – every situation is going to be different, and the answers to the above questions will not be the same for everybody. The most important thing in any relationship, whether it’s in SL or not, is for both parties to be absolutely clear with each other right at the outset, what they’re looking for,l and if one of them does not match the others’ needs then it’s just wrong to lie about it.

With all of that in mind, I updated my SL profile today.


One comment on “Gender and Disclosure in Second Life

  1. Great conversation Lewis, and a topic whic shall be with us for some time, I would say though, this honesty you talk of in your case of gender, is same for any aspect of virtual Organic interactions, relationships be they social or business.

    Honesty is the name of the game, and as we find ourselves in a world where it might seem easier to find companionship in the virtual world, honesty to self would be ones first priority

    After all in organic world, which of us have not come away from meeting, again social or business, and wished we had asked those nagging questions, and not let it go simply because the need for the companionship or contact out ways those fears ?

    Good luck on this winding road of life, not just virtual.

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