Love & Sex in the Virtual World I: Second Life As Sexual Environment

I was talking to a friend about this magazine the other day–someone who’s been in Second Life for several years and runs a couple of very successful SL businesses–telling her why I thought SL needed a magazine devoted to cyber love and sexuality, when she surprised me by saying that she’d never engaged in either activity, that she didn’t see the point. “It’s not like it’s real love and sex, is it?” she asked. “I prefer the real thing. I just can’t see wasting my time with cartoons.”
I thought about that for a moment and said, “You’re right. Take back all these clothes you just sold me. It’s not like they’re real clothes, is it? I prefer the real thing too. I just can’t see wasting my time with cartoon clothes.”
I don’t know if she quite appreciated my point, or whether she saw any contradiction in her ability to engage in cartoon commerce but not cartoon sex, but it seems to be a blind spot a lot of people have. It’s okay to come to Second Life to make friends and money and have all sorts of weird experiences, but it’s perverse to come here and engage in cybersex because it isn’t “real”.
Well of course it isn’t real! That’s the whole point of Second Life, isn’t it? That it isn’t Real Life, that it’s a combination of technology and imagination. The experience of dancing in SL isn’t real either, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful to watch, or that it’s not worth doing, or that it doesn’t have emotional value and meaning. It’s a different experience than RL dancing, but it’s still an experience worth having.

In the same way, sex and relationships aren’t the same in SL as they are in RL, but that doesn’t make them worthless or without value. They’re a legitimate and meaningful way of connecting with another person, of sharing emotions and affection and sexual pleasure and intimacy, and they deserve to be taken seriously.
You see the message in so many profiles: “Always remember that behind the avatar is a human being with a heart and feelings. Be kind. Be considerate. SL might be imaginary but our emotions are very real.”

And that’s just it. Second Life isn’t just about the images on the screen. It’s about using those images to communicate with another human being, to share feelings and emotions with the person behind the other avatar. Second Life is a medium of communication.

The Medium is Still the Message

People come to Second Life for all sorts of reasons, but the reason they stay is always the same: Second Life fulfills some emotional need, and more often than not, that need involves other people. We come here to meet people, to make friends, to find love, sex, romance, adventure, and experience things we can’t experience in real life.

Some people may denigrate the things we feel here, or can’t understand how we can get so emotionally involved with cartoon people. (Strangely, these same people have no second thoughts about people falling in love through correspondence, though.)  They don’t understand that what goes on in Second Life is not about the image on the screen. It’s about using those images to communicate with each other. It’s the communication that’s the key. It’s the exchange of thoughts and feelings that brings people close and allows intimacy and love to develop.

At the same time, though, we should always be aware that SL isn’t Real Life, and that the nature of the medium changes the rules for love and sex. Marshall McLuhan summed it up back in the ’60’s when he said, “The medium is the message.” What he meant was that the medium of communication determines just what we can say. Radio could say more than print, and television could say more than radio. It’s important to understand Second Life as a medium of communication in order to understand the way it influences our feelings and relationships.

To McLuhan, a medium was hot if it provided a lot of information, like television. A cool medium provided less information. Radio is cooler than television but hotter than print, which in turn is hotter than knots on a string or smoke signals. Where does Second Life stand on this information spectrum?

SL is a fairly “hot” medium, meaning it provides a lot of information, especially when voice is used. At the same time, SL is cooler than television because the images it presents aren’t real. They’re idealized, beautified, prettied up and enhanced till they’re very compelling and emotionally involving. We all know how silly it is to pursue an avatar because he or she is unusually beautiful, but we all do it. We all know the avatar’s appearance has nothing to do with the person running it, but we’re very visual creatures, and looks matter to us.

Whom/What Do You Love?

That brings us to our first SL problem: When we get involved with someone in Second Life, are we getting involved with their avatar or with the person behind that avatar? Or both?

The answer is “both”, whether we like it or not, and that can be the source of a lot of problems for SL relationships. Early on we’re very likely attracted to the avatar, and only later do we get to know the person behind it. The intimacy created by the anonymous nature of internet connections is well know, and applies to Second Life as well. Avatars can be confessing very personal details of their real lives to each other within minutes of meeting, which no doubt contributes the remarkable speed with which SL relationships develop, but also gives a false feeling of closeness and acceptance.

Often there’s a disturbing mismatch between one’s perception of a newly met avatar and person who eventually reveals him or herself behind it, and that can lead to trouble–misunderstandings, disappointments, and miscommunication. The girl who runs that hot and sexy avatar turns out to be a lot more modest and conservative than you thought. That refined, well-dressed gentleman you met at Frank’s turns out to be a self-absorbed jerk. In each case there’s a dissonance between what you think you see and what’s really there.

The tendency of people to project their desires into the empty spots in their knowledge of a new love is also a factor. SL presents a confusing set of signals. It’s easy to idealize another avatar and fall in love with that ideal. That rarely works out.

The same kinds of disappointments can happen in real life too, of course, but they’re endemic to SL, where everyone can look like whatever they want and you’re denied the kind of information that would let you get to know the person more quickly in Real Life. One of the reasons for the typically short life spans of many SL relationships is this avatar/human mismatch.

There’s probably not a lot you can do to avoid this problem. Since so many of us come here to play at being people we really aren’t, there’s no sense in trying to make your avatar look more like the “real you”, whatever that is. But it’s something we should all be aware of when we feel ourselves falling for that hunky or sexy Av.

A World of Surfaces

The world of Second Life is a world of surfaces and appearances, and appearances can be stunning but are usually pretty shallow. We already mentioned the dangers of appearance when getting involved in a new relationship. Now we want to pull back and take a longer look at what living in a world of appearances does to the people who live there.

For one thing, it means we’re surrounded by beautiful people all the time, in beautiful and romantic places, and that has an effect. Temptation is everywhere, and sex is quick, easy, and seemingly without consequence. No matter how pure or chaste your intentions, you’re constantly being bombarded with beautiful bodies and atmospheres that reek of sex and sexuality. Men especially have fewer qualms about quick and superficial sex than women, and this temptation can inexorably eat away at their resolve. Infidelity is one of the most common causes of break-ups in SL relationships, and unfortunately, almost everything about SL encourages promiscuity.

But it’s not just the temptation that puts stress on monogamy here. It’s also the absence of the very things that encourage loyalty and commitment in Real Life relationships. Couples are held together by much more than sexual attraction, of course. There’s the trust and reliance that comes from the shared struggle and challenges of daily life in the real world, the support rendered during times of pain or discouragement. Love is often forged in the flames of shared hardship, and honestly, there just isn’t that much hardship available in SL for a couple to share. Things are easy in SL. Commitment is hard.

Love is also the accumulation of the countless understandings and revelations that pass between two people in the more leisurely environment of real life, the rainy days spend on the sofa, the shared meals, evenings spent in front of the TV. We rarely have these kinds of truly leisurely opportunities in Second Life to relax and give our attention to  each other. There’s always an entertainment going on, always a distraction. It’s kind of like trying to fall in love with someone in a Las Vegas casino: there’s a lot pulling you apart and not that much pushing you together.

Second Life, then, is an environment that encourages romance, but not necessarily love. Things happen fast and feelings are accelerated. It presents us with the bright surface of things, a surface that often conceals reality and dazzles us with appearance. It’s a great place to fall in love, but a difficult place to stay in love. A place where the centrifugal force acting to split couples up is high, and the centripetal force holding them together is weak.

SL As Sexual Environment

If SL is a poor environment for love, it’s an excellent one for sex. It probably goes without saying that sex is one of the major preoccupations of men and women alike, and we don’t need much encouragement to get involved in it. Supposedly sex was what launched the home video market back in the ’80’s when videocassettes were the thing, and sex was what fueled the growth of the internet in its infancy. There’s a lot of debate about how much sex goes on in SL and how important it is to its success, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s substantial.

Much ingenuity and hard work have gone into developing products and techniques to accommodate any sexual interest or sub-specialty in Second Life, and, as mentioned, sex is all over the place here. It’s fast, easy, and largely without consequence–no pregnancies or STD’s, no lover’s perfume on your shirt, and if you have second thoughts about your partner, you can always just TP away with a click. It doesn’t get much easier than that.

Here again, the shiny superficiality of SL acts to encourage sexual engagement. From Frank’s ballroom to Toby’s blues shack, women dress to show off what they’ve got, to attract men. What men don’t understand about women, though, is that sexy clothes don’t necessarily mean a woman is looking for sex. (And what women don’t seem to understand is that men don’t understand this.) I don’t know how big the women’s clothing market is in SL, but it’s very big, and the ratio of sensible to sexy is pretty tiny.

A lot of us come here for the romance, and Second Life is a very romantic place, with plenty of moonlit beaches and idyllic forests, dimly-lit clubs — even dark and gritty urban alleys if that’s what turns you on.  But romace itself is usually prelude to sex. (What is romance but love with a hint of danger, and what is this danger if not the danger of sex?) Even more of us come here flat-out for the sex.

We come here to experiment, to do things we can’t do in RL for one reason or another, to try out behaviors and explore sides of ourselves we usually keep hidden. We come here to share pleasure with other people, or indulge in selfishness, live out fantasies or confront fears. We come here for all the things people seek from sex in Real Life, and quite a few that can only be experienced here, in this special environment..

The imagination-based world of Second Life is an amazing sexual playground, and one whose possibilities and potential are just begining to be realized. Here men can be women and women can be men. Here you can have different avatars, each expressing a different side of your sexuality. Here you can have sex with vampires, werewolves, robots, even yourself, using an alt, and can indulge in any fantasy you can think of.

To denigrate the variety of Second Life sexual experiences by saying, “they’re not real” is to totally miss the point. SL is the playground, the laboratory, the dream, the medium, and very possibly the future of human sexuality. The things people do here, the kinds of relationships they form, the tools and techniques they develop, may all be the seeds of the future.  The experience isn’t like real life, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t valid, meaningful, and fulfilling.

Just what it’s like and what it can be like will be the subject of another post.

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About Aiden Swain

Editor/Publisher, Humm Magazine: Journal of Cybersexuality

One comment

  1. trina

    Well written! Boy, do some of those words hit home.

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