Sex, Text and the Virtual Body
In the decade since William Gibson coined the term "cyberspace," the "consensual hallucination" he envisioned is a part of present-day reality. Like the national highway system to which they have been all too frequently compared, computer networks have drastically refigured the cultural landscape. Gibson's paranoid vision of a world rendered nearly uninhabitable by multinational corporations whose hegemony is enabled by means of a vast, interlinked information network, started out, like most good science fiction, as social criticism. Now it has become the model upon which various corporations, keeping up with enormous consumer demand, are carefully planning and busily constructing a brave, new world.
In Gibson's novels, the technology from which cyberspace is accessed is available only to an elite: the corporations that buy, sell, and jealously guard information, and the highly skilled "net cowboys," hackers who make a game and an art of stealing it. Now cyberspace is accessible to anybody with a PC and a modem. For-pay on-line services such as AOL, CompuServe and Prodigy, as well as numerous local and national BBSs have proven immensely popular, with a user base that has expanded exponentially within the past few years. The hackers, computer scientists, academics and researchers who once made up the resident population of Internet, have recently experienced a phenomenal population explosion of eager settlers. This has been mostly due to a combination of media exposure and the fact that Internet has become much more accessible. In response to popular demand, the popular, subscription on-line services have begun to allow Internet access to their members, other for-pay access providers have begun to proliferate, and easy-to-use graphical browsers such as Mosaic and Netscape have only added to the traffic.
Neither the remote, parallel universe of Gibson's fiction nor the scary, computer-generated universe of films such as "Lawnmower Man," virtual reality has come to be not so much a fiction as a condition, an alternate way of relating with the world and with other human beings. Virtual existence has become so immediate that what constitutes reality has become a very complicated question.
Part human, part machine, the figure of the cyborg has become a significant icon in the collective imagination. Because technology has become so much a part of everyday life, Donna Haraway once said that "we are [all] cyborgs."  Gleeful cyborgs, the illegitimate offspring of the founding fathers of military and cybernetic research, fulfilling one of childhood's most avid and most forbidden wishes, are out playing on the highway that their fathers built. And in any variety of makeshift, sprawling encampments alongside the highway, they discover other shape-shifters, gaze into other eyes, glowing, opaque and shining phosphor-bright. An entire, hybrid generation has redefined the concept of "doing it in the road."
Virtual sex is a generic term for erotic interaction between individuals whose bodies may never touch, who may never even see each others faces or exchange real names. This can include phone sex, exchanges of electronic e-mail encounters on chatlines, BBSs and other on-line virtual communities. Most widely-publicized discussion of virtual sex has tended to classify it with the type of fleeting, anonymous erotic experience that can be obtained in sex clubs, pick-up bars or by calling professional phone-sex lines. This type of discussion tends to analyze the phenomenon as the result of technologically mediated alienation, motivated by fear: of AIDS, of strangers, or of the fact that the body is rapidly becoming redundant in an age of progressive denaturation. Certainly virtual sex has come to the fore at the same point in history that various practices that drastically refigure the human body, some of which had previously been confined to specific subcultures, have become increasingly popular: bodybuilding, dieting, working out, piercing, tattooing, plastic surgery. One way to interpret this is that their own bodies are the only things left for people to control for themselves.
There is, however, a more positive way to regard it.
Demonstrating an adaptability admirably in keeping with the seemingly endless evolutionary permutations of capitalism, human beings have turned the machinery of power that surrounds them into sources of play and pleasure.
Since virtual sex has gotten so much media attention lately, I want to make clear from the outset that not everybody who socializes virtually is interested in sex. It might even be fair to say that most people who go on-line are perfectly happy to chat, discuss their hobbies and interests, and simply make new friends. If you are interested in meeting new people, or experimenting with virtual sex, it is socially inadvisable to approach anybody directly. The rules for meeting people, making friends and maybe getting laid are exactly the same as in real life, and you could find yourself becoming instantly unpopular if you make the wrong assumptions.
It is also important to note that, despite several recent, sensationalistic media stories, the actual incidence of sexual predation, pedophilia, exchange of child pornography and other illegal or dangerous behavior is extremely rare. The Net is a very safe, very enjoyable space for women and with parental supervision, it is a wonderful place for young people to explore and make friends.
A casual survey taken among individuals who've engaged in some form of virtual sex might suggest that the consensus is that it's no more compelling than, as one person put it, "an interactive Penthouse Forum." Most might not even regard it as an experience any more interesting or personally transformative than any other kind of semi-anonymous erotic encounter. Because it's been so well-publicized, a lot of people try it for a little while, and quickly find it strange, tiresome or not at all sexy. A lot of people find virtual sex to be a disembodied, alienating and ultimately meaningless experience. Others, however, have discovered that it can be as involving, intense and transformative as the best kinds of embodied erotic encounters, and that furthermore, its virtuosity enhances rather than detracts from the experience.
There is a certain kind of freedom in virtual sex. You can look however you want and do whatever you want, even push limits that for whatever reason you might not want to push in real life. In virtual reality mind and body, female and male, gay and straight, don't seem to be such natural oppositions anymore, or even natural categories to assign to people. The reason for this is simple: in virtual reality, you are whoever you say you are. And as some people who found that virtual reality was a fun place to be somebody else for awhile have discovered, it's often true that who you are is way more complicated than you ever thought.
Virtual reality can mean different things to different people. Technological developments in commercial, military and academic laboratories, which include head-mounted displays, data gloves and certain interactive video games, have been regarded in the popular press since about 1989 as the present and future of virtual reality. Although this type of research has been well-funded, academically theorized and vociferously hyped in pop-culture lifestyle publications such as ]Mondo2000 and Wired, projected as a dangerous, scary fantasy in mainstream movies such as Lawnmower Man or else as a sci-fi wet dream involving sex in wired body suits, very little of this technology is developed beyond preliminary stages, affordable or available to the general public.
The other type involves much less high-tech hardware, and is made up by its many users as they go along. This type of VR includes. all the various telephone and on-line chatlines, Bulletin Board Systems, newsgroups and any of the number of commercial service providers that have proliferated in the past several years. Of this type, the richest, complex and most comprehensively elaborate environment are MUDs: (Multi User Dimensions (or Dungeons)):
MUDs are text-based, interactive databases, located on Internet, that allow many users at the same time to communicate with each other by typing text into their computers. Everybody in the same "room" sees whatever you type, and you can see what everybody else is typing as well. You can look at other people and the room you're in, walk or teleport into another place, pick up objects, or dance and get drunk in a virtual club. The only technology required is a computer and a modem or a means of direct access to Internet. The only skills required are patience enough to learn a few simple commands, some programming ability or willingness to learn, and good writing skills in order to craft highly complex, extremely vivid environments in which you begin to feel as if you're actually there. Unlike the better-known chat line systems, in which individuals can only converse, as if on a telephone, players on MUDs are also objects; they have bodies that they can describe as simply, attractively or fantastically as the skill and imagination of the individual writer allows.
On MUDs it is possible to have conversations and make physical gestures. Sometimes the sense of presence so vivid that you feel as if you really are touching, smelling, tasting, seeing whatever is around you, in a complex interchange of experience between a physical and an imaginary body. By their users, many of whom have been on them for years, MUDs are regarded as communities that allow for very real social and emotional engagement, political activism, and opportunities for collaborative work on various civic, technical or artistic projects.
The ways that people spend their time depends on the particular MUD. Most MUDs are used primarily for Dungeons and Dragons style gaming. MOOs, such as the famous LambdaMOO, are for socializing, academic research, conferences and experiments in community organization or collective programming. Other variants: MUCKs, MUSHES and MUSES can be for games, socializing or sustained roleplay. Some examples of roleplay are playing famous, fictional characters from skiff or fantasy novels, animals, or vampires. While people seriously involved in roleplay rarely, if ever break character, most people, after spending some time in virtual worlds end up being more or less themselves.
Because of the complexity of environments and objects that the programming language allows, as well as the generally high intelligence level of the players, my favorite worlds are MOOs. All of the stories I've collected for this piece therefore have come from interviewers with other MOOers.
When you first arrive on a MUD, your first act is to decide on a name for herself. In some places, people go by their real names, but on most MUDs, people make one up. You can be a character from your favorite book, movie or TV show, or make up a character that you think would be fun to be. Next, you describe yourself and choose a gender. You can "morph" (change from one description and/or gender to another) with a single command, and change your mind and rewrite yourself at any time. Communication with other players is just as easy. If you want to say something, you type "say" then type whatever it is you want to say.
For instance, if your name was Amalea, and you wanted to say "I am so confused," you would type:
say I am so confused.
Everyone in the room would see:
Amalea says: "I am so confused."
If you wanted to make a face or a gesture, you might type:
:looks baffled and her lip quivers slightly.
Everyone in the room would then see:
Amalea looks baffled and her lip quivers slightly.
This type of command is called an "emote." Emoting allows for a richness and variety of communicative nuances not easily conveyable in other electronically-mediated environments. Players become conscious of having "bodies," and just as they do in "real life," express themselves with physical gestures as often as they speak.
It is for this reason that sex on MUDs is quite different, and possibly more intense than in other kinds of virtual environments. The lack of physical presence combined with the infinite malleability of bodies on MUDs complicates sex in several interesting ways. While many people engage in the fairly limited standard rituals of singles cruising, others seek out erotic experiences that would be painful, difficult, or simply impossible in real life.
The residents of one highly popular MUCK" describe themselves as anthropomorphized animals. While newcomers to this world usually get an impression of cloying cuteness, those with patience to seek out the large and active sexual subculture soon discover a number of unique sexual practices invented by and specific to players on that particular MUCK.
According to Kanu, a regular player there, one of the classic forms of animal sex is predator/prey S&M, "where the submissive partner is eaten at climax. I haven't tried that, but I'm told it is interesting." Species are apparently chosen according to a highly complex social code. "Bears and wolfs ar usually dominant. Foxes are sorta generally lecherous. Elves are sexless and annoyingly clever. Small animals are often very submissive." Kanu, who plays a young, human male character: "low- tech, simple, friendly," finds that while some other players find him quite attractive, others "are quite zoophilic and don't like having sex with a human."
Kanu described some of the wilder types of animal play to me:
Some players sort of invent new kinds of sex organs. For example, there was a centaur that had a really HUGE cock. But he was submissive, and what he liked was for people to fuck his cock. It was like a vagina on the end of a giant penis.
When I asked how animal forms might enhance role-play, Kanu suggested that they might allow for more primal experimentation, including the sensual and psychic effects of "predation, claws, teeth, size and strength parameters." Also, animal players enjoy playing with various sizes:
Some players are small. Like an ermine who likes me always wants to be taken home and used like a sex toy. The ermine would climb up my pants leg, etc. I didn't really get into it. Too silly for me."
Men are not the only ones who enjoy rough animal play. Women especially have found MUDs to be places where they are freer to experiment with their sexuality in ways that aren't so easy in everyday life. Two women who in real life are neighbors and best friends became lovers in VR. Besides erotic role-playing that involved being men, vampires, favorite TV characters or invented personalities depending on the "morph" that they chose, one of them made the costume of a jaguar. "He savages me," said Dan. "NOT something I'd want done to me in real life. Wounds heal quickly in VR."
While animal sex is one of the more exotic forms of experimentation possible in VR, gender-changing is probably the most common. Many people have found that having the freedom to be a different gender for awhile can have very unexpected results.
Reflective of the demographics of Net users, most MUD players are young, heterosexual males between the ages of nineteen and twenty five. A surprising number of these young men try, at one time or another, to pass as female. Their reasons vary. Stephen Shaviro, a professor of English who has spent time on various MOOs, is somewhat cynical about their motivations, or about what gender-switching might mean about human behavior:
But let's not get carried away with utopian fantasies.
Most straight men are assholes, and the mere
opportunity for expanded gender play on the Net doesn't
do anything to change that. A successful drag
performance is harder to pull off than you think.
Straight guys often pretend to be girls on the Net--
I've done it often myself-- thinking that the disguise will make it easier to
score with 'actual' girls. But what goes around comes around: the girls these
guys meet usually turn out to be other guys in virtual disguise. Face it, the
information of which most straight men are composed is monotonously self-
referential: it just turns round and round forever in
the selfsame loop."
WhenI asked some players I knew to be men in real life why they enjoyed being women, their responses were far more complex than Shaviro's assessment would allow. One of the more curious gender-bending practices that occurs is that a surprising number of men masquerade as women in order to seduce other men. While I've spoken to a few gay men who've tried this, more than a few straight men have become female for awhile to experiment with other men. Some try it on a dare, perhaps as a characteristically '90s form of macho bravado, simply to see if they can pass, to be better women than women. A familiar rite of passage on LambdaMOO involves young men inciting other young men to write a convincing female description for themselves and then successfully seduce a player who is notorious for his seductive behavior toward women. For these boys, "passing" is a game, something to be gotten away with. Others are motivated by a sense of self-exploration, to see what sex is like from a different point of view.
It can easily be argued that the free experimentation with gender roles that MUDs allow only enforces preconceived ideas of gender, and to a certain extent this argument is true. In order to enact 'female' and hope to attract partners, one must not only assume the pronouns, but craft a description that falls within the realm of what is considered attractive, and most people do not stretch their imaginations much beyond the usual categorizations. Voluptuous breasts, slim waists, flowing hair, etc proliferate as quickly in VR as in any Barbie Doll factory.
Elaine, who in real life is male, considers herself straight and has never had a male lover in reality. After some experimentation on MOOs, has found making love as a woman with someone playing male to be not only intensely erotic, but also a way to experience a side of herself that she felt she hadn't been in touch with so easily in real life. For her, being female "has something to do with wanting to inhabit something--elan, humor, emotional presence, communication, words--that I felt so utterly close to but just had no male model for."
In another conversation, she described what it was like for her to experience herself as female and have sex with a man:
When you're getting fucked by a man there's this amazing thing...you realize you're being given all this energy and power...it courses through you and you can channel it, throw it back, turn up the voltage, make it explode, shoot it out your fingertips...Or just surf it like a wave...only it's both inside and outside you, dissolving....
Elaine is well aware that her experience of sex is not the same as that of an actual woman, and she avoids making universal conclusions about gender: "God only knows what weird stuff I'm saying about femaleness and.[maleness] and myself and who knows what, but I feel it...strongly." What she experiences as her female side seems to be parts of herself that the socialization as a male that she experienced growing up somehow excluded.
One of the themes that seems to recur in stories about gender experimentation is the experience of different kinds of power. For Elaine, the most intense thing about being female was the experience of being on the receiving side of power, which she could experience inside herself and then exchange with her partner. Edge, who describes himself as "basically pretty shy," has different, but equally complex associations with femininity and power. He had been on LambdaMOO for nearly a year as a male, but found it difficult to meet people. As a casual experiment, he logged on as an anonymous Guest character one evening, set his gender to female, and was astonished at the sudden attention: "whee! Instant popularity!"
Like Elaine, Edge describes his experience as "a thrill, sort of like power. I could ignore or chat with whomever I wanted."
Edge's account of his experiences supports Shaviro's argument that playing female is an easier way for men to meet women. He found himself making friends easily for the first time, and that as a woman, other women were much easier to befriend. The experience, for him, was at first strange: "I had to keep reminding myself I was a woman,...[and] I was never really sure if I was speaking to another woman....I also developed friendships/relationships with men, but, oddly, those didn't manage to last when I switched back to male."
Further discussion with Edge revealed that while he played female because he found it easier to have intimate discussions with women as another woman, his motivation wasn't simply "scoring." Edge found being a woman around other women provided him with an experience of sexual and emotional safety that certain of his RL sexual experiences as a man did not:
You'd have to know that IRL [in real life] I don't get along with men. Most of my emotionally (as opposed to sexually) intimate relationships are with women.
Edge discovered that the anonymity of the MOO, as well as the opportunity to change gender, provided him with a place to explore personal issues around power and emotional safety. One of the ways for him to work out his own complex and sometimes problematic associations with masculinity and power was to experiment with being dominated as a woman by another woman.
Finally, Edge met Plastique, who is lesbian IRL, and equally concerned with the relationship between gender and power. Because it involves so many of the interested and complicated ways that gender and identity can becomes fluid concepts for people to explore, the tale of their relationship is perhaps one of my all-time favorite virtual love stories.
Like many other people, Plastique discovered that LambdaMOO was an enjoyable place to experiment with sexuality. Although she occasionally played male, she usually played a version of herself. Her first virtual affair of this type, she explains, allowed "a feeling of power and agency with a man" that I'd not experienced with straight men IRL....I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, especially because my male partners were so responsive to my sexual power."
Plastique first met Edge in his female persona. After an intense affair, she felt the need to break off the relationship:
The reason I think I fell for her and the reason I dumped her were the same. She did 'woman' in a way that fascinated and repelled me. She loved to be dominated...she wanted me to do that to her....I think I was repelled by what I saw in her and repelled that, on some level, I wanted that too.
Plastique then met a man online about a month afterwards:
I instantly fell for him when I met him. Hard. I knew it was trouble fast. I thought only fleetingly that they may be one and the same...both lived in the same city, both college students, both into the same perversities. Silly me. I just didn't want to find out cuz I thought if he ever met her IRL, they'd fall in love for sure cuz they were so alike. The best part of the story is this:
He thought the entire time he was with me as his female character that _I_ was a man...he was convinced! ....So he seduced me, not caring what my real life sex was. When he told me he was the same female character I'd dumped, I was both crushed, betrayed and I fell even deeper in love.
Both Edge and Plastique discovered that VR gave them an opportunity to experience the various complex links between gender, sex and power in an environment that provided an opportunity to roleplay safely and easily. Occupying another gender, playing out a sexual attraction that for one reason or another RL doesn't allow, or experimenting with roles involving dominance and submission can all be ways to discover that sexual identity can be much more complex than we allow ourselves to think.
For women, whose sexual power is often described in terms of her beauty or seductiveness, playing male can give them a very direct sense of strength normally associated with masculinity. Two women I spoke with describe a sense of bodily strength and also, curiously, an edge of violence that they are not as aware of when they are female. As one woman put it:
I had no idea how much of my identity had been anchored in gender until I felt what it was like to fuck someone while I was a boy. It's like my virtual, male body and my actual female body aren't separate, but somehow doubled...I get this cock, and shoulders, and there was this sense of being much larger than my [female] lover, so there'd be this sense of being much larger, and having to be very careful not to overwhelm her, which was _intense_. With that, there's this almost violence that I feel like I'm always on the edge of, that's incredibly erotic.
Dan, who switches gender periodically, also describes distinctly different senses of embodiment:
When I'm female, I'm very aware of the male's strength, as I am IRL, and my own lightness, grace, whatever. One of her lovers is VERY big. A hunk. I don't go for that kind at all IRL, but on MOO, the threat isn't there...But my female character does _not_ want to be dominated.
Dan likes it.
Again, the importance of these accounts is not that women can feel what it's "really like to be men," any more than the men I spoke with imagined that what they were feeling was authentically female. Rather, we can experience for ourselves, inside ourselves the kinds of things that we associate with female or male, and realize that those aspects are not, after all, something Other and outside of us.
Dan, like Edge, finds that VR offers a certain sense of safety and security in pushing the limits of erotic experience: "[Dan's] maleness is definitely security. He's from a Brit SciFi show...so he came complete with a sadomasochistic edge I didn't invent....Dan likes to be dominated, but he puts on a hell of a fight." Another male character she plays, however, "tends to be dominant. It's intense being both of them...More so than with my woman characters, for MOOsex."
Dan describes the double-body sense that many players describe when they experience the intense but curiously dislocated eroticism of virtually enacting another gender:
When I respond sexually as one of my male characters, there are two very definite feelings of body involved. My own woman's body responds physically. But I'm not a 'one-handed typist' during sex. When I emote that my cock is throbbing, I'm imagining that very vividly. Because body feels real in a sense in MOO, it has more sense of physicality than reading a story, or having a fantasy.
The term "one-handed typist" is a kind of joking way to describe masturbation during netsex. Some people do this regularly, others are so involved in the pleasure of their virtual character that they experience the described, virtual orgasm as if it were real.
Although many people find that the opportunity that MUDs provide for anonymous role-play gives them a special sense of freedom and power, some people discover that these same features make them far more vulnerable to deception and set them up for emotional pain that they never anticipated. Especially because role-play involving dominance and submission can lead to an experience of intense vulnerability, they should always be engaged in in an environment in which both players feel safe. The anonymity, distance and partly imaginary nature of the space can also lead to a situation in which one person feels deceived. As most people who spend any amount of time on MUDs discover, often to their surprise, the emotions involved when people become sexual with each other can be very, very real. Anonymity and distance can leave people feeling more vulnerable rather than less.
One woman I spoke with, thought, like Plastique, that the MOO would be a good place to explore aspects of her sexuality that she had never experienced in "real life": sex with men, and playing out S/M fantasies in an environment that she thought would be safer. Due to her own inexperience and the naivete that leads many new players to take others exactly at their word, however, Shade's first experiment was traumatic. When the boy with whom she was playing began to play more roughly than she felt comfortable with, she found herself far more deeply upset by the scene than her assumption of the safety and distance that VR allows had led her to anticipate. She abruptly left for her own room, but was too unsettled by the intensity of her experience to simply disconnect. A woman who had also been involved in the scene became concerned, paged her (paging is a means of players who are not in the same room to communicate with each other), and offered to ask a lesbian friend of hers to join Shade and talk her through her upset.
The friend, Trina, was very sympathetic and understanding. After a fairly short time, Shade became intimately involved with her. Their involvement included S/M roleplaying, which she felt was much safer with a woman. When, after several weeks of intense sexual encounters Trina confessed to being male IRL, Shade was furious. When she discovered that all of the people who had been involved in the original scene knew each other well IRL, and were all playing along in the deception, her sense of betrayal was so deep that it was several weeks before she felt she could trust anybody she met virtually again.
According to Shade, the boy's his rationale for passing as lesbian was, apparently, to "help women," and keep them safe from other men who might hurt them. I can't say what his actual intentions were, as he was no longer around to ask. The incident happened several years ago, and Trina has since either left LambdaMOO or, as sometimes occurs when someone becomes visibly unpopular, assumed another identity. Possibly this group of boys was simply experimenting with role-playing, and had no idea that their actions would be of any emotional consequence. For some people, not ever having to see the face of whoever you're dealing with in VR somehow means that you're not responsible for your actions.
In any case, Shade's story is by no means the only incident of genuine emotional pain incurred in what newcomers naively believe to be an environment in which roleplaying becomes divorced from emotional reality. Another woman I spoke to, who IRL is married and considers herself to be in a monogamous, found herself befriending and becoming emotionally close with someone she thought was another woman. Although they maintained their friendship when he revealed his true gender, she felt that their friendship had significantly changed. Rather than the experience of cooperation and mutual support she experienced with someone she thought was a girlfriend, she found that their dynamic changed to one of constant embattlement. This may have had as much to do with her anger at the deception as the difficulty of maintaining cross-gender friendships. As she put it: "Sadly then, when it was a woman, it was 'help the sister' and she'll help you. When it was a man, it was the old, boring game of 'batter your head senselessly against a titanium shell.' Anyway, he changed my life."
The fact that such masquerades can go undetected comes as a surprise to many, both on and off the Net, who assume that fixed gendered behaviors exist and are readily detectable. Experience in VR indicates that this is not necessarily the case. Even people whose experiments with gender lead them to discover that it is not a fixed fact still find that each gender carries for them a set of sometimes deeply unconscious assumptions about what femaleness or maleness actually is. And people in VR find their responses to whatever they imagine the gender of their partner to be is often more important than the physical actuality.
Explaining how it is entirely possible for otherwise highly intelligent individuals to be so deceived by what seems on the surface to be a readily detectable fact, Shade described for me the concept of a schema:
Think of a farmer... got the picture?...In your head..of a farmer? Can you see the farmer?
[I respond that I get an Image of Mr. Green Jeans.]
Good. that's a schema. I say a word.. you see a whole set of things that go with it. Things that fit. overalls, flannel, tractor...
Ok.. so... I'm a woman. you have a vague image..very vague. But certain things fit within the limits....When I do something that confirms yourimpression...you suck it up without even thinking because...because schemas are our brain's way of being efficient. You only have to learn farmer once or twice. then you can just call it up. and you can add new stuff to it to expand. Like a guy in a broad straw hat bending over in a rice paddy, a woman in dry soil with a kid strapped on her back in africa. But...mostly you call up greenjeans....
So... our brains are trying to conserve tasks.. can only handle so much at once. So we construct and call upon schemas for a great deal of stuff. one of our schemas is gender. We Know what women are like. We're willing to be a little flexible but we don't re-invent our social construction of women every time we see one.. we use our defaults and go from there. So when a character is 'female' we bring the schema to bear on our impression of her. that's one concept. the other is about another cognitive process...
Ok.. so the other part.. why we aren't so good at seeing the [gender]bending: two reasons.. one: there really aren't very many consistent differences in the behaviors of men/women. Not really. long story that i could explain with data but the differences are much much more situationally dependent than they are particular to a gender....Just because there is a significant statistical difference between men and women's behaviors doesn't mean that we can use that info to predict their behavior.
One way to avoid the kinds of automatic assumptions that people assign to a particular gender altogether is to choose one of the alternative genders that some MUDs offer. The Spivak gender available on MOOs, for instance, has a unique set of pronouns: e, em, eir, eirs, eirself has encouraged some people to invent entirely new bodies and eroticize them in ways that render categories of female or male meaningless. Because the pronouns assigned to em efface gender distinctions, a Spivak can have any morphological form and genital structure e devises for emself. Twine, a woman IRL, describes her experience of a Spivak body with an imaginative richness and sensuality that pales typical accounts of sex involving male or female bodies:
For me, spivak is able to transform very quickly...well maybe gradually...say, grow a penis in a few minutes...? And two spivaks means that one could shape the other, as well...if the other allows the suggestions....and for me there's also these little extentions...like very fine root hairs on a tree root...anyway...these little hairs form lots and lots of connections....They are very sensitive...and as love making progresses...they stroke, penetrate, and even fuse. Also, spivak sex, for me, involved musical tones from deep inside the chest, much like cat's purring... and little chiming sounds from those tentacles.
The real-life gender of the spivaks I've spoken to seem to break down pretty much exactly 50/50 between female and male. Although their motivations for playing an indeterminate gender vary, most with whom I've spoken are making a conscious statement about the inadequacy of either female or male for expressing more complex aspects of human sexuality. The most articulate explanation I've seen was given as a recent posting on an anonymous mailing list on LambdaMOO:
The molds of MAN/WOMAN, MALE/FEMALE, MASCULINE FEMININE do not fit everyone. They certainly don't fit my SO [significant other], who is genetically neither male nor female sexed' eir gender is equally "neither." E just doesn't fit into the 'genders' described by fe/male. Neither does e want to. In this disembodied universe of MOO, where we can be whatever we choose to be, but must where an artificial label of 'gender,' I think it's important to be able to select an appropriate one.
Also, I think I suspect there are a few card-carrying females out there who use the 'other' genders to avoid the constant intrusions of [players] looking specifically for females. I know I've hidden under 'other' genders for this purpose, and I was glad to have choices other than fe/male.
The fact that the indeterminacy of the spivak gender allows them to construct their bodies in whatever way they choose foregrounds the fact that netsex is as much an act of writing as it is sex. Unlike other erotic writing, which is static, netsex is interactive. The people involved are writing at the same time as they are making love. For Bret, the eroticism of netsex has as much to do with the play of language as the play of bodies. In the context of virtuality, gender becomes partly an abstraction--a feature of the particular bodies that are being written rather than an important fact of human identity. As Bret puts it, netsex: "is more about sexy language than it is about the gender of my partner's body."
Bret, a woman that prefers to stay female in VR, prefers men but also avoids identifying her sexuality with specific terms. Her VR lover is a real-life man who tends to play female. When I asked her if she would characterize theirs as lesbian experience, she responded:
It's not like we're playing at lesbians, if that makes sense...It's not a 'lesbian scene' at all. I don't think that there's any conscious decision behind it. We tend to talk about our bodies in terms of their specificity, so we'll talk about getting a couple of them together, but it will be because we want those particular bodies to fuck, rather than going for a lesbian/het experience.
For Bret, netsex is about writing the body. The erotic pleasures that it affords are as much from the experience of exchanging beautiful and arresting language as about describing what is happening to bodies.
Netsex allows two (or more) people to simultaneously write themselves and each other. The convention is that one person describes, in the third person, what she is doing to her partner, whom she addresses as you, for instance: "Amalea slips her fingers gently across your collarbones and kisses your mouth slowly, lingering, as if tasting something delicious for the very first time."
Amalea's partner might respond: "Jamie shivers, tongue slithering over yours, hands sliding down your back and pulling you hard toward him."
Not all netsex involves realistic descriptions of bodies engaged in specific actions, however. The fact that it is _written_ sex allows people to be as graphic or as poetic as they choose, to take pleasure in the exchange of language with a lover. The following, written by Brit, is not an example of netsex, but rather of the poetic quality of language that some people employ:
...Joints poised lush, tumbling cats french-kissing in a sunbeam, heavy thumping counterpoint on the wild curves and the surprise of passing a stranger with a lonely chainsaw....
Movement bright and metallic flowing through ripples of grimy sure-muscled sheening sweat and a lick of dust ghosting jaw jutting angle cool and sure.
Stretch electric, bored shroud posing over flesh aware like pain, visceral skeleton grinding easy into the pretty red click of teeth on vertebrae tongue straining for hot marrow....
Another example of the kind of language that might be used is this anonymous post from an erotic mailing list. While this, like the piece above is more an individual fantasy than a two-person exchange, both are good examples of the literary quality of netsex:
I woke up too late in a slithery-soaked heat from a dream that must have been about you, because he touched me the way you used to.
Only, the body was different, not the delicate, strung wire of you, but a mass of muscle and bone between my thighs, sprawled
apart like riding a horse.
I think it was this guy from one of my classes that I don't even care about.
I think it was you maybe, before I lost you.
You know the way dreams work, there wasn't a particular scenario to have led up to, only we were in a coffee shop maybe, and I had just ordered coffee and was sitting right next to you, my skin craving yours, couldn't move away, though I wasn't sure that you wanted to...
That I wanted to...
Only our arms were around each other then, and my palm sliding down your chest, your belly, fingers delighting, suddenly in the otter-smooth dark hair, and the groove of muscle below and the sweet shuddering of your skin You pushed my hand down, suddenly, cock leaping into the curl of my fingers, pulsing smooth and warm and hard as sun-warmed stone, as memory and
your fingers teasing sharp and burning sparks from my nipples, two fingers slipping slick into my mouth, suddenly, licksuck, burning trailing down to slide inside me but I want you now, I want you now....
My hands on your shoulders, pushing you back, down, scoop you up into me, falling on you in a long, burning slide
Not enough, not deep enough, you move, crashing under me, up into me...
I want to fuck your skin off.
I want to be inside the cage of your bones, want to swim in your pulse, I want to weave in and out between your ribs I want to be inside you.
Your fingers bruising my hips, I want more, my hands braced on your shoulders, snapping down onto you, falling up, your eyes wide, astonished, biting your lip and my hair flying....
And I'm not sure what's bodies and what's liquid pulse anymore,
Or what is the burning edge of dreaming....
Waking up to cats, and tangled sheets and the heat of early summer and all these memories in my mouth and burning through my fingers.
A girl can dream.
To be involving, netsex involves a constant phasing, simultaneous awareness of the corporeal body at the keyboard, the emoting, speaking self on the screen, and the existence of another individual, real and projected, who is similarly engaged. Mind/body awareness is not split, but doubled, magnified, intermingled.
Virtual sex involves role-play. But when you are playing, the roles are entirely true. As in drama, ritual, liturgy, and certain esoteric sexual practices, within the context of the scene being created, the play takes on such focus and intensity of purpose that the "I" becomes meaningless, standing outside the self, in a state of ekstasis, quite literally a being put out of its place, enraptured: seized by force, bursting, smitten.
When intense erotic union is accomplished in a kind of void, in which bodies are simultaneously acutely imagined, vividly felt and utterly absent, the resultant sense of seizure, of scattering, of self-loss can be experienced as a violent mingling of pleasure and pain. The intensity of pleasure results from the kind of sustained dislocation required when your body is entirely real and entirely imagined at the same time.
Because it involves the absence of actual bodies for its intensity, netsex is comparable to Courtly Love, the medieval, European tradition in which very elaborate, sometimes extremely intense romances were played out between two people who were forbidden to be lovers. Usually, the male lover wrote impassioned poems to his beloved, or courted her with music or poetically eroticized conversation. It was important for the tradition that the beloved be unavailable, generally because she was already married, but sometimes for other reasons such as religious vows of celibacy. The fact that the physical bodies of the lovers could never meet only added to the intensity--the lover frequently attributed to his beloved highly idealized qualities and sometimes worshipped her as a goddess. Sometimes Courtly Love was expressed in religious terms. Likewise, certain kinds of religious devotions, such as the various accounts of saints, referred to God or Jesus in terms ordinarily reserved for lovers. The experience of sexual ecstasy and religious transport are, as many medieval saints knew, very similar. Sometimes netsex approaches the intensity of poetry or religion.
In order to sustain erotic pleasure while making love with words, lovers must maintain their powers of language at a moment when the power of coherent verbal expression is customarily abandoned. The speaking and experiencing, embodied self are necessarily split by the requirement of maintaining language within sensation. Rather than a sensory void, however, the split can perhaps be described as a highly charged space, the delirious, lacerating edge of experience between the pleasure of the text and the point at which all language fails.
Paradoxically, the more intensely that individuals involve themselves in netsex, the better able they are to evoke bodily intensities in words, leaping onto the gap between utterance and experience, simultaneously enacting the rush of bodily sensation and the writer's ecstasy at producing text, being-in-text and being-in-body.
Continually subjecting oneself to a condition in which bodily experience and emotion must constantly be expressed in words is not entirely unproblematic. Our culture has too frequently found the enormous range of emotions and experiences that are simply not expressible in language to be therefore unworthy of attention, to the detriment of real emotional health. Real, living bodies are already devalued in an age where the passive reception of selected information has come to replace lived experience as reality. Nevertheless, sex, love, pleasure in any form may well afford some measure of resistance against social and technological forces that would divide us from each other and prevent us from naming and shaping our own experience.
The machines that we used to fear would overpower and control us, that we thought would make the world more inhuman, have become ways for us to experience intense pleasure with other people we might otherwise never have met. All the things that separate people, all the supposedly immutable facts of gender and geography, don't matter quite so much when we're all in the machine together. Eroticizing our technology might not mean giving up the ghost, but rather giving in to the pleasures of corporeality that renders meaningless the arbitrary divisions of animal, spirit and machine.