A few centuries ago (in Second Life terms), somebody filed a JIRA requesting that LL put in place a “voluntary gender verification system” in order to “protect fraudulent use of female avatars by RL males”. The description of the JIRA reads as follows (I quote verbatim, maintaining the original grammar, spelling and syntax):
Too often women are violated by men in SL. Men come to women only areas and use a female avatar to cause troubl emotionally and in other ways. This is a form of cyber rape. Second Life has age verification in place that could be used to voluntarily allow residents to become gender verified. It’s not foolproof but it would allow female users in SL to feel safer. As an owner of a women only venue this would be a tremendous feature to have. I would be able to allow only gender verified people on the sim. Also, the gender verified option could be shown on the profile page.
I was a victim of this fraud myself and it happens often. I married what a thought was a German girl. Spent a fortune on the wedding and other things then “she” confessed to being a rl male. I lost REAL money here through this fraud.
Please consider this feature.
First things first: in Second Life, no one can “violate” you or “force” you to do anything romantic or sexual. No one can “take control” of your mouse and make it click on any poseball – and if an object grabs you and “imprisons” you without asking you whether you want it, it’s only because you have set your RLV relay up in that way. Even in the (rather disgusting) venues that accommodate people who fantasise about abusing others sexually or being sexually abused themselves, all parties involved are active participants and not passive; the victims willingly play the role of the victim. While this is certainly not my thing, it must be said that even this sort of activity in Second Life is entirely voluntary and consensual; therefore, in Second Life, rape, even in its broadest legal definition, cannot exist, in stark contrast with Real Life, where rape is a harsh and terrible reality with which the victim must live day after day. You can actually leave Second Life; you can turn off your computer; alternatively, you can create a new avatar and start over. But you just can’t do the same with Real Life.
As someone who has been sexually assaulted in the past, I find the comparison of the situation that triggered this JIRA with rape to be a grave affront to any woman that has ever been sexually harassed, assaulted and/or raped. It is obvious that the person that filed this JIRA has a little trouble understanding some basic notions.
Now, let me say a few other things that probably evade the mind of the person that filed this JIRA. Second Life is a fantasy world and is – rightly – marketed as such. In this fantasy world, a male can roleplay a female and vice versa; or, a human user can even take the form of something borderline human or even an entirely non-human form (a demon, a dragon, a robot, a vehicle, etc.). “Your world, your imagination” is the advertising slogan of Second Life, and for good reason. In this virtual world, we are entitled and invited to be whatever we want, enjoying an unprecedented level of anonymity, privacy and disconnect from our RL identities – within SL and its ToS/CS, we can very well even behave in a manner that has very little to do with our RL behaviour. So, it would be ill-advised, at best, for anyone to assume that an avatar actually represents who or what its operator is in RL, and this is something I have discussed in far greater detail earlier.
Back in the days of Web 1.0, services like AOL or Yahoo! offered (and many still do) users the option to not state their gender at all or define their gender as “Other”, thereby (seemingly) accommodating the trans community. Many other services require their users to state their gender, but they allow them to keep it private. Why do they offer such options, though? The answer is simple: The people behind these services understand that many of their users may not want certain parts of their RL information to be exposed in public – as a matter of fact, privacy and data protection laws in several jurisdictions require such services to allow users to have full control of what part of their information can be visible to the public. Some of this information is actually given twice: once for the service’s internal records and once on the user’s profile (provided that the user wants this information to be publicly visible) and, even when certain information is entered into a profile, the user can define who gets to see what.
Of course, what sets SL apart from these services has been mentioned earlier in this post: in SL, we are not required to be ourselves at all! In my case, my avatar represents a subset of my personality; for a great part of my SL existence, she was not modelled after my RL appearance at all, and now, although my shape does resemble my RL appearance to a certain extent, I use this appearance only when I want to.
In even earlier times, LL had implemented an age verification system, and many of us have our payment information registered with LL. However, even this information (which is normally only accessible by the Lindens themselves) may not represent the actual operator of an avatar – who’s to say that a certain avatar (regardless of the avatar’s gender and/or species) is not actually operated by a woman, while the one funding her L$ purchases is – for whatever reasons – her husband? And who can stop a man from registering his wife’s payment and other information? This, by itself, makes such a system not only “less than foolproof”, but actually unworkable. And finally, payment information and age verification are important for LL, because payment information is a sign that the account holder is serious about SL and age verification gives LL and other users some peace of mind regarding others’ access to “adult-oriented” material in-world (and it’s also why one can also prevent “no payment info” and “non-age verified” avatars from accessing their land).
Of fraudulent gender misrepresentation and common sense
Now, when it comes to “fraudulent use of female avatars”, I must say that I’ve seen extensive abuse on MySpace and Facebook; as a matter of fact, Megan Meier committed suicide after being harassed and cyberbullied by Lori Drew, the mother of one of her friends, who posed on MySpace as a boy in order to cause the girl to kill herself – and was sadly acquitted and went unpunished for her crime. Interestingly, this case single-handedly destroys the claim that only men maliciously pose as women on the internet in order to deceive others. The victims of this sort of deception and cyberbullying deserve all of our empathy, sympathy and support. But what sympathy can be demanded by those who enter a virtual world where people are encouraged to not be themselves, displaying such extreme naivety as to believe that what they see on the screen is a faithful representation and/or depiction of the person operating the avatar?
And this sort of naivety is not displayed only by women, of course; many men have been duped online by men posing as women, and not only in SL – on the IRC, in chatrooms, blogs etc. And even women occasionally pose as men online, for whatever reason – and it is entirely up to them whether they will disclose the RL gender of the person behind the avatar.
Furthermore, I just cannot stress the importance of using common sense enough. When you plan to take the level of commitment in your SL relationship all the way up to a wedding, it just might be prudent for you to have a talk with your in-world significant other in voice. Perhaps you might also want to have a chat on webcam (through Skype, MSN or any other such service). The thing is… Do you really want to? Seeing the other person’s RL appearance might very well disappoint you and destroy the mystique, the fairy tale the two of you had built.
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