I have a male alt in Second Life, but he’s very lonely.
Gender expression is fascinating and as many people have discovered, virtual worlds are fertile soil to explore the topic. It’s generally accepted that many female avatars are controlled by RL (“real life”) men, whether in SL or games, and a certain percentage of RL women will have male avatars. The numbers can be argued; one study gave self-reported numbers of 9.8% of men and 5.7% of women that had used an avatar of another gender (Guadagno, et al, 2011*). I can say from personal experience that the percentage of female avatars seems to have increased substantially over the 8 years I’ve been in SL, to the point where I can pop from a dance club to a furniture store to a sex-themed sim to an art gallery and never see a male avatar.
Reasons for choosing a different virtual sex range from curiosity to employment to privacy to deception and beyond. I’m always open to having this discussion and I’m sure I’ll write about it many times in the future. My alt exists because there are some places in SL — usually places with sexual themes — where men and women are either subject to different rules or a female avatar might get unwelcome proposals. It’s the same reason I might change skin and shape to visit a non-human sim: when I’m exploring and observing, I have no desire to attract attention.
I don’t mean to suggest that gender is binary or stagnant. Virtual worlds allow for gender fluidity beyond what is practical in the offline world. I’ve met people who change the sex of their avatars as the mood or situation requires, though most people I’ve talked to about gender exploration have separate avatars. One can be genderless (in a virtual world where even some of the default avatar choices are robots and vehicles, which need not be male or female, I haven’t seen this very often). My alt is actually neuter; he has no genitalia because it’s an add-on for which he has no use, but I consider him male and he has a masculine shape, skin, AO, and clothing. Even if one chooses to be male or female, the biological limitations of RL don’t exist. This came up a number of times when I was doing research on virtual world birth; in SL, there’s no reason a male avatar can’t be pregnant or a female avatar can’t impregnate her partner.
I find it interesting that subcultures of avatars who don’t fit a binary gender model exist in Second Life. My neighbors in SL used to be a group of pretty femme boys; male avatars with boyish shapes and feminine features. Some avatars identify themselves as transgendered. Why not identify as the sex they want to be? I can’t generalize, but many profiles I’ve read indicate that the RL person behind the avatar is transgendered or considering transformation, and that change is a key part of their identity. One TG woman told me that she was tired of men asking her if she was “really” female, so she disclosed her change up front.
My male alt is not comfortable for me. I never refer to him as “me” — he is him, a separate entity, an avatar I control. I dress him up like a Ken doll in hunt gifts and a few purchased items, take him out of storage for a task, and then leave him offline for weeks. He’s had one social experience: I was working at a club one night and there were no visitors. I started to feel bad for the rest of the staff, so I fired up a second viewer and signed him in, brought him to the club, and used him to get conversation going and spread some tips to my coworkers. Deceptive, sure, but benevolently so.
For future posts: where gender matters in SL, “verification” services, the expectation that SL gender will match RL gender, avatar gender choice in MMORPGs, and much more.
* Guadagno, Rosanna E., Nicole Muscanell, Bradley Okdie, Nanci Burk and Thomas Ward. 2011. Even in virtual environments women shop and men build: A social role perspective on Second Life. Computers in Human Behavior 27: 304-308.