“The fashionable ideology that ‘artificial’ lacks the inherent goodness of ‘natural’ is an appealing, but hopelessly simplistic notion of the intellectually chic. Artifice is the result of a deliberate intent to make. Nature also ‘makes’ things…” – Syd Mead
Language, gender, ethics and social rituals of ‘real life’ – all appear to be ‘natural’, but are in fact ‘artificial’ – constructed by a society’s ideology and discourse, in a specific historical situation. These self-referencing systems of symbols are at once liberating (for some) and constraining (for others). Fundamental changes in artifice/technology are capable of transforming this landscape, liberating those who were once constrained. Those who were once marginalized now find themselves privileged. The ‘margins’ are thus ‘folded back to the center’. But this practice creates new margins. In turn, some other people are marginalized.
That is my conclusion after three weeks of exploring the phenomenon of the use of the internet for sexual interaction.
In the modern society, norms in courtship rituals are defined by the commercial media. For those who are not ideal consumers – such as obese teens who do not fit mass-produced clothing, isolated individuals who do not belong to predefined subcultures, desperate adults who have lost the ability to communicate – these rituals sometimes become impossible to negotiate. “How does Web 2.0 change these norms?” I asked.
The answers were surprising, as I became a regular reader and contributor to the ‘Casual Encounters‘ section of the free classified ads website Criagslist. From Jane Austin’s protagonists to veiled women of my third-world country, gender-role constraints make women focus whatever little power they have in courtship rituals for social mobility. On Craigslist this power becomes subversive.
“My body looks like a 51 year old fat womans body, like it should,” says one woman. She has no qualms about her looks and age and is incredibly honest about it. In fact she uses them as a source of power that she can exercise on a young boy, “and if he can hold my interest out of bed, I will keep him”. Earlier in the ad, she says: “I am… looking to have a sex partner that is a White or Latino male ONLY, either 18 or 19 years of age ONLY, and must have NYS ID to prove it.” Seeking an ID is an act associated with authority, especially the police, and is the ultimate expression of who is in control here. While she might feel marginalized because of her age, skin color and body type in the meatspace, she is certainly in control on the web. Such women, my experiments show, have a sizeable fan following.
- Ads by mature women looking for younger guys were the most successful of all the types I posted. On the average, they received 30 responses in the first hour after posting.
- BBWs were surprisingly the second most popular, with 26 responses in the first hour. These ads did not include pictures and were firm, controlling and non-descriptive. Almost all men complied with the demand for a picture in the first email. This is significant because women with higher than average weight are portrayed as unattractive, and weight is a major concern with most women.
- Straight white female under 30, without specifying a body type, followed closely behind with an average 25 responses in the first hour.
- Ads for straight African American women without no specific body type only received 14 responses. While this is substantially lower than other women and implies racial biases, it is significant in terms of gender, as no ad by any straight black male got any response at all.
- Young white girls looking for mature men, although conforming the gender-role norms, received a strikingly low response of only 7 in the first hour after posting.
Men, it appears, need major PR boost. Responding to female ads, a large number of men would send pictures of only their genitals either out of privacy concerns or because of a desperate attempt at re-gaining the lost authority that they have in ‘real life’ only because of their genitals. “So what’s the secret to getting some tail on CL?” asks a user posting in the ‘w4m’ category. “All I get is spam, dudes and working girls. what am I doing wrong?” the user asks. “If you can’t tell by now I am a MALE.” Maybe that is all you’re doing wrong, I said. Being a male. While it may be useful to be a male in the meatspace, in the virtual public space of Craigslist personals, it is apparently a major disadvantage. Women make the choice and they are in control.
- Ads by straight white males received only 6 responses on the average in the first hour. But most of them were concealed ads for dating sites and even some prostitutes (who understand that men are ready to go the ‘real-life’ way and spend money for sex). Occasionally, gay men responded too. The average number of actual responses in the first hour was: 0.33!
- Young males looking for older women received one response in the first hour, excluding spam
- Large males, African American males, and older males looking for younger girls received no responses other than spam.
Queers received fewer replies than women, but more than men.
- Men looking for men and women looking for women received an average of three responses each in the first hour. Lesbian ads received the most superior responses, they were respectful, description was precise, and included face shots.
- Transsexuals and cross-dresses looking for other people like them received two responses in the first hour, with pictures and contact details.
- Transsexuals and cross-dressers looking for men received four responses on the average, in the first hour after posting.
The number of responses received by queers is very manageable, compared with those received by women, and significantly higher than those received by men. I look at these results not in terms of how many people write back to queers, but in terms of their ability in the first place to reach out to an audience that might not be possible without Craigslist. Overall, I think Craigslist is the most workable for queers. “I know exactly what I want tonight,” said one woman responding to a lesbian ad. “And I could use the company as well.”
Like gender, the cyberspace is a social construct. It is at once a fiction and a lived social reality. Part of my research was to go out in the 3D virtual world of IMVU and live this reality in order to observe, talk about and participate in its sexual rituals. I played as many roles as I could, limited only by my imagination and time. I also attended a virtual wedding, bought and traded slaves, helped a woman with childbirth, flew naked with a fairy like me, and got abducted and sexually tortured by a dominatrix.
As a site of escape and fantasy, the audience that IMVU attracts the most is girls aged 18 to 25. For a large number of these girls, especially from countries where their social life is more constrained, IMVU is the exclusive space for intimacy and sexual activity. For others, it is a matter of choice.
- Cyber sex risk-free. There is no risk of disease, no liability and no social consequences.
- It takes much less effort and resources to connect to a person like yourself in a virtual world than in real life.
- It is anonymous and thus liberating in terms of what you can say and how you can say it.
“Where else can a girl from India fulfill her bondage fantasies?” one user remarked. “It is like reading a comic book,” said a male user. “Only better because you can participate and be someone.”
The meaningfulness of their sexuality and multiple identities that form their whole selves are tied exclusively to the web – where they play not only human roles, but become cats, foxes, fairies, or monsters, blurring the boundaries between humans, machines and animals. They are cyborgs.
But as the IMVU society is getting more established, these users taking their fantasies more seriously. They take their multiple identities as parts of themselves and owning up to virtuo-social responsibilities. People now have relationships online. Although they have never met or seen their partner outside of IMVU, men do not cheat on their virtual girlfriends. If they do, “that is SO real life”. Girls, like real life, go on to get married with loyal and caring men, and have children. Others make single men spend virtual currency on them by being strippers and prostitutes.
The virtual currency can be bought with real money, and thus like many of the ‘real life’ public spaces of the modern society, commerce seems to be eroding into IMVU as well, and certain fetishised goods become symbols of authority that mean nothing in themselves but are possessed because they invest power in whoever owns them.
But despite these tendencies, women seem to generally control these courtship and sex rituals. Both the power that women can exercise in choosing a partner and the money as the last resort for men to gain some authority are remarkably similar themes in my experiments with both Craigslist and IMVU.