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What are your thoughts on gender expression in SL?


riaroswell
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Hi Everyone! My name is Maria Bodwell and I'm an undergraduate student of anthropology at the University of Redlands. I'm doing research on the way people in virtual communities portray gender through their avatars and I'm particularly interested in learning about the way people use SL avatars to express genders different from their RL gender.

My research has 2 components:

  1. This thread - I will use these group discussions to get a sense of how residents feel about gender expression in SL, both for themselves and for others. If I plan to use something you say in this thread (by quoting, for example) in my paper, I will contact you personally to ask for permission.
  2. In-world interviews with users who claim to present a different gender in RL - these interviews will last 30-60 minutes and I will ask you more in depth about your personal experiences. You may be asked about some intimate topics, although whether you actually share this information with me is up to you.

You can choose to participate in one or both of the two components. If you know anybody who may be interested in taking part in this thread or the interview, please let me know or tell them to contact me.

All of the names of the participants will be changed for the final paper presenting my research, and only I will know your screen name or real name. Other identifiable information will be altered as well to protect participants' identities. All of the information I gather will be stored on a password-protected hard drive. At any point during your participation you can choose to stop and/or have the information you gave withdrawn from the study without any consequences.

If you have any questions or concerns, you can contact me through my SL account or at maria_bodwell@redlands.edu.

 

Now that I have the formalities out of the way, what are your thoughts on expressing gender in SL? Do you do this or know anybody who does? Has it changed the way you think about gender or other aspects of identity for yourself or for others? This doesn't have to be a very directed discussion; I'm happy for anyone to bring up new topics related to the subject to enrich my research!

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riaroswell wrote:

Hi Everyone! My name is Maria Bodwell and I'm an undergraduate student of anthropology at the University of Redlands. I'm doing research on the way people in virtual communities portray gender through their avatars and I'm particularly interested in learning about the way people use SL avatars to express genders different from their RL gender.

My research has 2 components:
  1. This thread - I will use these group discussions to get a sense of how residents feel about gender expression in SL, both for themselves and for others. If I plan to use something you say in this thread (by quoting, for example) in my paper, I will contact you personally to ask for permission.
  2. In-world interviews with users who claim to present a different gender in RL - these interviews will last 30-60 minutes and I will ask you more in depth about your personal experiences. You may be asked about some intimate topics, although whether you actually share this information with me is up to you.

You can choose to participate in
one
or
both
of the two components. If you know anybody who may be interested in taking part in this thread or the interview, please let me know or tell them to contact me.

All of the names of the participants will be changed for the final paper presenting my research, and only I will know your screen name or real name. Other identifiable information will be altered as well to protect participants' identities. All of the information I gather will be stored on a password-protected hard drive. 
At any point during your participation you can choose to stop and/or have the information you gave withdrawn from the study without any consequences.

If you have any questions or concerns, you can contact me through my SL account or at maria_bodwell@redlands.edu.

 

Now that I have the formalities out of the way, what are your thoughts on expressing gender in SL? Do you do this or know anybody who does? Has it changed the way you think about gender or other aspects of identity for yourself or for others? This doesn't have to be a very directed discussion; I'm happy for anyone to bring up new topics related to the subject to enrich my research!

 Hi Ria (is that how you prefer to be called?)

First, I want to congratulate you on a really well-done and nicely written request for research information. We do get a lot of requests for participation in surveys and research from students here, and most of it is very poorly thought out indeed. As a result, residents here understandably tend to get a bit grumpy with these, and that may be reflected in some of the responses you get here, unfortunately.

Before I respond to your research question directly, let just add a few points, however.

 

 

  • The first is that there have been threads you can reference on this forum, and in the archives of its predecessors, on this subject. You'll find a wealth of information there. You can start with this one, which I created years ago (using a different and older account than my current one): http://community.secondlife.com/t5/General-Discussions/How-Do-I-Talk-like-a-Boy/td-p/265506. Or, possibly, this one (also started by me): http://community.secondlife.com/t5/Lifestyles-and-Relationships/The-UnQueering-of-Second-Life/td-p/815765. I've just suggested two that I started because I know of them, but there will be many, many others that are similar.

     

  • A second question I have for you, is . . . how much experience do you have in-world in SL yourself? Your avatar is, I see, less than 2 weeks old: how much exploring have you done in Second Life? Have you gone to places that might seem to cater to one gender or another? And have you tried gender bending?

     

  • There's a very vibrant transgendered community in Second Life. How will your research account for that?

     

  • You are going to have some serious problems, I think, getting people to give you RL information, even with all of the promises about confidentiality. People just don't give out that information here very readily. And I can't see any inducement for them to do so. At the same time, can you trust such information?

     

  • Will we be able to see any of your final research report? Can you post it (with confidential information removed) somewhere we can see it? You'll get more positive responses if your subjects (us) feel like participants rather than lab rats.

My only feelings about this are more or less apparent from the two threads I've directed you to, but I'll just add a couple of things here.

I've never seriously, or in a sustained way, tried to represent another gender, although I did have a male alt that I used for purely satiric purposes at one time. So I don't have a lot of insight on this from first-hand experience.

My perception, however, is that a lot of people represent, for at least some time, as a different gender. Most often, it's probably not sustained, but rather an alt account that they play with occasionally.

It is the general, unproven, assumption here that people who present as hyper-gendered -- i.e., VERY feminine, or VERY masculine (often accompanied by hypersexualized physical attributes, such as very large boobs, etc.) are more likely to be gender-bending than others. But that, as I say, is merely a general belief, rather than a provable fact.

It is also the general perception that far more men have female alts than the other way around. Again, I know of no statistical proof for that, but it matches my own experience.

Anyway, that's my little 2-cents . . .

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Most of the avatars I've seen in SL present as either very masculine or feminine. Part of this, I believe, is the 'perfection' SL allows when creating an avatar. I assume that most people try to look as good as they can, so male avatars become more masculine, females more feminine. Free from the restraints of biology and physics, there's no reason not to make that body a little taller, waist thinner, boobs or package bigger. 

Those that aren't often choose their form as a deliberate rejection of the gender binary, either from a personal aesthetic, a statement of body politics, or a form of fetishism. Thus there are huge, hyper-muscled females, slender feminised males, gender-neutral avatars, and many other variations. Again, SL allows one to exaggerate these forms further than RL constraints allow.

It's much harder to tell who is behind these avatars. You can't use the behaviour of other avatars as a benchmark if you've no idea of their RL gender. Knowing that I was genderbending in SL has coloured my approach to other residents: I rarely wonder who is behind the screen because I'm quite aware that anyone can be behind the screen. Strangely, that awareness means that I've stopped noticing (or if I notice, caring).

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 First a bit about me and my position:

I'm female in RL and I chosed a female avatar in Second Life. I also do that in games, where characters/avatars can be created. My main motivation to do so is, because I like the apperance of female characters more than their male counterparts.

 

In Second Life I noticed that many people treat me like a woman, even if they don't know my real gender. They do it automatically or just assume that I'm female. The interesting thing is, on the other hand, there are a few people who have an extreme fear to flirt with a man by acciedent and require at least a promise, or better, some sort of verification that I'm a real woman.

Personally, I do not care what gender a person has behind the screen. I'm never going to meet them in person, so why should I care? I usually prefer not to know so much about people who I just met in SL.  For me, SL hasn't changed anything about how I think about gender.

 

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Hi Maria,

I doubt the responses you get will be representative of the SL population as a whole. There's likely to be a difference between those who'll respond to your questions and those who won't. And there's likely to be a difference between those of us who dwell in the forums and those who dwell solely in-world.

For me personally, the genders of the avatar driver and avatar aren't terribly important. Even when I had a SL partner, her RL gender was not something I inquired about. If she was an RL male, her sensibilities were sufficiently feminine to keep me happy. And I was apparently sufficiently feminine to keep her happy, which is something I might not have been for my RL ex-hubby. This is as much a matter of expectation as delivery. And it's about setting reasonable expectations for yourself as well as others. Growing up takes time.

I grew up in a world where gender wasn't viewed as a limitation or a guide, but as something akin to eye or hair color. That's an exaggeration of course, but my parents did not swim with the school.

What I've found interesting over my years of engaging people online, first in chat rooms then here, is that I needn't change a thing about the way I behave to be percieved as either male or female. If I have a female name or look, I'm female, end of story. I can set people on fire, throw stuff at them, push them off cliffs, bury them alive, and nobody questions my gender. Meanwhile, in RL I've had people say "Geez Maddy, you are such a guy."

I think SL is ahead of RL in understanding that we're people first, nutty people yes, but people first.

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Syo Emerald wrote:

 ...
 

In Second Life I noticed that many people treat me like a woman, even if they don't know my real gender. They do it automatically or just assume that I'm female. The interesting thing is, on the other hand, there are a few people who have an extreme fear to flirt with a man by acciedent and require at least a promise, or better, some sort of verification that I'm a real woman.

...

 

This seems to come up a LOT. I can go a long time on SL thinking no-one cares about gender, until flirting, romance or teh sexxorz comes up. Suddenly the other party wants voice, documentation, genetic samples and a signature from three heads of state to proceed. 

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Kelli May wrote:


Syo Emerald wrote:

 ...
 

In Second Life I noticed that many people treat me like a woman, even if they don't know my real gender. They do it automatically or just assume that I'm female. The interesting thing is, on the other hand, there are a few people who have an extreme fear to flirt with a man by acciedent and require at least a promise, or better, some sort of verification that I'm a real woman.

...

 

This seems to come up a LOT. I can go a long time on SL thinking no-one cares about gender, until flirting, romance or teh sexxorz comes up. Suddenly the other party wants voice, documentation, genetic samples and a signature from three heads of state to proceed. 

The problem with getting those three signatures is that it requires having sex with them. That's the impression I got when they patted their laps as I entered the room. Where they SL heads of state, we'd be looking at a Catch-22.

Maybe I should write-in Melissa Etheridge for president in 2016.

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Madelaine McMasters wrote:


Kelli May wrote:


Syo Emerald wrote:

 ...
 

In Second Life I noticed that many people treat me like a woman, even if they don't know my real gender. They do it automatically or just assume that I'm female. The interesting thing is, on the other hand, there are a few people who have an extreme fear to flirt with a man by acciedent and require at least a promise, or better, some sort of verification that I'm a real woman.

...

 

This seems to come up a LOT. I can go a long time on SL thinking no-one cares about gender, until flirting, romance or teh sexxorz comes up. Suddenly the other party wants voice, documentation, genetic samples and a signature from three heads of state to proceed. 

The problem with getting those three signatures is that it requires having sex with them. That's the impression I got when they patted their laps as I entered the room. Where they SL heads of state, we'd be looking at a Catch-22.

Maybe I should write-in Melissa Etheridge for president in 2016.

How about Sinead O'connor or Annie Lenox?

I'd vote for Annie in a heartbeat.

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I agree with Laskya's comments about the way you introduced your survey.

I wish you luck with it, although I actually don't qualify as a subject. I'm using my SL avatar as a more successful attempt to express an RL gender different from my RL gender than I could in RL. If that sentence is confusing don't worry—I tried to make it as confusing as possible. I was just having fun. I'm part of that large transgender community in SL that Laskya mentioned.

I agree with what the others here have posted as well, particularly the comments regarding how gender reversed avatars are accepted without issue. The people I know all seem to be of that attitude and I'm personally convinced that most SL residents share it. I know there are some for whom other people's RL gender is a really big deal, but I cling to the belief that they make up a small—if noisy—fraction of the population.

All that being said, inside that volume of cyberspace that is Second Life is the best place to do your research. Log on, drop in, and rock out.

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Perrie Juran wrote:


Madelaine McMasters wrote:


Kelli May wrote:


Syo Emerald wrote:

 ...
 

In Second Life I noticed that many people treat me like a woman, even if they don't know my real gender. They do it automatically or just assume that I'm female. The interesting thing is, on the other hand, there are a few people who have an extreme fear to flirt with a man by acciedent and require at least a promise, or better, some sort of verification that I'm a real woman.

...

 

This seems to come up a LOT. I can go a long time on SL thinking no-one cares about gender, until flirting, romance or teh sexxorz comes up. Suddenly the other party wants voice, documentation, genetic samples and a signature from three heads of state to proceed. 

The problem with getting those three signatures is that it requires having sex with them. That's the impression I got when they patted their laps as I entered the room. Where they SL heads of state, we'd be looking at a Catch-22.

Maybe I should write-in Melissa Etheridge for president in 2016.

How about Sinead O'connor or Annie Lenox?

I'd vote for Annie in a heartbeat.

Are we selecting write-in candidates on the basis of sexual orientation or baldness? Cuz if we're going for bald, I'll vote for the doll on the right...

Baldies.jpg

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It is very easy to think of gender as either male or female, but the concept of gender is more complex. I was reading the other day of some cultures recognising up to 6 seperate genders. In my view it is better to think of it as a sliding scale. In western culture it is hard to exist out of a culturally binary approach to gender. In sl I have a male a female and a trans avatar. The trans avi allows me more flexibilty be myself even if she looks much more attractive.

 

Happy for you to contact me inworld to discuss further should you wish.

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Thank you for your helpful response! And I'm sorry that mine is so late. 'I know someone who is also doing research on here and got kicked out of the forums. I realize that many people are tired of pesky anthropologists intruding on their community, but I will try my best to be respectful. The last thing I want is for people to think that I am using them as lab rats. My intention with this project is to give voice to the individual lived experiences of fluid SL/RL gender expressions.

I’ve been looking at the other great stuff on here about gender expression and they’ve given me a good starting point for my research. Your posts are also fantastic. Other than providing an additional dialogue, I was hoping that this thread would also serve as a place for me to find people willing to do an interview with me. I didn’t want to ‘advertise’ my project on other threads and I felt like it deserved a post of its own anyway. J

As for my own history with SL, I used to have an account 2-3 years ago which I used on and off for maybe about a year. I never really developed any sustaining friendships but it was really fun. I started using this avatar for my project.

My research isn’t specifically about the community spaces within SL, but rather the individual experiences of people (who may identify as transgender). The transgender community in SL would be a great are of study but my project won’t focus on it unless it is significant in the experience of someone I interview.

I will probably gather minimal RL information on the participants because it’s largely irrelevant. I’m studying the subjective experience of expressing gender in certain ways, rather than gathering RL or SL information. In any research involving people you just have to take what your participants give you as the truth, and that’s what I’ll be doing with this project.

I forgot to mention that, yes, everyone who contributes will be able to see a draft of the paper and request any changes/omissions before I turn in the final paper or it is made public in any way. 

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Aethelwine wrote:

Just thought I would add, Facebook allows for 56 gender options.


Only in the USA. Where I am, there are stil only two.

@riaroswell: I sent a private message to say I'd be happy to be interviewed, but I'm not sure if you noticed. The invitation stands.

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Kelli May wrote:


Aethelwine wrote:

Just thought I would add, Facebook allows for 56 gender options.


Only in the USA. Where I am, there are stil only two.

Really?  I wasn't aware that the number of gender choices on Facebook was different if you're not in the US.

...Dres

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Dresden Ceriano wrote:


Kelli May wrote:


Aethelwine wrote:

Just thought I would add, Facebook allows for 56 gender options.


Only in the USA. Where I am, there are stil only two.

Really?  I wasn't aware that the number of gender choices on Facebook was different if you're not in the US.

...Dres

It even mentions it in the link...

"The new options are only available in the U.S. so far."

Get this rolled out, Facebook! (not that they're listening).

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Kelli May wrote:


Dresden Ceriano wrote:


Kelli May wrote:


Aethelwine wrote:

Just thought I would add, Facebook allows for 56 gender options.


Only in the USA. Where I am, there are stil only two.

Really?  I wasn't aware that the number of gender choices on Facebook was different if you're not in the US.

...Dres

It even mentions it in the link...

"
The new options are only available in the U.S. so far."

Get this rolled out, Facebook! (not that they're listening).

Oh, I see... how strange.

...Dres

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  • 4 weeks later...

One of the great ironies of SL is that often the people who make a big do over whether a person is 'really' this or that sex don't seem to have any problem with their correctly sexed avatar looking not a day over 18 and being slim and attractive, well dressed, and muscular built with a full head of hair....whilst their proudly posted 'RL photo' shows a bald, obese, rather plain old person with no dress sense.

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