Saturday, 11 August 2012

Pixel flesh matters

Here's my August column for AVENUE magazine. Photography this month is by Annough Lykin and features Canary Beck's KamaSutra Exotic Dance and Strip club.

I’ve mentioned in the past that one of the biggest obstacles to acceptance of SL by the mainstream is the ‘snigger factor’ (or, I suppose, ‘snicker’ factor, if you insist on using the US vernacular).  Often well-meaning people, when handed the topic of Second Life® in conversation, can’t help but struggle to suppress a smile at the thought of people conducting at least a portion of their social affairs in an online world.  The phrase, “get a life” is usually nearby, lurking in thoughts if not actually spoken.  That an SL® resident can potentially meet and interact with more people from a wider range of continents in a week than non-residents might in a year (during the hours they spend watching television) is a detail often lost on them.

In fairness, friendships and collaborative creativity probably aren’t what most of those people are thinking about whilst they’re busy suppressing (or not) those smiles: what they’re actually thinking about is all the online cybersex they’ve heard about and how utterly bizarre an idea this sounds.  Any admission heard about spending time in SL gets somehow translated as, “I masturbate in front of my computer to scenes of cartoon sex.”  Watching porn, by comparison, seems an almost mainstream activity.

Where the subject arises, quite a high proportion – but not all – of the people I’ve met inworld tell me they avoid telling their RL friends and family that they do SL for pretty much precisely this reason.  A few mention early attempts – long ago abandoned – at convincing people that sex isn’t the only reason people go inworld, but it’s a bit hard to sound convincing when you know full well that sex is massive in SL.  In the early days – on which SL’s folklore reputation remains built – you only had to take a few steps outside of your infohub to be bombarded with advertisements for sex halls, many of which were scattered very liberally about the mainland; it’s not hard to see, therefore, how this impression has been formed.  Today, such establishments have been pushed by Linden into Adult rated sims and the mainland is free from most references, but one only has to log in to the Marketplace to see the enduring popularity of sex in SL, and that it sells.

Ultimately, though, what’s really remarkable is that the existence of sexual expression in the virtual world is in any way surprising, given its increasing visibility in the physical one.  Life without sex, after all, would be like life without laughter or seeing the colour green; it pervades everything.  Trying to deny or suppress its existence would be nothing short of Victorian in terms of wisdom.  What non-residents should really be asking themselves, is not, “How is cybersex possible?” but, “What is it that makes SL sexuality good enough that people want it?”  Is it just a poor substitute for a good RL sex life or does it offer something completely different worth checking out?

The answer to that last question depends entirely on your reality.  Everyone has their own unique reality constructed from all the various social rules and mechanisms thrown at them in the years since their birth – although that’s not to say, of course, that realities can’t shift.  Take nudity.  Whether or not you experience a naked avatar as erotic depends a great deal on how common it is for you to experience both RL and SL nudity.  Rezzing into an infohub and seeing the inevitable one or two naked newbies strolling up and down, for example, simply isn’t an arousing experience for the vast majority of people, although it might be if you’re a virgin in RL and this is your very first day in the metaverse.  I remember thinking similar things in the sex halls I visited as a newbie myself and watching hoards of naked noobs hobbling from one set of pose balls to the next: there simply wasn’t anything special about it and the whole thing just looked silly.  Clearly, however, mine was a minority view in that context.

But if your SL experience consists in the main of hanging around clothed avatars who guard their nudity in public to the same extent as one would in RL, the intimacy of naked exposure associated with real life nudity becomes mapped onto your concept of SL nudity.  ‘Pixel flesh’ (a phrase I loathe with an intensity usually reserved for politicians and tabloid newspapers) suddenly becomes exciting because you’re being shown something that’s ordinarily kept hidden away.  That you’re being shown it communicates closeness and trust, even if it is just a jpeg image stretched around the vague, hollow approximation of a human shape.

Some of today’s SL sex-themed venues are becoming more sophisticated and savvy than those early sex halls were.  In a recent SL conversation I had with Canary Beck – proprietor of the KamaSutra Dance and Strip Club, a place of middle-eastern silks and mango colouring, and absolutely no sex balls – she explained to me that it’s the restriction of nudity and sexual activity that actually makes money in SL.  To become a dancer at KamaSutra, you’re required to undertake a training programme in which the rules of the establishment and the principles of good emoting (right down to avoiding errors in spelling and grammar, I was immensely pleased to see; nothing spoils an erotic IM moment for some of us more than failing to type out the word ‘you’ in full).  “We don't have, and will likely never have, open sex in the club,” she told me, this meaning both avatar animations and text chat.  Although dancers can get naked if they want to, there is no expectation that clothing should be removed in return for tips.  A keen monitor of the club’s statistics, Becky has noted that it’s in fact the dancers who remove less that earn the most.  Simply put: “The value of one's nudity on the stage increases with the scarcity of which it is available.”

The moment people start talking about the cash value of anything to do with sexual exposure (or, indeed, non-exposure) people start wrinkling their noses in distaste.  One of the key values of the adult industry, however, is that – if nothing else – it has no qualms about exploring whatever it is that people want and are prepared to pay for.  In an age where the X-rated film industry is starting to fall apart due to the saturation of the internet with free video content, I actually find it heartening that people are starting to learn (and with their wallets) that less is often more and that intimacy – to use an unashamedly tautological argument – only has value when it has value.

Experiencing new forms of intimacy is the key attraction to metaverse sex.  For the RL virgin, simply being with someone SL naked and telling them that they’re masturbating in RL might be an almost overwhelmingly liberating experience.  Within the fifty shades of grey (a phrase I in no way use to improve search rankings) that the rest of us reside, there is the opportunity to learn the many ways that intimacy is so much more than just physical sensation.  Yes, we should have worked that out already; many of us, however – in a society that both bombards us with sexual imagery and hides the discussion of intimacy from mainstream conversation – simply haven’t.  Imagine being given permission to express a sexual fantasy to someone for the very first time where real life has previously only conditioned shame to such thoughts.  Imagine being able to take those first few steps in the exploration of sexual identity that were never before safe without the anonymity and physical distance of the metaverse.  Imagine the intensity of listening in voice to every breath your SL lover draws whilst they orgasm because no other information is available to you, because previously the sound of sex got drowned out by everything else.  It might be worth pointing out here that the increasingly visible study of ‘mindfulness’ – psychology’s attempt to understand principles of mental wellbeing which date back to Buddhist teachings – encourages exactly this focus on single sensation.

As with real life, everything in SL is dependent upon the people you find and mix with.  As with real life, SL needs its limits – I support completely the banning of child avatars from adult venues – and requires discussion around the murky areas: no matter how many times I read that ‘rape fantasy’ is harmless between consenting adults, I cannot abandon my belief that it ultimately only reinforces ugly, violent, abusive desire – exactly the opposite, in fact, to what I’ve been arguing in favour of here.  And can all this new experience in intimacy lead to long-lasting, metaverse-only relationships?  However romantic an idea this might sound, nothing I’ve seen so far suggests that it can.  Discovering new forms of intimacy is not the same as understanding intimacy; in the long run, we’re most of us still too strongly conditioned to touch and sight and smell to feel sustained satisfaction from the restrictions imposed by the metaverse.  But a new generation of young people are growing up for whom internet relationships are far more the norm than they ever were for us: our evolution as beings of thought and mental connection is only in its very first days.

But is SL sex an odd, a ridiculous, a shameful thing?  It is not.  The sooner we can get that notion out of the way, the sooner we can get to the serious business of exploring its implications properly.


Yordie Sands said...

I was planning on leaving a little comment, but got swept away in my own world. So....

Nice article, Huck. It rings true to me and it's great to hear a guy's perspective.

When I began wandering around in a virtual world, the idea of sex seemed pretty rediculous to me. And without getting too personal, well, heh, I don't think so anymore.

It's about people, special people you want to have intimacy with. That's so true.

Huckleberry Hax said...

Thanks Yordie :)