Saturday, 18 October 2014

Is sex in Second Life pornography?


Wagner James Au has opened up an interesting debate over on his blog, New World Notes, stating that Linden should “forbid pornography and extremely violent content [on Second Life 2], at least in the first few years of launch before SL 2 achieves mass growth (assuming it does).”  This is based on the finding that half of SL’s current most-visited regions are adult-themed.

All credit to Au for having the courage to even approach this can of worms, let alone open it.  On the one hand – as was swiftly pointed out in the comments that followed – this statistic could be interpreted in a very different way: that the popularity of adult sims suggests SL2 absolutely must not ban such content if it wants to achieve appeal.  On the other, however, many long-term residents – myself included – are sick of the sniggers that mention of SL gets amongst RL friends; sniggers based upon the widespread belief amongst the ‘masses’ that sexual activity is the main reason why people enter the metaverse.  Of course, we all know that plenty of people do enter the metaverse for exactly this reason, and also that plenty of people who don’t go on to discover it anyway.  I have no real issue with that at all, but I do wish SL could be respected for all the other experiences it offers – or at least that it could be understood as a place where people get up to the same range of stuff more or less that they might in any other place.  As Au goes on to say, “virtual porn in particular has always been an impediment to Second Life going mainstream, hurting its brand, scaring away mainstream institutions, and just generally causing it to be a laughingstock for anyone who wasn't familiar with how much more non-porn content the world contained”.

What really got me thinking about Au’s piece was the notion that sexual activity in the metaverse could be termed pornography.  To be fair, whether it can or cannot is something of a straw man issue not really relevant to the larger point he’s trying to make – possibly for want of a better word, he’s using the term ‘porn’ as a convenient umbrella for activity he’s absolutely right in highlighting has given SL an unhelpful reputation.

As a side issue, however, I think it’s still one worth exploring.  Porn is an ugly word.  Folklore would have us believe that something like 99 per cent of men use it, yet if that is the case it’s certainly not as openly discussed amongst this population as its other passions, such as football: the knowledge that it’s widely used does little to reduce the sense of personal shame or embarrassment in admitting to using it oneself.  There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that regular ejaculation in males promotes good health in a variety of ways, so one might think that anything which facilitates this could be viewed – at least tentatively – as a good thing (not everyone is lucky enough to have a sexual partner, nor necessarily one with whom sex is frequent enough to achieve these benefits).  But the word porn carries with it an immense baggage of association, with mental infidelity, the exploitation of women and the maintenance of male chauvinist and misogynistic views probably headlining amongst these.

An argument could be advanced that ‘porn’ is no longer fit for purpose as a word which carries sufficient meaning by itself.  One qualifying adjective has already fallen into common use, with ‘child porn’ now the common expression for a type of pornography which is illegal.  There’s a clear and necessary need for this (much as we would wish that there wasn’t), a line which just has to be drawn.  Other lines or subdivisions aren’t perhaps as necessary, yet to classify, for example, a video of two lovers having consensual sex (which they’ve both agreed to distribute) as the same thing as one of an acted out encounter between a plumber and a housewife (who has mislaid her purse somehow) seems odd; we wouldn’t consider a home video of a family barbecue to be the same thing as a restaurant scene in a movie just because both featured people eating.  To extend that category into some of the more extreme areas of pornographic depiction and practice makes the one-size-fits-all approach feel even more bizarre.  And what about porn made by women?  What about porn made for women?  What about ‘revenge porn’ videos posted after a break-up?  What about the videos made with the explicit purpose from the start of publically humiliating someone?  What about beautifulagony.com, where no nudity or sexual contact whatsoever is shown, only the faces of people as they experience orgasm?  Is all of this really one thing?  Surely not.

Though this, to a certain extent, is also another issue.  What about sex in Second Life?

Perhaps sex in SL can be considered under two different lenses.  First of all, there is the depiction of sexual activity: the poses, the animations, the removal of clothing, the visual enhancement of genitalia through attachments, the use of furniture or other items, the sound effects and the various descriptive phrases used either by the people engaged in the act or – and I still scratch my head over how this phenomena came into being – by scripts in the aforementioned genitalia; all of the things which someone could observe, either as a person involved or as a third party witness to the scene.  What sets this aspect aside from ‘conventional’ or ‘traditional’ (I really can’t think of a better summarising term) pornography is that it’s an entirely artificial depiction: anyone observing such a scene is not actually observing real people actually having sex.  Having said that this is different from ‘regular’ porn, however, computer generated sexual imagery is certainly not an invention of SL and goes all the way back to the very earliest and least graphically capable of computers, where ‘pixel sex’ would have referred to black and white pixels the size of your thumb.  Beyond that, erotic drawings and paintings pre-date computers by centuries.  In this respect, then, perhaps SL sex can be considered pornographic.

The second lens, however, concerns the interactive nature of sexual activity in SL.  If one is engaged in sex with another person in the metaverse, one is no longer a passive observer of an act.  Instead, one is actively engaged with another person in creating sexual imagery – be it through a visual depiction as described above or through an entirely textual exchange of intimate thoughts and ideas.  Whilst there might be elements of this which originated in SL, the more general notion of interacting with someone non-physically to create a ‘sexual story’ is, again, hardly unique to the metaverse.  ‘Sexting’ – the act of interacting with someone sexually over mobile phone texts – is perhaps the most prominent example of this discussed in the mainstream media today (whenever a celebrity or politician gets caught doing it), but, going back, sexual activity took place in internet chat rooms long before even Yahoo Messenger became popular – before even the web was created.  Then there’s phone sex.  Then there’s sexually explicit letter-writing.

Whilst publically expressed opinion on such activity might well be judgemental, such judgements would probably mostly take place in the context of a revelation of someone who is in a monogamous relationship interacting sexually behind the back of their partner.  A politician caught doing this is only generally newsworthy if he or she is a married politician.  Amongst the liberal-minded, at least, few would raise much of an eyebrow upon learning that someone was sexting their girlfriend or boyfriend – it might well be considered a little Too Much Information, but no more so than learning something about their ‘regular’ sex life.  Few would consider it porn.

Does role-play blur the issue still further?  In a role-played situation, a fictional scenario is created between two or more people; the option to share RL information alongside this is of course there, however it’s entirely possible – and, I understand, an expressed preference amongst some role-players – that a whole scene could be acted out without any reference whatsoever to the authors’ emotional state or sexual arousal.  In such a scenario, the argument could be forwarded that the only sexual intercourse that takes place is between the avatars on screen as fictional characters, that the real-life humans behind them are merely writers engaged in an act of shared storytelling.  Is this still, nonetheless, the creation of pornography?  Even if all authors involved remain completely sexually detached from their narrative, they are still creating something which depicts a sexual act, as described earlier – even if it’s entirely without avatar manipulation (an entire scene could be role-played in chat or IM, whilst avatars remained fully clothed, potentially not even in the same sim as each other).

By this reasoning, then – and I readily admit it’s a tentative reasoning; others might approach this from entirely different standpoints – sex in SL both is and is not pornography.  One of the reasons why I continue to love Second Life and the metaverse more generally is the way in which it opens up topics like this and exposes the inadequacies of the words and constructs we use to define life and the experiences which comprise it.  ‘Porn’ is an inadequate word.  One of the most beautiful things about sex in SL is how it can awaken you to the thoughts, feelings and desires of your partner – and that’s something you can take back with you into the real world if you hadn’t already discovered it there.

To return to Au’s article, if SL do implement a ban on porn in SL2 it will be a hard ban to enforce.  Animations and poses would all need to be vetted, for starters (including all scripted furniture).  Nakedness would need to be forbidden, perhaps by incorporating underwear into all skins, though this would require all user-generated skins to be vetted also – in fact, more or less anything worn or attached would need to be checked in order to avoid the creation of ‘nudity clothes’ (which I recall reading once was the method of circumventing enforced-underwear employed during the days of the teen grid).  For the ultimate in porn-prohibition, chat and IM would also have to be monitored, perhaps using the same sort of software that corporations now use to screen emails (your IM to someone that you can’t sleep because the cock next door is crowing would be blocked with an automatic message that “Your message breaches our community communication policy”).  It would be an enormous effort that many might argue would be better invested elsewhere.

And yet, sex in SL is an issue.  In fact, it’s not whether or not it’s ‘porn’ that’s the issue, but the sort of sex that’s going on and where it’s happening.  By and large, I think the division of sims we have today into adult, moderate and general – with adult sims separate from the mainland – is appropriate.  Remember: at the time of SL’s largest media exposure, sex halls could be wondered into within your first few virtual steps.

But the issue is ultimately deeper than that.  There are sims and groups in SL which promote rape fantasy.  There are sims and groups which promote female slavery and humiliation.  I’ve heard the liberal arguments about consensuality defending these things, but I remain deeply uncomfortable about their existence in the metaverse.

My guess is that a ban on sex – or porn, if you prefer – in SL2 is probably unlikely.  If virtual reality does go on to become the Next Big Thing, however, expect the can of worms concerning it to get well and truly opened.


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