Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Shaking the Internet: Virtual Sex Worlds

"The Internet, Dude. Shake it hard enough and you can get anything to fall out of it."
-Brent, PvP Animation Episode 7

Sex on the 'net hits the news at regular intervals, as one big event or another falls in the hands of a news outlet and everyone is briefly fascinated by this brave new world. Right now, Second Life is at the top of the list for mainstream interest. With major companies invested in the Second Life mainframe and real money and--perhaps?--real hearts at stake in the intricacies of this virtual realm, everyone is as interested as they've been since LambdaMOO became home of the first cyberspace rape.

Virtual sex worlds have been around in one way or another since the Internet emerged. Erotica-esque writer Susie Bright wrote a book in 1993, Sexual Reality: A Virtual Sex World Reader, that began to chronicle the enticement of these realities as they became especially appealing as concerns about AIDS and other STDs mounted and virtual space became a world where the viruses were much less life-threatening: while continual pop-ups from adult web sites may be annoying, they have much easier to come by cures.

Getting things going in one of these environments--whether its a dedicated sex world or the romantic side of Second Life--takes a bit of getting used to, according to Bonnie Ruberg writing for the Village Voice. In Click Me: Getting Started with Sex in Second Life Ruberg describes the typical Second Life virtual sex experience: "Second Life sex is a combination of the visual and the verbal. Players strip their avatars down to their cyber skin, use pose balls (those floating orbs placed in romantic areas throughout the virtual world) to animate them into various sex acts, and keep up with the whole thing in IM" (par 3).

The pose balls are only the beginning--players who make money off designing for the game have created sex beds dedicated to allowing wide ranges of sex acts that the Linden Labs designers didn't account for. In the last month there's been a Second Life scandal turned lawsuit as the creator of one of the best sex beds in Second Life has seen his invention stolen and copied, sold on the cheap by a virtual patent infringer. The drama has even hit ABC News: 'Second Life' Sex Machine Spawns Suit.

This is only one of the virtual moral and legal dilemmas to emerge on the Second Life sex scene. The virtual nature of sex connection can lead to actions others find disconcerting, chief among them "age play." Second Life separates teenagers from adults on their world grids, and acts presumably to prevent actual children from entering the virtual sex scene, although with the distancing factor of a keyboard and a parental account anything is technically possible. Child avatars are definitely present, and thus "virtual child" sexual actions take place within the world. It's not really virtual child pornography in no actual child is involved, but it does lead to moral concerns. CNET has an article, Phony kids, virtual sex, addressing some of the outcry. There's a clear problem with the game trying to police such actions, which is why no attempt has yet been made: if no real children are being hurt, where's the victim in sexual roleplaying by consenting adults?

Of course, even actions between consenting adults on Second Life can have their real world consequences. MSNBC has an article by Kristin Kalning addressing one of the social implications of virtual sex world relationships, Is a virtual affair real-world infidelity?. The same question has been posed by Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck, but Murray's discussion takes into account future developments in technology: sure, current technology might only allow for a virtual world affair to consist of animated pre-programmed "sex" and dialogue through a text box, but if technological progression leads towards the Star Trek esque holodeck, at what level of "realism" in the virtual does it become genuine infidelity? Kristin Kalning tackles the issue differently: she discusses some effects these virtual affairs have had on real couples, leading to the conclusion that the very need for a virtual affair suggests something lacking in a real relationship.

Second Life is the current hot world for the mainstream to take a look at. Time Magazine sent sex world novice Joel Stein in to chronicle his experiences finding his first penis [in Second Life, nothing comes free] in My So-Called Second Life. Wired Magazine has taken a more ambitious scope: Regina Lynn has taken a look in on Sociolotron and Jewel of Indra, two far smaller worlds that attract a more specialized user: Real Sex, Virtual Worlds. For a historical perspective--in terms of Internet time, at least--Daniel Terdiman wrote in 2004 on Red Light World, a virtual world game based on Amsterdam's red light district: Virtual City of Smut Now Online

I propose to maintain for the course of this Fall a blog as prelude to a final paper looking each week at developments beyone what the mainstream press is catching and particularly in terms of forbidden sexual subcultures. What are the implications for virtual morality when we leave the mores of "normal society" and try to construct a new morality that understands how real the virtual can be? The philosophical turn to moral particularism gives us a balance for considering moral questions in a virtual space, meaning essentially that we have to take questions like "What is adultery?" and recast them in light of the particular situation these virtual worlds present.

In short, are the sex beds of Second Life becoming the new forum for the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, or are we looking at a new era for Philosophy in the Bedroom?

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