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The hype is familiar by now: You can do anything in Second Life: Go parachuting, go surfing, build a majestic building, fight vampires.
Or you can have sex.
As with every medium since cave paintings, sex is a big part of Second Life. The virtual world is a haven where people can fulfill their sexual fantasies by pretending to be the opposite sex, experimenting with homosexuality, owning a harem of sex slaves (who are themselves fulfilling their fantasies by role-playing as sex slaves), and more.
The sex is a sign that the virtual world is robust and thriving, said Philip Rosedale, founder and CEO of Linden Lab, the company that develops and operates Second Life.
"In a lot of ways, the presence of sex as an aspect of creative expression and playful behavior in a place like this is healthy, because it indicates we're doing something right," he said. The presence of sex is also a sign that people are engaging with the community and with each other, and connecting with each other as human beings, he added.
So how's it work, exactly?
Sex in Second Life starts with text chat. Participants describe what they're imagining doing with each other in graphic terms. Sometimes they talk to each other over Skype, or the phone. Soon, voice will be even easier in the virtual world -- Linden Lab is beta-testing voice integrated into Second Life, and plans to roll it out over the next few months..
Of course, there's also a visual element. Users can buy outfits to dress their avatars provocatively, or "skins" to make them appear nude. Default avatars have no genitalia, so users need to buy them.
Likewise, users can buy equipment, ranging from realistic-looking beds and other furniture to fanciful torture devices used in BDSM fantasies. The furniture, and other props, have attached software -- in Second Life jargon, they're "scripted" -- to animate the user's avatar through the motions of sex. Sometimes, the script is attached to a simple sphere, called a "pose ball."
Leading vendors of Second Life genitalia and sex equipment include "Stroker Serpentine," the Second Life alter ego of Kevin Alderman, of Tampa, Fla., as well as Xcite! (warning: link contains graphic images).
Nudity and sexual behavior is forbidden in Second Life outside of private areas and sex clubs. Free orgy rooms are commonplace, where users can try out sexual apparatus and pose balls and bring their own.
Interview With A Virtual Madame
Escorts, the Second Life equivalent of phone-sex operators or prostitutes, are quite common in Second Life.
Tiffany Widdershins is owner of one of Second Life's many bordellos. I met with her in her Second Life office, a replica of Bill Clinton's White House Oval Office. She offered me a cigar when I came in the room.
In addition to the Oval Office, her virtual bordello includes a bunny ranch modeled after a Vegas brothel, a locker room "complete with coach's office and showers," an area with a desert romance theme, and club and mall, she said.
"The stuff that really seems to go is the kinky stuff,"says Widdershins. "This is the place that guys and ladies do the stuff that they secretly want to try in real life, but likely never will. I think it's because it has no real-life consequences," she said in text chat in-world.
Widdershins's avatar is a shapely woman, wearing a G-string, heels, and a sheer top. Her rear end is tattooed with the name of the business: LuvRags.
She started in the sex business in Second Life four months ago.
"One learns a lot about the truth of of human nature from charging guys to pay for cartoon sex, and then watching them flock to it. 99% of people will tell you that they are against pornography, and yet it's 40% of online activity. The whole thing is pretty ridiculous, really," she said in a text-chat interview.
I asked her, "Why do you think people pay for it in Second Life? There doesn't seem to be a shortage of willing partners, and it's easy to look like a porn star."
She responded that the virtual escorts are better at it. "90% of sex is mental... and in fact 100% of virtual sex is mental.....so a professional here has to be a terrific manipulator of words and experience," she said.
Many of her customers are looking for emotional intimacy they don't get in real life. "I have been paid to sit by a fire and listen to a guy pour his heart out," she said.
Tiffany Widdershins: in fact, a lot of the guys here fall in love with me...
Tiffany Widdershins: I am not about to get attached to a guy who actually has cartoon sex
Tiffany Widdershins: lol
Tiffany Widdershins: at the end of the day, he could be the nicest guy on earth, but he hired me for cartoon sex
Tiffany Widdershins: and I am exploiting that
Tiffany Widdershins: not looking for love... lol
Tiffany Widdershins: so it's sad when they fall in love
Widdershins says she's transitioning her business to run as a service for escorts "because frankly I find the girls annoying."
She says she finds newcomers to the virtual world -- known in Second Life jargon as "newbs," which is a disparaging word -- to be the best escorts. She gives them packs of skins, hair, shapes and clothes to customize their avatars. "They haven't been jaded by the industry, and they will do what you tell them instead of nodding yes and doing their own thing anyway."
She gives her escorts four rules to live by:
Tiffany Widdershins: 1) Men cannot abide a damsel in distress if it is in his power to rescue her. Tiffany Widdershins: 2) If a man is given a problem that he is able to solve, he WILL solve it Tiffany Widdershins: 3) Despite protests to the contrary, men LOVE women who call them on their bullshit... Tiffany Widdershins: 4) men do what they are told to do, not what they are asked to do Tiffany Widdershins: A woman that understands those 4 things can get anything she wants from any man
I asked her how escorts could implement those rules.
Tiffany Widdershins: well for example.. Tiffany Widdershins: if you ask an average escort in sl how she's doing, she will say something like "great how are you?" Tiffany Widdershins: if you ask a successful luvrag the same question, she will answer differently Tiffany Widdershins: She will IMMEDIATELY become a damsel in distress Tiffany Widdershins: "not so good actually..... how are you" Tiffany Widdershins: that will always prompt the "aw what's wrong hunny?" Tiffany Widdershins: That's when our new damsel in distress presents the man with a problem that can only be solved with sex for money Tiffany Widdershins: "well none of my regulars are on, and I have tiers due... and damn it ... I am a bit horny... maybe you could help?"
"Tiers" are jargon for fees paid to Linden Lab by people who lease server space to build content in Second Life.
Escorts charge 500 to 1,500 Linden Dollars per session. That's about $2-$6. They pay Widdershins L$999 per month to wear the brand. She charges about L5,000 for her own services as a virtual escort, which she rarely does anymore.
In real life, Widdershins is semi-retired, having run a service that networks florists together. She asked that we withhold her real-life identity. She got into Second Life because she "smelled money."
"I looked to see where the best fit was for learning the economy here without any real skill sets," she said. "I am here to make a billion real life dollars, and I am just crazy enough to think it can be done."
The purpose of Second Life, she says, isn't amusement, it's commerce. "The fun is just the hook," she says.
Housewife In Real Life, Dominatrix In Second Life
For "Marilyn Murphy," the fun is the main thing. Murphy is best known in the Second Life community as publisher of Players, an in-world magazine about the Second Life sex scene. She photographs Post Six Girls a feature of the blog Second Life Herald where attractive avatars, usually female, pose nude. She also takes private photos of residents' avatars, for which she charges fees in Linden Dollars, which she uses entirely in-world.
She plays in Second Life as a "domme," or dominatrix, with three female avatars as subs, who obey her every command. I met with her on a wide patio area, with a table surrounded by cushions. Her avatar was dressed in a long, slinky gown.
Later, we were joined by one of her subs, who teleported in. Murphy commanded the female avatar to sit, and the woman kneeled next to Murphy. Murphy commanded the woman to sit on one of the cushions around the table. The woman participated in the conversation normally and cheerfully, although I noticed she addressed her comments to Murphy, and not me. Perhaps that was a d/s thing -- I don't know and can't ask, because Murphy has not responded to my instant messages seeking further information.
In one of those IMs, I asked if she'd be willing to tell me her real-life name. Many long-time users of Second Life access the world anonymously, and keep their real-life identities secret to preserve their privacy. Some become quite defensive over questions about their RL identities.
I asked her how she started doing nude photography in Second Life. "i found myself in very early Second Life, and all my friends were artists and builders and i have no talents and no skills," she said in text chat. "i don't have [PhotoShop]. i had to come up with something so i decided that sex sells and so i would sell rather tame sexual images." PhotoShop is used by the most skilled builders in Second Life to make their creations more beautiful and lifelike.
Murphy said she became a domme in Second Life after having had real-life bisexual encounters when she was younger. "here in sl the bisexual thing is so much easier to fall into. by its very nature, the anonymity and the simple fact that for a couple of years guy avs [avatars] just were not very good," she said.
She opened one of the first successful strip clubs in Second Life, and the dancers wanted her to be a domme for them, so she went along with it. Eventually, she got good at it and found a following.
What's the attraction of being a Second Life domme? "you fill a need for her," she said. "i get the pleasure of pleasing her."
She's in a long-term committed relationship in Second Life -- long-term by the standards of Second Life: she's been involved for six months -- and knows some things bout her partner in real life.
In real life, Murphy is married and has one child. She's a housewife, but was planning to start a job shortly. "it has to do with a credit card i have, sigh. and some bad man who refuses to pay for it now," she said. "i imagine if i work for a few months i can beg off and go back to being a happy housewife."
Her husband is on Second Life, but not very often, and doesn't care about what she does. They have a couple of ground rules: No phone calling with Second Life sex partners, and they don't keep secrets about their activities in Second Life.
"we laugh about stuff that happens here. It's a 3D chat room and it in no way infringes on our lives," she said. She added: "he thinks it's a riot that i am a domme.... before sl my major computer interface was solitaire, then i came here, and im running clubs, i have slave girls, i have loves and adventures. and its all a fun adventure to him and me.
Marilyn Murphy: i had no idea i could be a firm leadership type person Marilyn Murphy: none Marilyn Murphy: that people would seek my advice Marilyn Murphy: any of this
I asked whether she'd applied any of her Second Life experiences to her real life. She responded:
Marilyn Murphy: not Marilyn Murphy: ha ha Marilyn Murphy: i have thought about what i could do with my new self awareness Marilyn Murphy: but i dont want to work that hard
She's Been Doing Cybersex Nearly 20 Years
Jenna Leng has been looking for gratification online since just before she entered junior high school. She started on local BBSes in 1988.
"I was a good kid. Aside from the cybersex. ; )" she said in an interview conducted through text chat in-world. But then she amended herself. "I wouldn't really call it cybersex. It was, strangely enough, cyber 'petting,' much of what normal teenagers do without the physical aspect. I talked about thoughts, or urges, kissing, touching. But again, that didn't head towards sex until much later."
She credits cybersex with helping her overcome early sexual repression. She says she is bisexual in real-life, and cybersex helped her overcome her sense of shame.
A multimedia designer from Los Angeles, she uses Second Life with the avatar name "Liennna Jael." When I teleported to interview her, she was wearing provocative bra and panties, but she quick-changed into a low-cut sundress for the interview.
Using her Lienna Jael pen name, she writes for Pixel Pulse, a Second Life adult blog that's also distributed in-world.
She enjoys exotic cybersex, "Hermaphrodites, shemales, alien avatars, futuristic cyborgs," she said.
She was accompanied by "Midori Akami," an avatar of a pretty brunette woman smoking a cigar -- I was impressed by how realistic the smoke looked.
Akami said she doesn't use visualization or equipment much, preferring to rely on text. "Everybody's the same size in 12-point-type," she quipped. Her avatar, while adult, is half-sized.
In a separate interview, a resident who goes by the name Eloise Pasteur said she, too, prefers text as the main medium for cybering, augmented by some imagery. She doesn't care for the equipment peddled by vendors like Stroker Serpentine and Xcite. They take the avatars through a rigid series of animations with accompanying exclamations rendered in text. The inability to improvise takes a lot of the fun out of it, she said. "They try to take control of what's happening, tell you how your body is responding," she said.
Eloise Pasteur: Cybering, just like good real sex, is about the two (or more if that's your thing) working together Eloise Pasteur: Writing the nuances
I asked her if imagery is important to her at all. She said it is. "If, say, we're having sex with me tied to the bed," she said. "then having a pose where I'm also tied to the bed adds to it."
A Dark Side
But it isn't all fun and games.
German authorities are investigating simulated child molestation and real child pornography in Second Life. ( Linden Lab says it will cooperate fully in the investigation. They say a German TV station approached them with evidence that a 54-year-old man and 27-year-old woman were engaging in simulated sex in Second Life, one with an avatar that resembled an adult, another with an avatar that resembled a child. The TV station also claimed to have downloaded a real child pornography image from Second Life.
Cybersex in Second Life involving adults playing the role of children has been a controversial part of the virtual world for a long time.
Roleplay in general is integral to Second Life. Avatars appear to be beautiful men and women, elves, dragons, winged fairies, vampires, killer robots, and all varieties of other real and fanciful creatures.
Some residents choose to roleplay as children.
Some of that so-called "ageplay" is innocent, with the simulated children playing on jungle gyms, singing songs, and doing other things that real-life children do.
But some of the ageplay is sexual.
The interview subject, who went by the name "Emily Semaphore" in Second Life, said she was a 35-year-old librarian in real life, and engages in both innocent and sexual ageplay with her real-life husband, who she met in Second Life. They managed an ageplay club called "Jailbait."
She said ageplay, both innocent and sexual, can help participants heal from the trauma of abusive childhoods. "I was molested for years by a family member. For me, roleplaying in a sexual manner is healing because it allows me to RECLAIM my sexuality," she said in the interview.
A Second Life resident and blogger who goes by the name "Tateru Nino" defends non-sexual ageplahy and concludes by saying sexual ageplay between adults is nobody's business but the people involved.
But Second Life resident Catherine Fitzpatrick of New York, N.Y., said sexual ageplay, like other forms of sexual role-playing involving simulated coercion, is harmful.
"To pretend there is a firewall between Second Life and real life and that one has no effect on the other is infantile," said Fitzpatrick, a Second Life businesswoman who appears in Second Life as a male avatar named "Prokofy Neva."
Fitzpatrick's company, Ravenglass, leases servers space from Linden Lab -- known in Second Life jargon as "buying land" -- and then rents it out. She says she does not allow erotic ageplay on her land.
Chris Peterson, a writer for the satirical Web site SomethingAwful.com, said he's visited ageplay areas in Second Life and was revolted by what he saw: "These were avatars of prepubescent children screaming in babytalk, 'Stop torturing me,' while individuals are doing unimaginable things. They're creating childish avatars that are four or five years old, and the sex acts are in a room covered with children's wallpaper," he said.
Fitzpatrick agreed. "We're not talking about 17-year-old girls with plaid skirts above their knees playing schoolgirl. We're talking about eight-year-olds being bound, whipped. It's extreme," she said.
Although Rosedale says sexual ageplay was always banned in Second Life, longtime residents say it was widespread until about January. Everybody knew about it. Then, in January, Linden Lab cracked down and started shutting down sexual ageplay areas.
Sex work in Second Life can often be exploitive, Fitzpatrick said. "These girls work, they work hard, and they don't get paid very much," she said. "There's a lot of people from developing countries. It attracts people who are unemployed." Sex work in Second Life also attracts stay-at-home Moms. "She can get in there, turn some tricks and hope that she's going to make enough to pay her gasoline money for a week," she said.
But other Second Life sex workers are just having fun, looking it as a way to pick up some extra money which they then spend in-world, she said. "I know people who are engineers, who get good salaries and have full lives, and they do prostitution in Second Life because they think it's fun and cool," she said. "Most of the ones I know who rent from me, or that I come across, they do prostitution to pay for the [in-world] shopping."
Sex advice columnist Dan Savage said cybersex, both on the Internet in general and in Second Life in particular, can be beneficial.
Savage's column, SavageLove combines raunchy language, celebration of alternate sexuality, and hardheaded advice. The column runs in the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger and is syndicated to alt-weeklies like New York's Village Voice nationwide.
Savage did a recent column in which he advised a man who enjoyed having sex in Second Life as a woman.
He said sex in Second Lifeis now being viewed with suspicion, as Internet dating and phone sex were initially. But Second Life sex, like Internet dating and phone sex, will become mainstream. It has its risks, but sex often does. "We've become acclimated to the risks and rewards of technologies as people apply them to sex, and all new technologies are applied to sex. Sex is always the leader," he said.
Cybersex allows people to explore their sexual fantasies, some of which are physically impossible in real life, like men pretending to be women for sexual gratification, Savage noted.
Second Life is also a place where people who are unattractive in real life can experience being attractive and sexually sought after, he said.
Savage says he doesn't use Second Life himself, but has friends who do, and he's looked over their shoulders when they used it. "It seemed like a colossal waste of time to me," he said, but then he added, "I'm a writer. I live in front of my laptop, and the last thing I want to do when I get home at night is power up the laptop and live in the laptop. That's an 'I,' 'me' statement, not a general statement," he said.
Linden Lab Cracking Down
Until recently, Linden Lab didn't do much enforcement of rules on sexual activity in Second Life. But, spurred by European investigators, they've started cracking down on sexual ageplay.
And they recently announced plans to \institute age verification, requiring content providers in Second Life -- known in Second Life jargon as "land owners" -- to flag adult content, and requiring residents to provide proof of age before being allowed to access adult content.
A Second Life resident who goes by the name "Gwyneth LLewelyn" said in a blog post that most participants in cybersex -- especially patrons of Second Life sex businesses -- will likely refuse to go through the validation process, and that will mean that sexual activity will be reduced drastically. Some professional content creators will be willing to take the privacy risks, and their remaining customers will be willing to pay more for high-quality content. The result: Sex in Second Life will become a lot less popular for amateurs and boutique businesses, and more of the domain of big businesses.
Indeed, Playboy Enterprises plans to enter Second Life June 7. A company spokeswoman declined to provide details, but said Playboy will not be joining Second Life for cybersex.
Sure, and I only read the magazine for the articles myself.
If age verification drives out adult businesses, that could prove a costly change for Linden Lab, the developers and operators of Second Life, Fitzpatrick said.
Linden Lab generates most of its revenue by leasing server space to content providers -- known as "selling land" in Second Life jargon. Much of that land is owned by sex establishments.
"When they shake loose all the land barons and sex workers, who is going to be paying for Second Life?" Fitzpatrick said. "It's a little premature to shake off those people."
How much of Second Life is sex-related? Nobody seems to know -- certainly nobody I asked. Llewelyn wrote:
The adult market in SL -- especially the one pursued by amateurs is huge. How many percent of all transactions in SL items, land, services is on adult content? We don't know the exact data. We only know that it must be huge, or the landscape would not be crammed full with shops offering all sort of kinky clothes, escort clubs, casinos, and all types of very mature items, animations, and attachments. They're so ubiquitous as to come to us as second nature – they're part of the landscape....
But Rosedale said the amount of sex in Second Life is often overestimated.
Linden Lab requires landowners to disclose if there's mature content on their land by checking a box on the contral panel. As of Thursday, about 15% of the land parcels in Second Life had that box checked, or 18% by land area, Rosedale said.
Moreover, not all that mature content is sexual in nature. When I first logged into the world, I thought it was. But I quickly learned that the "mature" rating is equivalent to the R rating for movies, not XXX. Simple use of swear-words can get content flagged as mature.
"People's assessment of how much sex is going on in Second Life is overblown," Rosedale said.
Sex is simply not a huge part of Second Life, he said. If Linden Lab were to ban sex tomorrow -- not that the company is thinking of doing that -- the virtual world would continue on relatively unchanged. And, contrary to Fitzpatrick's speculation, Linden Lab would not suffer significant financial harm, he said.
Should The Sex Make Businesses Think Twice About Second Life?
Reuben Steiger, founder of the Second Life business consultancy Millions of Us, made an estimate famous in the Second Life community, that sex accounts for 30% of the Second Life economy. He later said the estimate is arbitrary, absurd and altogether meaningless.
Let's face it, there's adult content in SL. Does it matter what percentage it is? I guess I'm often struck by how rarely I encounter it, but I think that sort of reinforces the point we often make to clients concerned about their brands in an environment with adult content. We simply ask whether they have offices in New York City (they do) and ask whether their customers get confused because New York is also home to adult clubs (they're not).
Which raises the question: Should the sex in Second Life give businesses pause about establishing a presence in SL? Hundreds of real-life companies have already done so, (including Toyota, IBM, Cisco, American Apparel, AMD, Dell, and more. Are they making a mistake?
"No, I don't think so," said Gillian Farquhar, director of public relations at Egenera, which makes virtualization software and blade servers. Farquhar is active on Second Life. "I don't think the sex in Second Life intrudes. You don't have to see it if you don't want to."
But she advised her employers against having a presence in Second Life, at least for now, not because of the sex but because they're a small company, with only 350 employees, and not enough of their customers were in Second Life now. "Also, quite frankly, I'm afraid it would be a distraction," she said.
The Sexual Philosophy Of Second Life Founder Philip Rosedale
When Linden Lab launched Second Life in 2003, they had a choice whether to allow sex. An older virtual world, There.com, doesn't allow it; they keep things family-friendly.
Allowing sex in Second Life is part of Linden Lab's overall philosophy that Second Life residents should be free to create their own experience in-world.
"We believed that freedom was fundamental to the environment and freedom is not something you can split hairs on. Second Life, like the Internet, is open to all, and what people want to do there is their own decision," Rosedale said in an interview we conducted in Second Life using the voice beta software.
Moreover, while Linden Lab and the Second Life community bend over backward to protect residents' privacy, that protection isn't universal. Some users volunteer their credit-card information to buy products and services in Second Life. Linden Lab keeps track of users' IP numbers. And Linden Lab is willing to turn that information over to law enforcement authorities to help investigate violations of the law, Rosedale said.
"Everything in Second Life is marked with your identity and name," he said. "If you break the law in your locality in real life, and we can facilitate people going after you, we have no problem with that."
Linden Lab has taken harsh criticism from residents for the ageplay crackdown, and for cooperating in the investigation, but Rosedale stands by the decision.
He also questions the idea, put forward by Widdershins, Murphy, and others, that sex in Second Life is anonymous and without consequence.
Many people in Second Life -- especially in the cybersex community -- prefer to use the service without disclosing information about their real-life identities. In that respect, Second Life is anonymous.
But people do forge identities and relationships in Second Life. Friendship in Second Life involves real emotions, just as there can be a real emotional connection between pen pals who have never met.
Sex in Second Life often involves a relationship that evolves over time, Rosedale said.
"A lot of the sex relationships in Second Life are driven more by lengthy, meaningful discussions," Rosedale said. "People have sex in Second Life because they have incredibly deep relationships, not just because they want to have sex."
He added, "It isn't really an anonymous environment. It's really no more or less anonymous than the real world. If you want to travel to a faraway city where no one knows you and go into a strip club, that's anonymous too."
Second Life sex is a by-product of the sense of "presence" you get in-world, Rosedale said. That's something that's difficult to convey to anybody who hasn't used Second Life for more than a few hours. Presence pervades every element of Second Life, not just sex. When you're logged in to Second Life and your avatar is sitting across a table from another avatar, and you're discussing politics, it doesn't feel like you're alone at your computer -- you have the illusion of really talking to another person across a table.
And sometimes when people are talking across a table, that leads to sex. In real life and in Second Life, too.
Mitch Wagner's Second Life avatar is Ziggy Figaro.