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A lot of Second Life avatars are different from their Real Life counterparts. A lot. Males have female avatars, females (less often) have male avatars, married people represent themselves as single and available, and almost everyone is svelte and trim, with large breasts for the women and bulky muscles for the men.

There are people who fight against this trend, some staunchly, others of us less emphatically. In my case, I’ve tried to at least keep my breasts to a realistic size. I’d love to compare them to my real life breasts to find out whether I’m in the ballpark, but there’s no easy way to do that unless someone out there has a scripted prim measuring tape they can loan me!

For this entry, I’ve gotten kind permission to post Second Life and Real Life
pictures of seven residents side-by-side. Here’s Aur.

Anyway, it’s all up for grabs: age, weight, race, marital status, sexual preference, personality … you name it, someone in Second Life is appearing differently in that way than in Real Life. Let’s call this kind of thing “identity bending.”

And there are all kinds of schools of thoughts on what “should” and “should not” be the rule of thumb for different kinds of identity bending. This gets tricky, because there are all kinds of issues that come up. Some people are freaked out by or condemning of gender bending in any form; many people aren’t interested in getting involved with someone who’s married in Real Life; and even well-intentioned people might be a little disturbed to find out their petite, girlish lover is a 350-pound 55-year-old in Real Life.

Casidy Craig in Second Life and Real Life. In Real Life, Casidy is
transgendered, female to male.

So some people hide their Real Life identities, and other people lie about their Real Life identities. I’m one of the hiders: my Real Life and my Second Life aren’t allowed to mix, because in my Real Life I’m not interested in having to defend my habit of blogging about sex and all the other fun things I get to do as Second Life me. I’d do it if I had to, but in the end it would be more trouble than it’s worth.

It might be useful before we plunge much deeper into this to reflect that there are really two different types of reasons someone might not want to mix Second Life and Real Life. One reason is because the person doesn’t want their Second Life to affect their Real Life, as with me. The other is because the person doesn’t want their Real Life to affect their Second Life, which usually means that they differ in some substantial way from their avatar, for instance in gender or marital status.

Fenix Harbinger, matching closely in both lives

There’s no question that some people would be very disturbed to find out that a friend-or especially a lover-is the opposite gender of their avatar, but it’s hard to make an ethical case for objecting to this if the gender bending person doesn’t claim their Real Life self is the same as their avatar. It comes down to asserting that people who bend gender should always reveal that in their profile because people who associate with them in Second Life may feel bad otherwise-but it’s just as defensible to say that people who aren’t comfortable with gender bending friends should stick to friends who have declared their Real Life gender already. In either case there’s that bad old pitfall “should.” Regardless of what you believe is morally best for people to do, a lot of people (in this case) are going to do the exact opposite. Many people will have avatars of a different gender than their real life selves without making that public knowledge, and many people will assume that avatar gender is the same as Real Life gender even though that’s a lousy bet in Second Life. Ultimately we can’t expect each other to conform to our personal codes of conduct. All I can suggest is that being as honest as we reasonably can and as open-minded as we reasonably can is likely to be a big help.

Keiko Takamura

The gender issue especially is more complicated than it might seem at first. First, there’s the whole prejudice issue. If a person’s profile is one gender and their “1st Life” tab says another gender, they are likely to be opening themselves up for abuse from random passersby which you could argue isn’t really deserved. Second, there’s the experiment part. If a man is trying to find out what it’s like to be treated like a woman, or a woman is trying to find out what it’s like to be treated as a man, the results aren’t likely to be very accurate if everyone knows that the person’s Real Life gender is different from the avatar’s gender.

And being able to be different and to experiment are some important advantages of Second Life. Yet for all of that, some people always will be disturbed if they discover a friend is bending gender, and there’s probably no way around that short of complete cultural transformation.

Lisse Livingston

Another thing that might be helpful to think about is this: sometimes people aren’t given the option of keeping quiet; they must either lie or be silent and revealed. If someone asks a male avatar “Are you a guy in Real Life?” and the person is female in Real Life (or more confusingly still, transgendered!), then just refusing to answer the question or saying “I prefer to keep my RL private” is usually going to be taken as an alternate version of “no, I’m not.” That cuts the options down to revelaing or lying, with no privacy in the middle. So if you feel people deserve privacy on these things, don’t ask those questions!

Marianne McCann. This is an old picture of her, of course. As you can see, Marianne’s avi is a child, too.

(I tried hopping into a male avatar for about an hour once. I stayed only with friends while doing it, and everyone knew who was really behind the wheel. I actually didn’t find it appealing *at all*, but I understand there may be a greater appeal for men trying on female avatars. After all, we are prettier than they are! With the exception of the occasional Orlando Bloom, of course.)

I’ve sometimes seen people confuse “honesty” with “disclosure,” and this is a mistake. For someone to decline to reveal something about themselves is not a lie; it’s privacy. So a 50-year-old Asian male who goes around in a 20-year-old Caucasian female avi is not lying by doing that. That’s bending genders and ages, not bending truth! Of course he *could* lie about it too, and that’s a different matter.

Maus Ennui. Like Fenix, a close match in both lives.

Marital status is a more serious issue in some ways because many people (raises hand) don’t want to have any part in someone else’s marital infidelity. If you have an open marriage or are legally separated or what have you, that’s fine by me (though not by everybody!). But otherwise it’s a problem because people can get enticed into an immoral act without knowing it’s immoral. (That is, if the sex itself isn’t immoral by their standard, but cheating is.)

As to appearance and age, Second Life avatars are clearly designed with the assumption that they’ll be relatively young and relatively svelte. I would be happy for my avatar to look my actual age (mid-thirties) instead of the default 25-or-so we all seem to look, but I don’t know any way to age myself attractively in Second Life. And it’s even harder, presumably, when everyone else has physically idealized, young avatars. Well, almost everyone! I’ve seen older and heavier avatars very occasionally, but I’m not sure in those cases that they represented a closer match to their Real Life counterparts; they may just have been experimenting.

In the end, it’s probably helpful to think of Second Life as a place where it’s fun and interesting to experiment with identity. If instead we get in the habit of assuming that everyone is showing their Real Life self, I think we invite trouble, because that’s definitely not the case! At the same time, it’s hard to go wrong with honesty when you can get away with it.

^^^\ Kate /^^^

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