, , ,

I admit, I sometimes play the “Who’s Really a Boy?” guessing game. That’s a bad name for it: I should really probably call it the “Whose First Life Self Is a Man?” game, but that doesn’t have the same sparkle. 🙂

Do you play? I suspect most people do at one time or another. One thing that Second Life has demonstrated to the world is that there are a surprising number of males who for one reason or another will walk around in female guise if it’s easy and anonymous – which in Second Life, it is.

It’s tempting for me to think that I understand gender differences so well that I can pick up on the subtlest cues and tell for certain the First Life gender of any Second Life resi. Maybe it’s tempting for you, too. After all, identifying physical gender is a real knee-jerk reaction for humans. What’s usually the first question we ask about a baby when it’s born? What’s the main way stores categorize adult clothing? If we’re looking for a date, what’s most people’s most basic requirement? We’re driven to sort people into genders. I guess it’s natural for us, then, knowing that people have First Life genders as well as Second Life genders, to try to figure out if those two lives match, in the same way we would automatically separate our dessert from our mashed potatoes on a dinner plate.

Cowgirl Barbie in pink plaid outfit: First Life man candy?

There are two main problems with the game, though. First, if someone wants to have a Second Life identity with a different age or gender or skin color or personality than their First Life identity, isn’t it unkind to try to interfere with that, even mentally? And second, there’s hardly any way to tell for sure based solely on what a person says or how they present themselves virtually.

Let me repeat that for emphasis, because I think it’s easy to imagine that we’ve figured out someone’s First Life gender for sure based on what they say: there’s no way to tell for sure.

Sure, when I play the game, certain things tip me off and tend to make me mentally mark someone down in the “First Life boy” or “First Life girl” column. For instance, very girly avatars usually go down in my “First Life boy” column on the guess that they’re overcompensating, using a cartoon version of femininity because they don’t understand actual femininity. Second Life women who never wear pants, for instance, or who have names like Bambi, tend to go in my boy column. But really there are girls who are excessively girly in both lives, so that’s not truly a way to know.

Another thing that tends to make me guess “First Life boy” is an obsession with typically boy things, like Lingerie Model-Style Virtual Lesbianism, or weapons. But there are women in First Life who like extremely feminine female lovers, and there are women in First Life who like weapons. And sometimes women do things that fit male “sexy woman” stereotypes specifically because males latch onto them. If you can get men to salivate over you by being Lara Croft, there are women who will take that route.

A Second Life Lara Croft outfit…picture by DJ Ket-Su

So yes, I have my mental lists of First Life genders, but when I’m thinking clearly I also realize that my lists might be completely wrong. Actually, every once in a while someone offers me specific information about themselves that makes it clear I have them in the wrong column. And I like to think I’m unusually clever with gender issues. I suppose the reality checks help build character!

Have you run across “Every Woman Knows” tests, those quick interrogations that some people suppose will reveal First Life gender? It turns out they’re not very useful, but here’s what I mean: in the general population, there are certain questions that very few males could answer in detail and virtually any adult female could, like “Describe your last pap smear” or “What kinds of feminine hygeine products do you use, and when?”

If someone’s being given one of these tests and they really want to prove they’re a woman, they might answer questions like that, but other people might be insulted and not answer, which of course would “prove” they don’t know and are therefore “really a man”…or they might have to run off and take care of a baby who just woke up, then answer when they get back, making the asker think they were using the web to get their information and are therefore “really a man”. Or they might answer correctly off the bat even if they’re male, because they’re observant or have done some research. These kinds of questions are just plain rude, since the only reason to ask them would be because the asker thinks they have a right to know someone’s First Life gender and won’t believe the answer to a direct question.

I probably don’t even need to point out that voice (unless used a lot) and especially pictures are no proof of gender. Any male with a willing female friend can “have a female voice,” and any male at all can get his hands on a picture of a woman.

I’m not even tackling the question of First Life women who have Second Life male avatars. They’re rarer, and I bet they almost always go unnoticed because so few people expect that kind of a switch…and even fewer seem to care! What’s interesting to me about having a cross-gender avatar is that even though the male gender has a number of explicit, obvious advantages, like higher average wages for the same job, a laxer standard for appearance, and a greater likelihood of being taken seriously, apparently there are a lot more men who feel they’re missing out by not being female than the other way around.

There are advantages to being female, of course! Though some of them are subtle. But men seem to specifically pick up on the advantages of being female and “attractive,” because there don’t seem to be nearly as many men who are interested in being female when they don’t get to match whatever their standard is for physical beauty. This seems to be true even though the greatest advantages (I think) of being female – not being looked down on for sharing emotions, having closer social bonds, and being “allowed” to express friendship and love more freely – have nothing to do with how cute we are.

In the men’s defense, though, not very many First Life women seem to be interested in being unattractive by their standards in Second Life, either.

In the end, whether we’re talking about males or females in First Life or Second, whether we’re talking about people who are the same gender in both lives or not, since there are very few ways to really know for certain that someone is one particular gender, and because there’s so much to be gained from a society where people are able to be who they want to be, ultimately I think the “Who’s Really a Boy” game can cause a lot more harm than good. But it’s too automatic a response to ever imagine that people won’t play it. The game can make many people who maintain privacy about their First Life nervous about having to prove their gender identity, leading to more conformity and fear and secrecy.

But it also opens up a special avenue for trust and kindness, because anyone who proves that they’re more interested in a person’s heart and mind than the contents of their First Life underthings can prove their willingness to offer friendship and support in a way that isn’t available in First Life. “I like you and I’m comfortable for you to be whoever you want to be” is a powerful message in any world.

^^^\ Kate /^^^