Originally published May 28 thru May 30 in 2003, here.
Someone sent me an e-mail last week, because they wanted to talk about "virtual sexual harassment." Alexis was her name, and she said she'd had a few such experiences with that in Second Life, and she thought I should investigate and maybe write a story about it. "Like what kind of incidents are you talking about?" I asked her.
"I have had one male avatar come up to my avatar," answers Alexis, "and tell me to take off my avatar's top (granted, it happened in a Mature sim, but would still qualify), and another one say to my avatar, 'If we had the gesture in here, I'd smack that (meaning my avatar's backside)'." (By "Mature sim", Alexis refers to an area in Second Life where behavior that's roughly equivalent to what you'd see in an R or NC-17 rated movie is allowable.) On numerous occasions, adds Alexis, she "had male avatars call my avatar 'babe', 'a hottie', and other terms that would be considered demeaning to females." At this point, it should be pointed out that incidents of this variety are, in my experience, fairly infrequent -- not just in Second Life, but in massively multiplayer games in general. If anything, as a recent Detroit Free Press article suggests, female avatars tend to get special, even chivalrous treatment, from other players, both male and female. In any case, the folks at Linden have already put up a pretty robust policy against harassing behavior (no surprise there, as a large percentage of Second Life's users are women) and make a concerted effort to enforce it. And as it turns out, just stepping back was enough to defuse one such encounter. "I just said simply, 'No'. It put an end to that situation," says Alexis, "but probably did not dissuade this person from doing it again to someone else... the funny thing is, I had never met the avatar before until that very moment." So Alexis' main objection to the talk about hotties and butt-smacking, it seemed to me, was the *way* it occurred: "If a statement like that came out during a bit of sexually charged role-playing between avatars," she says, "that would be fine... but this incident happened just as I arrived at the location where this happened, and that was the first thing that was said to me... other than maybe 'Hi'." After a bit of back-and-forth on the subject, something made me go back and check the "To:" line of the e-mails Alexis had been sending me. And only then did something strike me as a bit odd: "Alexis" is a man.
In the interests of preserving his anonymity, we'll call him, at his choice, "Dante" -- "a reference to Dante Hicks," says Alexis, "one of my favorite characters from the Kevin Smith series of films." "It wasn't my initial intention to play as a female at first," Dante e-mails me, "[but] when I signed up for the Beta and went to choose my Second Life last name," he couldn't find any that appealed. In the game, a player can pretty much choose any first name they want, but must select from a pre-set list of surnames. He did finally locate one he liked, and for several reasons, "Alexis" seemed to go with it best. "I have no problems playing Second Life as a woman," says Dante, because he's done so in numerous role-playing games. "And, as a pre-emptive answer," he adds, "I am completely heterosexual (many people think that if you are male playing a female character in a role-playing aspect, then you must be homosexual or have those tendencies.)" In any event, he continues, his actual gender is never a secret -- it's mentioned on his in-world calling card, if you just click the right button. "People are sometimes just too lazy to check the First Life tab," says Dante.