Thursday, February 08, 2007

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Exotic dancers at Stacey Sugar's Barbie Club

Now that I'm plunging ahead fully on the book, I've spent more time than usual thinking about metaverse sexuality.  It's often been said (and reported) that 30 percent of commercial activity in Second Life is sexual* [see Update], though it's never been clear how that figure was arrived at.  Then I got to reasoning it out, and it suddenly struck me as just about the strangest claim in the world.

How much commerce in-world is sexual?  If I had to guess wildly, I'd say 5 percent.  Maybe much less.

At the same time, it's not unreasonable to believe it's more, if you go on real world assumptions.  But then, as is often the case, those don't always hold up in there.

It's a fallacy worth addressing, because it recalls the first brush of public awareness of the Internet at large, in the early 90s-- and with it, an unfounded hysteria which described the Net as an unbounded porn haven, a belief which threatened to ghettoize it, or worst, burden it behind walls of government regulation and excessive private filtering.   

February 4th's top twenty sites-- seven of which sex is central

It is narrowly true that about a third of the very most popular sites in Second Life have sexual activity as their primary or exclusive selling point.  (Sometimes less, sometimes a bit more.)  Other popular sites mention sex, but amid a larger menu of non-sexual activities.  But this only counts the top twenty sites, not the tens of thousands of other commercial sites which exist, especially within the PG-rated sectors, which are non-sexual by definition.

But what about the popular sexual sites themselves?  Here is where a categorical error creeps in, because unlike the real world, all commercial content in Second Life is made for entertainment, not utility.  So even the world at its most pornographic-- picture the VIP room of an adult club at the peak of activity-- is still dominated by non-sexual content.   

Take the center stage of the very popular Barbie Club, for example:


Were you to count the sexual content in this most adult of places, only the dancers' costumes, their sensual animations, and their avatar genital attachments would qualify.  (And that is stretching the definition, and assuming that wearing genitals is only for sexual expression.) 

But look closer: entirely non-erotic are the furniture, the money, most of the textures, all the construction materials of the building, the fixtures, and more.  Don't believe me?  Teleport there, and have a look for yourself.

Seen this way, maybe 10% of this location depicts commercial content that is unambiguously sexual.  (And this in a white hot center of avatar-based sensuality.)  If it's just 10% here, how much smaller is it across the wide swathe of the grid?

To express this observation as a rough ratio, every time two avatars engage in sex, twenty content creators have spent untold hours creating and selling aspects of the environment they’re in, most of which having little to do with their chosen activity.  In that sense, Second Life porn and erotica are, at best, a niche business dependent on a much larger, much more multi-varied market.

How much commerce is exclusively sexual?  Maybe there's a metric out there to nail it down, but based on my eyeball glance over continents of content, I have to guess it's but a quivering sliver in a far vaster economy of the imagination.

Update, 3:15pm:  Some non-SL bloggers (as here) have wondered about the clause, "assuming that wearing genitals is only for sexual expression", perplexed for what other reason they'd exist.  So to explain further for non-Residents reading this:

Like the angels in Kevin Smith's Dogma, SL avatars come into the world without genitals (or even nipples), so the choice of adding those is often for aesthetic or even gender identification purposes.  (I'm met a lot of users who have them solely for either purpose, but not for sex.)  Then there's social activities which aren't necessarily sexual, but are clothing optional, where wearing genitals is just part of the roleplay fun dresscode, as in Burning Life.

There's a reason why "Detachable Penis" is so popular with Residents.  (OMFG, the song has a Wikipedia entry.)

2nd Update, 2/9:  As a thought experiment--and in the hopes that some enterprising academic takes the baton, and comes up with a usable metric-- here's a suggested (and partial) list of SL industries and revenue sinks which probably earn as much or more L$ than sexual content:

- Fashion and avatar customizations
- Rental fees paid to Resident "land barons"
- Casino game wages and other gaming fees
- Homes and housewares
- Camping chairs
- Vehicles and weapons
- Contest prizes
- Charity, tips, and donations
- Lotteries and raffles
- Services (scripting, building, etc.)

What percent of the total economy do you estimate each bring in?  And what others have I missed?

* 3rd Update, 2/9, 11:45am:  Reuben Steiger, CEO of Millions of Us (a partner to this blog), formerly Reuben Linden and the apparent origin for the "30% of the SL economy is sexual" meme, explains the context of the statement in Comments:  "If I am the source of that oft-quoted and admittedly arbitrary, absurd and altogether meaningless '30%', let me take a stab at explaining where it came from..."


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» Second Life != sex because sex clubs have furniture! from What Would Matt Do
Maybe Im reading Mr. Aus latest argument incorrectly, but it appears to be saying, because sex clubs have mundane items in them, they arent 100% sexual activities. But look closer: entirely non-erotic are the furniture, the money, ... [Read More]


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Patch Lamington

lol thats a bit like saying the furniture in a porn movie isnt porn, and the bits where they set up the next big scene dont have sex in them, so the porn movie is maybe only 10% porn.

but its the 10% that counts - or maybe people do buy porn movies for the home furnishing and dialogue?

Patch Lamington

ps good excuse for a reader survey?

Talon Sidek

I fail to see the logic in your analysis of the sexual content of Barbie Club. Patch, it's 100% spent on sex. Without the club, NONE of that stuff get's bought, and regardless of the creators intent, the chosen purpose of the furniture, fixtures, buildings and textures was sex.

MuchMuch Mohr

It might be instructive to survey SL users and ask about their online activities. What do you do, and how many hours do you spend doing it? Choices could include: dating, trolling for partners, watching porn, having sex (text-based and animation-based), chatting with friends, meeting new friends, doing all other things. A random sample at random locations at random times of the day and night might provide additional clues.

Raleigh D.

Check out a RL perspective of SL at here!

Laetizia Coronet

Got to agree with Talon. The furniture is not produced with sex in mind, but it was bought solely for the purpose of hosting a sex club. You need to find a way to see how much Lindens are spent for the purpose of sex. This includes private sims, land buying / renting, paying dancers, employing builders/deejays, buying clothing, furniture, textures, heck even cars if you choose to use them in such a way - and I bet there are some out there, too.

Cabridges Fanwood

In a lifetime of following arguments about eroticism, that may be the single lamest thing I've ever read. And I've read the Meese report.

It may be true that the producers of adult content in SL spend more on non-adult material than they do on adult material -- although custom animations, clothing and hair is likely going to cost more than your average furniture -- but the consumers are paying for the sexual experience. Take away the building and furniture, you still have a strip club. Take away the dancers and you'll lose your clientele (apart from a few people who get off on IKEA, and then it's *still* an adult transaction...).

Alexander Lapointe

Haha! Seeing "Detachable Penis" mentioned in the article made my day since I hadn't been sure of how many people had heard of the song. I remember hanging out one night in SL and my good friend, Dolmere (, played this song on the stream and I almost feel out of my chair laughing at the truth of that song and SL.

Cardie Mahoney

So every time I buy an outfit for a modelling shoot, it might not be deemed 'sexual?' For every bit of landscape I bu, or building to pose in, it might not be 'sexual?' Nope, I think this is driven to try and minimise the amount of drive the adult industry affords Second Life.

Tony Walsh

For whatever it's worth, Reuben Steiger (then of Linden Lab) said during a panel at last year's SXSW conference that roughly 30% of what goes on in SL is comprised of "naughty economy" transactions.

Laetizia Coronet

"Take away the building and furniture, you still have a strip club."

err... not quite. You have a patch of run-of-the-mill Linden Lab grass with some dancing girls. Nobody in their right mind would call that a strip club.

Alkaline Thirty

I work at the Barbie Club, you would be surprised how little sex actually goes on there. Most people come to just chat and flirt a bit. Some just like to watch the dancers or dance with them. The club is really designed to be a social place, and not some dark dirty brothel.

Cabridges Fanwood

"Take away the building and furniture, you still have a strip club."

"err... not quite. You have a patch of run-of-the-mill Linden Lab grass with some dancing girls. Nobody in their right mind would call that a strip club."

In Second Life? Set a transparent floor a few hundred feet up and play "Undercover Angel." Create a beautiful glen, with streams, forests, and strategically placed stripper poles. Put 'em underwater, call the girls mermaids, and let the customers sit on rocks. My point was not what constituted a strip club, but what was included in an adult business. The position of this post was that only overtly sexual portions should be considered part of the adult business, for accounting purposes, a position I find ridiculous.

Hamlet Au

Why? Typically, a porn movie is crowded over with beds, couches, rugs, furnishings, etc., all of which the film crew bought or rented for the set. Should those sales and rentals be counted as part of the porn industry-- or the home furnishing industry?


So, in a stab to get back into MMO sex blogging, I'm currently doing a multi-part analysis of Machinima Porn Business Models over on MMOrgy. - Where just because I stop updating for the better part of a year doesn't mean I'm not relevant!

reuben steiger

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

If I am the source of that oft-quoted and admittedly arbitrary, absurd and altogether meaningless "30%", let me take a stab at explaining where it came from.

At last year's SXSW, Peter Ludlow, gave a presentation pointing out the various unseemly bits of the Second Life economy. In it he discussed not only adult activities, but also griefers, and a variety of non-adult activities. As the token Linden in attendance, I was asked what percentage of the Second Life economy was "naughty" (isn't this beginning to sound a bit like a Monty Python skit?)

I think what I said was something to the effect of "Naughty isn't something that you can do an SQL query against" and then went on to say that there's a healthy amount of it, just as in every promising early medium, the net included.

Hamlet, I have to admit that I think your argument is a little lame. 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 theyhave offices in New York City (they do) and ask whether their customers gt confused because New York is also home to adult clubs (they're not).

Here's a better question for everyone: How much of First Life is sex-related?

Cabridges Fanwood

"Should those sales and rentals be counted as part of the porn industry-- or the home furnishing industry?"

Both. When you make a movie, those purchases certainly count against your bottom line and affect your profits, as well as setting a theme for the movie itself (porn or otherwise). In a bar, those furnishings create an atmosphere that hopefully brings in customers.

You're looking at a strip club and counting only the tips as profit, only the outfits and wigs as cost, and ignoring erverything else in the club owner's budget. Or, to put it another way: I consider the alcohol sales at a strip club to be part of the adult business profits. By your logic, they wouldn't be.


One of the earliest, scariest memories for me on SL was a casino zombie walking towards me with a custom penis.
I wasn't sure if I should ignore it or yank on it (like a slot machine). Right then I knew that SL would be an eye-popping experience.

Patch Lamington

Talon, you misread me - that was my point exactly :-)

Patch Lamington

Hamlet asks "Why? Typically, a porn movie is crowded over with beds, couches, rugs, furnishings, etc., all of which the film crew bought or rented for the set. Should those sales and rentals be counted as part of the porn industry-- or the home furnishing industry?"

no problem with that. but the money the customer pays for the movie/club/dancer/escort is for the movie/club/dancer/escort - not for shag pile carpets and leather sofas.

if i read that a real life company had an income of 10 million bucks, i expect that that is their income. whether or not they had to pay 9.9 million on rent and overheads is neither here nor there.

Cabridges Fanwood

Comments added since the original post has been updated with clarifications:

To put it another, other way, there are several questions floating around here.

a) How big a percentage of SL profits are related to sexual enterprise?

b) How big an impact does sexual enterprise have on SL's economy?

c) How big a percentage of SL profits are made solely from sexual transactions/accessories?

You're answering c, I think, and seemingly dismissing a and b, which is why you're getting the responses you're getting. And you're using what seems to me to be sloppy reasoning to do so.

Along with the dismissal of all the related commerce that isn't explicitly sexual in nature (but that unquestionably supports the business nonetheless), you're playing a numbers game. You say that most of the top twenty spots are sexual, but that there are tens of thousands of other spots. Which is true, but that doesn't tell me anything. How much money do those top twenty spots make, compared to the rest? If one out of ten businesses is sexual but it makes more than the rest combined, is that a large percentage or a small one? Are you counting the numner of adult businesses, or the percentage of profit?

Have you investigated to see how many people in SL have worked or are working as escorts or dancers, and what their average income was? Have you checked with XCite to see what they pull down a week? Have you assembled any data besides looking in a strip club and counting items?

I'm not saying you're wrong. I have no idea. It seems as if there are adult businesses all over the place, but I have no clue how much they actually make. And I'm interested in seeing what the answers to all three of the questions above actually are, if that's possible.
I am saying your case won't be decided by guessing or popular opinion. Do the legwork and get the figures.

Hamlet Au

Well, that's the thing-- answering the more specific questions you're asking could easily become a thesis paper for a PhD in Economics. Would love to see a Castronova of SL do that-- and take this as an open offer that I'll help anyone who takes serious steps to do that.

I'm not sure asking "How big a percentage of SL profits are related to sexual enterprise?" or
"How big an impact does sexual enterprise have on SL's economy?" is the best way to start that research, however, because then the analysis is skewed around those questions. I think it's better to start with a broad overview of the whole economy, then drill down to the specific industries.

Cabridges Fanwood

Fair enough. But asking for opinions when you're trying to determine a number won't work very well, I don't think.
As far as I'm concerned there's no combat in SL because I never see it -- I don't go to combat-friendly sims -- but friends who are interested reliably inform me there's plenty.

Good luck, though.

Cocoanut Koala

I think you've sort of missed the forest for the trees on this one, Hamlet.



While it is unclear to me what our dear Hamlet considers “sexual content”, I think it might be high time someone sat down with him for “the talk”. While the following is not scientific by any means, I’m afraid the sections of the economy Hamlet proposes as non-sexual are anything but…

-Fashion and avatar customizations – All you need do to figure this one out is a little shopping. TP to any store and count the number of tops that cover midriffs or skirts acceptable in a Catholic school. I won’t discuss the “avatar customizations” that immediately pop into my head.
-Rental fees paid to Resident "land barons" – And why, when there are so many places to roam free in the metaverse, do people need little lockable doors of their own? Yes dear Hamlet, mostly for the same reason there are cheap motels right outside of town. Builders use sandboxes or buy land if they’re dedicated, others just need a place to take their lady, er boy, er fuzzy friends and no, sorry Hamlet, they’re not inviting them over to read the Bible or play canasta.
- Casino game wages and other gaming fees – Thank goodness not everything is sexual! We have casinos to keep us pure and clean.
- Homes and housewares – see Rental fees.
- Camping chairs – True, nothing really sexual about camping, but money doesn’t exist in a vacuum so one must ask where the campers are spending their funds… all on charities?
-Vehicles and weapons – Okay, you got me here, I could make the stretch to explain how these things become sexual but no stretching because lag cars and guns are so much more noble than sex.
- Contest prizes – The “naughty school girls and bad boys dress-up contest I attended last week was in NO way sexual. I should have invited my mother.
- Charity, tips, and donations – Charity check, but tips and donations? Ever seen the tip jar $L amounts at free sex places as opposed to the lovely little builds on PG sims?
- Lotteries and raffles – Again, people wouldn’t enter these if they didn’t want the money to x,y,z (and I’m sure z can be done with your clothes on).
- Services (scripting, building, etc.) – ETC?…. /me giggles and mumbles something about the “oldest profession in the world”.

While I agree that there is much in SL that is not sexual or related to sexual content, on the whole people in SL are ruled in large part not by economics, but by biology and that’s the way the lindens seem to fall….

Sex Furniture

It's too bad they didn't use some sex furniture in this virtual sex environment. Sex furntiure is the hot new thing I'm seeing in adult stores. There are all sorts of cool things like sex swings, liberator shapes, rideable sex machines, you name it.

Lhorentso Nurmi

The adult entertainment industry is being affected by the same issues as the music industry: content being easily copied and distributed for free. There is a significant difference, though. A lot of the free content has been made available by the producers themselves for marketing their products. They have flooded the net with the same stuff they're trying to sell. And they are struggling.

I am suprised that Second Life has been ignored by most players so far. Given sex is such a big part of SL and the novelty of the medium I would have thought that many more adult entertainment companies would have established a presence.

The argument that SL is too small scale doesn't hold because THEY would be driving their own traffic to SL. They would be offering existing users a new way to interact with their brand and a very engaging social networking element to their web offering.

Kazhya Low

I think I was a reasonably decent woman when I came to SL, my RL sex life was somewhat adventurous, but in all, safe. I do not have the skill or the inclination to live out all my fantasies in RL. The danger is too real.
In essence, I was innocent when I arrived in SL, but something is happening to me here. While I like to just hang out and chat with friends, with certain people, I want to get closer. That’s okay, but then I get the urge to kiss and fondle, we take our clothes off, and somewhere there I cross a line that once crossed I can’t explain—boundaries collapse and inhibition falls by the wayside.
I go out of control, the thrill of cyber sex overwhelms me and I want it all, everything imaginable. My real life body trills with the sensations of being touched, licked, and penetrated. SL sex liberates me in this age of std’s as I imagine the pill did for my mother. So I sit in my favorite internet cafe, soaking the seat until they kick me out at hours when it is dangerous to be on the street.
Riding my bicycle home past knots of men on the corners, I realize that real rape does not as intrigue me as much as cyber rape. But I take the risk. It is the price of self discovery: that I can be an SL nymphomaniac, a whore. I’m embarrassed, but it makes me aroused just to say it. I say it, and my imaginings, hot and vivid, stir inside my body.
Perhaps this is a phase, something all newbies experience if their sexual needs have been repressed; if they have pushed against limits for too long. It may not last, but while it does I will enjoy it and I hope my friends will accept me as I am.

PS. I know that some of the women I make love to are not women, some of the men are not men. I don’t care, as long as you are true to your avatar.

SL is dominated by sex and money

Give us a break Talon... SL is almost completely dominated by commerce and sex. They are THE main themes. I just tried SL out recently, partly as research for a theatre production, partly curiosity. Either you can't see the reality of virtuality in SL any more, or you're stretching the truth very very far.


I love your post!!! I can relate so much with it!!
Your analysis is awesome!!

Sheraka Sirnah


Whats wrong with sexual content anyway? Some posts here read as if Second Life is supposed to be an example for christian morals.

Its not! Second Life is what we choose it to be. Our world our imagination. To me it is absolutely normal that people (remember there are people behind the avatars) do engage in sexual activities, its human, natural and therefore logical that it exists in Second Life:

Nothin wrong with that.

(A SL porn actress, see my blog for details)

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