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.
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..."