Thursday, January 03, 2013

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ABC News Surprised Female Second Life Avatars Bare More Skin Than Males -- Iris Surprised ABC Thinks This is News

James Schwarz Real Housewives of Second Life
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

"Getting naked in the virtual world — more women than men show flesh!", ABC News breathlessly reported recently, citing research by Canadian academic Matthieu Guitton, who was totally amazed to discover that female Second Life avatars tend to bare a lot of skin, you guys. That's supposed to be surprising news -- but it's actually just the latest evidence that most major media outlets and a lot of academics don't know much about virtual worlds. It's not exactly like ABC is a stranger to women baring skin themselves. The picture above, a parody of a different but no less popular set of housewives, is by celebrated SL photographer James Schwarz, and it illustrates my biggest issue with this article beautifully.

This point is probably painfully obvious to most NWN readers, but in case ABC News or would-be virtual world researchers are still confused, let me explain:

I've got a lot of problems with this article, to be perfectly honest. That it describes men who use female avatars as "25-year-old men living in their parents’ basements" when we know most of them are more likely to be middle-aged and own those basements themselves is one. That it uses a picture someone took of a monitor displaying SL (as though it's 1994 or something and screenshots are even a remote challenge) is another. The most outrageously expensive outfits can easily set you back far more than a buck, free penises are plentiful, and the mention of shopping at "a facsimile of American Apparel", who closed their SL store about 4 years ago, makes this article feel like an unpublished remnant from the SL media boom that ABC News forgot about in a drawer somewhere until rediscovering it during post-Holiday desk tidying. But these are all pretty inconsequential compared to the real issue in this article that has me rolling my eyes whenever I even glance in its direction.

This article is pitching this information as though most female avatars showing "25 to 49 percent of their flesh" means that all the women in SL are running around naked and debauched, but let's take a moment put these numbers into perspective: In James' picture above, I'd say all those women are baring 25% or higher of their flesh, and the three on the right are definitely approaching or surpassing the 49% mark. Are they wearing anything particularly scandalous? Not really. Are they wearing exactly the kinds of clothes you see women wearing everywhere in the media? Totally. That's what makes James' parody pic work so well, it's so close to the real thing down to the wardrobe. Compare it to promotional posters for ABC's own Desperate Housewives and you'll still find it very similar.

Just look around. Open a magazine and check out some ads. I'm pretty sure the last time I saw a woman in an ad wearing long pants and a sensible shirt, it was because they were selling long pants and sensible shirts. Why are most male avatars keeping "between 75 to 100 percent of their bodies covered"? Well riddle me this, Batman: When was the last time you saw an actor walk the red carpet in a sheer gauzy tux? Or maybe even without a shirt, so his jacket reveals a deep-V of his bare chest? Now, answer the same question about an actress in a red carpet dress and I doubt you'll have to look back farther than a few months.

Skin is fashionable for women, even when its not trying to be outright provocative. Fashionable shorts for women seem to get shorter and shorter, while mens get longer and longer. I can name more than a dozen specific kinds of womens clothing or cuts of clothing that were made to bare skin (Tube tops, mini-skirts, micro-minis, camisoles, crop-tops, etc.) but for men I can only come up with a handful (shorts, tank tops..?) There's no strapless top equivalent for men, but there are infinite variations of it for women. Fashion is practically designed around women baring skin to varying degrees, while for men it's much more binary--either clothed or unclothed. That's just the way things are, and it's not news.

So why only bare that skin in virtual worlds and not in reality as well? Well, ABC News and Guitton have some bizarre explanations, but I have one of my own, and it has little to do with avoiding consequences for "ripping your clothes off", "'[collecting] information' via skin contact" (WTF?), or "the female need for 'tactile interaction'" (Double WTF?)

In reality, exposing skin is not always a good idea for many different reasons. Minidresses aren't appropriate at the office, nor are they terribly practical when you're chasing around a couple kids at home or when it's freezing cold outside. More to the point, many women aren't comfortable enough with their real bodies to bare as much as our idols do--and even if they are it's not always safe to do so.

Of course there is a segment of both male-operated female avatars and female-operated avatars baring it all for the sake of titillation, but attributing this data to that alone fails to address one of the most important things about virtual worlds; they are very open, low-risk environments to experiment and explore preferences and identities in. When all the real-life barriers I mentioned are taken down and women are given a body that they can conform to their ideal in a matter of minutes, it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that most women are just emulating the images that surround them.

Mixed reality iris 2013Iris Ophelia (Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.


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Eddi Haskell

The obviously have not checked out the gay scene in Second Life. Head on over to Spurt Beach and you can see lots of male flesh available for public view.

Roslin Petion

Well said, Iris. In my opinion, the results of the study aren't very newsworthy. I do find it fascinating that this was considered an appropriate subject academic study though. There doesn't seem to be any merit in the subject and even less in his theories to explain the results. It boggles my mind that it was conducted by a professor when I'm pretty sure it's not even thesis worthy subject matter.

Jo yardley

Well it is surprising to me, but not news.
And yes, to me those outfits are scandalous.
I never understood why so many women run around half naked in SL, but I don't understand why they do in RL either.
But that is just me living in the wrong century.

ii singh


WhiteStar Magic

I wonder if the ABC news people or Matthieu Guitton ever looked at the other research papers which indicate what percentage of female avatar's are in actual fact not female. In reality, at least 70% of the "females" that 'flash skin' are not as advertised. There is also a certain percentage of Male avatars which are not in actual fact male....

In either case.. it's just avatar's, not real individual's showing off their goods. Likely the best for all people and their eyesight.

Iris Ophelia

@WhiteStar They do refer to research done in the past that revealed approx. 25% of female avatars are operated by men.

Metacam Oh

You guys must have missed this, the real desperate housewives of beaver ridge (SL Machinima)


Dr. Guitton needs to get out more. This academic does, by RPing in a combat/pirate setting with a (male) ALT, and the "findings" cited should surprise no one who has ventured beyond academic settings.

Y'all reckon it was a slow news day at ABC?

Nalates Urriah

ABC reports are the people many rely on for political news too. Ever wonder how good a job they do of that?

and Anthropomorphic Global Warning...

the environment...

any issue...

elizabeth (16)

iris wrote: "There's no strapless top equivalent for men"

yes there is. but is not pretty bc they mostly only wear at about 2am on the weekends. after they forget how to put their arms thru the holes and they just come out the same way as their head

is prettier tho than a crop top for men i think. mostly bc men who wear crop tops been drinking lots of beer for about 20 years


Sandy Sandalwood

Everybody is taking the ABC piece too seriously. They have used Guitton's trashy research as a weak kickoff point for a scandalous, sensational report to titillate their audience. That's what television does today. It's not serious. It's just fluff on TV.

Ciaran Laval

If I could find Dr Guitton's paper it may present a bit more context, but some reports have presented this with the context of the shape of the avatar, that skin exposure for female avatars is not dependent upon shape of said avatar.

I'm still not sure what they're trying to prove here with this research but there's more to it than the ABC report suggests.

Dr Guitton is very much aware of virtual worlds though, it's unfair to suggest otherwise and he takes a look at Second Life regularly.

Ciaran Laval

Found the proper survey results:

There's a lot more to this than the ABC report suggests.


A refreshing article, Iris, and It’s a pity to see that preconceived notions are still a regular tactic used against vulnerable generations. It must have a specific target audience in mind, like the poor soul that came to me warning me of the (hoax) postcard email virus—that was attacking a brand name more than anything.

It's exactly the kind of thing that would be absorbed and provide an instant reaction of belief. Just like the one about all internet users and chat people being balding old dudes. Though growing up through my own generation it was mostly theirs that was just about the only demographic not using the net—in some fashion (and only just started recently).

Now that I think about it, that's likely where it started in the first place, but hopefully it'll die off soon (the notion).

I hope we don't have to wait out a whole lifetime for that kind of twisted reporting to die off, though.

Connie Arida

Slow News Day :)

Pussycat Catnap

"Well riddle me this, Batman: When was the last time you saw an actor walk the red carpet in a sheer gauzy tux? Or maybe even without a shirt, so his jacket reveals a deep-V of his bare chest?"

Why am I hearing the Bee Gees sing Staying Alive and seeing John Travolta in my head right now?

Oh that's right... cause that's the last time that look was cool for men...


I can say it till I'm blue in the face and people still won't hear me: The world sees anything with 3D cartoons as being for kids. And when it fails to live to that norm, finds nothing but scandal. Even in the banal, mundane, and achingly normal...

If ABC ran a story that said "Shocking news: women wear skirts above the ankles in NYC, the sluts, burn them all!"
- I think everyone would call that out for the crazy it was...

But wearing the same thing in a cartoon... well, that's also not noticed. But as soon as that cartoon might have some kid unsafe content... anything in it is fair game to be skewed into 16th century scandal...

Arabella Jones

I don't show bare skin in SL.

It's all covered with fur.


Great post Iris! Never fails to utterly depress me how mainstream news is stooping to new lows by combining regurgitated material with superficial "reporting". Not sure if they are trying to beat bloggers at the speed game to prove they are still relevant or if US commercial media has been like this since cable arrived? I am no expert and also I am a foreigner you know....anywho: I read The Nation weekly and listen to OnTheMedia - that soothes the soul & I highly recommend it. In re avatar identity: my reporter wife did a story years ago examining why SL avatars prefer Barbie and Ken looks. Short and hype-era SL albeit still relevant IMO -

Pussycat Catnap

Outside of NPR, this is about the typical quality level of ALL us media...

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