Stanford Study Suggests Sexualized Female Avatars May Influence Women to Self-Objectify & Accept Rape Myths
Janine "Iris Ophelia" Hawkins' ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
A recent Stanford University study has come out with some unsettling implications about the real-world effects of playing with a sexed-up virtual version of yourself. According to the study, women between the ages of 18 to 41 who are given a female avatar resembling themselves and wearing revealing clothing may be more accepting of rape culture and rape myths, and more likely to objectify women, including themselves, afterwards.
This finding is very disturbing, to say the least, though I wish this study explored how women reacted to self-created avatars. I'll explain what I mean, but first want to unpack the study further:
Here are the details in a nutshell: Stanford researchers provided each participant, women between 18 and 41, with a female avatar. Some avatars were dressed in skimpy outfits and some weren't; some avatars had been modified to look like the subject, while others hadn't.
Afterwards, the women were asked to fill out a survey that contained statements about their avatar, as well as more esoteric subjects, including "In the majority or rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation.". They found that women who had been provided with a provocatively dressed doppelganger were more likely to Agree or Strongly Agree with statements like these, generally accepted to be part of rape culture/rape myths (the "she was asking for it" school of thought). Other participants were asked to write freely after the experience, and women who had played with "sexy" avatars were more likely to objectify themselves in what they wrote, fixating on their bodies and appearance, more than others who had played with more modestly dressed characters.
There are some problems with this study of course (as there are with most studies), but one thing really stands out to me. It seems that the subjects were all given an avatar, rather than creating one themselves and having ownership of it. They didn't choose the clothing for their avatar, nor were they in control of any resemblance that avatar had to them. While the results are interesting, I would be much more interested in seeing how control and ownership of an avatar, even a sexualized one that resembles its creator, affects them.
It's almost a moot point, given how so many games offer so few options for female characters. Sometimes it feels like a stroke of luck to have a female avatar at all, nevermind one that you can truly customize to your tastes, whether you want to be sexy or not. But even so, would it have changed the results? When you choose the miniskirt instead of having it chosen for you, when you are wearing an item specifically because you prefer it, does that ownership alter your perspective?
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, 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.