CYBERFEMINISM SPCL - Pert Breasts and a tiny White Leather Skirt

By Sue Thomas, 10 September 1997

The desire to move beyond traditional gender constructions has led women to myriad experiments with online identity. Artists like Francesca da Rimini have made its fluid shapes their prime focus of activity and continue to morph text/erotics/play to port flesh into virtuality and virtuality into the flesh. Sue Thomas looks at two sides of the coin: sexual liberation and online suicide.

In the early days of text-based virtual environments (MUDs and MOOs) there was a heady sense that people were breaking new and exciting boundaries. Suddenly it seemed enormously possible to push through the barriers of male and female, gay and straight, black and white, able-bodied and differently-abled. In real life we're stuck inside our flesh-bodies and can't escape them without major surgery, but in a virtual community we can live as male or female, neuter or ambiguous (spivak) or any other variation we might care to invent. But whilst the adoption of a virtual persona might appear to be just a game, it can have very serious consequences. For some, it can lead to disaster and disillusion, although for others it opens the way to a fuller existence. One person told me: "I felt more confident about myself at a low point in my real life when I started mooing and was popular here, and I think it got me in touch with a lot of corners of my sexuality that would never have emerged elsewhere".

The oldest virtual community is LambdaMOO, where gender and identity confusions are a normal part of everyday interaction. Places like this are inhabited by registered 'characters', who have built up a series of established and permanent personas, and by guests, whose life is only as long as the time they are logged on for. The descriptions the guests create for themselves range from quite clumsy attempts at role-switching through sophisticated gender-play to deliberate ambivalence. But can you tell who they really are? What does Lavender_Guest look like in real life? "Kim sees you looking, she jumps up and down waving and shouting HI! Kim is very excited to see ya. You see a sweet young high school aged girl, blonde eyes.... 5 6' 110 lbs. Kim jumps back on her bed, that's where she's MOOing from on her bed with her laptop. She's wearing her cat puffy slippers and a robe... she just got out of the shower." A sweet young high school girl? Hmm.

Yellow_Guest sounds more promising - "5'7, long auburn hair, dark green eyes & a captivating smile" - only one small point - is Yellow male or female? And how about Plaid - "A nice psychology student from Minnesota"... And, after all that, does it really matter? Infrared clearly thinks it doesn't and shouldn't. Infra's desc of " ...+...=VI" pretty well encapsulates the spirit of Lambda. And so finally onto Pink_Guest: "a very pale girl with black hair". How many of these words accurately describe the person at the keyboard? Pale? Girl? Black hair?

This kind of uncertainty is absorbed naturally into the fabric of virtual life, where it's an everyday experience to have several different genders and inhabit several different bodies, to carry on several conversations and several different types of relationships, and to do all of these things simultaneously. But how do people cope when you can never be sure quite who or what you are speaking to? I went to Sensual Respites, one of LambdaMOO's busiest public spaces, to find out.

Me: It interests me that here in vl we are very open to gender confusions, and they don't often seem to bother us - or do they?: They bother us if we're looking for love"Me: Looking for love? So if I had sex with you here as a female and you later found out I was male irl, you'd be upset?: Only if I'd assumed you were female irl to begin with.Me: If I wrote a guest desc for myself saying I had pert breasts and a tiny white leather skirt, what would you guess I was genderwise?": That's a start toward guessing male, but not enough to be sure.Me: If I said I was 17 and longing to lose my virginity?KKK: More than likely male, I would say, but I wouldn't be sure till we'd spokenEEE: You can GUESS. (and btw, I would guess male by that description), but you can't ever really KNOW.Me: But why male?KKK: It shows in speech patterns, mannerisms, timing - all sorts of ways. And your guest sounds like a Barbie Doll!MMM: I wouldn't guess at all... but I would avoid that guest, cuz even if it is female, she's most likely lying...

Virtuality is littered with traumatised teenage boys whose first-ever girlfriend has turned out to be male. There have been many occasions in the history of mooing where men who have lived as women online for quite some time, have suddenly revealed their RL gender and immediately mooicided. (I know of no instances of the reverse, although it must surely happen). Mooicide, when a player destroys their character and recycles it back into the database, is an emotional and lengthy process which involves getting rid of one's persona piece by piece and ends with a ceremonial step off the cliff at The End Of The World. An easier way, of course, is simply not to log on ever again and leave your character to run out and be recycled, but often that's not enough for the player who needs the ritual destruction of suicide.

It seems that once a virtual persona has been destabilised by the revelation of the real man or woman behind the mask it becomes difficult to sustain a credible existence. It's so easy to hide in VL that usually the information comes through deliberate confession rather than accidental discovery, and often at a time when the individual has found some self-worth through their character and feels optimistically emboldened to 'come out' as themselves. But friends and lovers might not always see it like that, and their wounded anger can come as a huge shock to everyone concerned. So how genderless is virtuality if it can't accommodate these kinds of changes? The problem is that no matter how open-minded you are, it hurts to be deceived by someone you have come to trust.

There can be no doubt that virtual life is breaking new boundaries, but it's hard to live in a world where new moral codes are in the process of being formed, and there are bound to be casualties. As one character told me "There's a discontinuity between VL and RL that makes some people feel as if this is all only a fantasy and that they can do or reveal anything they want without fear of reprisal. How wrong they are!"

Sue Thomas <thomas AT> is the author of the cybernovel CORRESPONDENCE and has just completed THE[+]NET[+]OF DESIRE, a novel set in virtuality.The Definitive Guide to BECOMING VIRTUAL by Ed Gray & Sue Thomas is online at

LambdaMOO: Telnet to 8888