Second Life is growing faster than you can say “virtual world.” Since 2003, the online community has become a daily routine to nearly 15 million users. It now has a growing rate of 100,000 new users every week. The expansion of this virtual world can be attributed to the residents because they are the ones who create it. Second Life, in its entirety, runs solely through the people, or avatars, who live in it. Picture the popular computer game the Sims, only 10 times more realistic. That is what Second Life looks like. Unlike the Sims, every character in Second Life is controlled by a real-life person behind a computer, which makes it more realistic than ever.
Avatars from all walks of life can interact with each other and make their virtual world as complex and creative as they want. The interaction between the characters is as real as the people behind it. From Brazil to Japan, people are connecting on a different level; the virtual level. There are no limits to what you can and cannot do in Second Life. Not only does it serve as a place for entertainment, social interaction, and creativity, it creates the opportunity for people to express their sexuality and explore their sexual fantasies.
Assistant professor in sociology and criminal justice, Soma Chaudhuri, described the virtual world as less complicated than reality. “There are fewer rules, you can be whatever you want, and you break social norms,” Chaudhuri said. “Someone who is shy in real-life can be this bold person in another parallel of life.”
People living in the real world may be subject to rules or stipulations imposed by laws and society. In Second Life, they have a chance to express parts of their sexuality they wouldn’t be able to or wouldn’t even attempt. Chaudhuri said Second Life is very appealing to a variety of different people because of the opportunities it provides.
One of these opportunities is security in a sexual environment, including knowing that no one can be judged for their sexuality in the virtual world. A person can choose to be male or female in Second Life, even if they are not the same gender in the real world. In the process, sexuality becomes blurred because not everyone is acting out in a way they ever would outside of the virtual world. The less rigid structure of Second Life makes it a comfortable and secure environment for people looking to explore their sexuality, without being under the scrutiny of friends or family. Straight men may chose to be heterosexual females and have virtual acts of sex with males even while having no homosexual tendencies themselves.
[Gregson]In a sexual context, the virtual world is also physically and emotionally safe. “In real-life, we have a lot of issues to deal with,” Chaudhuri said. Some issues can include unexpected pregnancies, STDs, emotional abuse, rejection and even rape. In Second Life, residents do not have to worry about the consequences of sexual interactions with other avatars. “There’s a sense of freedom and a new way to channel desires in a harmless and safe environment,” Chaudhuri said. With the opportunity to fulfill any sexual desire imaginable, it is not surprising that there are plenty of places to do so in Second Life. There are self-policed brothels, red-light districts, bath houses and even orgies. It is reasonable to conclude that many people who enjoy the types of sexual experimentation available online have never done so in the real world.
Assistant professor at Ithaca College Kim Gregson has been an active resident in Second Life for the last four years. As part of her own curriculum, she requires her students to do projects on Second Life. This means that the students have to build their own avatars and find out what Second Life is all about. Gregson provides the students with a little money to get started. With that money, the students are able to buy personal items for their avatars. “You discover your avatar kind of like a Barbie,” Gregson said. “They have to shop for genitals, clothes, and they have to buy skin.” Some things get pricey, but there is always free stuff too. The more detailed and original the avatar is, the more expensive they are to create. Like everything else in Second Life, the money is not a game either.
Anyone can set up a business in Second Life and take that money and exchange it for real money. That’s right, real money. The Second Life’s form of currency, named the Linden dollar, can be exchanged back and forth with the US Dollar or various other international currencies. The official Linden dollar exchange of the Second Life world is called the LindeX. The currency exchange fluctuates daily as do the world’s currencies. It is hard to say if one could ever make a real life living by doing this, but so far nothing seems impossible in Second Life.
The biggest industry in the virtual world, according to Gregson, is the sex industry, where most Linden dollars are circulated. “People are not necessarily looking for relationships, but they are looking for cybersex,” Gregson said. “Folks are looking for easy sex, strippers and prostitutes.” The sex industry does well because of those motives. Strip clubs, escorts and sex toy shops are very common to the Second Life community and are easy to find. Gregson said it is more than easy for people to fulfill any sexual fantasies that they might not be able to carry out in real-life.
“You can’t talk about sex in Second Life without talking about Furries,” Gregson said. Furries are a prime example of the freedom the virtual world provides. Gregson described Furries as an interesting fetish that go way back. The Fur community is exactly what it sounds like: stuffed animals. They are more commonly known as Fur Nation. For those of you who have always wanted to dress up as your favorite cartoon character or childhood teddy bear, here is your chance. “People like to dress up,” Gregson said. Where else can someone dress up as an animal and not be judged for it?
Journalism senior Katie Rausch was unaware of how expansive and incredibly intricate the virtual world was. “It seems people are on there for escapism,” Rausch said. She compared it to the same reason people read books or watch movies. Recently, Rausch had been a part of a Web grant collaboration between MSU and several other colleges that used Second Life as a way of communication. She was not surprised at how large the sex industry was in the virtual world, though.
“Sex drives our culture. People like sex and they always will,” Rausch said. Today’s society stresses the importance of having a hot body, a sexy car, and form-fitting clothes. The same ideology exists in the virtual world, except it is more magnified and accepted. Rausch said that anyone who wanders around Second Life is bound to run into sexual situations and solicitation. “There would be other avatars having sex,” Rausch said. “It was too realistic for my taste, in general.”
Due to the fact that the virtual world can be somewhat graphic, Second Life has an age limit. A person must be at least 18 years of age to create an avatar, Gregson said. But getting around that limit is not difficult. “You can tell if you’re talking to a kid that’s 12. They don’t police it very well,” Gregson said.
As easy as it is to create an avatar, it is just as easy to get rid of it. People can stay anonymous too. No one is supposed to know or ask about another avatar’s real world information unless they are willing to share it. Furthermore, you cannot be a victim of rape or sexual abuse unless you consent to it either. “You have control of the situation,” Gregson said. As weird as it may sound, there are role play games that consist of rape. Gregson said that you can choose to be a victim or an aggressor. In any situation that might become uncomfortable, people do have the power to delete an avatar as a friend or completely log off.
Separating the real world from the virtual world is up to a person’s own discretion. Gregson finds no problem with letting others know who she is in the real world. “I tell everyone I’m a real-world professor,” Gregson said. On the other hand, Gregson uses Second Life to build things in 3-D and not for sexual pleasure. “I’m not social,” Gregson said. “I like to build and manage my island.” When it comes to living out sexual fantasies, however, people tend to keep the two worlds separate for obvious personal reasons.
[Chaudhuri]Other people look at the topic of separating real and virtual living differently. Chaudhuri said, “Sometimes it becomes so real that it might get out of control.” She was presented the concept of cheating on a spouse. “Some couples accuse each other of being unfaithful online. It’s hard to see if this counts as an affair,” Chaudhuri said.
For moral reasons, Chaudhuri said that it is healthy for people to separate their real life from their virtual life. She pointed out that other people might be content allowing their spouse or significant other to explore their sexual desires online if that prevents them from doing it in real-life. However, a strain can be put on a relationship when the intentions of living in Second Life are not discussed between partners. Second Life is realistic in the sense that people are interacting with other people. Even though the two people behind the avatars are not physically having an affair, they could be hurting their relationships with a significant other in the real world.
Although some people might look at Second Life in a negative light, the positive effects cannot be overlooked by others. “To be completely honest, I felt it had a lot of useful purposes,” Rausch said. Even though Rausch is not an avid resident in Second Life, she encourages everyone to see what it is all about.
Whether it is the first, second or hundredth time using Second Life, there is always something new to be discovered. Between sex toy shops and musical concerts, there is something for everyone. It is a self-serving community where anyone, and in some cases anything, have the chance to live and explore in another social network without regulation. What you put into Second Life is what you should expect to get out of it. Who knows what could happen? Maybe you will take on a new profession, or maybe you will live out a little fantasy of your own.