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Lecture Library

Gender and sexual identity in virtual spaces
by Survey of Interactive Media

Both men and women use virtual spaces to experiment with their gender identity. By Josh Eiserike

CTCS505 lecture

By Josh Eiserike

In the third season of the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” protagonist Ted Mosby introduces his current girlfriend—a girl he met on the Internet—to his friends. Late in the episode it’s revealed they didn’t meet on a traditional dating site like or, but in the multiplayer role playing game “World of Warcraft.”

That gag is funny enough, but then the show treats us to the moment where the two decided to meet in the real world—a giant Troll monster is talking up a sexy girl in what can be best described as Princess Leia slave gear. The joke on top of the joke is Ted is playing as the sexy girl.

This gag-on-top-of-a-gag works well in relation to Ted’s character, his sexual and relationship frustrations, the fact that his life on the sitcom is governed by his quest to find “the one.” The fact that he’d assume the identity of an attractive digital character only adds to his pathetic nature as a character. And, it’s quite funny.

But Ted isn’t alone. A common theme that recurs in much of the classroom material is sexual identity and experimentation.

According to John Suler, writing on “Gender-Switching in Cyberspace” (Suler, J. (2002). The basic psychological features of cyberspace. In The Psychology of Cyberspace, (article orig. pub. 1996)) men, more often than women, assume the role of the other gender in a digital space. (Although he extrapolates some reasons why women do this as well, as is certainly also the case). Suler offers a few possibilities as to why men assume different genders in their virtual personas:

  • Due to the pressure of cultural stereotypes, it may be difficult for some men to explore within themselves what society labels as "feminine" characteristics. These males may rely on the anonymity of cyberspace to express their "feminine" side which they feel they must otherwise hide. Some of these males may strongly identify with women.
  • Adopting a feminine role in cyberspace may be a way to draw more attention to themselves. Getting noticed and responded to in cyberspace is not always easy, especially in such distracting, "noisy" environments as the visual chat habitats. Donning a female name and/or avatar, especially a sexy one, will almost instantly draw reactions. The gender-switched male may even like the feeling of power and control over other males that goes along with this switch.
  • Some males may adopt a feminine identity to investigate male/female relationships. They may be testing out various ways of interacting with males in order to learn, first hand, what it's like being on the woman's side. Hopefully, they use that knowledge to enhance their relationships with females. Some, however, may be looking for ways to gain power and control.
  • In some online games where participants assume imaginary identities (e.g., MUDs), being a female may be advantageous. Sometimes males lend more assistance to females, so they progress faster in the game.
  • Disguised as a female, a male looking for intimacy, romance, and/or cybersex from another male may be acting upon conscious or unconscious homosexual feelings.
  • Transsexuals (people who feel, psychologically, that they are the opposite sex rather than their given biological gender) and/or transvestites (people who cross-dress for sexual arousal or as an identification with females) may be drawn to virtual gender-switching. In rare cases, gender-switching could be a sign of what would be diagnosed as "gender confusion" - i.e., a psychological disturbance where one's identity as a male or female has not fully developed.”

Or, as he puts it more succinctly:

…cyberspace makes it so easy. It provides an attractive opportunity to experiment, abandon the experiment if necessary, and safely try again, if one so desires. More and different types of people are going to try it than in "real life." It also provides researchers with a unprecedented opportunity to study how and why people gender switch.”

 In the case of Ted Mosby, he’s probably doing Suler’s second possibility, testing the waters and trying to get in touch with his feminine side.

But in some of the clips viewed in class there was a much more overt sexual connotation. With “Being John Malkovich,” Cameron Diaz’s case, although from a female perspective, is certainly about her awakening as a transsexual (and, it must be pointed out, this is not a digital identity she creates, this is literally her psyche inhabiting the body of a man).

Cameron Diaz is wearing another human being’s skin and for her it’s a purely sexual experience. Indeed, she enters John Malkovich’s brain as the actor is finishing up a shower. She laughs with pleasure as he dries his (her) legs with a towel. For Cameron Diaz’s character it’s a moment of sexual awakening and she continues to assume the Malkovich body for purely sexual reasons.

This is an important distinction between her and her husband, played by John Cusack, who also becomes John Malkovich for both sexual and professional reasons. For Cameron Diaz, it’s all about the sexual thrill of becoming a man and having sex with her partner as a man.

This is very similar to the scene in “Strange Days” when Ralph Fiennes demonstrates his virtual reality programming capabilities to a prospective client. Interestingly enough, the first choice of words Fiennes uses to describe the experience is “jacked in,” a clear sexual connotation- compounded by the fact he refers to the man’s brain as a “virgin brain.” While the technology can be used for just about any purpose (later he gives a clip to a paraplegic, allowing him virtual use of his legs), the base selling point here is for sexual fantasies.

“It’s about the stuff that you can’t have, right? The forbidden fruit?” Fiennes sells his wares, another sexual connotation, this time invoking Original Sin. Later, in his pitch, he describes that the clip can allow him to be a girl. An infinite number of possibilities… and the client picks the basest, least-imaginative sexual one. Indeed, like the John “Malkovich” clip, we next see the potential client jacking in, as an 18-year old girl taking a shower. We don’t see his fantasy as we saw Cameron Diaz’s POV in the “Malkovich” clip (although we do see other clips as seen through the characters jacked in throughout “Strange Days,” but we do see the client fondling himself as if he were living his sexual—and gendered—fantasy.

McLuhan writes,

“Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology. Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man's love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth. One of the merits of motivation research has been the revelation of man's sex relation to the motorcar.”

Arguably, the motorcycle is the sexiest of all the “motorcars” and nothing personifies this more than the Aerosmith video to their 1993 hit single “Amazing.” This video is pure sexual fantasy, from the protagonist using his technology to make himself over in his ideal vision, clean up his blemishes, then enter cyberspace and have a tryst on the back of a motorcycle with Alicia Silverstone, from Aerosmith’s previous video “Crying.”

The sexual imagery is overt, from the images of ancient gods to the ejaculatory visual of the drink spilling through the straw in the throes of passion. The whole time we are lead to believe that this is his fantasy, he cannot possibly be having sex with Silverstone on the back of a motorcycle.

But, then, the twist. At the video’s conclusion we pull back to reveal that the protagonist isn’t in fact in control of his sexual fantasies (which, just before, it’s revealed that Silverstone was just one of many). Instead, his virtual world exists within Silverstone’s computer monitor and that she was in control the whole time.

When first viewing this video (back in 1993) it’s easy to conclude that she was monitoring him the whole time, that they were playing a virtual game. That’s one conclusion, but another possibility, that actually makes more sense: Her fantasy was to become this guy and have sex with herself (which is similar to the rape scene in “Strange Days,” and amazingly less creepy). The male protagonist of the video may not exist outside of her monitor and imagination—he’s just a skin for her to assume and play with.

Suler gives reasons for this as well, why women would assume a digital male identity.

“1. To find out how other females act with men. This was partially competitive and sexual on her part, she noted. "What do other women do to entice men? Are the other women better than me at it?" She usually concluded that this wasn't the case. She felt other women were somewhat silly and boring. Also, men seemed to have more pressure on them to be entertaining.

2. To practice "writing" a seductive male character. She was interested in romance novels and how they are constructed with a heavy emphasis on the "hero." Whereas the heroine is the point of view, that character doesn't necessarily have to be well developed. The object of the novel, she explained, is the capture and/or discovery of the hero, who MUST be a well defined personality. In her online gender switching, she experimented with hero personalities to see how they affected women. She felt her character was much more attentive and romantic than the average male. She acted the way she would have liked a male to court her. An important realization for her was that the projection of power and competence can be very seductive. "I hadn't truly appreciated how much a guy has to constantly maintain the facade of strength. One slip of weakness and the women crush you like a walnut."

3. To run a clan. In some game environments, a clan is a group of players who challenge and compete with other clans. While some of the clans were lead by females, she had difficulty gathering followers as a female persona. Once she switched to a male character, she immediately became more successful in building and running her group. She also discovered that being a clan leader draws much female attention and that the girls are very competitive in fighting for the position of the clan master's "wife." It was much easier dealing with the competition from male underlings jockeying for position.

4. To experience "power" that she had not been able to experience in real life. As a very quiet adolescent, she felt dominated by stronger willed boyfriends, which affected her development in ways she was still trying to understand. "Donning a male identity allowed me to freely express certain aggressive and powerful actions that I don't seem able to project when perceived as a female. I say perceived, because this was all about how others saw me. All during the time, I felt like "myself" and female. It was just the male side of me that I was allowed to show, but had always been there."

For Silverstone’s character it’s probably the first reason given. The fourth may make sense, but given the ties to the “Crying” video and her character in that, she’s already aggressive and powerful.

Interestingly enough, Suler doesn’t give the gender confusion option for female digital gender switching in virtual spaces (which is closest to what happens to Cameron Diaz, although again, she’s not going to a virtual space). This suggests a much simpler answer, and a third (and much more obvious) explanation for “Amazing” and just about everything else discussed here: It’s all about sexual gratification. For some people, that’s role playing, and digital spaces are just one more way for humans to experiment with their sexuality.

Or, to put it to the lowest common denominator, as Trekkie Monster sang in Broadway’s“Avenue Q,” “The Internet is for Porn.”

How I Met Your Mother World of Warcraft by Carter Bays/Craig Thomas (2007) Clip from an episode of "How I Met Your Mother" where Ted reveals he met his new ex-girlfriend on "World of Warcraft."
Being John Malkovich in the shower by Spike Jonze (1999) Cameron Diaz discovers her true gender orientation as a man while being John Malkovich in the shower
Strange Days VR demo by Kathryn Bigelow (1995) A "virgin brain" experiences the ultimate in VR: being an "18 year-old girl taking a shower"
Aerosmith Amazing video by Marty Callner/Aerosmith (1993) 1993 Aerosmith music video for "Amazing" in which a man uses VR technology to imagine himself in the previous Aerosmith video, "Crying," and lives out his digital fantasies with Alicia Silverstone.
Avenue Q The Internet is for Porn by Robert Lopez/Jeff Marx (2003) Song from the Broadway Musical "Avenue Q" titled "The Internet is for Porn" as relating to gendered uses of technology and virtual spaces.