Bent Gender: Virtual Disruptions of Gender and Sexual Identity
******** DICKEL ******** EJC/REC Vol. 5, No. 4, 1995 *******
BENT GENDER: VIRTUAL DISRUPTIONS OF GENDER AND SEXUAL
M. H. Dickel
University of Minnesota-Morris 
Abstract. Role-playing on NVRs (Networked
Virtual Realities), a form of masquerade, allows
players to explore potential subjectivities.
Subject-object distinctions blur for character and
player in ways that could allow better subjective
understanding on the part of the player. One
arena where this might play out in psycho-socially
interesting ways is gender. NVRs present at least
two potentials for gendered communication: First,
a (re)production of gender patterns from the wider
culture, and second, a de-stabilizing of gender
which could play out to the wider culture. A
cursory review of literature reveals an optimistic
desire for re-assessment of gender as a result of
computer-mediated communication with a more
pessimistic reality of gender-bias and sexual
harassment. The practice of gender-bending
provides greater potential for de-stabilizing
conventional gendered-communication. Textual sex
provides a particularly complex social rupture, as
gender and sexual identity mediate through the
layers of player, text, computer, program, and
character on NVRs.
If the power of this technology is to be
unleashed, users need to be the creators and not
merely consumers of virtual worlds.
(Bruckman and Resnick)
Metatext: One potential of the net is to
destabilize the authority of print, allowing
polyvocal texts to emerge--readers responding to
the text by leaving their own text for other
readers, slipping from readers to writers,
embodying reader-response theory. Someday soon I
would like to look into developing an editable WWW
document into which readers could link their
responses and through those links expand the text
from monologue to carnival.
This essay attempts to be itself, rather than
to use academic rhetorical conventions based on
empir(e)-(ic)-ism. In this it fails. However,
readers are asked to think of this text as
interactive and unfixed, under constant
construction by their reading and my writing. The
form of my writing owes more to Montaigne than
Here are my meditations and musings on the
subject of bent gender and sexual identity.
A Profusion of Masks
Masks hang on the walls of my house. These range from
contemporary African masks to copies of traditional Japanese
masks to carved-wood masks from Haiti to sculpted leather
masks from Canada. Some of the masks have stopped
pretending to a role in covering a face: the two Haitian
sculptures, for instance, have not been hollowed out behind
the face they project forward. Others form around a hollow
that could not fit any face. Two of the masks I first
formed with plaster and cloth on my own face; they will fit
none other than me, I imagine. Most rooms of my house, even
the kitchen, have their designated masks.
Masks and role-playing belong together. A mask
represents a persona for its wearer, a not-me and me
position for a subject, both subject and object. Role-
playing allows the subject (player) to assume a not-me and
me (character) position. Wearing a mask allows a subject to
speak as an Other, to speak other. This speaking plays
through complex and contradictory positions. It may allow a
subject to explore various possibilities, while maintaining
a safe distance from those possibilities and their
Some societies ritualized mask-wearing (role- playing).
We can see an image of this in Chinua Achebe's
representation of Ibo culture within his novel _Things Fall
Apart_. The Ibo elders become impartial and powerful
judges, they become spirits who guide the dead from the
world of the living, and they become avengers when the
Christian mission threatens their society--all by putting on
masks. The judgments of the returned spirits of dead elders
are separate from the judgments of any elder wearing the
mask. The awe and terror inspired by the coffin-spirit is
held for its position, what it represents, not for the
person who wears the role. And the masked-elders who tear
down the mission near the end of the novel represent the
traditional Ibo culture's battle with the European culture's
growing hegemony. It is not a rebellion of individuals.
The British Empire, with its associated empiricism, rips off
the masks, jailing the individual men who wore them. The
Empire does this without considering the social rituals
which transformed the men into their roles and without
considering the meanings of those rituals and roles. No
negotiation takes place.
Role playing has taken on significance in contemporary
U.S. society mostly as a tool for sociological analysis or
as a practice for psychotherapy. Drama and movie roles tend
to be situated in individual representations of other
individual subjectivities. There are few serious
role-playing rituals with larger social meaning.
Role-playing resides mostly in the realm of games--an
expanding territory in that realm, perhaps, but in the realm
of games nonetheless. Some argue that role- playing games
on computer networks (networked virtual realities, or NVRs)
may not be "merely" games (Curtis), and may have larger
societal impact, as players "test" personae and roles then
take the practiced roles out of the game into their lives
(Bruckman) . Events on NVRs could thus spill out into
society at large.
This "spilling out" is only one of several possible
social impacts of role-playing on NVRs. An example of
another possible impact would be that certain personae or
roles might find an outlet on the net and be contained
there, _not_ spilling out into society at large. However,
this sort of argument slips toward the type of rationale
that justifies aggressive sports as an outlet for violence,
and pornography as an outlet for sexual aggression. I tend
to believe that all these phenomena are constructed by our
culture to mirror and (re)construct its own values. British
sociologist and feminist theorist Liz Kelly maintains that
all forms of sexual violence (from wolf- whistles to
harassment to obscene phone calls to rape, mutilation, and
murder) exist on a continuum as part of the social fabric of
patriarchal order--to keep women subservient and in "need"
of protection provided by "good" men. Patterns from this
fabric may indeed (re)produce themselves on the net.
Several writers consider problems of sexual harassment,
stereotyping, and other forms of gender bias in computer
mediated communications (see Bruckman, Herring, Peterson,
and Truong for more extended discussions of gender problems
in computer mediated communication).
The question I am moving toward for NVRs hovers around
these issues: Do NVRs merely reflect (and thus reify) the
culture? Or, does their plasticity allow them to modify
cultural constructions (as Curtis seems to suggest, along
with other authors--see Bruckman, for example) or even (as I
may get around to asserting) subvert them?
Sometimes, "in real life" (IRL), it seems all I am
doing day to day is fitting a role. Teacher, mother-
father, lover, brother-sister, daughter-son, friend,
colleague, among more familiar roles gendered and not-
necessarily-gendered. No matter how much I view my
subjectivity--my sense of self, my concept of
individuality--as constructed, I am often depressed at
another awareness: people in my life don't like me, here
meaning "me" as I have that image of who I am (subject);
they like some role I play for them, the sense of who I am
to (for) them (object). That is, I privilege the subject
position (which may be a gendered privileging). My
awareness of playing a role becomes more acute the further
the object-position is from my subject-(desire[d])-
My subject position becomes increasingly complex-- less
integrated, less coherent--as I identify with other subject
positions. This may happen through the awareness (and
dissonance) of objectification I just described. Or it may
happen when I role-play a character on an NVR. The more
subject positions I might try--through mask-wearing or
role-playing--the more doubled and re-doubled my
subjectivity. Subject and object positions blend, not
unlike Irigaray's doubling, displaced, in the case of NVRs,
from text to body to text again (text writing the body
writing the text).
My defensive mechanisms and tactics often seem designed
to diminish the complexity of Other-identification for me
(which may be--probably is--a gendered experience).
Role-playing, however, potentially does something altogether
opposite--increasing Other-identification and thus
subjective complexity for those aware of and willing to take
on this complexity. Of course, some players may adhere to
their own imagined (or desired, or hoped-for) subjective
positions, even in role-playing games. These players are
essentially actresses and actors playing themselves (or
their imagined selves). And then, psychodrama theory (a
therapeutic model espoused originally by Jacob Moreno) would
hold that each played role is a reflection of some aspect of
our own subjectivity, regardless. All cases may be true.
The question increases in complexity when one considers both
gender and sexual identity.
This train of thought seems to be headed toward a
Lacanian (or, perhaps, Kohutian) destination: roles and
masks as mirrors of self (and society). Ritual role-
playing mirrors to the community sociological realities;
individual role-playing mirrors to ourselves (if we choose
to analyze our role-playing) psychological reality. Thus,
any analysis of networked virtual realities such as MUSHes,
MUDs, MUCKs, and MOOs might reveal reflections of psycho-
social culture. The fact that these NVRs may be accessed
from anywhere in the world that has adopted hegemonic
techno-cultural standards complicates the image of precisely
what culture is reflected, as does the question of the
cultural surrender to hegemonic empiricism and technology
required to enter the world of networked technology to begin
with (see Selfe and Selfe for a discussion of cultural
issues in computer mediated communications).
Another reading of this mirroring, however, may be that
the NVRs provide a mirror-stage for the culture-as- being
that plays. An analysis of the mirror, then, might reveal
something of our desires and emotions and communications
with Others as a society--but the mirroring could also act
as a stage of development that allows that society to
respond to the reflections and grow from them-- even reject
them, eventually. I sense myself slipping around here. The
questions move away the nearer my destination.
Complications and Complexity
Subject and object positions slip and slide in face to
face communication. The masculine-position gaze
(scopophilia) displaces subjectivity as the gazer projects
fantasies on the gazed-at object, replacing the object's own
subjectivity with imaginings of it--(re)creating the gazer's
self in the projected image. The objectified person
(feminine position in scopophilia) can be imagined sensing a
multiplied subjectivity--her own agency, her imagining of
the projected subjectivity, the gazer's subjectivity, and no
doubt a synergy or dialectic among these various positions.
(Of course, all this speculation writes my subjectivity onto
the object of this study--no matter how complex this text
pretends itself as it proceeds.)
Interactive textual realities, NVRs, add additional
layers of mediation, which complicate this slipping and
sliding. With the removal of the actual object from the
gazer's field of vision, and the creation of fictional
text-objects by the playing subjects, subjectivity and
objectivity become more plastic--an interesting problem in
relation to gender, which no longer remains tied to physical
perception or biological existence. The character becomes a
complete mask--one which may not be readily recognizable as
a mask. As a result, gender plays out on NVRs in ways which
split into opposite potentialities: reifying conventional,
hegemonic gender positions despite this plasticity, and,
opposed to this, a destabilization of gender positions which
might spread beyond the Internet into the wider culture.
The final resolution of the tensions between these two
potentials may not be predictable. Turning attention to
gender as it plays out in NVRs may help users be conscious
of the effects, however. As Gladys We points out:
Computer mediated communication . . . has the
potential to be liberating, and it has the
potential to duplicate all the misunderstandings
and confusion which currently take place in
interactions between women and men in everyday
life. The choice of directions is not being made
deliberately, but is being made in the thousands
of daily online interactions, the choices of ways
of speaking, and of subjects, which are gradually
shaping, as a river slowly carves a canyon, the
culture of cyberspace.
Neither potentiality may be what the developers of the net
anticipated (or could have anticipated). How can the water
flowing through the river predict the shape of the canyon?
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) administrators
discovered one effect of giving students access to the
Internet that _they_ had not anticipated: access to Usenet
news groups with explicit sexual discussions and
downloadable sexually explicit images. An attempt by CMU
officials to block access to these groups, which they
considered demeaning to women and pornographic, has led to
student protests and general media publicity.
The November 21, 1994, issue of Time ran an article
that featured CMU prominently while discussing issues of
free speech on the Internet. According to Time, a postal
inspector in Tennessee downloaded explicit erotic images
from a California bulletin board. The owners of the
bulletin board have been found guilty of transporting
obscene materials across state lines (although one wonders
who did the transporting). After giving some examples of
"subversive materials" on the net ranging "from secret spy
codes to instructions for making long-range rocket bombs,"
the Time article asserts that "there is material on the
networks--child pornography, in particular--that has been
targeted for prosecution." It warns:
Unless computer users exercise some self-
restraint, control could be imposed from the
outside. If that happens, the next generation of
interactive media may not have the freedom and
openness that today's users value so highly.
This may suggest that network culture could be perceived as
anti-social (thus, "subversive"). There are legitimate
concerns about harmful and destructive behavior on NVRs--
and concerns about whose community standards might apply
(Bruckman et al. outline some of these). What happens on
the net intermingles here with larger societal issues--free
speech, in this case. What is subversive about the net,
however, may be much more subtle than issues of national
The impact of the net is now large enough that a
general interest magazine such as Time, many of whose
readers are probably not yet connected, provides regular
coverage and even a feature article. Pavel Curtis, a
computer communications professional who maintains an NVR
site and writes about NVRs, sees them as a growing social
phenomenon as well:
As [NVRs] become more and more popular and more
widely accessible, it appears likely that an
increasingly significant proportion of the
population will at least become familiar with
mudding and perhaps become frequent participants
in text-based virtual realities.
It thus behooves us to begin to try to
understand these new societies, to make sense of
these electronic places where we'll be spending
increasing amounts of our time, both doing
business and seeking pleasure.
In the opening of his critique of technology and its
uses in our culture, Neil Postman reminds us of a story from
Plato's _Phaedrus_. An Egyptian king, Thamus, is judging
the inventions of the god Theuth. Theuth holds up writing
as an invention which will help people remember and increase
their wisdom. Thamus argues, however, that quite to the
contrary, writing will dull people's memories because they
will rely on the written word to remind them. Writing will
make people appear wise, he also argues, when in fact they
do not understand but simply parrot what has been written
down by others (Postman 3-4).
Postman's main thesis is that new technologies seldom
bring about the benefits for society expected of them, and
often have consequences and results wholly unanticipated.
These results are especially unanticipated by the inventors
and advocates of the new technologies. In some cases, he
argues, the technologies have actually been misused. His
argument ranges from the invention of clocks for
chronological time, to the printing press, to scientific
method, as examples of technological benefits and failures.
The purposes for which these technologies were developed,
Postman points out, were rarely those purposes to which the
technologies were eventually put by society at large.
Often, he argues, the exact opposite of what was intended
For instance, the printing press, invented to produce
more copies of the Bible, also leads to easily disseminated
translations of the Bible, wide distribution of Protestant
texts, and eventually, Postman argues, to a decrease of the
influence of religion in our lives via the proliferation of
secular and scientific texts. He makes similar arguments
for most major shifts in technology in our culture. Postman
longs for Thamus-like critiques of our current technologies
to emerge. It is reasonable to expect, if Postman's
analysis works (which by and large I believe it does), that
expansion of the net will lead to unanticipated social and
cultural changes. Gender-relations could be one area where
such changes occur.
Or, as I suggested earlier (and the CMU example
supports), gender-relations could just as easily become
reified on the net, under the influence of other aspects of
culture. There have been concerns about sexual harassment
and gender inequity within the computer field and on the net
for some time. Researchers, activists, and theorists have
turned some attention to how gender plays out on the
Internet and in other aspects of computer mediated
communications (see Bruckman, Herring, Peterson, and Truong,
all of whom discuss this). These steps could help users,
policy makers, programmers, and critics be more deliberate
about the individual choices they make each day they use the
net--even if the ultimate effects of the net cannot be
anticipated. Obviously, if the effects of technology on our
culture _cannot be_ anticipated as opposed to _are not
usually_ anticipated, (an assertion Postman does not
necessarily make, given his privileging of Thamus'
judgment), then this might be a futile effort.
Nevertheless, what could emerge from these activities is an
interesting set of questions about gender role and gender
identity in our larger society, as reflected on the net,
and, more interestingly for the Postman question, some
speculation about how the net _might_ influence gender in
our wider society.
Issues of gender fairness (and racial, as well) in
computer environments of all kinds are not new. Yet, they
are also far from commonly acknowledged or resolved. The
December 1994 issue of College Composition and Communication
contains an article, "The Politics of the Interface," that
raises questions about gender and racial inequities, as a
result of dominant-cultural representations, at the point of
turning on and using the computer's interface. The authors,
Cynthia Selfe and Richard J. Selfe, Jr., have long been
advocates of using computer technology within composition
pedagogy. This article marks their concerns about the ways
in which using computers may exclude from full classroom
participation women and students from non- dominant
cultures, in particular, students of color.
Hoai-An Truong, with others of the Bay Area Women in
Telecommunications, put out a position paper available
online, "Gender Issues in Online Communications." The
opening sentence points out that gender biases have not
magically disappeared on the net:
Despite the fact that computer networking systems
obscure physical characteristics, many women find
that gender follows them into the on-line
community, and sets a tone for their public and
private interactions there--to such an extent that
some women purposefully choose gender neutral
identities, or refrain from expressing their
opinions. (online essay)
The article goes on to discuss issues of access, the lack of
women in computer studies and the computer profession, and
interfaces. They bring up questions of communication- style
differences, using Deborah Tannen's model, to point out that
the aggressive nature of bulletin board postings (flaming)
and the argumentative style on many networks is masculine
style, while women tend to communicate more inclusively .
The essay also raises questions about on- line harassment,
making suggestions for improvement.
Gladys We writes about cross-gender communication,
noting both the optimistic belief that computer mediated
communication (CMC) could minimize gender differences and
the pessimistic reality that gender differences seem to
continue in CMC, as in face to face communication. She sent
out a questionnaire online. Her essay analyzes the 25
responses (11 men, 14 women). Although the study is far
from statistically useful, the trend points to an online
reproduction of gender differences found off line. We does
note, however, persona development and gender-switching as
interesting social phenomena on the net, which might have
wider social and cultural repercussions. She, as others,
notes the disproportionately large number of men online.
Truong's position paper focuses on this issue in particular.
A report from Mother Jones available online points out that
many women experience sexual harassment in CMC (Peterson).
These examples point toward the first potential
mentioned earlier: reifying conventional, hegemonic gender
bias. Peterson, like others, calls for action: "Will the
promise of cyberspace fall to a few sexist cyberpigs? The
only way to change the present course, as nearly everyone in
cyberspace agrees, is to get more women on-line. In the
meantime, it's a sty out there" .
What happens, however, in NVRs when gender becomes
plastic? A text-based character in a game, not being tied
to the biology, gender, or sexual preference of the player,
allows for a plasticity of gender within the social arena of
the game. Characters may be male, female, neuter, neutral
or plural without regard to the player's correspondence with
the category (Bruckman, Curtis). This plasticity
destabilizes gender (or its imagined constructs) within the
player's imagination as well as within the social
construction of the NVR. This play of gender within the
imagination opens up to the second potentiality: a
destabilization of gender positions which might spread
beyond the Internet into the larger culture. Women's
studies, gay studies, and men's studies have all raised
questions about gender identity, sexual identity, the social
construction of bodies, selves, genders. Networked virtual
realities--through phenomena such as gender bending and tiny
sex--provide a fascinating lab to explore some of these
questions in disturbing and useful ways.
Networked virtual realities mediate language and gender
in tantalizingly complex layers. A "player"--a real human
being--sits at a terminal typing keys to create the textual
actions of a "character"--a textual creation--in the virtual
space. The space, the character, all are text. The
character may be gendered. The player most definitely has
gender. A player's gender may or may not correspond to that
of the character. When it does not, the terms "gender
bending," "gender switching," or "gender swapping" describe
what outside of NVRs would be called cross-dressing .
While a player might easily determine the gender of someone
else's character--which might change during the course of
time, even during one interaction--the layers of mediation
make determining another player's gender not so easy a task.
Some players may tell, but even so, the telling may or may
not be truthful.
The possibility or probability of gender bending then
opens up a strange new world--of gender by choice, of
gendered relations, of inter- and intra- gender relations--
a world absent of non-textual cues. When players know each
other from other contexts, the mix becomes tainted--outside
knowledge comes into the play and no doubt influences it.
But most NVRs involve some interaction between actual
strangers who become virtual friends--and more. It is a
world of textual simulacra. Text, which constitutes the
entirety of the "reality" in networked virtual realities, is
the only basis of communicating, or reading, gender for
these players. Yet, the available text about a character
has been constructed around that character by a player. The
player consciously emulates her or his own perception of a
particular gender. This ranges from the visual description
of the character (and the sensoria associated with the
character, for those NVRs with sensory description other
than the visual), to the speech and behavior of the
character, to the rooms that character builds and decorates.
Some players may be better able to cross-dress in
communication style than others (Lakoff and more recently
Tannen raise questions about our ability to switch gears
this way). Others may learn to "pass" on the fly.
Still, as a result of these layered mediations and the
cross-dressing gender bender, gender identity becomes
plastic in NVR relationships, which involve self-
consciously gendered characteristics for the characters that
are not necessarily true for the players. The same player
may also field characters of different genders, discovering
differences in the behaviors of other characters in the NVR
as a result . Bruckman gives some excellent examples of
this from rec.games.mud discussions. I myself played with
gender bending by playing two characters on the same
role-playing NVR; I'll say their names were Mitchel and
Michelle to prevent exposing myself. Michelle received
frequent pages whenever she signed on, while Mitchel
received few. Michelle received offers to help her learn
programming, was offered programmed objects, and often given
condescending treatment. Mitchel received far less help
(although he did receive help) and was even asked for
assistance from time to time. Michelle had another
character make threatening remarks to her: statements about
how much destruction the (male) character could unleash,
about how he could get anywhere on that particular NVR, and
intimations of his "evil" nature. Mitchel did not receive
threats (nor have other characters I field on other, less
game-oriented, NVRs). This gender- based difference in
experience corresponds to other reports (for examples, see
Bruckman, Curtis, Herring, Truong, We). My response to the
differences led my characters to "behave" in different ways.
Thus, I role-played new subject positions.
Subject-position experience of difference potentiates a
more complex gendered subject. It also may aid in closing
the distance between subject and object when the player next
encounters gender difference off line. This makes the
player's experience of gender off the net more complex--at
least for those players who bend gender. Clearly, players
who only re-create their own self-images with their
characters, without shifting gender (or other personal
traits), are more likely to (re)produce the same gender
differences they live off-line . Yet, even they are
likely to run into and interact with gender benders, and
once they become aware of this fact, may experience
complications of gender within their own imaginations. The
very fact that the character becomes an object for the
playing subject, (even granted an object that becomes
subject within the role-playing of the NVR), may allow some
players to feel more at ease experimenting with gender--the
psychological distance between the object (character) and
the subject (player) allows a distancing of identity that
could allow for this play. It may be psychologically easier
for a rigidly-gendered man, in other words, to wear a dress
in the NVR than in his bedroom or at work. Curtis posits
anonymity on the NVR as a factor, too.
Another layer of mediation which contributes to the
potential for NVRs' destabilization of gender in the wider
culture is the layer of self-reflection. The Usenet group
rec.games.mud, for instance, allows players to communicate
outside of the role-playing environment. This remains a
textual, computer-mediated space, but now the communication
is meta-communication about the games. The players who
communicate do not always connect themselves to their
characters (or the NVR they use) in these discussions.
Bruckman analyzes some of the newsgroup's posts on gender to
emphasize what she calls "just one example of an aspect of
personal identity that people explore on MUDs." She
concludes: "Gender swapping is an extreme example of a
fundamental fact: the network is in the process of changing
not just how we work, but how we think of ourselves--and
ultimately, who we are."
As a sort of rupture in our cultural status quo, gender
bending suggests also what is suppressed and repressed in
our society. A Jungian might argue that the phenomenon
playing out is the need for individuals to develop both
anima and animus. Gender bending, both as response to
harassment and as role-playing multiple subjectivities,
would also suggest a deep rupture in the _social_
construction of gender. Such ruptures define the limits of
our culture even as our culture attempts to confine them.
Tahar ben Jelloun uses such a rupture in his novel _The
Sand Child_. A Moroccan man, Hajji Ahmed, decides that his
eighth child will be a son no matter what (his first seven
were daughters). Although the child is born with a female
body, Ahmed declares the child his son. He passes her as
male, his son, Mohammed Ahmed. The book recounts the
cross-gendered life of the younger Ahmed, splitting into
several contesting narratives which dispute with each other
over the truth of the sand child's life even as the life
(and the narrative) falls into pieces. In this way, ben
Jelloun engages in a postmodern critique of gender in
contemporary Arab society.
Men becoming women may not be as radical a rupture for
political analyses, in particular because men in our culture
have the power (and thus it is "theirs" to "give up"). It
may be, however, that this rupture indicates a social need
that the fabric does not provide. Oman is an Arab country
near Yemen. This traditional society has a specific gender
role for biological males who live as women (and think of
themselves as women rather than men). These people are
called _xanith_ (Wikan). Wikan calls this a "third" gender.
Perhaps players who bend gender are _only_ role-playing, but
the rupture represented by this cross- gendered role-play
could suggest a cultural need for a xanith-like subject
position, as well as a female-as- masculine gender position,
within our own culture.
Gender plasticity is self-conscious enough on NVRs to
have engendered its own recognition in the phrases "male-
presenting" and "female-presenting," used when speaking of
characters. Plasticity extends to sexual identity on NVRs,
as well. Especially mind-boggling in relation to the
textual behavior of characters is the notion of textual-
sexual relationships--what I have started thinking of as 1-
900-Internet . In these worlds, characters have textual-
sex, commonly called "Tiny Sex" (after the TinyMud program,
but an interesting name nonetheless). Textual sex,
obviously, is "safe" sex, at least as far as sexually
transmitted diseases (stds) go (although carpal tunnel might
start being counted as an std). However, contemporary
notions of heterosexual, homosexual, or bi-sexual identity
become nearly impossible to maintain under various
permutations of (bent) gender in NVRs. Sexual identity for
many may not be the least bit "safe" during tiny sex.
Bruckman brings this up: "Male players will often log on as
female characters and behave suggestively, further
encouraging sexual advances." She cites Curtis, summarizing
his words this way: "Pavel Curtis has noted that the most
promiscuous and sexually aggressive women are usually played
by men. If you meet a character named 'FabulousHotBabe,'
she is most certainly a he in real life."
Curtis' discussion is worth considering more closely:
For all that [the choice of a player's
gender] involves the fewest options for the player
(unlike their name or description, which are
limited only by their imagination), it is also the
choice that can generate the greatest concern and
interest on the part of other players.
He describes men adopting female roles and enticing
"male-presenting players into sexually explicit
discussions." While denying "personal experience talking to
such players," Curtis suggests that some of these
"transvestite flirts are perhaps acting out their own
(latent or otherwise) homosexual urges or fantasies" while
"other males present themselves as female more out of
curiosity than as an attempt at deception."
Curtis goes on to report that "many female players
report that they are frequently (and sometimes quite
aggressively) challenged to 'prove' that they are, in fact,
female," while "male-presenting players are rarely if ever
so challenged." He concludes this part of his discussion
Some players apparently find it quite
difficult to interact with those whose true gender
has been called into question; since this
phenomenon is rarely manifest in real life, they
have grown dependent on 'knowing where they
stand', on knowing what gender roles are
'appropriate'. Some players (and not only males)
also feel that it is dishonest to present oneself
as being a different gender than in real life;
they report feeling 'mad' and 'used' when they
discover the deception. (Curtis, online essay)
This report from an NVR programmer suggests the degree of
disruption to normally transparent gender experience (or at
least less obvious) players feel when they encounter bent
gender. The fact that gender exposes itself to NVR players
in this uncomfortable way suggests that NVRs may help
players form a more conscious realization of gender as it
plays out IRL. That is, gender becomes less "transparent."
A male character and female character engaging in
textual sex can be considered heterosexual, as characters.
But if one of the players is gender bending, and both
players are the same gender, the interplay could also be
considered a homosexual or bisexual act (or fantasy) for the
players. This is how Curtis appears to take it (while also
distancing himself from the position by actively denying his
personal knowledge of the particular type of gender bender
he details). Given that a question about the number of
homosexuals active on the alt.sex.wanted Usenet group is one
of the FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) for that group, the
assumption that some gender-bending is done by
self-identified transvestites or homosexuals willing to
assume a female position does not seem out of place.
Of course, despite Curtis' assertion of the
commonplace, _both_ players may _not_ be aware of the bent
gender--giving gender bending an interesting
overdetermination. What is bent, after all, is no longer
straight. Various other combinations and possibilities
raise similar questions--for instance, a textually-
homosexual relationship between a male and female player.
Both characters could be gender bending, having a
heterosexual or homosexual experience. Ultimately questions
arise from this confusion of "identities" about the
relationships between fantasy, mutual fantasy, and action in
the world--and the relationships of all those with gender
and sexual identity. These questions might very well be
expected to move beyond NVR-space into our wider culture.
The ability to role-play these various positions as an
exploration of one's own subject-position might change the
way in which players assume (construct, read, interpret,
become) their and others' sexual identities when they are no
Some of those "cyberpigs" Peterson mentions might get a
shock finding out that the (presumed) women who have
accepted their aggressive advances on that sex-oriented MOO
they found on the net (they do exist) were transvestites,
homosexuals, or bi-sexuals. One can imagine some
aggressive, monosexually-hetero man questioning his beliefs
(about himself, the world, computers, 1-900 phone lines)
after such a discovery. Or imagine if the character his
character is textually screwing suddenly changes to another
male in the middle of the act. Repercussions from this sort
of cultural encounter might or might not benefit our
society, but personal and social repercussions seem
The complex interplay of these notions, from plastic
gender to sexual-identity confusion could be read as
Bakhtinian ruptures. NVRs themselves may be carnival.
Considerations of gender bending potentially reveal both
social perceptions of gender and the limits of gender. The
social fabric stretches, even rips around tiny sex when
analyzed from the point of view of gender bending. All of
this provides a rich and dizzying area for more exploration
and understanding of gendered communication.
It may be that we are creating a new sort of cultural
animal--ourselves as organs rather than individuals.
Computers, although we tend to see them as analogous to
brains, function more like synapses, or perhaps ganglia.
The copper wire (or fiber optics) we string between them
communicate as nerves do. We sit in the seat of
consciousness. NVRs might be prototypes for this animal.
Gender may be multiple for (it?). My goal has been to raise
questions, to note some ruptures, disruptions, monsters and
phantasmagoria of this strange and new synaptic reality
threading into our lives. But my biological synapses begin
to close down, as wind and snow threaten from outside. I
must cease from exploring for now, and fix this text firmly
enough to send along the synaptic frontier. Before I leave
you, a last anecdote (or metaphor).
Wind and Snow
I live in two towns, with two discrete,
compartmentalized realities. My material conditions IRL
have me working 150 miles away from my home and family this
year. I have spent much less time--essentially no time--on
NVRs as a result. Each weekend, I drive three hours across
Minnesota to my house in Minneapolis, then at the end of the
weekend three hours back to an apartment near the campus
where I teach. In Minneapolis, I sleep next to my partner
and live a domestic life of social contacts, family,
cooking, clothes washing, etc. At my apartment, while I do
cook and sleep (alone), my life is professional. I prepare
for classes, read, teach, write. These different activities
are often associated with the feminine (domestic sphere) or
the masculine (outer-world). There are (literal and
literary) masks on my walls, even in this apartment. I find
myself able to wear different masks, different roles, at
different times, in different places. My experience of
multiple subjectivities is not particularly unique. It may
be that all NVRs will do, my dear Thamus, is to increase our
awareness of the multiplicity of our selves.
NOTE: I suspect that this article will become part of a
later chapter on writing masculinity with technology in my
dissertation, _Writing Alternative Masculinities_. For now,
I have just begun that journey.
 I wish to thank Stephen Doheny-Farina and the two
anonymous referees for helpful and considerate advice and
comments that added to the quality of this essay. Candice
Seppa and Judy Olson both contributed late nights and
insightful reading to my revision effort. Leo Duroche
listened to my ravings with patience and good humor as I
began thinking along these lines. Robin Brown as always
encouraged my creativity along with Lillian Bridwell-
Bowles; both have influenced my thinking about gender and
culture. The best qualities of this essay arise from these
and other inspirations. Problems are my own responsibility.
 NVR programmer and computer specialist Pavel Curtis
actually asserts something else: that players on the NVRs
construct a new social reality there which may be separate
in some way from their "real" lives: "This virtual
gathering place has many of the social attributes of other
places, and many of the usual social mechanisms operate
there. Certain attributes of this virtual place, however,
tend to have significant effects on social phenomena,
leading to new mechanisms and modes of behavior not usually
seen 'IRL' (in real life)." He advocates for social
scientists' studying NVRs as discrete social phenomena. I
don't disagree with this at all, but am here working toward
questions of how these social phenomena may interact with
and disrupt constructions IRL, which I think is closer to
 Bruckman's description of NVRs (that are _not_
adventure games) suggests a more inclusive, or feminine,
style: "participants work together to help extend the
virtual world using a simple programming language." This
suggests that NVRs might be more comfortable spaces for what
Tannen and Lakoff would classify as feminine communication.
 In fairness, I should note that Truong et al. and
Peterson did not focus on NVRs, but were concerned more with
overall CMC issues. The Mother Jones piece seems to be
discussing BBS in particular. This distinction might be
important, given the last note.
 Gender bending, in my experience, has been the most
widely used term. It is possible to imagine that some,
perhaps many, gender benders probably would not cross-
dress, and might even consider transvestitism deviant
behavior. Their reasons for bending may have more to do
with gender than sexuality. And, as Truong et al. note in
the earlier quotation, many women swap gender (or move to
neutral) for reasons more political than otherwise.
 The operators of mediaMOO report that 13% of their
players have more than one character (Bruckman and Resnick).
The authors do not mention the gender of the characters,
however. MediaMOO is itself a special case, as its design
is more as a meeting place, a global cafe, for fellow
researchers than a role-playing environment per se, what
Bruckman and Resnick identify as a "third place." The first
NVR I played, a MUSH, was such a gathering spot for creative
writers. I knew the players IRL and from a list we
participated on, and most (but not all) characters "played"
themselves. This type of NVR interaction still offers
interesting and complex mediations--textually mediated
relationships that eliminate un-textualized cues to identity
and communication. However, there is a distinction worth
making between these and NVRs more dedicated to
 The fact that the NVR is mediated by text creates a
certain self-consciousness in itself. Bruckman points out:
"Gender pervades human interactions in such basic ways that
its impact is often difficult to observe. Phenomena that
are subtle in real life become obvious in MUDs, and are a
frequent topic of discussion on USENET newsgroups about
MUDs. For example, men are often surprised at how they are
treated when they log on as a female character."
 The ensuing discussion focuses on NVR textual sex,
leaving out (for the most part) alt.sex newsgroups (except
in their relation to NVRs), IRCs, or other computer-
mediated erotica that raised concerns at CMU and elsewhere.
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Author Information: M. H. Dickel
University of Minnesota-Morris
Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.
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