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Online gender: the power to choose

Updated on August 23, 2014
Gender Symbols
Gender Symbols

As a woman have you ever wished you could take charge of a situation without somebody calling you bossy? If you're a man have you ever had somebody just assume you know how to handle power tools? The stereotypes we are born into are often incredibly frustrating and restrictive. Who cares if you’re a female body builder? Or a bloke in a dress? How is it really affecting anybody else? Why do we not give ourselves and each other the freedom to just be? No more lies, no more games, just bare-faced, naked identities.

The sad reality is that in real life we are presented with only two options for gender performance: male or female, and are further restricted in our choice by the social stereotypes that go with our gender. Woman are expected to act feminine, men masculine.

There are a number of people who manage to overturn these stereotypes, but it is difficult and they tend to suffer from a certain amount of social stigma. I would like to think we are long past being ‘scandalised’ by a man dressed as a woman, but the latest media hype surrounding John Travolta’s foray in to the world of drag has shown me that we have a long way to go. It’s no wonder so many of us escape into the world of virtual reality to explore our gender and sexuality in a freer, and more open environment.

The freedom to choose

New inhabitants of virtual worlds such as SecondLife™ and IMVU can make a choice as to which gender they portray, and can then edit their appearance in order to fit in with their gender identity. Three popular genders on the sites are male, female and androgynous. The text-based MUD (multi-user dungeon) LambdaMOO offers several alternative gender choices that include ‘either’ (S/he, him/her, his/her etc), ‘neuter’ (it, its, itself), ‘plural’ (They, them, their) and ‘royal’ (we, us our). An early survey of LambdaMOO found that 19.1% of users took advantage of these alternative pronoun sets.[1]

The wide availability of alternative genders online has opened the gateway for gender exploration and has broadened our outlook on gender relations. In virtual reality gender is not biological, it is psychological. People are free to choose and represent any gender they wish. This is not to say that online society unanimously accepts each and every gender performance they come across - they do not- but the society found online is, on the whole, more open-minded than societies formed in the real world, and the negative consequences of gender-experimentation are minimised by the cloak of anonymity that virtual reality provides.

Masks can lead to a decrease in inhibitions
Masks can lead to a decrease in inhibitions

The power of the mask

Anonymity is an important factor in online gender performance. People are more open to self exploration and expression online, because when something goes wrong they can convince themselves that it wasn’t really them that performed the action. As psychologist John Suler puts it,

‘People have the opportunity to separate their actions online from their in-person lifestyle and identity; they feel less vulnerable about self-disclosing and acting out. Whatever they say or do can’t be directly linked to the rest of their lives ’[2] .

This phenomenon has been termed the ‘online disinhibition effect’. This effect is achieved by two things: the idea that online relations are synonymous with ‘play’ and not part of real life; and the invisibility of a person's audience.

A view from the other side

In the open environment of the web, many people take the opportunity to try a different gender. A 2008 study found that 57% of online gamers gender-swapped. People do it for all sorts of reasons;

Men masquerade as females in order to stand out, or to enjoy the attention usually lavished on female characters. [3]In online gaming communities, being female can present opportunities for advancement; other characters are more sympathetic to them and more likely to grant them favours and help them out. [4]Many men find the acquisition of gender an exciting and beneficial experience.

Conversely, women masquerade as men in order to escape the extra attention lavished on females [5]. In gaming communities, women find that as males they are allowed to be more assertive and are more trusted as leaders [6]. They are valued for their individual traits and abilities and can shed the cultural baggage attached to the notion of femininity.

I’m sick of this gender game anyway

The performance of androgynous ‘genders’ has become relatively popular online. It is the only true way in which we can escape the gender-mould into which we have been born. Pavel Curtis, creator of LambdaMOO, writes that

‘the choice of a player’s gender is, for some, one of great consequence and forethought; for others (mostly males), it is simple and without any questions’.[7]

This suggests that women are gaining the most out of gender experimentation. Constantly gendered in real life, women may experiment online to escape the oppression they feel in the real world. It is possible that women come online in order to feel ‘human’.

In his autobiographical novel, My Tiny Life, Julian Dibbel ruminates on the reasons why a woman might choose to cloak her real life gender. In a world in which the word ‘man’ is synonymous with ‘human’, he argues that ‘female’ is the only true gender; androgyny or masculinity is an escape from gender and a chance to be viewed as simply ‘human’. Men, on the other hand, can come online to experience gender for the first time and know what it feels like to be seen as a female first, and a human later[8].

Who am I again?

Although gender-switching is often used to explore the other, it is also a great tool for the exploration of the self. It offers individuals a chance to explore the masculine and feminine aspects of their personality, uninterrupted by the complexity of real life interactions. Online, an individual can perform male and female in the space of a few minutes, or in some cases, simultaneously. The advent of tabs has enabled us to split the self and maintain many different performances at the same time. This simultaneous playing of multiple roles can be beneficial as individuals explore the subtleties of playing each character and begin to build up a picture of their true selves.

As children we constantly play roles in order to learn about ourselves and about the world. The loss of imagination and imaginative play usually coincides with a certain level of maturity in which we settle on a version of ‘self’ that develops throughout our lives. The internet is simply the adult’s tool for self-development. It offers us a further imaginative space in which to explore what it means to be ourselves.

As we grow older and lose our sense of adventure we tend to rely on theatre and film to offer us experiences that might otherwise be beyond our reach. The internet offers us an interactive space in which to rediscover our adventurous side, and to play again with the roles that so fascinated us as children. The theatre of the virtual is a space in which we are both actor and spectator, and we can play any number of roles at any one time. Rather than having a passive viewing experience, we can actively experiment with aspects of our personality and experience life differently. These experiments can be conducted in a safe environment that is disconnected from our daily lives. The internet has become a space that offers much more freedom than the real world. The consequences of a poorly received performance cease once the computer is powered off and a new performance can begin the next time it is switched on.

Virtual worlds offer a return to those childhood days in which we could build worlds and identities and tear them down again with minimal effect on our day-to-day lives. In virtual reality, the performance possibilities are almost endless; they result in countless collisions, unions and experiences that would be impossible in the real world.


[1] Brenda Danet, ‘Text as mask: gender, play and performance in the Internet’, ibid, table 1, p. 91

[2] John Suler, ‘Online Disinhibition Effect’, Cyberpsychology and Behaviour, vol. 7, no. 3 (2004): 322

[3] Brenda Danet, ‘Text as Mask: gender, play and performance on the internet’p. 80; Julian Dibbell, My Tiny Life, (London: Fourth Estate, 1999) p 139;Pavel Curtis, ‘Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities’p. 354; John Suler, ‘Do Boys and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun?’, Psychology of Cyberspace, (2004): 1

[4] Brenda Danet, ‘Text as Mask: gender, play and performance on the internet’, p. 80;Husssain & Griffiths, ‘Gender Swapping and Socialising in Cyberspace: An Exploratory Study’, p. 50;John Suler, ‘Do Boys and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun?p. 1

[5] Brenda Danet, ‘Text as Mask: gender, play and performance on the internet’ p. 80; Husssain & Griffiths, ‘Gender Swapping and Socialising in Cyberspace: An Exploratory Study’, p. 50; Pavel Curtis, ‘Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities’, p. 354

[6] John Suler, ‘Do Boys and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun?’, p. 1

[7] Pavel Curtis, ‘Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities’, P. Ludlow ed. High Noon on the Electronic Frontier: conceptual issues in cyberspace, (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1996) p. 354

[8] Julian Dibbell, My Tiny Life, p. 139

© 2012 Emer Kelly


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    • annerivendell profile image


      9 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      What a fascinating concept! Frightening I'd say for anyone who doesn't have an open mind. Well written and researched.


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