I’m sure that most of you have seen by now LL’s latest blog post about the upcoming changes in the rules for Adult Content in Second Life®. This is one of those cases where there is no “right” or “wrong” way to address the issue: depending on your country’s laws, your own morality, your stance towards freedom of expression, your business use of Second Life, or your position as an educator, your attitude will vary — and you’ll defend it with nails and teeth.
The surprising and interesting aspect of the new rules is that Linden Lab, curiously, is catering for all those opinions — simultaneously — with a single exception: the ones that wish that Second Life becomes a “free-sex-in-your-face” place as it is today (ie. a place where you cannot avoid mature content to be pushed upon you). With that exception in mind, and knowing fully well that Linden Lab just started the discussion around the issue of Adult Content, the most positive aspect of the change is how accommodating it actually is — unlike what we would usually expect from the ‘Lab.
But there are still some unanswered questions and incomplete answers.
Let’s take a look first of what the problem actually is, and then tackle Linden Lab’s reply to it. Second Life, since it started, was a virtual world for adults, built by adults, and with adult content. Freedom of expression thus included the ability to engage in any sort of adult activity, or producing any sort of adult content — so long as it was deemed legal in California. This obviously required rules to ban online gambling and paedophilia at some point, but, in general, California’s laws are sufficiently liberal to accommodate most of our tastes in adult content.
At the same time, one person’s freedom of expression should not clash with someone else’s freedom of expression. Put into other words: if you’re not into adult content, you shouldn’t be “forced” to view it, and vice-versa: if you like erotic content as any normal adult, you should not have the misfortune to deal with neighbours with a Puritan education that wish to cover up your virtual home and limit your activities.
So a simple solution was set in place: split up the world in two sections. On one section, adult content is explicitly forbidden (‘PG’ areas). On the other section, you can pretty much do what you wish. Ironically, most areas in SL are Mature, but not exactly because people are engaging all the time in adult-related activities. It’s just because even someone with a casual interest needs to be in a Mature area. Totally PG communities with several sims, where nobody is really interested in around-the-clock sexual displays, are often flagged Mature — for the occasional engagement with adult content, once in a while. Those were the rules, and the residents adapted to it.
Things started to get complicated when new sources of residents began to arrive. On one side, we had, for instance, educators, who wanted to bring their students to SL. Their underage students. Now clearly this wouldn’t be possible in a virtual world created by adults for adults, so Linden Lab had no choice but to put them on their own grid — the Teen Grid. The problem, of course, is that this grid — due to child protection laws — cannot legally have adults in it, unless you go through a very thorough procedure to validate your credentials.
This isn’t perfect either. What about classes where ages are between 16 and 20? Which grid should they go to, and how will teachers teach a common class, split among two grids? This is a typical problem that was never solved, and a lot of educators had to drop their projects because LL’s rules did not allow this model. But, alas, it’s the 16-20 age group that is the most interesting one for so many educators!
On the other hand, RL businesses want to have an adult community of users to establish themselves (and that includes, of course, universities) — but one where “distracting” adult content is not around. Put into other words: if you’re a Fortune 100 company, you wish to keep the kids away from your conference about business economics — but you don’t wish a BDSM domme to bring her subs with her on a leash. It looks “bad” on a picture on a national newspaper. Alas, we SL residents are used to that — SL meetings, discussions, and conferences are attended by dragons, robots, blue humans, floating blobs, and the occasional semi-nude hardcore sex escort. We just oversee how people attire themselves and focus on what they’re saying. Businesses, however, don’t really think that way. Shareholders are not exactly happy about having a popular sex club just around the corner — because, as said, pictures of that would hurt their image. It’s a sad thought that in the 21st century you’re judged by what you wear, but, alas, such is our society — and we cannot change society that easily.
Common residents are of a mixed kind. A few, of course, just are in SL for the free sex — or to establish relationships starting within a highly sexual environment. SL is the ultimate sex dating site, where you can show off your perfect body — much better than with webcam sex, where, no matter how daring you are, or how much makeup you wear, there is a limit to how much you can hide from the camera. In SL, however, you can look exactly how you wish to look. The appeal, thus, is quite strong. And it has always been like that, even during the days where there were no user-created animations and people could only do standard sits in weird positions…
This group includes perhaps one out of five SL residents — a typical metric for the Internet — even if it doesn’t mean that they will be engaged in sexual activities or watching adult content all the time. Rather the contrary: there are a lot of things that can be done in SL, and members of that group are definitely among the ones more willing to engage in SL’s economy and participate in all sorts of activities. They have a commitment to SL as a “place”, as Philip would say: a place, like RL, where you will spend most of your time doing all sort of interesting things, but, like in RL, where you will also enjoy some moments of erotic pleasure together with a partner.
The majority of the SL residents don’t really think so differently. Sure, they’re not here for the sex; but they aren’t exactly monks in their cells or religious fanatics. Most are reasonably tolerant with anyone who is a complete fanatic of adult content — they might just smile a little, shake their heads, but aren’t exactly against it. In fact, many recognise that, if you happen to meet by chance an interesting partner in SL (even if that thought never crossed your mind), you might jump over to the first group. The dividing line is fine — more a question of opportunity and not deliberate decision, at least for many — and it’s like RL really: most human beings are not constantly engaged in absorbing mature content, but they know where it is available if they feel the urge to get it. But it’s not their priority.
And, of course, there is a tiny — though immensely vocal — minority that is tied to outdated religious beliefs about sex, and wish to ban it — not for themselves, but for the whole of Humankind. If you think that this group is small and irrelevant, think again. They managed to ban sex from mainstream movies intended for adults, and replace it with gore and violence instead — as if kids over 13 or so don’t know everything about sex anyway — which shows how twisted their mindset is: exposing kids to utter violence is fine, but to sex isn’t.
And they’re the ones in power, the ones that write the laws.
So how is this dealt with in real life?
Enlightened jurisdictions simply provide a reasonable compromise. Adult content is restricted to specially licensed places, where only adults can enter, and they have to provide some sort of ID to get access to it. Sex clubs, sex shops, and casinos are typical examples. Renting a video with Triple-X rating is another. Granted, depending on the country, things vary a lot: in most of Europe, females are not required to cover their breasts in beaches and swimming pools or similar areas, while other countries strictly forbid that. Islamic fundamentalists only allow women to show their eyes in public (and you can guess, very correctly, what all the guys in those countries do during the night with their webcams). Some Japanese families take their baths naked together at home. There is not a single, universal definition of what “adult content” is, but only cultural ones. In all cases, however, social norms, aided by legislation, restrict the access to what a culture’s idea of “adult content” is. But if you’re an adult, of course, nobody can prevent you to go to those places or view that kind of content.
Thus, in countries where erotic dancers are allowed to dance in clubs, you cannot shut the clubs down just because someone across the street has a religious objection against that. Your freedom of religion cannot be more important than your freedom to access whatever legitimate content is available for adults. What you can do is to separate both: get the churches in one place, and the sex clubs in another. Don’t mix both: don’t force good Puritans to attend Mass walking through streets full of sex shops, but also don’t build schools (or business parks) next to popular sex clubs. Keep both separate, and everybody is happy.
Many cities have thus created the concept of “red light districts”, where adult content is featured basically everywhere, but it’s only allowed there and not spread around the place. That’s pretty much the model that Linden Lab is proposing to create in Second Life.