Second Life’s New Red Light District

Perfumed Gardens — An Erotic Sex Club To Be Moved Soon?

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.

The motivation

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.

The Adult Continent

Look around the map, and you’ll see that the mainland is a checkerboard of PG and Mature areas. Sometimes they’re “aggregated” (ie. several mature regions all next to each other) but they’re mostly all intermixed. Private islands are slightly different, depending on who owns them, they might form mini-continents that are all Mature or all PG — a mix is rarer (but not unheard of). The problem here is that if you buy some land that is, effectively, PG, you have no way to prevent the sex club across the sim border to be established there. You have to live with it, or move away to a sim fully surrounded by other PG sims. Zoning, without a visual barrier, is pretty much irrelevant.

The same applies to shops and even residents walking around. You might have just left your favourite pole dancing club, appropriately attired for the special occasion, and drop into the PG conference room for a presentation about SL businesses across the street… or, rather, across the sim border. Most veteran residents are fine with that: the pole dancer will definitely behave when sitting for the presentation, and the keynote speaker will not frown at a display of flesh, leather, and whips — when the rest of the audience are dragons, vampires, robots, or floating orbs. This is part of our culture in SL, and we’re used to it.

Replace the word “SL business” with “RL business” and things start to change. With a lot of exceptions, most are not too happy about the example above. So Linden Lab has a simple solution. The soon-to-be-created Adult Continent will become Second Life’s Red Light District. You can only enter it if you’re age-verified — and unlike what was attempted in late December 2007, Linden Lab is open to credit-card-based validation, as well as “other methods” (I’m assuming sending over your faxed ID card).

This definitely means that the ones interested in only having access to adult content will be living in a ghetto. But… we have to understand something about the concept. In real life, most people don’t live all the time in a Red Light District, even if they often go there (in the sense that they go there at least once per day). So in conceptual terms, this model fits pretty well with reality. Linden Lab can safely tell educators and businesses, and even the Puritans, that whoever is an adult and wishes to see adult content, or engage into virtual sex, have a place just for that: one that is away from the Puritan eyes, away from the kiddies, away from everything, and they will actively enforce that.

Reality is, however, a bit more tricky. In real life, most people engage in sexual activities and watch adult content at home, or at least, in private (which will include, for instance, hotels). Having sex with your partner in a hotel is definitely not something you can only do in a Red Light District! Alas, in SL, you’re out of luck: since there is no real privacy, as the camera can go anywhere, that’s not possible.

Thus even casual adult activities will not be possible outside the Red Light District. This, I believe, is a major problem with Linden Lab’s proposed model. Granted, having a place where all the pole dancing clubs and sex shops are is a good idea. There will be more competition, but also more sales: all shops in a specific area where people come deliberately for adult content will, naturally, get a boost in sales. Club owners might complain about having to compete more aggressively, but, alas, they will probably require less advertisement — people will naturally go to the places they can find the content they like, even without much promotion.

Casual users, however, are out of luck. They have to shame themselves down to go to the Adult Continent if they want a night out with their partners for some fun. Unless, of course, your particular kink is not deemed “extremely sexual in nature”, in which case it might just be flagged Mature and continue to be allowed. It’s complex and not easy to understand the separation.

And, of course, “mostly PG” communities that allowed people to do whatever they wished inside their homes or on skyboxes (and thus had their regions flagged Mature) are also out of luck. Either they move into the Adult Continent too, or buy their own private islands (where they’re allowed to flag it “Adult”). Or, well, they can correctly identify what is “mature” and what is “adult” and can allow some mature activity in their communities, so long as that resident with their slave bondage dungeon goes away. The rest will be allowed to engage in mature, but not adult, activities. Whatever the difference is!

So what does this mean in the long term? For LL, more business in selling private islands. Anyone who wants to create a “mostly PG” community, where casual viewing of adult content is not forbidden, will try to avoid the stigma of “living in the Red Light District” and just get away from the mainland — a good move in terms of more business selling private islands, although it’s a counter-move to LL’s own initiatives to promote a more vibrant mainland. The Adult Continent, of course, will be a success. And obviously the tiny minority of religious fanatics will be happy to see the sex clubs gone from the mainland.

Unless, of course, Linden Lab does a further step.

Underage in Second Life? No problem!

If only age-verified adults can enter any area flagged Adult, Linden Lab has also solved the next question: what to do about the Teen Grid? How to allow educators to have classes with a mix of underage and adult students?

For now, however, the Teen Grid will remain as it is, and teenagers will not be able to enter the Main Grid — not even the non-adult part of it. This will not change in the immediate future.

But we can certainly extrapolate.

Once the whole mainland is PG (or, rather, “ages 13 and above, no parental guidance needed” — I hope they change the name of the “PG” rating too, since it’s totally misleading), there is no problem to open the gates and let SL be flooded with kids. This means that the Teen Grid, which already appears on the SL Grid map, could be turned visible. Kids could freely start to visit the rest of SL too — safely so.

Linden Lab is introducing some new interesting tricks. It’s not just about “parcel access”. In fact, Adult content is not viewable by non-verified adults. If that means that the prims don’t appear at all, or that you see a “fuzzy” cloud around content marked Adult, we don’t know — yet. One thing is for sure: if you’re not a verified adult, you won’t see that content. Ever. Not on Search, not on Profiles, not anywhere.

If they have the technology to do that, it’s conceivable that they can do the same for mature content too. In that case, if the Teen Grid ever gets merged, kids would not even be able to see the mature content, only PG content. The important development with this announcement is that LL is able now not only to restrict parcel access but actually limiting the viewing of content by type. Once that works for one type — adult content — it’s possible to imagine that they extend it to other types as well (namely, mature).

There continues to be a problem, however: one thing is content, the other is interaction. I guess that the reason why the Teen Grid will remain is that there is no simple way to avoid kids interacting with adults. After all, in real life, you don’t have police regulating access to public areas by kids and adults, and we peacefully co-exist with them in public gardens, in malls, on the supermarket, even on the movie theatres. In Second Life this could happen too, as it happens on almost all virtual worlds. LL, however, remains cautious. The temptation of putting non-flagged content (ie. mature or even adult content incorrectly flagged as PG) in the hands of teens is too great, too easy, and too hard to police. So, for now, LL is not even considering that move.

But, again, let’s hypothetically assume that LL does, indeed, go ahead with the idea. After all, if WoW, IMVU,, and all the others have no qualms of mixing teens and adults, why shouldn’t LL allow it, too? The risk is great — but in fact it’s the parents’ ultimate responsibility to control their kids, not LL’s.

Now, of course, what this means is that suddenly you would get kids all over the place. Not many — the Teen Grid is not densely inhabited, and a major reason for that is that it has few worthwhile content, lots of griefing, and a lack of overall overseeing, or so tells us Katharine Berry. For some residents this would be an opportunity: creating compelling content for the kids as well (schools will love the idea). For most, however, it will be a nuisance. Remember, there is no privacy in SL, so you cannot shut the door and keep the kids away: you’ll have to endure them.

Unless, of course, you move into the Adult regions, or the Adult Continent.

Now here we come to the next problem. What about adults that do not want to be age-verified?

I don’t want LL to know who I am!

If you’re a business manager and read that headline, you’d be shocked. If SL is all about business, and you cannot trust the other person’s identity, how can you establish a business relationship, except by providing your credentials? I have addressed this same issue on one of my essays about Post-immersionism, so I won’t go into that again.

However, Second Life has been strongly influenced by the Anglo-Saxonic ideal that nobody should be able to be forced to reveal their identity, except on extreme cases (e.g. opening a bank account, buying a house or driving a car). Revealing it voluntarily is fine, of course. But joining Second Life is hardly an “extreme case”. It worked wonderfully well so far for the past 5 years or so, and a glance at the LindeX shows how happy those millions of residents are exchanging millions of US dollars every month without much more than a pseudonym. In face of the facts, any explanation or theory of “pseudonymity doesn’t really work” will utterly fail.

Nevertheless, in this age of terrorism and a lack of security, it’s hard to change mentalities, and understand that the number of creeps and scammers has not increased, nor decreased, through more “validation” schemes. They just get cleverer. Still, it’s what people perceive as a threat that makes them respond emotionally; and people will always react to incentives, positive or negative. Right now, the incentive not to reveal any data about yourself is quite low because of a perceived lack of trust. At least in RL.

SL has traditionally been quite different. For the escapists — and to a degree, the immersionists as well — nobody really has to know who you are, so long as you’re not committing any crimes; and if you do, the authorities will find you anyway. Thus, if you claim you’re an adult and wish to see adult content, that should suffice — your word of honour. Granted, honour is out of fashion these days, and in real life, you have no choice there: if you wish to have access to adult content, in most parts of the world, you have to prove you’re an adult.

The question is how you prove it. On the Internet, the answer seemed to be “show us your credit card”, because, really, the number of sex-crazed teenagers stealing their parents’ credit card is surprisingly low, no matter what the media say. So I’m personally very happy to see that LL is reverting their policies and starting to accept credit cards as a valid method of age verification: I guess that they’ve consulted with their lawyers and agreed that it’s enough.

The problem, of course, is if you are an adult, but do not own a credit card, which is not so common outside the US (still, it’s more common than most people tend to think), and do not wish to send your personal data to LL’s validation services — a company that allegedly had in the past some close associations with selling profiling data for marketing purposes. Even if they don’t reveal specific customer’s data — but only generic data, with no ties with specific names — many are still uncomfortable with the idea.

What this means is that the university professor, with a solid RL reputation, who enjoys a flirt with her domme in the comfort of her gothic castle in SL, in perfect anonymity, has now a dilemma. From now on, she has no choice but to move to an Adult region. And that means getting validated.

Similarly, for the ones without a credit card, this means a complex validation method. I did try the “manual” validation back in December 2007 and it worked flawlessly and was very fast (a few hours). But even LL says that it can take 5-7 business days. If it takes that long just to get a sneak preview of “Adult Second Life”, most casual residents of SL will give up. Or, well, get a credit card.

This will be a complex change.

There is also a positive side-effect, of course. Adult areas will be griefer-free without much hassle — after all, if you need to validate your avatar to enter an Adult area, it means giving LL some real life information, which they will naturally use to block a griefer from ever logging back with an alt. Interestingly enough, this side-effect will do wonders for the economy. Anyone afraid of CopyBots will set up shop on Adult regions, since the risk of someone that has given their RL data to LL pirating your content is low. The piracy rings will stay away from those areas as well — or at least they will have to be incredibly careful, or devilishly clever. A few, of course, will continue to operate — but the incentive to continue those illegal activities, once LL has your RL data, will be much, much lower.

So what does this mean short-term and long-term?

As for myself, I can only say I’m much relieved by this announcement 🙂

Oh yes, I know that a lot of things will be quite hard on the poor residents — again. The discussion will continue, on forums, on blogs, in-world, everywhere. But… consider the alternative: that LL would not create an Adult Continent, and instead banned all mature content from the face of SL — forever — just like most of all other virtual worlds and social Web 2.0 sites. In fact, in certain areas, SL might be even promoted as a social thingy that explicitly allows adult content on “safe” areas (by preventing non-adults to enter them). I think this is a major selling point: it targets a huge sector of the Internet market (as said, 20% of the Internet is about sex; we cannot hide it, even if so many Puritan groups wished exactly that); it assures businesses and Puritans that “sex will be out of sight”; it makes sure that kids are safely away from adult content; but at the same time, or at least in the future, it will allow educators to bring their high school students into SL, while not restricting the adult content community to continue their activities — except, of course, by forcing them to verify their age (just like in RL) and restrict them to specific areas (again, just like in RL, at least on the most liberal countries).

But the alternative — no adult content whatsoever, and a grid full of kids — would be simply the end of SL as we know it. This way, there is a chance of going ahead, pretty much in the same way as before, with the difference that explicitly adult and extremely violent content will be limited to a specific area in the mainland (or in private islands).

Long-term, adding to that the advantage of shutting out griefers and certain types of scammers out of the Adult areas (“LL knows who you are”), that only sounds promising.

Short-term, of course, this is a mess 🙂

First of all, how will Linden Lab “enforce” the move? Will they turn all regions with sexually explicit or very violent content on the mainland into ‘Adult’ areas and ban everybody in it that does not comply with the new rules? How long will these residents have to pack and move away? The article claims “over the next few months”; a brief email exchange with Catherine Linden revealed that things would not be that dramatic (ie. no “kicking and banning” but a gradual flagging of Adult content and dealing with stragglers one by one). PG and Mature classifications will, at least for a while, continue to co-exist with Adult content (which has to be placed outside of those areas). So this seems to indicate that on Mature sims, casual sexual encounters, hidden away in skyboxes, might still be possible, so long as the content used for those is not extremely sexual or violent in nature. Put into other words: a common bed with sex poseballs, which only the owner controls, might be “mature”. A kinky chamber with a torture rack with spikes for BDSMers might be ‘Adult’ and will have to move.

Will Linden Lab compensate residents that are suddenly forced to move away? It’s obviously impossible to grandfather existing ‘adult’ content. But a nice show of goodwill would be to forfeit the cost of initial land purchase on the Adult Continent if you’re a landowner in a Mature sim willing to move. In practice, how would that work? LL only sells wholesale, ie. complete regions — parcelling is done by winners of auctions. So how will all those people be compensated financially? We’re not talking about “a few hundreds”, like during the days of the telehub drama. No, more likely we’re talking about dozens of thousands of residents that will have to move over. A huge push of epic proportions. Catherine Linden admits that this is one area where residents should provide their input; even though the move might take “months”, they’re aware that most of that time will be to define those mechanisms, and at least in some cases, Linden Lab will be listening to suggestions.

I’m not even going to address the issue of “who defines what Adult content is” because that was also clearly explained on the article: it will be LL defining it, with some resident input. Whatever content is forbidden now will continue to be forbidden (e.g. ageplay, paedophilia, possibly content inciting to discrimination by race, religion, gender, or age, which includes the display of certain symbols) — after all, LL has to abide by Californian law, as well as their interpretation of the laws of other countries. The fine dividing line will, of course, to decide what is “erotic” content (e.g. currently “mature”) and what clearly is “adult”. The word “clear” is ambiguous: it will depend on cultural norms, and to a degree, the residents will have little saying in that. We might have a bit more luck discussing compensation for being forced to move out.

And finally there is the question of how to enforce compliance. Imagine the simplest scenario: after a set date, all content on Mature sims becomes “forbidden”. Now, who will tag that content as being “Adult”? LL is hoping that residents will do that job. In some cases — if you’re well-versed in Californian law, for instance — you might correctly identify what is “adult”, and what is merely “erotic”. But remember that 60% of the resident population does not speak English as a first language, and a large proportion doesn’t speak English at all. Those are the residents that will find LL’s concept of “adult” a very strange thing indeed, e.g. a French or Spanish monokini merchant will never dream that their content is considered “adult”, so they will think that the rules don’t apply to them. A lingerie shop that sells normal underwear is definitely not “adult” (or malls wouldn’t have those shops iRL!) but will get Puritans back to their pills to fight anxiety and get recently-turned-18-year-olds, full of their hormones, drooling with erotic dreams. So will they be allowed? (The answer, for now, is “yes” — there will be no “dress code” imposed on residents except for what’s currently in place: no nudity on PG areas). And what about a club with furry pole dancers, is that adult content or not? (Catherine Linden insists that furries are not “adult” content; furries being tortured with chainsaws, on racks dripping blood and gore all over the place, is another question). And these are just extreme examples which will come up in anyone’s mind. How about the many fuzzy areas? A dance club for homosexuals, who don’t do anything “extremely sexual and violent” but just hang around and dance and chat and tell jokes — is that “adult” or “mature”? (I have no doubts what the die-hard religious fundamentalists will answer to that). Genderbenders are mature or adult (think about how they’re classified iRL)? Displaying pictures of nudes in your home, is that “mature art”, merely “art”, or “adult” content? Will it depend of what the pictures are depicting? Will that force some museums and art galleries to the Adult Continent? And so on. The grey areas are, indeed, quite numerous.

I’m pretty sure that LL’s list will not be exhaustive enough to catch all cases (neither does LL claim that on the article; rather, they just expect self-regulation). The problem, however, is who will be flagging those 2.2 billion assets out there? And who will validate that an asset is, indeed, ‘adult’? Imagine hundreds of thousands of residents flagging millions of items per day, who at LL will check each and every one of them for ‘adultness’? And how long will they take?

I had a long list of similar questions, but I’m sure you will be able to add quite a few more of your own. You’ll see that not even Linden Lab is clear about the way SL “ought” to change in the future. The co-existence of “mature” and “adult” content is intriguing and probably the most challenging issue for LL, as a lot of residents will claim that what they do is “erotic art” but LL will deem it to be “sexual perversion of the ultimate nature” and doom them to the Adult Continent. Granted, the good news is that the worst case scenario is being pushed to the Adult Continent and not out of SL. While this can be annoying for many (and we’re definitely not talking about

In any case, speaking for myself and a few of my clients, and in spite of the complexity of the issue, which involves moral and legal frameworks, I don’t think this “change” is for the worst. Then again, I have had a credit-card validated avatar since my 4th day in SL, 4½ years ago. And it was age-verified for over a year now. I won’t mind having the communities I live in flagged as Adult and be forced to move a house I have in one of them, if that’s what LL implies that will happen. And I’ll be more than happy to tell my corporate customers that SL is now “free of adult content”, while happily announcing to the educational customers that they can bring all their kids into SL without further mess, while at the same time I’ll continue to chat with friends and acquaintances on hard-core sex sims, if that’s the kind of place where they prefer to meet (yes, a few do). But then again, I’m hardly a typical resident, but very likely just one among the exceptionally tolerant and open-minded ones 🙂

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