Second Life avatars depicting explicit sexual acts are… what? You cannot shrug it off as being “merely pixelated images” and little else. In the realm of pedophilia, in Europe, even drawings and cartoons of sexual intercourse with minors are considered illegal, a reason why Linden Lab forbade age play in SL. Age play is technically not forbidden in the US, because it’s done by consenting adults to consenting adults, but images from age play — specially if they clearly depict kids — are disallowed pretty much everywhere. All this is really just make a point: pornography, as its own name implies, is a graphical representation of a sexual act, and whatever else we can say about Second Life, there is no doubt that it’s graphical indeed. If images have the ability to excite people and arouse their sexual feelings, you can try to shrug off SL’s “virtual” sex as much as you like, but you’re just trying to argue against yourself.
Where does that leave us?
It’s undeniable that Second Life is used by very many residents as a very deep, immersive form of interactive escapism, perhaps to a level that few other things out there allow. I don’t use the word “escapism” in a negative sense. Just because more intellectually-minded people prefer to read books, that’s a mild form of escapism too, and it’s hardly a “negative” one. I have argued in the past that, among all different types of leisure/escapism/hobbies we can have, immersion in a virtual world, where at least you are almost constantly interacting socially with other people, sharing the same experience, is probably one of the best forms. Escapism is also not day-dreaming, wishful thinking, or hoping for things that you will never get otherwise: it’s a distraction from a routine, and a mental stimulation which relaxes us. I find it inseparable from what in general we call the human experience: we dream, we think, we have fun; and while some of these things are shared with at least some mammals and other animals, we can go way beyond that with our imagination. And I’ve also noted on the article linked above that the ability to play is crucial for us mammals, in order that we learn skills and techniques to make us better prepared for the tough reality of life.
While you can experience different forms of this escapism-turned-into-leisure in SL, engaging in what we usually label as “adult activity” is merely one of them (going to shop for clothes is another one!). It happens to be very popular, and, more to the point, one of the major driving forces behind SL’s economy, since its very beginning. Oldbies will remember that in the early days of Second Life’s thriving economy, you only had kinky clothes for sale. It was expected that pretty much everybody would engage in so-called “adult activities” — at least, the merchants expected that those were the kinds of customers that would be willing to pay for clothes. These days, we have widened the market, and offer lots of different services that would hardly be classified as “adult content”, but that is just a consequence of the broadening of the user base with an increasingly larger variety of tastes. The engagement in adult activities, and the consequent willingness to buy so-called adult content, has not diminished — rather, it has grown in importance, volume, and, ultimately, revenues.
What also happened is a certain sophistication in the kinds of offerings we have. Let’s just look at pure content creation. A “sex bed” before Stroker Serpentine’s days was probably just a plank of plywood triggering very simplistic animations, and those would be enough, since there was nothing better around. They might have been laughable in their ingenuity, simplicity, and overall low quality. But these days, “sex beds” are crafted with exceptionally high quality. It’s not just the animations that get better and better (within the limits of SL’s capabilities, of course): it’s the bed itself. It might use sculpties these days, and when you lie on the bed, the covers part to perfect the illusion that it’s a real bed.
So is the talented content creator who designs the bed (not the anims, nor the scripts that trigger them) part of the “adult content designer” community? I would hardly be pressed to say so. A bed is just a bed. The nicer it is, the more people might wish to buy it. It’s a decoration element; a conversation piece. But it’s also a prelude to adult activity. And this is where things start to become slightly fuzzy. Avatars don’t need to sleep (their owners do!), but we nevertheless buy beds. Why? Because, at some point, you might use the bed for… adult activity. Even if most of the time the bed will just be, well, nothing more than a bed.
Of course the same applies to fashion. Unless you’re looking for specially kinky outfits in Zindra, walking around most shops you wouldn’t find content that is explicitly sexual or adult in nature. They’re just avatar clothes: they make your avatar look nice, that’s all. But, like in real life, that’s really oversimplifying the issue. A top that shows just the right amount of cleavage can become a potent stimulator of desire. But it might just be a top and nothing more. It might have bunnies in it, or flowers, or a Hello Kitty clone. Is that “adult content”? Hardly, but… the intention of the wearer might be to just show the required amount of flesh to say, “I’m available”. You might never notice it when you see the top on the picture at the shop. But the buyer will know when to use it, and what to use it for. In a sense, there is really no difference between SL and RL, except, of course, that in SL all clothes fit 🙂
And obviously the same thing is valid for pretty much every other type of content, specially events. Some people go to clubs or parties to get partners, and dress accordingly, although they might be in a General sim, and just become alluring by giving slight, but perceptive, hints: it might just be the way a skirt drapes around your hips when dancing. It might be the right kind of shirt that shows off a tattoo on a well-muscled arm. It might be a certain expression, created by a clever animator, which gives the avatar a certain stance that can be picked up by body language, even though it never fully translates well into SL — but we humans are very, very good at picking clues. By this I don’t mean that everybody who drops on the dance floor is expecting to get a partner for a wild cybersex session. But some do. And this might be happening in the most pure and innocent setting in SL, which might, from the outside, be expected to be safe for 6-year-old toddlers.