John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated May 96, revised May 97, Feb 99, April 99
A hardcopy version of this article appeared as:
Suler, J.R. (2004). Do boys and girls just wanna have fun?
In Gender Communication (by A. Kunkel). Kendall/Hunt Publishing.
Brad first met Natalie in a text-based fantasy game. He was a college senior at an eastern university, she a junior on the west coast. They got to know each other better by corresponding through e-mail. Over time, he felt very close to her. Maybe, he thought, he was even falling in love. When he finally suggested, then insisted, that he give her a phone call, the truth came crashing down on his head. Natalie confessed to being a 50 year old man.
The beauty, and sometimes misfortune, of the internet is that it offers the opportunity for people to experiment with their identity. One way to do that is to switch one's gender to see how the other half lives. In a text-only chat room the first step is simply to change one's online name. In the visual "habitats" such as the Palace, there is the added challenge of creating an opposite sex "avatar" or "prop" to visually represent one's new self. The choice of name or avatar can greatly influence the image one wishes to cast - Bambi wearing skimpy lingerie, Rocky with sunglasses, Sheila in leather and chains, Lyle playing guitar, Hera in a long, white robe. After selecting a new name and appearance comes the even more challenging task of trying to play the role of the opposite sex person one has chosen. It's not an easy thing to do.
Why It's Fairly Common
Gender swapping is probably much more commonplace than we realize. Everyone familiar with cyberspace life has heard of or even experienced the kind of dilemma faced by Brad. I have seen and heard of more males switching gender than females. If this accurately reflects the population of cybercitizens as a whole, an interesting question surfaces. Why are males so interested in experimenting with a woman's identity? The answers go far beyond cyberspace and point to larger social and psychological issues. Here are a few possibilities:
- Due to the pressure of cultural stereotypes, it may be difficult for some men to explore within themselves what society labels as "feminine" characteristics. These males may rely on the anonymity of cyberspace to express their "feminine" side which they feel they must otherwise hide. Some of these males may strongly identify with women.
- Adopting a feminine role in cyberspace may be a way to draw more attention to themselves. Getting noticed and responded to in cyberspace is not always easy, especially in such distracting, "noisy" environments as the visual chat habitats. Donning a female name and/or avatar, especially a sexy one, will almost instantly draw reactions. The gender-switched male may even like the feeling of power and control over other males that goes along with this switch.
- Some males may adopt a feminine identity to investigate male/female relationships. They may be testing out various ways of interacting with males in order to learn, first hand, what it's like being on the woman's side. Hopefully, they use that knowledge to enhance their relationships with females. Some, however, may be looking for ways to gain power and control.
- In some online games where participants assume imaginary identities (e.g., MUDs), being a female may be advantageous. Sometimes males lend more assistance to females, so they progress faster in the game.
- Disguised as a female, a male looking for intimacy, romance, and/or cybersex from another male may be acting upon conscious or unconscious homosexual feelings.
- Transsexuals (people who feel, psychologically, that they are the opposite sex rather than their given biological gender) and/or transvestites (people who cross-dress for sexual arousal or as an identification with females) may be drawn to virtual gender-switching. In rare cases, gender-switching could be a sign of what would be diagnosed as "gender confusion" - i.e., a psychological disturbance where one's identity as a male or female has not fully developed.
One reader of this article had this comment:
I think I can sum up a factor about Genderhacking by repeating a line I saw someone type in a chatroom once: "Won't someone at least pretend to be female?" Lets face it, the majority of users of the internet are still male, and in such an ambiguous environment as the internet, the ability to lose one's inhibitions is quite strong. With a great many horny computer nerds out there, and no counterpart women on the net, I think some men pretend to be women - not because they have any desire to have sexual experiences with men themselves, but because they wish to perpetuate some form of cyber experience. It is as if they are an actor, manipulating the puppet of a women (just as they might in their own mind, during a sexual fantasy) but in this case, they are sustaining the puppet for some other stranger at the end of another modem to play with. Once this cyberstory then exists, it doesn't really matter who wrote the woman's lines or who wrote the man's. For both can enjoy it from whatever perspective that they chose.
Online Gender Switching Is Unique
Wanting, and trying, to switch gender is by no means a new social phenomenon. Theories in psychology abound on this topic. But the online version of gender-switching is unique and important for several reasons. First of all, cyberspace makes it so easy. It provides an attractive opportunity to experiment, abandon the experiment if necessary, and safely try again, if one so desires. More and different types of people are going to try it than in "real life." It also provides researchers with a unprecedented opportunity to study how and why people gender switch.
Unfortunately, the wide latitude for online gender-switching makes situations like those of Brad much more common. Even though exploring the anima and animus can be enriching, healthy, or just plain fun - hurting other people is not an acceptable outcome. There is a very thin line between the right to experiment with one's gender and the violation of the rights of others by deliberately deceiving and manipulating them. At some point in an online relationship, in order to protect their feelings and even their "sanity," people sometimes find it necessary to test the companion to see if that person is faking gender. Some savvy internet users question their companions as as a kind of subtle, surreptitious detective work. Others immediately and rather presumptuously test the waters as soon as they meet someone who presents as the opposite sex
How to Detect Gender Switching
But can gender-switching be accurately identified? Out of curiosity, I asked a group of approximately 30 women what questions could be asked to detect a male pretending to be female. The questions they suggested all revolved around female biology and products. The issues that surfaced while they discussed the use of these queries were quite intriguing, and controversial. No doubt, people online would experience many of these questions as embarrassing, or as personal invasions into their privacy - so the need to protect one's own feelings would have to be weighed against the other person's rights. Applying them would probably only be appropriate when the relationship had progressed to the point where a person felt emotionally involved with the "female" companion, but suspected that deception and manipulation was afoot. Even more controversial was the fact that not all the women knew the answer to all the questions, which raised doubts about whether there even is knowledge that specifically identifies a female. For some of the questions, there may not be a "correct" answer at all, or the correct answer may depend on such things as your geographical location and culture. Detecting gender-switching might be a matter of determining how many questions the person seems to get "right," combined with weighing the manner in which the person replies to the questions. Does the person fumble, confabulate, get defensive and angry, etc. But even this strategy can fail. In some cases, it may be impossible to tell whether the person is being deceptive.
Here are some of the questions suggested by the women:
- What is the difference between "junior" and "misses' sizes?
(junior sizes tend to be smaller and may use a different size-numbering system)
- What sizes do pantyhose typically come in?
(usually A, B, Queen.... rarely, "small, medium, large" - but this may depend on geographical location)
- What is the difference in how flushable and non-flushable tampons are made?
(non-flushables have plastic in them - flushables have only paper and fabric)
- What size ring do women usually wear?
(5, 6, 7)
- When coloring hair, how long is the dye usually left in one's hair?"
(may vary, but approximately 25 minutes)
- What is the average range of sizes for women's panties?
(typical range is 2-10; average size is 6-8)
- What negative effect may antibiotics have on a woman?
- On what day is flow the greatest?
(first or second, typically)
- When during her cycle is a woman most likely to become pregnant?
(approximately 15 days after the beginning of her period)
Experienced users mentioned another strategy for testing the possible deceptiveness of an online companion: ask the person to make telephone contact, or even to meet in-person. A gender-switcher will most probably decline the offer. Of course, a genuine person might also decline for a variety of reasons. But for most true friendships and romances in cyberspace, there is a natural development towards wanting to meet the person in real life. In this case, if an online companion declines, there is probably some kind of deception taking place.
Do Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Too?
One reader of this article - a "straight, happily married mother" - e-mailed me to say that this article had validated many of her own experiences in cyberspace. She had participated in fantasy role playing, except she was a woman assuming the persona of a man. She only played the roles for a short period of time, she stated, usually one evening a week. "I found the characters tiring to keep up and had to stop. Usually I found myself shifting into a feminine, softer mood and had to quit before I got my character in serious trouble. I got too empathic and too flirtatious with males buddies. I knew my cover was slipping and my true proclivities slipping out and so I had to kill the character." She listed a number of reasons why she played those male roles:
1. To find out how other females act with men. This was partially competitive and sexual on her part, she noted. "What do other women do to entice men? Are the other women better than me at it?" She usually concluded that this wasn't the case. She felt other women were somewhat silly and boring. Also, men seemed to have more pressure on them to be entertaining.
2. To practice "writing" a seductive male character. She was interested in romance novels and how they are constructed with a heavy emphasis on the "hero." Whereas the heroine is the point of view, that character doesn't necessarily have to be well developed. The object of the novel, she explained, is the capture and/or discovery of the hero, who MUST be a well defined personality. In her online gender switching, she experimented with hero personalities to see how they affected women. She felt her character was much more attentive and romantic than the average male. She acted the way she would have liked a male to court her. An important realization for her was that the projection of power and competence can be very seductive. "I hadn't truly appreciated how much a guy has to constantly maintain the facade of strength. One slip of weakness and the women crush you like a walnut."
3. To run a clan. In some game environments, a clan is a group of players who challenge and compete with other clans. While some of the clans were lead by females, she had difficulty gathering followers as a female persona. Once she switched to a male character, she immediately became more successful in building and running her group. She also discovered that being a clan leader draws much female attention and that the girls are very competitive in fighting for the position of the clan master's "wife." It was much easier dealing with the competition from male underlings jockeying for position.
4. To experience "power" that she had not been able to experience in real life. As a very quiet adolescent, she felt dominated by stronger willed boyfriends, which affected her development in ways she was still trying to understand. "Donning a male identity allowed me to freely express certain aggressive and powerful actions that I don't seem able to project when perceived as a female. I say perceived, because this was all about how others saw me. All during the time, I felt like "myself" and female. It was just the male side of me that I was allowed to show, but had always been there."
Wanting to correct the apparent lack of data in this article about female users, another reader offered to share her experiences. When she adopted the username "The Doctor," she originally intended it to be gender neutral. Consistently, however, she was judged to be male, forcing her to correct her companions' perceptions. The perception was so persistent that she herself came to think of the handle as a male persona. On one occasion, when she attempted what she felt was a very benign overture towards a vulnerable teenage girl, the girl interpreted this as the advances of a "dirty old man." This unexpected reaction suddenly reversed her perception of her own overture. She was as horrified as she would have been if she was witnessing some "dirty old man" acting sleazy towards a young girl. She instantly dropped The Doctor as her primary handle, after using it for only two days. The only times she reverted to it was when she felt hurt or vulnerable in a cyber-relationship. The more intellectual, male persona helped her gain distance, objectivity, and clarity, enabling her to "get my head together when my heart was feeling shattered." Why she adopted a male persona to accomplish this is, as she put it, "a mystery of socialization in a patriarchal society."
'He' was much shyer than my normal 'real' or cyber self, if also 'older', and presumably 'wiser', and I could often 'see' 'him' in my mind's eye, 'wiping his glasses', which I also do not wear, as 'he' hovered as observer on the fringes of a chat, before committing 'himself' to considered opinion. This is very unlike my primary (Aries) identity, which tends to jump in first, boots and all, and ask questions, and, if necessary, apologize for tactlessness later! I wonder if I am an oddity, or are there other women out there who use male personae for similar reasons? I see "The Doctor" as not a little like the researcher's 'grey owl' primary avatar! But this could also be interpreted as a wholly feminine image, i.e. the grey owl of the goddess Athene!After switching chat environments, she felt she didn't need The Doctor at all anymore. She learned that when she felt threatened or vulnerable, she could simply retreat into a lurking or semi-lurking mode to get the same effect. Even with what she regards as a "feminine-enough" handle, many male users still assume she is male - which she attributes to the fact that as a strongly opinionated woman she seems to be expressing her own inner masculine energies. "However, it does serve as a handy weapon, when they think they have me all sewn up, to come back with 'All that may or may not be true, but you at least have got the sex entirely wrong!', usually accompanied by a protruding tongue, as in playground battles!"
See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace: