Gender Violence in SL: FAQ and Some Answers

The "Frequently Asked Questions and Answers" below are intended to provide some explanation and context for concerns about depictions of violence against women in Second Life. They are not the "official position" of the SL Left Unity Feminist Network on this subject; instead, they raise some of the issues that seem to us most need to be addressed with reference to certain kinds of behaviour in Second Life.


It's true that, at least within SL, real "violence" of any sort is not possible. The "violence" in this world is all simulated or "pretend." And nothing that happens to your avatar while you are logged in is permanent: even if you are "killed" in a role playing game here, your avatar cannot really "die."

There are, however, two ways in which violence against women can be found within SL. The first of these is through direct virtual assault of various kinds, or "griefing" as it is sometimes called. This occurs when your avatar is subjected to verbal abuse or harassment by someone else, or when someone tries to temporarily damage or disrupt your avatar by bumping, or applying scripts that may immobilize, distort, or otherwise make something happen to your avatar against your will.

Griefing can happen to anyone, male or female, in SL, but when a female avatar is targeted, it is often sexual in nature. You may find yourself subjected to crude sexual language, for instance, or be "rammed" by an avatar wearing a giant penis. (Yes, this does happen!)

The other kind of "violence against women" that we find in SL consists of representations or depictions of real life forms of sexual violence, through animations, images, language, or role play. Second Life features places, for instance, where your female avatar can be "raped," "beaten," "murdered," and even "eaten." All of these are simulations: your avatar is not truly damaged, and all are consensual: you must agree to participate in this kind of activity. But the very fact that these things are role played, and considered "fun," rather than tasteless re-enactments of horrendous real life crimes, makes them not only tasteless, but potentially harmful, in the same way that rape or snuff porn in real life is.


It's a cliché that "what happens in SL stays in SL." This is based on the idea that there is a kind of impenetrable wall between the virtual and physical worlds, and that what happens in the former doesn't impact on the latter. It is a myth often used by those who cause harm of some sort to those in-world, because they want it to be believed that the harm will disappear the moment the victim has logged off.

While there are some ways in which this is obviously true – "physical" damage to one's avatar, for instance, does not affect one's real self – there are other ways in which this is a self-serving fiction. What we "do" in Second Life has real emotional, psychological, and intellectual effects upon our physical selves. The world may be "virtual," but our experience of it is very real, as anyone who has been in SL for even a short time will know. If Second Life had no impact upon us, there would be no reason for us to be here. To pretend that the effects of our experiences here are somehow wiped clean when we log off, as though our brains were nothing more than computer caches that are emptied when we log off, is a falsehood.

"Virtual" though it may be, Second Life is, like any other media, electronic or otherwise, an extension of our real life, rather than something set off from it by a sort of magical firewall. If we have a good time when we are logged in, we usually remain happy when we log off. If we have experienced something unpleasant in-world, the bad aftertaste of that experience generally remains with us for some time afterwards. What happens here does matter in real life.


"Virtual Rape" is a rather fuzzy term that encompasses a few different types of behavior. First, however, it needs to be emphasized that the term does NOT imply that simulated rape in Second Life is the same as the real thing in the physical world. Virtual rape is obviously not nearly as dangerous or traumatic as a real sexual assault, whatever form it may take. "Virtual rape" is called "rape" by analogy with other such activities in virtual worlds, as for instance "virtual sex" (which is, of course, also not "physical" in the sense that real sex is, and not subject to the same potential consequences).

What is usually called "virtual rape" in the media refers to a specialized and sexualized form of "griefing," in which one resident uses chat, animations, scripts, or objects to harass another resident, with the addition of sexual imagery that is intended to upset, disturb, or simulate something like an actual sexual assault. This kind of behavior can range from communicating disturbingly violent and sexual language through chat and IM, to decoying a victim into accepting a sexual animation. There are a number of reasonably effective strategies for dealing with this kind of virtual assault. (Many of these are included in the SLLU Feminist Network's The Newbie Woman's SL Survival Kit, available online here: )

More insidious and vastly more common is the second type of "virtual rape," which is a type of consensual role play between two or more residents. This form of role play involves all parties simulating a rape through chat, emotes, animations and scripts. Because it is consensual, this form of "virtual rape" is more difficult to address in SL. And because it reinforces rape myths and misogynist attitudes about female sexuality and violence, it is, in the long run, much more harmful than virtual attacks upon unwilling avatars.


Griefing attacks, in which (for instance) a resident is "rammed" by another wearing a penis attachment, or assaulted with unwelcome sexual chat, are in no way "consensual." However, while often disturbing or sickening, they are also obviously not rape in any real sense.

Similarly, consensual rape role play is not the same as "rape," both because it IS consensual, and because it does not involve real physical violence.

But while this is true, the issue of consent is far more complicated than many people are willing to admit. There are many ways to compel behavior without resorting to the threat of physical violence or force. Emotional blackmail, threats, and other kinds of manipulation can frequently have the same effect, as has been well documented in research on cyber-bullying on the internet. While one must, without evidence to the contrary, assume that any given individual's consent has not been coerced, it is simplistic to assume that other forms of compulsion are never employed in Second Life.


It is much easier to escape from uncomfortable or upsetting situations in Second Life than it is in the physical world. But the very fact that one has been placed in a disturbing situation that needs to be "escaped from" is itself often upsetting, just as an attempted assault in the real world can be nearly as upsetting as a successful one. And logging out of a disturbing situation doesn't make what happened "go away": it still happened.

Finally, the view that it is the victim who must leave simply reinforces the violator's sende of success and power over the victim. Merely logging off reinforces antisocial behavior because the perpetrator has "gotten away with it," and successfully victimized someone.


In many ways, the role playing and simulations of violence against women within SL -- things like rape role play, or sexual slavery -- work in the same way that any pornography does. They are usually used as sexually arousing material by at least one of the participants.

The effects of the use of pornography, and in particular of "extreme" pornography (featuring not only explicit sexuality, but degradation and violence), have been the subject of much study by psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists since at least the 1970s. The overwhelming weight of evidence suggests that there is a connection between pornography and attitudes towards violence against women. In particular, extreme pornography has been shown to desensitize the user to the idea of sexual violence, and to reinforce "rape myths," such as the idea that rape victims really "want it," or were "asking for it." While much of the research has focussed upon the link between pornography and the acting out of sexual violence, the research also suggests that one effect of the widespread use of pornography is to make society as a whole more "tolerant" of violence against women, and less sympathetic to its victims.


While early research did little more than show that those who engaged in sexual violence also used pornography, researchers in the last 25 years have focussed upon demonstrating and proving the cause-and-effect relationship between these two. Most of these studies are academic work, published in peer-reviewed journals and books, and employ the standard and established methodologies of their disciplines to ensure that their results are valid and correct. This includes the use of "control groups" and before-and-after sampling of attitudes to demonstrate that changes to those attitudes were brought about by the exposure. Most studies now also allow for a significant lapse in time between exposure and testing (ranging from days to months) in order to show that the impacts of exposure are not merely temporary. A few studies have gone so far as to employ polygraph tests to validate the authenticity of responses by test subjects.

It needs again to be emphasized that most of these studies have been conducted by academics employing the standard and recognized tools of their disciplines to ensure the validity of their results. That they are (unlike many of the online articles that take issue with their findings) also peer-reviewed means that those results are evaluated by professionals in the field before publication. While there are, of course, studies that have questioned the cause-and-effect relationship between pornography and harmful attitudes and behaviours, the overwhelming weight of evidence today has established that there is a connection.


One of the things that makes much of the pornographic content of SL different from, and perhaps more dangerous than, much of what is available elsewhere on the internet or other media is the element of role play that is involved. While much mainstream pornography, in print, movie, or electronic media, is essentially passive, role play is interactive: this means that we become far more emotionally and psychologically involved in it than we do when watching a story about someone else unfold on a screen.

It also means that its emotional, psychological, and even intellectual impact is more powerful. The same things that make role play such a powerfully attractive activity in SL also, of course, render it potentially more dangerous. Simulating a rape scenario in role play, for instance, is much more "exciting," engaging, and possibly sexually arousing than just watching rape porn, but the negative impacts – the psychological and emotional effects that desensitize the role player to sexual violence, or reinforce rape myths – are also, and for the same reason, more powerful.

An additional point of importance is that role play in SL is most usually not merely interactive; it is also interpersonal. This becomes an issue when we remember that each time an act of violence or subjugation against women is acted out in role play, a woman (or someone representing a woman) has actively consented to it. The very fact that a woman has done so reinforces the myth that women "like" to be subjugated, find rape "sexy," and fantasize about being battered.


The so-called "catharsis" theory, which argues that the urge to behave in antisocial and violent ways can be "purged" by employing fantasy and role play instead of real action, has been largely discredited by research that shows that such fantasy and role play actually reinforce and strengthen the attitudes and urges that lie behind violent behaviour. Research also shows that pornography use, as is the case with most addictions, usually leads to an escalation, as users become sated with pornography, and seek fresh and more "satisfying" thrills from increasingly violent and, in some cases, real stimulus.


Sometimes victims of violent crime or abuse find "safe" re-enactments or role play that echoes the original crime attractive or even therapeutic, largely because it enables the victim to feel in control of a situation where control was originally denied them.

It is impossible to know with any degree of certainty how many women who engage in role playing sexual violence in SL do so for this reason, but it seems that there are some that do. Women who do so are free to make that choice, of course; nonetheless, an uncontrolled environment like Second Life may not be a very safe environment in which to do this.


D/s is the abbreviated form of "Dom/submissive" or (where the "dominant" is a female) "Domme/submissive." D/s is, by definition, a consensual practice in which one partner takes on the role of "Dom" or "Domme," and one or more others assumes the position of "sub." In theory, D/s involves a sort of contractual exchange of power between submissive and Dominant: the submissive willingly "gifts" control and power to the Dominant, who in turn accepts that power with an acknowledgment of the responsibility that he or she now has for the well-being of the submissive. D/s is frequently centred around sexual practices, but need not be limited to these. D/s, in theory, always involves some degree of role play, but also has many adherents in real life, and SL D/s relationships sometimes extend into the real world as well.

BDSM ("bondage / domination / sadism or submission / masochism") is a kind of subset of D/s, but is in practice an imprecise umbrella term that can be applied to a wide variety of different behaviours in both physical life and real life. What generally distinguishes BDSM from other forms of D/s is the addition of elements of bondage (sometimes, but not always, in sex play), or physical violence. This violence and bondage should be always consensual: the sub "wants" to be hurt or restrained, while the Dom or Domme enjoys inflicting pain or restraint.

Many purist BDSMers insist upon the importance of "SSC," or "safe, sane, and consensual" practices. An important component of this is the establishment of a "safeword," a word or term that can be used by the submissive to communicate, "out of character," that his or her limits of comfort have been reached or exceeded. These limits should theoretically ensure that BDSM never shades over into non-consensual abuse.

Other BDSMers, arguing that it is never possible to be truly "safe" in these practices, prefer to talk about "RACK," or "Risk-accepted or -aware consensual kink." In some ways, "RACK" is a more honest approach to BDSM practices than "SSC," because it acknowledges the "risk" involved in them. In practice, too, "RACK" is a much more open term, and basically implies that any type of sexual kink, regardless of how "distasteful" or dangerous, is allowable so long as both parties are aware of, and consent to, the risks involved.

There is some debate among those who self-identity as BDSM within SL about the exact meaning of the term BDSM itself, with "purists" restricting its meaning to a relatively small subset of dominants and submissives who engage according to reasonably set principles established by real life BDSM organizations. One of the problems with the practice of what is often called "BDSM" in Second Life is that the term has been adopted by many who do not understand or choose to subscribe to "SSC." "BDSM," for instance, has been co-opted as a term by groups such as Goreans and Dolcett practitioners, and others whose behaviours involve D/s relationships, but fall outside the principles of "purist" BDSM. An additional concern is that the issue of consent is problematic when the very nature of the relationship of the submissive to the Dominant is all about ceding control, power, and consent. Other "Doms" use Second Life as a means of recruiting "subs" in "real life," which raises issues about the safety of the submissive.

It is important to note that one important element of D/s and BDSM, taken as a whole, is that roles are not gender specific: Dominants and submissives can both be of either gender. However, within individual relationships between male Doms and female subs, it is entirely likely that misogynist attitudes and practices will form a part of the play.


The Restrained Life Viewer (RLV) is an add-on to SL viewers that allows the user to give up partial or full control of her or his avatar to another resident. It has a great many uses, but has become particularly popular among a segment of BDSM users who enjoy the extra excitement that comes when the "sub" in the relationship loses control of what is happening. In one way, the RLV removes the element of consent from an avatar's actions. At the same time, of course, a "sub" must consent to use the RLV in the first place, and can (with varying degrees of difficulty) disable it should she or he become uncomfortable with the way it is being used.

Many "pure" BDSM practitioners dislike the RLV, arguing that the essence of submission lies in consciously choosing to give up control upon demand.


Adherents of BDSM frequently take the view that they are "hard wired" to be submissives or Dominants, and that any opposition to their practices, including objections to the public displays of the D/s relationship, represents a form of discrimination similar to that faced by gays, lesbians, and transsexuals. In Second Life, for instance, it is not unusual to see a Dom or Domme dragging a sub around shopping malls or other "public" places on a chain, while subs usually show their subservient position to their Dom/mes in public by referring to the latter as "Master" or "Mistress."

An important issue for many feminists is that such public displays of submission can reinforce misogynist attitudes towards gender relations. It can be argued that the show of love represented by public displays of affection between LGBT couples (holding hands, hugging, and kissing, for instance) is of a rather different order than the meanings implicit in acting out a D/s relationship in public, where it is not affection but subjugation that is being displayed.

As always, responding to issues as complex as D/s and BDSM requires an intelligent and critical attempt to balance the rights of others (including women who are involved by their own consent) with the potential dangers such practices may pose to society as a whole.


Dolcett and Vore are sexual fetishes that involve the "killing" and "eating" of a sexual partner. The form of death is often a highly sexualized form of violence (for instance, running a spit through a woman's vagina and out her mouth), and much of the sexual "pleasure" derives from the "preparation" (for instance, the butchering) of the corpse. Much of the focus of this "preparation" is upon the primary and secondary sexual organs. Specially scripted objects and animations are available for this kind of role play.

There are a number of Dolcett and Vore sims in Second Life.


In addition to specialized forms of pornographic role play like Dolcett, there are places, and objects for sale, that permit the role playing of "snuff" porn, in which the (almost invariably) female victim is murdered either before or after sexual contact. Objects that can be purchased in Second Life for this specific purpose include gas chambers, guns, nooses, knifes, butcher tables and power tools. Some specialized sex equipment such as beds include animations that allow one lover to strangle or smother the other.


Feminism has struggled long and hard to ensure that women have the freedom to choose their own beliefs, actions, and sexual expression. Opposing the particular choices that women may make does not mean that feminists want to take away those rights: rather, feminists insist that all people (including women) take responsibility for the consequences of the choices they make.

A practice or opinion that is misogynist or reinforces rape myths does not suddenly become "okay" because it is expressed by a woman, rather than by a man. While feminists will continue to fight for a woman's right to express herself as she chooses, it will also continue to challenge misogyny wherever it occurs, regardless of the gender of the person from whom it originates.

In practice, then, feminism supports a woman's right to choose, but asks that all women consider the possible consequences and meanings of those choices very carefully.


If avoiding offence by witnessing something upsetting or disturbing is one's main concern, then it is indeed best to simply avoid places where it is likely that offensive content will be found.

However, the main objections to representations of violence against women in Second Life are not that they are "offensive" or repugnant (although they undoubtedly are these things as well). The real concern is that these can cause social harm by reinforcing misogynist attitudes and RL myths about violence against women. Avoiding such materials in Second Life may seem an attractive option, but pretending that such things don't exist or aren't happening does nothing to deal with these more harmful effects. Ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away.


The "censorship" card is one that is frequently played against feminists concerns, as is the accusation that feminists who are concerned about misogynist sexual practices are "anti-sex." Yet, all societies, even the most "free," include limits to public expression, usually determined on the basis of their wider social harm. For instance, there are generally limits to "hate speech," directed against a particular gender, sexuality, or race. Similarly, incitement to violence is illegal in most societies. "Censorship," in practice, is a loaded term that we use when we disapprove of something that is being banned. And yet most people do believe that some things, at least, should be prohibited.

The real question, then, is not about censorship itself, but rather where the "line" that balances the rights of free speech with the potential for social harm should be drawn. If the damage done by extreme pornography or expressions of violent misogyny is severe or potentially dangerous enough, it could be argued that these comprise a form of "hate speech" that should be restricted.

Another approach is to avoid any response that might look like censorship, but to confront dangerous or objectionable speech and behavior wherever they occur directly with counter-arguments, in the hope of educating society as a whole about the social harm caused by misogynist and antisocial behavior. This approach does not seek bans or restrictions on behavior, but works instead to change underlying attitudes that enable such behavior.