Sunday, 3 May 2009

A Paddle by Any Other Name: Thoughts on Defining the “Adult” in Second Life, Part I I

(Go to Part I)

You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think.”
Dorothy Parker

Ah, words, words, words. And the funny, and sometimes powerful things you can do with them.

There have always been those who have argued that words are unimportant, definitions irrelevant: what matters are the things themselves. Take the famous case of Juliet, arguing herself into an acceptance of her love for Romeo, despite the fact that her new paramour belongs to a hated rival family. Well, so what? muses the precocious 13 year-old. Whatever his name, he is what he is: “that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Sounds convincing, doesn't it? Yet it is easy to forget how mistaken, how really disastrously wrong Juliet actually is here, for her “rose” is irrevocably, irredeemably a Montague, and she a Capulet. The origin of the tragedy that follows, that final scene littered with sad young dead people, is to be found in the signification of those two names, and the way in which they insist upon the definition of the two lovers as unwilling players in a deadly rivalry. Certainly, Juliet's family didn't think that Romeo smelled “as sweet.” It is altogether too bad that the young lover's last name wasn't Smith (or Rossi, or Conti): the play might have ended instead with the happy pubescent couple moving into a nice suburban villa with all the mod cons on the outskirts of Verona.

So, words matter, and definitions count. This is as true, perhaps even more true, of Second Life as it is of the physical world in which we actually live. Consider, for example, the case of the “paddle.” For those who don't know, the “paddle” is an object, shaped variously like a cricket bat or an oversized ping-pong paddle, that can be worn and used to virtually “spank” other avatars in the vicinity. The animation is simple and predictable: when the wearer clicks on another avatar, he or she takes a quick swing, and there is a satisfying “thwack” sound. In some versions that I have seen, the object adds a line to the local chat to the effect that “so-and-so has spanked so-and-so on the ass.” This is a surprisingly common item, and not, as I might have guessed, limited to those who enjoy playing the ever-popular “Schoolmaster and Pupil” game (or who, alternately, have salaciously pleasant memories of the uses to which their parent's rec room ping pong table might be put). It is a perennial favourite at dance clubs, for example. Personally, I find this object pretty unobjectionable, if mildly moronic, but there are those, apparently, who think it endlessly amusing. Clearly, it takes all kinds.

Suppose we take essentially the same object, and rename it, from “paddle” to “wifebeater.” The “wifebeaters” that I have seen are shaped like a riding crop (catering to those who prefer a good romping game of “Dastardly Squire and Buxom Milkmaid,” I suppose), but in function and action, it is essentially identical to the “paddle.” So, why is the “wifebeater” so objectionable, where the “paddle” is merely idiotic? The answer, of course, lies in the name that has been bestowed upon the former. While the object and its function remain fundamentally unchanged, the connotations, the secondary meanings and associations of the term “wifebeater” are horrific, especially to anyone with even a passing acquaintance of the grim reality towards which the word gestures. This is a pretty vital point that some seem quite unable to grasp: neither object in themselves causes any “actual” harm, but the term wifebeater has the very real potential to hurt and damage.

I don't want to belabor the point, but one more example might make this notion of the power of names even clearer. I recently sent in Abuse Reports concerning two sex animations for sale at a stall in a BDSM sim, the one called “Forced Missionary,” and the other “Forced Doggie Style.” Images associated with each showed a “couple” engaged in copulation employing the specified positions, the chief thing distinguishing these from other similar animations apparently being the fact that the male was, in each case, pinning the female down, or holding her in place, by her hair. (Incidentally, the employment of the euphemism “forced” seems to have been designed as way around using the term “rape,” but has become instead merely a synonym for it, another example of how trying to engineer a redefinition of an existing word generally doesn't work.)

Now, hair-pulling has never been my thing. To begin with, it hurts. And I think I may also have been traumatized by an incident in the second grade involving a particularly promising aspirant to juvenile delinquency by the name of Charlie McKendrick. However, such is my strength of will and mind that I can rise above this, and frankly declare that I really have no moral or ideological objections to coiffure-tugging during the act of sex. What I do, strenuously, object to is the deliberate association of this with rape, which is clearly what is intended by the names given to these two animations. It is an association which trivializes a very real and enormously destructive act all too common in our culture. Even a simulated rape – or, more accurately, a simulation that has been identified as such – has the potential to cause real pain to those who have been the victims real life sexual assault. Most importantly, perhaps, the dwindling of real life trauma into a “game” reinforces the notion that rape is acceptable, and even “fun.” Had these animations been differently named, my view of them might have prompted an involuntary shudder (shades of the execrable C. McKendrick), but I would not have sent in an abuse report. In essence, I was reporting the names of these animations, rather than the animations themselves, but that is a subtle distinction that would likely have escaped Linden Lab's enforcers.

So, words have power. They can titillate, distort, and hurt. They can transform the things to which they are applied into something else: they can turn a horsewhip into a “wifebeater,” and turn a friendly(?) game of hair-pulling into a sexual assault. And it is this power that also makes words remarkably effective weapons. Through the power of language, I can impose an identity on something or someone; I can damn or praise with meanings and associations that may be quite exterior to the person or thing so transformed. With words, in short, I can redefine almost anything.

(Go to Part III)


  1. Nicely written posts! You make great points about the power of circumstances and definition of words. I tend to agree that the Lindens and probably most other people for that matter shrug off the power of certain words such as "wifebeater" or "forced [insert sexual position here]" because it's not as explicit and exact as "domestic abuse" or "rape". But there are implications in less direct wording as you mentioned.

    In this blog post the author contacted the creator of the "victimized" skin and face sets. While the creator of the "skins" (because apparently they are cloth layers and that makes it better somehow) said they were not intended for rape role play or even necessarily violence against women since they are cloth layers that can be worn by male and female avatars. But to me the word "victimized" implies being a victim of either rape or other violence. And with the depiction of it being on a naked female avatar without any indication that it's not necessarily an entire skin but cloth layers you can add to your avatar and the inclusion of the words "3 levels of abuse"...the thought of falling off your virtual moped at top speed isn't what comes to mind.

  2. Thanks Industria, and most especially for the link. It is nice to know that, at the least, this issue is generating discussion.

    I agree with you entirely about the particular items that are the focus of this discussion. The pseudo-forensic discussion about the absence of genital wounding on the "victimized" layers would be funny if it wasn't also frightening and disturbing: someone is having a difficult time keeping the lines between RL and SL clear.

    It is, again, the language employed, and not the function or even the "look" (in this instance, anyway) of the layers that is the point. I talked to one woman who wanted to buy this product: she was an RP gamer in a fantasy/medieval sim who played a female warrior, and wanted a skin that showed the effects on her avatar of a defeat in combat. I'm not particularly happy about that use of the skin either, but it is certainly a great deal less objectionable than using it as a "rape" texture.

    The key point, however, as you note, is that the skin (or clothing layer) is defined or labeled as a depiction of physical abuse. Warriors are NOT "victimized" by their opponents, they are beaten by them. People who fall off motorbikes aren't "abused" by the road; they are injured by it. The terms "victimized" and "abuse" CLEARLY denote that this is a representation of physical abuse (whether rape or not), and that was is being represented her is a victim. And the fact that the maker talks about producing a separate but similar product for males effectively eliminates the suggestion that this product is gender-neutral.

    I probably would not AR an identical skin that was labeled differently. I certainly would not AR someone using it to represent the wounds that resulted from a combat. What is objectionable, indeed, abhorrent, are the meanings that the maker herself has attached to it through the language she has used.

  3. Again, you hit the nail on the head. :)