I met my first boyfriend in a Sailor Moon chat room. For the uninitiated, Sailor Moon was a Japanese anime show that was “popular” in the late 1990s. My online alter ego, a character I named Hiko Aino (Japanese for “fire child of love”), was tall, graceful, and witty—everything that I, at the time, was decidedly not. After a few weeks of frequenting the chat room, I started a relationship with a guy whose online persona was a dog (yes, a dog, as in a canine…oh, the shame is endless). It’s probably worth mentioning I was thirteen at the time and wildly unpopular at school (given what I just shared, I can’t imagine why). But the chat room allowed me to reinvent myself, connect with others with similar interests, and—in short—escape the sad reality of middle school. And although the Sailor Moon chat room is probably long gone, other virtual worlds have sprung up in its wake. One such environment is the online community named Second Life.
In contrast to the Sailor Moon chat room of my youth, Second Life is a 3D virtual world that allows its “residents” to fully customize their avatars and their environments. Because many users invest as much time in their Second lives as they devote to their real lives, it is not surprising that residents regularly cultivate online romantic and sexual relationships with one another. Recently, researchers at the University of Cambridge conducted an online survey of 235 Second Life residents, examining the ways in which Second Life users differ from the population at large, the frequency with which they engaged in online (and offline) sexual activities, and their motivations for pursuing such relationships.1
Participants were recruited directly through Second Life as well as through secondary websites pertaining to this online community, including forums and message boards. This sample was then compared to a nationally representative sample of U.S. citizens in order to determine how Second Life users differ from the broader population in terms of their basic demographic characteristics and relationship experiences. On average, Second Life users were older, more educated, and less religious than the general population. With respect to their offline relationship experiences, Second Life users—particularly those in older age brackets—were less likely than the U.S. population to be married and have children.
However, the primary goal of the study was to examine Second Life residents’ sexual and cybersexual experiences. Perhaps not surprisingly, cybersex is quite common in Second Life, with over 90% of residents reporting virtual sexual relations at some point. In fact, users indicated that approximately 10% of their time spent in the online environment is devoted to cybersex. Consistent with the notion that online sexual activities tend to be more “accessible, affordable, and anonymous” than sexual activities in real life,2 individuals reported having a greater number of online sexual partners per year compared to offline sexual partners (with a median of three online partners versus one offline partner).
Those who pursued online sexual relationships reported being motivated by a desire for sexual release, an emotional connection, or a safe environment that lends itself to experimentation. Second Life may be a safer place for individuals to explore their sexual interests compared to real life, as residents reported engaging in a wider variety of sexual practices online than offline (it’s amazing what you can do when you get rid of gravity). In the real world, individuals’ interest in kinkier varieties of sex (such as costume play, group sex, and observing others) tended to outweigh their actual experience, whereas those who were interested in pursuing such activities in an online environment typically reported having engaged in such virtual activities at some point. In short, it seems Second Life greater access to certain types of sexual experiences than does the real world.
For many, Second Life is more than an outlet for self-expression, sexual or otherwise; the emotional and sexual bonds that residents form with one another are real (figuratively speaking). Some people may even treat their online relationships as a substitute for relationships in real life.3 This may be particularly true for those who have trouble expressing themselves freely on a day-to-day basis, as virtual environments allow individuals to connect with others who share similar interests that may otherwise be considered taboo, whether it be anal play or Japanese anime (clearly, my relationship with my online boyfriend was devoted strictly to the latter). Nevertheless, I find it strangely comforting to think that, should I ever find myself feeling shunned or isolated again, I can always lead a Second life.
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1Craft, A. J. (2012). Love 2.0: A quantitative exploration of sex and relationships in the virtual world Second Life. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 939–947.
2Cooper, A., Scherer, C., Boies, S., & Gordon, B. (1999). Sexuality on the Internet: From sexual exploration to pathological expression. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 30, 154–164.
3Gilbert, R. L., Murphy, N. A., & Ávalos, M. (2011). Communication patterns and satisfaction levels in 3D versus real life intimate relationships. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14, 585–589.
Elizabeth A. Schoenfeld - Science of Relationships articles
Liz’s research focuses on love, particularly its development over time and its expression in day-to-day life. She also studies the impact of romantic relationships on physical health, as well as how individuals’ sexual relationships are tied to their personal attributes and broader relationship dynamics.