Anyone who conducted any kind of study of net culture at any time throughout the latter half of the nineties read, at some point, Julian Dibbell's pioneering essay A Rape in Cyberspace, originally published in The Village Voice in 1993, and later republished as the first chapter of his 1998 book My Tiny Life. The current essay, "Samantha, Among Others", forms Chapter 4 of the same book, and in many ways represents a follow-up to the author's early reflections, where he goes on to explore the ramifications of playing with personae, gender and relationships in the online world. It has been very slightly altered for inclusion here. Full publication details for My Tiny Life can be found at the end of the article.
I should tell you now, I guess, about Samantha. Or tell you, anyway, as much as I know about her, which is either precious little or nearly everything, or maybe both, depending on how you look at it.
I know, for one thing, exactly what people saw when they glanced her way: It's really her, the brief description read, twitching her nose just like she did on the show. You see a light dusting of white powder on her upper lip, which might explain the nose-twitching, and an anxious dream of power in her eyes. I know, too, exactly what she did the first time she showed up on LambdaMOO. And exactly what she did on the last. And roughly what she did on every visit in between. I know that no one on the MOO knew her better than I did, or had ever been closer to me than she was.
But I may never know, I think, in any final way, the things it mattered most for me to know about Samantha. My intimate access to the facts of her online life was a trivial achievement, after all. I'd made her, named her, crafted her appearance, and animated her every step, her every utterance on the MOO. How could I not have known her in the ways I did? To put it plainly, she was me: a morph, in MOOspeak, or in a different language alter ego. An "other self." And if the self I'd lived with in RL for over thirty-one years remained in many respects a mystery to me, I can't pretend my brief acquaintance with this new one ever really let me grasp much more about her than the basics of her virtual biography. Precisely who she was to me, and to the world she lived in - these are the things about Samantha that I struggle still to make some satisfying sense of, and suspect I never will.
I'd had other morphs, of course, and would have more. There was the dolphin - Faaa, I called him, after the tragic, finny hero of the 1973 movie thriller Day of the Dolphin - and the rest: a handful of text-bodies I'd written and erased on the fly, or kept around for the purposes of an occasional, joking transformation. But prior to Samantha my morph-making had not yet crossed the gender line, and from the instant I first stepped into her, I felt the difference about the same way you feel the sudden lightness when an elevator starts to drop.
The moment still lives fresh in my mind. I created her one winter evening not long after the toading of Dr. Jest: replaced my hefty description of Samantha's cousin Dr. Bombay (I'd written him as a walking optical illusion, oscillating randomly between the sitcom's plump, pseudoscholarly fop and the image of a lean old streetwise back-alley medic) with her four-line wisp of text (It's really her ... ), typed a brief command that rendered the sex change complete (@gender female), and saved the persona to a new file under Samantha's name. And then I headed out to show my creation to the world.
Or more precisely, I headed out to show her to my friend Sebastiano. Not that I wanted him especially to see her, but someone had to, and Sebastiano happened to be the only MOOer of my acquaintance logged in just then. Besides which, I'd been meaning to pay him a visit for some time. Sebastiano lived in an airy cottage in the middle of Weaveworld, a rolling, woodsy region of the MOO tucked in amid the fibers of a tapestry hanging from a wall inside the barn, and he had promised to show me around the neighborhood someday. The place had been conceived in part, Sebastiano told me, as a sort of subcommunity for Lambda's queer contingent, a realm where the sympathetically oriented could build their homes and fill in a landscape together, and I was curious to see how this experiment in creative sociogeography was working out. And so I joined my friend that night, and we went walking, he and I - a thirtysomething gay computer scientist wearing the shape of a sullen teenboy lust-object, and a heterosexual adult male wrapped in a childhood recollection of pop-iconic femininity - along the leafy, moonlit pathways of Weaveworld.
At least I remember them as moonlit. I have a lot of memories about that night, not all of them quite accurate perhaps, but all still remarkably, sensorily present to me. They linger largely as a series of lucid images, the vibrant residue of a long and long-forgotten scroll of monochrome text: our hike from Sebastiano's cottage down a rolling green hillside, our pause amid a tidy, village-like cluster of little sandstone buildings, our passage through the small town square and on to a vaguely tropical forest's edge, where we sat on benches beneath the stars, watching an automated monkey (Sebastiano's work) cavort among the trees. But most of all what I remember is the curious, enveloping sensation through which I apprehended these scenes, a sensation so delicate I could barely pick it out from the surrounding swirl of impressions and yet so insistently attached to all of them I could hardly have failed to notice it.
Or ultimately to have identified it. For though at first I couldn't have begun to say just whence this gauzy feeling came, by the time Sebastiano and I reached the monkey trees I knew there wasn't any mistaking its source: it was Samantha's skin - a woman's skin - and the feeling was that of being in it.
I hadn't expected anything like this. I hadn't thought, in fact, that I'd really be aware at all of the particular morph I was in. I'd hoped, of course, that Sebastiano might take note of my makeover and say something appreciative; and I felt gratified when he did. But I'd assumed that after that Samantha's presence would fade from my imagination, coming quickly to feel the same way my other morphs tended to - like costumes, donned in the spirit of the vast, extended costume party LambdaMOO sometimes seemed to be, but easily ignored once they'd made their splash.
Not that I didn't feel a kind of closeness to those masks, or sense certain deeply embedded aspects of myself carved into the surfaces of some of them. My attachment to the dolphin Faaa, for instance, was surely not without some lurking totemic significance. And as for Dr. Bombay, my core persona, I had no doubt that the wavering ambiguity I'd written into his description - its uneasy suspension between intellectualized ridiculousness and hardened competence - encoded all sorts of conflicting and barely examined truths about my self-image, both in VR and out of it. But in the end, however meaningful the statements these morphs made about me, in my mind they by and large remained just that: statements, attached to the phantom body I projected into MOOspace no more or less intimately than any slogan I might wear on a T-shirt.
Whereas Samantha - well, Samantha fit that body so closely I couldn't really detect the place where she began and the body ended. Nor did I very much want to. For here was the second surprise about being Samantha: it felt delicious. It felt soft, and graceful, and sexually alluring. It felt receptive, and charming, and poised, and several other ideally "feminine" things I'd thought myself too sophisticated to imagine as the defining aspects of a woman's inner life. Yet here they were, defining my experience of virtual womanhood in ways my intellect seemed to have nothing to do with, in ways that bypassed all the layers of irony built into my half-parodic identification with a half-parodic TV witch-mom and went straight to whatever part of me it was that found the fictions of gender as solidly believable as the ground beneath my feet.
Was I at all embarrassed then, that night, walking around possessed by so predictable a notion of what it felt like to be a woman? On some level yes, I suppose I was. But mostly, I confess, I was enchanted. Enchanted with myself, no less - or with this temporary self, I should say, though it came to essentially the same narcissistic thing. I chatted amiably enough with Sebastiano about the sights and social affairs of Weaveworld, but the truth was I'd lost all interest in the questions that had drawn me there. By now I was talking mainly just to hear myself talk, to hear the words pass through my head in Samantha's voice, and if there was anything in particular I wanted those words to be about, it really wasn't anything but Samantha. I would have liked to say exactly what it was I felt as I typed the text that moved her body around, to say just what was going on in my mind as I stood up playfully on one of the benches, walked along its surface, threw my head back to look up with a quiet smile at the stars.
But the words were slow to come, and when they finally did arrive they were not any I could call my own. They lent themselves to me, is how I'd put it - rose up into my thoughts out of the same basement warehouse of mass-cultural memories I'd borrowed Samantha from. For a brief Technicolor moment I saw Natalie Wood dancing self-enchantedly before a mirror in her finest party whites, and then the sentence just popped out, apropos of nothing my friend and I happened to be discussing right then but somehow, evidently, very much in need of being said:
"I feel pretty!" I declared, to the bemused Sebastiano, to the unhearing robot monkey, and to the warm night breezes I swear I felt caressing the smooth skin of Samantha's outstretched arms.
There was, of course, much more that might need saying. For that matter, there still is. That evening I had only begun to move beyond the shallowest engagement with the ways a gendered self could mutate and multiply inside the MOO and to this day I can hardly say I've plumbed the depths. But it wasn't long after Samantha's debut that I began to acquire an ampler understanding of the possibilities, and if I'm really going to tell you all I know about her, I suppose I'd better tell you roughly what that understanding was, and how I came to have it. I suppose, in other words, I'd better pause a while now to tell you what I know about the brief but passionate encounter of a girl called Lisbet and a boy called Emory.
Let me start, though, by admitting that I knew the characters themselves not very well, or not at all - I never met Lisbet, never even got a glimpse of her, and I came in contact with Emory only three or four times in all my virtual existence. Still, I was well acquainted with them both in some of their other incarnations. Emory, as it happens, was one of exu's morphs, a lanky, denim-clad kid she told me she had modeled on the adolescent memory of a longed-for older cousin. And Lisbet ("Preppy With a Past," a mutual friend once told me, "dark haired, white skinned, repressed") in fact belonged to the RL-male player I knew as Niacin, although it seemed to be a matter of some indifference just which of his aliases you called him by. He had a lot of morphs, and never really lingered long in any one of them. In one form or another, though, he'd been a friend of mine for about as long as I'd known exu, which is to say about as long as I'd been around the MOO.
In fact, it was about the time I met them both that Niacin and exu themselves first got to know each other. Not that I had anything to do with their acquaintance - and not that it had that much to do with the story of Lisbet and Emory. Not really. Those characters were still undreamt-of then, and anyway there wasn't much about exu and Niacin's relationship at first to differentiate it from the thousands of other casual connections formed every day in the public spaces of the MOO. They both were regulars at Club Doome, the lively hangout tucked away inside the train set in the guest room, and there amid the general banter they sometimes found themselves trading quips about such mutual interests as poststructuralist psychoanalytic theory, contemporary avant-garde literature, and obscurely remembered '70s pop tunes (exu was thirty-two in real life, Niacin was only a couple of years younger, and in the predominantly undergraduate environment of the MOO, we elders tended to be grateful for the presence of whatever peers our cultural radars could detect).
Beyond such passing moments of camaraderie, however, exu and Niacin might as well have been logging in to two different MOOs, for all their virtual lives coincided. exu, after all, was an experience-laden old-timer by then, an active veteran of the complex maneuverings of MOO politics and at the time well into her first full-blown tinysexual relationship, the extended affair with HortonWho that already was instructing her in the exhilarations and exasperations awaiting those who took virtual intimacy to its limits. Niacin, on the other hand, was just another newbie then - still blinking wide-eyed at the very fact of VR, still only dimly recognizing the full range of social interactions that the MOO made possible, content for now to pass his time just being witty among the witty semi-strangers of Club Doome. Inevitably his callowness would fade, but whether his virtual existence would really change much in the long run was still an open question. For many MOOers, the simple pleasures of collective banter remained throughout their MOOish days the most they ever asked for from the place, and from the looks of things young Niacin might very well have grown up to be just such a chat potato.
But then one day he took the leap that was to vault him into another orbit altogether: he made his first female morph. He called her Giustina and described her as a delicate specimen of fallen eighteenth-century gentility, and he wrote her a tattered but elegant silk gown and gave her elaborate tresses that were just beginning to come undone. I couldn't say just why he made her that way, or why he made himself a female persona at all, any more than I could say exactly what caused me to do the same, months later. I can, though, tell you that by the social standards of LambdaMOO we were neither of us doing anything particularly groundbreaking. Indeed, a year before Niacin first switched his gender, Pavel Curtis had already devoted a page or two of a paper on typical MOOish behaviors to the phenomenon of male players masquerading part- or full-time as females. So commonplace had the practice become, he remarked, that "many female players report that they are frequently (and sometimes quite aggressively) challenged to 'prove' that they are, in fact, female." ("To the best of my knowledge," he added, "male-presenting players are rarely if ever so challenged.")
Pavel also took a number of well-educated guesses as to why so many males might choose to pass as females in VR, but he didn't have a lot to say about what is probably the most meaningful answer to that question: Because they could. It was a remarkably easy thing to do, in point of fact - much easier certainly than it had ever been in the physical world, where the telltale flesh and bones of the cross-dresser created difficulties that, in a universe of pure text, could largely be transcended by a simple change of personal pronouns. And it was much easier too, for that matter, than might be deduced from Pavel's reports of spot-checks by self-appointed gender police. The truth is, such outright paranoia was really just a deviation from a far more nuanced norm, in which players generally took for granted the marked fluidity of gender in VR, yet at the same time also tended to take at face value the virtual gender of whomever they were interacting with. It wasn't a question of gullibility, mind you. It was simply that the players' need to slot their fellow players into the conceptual pigeonholes of gender turned out, in the end, to be more urgent than their need to know the biological truth about them. And thus it came to be the case that as a rule (and not without notable exceptions), a "female-presenting" player was presumed female until such time as someone went to the unlikely trouble of proving otherwise.
Why wonder, then, at the numbers of male MOOers who experimented with virtual drag? Or bother to ask what particular urges led them to do so in the first place? In real life, perhaps, the risk and effort and general stigma associated with effective cross-dressing might require of its practitioners a certain well-tended fire in the belly, but in an atmosphere like LambdaMOO it hardly took much in the way of inner compulsion to take the plunge. In fact it rarely took a lot more than a whim, as far as I could tell: a passing spell of boredom maybe, or a twitch of idle curiosity, and suddenly there you were, your gender flipped, your description rewritten, your new self loose among the MUDding crowds. And only then did you begin to sort out what, if anything, intrigued you about the experience.
Which isn't to say you might not have a lot of sorting out to do. As Pavel had concluded, and Lambda's collective wisdom confirmed, the payoffs of cross-gendered MOOing for male players were many and varied, and potentially rather knotty. Some players, of course, simply enjoyed the extra attention given to women in any social setting, and especially in one where men outnumbered them by about two to one. Others liked the challenge of deception, testing the limits of their ability to pass for female with a daring that Shannon McRae, another participant ethnographer of Lambda folkways, once wrote of as an improbable sort of " '90s machismo." Still others came to value the experience as a glimpse of life on the far side of the gender gap - a firsthand, eye-opening sampler of the routine harassments, double-edged perks, and broad-brushed preconceptions most women encounter every day. And naturally there were many players in whom any number of these sometimes contradictory motivations could be found commingling to one degree or another, which may begin to give you some idea of what a tricky proposition it could be to say just what was going on when real-life boys got it into their heads to become virtual girls.
But it got trickier, and for Niacin it quickly got about as tricky as it could. For of all the various ways in which tinytransvestism engaged the male imaginations of LambdaMOO, none complicated analysis quite so thoroughly as the one that soon became the centerpiece of Niacin's new life as an imaginary female.
Did I say complicated? The phrase is adequate, I guess. But if you really want a feel for the size and shape of what our boy was heading into, I suggest you consider briefly the incident that got him going in the first place:
Consider the girl he was that night - his second female morph, or maybe his third, a tautly sketched generation-Z neofeminist called Furie, about five eight, chin-length black hair tucked into a black stocking cap emblazoned HIPS TITS LIPS = POWER, black jeans, white T-shirt, harness boots, black hooded Carhartt jacket, and on the back of her left hand, between the thumb and forefinger, a small dark blue tattoo in the shape of a gothic cross.
Consider, too, the unmistakable attentions of a certain Blaize, a female-presenting character who'd been friends with Niacin for a while now, who knew of his cross-gendered creations, who even recognized Furie as one of them the moment she met her in the living room that evening (it wasn't hard - morphs changed a player's name and description only, not the readily accessible object number attached to the player's account). Who nonetheless found herself drawn to the girl in a more than amicable way.
Consider, then, the fact that Niacin, though still a netsex virgin after six months' MOOing, was well-enough informed by now to know where Blaize's open flirtations were headed. Consider the pent-up curiosity they stirred in him. Consider his excitement, his anxiety, as Furie flirted back. His half-panicked, half-suggestive exit to the mansion's roof. The readiness with which Blaize followed. And there, at last, the meeting of their virtual lips tits hips, high up above the grounds of LambdaMOO, a swirl of textual gropings exchanged almost as fast as network lag times would allow and brought, alas, to a premature end when Niacin's RL roommate had to use the phone and left him staring at his abruptly disconnected computer, shaken, aroused, in wonder.
And after you're done considering all that, save a thought or two for this detail: it is not known to me, nor was it known to Niacin with any certainty, what the real-life gender of the character who deflowered him was. "The word is that she was a he RL," Niacin told me many months later on an afternoon visit to my TV set, "but I never found out one way or another. I sorta thought Blaize was a girl at the time, but I was obviously aware of the possibilities to the contrary."
Obviously: he was one such possibility himself.
All right now: how would you propose to locate on the standard-issue map of human sexualities what happened between Blaize and Furie that night?
I can tell you that in the real world Niacin had always lived and lusted as a heterosexual. I can tell you too that in the virtual world it was hardly unheard of for straight men to log on as queer women and cruise for girl-girl action, with the predictable result that much if not most of the lesbian sex that took place on the MOO was performed by smirking pairs of mutually deceived male players. But Niacin was not so easily taken in, nor did his casual recognition of Blaize's sexual indeterminacy suggest that he was all that eager to be. He knew that even if Blaize was actually a woman, the chances that she very firmly believed him to be one were far too slim to let him claim their liaison had stolen him a peek into the secret life of lesbians. Yet he also knew that even if Blaize was really a man, he couldn't quite claim that he'd just experienced his first homosexual encounter either.
What had it truly been then, underneath the surface? A straight couple heated in their embrace by the exoticizing mediation of a same-sex fantasy? Two men joined by their feminine reflection in a postmodern variation on the ancient, murkily homoerotic theme of the circle jerk? Or had it, perhaps, been finally nothing else but what its surface mutely insisted it to be: an unresolved pastiche of possible bodies both real and imagined, a moment of attraction suspended among the available categories of gender-marked desire like an image lost amid a house of mirrors, bounced endlessly from one to another to the next and back until you knew that if you tried to find where the truth of it stood you'd only end up equally as lost?
Well, maybe. Maybe not. In any event, as we've established, Niacin never bothered to learn just what flavor of body had reached out and touched him that night, nor did he ever have sex with Blaize again. Exactly why their history ended there I do not know, but I can tell you one thing: it wasn't because Niacin had lost interest in the possibilities their gender-warped assignation had introduced him to.
On the contrary, he set out almost immediately on what he would remember as "a really aggressive girlmorph cruising phase" - a manic many weeks of seductions, dalliances, brief affairs, half-hour stands. The configurations of these couplings were never quite as open-ended, though, as Blaize and Furie's multiply coded rooftop tryst had been. Invariably Niacin chose partners who presented male, invariably he believed them also to be RL males, and almost as invariably he was careful not to disturb whatever illusions they might cherish as to his own RL womanhood. It was, in short, a rather tightly scripted scenario he gravitated toward.
And what's more, whether he knew it or not at the time, the script was not exactly an original one. For here, again, the literature and the local lore had long before codified Niacin's new pastime as a characteristically MOOish phenomenon, with Pavel Curtis's brief but canonical discussion of tinydrag more or less revolving around the subject of those cross-dressers who contrived, as he somewhat clinically put it, "to entice male-presenting players into sexually explicit discussions and interactions."
Pavel's view seemed to be that these false seductresses did what they did primarily "for the fun of deceiving others," and in some ways Niacin's approach to his transgendered conquests vouched for this hypothesis. To be sure, he never displayed the sort of maliciousness that notoriously led some cross-dressers to log the text of their grapplings with eager, clueless mates and then to post the resulting document of said males' cluelessness in as public a virtual place as they could find. But you only had to look at the women Niacin invented to sense he took a certain craftsmanlike pleasure in overcoming potential skeptics. There was never anything too flagrant about their attractiveness, never anything that quite put them over that line separating the run of female text-bodies from what were sometimes called FabulousHotBabes, after a legendary character once created by a prominent male MOOer to parody the shameless porn fantasies in which (so common wisdom held) transvestites on the prowl usually cloaked themselves. Niacin's women were fantasies too, of course, but by the time he hit the scene, it seems, the common wisdom had so convinced most male players of their ability to spot the fictional temptresses among them that to tempt successfully required only a minimal respect for decorum, and maybe a little style.
And style, I should note, was something Niacin had more than the average MOOer's share of. I never got the opportunity to read the short stories he liked to write when he wasn't on the MOO (or otherwise slacking his way through the Austin, Texas, software-company day job that was his lifeline to VR), but I have no doubt that the people in them were drawn with memorable concision - or that he would have made an excellent writer of fashion-catalog copy as well. Indeed, some of his most popular MOO descriptions were, like Furie's, essentially nothing but the details of their clothing and their hairstyles, presented nonetheless with such precision and flair that they seemed almost the distillation of a personality, the story of a character condensed, as it were, into the moment just before its telling.
Further along in his morphmaking career, Niacin's profiles would at times get more elaborately literary, as for instance in the case of his middle-period tour de force Electraglide, your basic six-foot-one streaky-blonde half-Bengali snowboard goddess gurl, whose four-paragraph description interwove the usual spot-on fashion touches (Deadbolt baseball hat ... big K-Mart lumberjack shirt ... majorly bad cutoffs) with a neo-Beat litany of lyrical brush strokes (Electraglide is about wind-burn. Electraglide is about speed. Electraglide is strung so high that colors blur around her ... Electraglide isn't doing shoes today ... Electraglide is crazy). But even at their simplest, his creations always sparkled with the artful care he put into them, conjuring an image whose clarity the boys of LambdaMOO somehow found easy to mistake for honesty.
Nor, as I've said, was Niacin merely a passive witness to such mistakes. In his defense, I guess, it should be pointed out that on at least one occasion he did try to open a male suitor's mind to the possibility that the virtual female who stood before him might not in fact be animated by the body of an actual one ("Your clothes descriptions couldn't possibly be the work of a man," was the gentleman's blithely self-deluded reply). But even then, you'll note, Niacin forbore from cutting to the blunt truth of the situation, and more often he concealed that truth with a considerably more active hand. He made up convincingly mundane RL lives to go with his stylish VR personae, for example, and he fed their details to his partners. He "acquired" unused e-mail accounts from female colleagues at work, and he used those e-mail addresses and others to obtain from Lambda's tight-fisted registrar of players a small legion of "spare" accounts - each one a numbered object unto itself, each untraceable to the others, and each, therefore, a tool well-suited to the fraudulent ends Niacin now pursued.
But finally it has to be asked: Was the pursuit itself in fact what spurred him on? Did Niacin thrill, as the literature and lore might have us suspect, to the deceptions he was working? Was he for instance pleased as punch, do you suppose, to learn one day that a perfectly unobjectionable young MOOer (call him Raytheon) had fallen big-time for a spare of his named Alexandra - and not just for the appealing, red-haired lass of Alexandra's description-text, but for the RL woman with whom Raytheon believed he had shared a string of intimacies, with whom he'd exchanged stories about their respective real lives, with whom he was now painfully, obsessively in love? Trust me, folks: Niacin was not amused. He felt like a heel, in fact, and the feeling didn't exactly abate when (some time after he had nervously and without so much as a "Dear Raytheon" taken Alexandra out of circulation) Niacin and the unsuspecting dupe happened to become fairly good friends, obliging him regularly to nurse his silent guilt in the telepresence of the boy whose heart he hadn't ever meant to wound.
"I never told him the truth," Niacin confessed to me, a very long while later, "and I still feel weird about it."
Do not assume, then, that the practice of subterfuge was all fun and games for Niacin. In fact, let's clear this up right now: it wasn't even mostly fun and games. The truth is, deception thrilled him only a little - and frustrated him sort of a lot. "I wanted to be what I represented as much as possible," he later explained, and hence his private knowledge of the falsity of his representations proved "more of an annoyance than anything else." Niacin would frankly rather not have known that the men projecting their desires onto his projections were being bamboozled - if anything he would have preferred to be just as caught up in the illusion as they were. But if this was the only way he was going to experience how it felt to be on the receiving end of a man's desire for a woman, then bamboozle he must. For it was that experience, finally, and none other, that he wanted most from his secret incursions into the sex lives of other men.
Yes, but why, I hear you ask impatiently, why exactly did he want that? A fair question, I suppose, though I would have thought the answer obvious:
He got off on it.
Or as Niacin himself no less matter-of-factly put it: "It was hot." Beyond that, I'm not really sure what to tell you. I could point you back to the common wisdom, I guess, whose counsel obliged even the sober-minded Pavel Curtis to acknowledge, in the end, that the motivations of men who tinyvamp their fellow men might possibly have as much to do with erotic impulses as with pranksterish schadenfreude. "Some MUD players have suggested to me," he wrote, "that such transvestite flirts are perhaps acting out their own (latent or otherwise) homosexual urges or fantasies, taking advantage of the perfect safety of the MUD situation to see how it feels to approach other men." Pavel deemed the notion "plausible," and I for one would hardly dispute its basic validity.
Nor, it seems, would Niacin. "Homoerotic desire? Of course," he told me once when I asked if that had played a part in his cruiser-girl activities. "It was no big deal."
But there was also, surely, more to it than that. After all, if his was just a simple case of repressed homosexuality finally breaking out of its compulsory heterosexual shell, then why wasn't Niacin seeking the company of the MOO's many homosexuals? Why wasn't he "taking advantage of the perfect safety of the MUD situation" to see how it felt to approach men who were themselves unabashedly attracted to other men - the likes of Sebastiano and his Weaveworld pals, say? Was it really only lingering denial that kept his homoerotic explorations so thoroughgoingly entangled in a web of simulated heterosex?
I reserve for you the option of believing that it was. Read on, however, and I think you'll come to share my own conclusion that, in fact, the dormant sexual appetite now awakened in him was a taste for nothing quite so much as for that thoroughgoing entanglement itself.
He kissed the boys, then, and sometimes even made them cry, and all in all - those awkward teardrops notwithstanding - he found sufficient titillation in his cross-gendered forays to keep him coming back for more. But as the weeks passed and what had been a discovery became a habit, he started by and by to wonder if there wasn't, possibly, some dimension of the experience that was eluding him.
You have to keep in mind, of course, the sorts of situations he was falling into. Easily arranged, hastily consummated, and necessarily not much deeper than the seductive facades Niacin brought to them, his sexual encounters during this period were somewhat - how to say it? - limited in their power to engage the soul. Keep in mind as well the sort of person he was falling in with. Self-selected in large part from the barely postadolescent majority of MOOish males (and naturally from the most hot-to-trot of the bunch), Niacin's partners had, by the end of his first two netsexual months, taught him a lesson about young straight men in general that he might otherwise have gone to his grave unschooled in. To wit: "How woefully unimaginative and cloddish they are inna sack."
Clearly, Niacin was ready now for something a bit more challenging.
He was ready, in other words, for Emory.
And Emory? What was he ready for? Pretty much whatever, from the looks of him:
Having pissed away what was left of the family money and nothing to show for it but an old red and black BSA motorbike that he keeps in perfect working order, he ended up in the North Woods, where he does carpentry sometimes.
He keeps his long, sandy hair tied back mostly. His eyes are pale blue, with flecks of gold in them and grey rings around the iris. High cheekbones, mouth quirked up in an ironic grin. He's wearing a black t-shirt tucked into a pair of tight, faded levis and black workboots. In the pocket of his shirt, a pack of Lucky Strikes and the tooth of a wolf.
The description was a classic of its genre, in much the same careful way so many of Niacin's also were. Archetypally butch, but almost delicately so; plainly good-looking, but never plainly described as such; clearly fictional, but of that sort of fiction that conveys a lived familiarity with its subject matter - Emory was built for netsex, it was obvious, and yet not quite so obvious as to spoil the illusion of hard-edged, soft-centered, unselfconscious manhood he projected. Had I myself come across him before I knew who'd written him, I don't think I would have guessed his author was a woman - and if I had, I'm sure I would have figured her for an old hand at the cross-gendered seduction game.
The truth, however, was that exu had never really attempted a boy-morph before Emory. She'd made a male or two before, but those were gods, not men - a Xango (deity of thunder) and an Ogum (war) to round out her Afro-Brazilian pantheon - and anyway she hadn't ever much identified with them. In fact, for most of her MOOish life she hadn't really identified with her few female characters either. Instead, the gender she had mostly preferred to spend her time in was, precisely speaking, neither masculine nor feminine. It was hermaphrodite.
This was something of an unusual choice - though hardly on account of its evasion of the usual RL options. As it happens, the Moo's @gender command offered a fairly wide variety of neither-male-nor-female possibilities, and players not infrequently took the offer up. For example, in addition to the hermaphrodites (to whom the gender-tracking subroutines assigned the label either and the pronouns s/he, him/her, his/her, his/hers, and him/herself), there were those who opted at least occasionally for neuter (it, its, itself; useful when playing talking toaster ovens and the like), plural (they, them, their ... ; nice for collective organisms: bee swarms, codependent couples), egotistical (I, me, my ... ; no third person references allowed, see also the royal gender's we, us, our, etc., and second person's you, your, yours ... ), or the graphically noncommittal splat (*e, h*, h*s, h*self).
By far outweighing all of these in popularity, though, was an invention known as Spivak, whose pronouns e, em, eir, eirs, emself had the unique attraction of feeling and functioning much like one of the standard gendered pronoun sets without, however, quite bringing either of them to mind. Whether Spivak therefore represented an absence of gender or simply a third alternative was a matter, evidently, of some debate. I can recall putting the question to a thoughtful spivak friend of mine one evening in the hot tub and failing, not surprisingly I guess, to get a straight answer out of em. On the other hand, I have since learned from McRae's investigations that some spivaks - especially those with active tinysex lives - had a pretty clear sense of emselves as inhabiting a specific gender, with its own roles, its own predilections, and even its own genitalia (think tendrils).
Whatever the spivak's ontological status, however, the option never much appealed to exu. "I liked the idea of containing both, not being without," she said of her hermaphrodite period. To be a spivak, as she saw it, was to efface one's real-life gender status, when what she'd really wanted in those days was to keep that status in play, unsettled, indeterminate. "For an entire year," she remembered, "not even my closer MOO friends were certain of what my real gender was - and guesses were pretty sharply divided. It was fun being gender ambiguous."
Yet in the end, she admitted somewhat wistfully, what she'd liked best about that ambiguity was not so very different from what seemed to attract many spivaks to their choice. For whether a spivak saw emself as a spaghetti-crotched mutant or a conceptual void, eir curious pronoun-choice tended to have roughly the same effect on eir dealings with other players as exu's hermaphrodism often did: it shorted out the binary circuitry with which those players' minds processed gender, rendering the very notion blessedly, if temporarily, inapplicable. Or as exu later sighed: "People treated me as a me rather than as a gendered being."
And who could begrudge her her longing for that unsexed state? I wouldn't dream of it. And yet I can't help surmising that that same longing was in a sense its own contradiction - that in it lay the closest thing there was, that is, to an essential difference between the ways men and women fucked with gender on the MOO.
It was a MOOish commonplace, of course, that if men sometimes went female just to enjoy the mixed privileges of "standing out," by the same token women most often flipped their bits in order to evade the constant attention that rained down on virtual females regardless of their real-world packaging. But what exu was talking about, I think, was something a little deeper. It was an escape not just from femininity but from the onerous primacy of gender itself in most women's lives - from the constantly echoed insinuation that the face of humanity, like that of God, will always be a man's, and that a woman consequently might as well resign herself to being all her life a female first and only secondly a human being.
And if therefore it made some sense, however paradoxically, to think of Spivak and either and the other disgendered options as characteristically female choices, then what of Niacin's headlong plunge into tinyfemininity? Might it not be argued by a similar logic that he was chasing an experience only a man could really find intriguing? By which I mean, of course, not so much the experience of inhabiting the opposite gender as that of consciously inhabiting gender at all - an experience somewhat more alien to men than women, after all, in a culture that still hasn't quite decided whether "man" is a synonym for people in general or just the ones with penises. Just as exu's fondness for hermaphrodism, then, might be read as a woman's logical desire to flee the territory of conventional sex roles at the earliest opportunity, so Niacin's thing for virtual drag might best be understood as a uniquely male romance with the thought of exiting the unmarked vehicle of masculine identity for a while and, as it were, exploring that territory on foot.
It's a hypothesis anyway. Whether it applied to MOOish gender play in general is a question I leave for future sociologists of the virtual to resolve. My own research, if you want to call it that, never really got close to conclusive. I asked around a bit, kept my eyes open, and quickly fell in with the general consensus that there were in fact a great deal more RL men playing virtual women than there were RL women posing as virtual men (a phenomenon roughly mirrored, by the way, and probably not coincidentally, in the real world's ratios of drag queens to kings). But I never felt as certain about the RL gender breakdown of the spivak/hermaphrodite population. It might be true that most of them were really women; or it might not. What was, however, certainly the case was that the handful I got to know firsthand, while indeed predominantly female in real life, didn't exactly add up to a representative sample.
Let me restrict my observations, then, to the particular, and simply note that however devoutly exu may have wished to escape the constraints of RL gender, it would not be long before she learned that LambdaMOO wasn't really the place to make her getaway. I don't know if she came to share my intuition that her VR eitherness was as much a reflection of her fixed RL gender status as a release from it. But even if she did, I can assure you it wasn't anything so wispy as an intuition that finally shook her loose from her vaguely utopian attachment to virtual hermaphrodism.
What did it, of course, was Mr. Bungle.
One wonders, idly, why exu's sexual haziness failed in Bungle's case to do its job and spare her his severely gender-coded attentions. Had he somehow discovered the RL truth behind her ambiguous VR mask? Had he just been guessing, like myself, that that sort of ambiguity was more likely a woman's gambit than a man's? Or had he in fact guessed nothing? Had he simply defaulted to the crude paranoia of the queer-basher, lashing out at exu precisely because she was ill-defined, and therefore threatening to the boundaries that maintain male privilege?
One wonders. And yet for exu such conjectures were somewhat beside the point. What mattered to her, in the end, was not what Bungle had been thinking as he'd dragged her androgyne self back into the poisonous web of RL sexual power relations. What mattered was that he had thought to do so at all.
"The Bungle Incident gendered me in a nasty kind of way," exu told me many times, in so many words. "That was part of the shock of it."
She switched to female not long after that night, and she never went back to hermaphrodism again. She didn't have to give it up, of course. It wasn't as if Bungle had blown her cover, after all, or even as if she'd felt she had a cover to blow - the truth was, she'd never really cared that much who knew her RL gender, so long as they'd respected her MOOish indefinition. But Bungle had taken something from her nonetheless, and even if it was only a certain naïveté about the possibilities for breaking free of gender's gravity in the seemingly weightless space of VR, the quiet, hopeful thrill of being either just wouldn't be the same without it.
Mostly, she chose not to dwell on what she'd left behind. But sometimes if you asked her about it a kind of bitterness welled up again, and she might tell you then that she could almost wholeheartedly agree with the grim arguments of certain psychoanalytic feminists she'd read in school: "That women are gendered precisely by Bungle's sort of violence: by loss, lack, violation. We're made holes of from the moment we become aware, and if we forget, we're reminded soon enough."
You can imagine, then, the ticklish mix of feelings with which exu - female by something less than choice for about half a year now - learned that her old pal Niacin had lately taken up the habit of being a woman more or less just for the fun of it.
Or can you? No, I suppose there is a detail or two I'd better fill you in on first. Such as, for starters: I'm afraid I may have misled you when I said there was nothing all that special about exu and Niacin's friendship in its early days. That happens, actually, to be true; but unless you understand that a certain ambient flirtatiousness tended to seep into even the most innocuous relationships on the MOO - a byproduct, I'd guess, of MOOish pseudonymity and the instant intimacy it nurtured - then you might have taken me to imply that not so much as a spark of erotic feeling flashed between the two new acquaintances. And there you would be wrong.
There was a spark. And as the months went by there gradually was more: a gently provocative edge crept into the occasional crossings of their well-matched conversational styles, a tension just insistent enough to register in both their minds as something a little more, perhaps, than the usual Club Doome bonhomie. "It was a game," exu recalled. "A game of wit, consisting entirely of sporadic verbal volleys. And it didn't matter which way the game went."
Actually, it wasn't even clear the game was going anywhere at all. By the time of Niacin's rooftop induction into tinysexual maturity, after all, exu still had her virtual hands full with HortonWho, and in the weeks that followed it certainly wasn't as if Niacin's dance card remained empty either.
But when one afternoon Niacin introduced exu to his newly minted Giustina morph, exu had a sudden inkling of the destination toward which their aimless game had actually been drifting all along. Giustina flashed her aristocratic ankles, she tossed her half-undone tresses, and if exu in her mourning cloak of biologically correct femaleness felt any hint of annoyance at the spectacle of Niacin's giddy, snap-on girlyhood, it was presently eclipsed, surprise surprise, by a vivid and most unmournful urge. To be precise: "I wanted," exu told me, "to undo her hair the rest of the way, roughly, with my fingers, while bending her head back and kissing her throat."
The surprise, I should add, lay not so much in exu's attraction to the image of a female body (she'd had her share of same-sex liaisons in real life) as in the possibilities that this attraction seemed suddenly to be nudging her toward. Mr. Bungle had beaten all the fun out of her dreams of living beyond gender, of course, but what was this coquettish invitation Giustina's ankles were presenting to her now? Could there really be a sequel to her ill-fated foray into gender play - a new approach, this time not seeking to silence gender's incessantly chattering voice, but to amplify it instead, channeling it into a strange, cross-wired loop of desire and letting it feed back on itself until its own noise overwhelmed it?
Well, why not? That day exu chose not to make her feelings known to Niacin/Giustina, but from then on the next move in their game waited quietly in the back of her mind. Weeks passed. exu's affair with HortonWho began to teeter and Horton himself, for uncertain reasons, began to show up less and less on the MOO. Niacin meanwhile leapt into the arms of one young virtual dude after another, intrigued, compelled, but edging every day a little closer to the limit of his patience with their uninventive fumblings.
And then, at last, another spark: out of some not very well-illuminated corner of Niacin's imagination Lisbet sprang one day - white-skinned, dark-haired, repressed; the preppy with a past. And while it's possible he wrote her up with other aims in mind than escalating the exchange of gentle provocations between exu and himself, it's indisputable that this became, within a few hours of the keystrokes that created her, the first notable accomplishment of Lisbet's brief, unreal existence. For no sooner did exu lay eyes on the girl's description than Emory began to take shape in her mind, provoked into being by the implicit challenge in Lisbet's cool, brittle exterior and imbued with just the aura of wiry, tobacco-scented naturalism exu thought it would take to meet that challenge.
In short, and not to put too fine a point on it, Emory was conceived for the express purpose of getting into Lisbet's pants.
Which goal proved not so very difficult to attain, given the variety of circumstances conspiring to bring it within Emory's reach. The long, subtextual flirtation between his author and Lisbet's didn't hurt, of course, and beyond that there was Niacin's almost Stanislavskian eagerness to inhabit the personae he created, so that although he knew full well who'd invented the boy-morph who suddenly was hovering around his latest girl-morph, he couldn't help but see Emory through the girl-morph's eyes, responding pretty much as exu had planned to the wiry, tobacco-scented image Lisbet's own tight-laced vulnerability had inspired. "Emory made me totally wet," said Niacin, and that was only the effect of the boy's description. "Emory started remote-emoting at me then, very discreetly and ornately," and after the desert of cloddish, postadolescent come-ons through which Niacin had for two months been wandering, the subtlety of exu/Emory's approach fell on him like a quenching rain:
"I was a goner ...."
Indeed he was. But how far gone he couldn't then have guessed; nor did exu have any notion, really, of what she was so discreetly and ornately getting herself into. They both had reason to believe, of course, that they were adequately versed in the mechanics and dynamics of virtual eros by now. They'd each been around the block a time or two, by one route or another. But it is safe to say that within minutes of Lisbet and Emory's first embrace, both knew - both felt the knowledge coursing through their RL bodies - that they had stumbled onto an intensity undreamt of in their personal philosophies of tinysex.
"That first encounter practically blew the roof of my head off," was how Niacin put it. "As sex, it was one of the most amazing experiences I've had, VR or RL.... I almost passed out.... I was at work, all faint and shaky, practically coming in my pants.... I was afraid to move."
And exu, though she tended to be a little less indelicate in her descriptions of what happened that day, was clearly reduced to a similar state of distraction. Logged in from her workplace as well, she too felt almost physically rent by the gap between her mundane surroundings and the place into which her psyche had abruptly been thrust, a place which - well, "What was it like?" I asked, and exu:
"Like white hot. Like nuclear," she said. "It really was like melting into the screen."
All right all right, I realize that some among you are by this point shifting skeptically in your seats, anxious for just a bit more in the way of documentary detail - a scrap or two, let's say, of the text that traveled between Austin and Seattle that afternoon so that you, the most discriminating of my readers, can be the judges of what was or wasn't white hot, nuclear, roof-blowing, etc. And let me assure you that I feel your frustration, that I understand your desire for a closer look, and that I certainly would never, ever, mistake for mere voyeurism the spirit of purely intellectual inquiry that so obviously has awoken that desire in you.
But I'm afraid I'll have to ask you, nonetheless, to be satisfied with the secondhand scraps I've already supplied. Because for one thing: they're all the scraps I've got (there were limits, after all, to my two friends' openness about their sex lives). And for another: even if I had a complete, unexpurgated log of Lisbet and Emory's first tryst to show you, it almost certainly would fail to convey whatever power inhered in that event. I'm sorry, but it's true - transcriptions of tinysex are a notoriously underwhelming form of erotica. Invariably, the real-time dance of two heatedly thinking-feeling minds that brings a decent textual shagging to life evaporates the instant it's saved to disk. Invariably, what's left behind is either at best a dry but not uninteresting prose poem or, in the vast majority of encounters, a slapdash collection of banalities that wouldn't even make the cut at the Penthouse letters desk. The upshot being in either case - as it was undoubtedly in Emory and Lisbet's - that you really just had to be there to get the point.
But listen, if it's any consolation, I can tell you these details: On that October day a woman pretending to be a man made a kind of love to a man pretending to be a woman; the woman knew that the man was pretending and the man believed the same about the woman, and neither thought the other was deceived on this account; and nonetheless the man played his part carefully from beginning to end and the woman too was careful all the while to keep alive the fiction that she was a man. More than ever now, in other words, their interaction was a game. And if you're willing to take my word for it, I can tell you too that it was somehow precisely this - their final self-abandonment to the principle of play, of make-believe - that made that game at last so mind-shakingly real to them.
It scared them, frankly. Holed up in the Crossroads early the next day, Emory received a brief page from Lisbet, who was at the same time chatting with a small crowd on the hot tub deck. The message said: "I want you so much I can't even be in the same room with you" - and though there was surely an edge of playful, romance-novelesque hyperbole there, the undertone of erotic dread was genuine.
Actually, in the case of the man who'd written Lisbet's message, that dread was not only genuine but of a certain rather textbook variety. Amid the run-up to the previous afternoon's tangle, you see, it had passingly occurred to him that, though he tended to assume exu was in reality a girl, the question of her real gender had in fact never openly come up in all their months of friendship - and now, in the aftermath of said tangle, he suddenly was beginning to feel afflicted by the uncertainty. And no, I wouldn't blame you one bit if you happened to find it just a tad absurd that Niacin, after months of lifting his virtual skirts for pretty much any able-minded RL male not otherwise occupied, only now saw fit to suffer his first attack of homosexual panic. But understand: the stakes had changed. "I sensed the potential," Niacin said, "for something other than a quick fuck with Emory, a potential that was never there before. And while fucking boys put me off not a bit, the idea of having a thang with a boy was a bit troublesome. Especially in the case of one who was a closeish friend...."
Ultimately, then, Niacin's fear wasn't quite so much the queasiness of homophobia as it was the anxiety of any playboy plunged unexpectedly into deep emotional waters. And in this, exu's anxieties were not much different. Not that she was any kind of dilettante, of course - her relationship with HortonWho had already taken her into some not inconsiderable amorous depths. But what she'd experienced the day before, with Lisbet, had felt like a whole new territory. She'd stepped into a psychic landscape she would only later have words to describe, and even then they would be words bleary with mysticism and poetry: "burning howling core of silent wind," "complete sloshing of identity," "ego dissolution," that sort of thing. What in God's name was she thinking, then, setting off into this realm with a person whose real face she'd never seen and whose real character she could only judge on the basis of a long, intermittent exchange of clever remarks?
But it was too late now for second thoughts. exu's apprehensions were fighting a losing battle against her desires; and Niacin's anxieties were no match for the attraction pulling him back toward the place his game with exu had finally led to yesterday. They met again, Lisbet and Emory. And after that they met another time, and then another. And soon you couldn't even call it meeting anymore: they were in each other's company from the moment exu's workday began until the moment Niacin's ended, trying their RL best to hide the arousal of their physical bodies, attending to their RL duties no more than they had to keep from losing their RL jobs.
They were playing harder now, inventing new characters and trying out old ones on each other. Niacin was no longer Lisbet only, but sometimes also Giustina, or the virile, bay-rum-scented Ishmael, or the lean old traveler Wattson; exu might be Emory or Xango or the sea-goddess Iemanja or even, on occasion, exu herself, whatever that was. For Niacin there was an element of rediscovery - as if all the permutations that had lurked unexamined in the heart of his hurried grope with the mysterious Blaize were now being taken out, each in its turn, and carefully, lovingly looked over. "We were boy/girl, boy/boy, girl/girl," he said. "I was boy and she girl and vice versa ... we did every possible combo ... We were like that for [weeks], shifting genders and bodies, fucking like mad, totally in love."
It was funny, in a way - the two of them furiously shuffling their identities and at the same time coming to know each other more intimately, perhaps, than they had ever known anyone. Between fictions, real-life stories were getting told: exu learned more and more about the complicated progress of Niacin's RL love life (he was by then six months into a stormy relationship with a woman who knew nothing about his virtual excursions); and Niacin in turn picked up details about exu's marriage that, among other things, helped finally to settle his doubts about her RL gender. But it wasn't really in these departures from play-acting that exu and Niacin caught their deepest glimpses into one another. Instead, it was in the play-acting itself - in their fluid minuet of name changes and textual makeovers - that they began to feel their innermost, least namable identities laid bare. "For some reason," said exu, "interacting through the fictions got [us] into these weird, core selves that were almost unbearable. Like the more fictional we were, the closer to some wordless reality we got."
And this was funny too, though perhaps not in a terribly amusing way. For what could it possibly mean to approach a wordless knowledge of another person through a medium composed entirely of words? Could exu and Niacin ever really arrive at such a knowledge, or did their headlong flight toward it doom their affair to crash against a terminal paradox?
It's a good question, if I do say so myself - although I regret to report that it remains a purely theoretical one as well. For in the end, the affair in fact ran aground on a somewhat less esoteric sort of contradiction:
"At a certain point my mind just fried," said Niacin. "The RL/VR split was making me crazy ..."
And yes, it's possible he could have handled that split a little better if he'd felt at all able to discuss its VR side with his RL SO - as exu somehow managed to with hers. But exu's policy of domestic honesty was not exactly for the faint of heart, and when you got right down to it Niacin's decision to keep his girlfriend in the dark about his virtual sex life was arguably not the most selfish of the choices he'd made since that life began. It wasn't easy on him, anyway: obliged at the end of the day to try and switch his feelings for exu off along with his computer, Niacin was forced to live with the awkward impossibility of doing so. Images of afternoon encounters bled through, inevitably, into disorienting dinnertimes and even more confusing bedtimes, and as both relationships progressed, the confusion only intensified. He rode it as far as possible, he said, "feeling totally fissured ... but kinda relishing living on the edge that way ... until I just felt like I couldn't take it anymore ...."
And there the story ended. Two months after Lisbet and Emory first met, they met again for the final time. Or maybe they didn't. Perhaps it was Wattson and Xango who met that day, or Giustina and Iemanja, or just plain Niacin and exu. It could have been any of them by that point, of course, and their interaction could have gone any number of ways. Niacin may have offered explanations for the two of them to haggle over, or he may have kept his intentions to himself while they indulged in one last afternoon of dizzying play. But it doesn't really matter which of the possible scenarios he ultimately chose, because in all of them the outcome was the same: the game would go no further from then on. Niacin checked out - just disappeared into the real world for a good long while and left exu to sift through the memories and begin to try and put them in some kind of order she could make sense of.
God knows she had her work cut out for her. And if she took time out at any point to cry a little while for Emory's sake, or even for her own, I don't recall her ever telling me about it.
I do recall, though, something of my state of mind as the details of Lisbet and Emory's story started trickling my way. Samantha's maiden, moonlit walk was several weeks behind me by then, and if my initial wonder at that curious experience had already begun to fade, my slowly accumulating knowledge of what exu and Niacin had been through together did little to revive it. I saw now just how narrowly I had opened the door onto the world of virtual gender play that evening, and I began half-consciously to guess at the things I might eventually feel (besides pretty) if I chose to move further into that world. Would I discover in myself the same VR-induced chaos of erotic tendencies that Niacin had finally, in his weeks of kaleidoscopic experiment with exu, come face-to-face with - that part of him he referred to (with only the slightest whisp of a virtual chuckle) as his "polygendered omnisexuality"? Would I arrive at the strange state of ego-melting, postgendered grace that exu, for her part, swore she'd reached amid the same kaleidoscopic afternoons, in those moments when the game went white hot and "whatever it is that links gender to identity got completely displaced"?
I wasn't counting on it. But as I settled into an awareness of the possibilities, I found myself spending more and more of my limited MOO time as Samantha, moving about the Lambda grounds not so much in search of cross-gendered adventures as idly tempting fate to toss a few of them my way. Fate was in no hurry to oblige, it seemed, but I didn't mind. I continued to enjoy the almost fragrantly delicate sensation of being wrapped in my own secondhand notions of femininity, and by the time summer arrived and the MOO at last became a daily habit, I was as often in Samantha's skin as out of it - open still to whatever interactions she might lead me into, and casually hopeful that somewhere among them might lurk something as intense, as rich, or as illuminating as exu/Emory and Lisbet/Niacin's encounter seemed to me to have been.
But why should I pretend with you? Surely you'll have guessed by now that if Samantha's story had ever finally led to anything in the same league as Lisbet and Emory's, I would have skipped the long digression and told you all about it pages ago. And even if instead this comes as news to you, well anyway now you know: what's left to say about Samantha does not amount to much.
She did, in the end, have her share of memorable encounters; that much is true. But they were hardly what I'd call adventures, nor did they leave me feeling especially enriched. On the contrary, what I remember most about Samantha's ample portion of my first few weeks of daily residence is a feeling of increasing wariness, as more and more regularly, it seemed, my female incarnation was approached by male strangers apparently convinced that she had nothing better to do than supply them with the time of day and other, perhaps more stimulating varieties of data.
Wherever I might be, whatever I was actually up to at the moment, their often stunningly graceless overtures somehow managed to blunder onto my screen. "Samantha, you are sexy," a certain plaid guest observed out loud in the middle of a crowded hot tub one evening. He then, when this silver-tongued inducement failed to lure me away with him to a more intimate setting, proceeded to curse me out in surprisingly expressive comic-strip style (his exact words: "$%@$%^%^&#^%&#&65"). And Plaid was hardly the least tactful of them. "Would you like to have some fun with my 10 inches?" a beige guest paged me once, from God knows where and without even the courtesy of a what's-your-sign to break the ice, while I was in the middle of a fairly involved discussion with a friend on the deck outside the living room. ("Why yes actually!" I paged back, "I just bought a new cutlery set and I've been looking for something to try it out on!" - but this proved too subtle for my would-be playmate, and I was obliged finally to spell it out for him in two- and three-letter words.)
The relentlessness of these intrusions came as something of a revelation to me (yes, even after all the real-life times I'd nodded sympathetically while girlfriends fumed about the one streetcorner lothario too many they'd put up with that day). And let me be frank, my fellow men: it didn't exactly make me proud to be one of us. In fairness, though, I should also note that not all my suitors were quite such discredits to the sex. Nor, to be entirely honest, was I always quite so unreceptive to their approaches. I liked to think of myself as a basically nice person, for one thing, and so, like many an RL woman I suppose, I found it hard to very firmly rebuff a man who put at least a little civility into his attempts to get to know me. But more to the point: it wasn't like I never felt the least bit curious myself about where those attempts might lead.
In fact, it had by then become a kind of semiofficial policy of mine that if I was going to have tinysex with anyone at all, it was going to be with one of these same random lugs buzzing so reliably around the flower of Samantha's femininity. It seemed the simplest way to go about it, after all. I would scarcely have to lift a finger to get my hands on a partner, and better yet, I wouldn't have to worry much about any emotional complications either. I mean, I wanted some adventure, sure, but I found my real love life far too challenging as it was to want to risk the kinds of RL/VR conflicts Niacin and exu had had to negotiate. exu herself advised me against it, and she seemed to agree that if a quick, pinhole glimpse of the exotic territory she and Niacin had explored was enough to satisfy my curiosity, then a cross-gendered tumble with a randy stranger would easily - and safely - do the trick.
But it didn't take me long to figure out that, for Samantha anyway, there could be no such zipless tinyfuck: I simply lacked the nerve to pull it off. Nor was my squeamishness a matter of deep-seated sexual hang-ups, I don't think, or even of the ethical quandaries involved in letting another man deceive himself as to my real gender. Oh, I suppose I wrestled a bit with the moral issues, but was it really my fault if some people didn't know better than to believe everything they read on their computer screens? No: what unmanned me, finally, was not the prospect of a guilty conscience, but a rather less honorable fear of being discovered and publicly exposed for a fraud - an anxiety I didn't even quite realize was there until it overcame me one evening while I was holding up Samantha's end of a long conversation that had all the earmarks of a virtual date. "You like horses, right?" had been the young man's inaccurate but inoffensive opening line, after which he'd suggested we get acquainted over a game of one-on-one Scrabble in the dining room. A microscopic dew of nervous sweat started to glaze my RL skin then as suddenly, in quick succession, the Scrabble game ground to a halt, my date murmured silkily that he'd "much rather just talk to you anyway" (back in his room of course), and I proceeded to imagine all the horrible things he was going to say about me on *social and elsewhere once he traced Samantha back to Dr. Bombay and did enough asking around to put two and two together.
I managed, that night, to duck out before things got too cozy, and I even managed afterward to remain on friendly terms with the man in question, who called himself Leshko, who claimed in real life to be a thirty-one-year-old goldsmith and former heroin addict from Chicago, and who seemed, to my immense relief, almost totally unruffled when he did at last deduce my RL gender not too many days after our first meeting. By then, however, I had already abandoned once and for all my scheme to use Samantha as a vehicle for tinysex. I still held on to the possibility of a cross-gendered fling, but I no longer dared risk my MOOish reputation by having that fling in a morph traceable to Dr. Bombay. This meant, in effect, that I would have to postpone any actual flinging until after I had worked out the moderately complicated details of hacking myself an illegal second character.
Between this change of plans, then, and the increasingly tiresome barrage of Neanderthal pick-up lines, Samantha lost a good portion of her original appeal for me. In the time that remained of her existence (for her days, like those of all my morphs, were numbered, though I did not know it then), I think I slipped into her body on maybe four or five more occasions. Of these, I will mention only one just now.
It was in mid-August. I was in the hot tub once again, with friends, and very much enjoying the playful mood I had almost forgotten Samantha sometimes helped me into, when suddenly two guests, a magenta one and a khaki one, splashed boisterously into the water. These guests seemed to be of about the same age and sensibility as MTV's notorious teenage wastrels Beavis and Butt-head, and I imagine we would have simply ignored the pair if one of them hadn't then happened to address the other with that universal term of teenboy endearment "fag." With that, however, my friend theroux-que-sault insisted on holding up a big sign inscribed with the words No homophobic slurs, please, to which the magenta guest insisted on replying "Fuck you queer," to which my friend Enver in turn replied by teleporting both guests to a harshly described area of the MOO called Hades.
Within a few minutes, the magenta guest splashed back into the tub, and presently the bunch of us saw on our screens the unappetizing sentence Magenta_ Guest pisses in the water. I happened to have a voodoo doll on me, so I retaliated with the sentence As if against its will, Magenta_Guest drinks its own piss water. To which Magenta made the devilishly clever rebuttal "Well, no" - which prompted from me the equally Wildean "Well, uh, yeah."
And it was at about this point, when it appeared the goings-on could not possibly get any more juvenile, that the magenta guest did the one thing that stands out in my mind above all else that occurred that night.
"Samantha, can I pet your poodle?" asked Magenta. "Please?" And then before I could even begin to roll my eyeballs at the kid, it had happened: the magenta guest had grabbed my poodle. Whatever that was supposed to mean.
But of course I knew very well what the gutter-minded little guest intended it to mean, which is why I remember that moment so clearly. For though I couldn't help chuckling at the inanity of the offense - and though we immediately packed the offender off to hell again as casually as you might shoo a fly - I logged out at the end of the evening with a low flame of humiliation burning in me and a galling new sliver of knowledge lodged in my heart. I had learned at the guest's poodle-grabbing hand, you see, that if being in Samantha's body had the capacity to make me feel pretty, it could also let me feel a kind of ugly that a male body gave me only limited access to. The deeply embedded gender fictions that had brought the power of feminine sexual charm to life inside me turned out to work just as well for the powerlessness of feminine sexual subjugation, it turned out, and as I lay awake in my RL bed that night with angry, impotent fantasies of revenge floating lightly through my head, it amused me to suppose that after having long believed I'd successfully comprehended the curious, ambivalent rage of Mr. Bungle's victims, I had at last been given the opportunity to feel that very rage within myself.
But the truth is this: I was no more certain then than I am today of the extent to which my experiences as Samantha gave me firsthand experience of a woman's perspective. Just as it was unclear what she was to other people - the woman that the magenta guest and others saw, or the costume that my friends saw - so it remained unclear what she was to me: a man's fantasies of femininity turned loose, or a taste of the disembodied cultural voice that speaks inside a woman's head, that tells her how a woman acts, and how a woman feels.
 A MOO (which stands for MUD-Object Oriented
or Multi-Object Oriented) is a text-based online environment which members
'build', and where they can interact with each other. LambdaMOO was one of
the earliest and most popular such environments to be established. [Editor's
 Mr. Bungle is the character responsible for the virtual rape in A Rape in Cyberspace. [Editor's note]
|Julian Dibbell. My Tiny Life. London, Fourth Estate Limited, 1998, pp.125-151. Reprinted by permission of Fourth Estate Limited, HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.|