Gender swapping on the Net?
By Heidi Vanderheiden, Boston University

Almost anything can be therapeutic, if done in the right spirit. Including Cyberspace gender-swapping. Pseudonymous Internet interactions can have an almost-therapeutic effect on working through gender issues, said Sherry Turkle, Freudian psychoanalyst and MIT Science, Technology and Society professor yesterday at an MIT conference on Gender, Law and Cyberspace.

"Life on-screen can be a virtual consciousness raising," said Turkle. She stressed that pretending to be the opposite gender in Internet interactions can create useful insights which can help people change their behavior. "As players participate in on-line communities, they become authors of texts and themselves," said Turkle in discussing some of her case studies. She said that such effects can happen in any on-line setting where people can present themselves as other than they are. She used MUDs as an example.

MUDs are text-based computer games taken very seriously by most players. They make up on-line communities, many of whose residents spend a large portion of their lives there. In a text-based MUD, one creates an identity, like a role in a play, and interacts with a variety of other players (who are playing their own roles) in a fantasy world created mainly by the program authors. The player explores the MUD by typing commands such as "say", "look", "go", etc. Short paragraphs describing the contents of the room, what players have said and other characters in the room appear on the screen.

"You can play a role as close to or as far away from your real self as you choose. You can try out new identities." Turkle said that playing these roles typically translates into positive effects in real life. She said the main benefit was that failing in the game brought no negative consequences to the player, so it was a good forum for learning.

Turkle spoke of "Case", a happily married heterosexual industrial designer, who played a female character in a MUD. Turkle said that in real life, the 34-year-old man felt that using power made him seem like a typical loathsome businessman, but he saw powerful women as "in charge and together." This made him less effective at his job, she said. When he began gender-swapping on the Internet, he was able to experiment with assertive behavior, which he said helped his career.

Case was playing a common woman in a medieval MUD, who was engaged to a wealthy man. Her fiance originally prized her qualities of independence and strength, but eventually tried to get rid of those qualities in her. Case found that "some of the things that work when you're a man can backfire when you're a woman." He was, in this way, able to empathize more with women, and learn how to be assertive without being overbearing in his real life. For instance, he would negotiate more shrewdly in his salesmanship. Case told Turkle, he found "the kind of learning that comes through hard times."

Another player, a woman playing a man on-line, saw aggressivity as okay only for women, until she experimented with it on the Internet. Turkle also spoke of her own learning through gender-swapping on the Internet. She learned about the "construction of gender" in herself, and how "the ways ideas of gender shape our expectation of others and ourselves." She realized that in her daily life she had a hard time deflecting conversation because she felt it was expected of her as a woman, but on the Internet as a male, she learned how to avoid conversations politely. She also found that "as a woman in real life, you ask for help because you figure it will be expedient. Then you realize that you aren't figuring things out for yourself."

Turkle summed up, "We can use the virtual to reflect constructively on the real. We take it lightly at our own risk." Who'd've thought?