On virtual sex

It is no mistake to say that sex has been practiced by humanity for as long as this species of primates exists, sex for pleasurable purposes rather than for procreation in particular. If anyone shows up to try and dispute that, I won’t accept any arguments younger than Kama Sutra or goddes Ishtar. Some even say that it is one of the key factors in evolving into a more social and intelligent species.

It is also no mistake to say that communication channel mediated sexual activities are at least as old as those channels. The oldest of them is written word, and that got used for erotic literature, fictional and otherwise, as early as it became feasible to deliver a written message anywhere and the number of available literate communication partners rose high enough. People used to write each other personal erotic letters describing their fantasies for as long as postal network systems existed, and numerous published letter collections from any era can be called in to support that claim.

Telegraph was, throughout it’s history, a bit too brief and expensive for this sort of thing, too little privacy and too much obscenity laws — a new invention of the christian fundamentalists of the most modern and progressive societies of the era, which kind of allowed them much higher productivity, so they had the social clout to do that. But people tried anyway.

Then telephone came, and with it, phone sex appeared — there is little doubt, that while it really got noticed around 80s, with the availability of billing for it emerging with 1-900 numbers, it was actually privately practiced as soon as the privacy of communication was guaranteed.

The earliest instances of cybersex in written word have undoubtedly shown up with email, which was the first major application of computer networks after sharing files, and email interoperability was the killer application that brought Internet in. It was, and still is a major activity on IRC chat networks, as well as in the web-based chat rooms that flourished in the 90s.

It was done in late 80s in the first thing that you can call a persistent virtual world, MUSH/MUD/MUX/MUCK/MOO family servers. I have logs of third parties engaging dated to the earliest days of TinyMUD in it to prove it. Even the first accusations of rape in cybersex date to that era, which became (sort of) possible because of the introduction of the persistent aspect into the virtual world, which was the one true innovation of the age.

Virtual worlds are nothing new, you know. At all. Virtual worlds so big that you always meet strangers in them are.

These worlds were textual in nature throughout their existance, and they still exist today, though the younger generation, incapable of seeing the world in any way other than through a web browser anymore, is underrepresented — relying heavily on the imagination and stimulating it more or less directly, it was the ideal environment, where words weave the entirety of the world and still persist. It is often said that the biggest sexual organ is the brain, and as far as science can tell us, it is quite true. It is also true that in a virtual world, it is the only one you get.

So what does Second Life bring into the mix?

Surprisingly little, actually, mostly because SL is all about reinventing the wheel, abandoning all previous experience — that of the earlier virtual worlds in particular. Conversations with people I’ve had throughout my time in SL and other observations indicate that among the more intelligent part of the population (that is, people who can say more than ‘lol’ being the major criterion) sexual activities are primarily conducted through written conversation, poseballs and animations are far more likely to be shunned and discounted. But for written cybersex, Second Life is notoriously unsuitable — the 1000 character chat line limit is stifling, the single-line text entry window is even more so, (Back in my time in MU* research, the average line in a cybersex session was 500-700 characters long, longest ones went well over 2000, and yes, I have statistics. When you do it right, it takes a LONG time.) and if you’re going to do that, why bother about all these avatars and other nonsense when you can run a persistent textual world on your bleeding mobile phone, and non-persistent textual communication channels with zero round-trip are legion.

Yet others try to go to the other extreme, using little or no written word at all and employing, at best, voice channels for communications and visual means of expression. But for this, Second Life is also notoriously unsuitable, with the complete absence of built-in animation control throughout, (gestures don’t count) extreme crudeness of existing animation control tools — and seeing the code of MLP and ZHAO-II, the pinnacles of the technology, you can clearly see how much effort it took to get even that much — and the fact that the most versatile input devices you have are still your keyboard and mouse doesn’t help much either.

In short, it’s bad for it either way, and you can liken Second Life to an endless striptease session where you can easily look desirable, but when it comes to consummating this desire you still have a thick glass wall between you and no touching is allowed, and you have to make do with suggestive noises, barely audible through the glass. And the glass is thicker than it was just ten years ago.

It remains to be seen whether a true balance between the visual capabilities of Second Life style virtual world that we pay so much for — in terms of hardware requirements and computing power — and written word can be reached, a balance that will produce something that will bring the virtual sex experience to the new heights. Something that lets you create a communication channel that is as versatile visually as written word is, one that can be used to communicate things that are so hard to express in words because no words exist for them — things about love, things about warmth, and things about desire.

Only, Second Life won’t be where it happens.