Monday, May 22, 2006

Postmodern Gender Bending

Most people are aware that the pace of technological change continues to grow. Moore's Law is a term anyone in the technology industry is familiar with.

Most people are also aware how quickly our laws and lawmakers keep up with these changes. (Here's a hint: They don't.)

There's one area in particular that I think is going to result in some extremely viceral and viscous arguments in the near future (5-10 years). The concept of gender identity.

(for those who just hate my pedantic style, skip to the next section)

For the history of humankind, there have been essentially two genders - male and female. There have been homosexuals throughout history, and societies have varied in their recognition and acceptance (from the homophobia in the west, to Native American two-spirits and Arab Xaniths). But even homosexuality has been, until recently, a behavior rather than an identity. And behavior can be legislated (however foolishly).

But what about identity?

Sex change operations became technically feasible this century, with the first documented operation in 1930. (I don't count eunuch's as a change in sexual identity, although perhaps I should. But I believe documentation supports that eunuchs still considered themselves as male. And although there are hormonal changes that occured, these are not anywhere near the same as the hormone treatments to replicate a female hormonal system).

Only since the 1950's has medical science actually specialized and made progress in this area. Much of this development was driven by children who were born with physical sexual differentiation variations (e.g., males with a uterus, females with an XY karyotype, children with XXY or XYY chromosomes). Many of these children were medically "forced" into one of the two "normal" sexual types early in childhood, such as documented in the case of Lynn Harris.

Today, a change in sexual identity from a man to a woman is very well along, and that from a woman to a man a bit less so. (The ability to construct a physically viable vagina appears easier than constructing a working penis. Or perhaps it's just because there appears to be more experience in the man to woman transition - it appears to be more popular).
... in the USA, it is estimated at 1 in 100,000 for male-to-female transsexuals and 1 in 400,000 for female-to-male transsexuals. In England – 1 in 30,000 and 1 in 100,000 respectively. In Sweden 1 in 37,000 and 1 in 103,000 respectively. The ratio of male-to-female and female-to-male remains around 3:1, country notwithstanding. (link)
The legal system has struggled, and is still struggling, with how to treat these intentionally transgendered individuals.

How do we define "man" and "woman"? Do laws which define "marriage as a union between a man and a woman" actually mean anything? (I blogged about this a while back, so I won't belabor the absurdities again here).

New Horizons

The bottom line is that sexual identity is becoming more tied to the role we play, rather than the equipment we're born with.

And in the dawning age of virtual reality, these roles expand far beyond male/female, hetero/homo.

Identity is about role, and role is the face we choose to put on for the outside world. In virtual reality, these roles are no longer restricted to what's currently physical possible.

For great examples of some of the roles that people really want to play, the roles they identify with in their head, look at a virtual environment such as Second Life to get an idea of how varied these roles may become.

Already in the online world, we've seen people adopt roles of the opposite gender. We've seen people adopt roles of older and younger. These variations continue in some of the newer virtual reality spaces. These spaces bring visual and audible senses into play over and above text by creating both the simulation of a physical environment, and representations called avatars (which is the version of you that exists in the virtual environment). I'm already starting to see more extreme role playing with these avatars, from extreme BDSM and Gorean roles, to roles that aren't even human. (I found the number of people playing roles of some kind of pack animal - colloquially known as "furries" - quite astonishing.)

Since I'd prefer not to put an Adult Material warning on my blog site, I'll not go into many of the roles and actions I've observed in Second Life. The point I want to make is that they are quite varied, and imaginative.

As more and more business is conducted via the internet, I believe these virtual spaces will be used to conduct more and more global business exchange. Video teleconferencing will merge into virtual environments. Meetings, reviews of contracts, white board discussions - everything done in office conference rooms today could be done as well in one of these virtual spaces. There are already some attempts at formalizing some law around digital signatures, contract discussions, and such.

In fact, virtual property law is quickly moving into the mainstream. As people sell virtual objects outside the games, collecting real world dollars as a result, the laws governing commerce, property, and theft are starting to come into play. This month New Scientist had a great article covering various aspects of this.

But social interaction will continue to grow as well. For example, there are already Second Life marriages (including marriage planners, dress and cake designers - in other words, virtual analogues for everything in Real Life). Say a marriage in Second Life is conducted by an authorized representative, and a marriage license exists. How do state, national, and international law deal with weddings conducted in virtual reality?

They don't, but they'll have to eventually. And forget about the homosexual marriage laws. How will the nonsense of "one man, one woman" be worked out? Is it your avatar's sex that will count? Or is the concept of there just being two sexes already becoming obsolete?

What about workplace discrimination? If your virtual avatar is obese, or of a different color, or of a different species, can you sue for discrimination? Is it still sexual harassment if your avatar is touched in an unwelcome manner?

Even the extreme taboo areas, such as pedophilia, require rexamination. The laws today in most countries only make it a crime if an act is performed in Real Life. Here in the U.S., law agencies can lure pedophiles into a net by establishing an online relationship, but the crime only occurs when the pedophile attempts physical contact with the minor for expressed sexual purpose.

But what about cybersex? Many of my online friends tell me that the emotional impact of cybersex is as strong as physical sex. While the physical gratification may not be the same, the emotional bonds, the sense of connection, and the effect of heartbreak are as real as any experienced in the Real World. Is not the emotional and mental effect of cybersex on minors the same? Is real pedophilia already taking place online?


For those who track such things, the crash of the internet and legal structures is already happening quite loudly in the area of intellectual property law. And for most people, this is a dry, academic argument.

Imagine the sound and fury as the social collisions between online worlds and real world laws continue to grow.


At Thursday, May 25, 2006, Blogger Xanadu said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Thursday, May 25, 2006, Blogger A Muser said...

Although a strong advocate of free speech, I periodically choose to delete comments made on my blog.

In this particular case, a person advocating adult-sex-with-a-minor posted a comment to this article, along with a link to his website.

I personally abhor pedophiles. I think the evidence is clear that minors having sex prior to being sufficiently emotionally mature causes long term emotional damage. Adults who betray the implicit trust that children give to those who should be protecting them by exploiting these children for sexual benefit should be prosecuted.

Although physically mature, these adults are themselves emotionally immature and frequently prior victims themselves of pedophilia or child abuse. They need to be constrained, and they need help.

Pedophilia is unhealthy for all involved, and is rightly a societal taboo in most cultures.

I agree everyone has the right to speech. I am not attempting to go to this person's web site and have them shut down.

The right to free speech also implies the right not listen, or perpetuate speech with which we do not support. I choose not to agree with, or perpetuate, the speech supporting pedophilia.

At Tuesday, June 06, 2006, Blogger Rick Fisk said...

I think the term "minor" is pretty arbitrary. Though I agree with you that pedophiles are disgusting.

On the other hand, It was quite common for kids to get married at 12 and 13. Then again, they were responsible and fairly well educated at that age. Lucky if "kids" are ready to take on significant responsibility nowadays by 30.


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