One of the driving themes of my gaming writing has been to emphasize the fact that how we experience games is a factor of the games players forge for themselves and not just what the developers hand us. There are worlds of social experience that exist in a netherspace between the physical world and the ideal fantasy world of developers’ intent.
One of the more interesting worlds is that of erotic roleplay or ERP. This is a field of interaction between gamers that is the subject of many jokes, stereotypes, derision, concern, and sometimes the bitterest of scorn. It is considered by some to be symptomatic of a male-dominated gaming environment lardered with male-gaze oriented objectification of women- the inevitable result of men literally taking control of idealised women’s bodies and enacting perverse puppet shows with them. However, there is another highly significant side to this that such a superficial critique misses. The women and the feminists who ERP.
For a number of us, erotic roleplaying is a double-edged sword. It is, for some, a path to sexual freedom and a means of enacting another significant dimension of a roleplayed character’s life. But it is also an exercise fraught with a myriad of pitfalls created by the institutional sexism that still haunts many gaming and geek spaces.
Rather than have this piece entirely in my own words, however, I wanted to give voice to actual ERPers who are women and/or feminists, or people highly sympathetic to feminist ideas. This idea came about during a personal conversation with one of the people I’d interviewed. As we got to talking about our experiences in gaming the issue of how difficult it can be to roleplay a strong female character who is also sexually active came up; we discussed it for a good couple of hours, discussing the links to dominant cultural ideas about women’s sexuality, or as Jessica Valenti might put it the ‘he’s a stud, she’s a slut’ double standard. It operates heavily in the world of roleplaying as well, and to me it became important to not only speak to this issue but to let others speak to it- the often invisible women and feminists who ERP.
They deserve to be heard both about why they ERP and how they deal with the troubles it brings, often alone due to concern about being judged harshly for what they do and why, whether they are women or men in real life.
The issues that arise are oftentimes familiar. A leading concern among many is having their sexuality appropriated by men for their own ends, and worries (and solid advice) concerning the undermining of a roleplay character through sexuality. Critical for all is the idea that any number of sexual tropes can be used meaningfully for their own ends and their own pleasure, rather than the exclusive pleasure of a male partner, and the idea that ERP enables them to demonstrate how women’s power and women’s sexuality need not be at odds in the slightest. It only becomes such in the hands of people attempting to slut-shame.
Some Brief Definitions!
To be clear Erotic Roleplaying is the use of fictional characters that one roleplays as during sexual encounters. This distinguishes it from cybersex which is usually done as some iteration of one’s self and in the first person. When ‘characters’ are spoken of these are the fictional beings roleplayed by the interview subjects in both sexual and non-sexual RP scenes.
IC means ‘in-character,’ which refers to fictional words and actions carried out as part of acting out one’s character in a roleplay scenario. OOC, or out of character, is reverting to your real life personality.
Notes on Methodology
The people I interviewed for this article are all friends and acquaintances of varying degrees of closeness. To discuss this subject honestly requires a great deal of trust and all were kind enough to give their permission to have their words used for this series of articles. They are all familiar with The Border House and support its aims. This is not intended to be a random sample, by any means, but rather a collection of perspectives from people who explicitly identify as feminist or who sympathise strongly with feminist goals. The questions were tailored to each interviewee and the interview was conducted in a largely conversational style. To that end some of my questions will read like commentary, but it is my hope that these conversational interviews will be all the more elucidating as a result.
In thinking about how to organise this article, where interviews and research had been going on for several weeks before this one was published, I decided that- pending the reception of this first one- this should be a series. Too much of value was said to fit everyone’s insights into one extremely long article.
All names and identifying information have been changed, and where WoW servers are mentioned I changed their names as well. Why did I do that? Well, to be perfectly honest, I could’ve just bracketed their words with [my server] whenever they mentioned its name, but it was much more fun to come up with pseudonyms.
For today’s article we’ll be hearing from just one person.
The Undimmed Light of a Paladin–Rosethorn
Rosethorn roleplays prominently on a decently travelled server in World of Warcraft. Today she comes out as an ERPer with a good deal to say about the subject. A roleplayer of a well heeled warrior class on the Northshire Abbey server, she participates in her server’s RP community for both erotic and non-erotic roleplay. She feels that while the dangers to women are real, one can overcome the backbiting gossip of others to face the headwind that blows against sexually empowered women. She states in no hold’s barred terms what the stakes are:
Rosethorn: I don’t have much formal knowledge about gender theory other than what I observe, but it’s interesting how, even in a space that is wholly fictional (by which I do not mean “fake” so much as entirely within the control of its creators–fabricated. Different from fake.) we tend to bring in our standards of behaviour.
Rosethorn: It’s actually kind of weird. I’ve noticed that people with predominantly male personas tend to get away with ERP without much drama or flaming or whatever.
Rosethorn: In other words, guy characters tend not to take as much criticism as female characters if they’re known to indulge in ERP. They’re not called sluts or whores or trolled on the forums for it. People don’t look at them as lacking willpower or being perverts.
This is something I’ve observed as well. Interestingly this fate befalls men too, but only if they are playing as female characters, in which case a special level of forum troll hell is reserved for them. But even there, the issue is association with the feminine, the idea that women serve only as Trojan horses to invade male space and undermine it from within. If a woman is found to have ERPed with guildmates, or heaven forefend a guild officer, she will immediately be accused of doing this for no reason other than personal material gain. The stereotype of women sexually manipulating men to gain material goods and wealth is still disturbingly popular, and in online gaming ERP is seen as women’s tool of choice for doing so. It is this broad stereotype of woman-as-manipulator that attacks both women playing as women, and men playing as women.
It is also an inhibiting force on people who roleplay women’s sexuality.
Rosethorn recalled an interesting and rare case of a male character found to be ERPing with a female raiding guild officer and how her erstwhile GM opined upon it:
Rosethorn: We don’t have a word for male characters who use sex for manipulative ends. Not a clear word, just metaphors.
Rosethorn: There are cases where two characters sleeping together lead to guild drama, loot distribution issues, etc.
Rosethorn: Actually, yes. I do know of such an accusation, justified or otherwise, in which the leader of a raiding guild on Northshire Abbey(female character) was being derided in private by my asshole GM at the time, for “cybering” with a male character in that same guild, a warrior geared to his teeth in epics.
Rosethorn: The attitude wasn’t so much that the warrior was a slut using sex to get more loot from his guildmistress.
Rosethorn: But rather that he was a big, dumb idiot who didn’t deserve what he got, but was getting by on being screwed by the GM’s female character. Someone with dumb luck. It was still the guildmistress insulted for being a whore.
Rosethorn: I think the fact that these accusations often come from other guys says something about the unspoken jealousy inherent to it.
Here the male player’s skill was insulted, certainly, and he was considered undeserving of his epic raiding loot- but the appellations of whore and slut still found their way to the person gendered as a woman in this situation. Had the genders been reversed in this scenario, based on my own experience certainly, the male guild officer would’ve been seen as a victim more than anything else.
Rosethorn’s initial observation here that no word exists for male sexual manipulators is also a highly salient one. The mythical bogeywoman of the female gamer or RP character who wants to fuck her way to a full set of raiding armour has no real male equivalent, except perhaps by the avenue of a man who plays as a female character. As she goes on to say:
Rosethorn: ERP is occasionally used as a means of argumentum ad hominem. It’s a way of discrediting someone. Or trying to.
Rosethorn: Someone hates you for a seemingly unrelated reason. Almost always an irrational one. Your personality irritates them; the way you write, the friends you have, the way you might’ve wounded their pride–more commonly, the way you play your character.
Rosethorn: The most common way to discredit a woman is to either call them a whore or call them a man.
Defensive Masculinity, Transphobia, and ERP
I found this especially interesting as a trans woman- calling out transsexual women as being “really” men is a significant form of bullying and social control that often occurs in gaming spaces, and using a cis man’s real life gender against him if he’s playing a female character is another patriarchal operation of power where men are kept in what activist Tony Porter called “The Man Box.” But when applied to trans women, who are actually women, our efforts to retain agency (or to achieve transcendence, as Simone de Beauvoir might have put it) are seriously undermined and discredited by being called men. Our abilities to be seen as legitimately sexual women, both in and out of character, are also called into question.
In discussing her old guildmaster she described him and his relationship to both RP and ERP thusly:
Rosethorn: Being the GM of a massively successful (and therefore controversial) guild in a quickly growing server, a loud if occasional presence on the forums and backed by a team of officers the majority of whom seemed to agree with his ostentatious Drill Sergeant style of leadership really only amplified whatever frustrations, anger or bitterness he harboured in him. It was like a rash that grew inflamed. He was lonely, and so he took it out by ridiculing ERPers and alternately stalking or harassing female characters. The latter followed the former if he realized they were played by guys.
She said she’d found that his misogyny and generally vitriolic nature stemmed from overcompensation for what he perceived to be the thwarting of his ambitions in real life. Despite these failures he was sustained by wealthy parents that allowed him to comfortably nurse his bitterness in World of Warcraft. It is people like this that women who roleplay, and men who roleplay seriously as women often have to confront in online gaming. Rosethorn was, it should be said, ultimately sympathetic to her old GM and said that while she hated him, she also felt sorry for him. Despite his hatred for roleplayers he confided in her one day that he wished *his* character could “find someone.”
Walk The Line
What was certainly very true for us both was how we found ourselves struggling occasionally with the expectations and meanings that some men projected into ERP with us:
Rosethorn: It is a tough line to walk, and I admit occasionally I tend to feel a little frustrated or ashamed that I’ve decided to make Rosethorn bisexual.
Quinnae: *nods* Being sexual can be quite a minefield for a woman. Whereas men are rewarded for being seen as sexual, women’s authority will be *vastly* diminished if their sexuality becomes known.
Rosethorn: I think that’s really perceptive and correct.
Rosethorn: In Rose’s case, the frustration is manifold. On the one hand, I’ve just reasoned that if she ever felt like sleeping with a guy, fear of losing authority ought not stop her. Otherwise it turns into a Catch-22. Denying herself, she implicitly recognizes a guy’s power to reduce her own.
Rosethorn: But if she does follow through, another set of problems emerge, not in the least of which is this peculiar pattern among male characters to seem, on the one hand, sexually confident and strong willed, and on the other, needy, possessive and totally incapable of understanding the mutual respect necessary in a concept like “one night stand.”
This dilemma, the sense of damned if you do, damned if you don’t traps in one’s social space was what philosopher Marilyn Frye identified as a hallmark of sexism in her well-known piece “Oppression.” In the course of our conversation we both remembered instances where we tried to navigate issues of sexual agency with men, trying to roleplay sex with confidence while not running the risk of losing control of one’s agency to a man who would thereafter only see your character as a sex toy. Even when one does expertly pilot their way around those jagged shoals, however, we still encounter men who may be creepy or needy about sex and who sometimes channel real life desires into ERP, hoping it will be an immediate path to something more real.
I’ve dealt with this more than once myself. One male roleplayer sought repeatedly, through OOC means, to get into a relationship with my character. I repeatedly rebuffed him, even explicitly stating that my character was not interested in men and that this was a non-negotiable aspect of who she was. His reply was to tell me that this wouldn’t stop him from trying and that he still had ‘hope.’
Yet in the midst of all of this Rosethorn loves roleplay and has said that over the years she’s built up the confidence necessary to deal with the less pleasant quarters of these communities, and I would say the same. Both her and I get a tremendous amount of value out of our RP, erotic and non. ERP can be a great way of expressing the sexual side of a complicated character and exploring the intimate sides of such a person. A lot of RP I’ve done that’s shaded in and out of ERP often involved character development. Rosethorn remains optimistic and upbeat about roleplay in general and I asked her for her advice to anyone who wants to avoid the drama and opprobrium that comes with ERP:
Rosethorn: The short answer is to remain in character, to keep good company and be discreet, to cultivate mystique and to keep drama confined into IC terms, where it may be dealt with.
And the long answer?
Rosethorn: I believe players should roleplay that which excites them, genuinely excites them, with honesty to their characters and not a care at all of the disapproval others. There’s a certain rare pleasure in slipping into a persona you really enjoy, something which can’t be experienced in real life, and I think to squander that valuable resource of self-expression, or to somehow silence ones creative urges in shame inflicted by another’s insecure judgement is monumentally dishonest to one’s own integrity.
To be honest, sexuality is not at all a valid metric of the strength of a character of any gender. Strong characters are believable, a complex interconnection of desires, urges, vices, virtues, tempers and intellects. Play a strong character by exploring every facet of her persona, from her emotions to her desires to her taste in bedmates, and do it honestly. And players who disapprove of honesty are probably not worth your time.
- A dark skinned human woman in realistic silver armour that covers her from head to toe with a red cape fluttering down her back, broadsword in one hand and shield in the other [↩]
- Image credit: Pathfinder RPG, Paladin [↩]
- A light skinned woman with short hair, again in wonderfully realistic armour, victoriously resting her sword in the corpse of an undead she's rendered even dead-er. [↩]