Author’s Note: I am sorry this wasn’t updated sooner. I’ve been exceedingly busy at school as of late and I’ve had very little time to write for any of my sites. But rest assured that one way or another this series will continue bit by bit.
In our previous installment we discussed a bit of the adventures of Rosethorn, a woman who RPed as a stately paladin who was both bisexual and quite sexually active. Today’s chapter opens on a woman who plays a wide array of characters but who particularly loves her wicked warlocks and rogues. She provides still more insight into the social world that women who roleplay in online games can often inhabit. Shedding light on this hidden dimension of geek culture is the purpose of this series.
Swanmay – Choirgirl, Warlock, Spy
Swanmay is a young college-going woman who describes herself as reserved in her quotidian interactions in the physical world, but who enjoys roleplaying characters who are considerably more confident in their socialising. The conversation I had with her was particularly moving and she related a good deal of her personal life over the course of our discussion. At the heart of her ERP is what it does for her specifically. She told me that she fears being more sexual in real life:
Quinnae: What do you like about the sexual self you project through your ERP characters?
Swanmay: Power. Raw sexual power. Even when I sub.
Quinnae: What is it that you feel denies you that power in real life?
Swanmay: In all honesty? Me.
Swanmay: I can say that there’s a lot of the modern culture which demands I should not be sexual (and certainly, there is), but I know I’m handicapping myself.
* Quinnae nods. “Do you know why?”
Swanmay: Fear. Fear to be more sexual.
What was interesting to me was her extolling of the power of submission and the feeling of control that ERP gave her over her sexuality. It was a feeling that she felt both she and social forces robbed her of when she tried to express herself sexually in the real world. In submission (at least in its strict BDSM context) there is a significant amount of agency- you choose the person to whom you sub and you have complete control over what happens to you, ideally. How you submit, how long, and to whom are all in your purview of control and Swanmay said she enjoyed playing both roles or equal partnerships. What mattered was that this sexuality was hers.
Swanmay: Something that bothers me: I like name calling in bed. But then people use it out of bed, and that bothers me even more.
Quinnae: And when you like dirty talk there’s always the risk of someone, usually a man, reifying the idea that you *are* a slut, on *his* terms, rather than the complex character you’d created, and thus no longer a threat.
Swanmay: Right. It’s funny.
Swanmay: I like the madonna/whore dichcotomy when it works in my favor. That is, when I have control over it.
Swanmay: I do not like having that power taken away from me.
She quickly emphasised that what she meant about the Madonna/whore dichotomy was its use with certain characters, rather than in real life.
Quinnae: So, you mean, taking madonna/whore and reappropriating and resignifying it for the benefit of your own sexual empowerment?
Swanmay: Pretty much…actually, I think a lot of women identify with that.
Swanmay: Based on a few comments I am thinking of in retrospect, at least quite a few of my friends.
Quinnae: How does that work for you, exactly? What does resignifying madonna/whore do for you?
Swanmay: It does come down to power. It comes down to having total control over what identity I choose to portray. And really those two are just the obvious ones to play around with, sexually.
Central to a lot of these peoples’ ideas about what it means to erotically roleplay is the notion that one can, so long as they are in full control, take certain symbols and ideas (like power dynamics, say, or certain types of namecalling) and give them new meaning that services their pleasure. Swanmay said again and again that ERP was empowering for her because it enabled her to enact sexuality in a controlled way that was impossible for her in real life, saying that her real life friends see her as “choirgirl-ish.” Indeed, she said, many had no idea about her true fantasies nor her occasional indulgence in ERP.
Quinnae: I don’t subscribe to the idea that sex reveals *the* truth about a person.
Quinnae: But rather, *a* truth.
Swanmay: Very agreed.
Quinnae: So, my strong female character is not ‘truly’ or ‘really’ “just” a little slut who wants to be fucked. She’s someone who owns that as one aspect of how she has sex which is one part of a much fuller life. The independence, virtue, and sex, all coexist and are not mutually exclusive.
Quinnae: One of the things I’ve found that people have had to guard against is precisely that: partners running away giggling in the wrong direction with the meaning of a sexual encounter.
Quinnae: “You’re not *really* a noble paladin, you’re just a slut.”
Swanmay: I think there’s a very distinct divide between sexuality and personality in this country [The United States]. Not just for women, but men too.
Swanmay: Which leads to problems like what you just said.
Swanmay: …and also creates a greater need for discretion, which in turn creates problems very similar to real life.
Swanmay: And this is why I never ERP on WoW servers proper. *facepalms*
Swanmay: …and you know, I really dread the idea of my “normal” friends ever finding out that I enjoy ERP.
Quinnae: Can you explain why specifically? I’m sorry to hear that.
Swanmay: LIke the above stated – I feel very much that my sexuality and my “personality” are sort of removed from one another.
Swanmay: Which is not true.
She goes on to say that while this is untrue it feels like it’s the truth simply because she cannot be ‘out’ as a sexually active woman with certain kinks to most of her friends.
The idea that en sexo veritas is, unfortunately, still a very dominant one in our culture and it persists in many roleplay environments which- no matter how fantasy based they are- are still heavily influenced by the very real culture in which they are situated. Swanmay said that these days she creates certain characters specifically for ERP only and keeps her main roleplay characters separate from those activities because of fear that they might be traced back to her. This is despite the fact that she says her ERP characters were actually inspired by her normal roleplay characters. She fears the reputation that can accrue to her if it is known that she erotically roleplays, not just in her real life but even in her non-erotic gaming life she is worried her RP characters will carry a taint if her proclivities became known.
The trouble lies in the fact that finding a woman engaged in sex remains a “gotcha” moment for people- both men and women- looking to undermine the integrity of a woman’s character, and I use ‘character’ in all of its definitions here. If a woman is having sex, that’s all she “really” is; it’s not understood as a facet of a complicated person, just the baseline truth that serves as a prerequisite for dismissal and derision.
This was a recurring theme in these interviews and there was often good reason to fear that people would simply be unable to process a woman character who was both independently capable and sexual. As I discussed briefly in my recent piece The Mistress of the Lash Wears Chains, de facto chastity is all but required of women characters who are to be seen as morally upright, protagonists or heroic. Open displays of sexuality are relegated to female characters who are typed as evil.
Swanmay the Erotic Feminist
Central to the issues that this series is supposed to examine is how one regards their cybersexuality through a feminist lens and how that impacts their roleplay. Swanmay was one of the most forceful interviewees in this regard when I asked her a general question on the subject:
Quinnae: So… how does your feminism enter your ERP, if at all?
Swanmay: Feminism enters into everything I do. From my entertainments to my arts, and to the mixing between in roleplaying. I don’t think about it, but I always create characters with the mind set that there is something at their core which makes them all invariably the same in their humanity, regardless of sex.
Quinnae: Interesting, can you explain that a bit further?
Swanmay: This is so far only in regards to character creation. But yes, I usually try to think of my character’s gender as a given circumstance rather than as something that defines them. And I’ve played with gender quite a bit, sometimes I swap characters gender and start a new game with them just to see how much of a difference, if any, it makes.
Some people, myself included, have conceived of feminism as militating with erotic roleplay, or as something that might need to be compartmentalised from it, mirroring how one might think that it can be difficult to square being a feminist with being a pornographer. But true to the spirit of the newer theoretical strains in feminism that emphasise ownership of empowering sex, rather than only attacking disempowering sex, Swanmay and others set their sights on how feminism can enhance their RP experience. Swanmay uses it to prevent herself from sex typing her characters, as well as to open her mind to conceptual possibilities in character creation that might not be there had she retained a binarist or traditional mindset about gender.
But she emphasised that it also made her very aware of what her partners brought to a given session of E/RP:
Swanmay: In actual play, feminism impacts me most in what partners I choose to play with.
Quinnae: Does that extend to ERP? Or is that what you meant?
Swanmay: Oh yes, in ERP and regular play.
Swanmay: As for how it affects who I play with: There are a lot of misogynists in ERP. I try to cultivate feminist atmospheres rather than anything else. If there’s exploitation, I always try to make sure it’s equal opportunity.
What she meant here was a playful tongue-in-cheek reference to BDSM, not literal exploitation, and she pointed out that she adopts a variety of roles in such contexts, ranging from dominant to submissive, and abjuring traditional or patriarchal arrangements of power in the sex she roleplays. But the main thing she wants is someone who she can trust, someone with whom she knows there’s nothing but pure fantasy at work. For Swanmay this means ensuring that her partner themselves has feminist leanings.
When I asked her what she looked for in a partner she said:
Swanmay: Equally minded players, for one thing. For another thing, making sure that people can recognize the difference between a character and themselves. And for a third and very important thing, trying to shake up gender stereotypes…although that tends to be more in my non-erotic play.
This lead to a deep discussion of what it was she was specifically seeking to avoid when ERPing with people and while what she had to say on the matter is no doubt familiar to most of us, it deserves to be quoted in full:
Swanmay: It’s like they don’t see me as human. If I wanted that I’d go back to waiting tables.
Quinnae: In what ways does that occur? Does it manifest itself in how their characters may treat yours, or is this entirely a consideration of OOC behaviour?
Swanmay: While I’ll take that kind of behaviour from a feminist player, it’s with the understanding that the player doesn’t feel that way. Quite frankly, sometimes it can be quite erotic to be treated badly. But when you think the player actively believes the same awful things his character says? It’s unnerving.
This is where the issue of trust becomes most salient: trust that your roleplay partner is really roleplaying. For Swanmay, the fantasy of rough ERP with medium to heavy BDSM can be a lot of fun so long as it isn’t an externalisation of a man’s violent rape fantasies, a matter she was quite explicit about when I asked her what bothered her most about RP chatrooms:
Swanmay: There are a lot of rape fantasies and fantasists. That’s generally a fantasy that turns me off.
Swanmay: I can understand ravishment (which is a fine line, but basically is the different between, say, a violent rape fantasy and a romance novel ravishment wherein its quite clear that both parties are actually willing despite pretenses)
Swanmay: But rape creeps me the fuck out.
For me this highlights a particular issue that does confront feminist minded people: the need to ensure that one’s partner is not inimical to your ideals. As Swanmay points out, the underground world of ERP can be a dark place where much lingers that is deeply unpleasant. In the shadows of social opprobrium can dwell as much misogynist ugliness and hate as one can imagine. For me personally there is also a vetting process out of necessity. With partners that I get very close to, I often feel compelled to out myself as transgender. It’s a necessary bulwark against the possibility of closely roleplaying with someone who cannot accept me.
The reasons for this are myriad, and chief among them is the fact that roleplaying is a process that can forge deep relationships. I only have one long term RP partner at the moment, a young woman with whom I’m weaving a long and interesting series of story-arcs for our characters that periodically involves sex. The amount of trust required to do this is significant: one has to always trust the motives and intentions of your RP partner, and there is an issue of compatibility that arises as well. You have to get along as friends of a kind if you are to do anything long term. This necessitates ensuring that you’re on the same page, so to speak, and that you are not at cross purposes in your roleplay.
Like Swanmay I ensure that my partners are interested in ERP that is mutually affirming and as thoroughly un-problematic as possible. Some male roleplayers in particular make it their mission to dominate women in a clear exercise of working out very real anxieties about female power. Some will go so far as to attempt to force women RPers into RP scenarios that fulfill this particular ‘fantasy.’ There have been incidents where we’ve encountered people who actively attempted to force their RP onto someone who did not wish to roleplay a particular sex scene. I’ll discuss this in a future article.
The Presentation of Your Sexy Self in Everyday Life
The line between fantasy and reality can be quite thin. Swanmay uses her ERP as a means of asserting sexual confidence in an area of her life where she feels safest doing so. To look at her roleplay, particularly in her ERP it would be very hard to see the ‘choirgirl’ she describes herself as being in the physical world. Her presentation of self changes dramatically in ERP but it’s not just because she’s playing a role- there is an element of aspiration and wish fulfillment in it, filling a need that she has to express herself more freely, in a way that she cannot because she feels so much fear of her sexual self in the ‘real’ world.
She places the blame for this squarely on her own shoulders but I would contend that she is doing what most people do: assessing the probable social consequences of her actions with a degree of accuracy. She senses that were she to become as sexual as she desires, she would face not only judgement from others but from herself. I would argue this is based on deeply internalised ideas of how women should act. I myself enact this on a daily basis by presenting myself in a manner that does not openly betray my sexuality because I am keenly aware of the social costs of doing so. In my profession (higher education) an openly sexual woman will not be taken seriously.
The flip side of my own tale, however, reveals the importance of social networks. While my general appearance and comportment will do little to tell you who I am sexually, all of my friends are aware of my proclivities and are very encouraging of them. At a recent conference in Washington DC, all-women delegation from my university, gathered in my hotel room for a terrific slumber party cum consciousness raising group. Our discussion of our sexualities was open, free, and completely non-judgemental. I do not have to live with the fact that most of my friends/colleagues don’t know or wouldn’t accept all dimensions of my sexuality.
For Swanmay matters are different, and I would contend that this isn’t her fault. Examining erotic roleplaying behaviour among women can elucidate on our sexual struggles as much as our joys, and in this instance I feel that what was revealed is a small measure of the social cost inherent to the Madonna/whore dichotomy, which Swanmay plays with and attempts to reclaim in the course of her ERP. For her, this is how she is sexually navigating the world. The roleplaying spaces offered by online games, formal and informal, can offer people a means of steadily exploring and owning their sexuality in a safe way. Swanmay is a young woman in college with what I perceive to be a bright future, and I feel that in time she’ll overcome her understandable fears.
After all, in her fiery, fierce, and forthright characters it’s hard not to see the kind of woman she is capable of being.