Peeking Up the Skirt of Online Sex Work

Tonight at Dream Girls the theme is “Best in White.” Five beautiful women in flowing, white dresses dance around me. Since there are no men in this club, they laugh together, planning their outfits for tomorrow’s theme: “Best Topless.” Aside from the labels floating above their heads (“Escort”) or the details of their conversation (“Which skirt would you look better with my nipples?”), it’s impossible to tell that this is a group of online prostitutes. Or that they might not be women.

Second Life is, among other things, a world of sex. It’s also a world with its own free market economy. Put those two things together, and you get one of the biggest markets in Second Life: the market for adult services. For the right number Lindens—the game’s local currency—players can choose from literally thousands of online escorts: users who specialize in text cybersex, sexy voice chat, or even video cybering.

Some Second Life sex workers brave it on their own as "freelancers." However, most work for specific escort clubs, like Dream Girls—which dot the already “mature” virtual landscape (think naked avatars going at it on the lawns and public wall hangings of women in lingerie labeled “modern art”). These clubs—big buildings with plenty of poles for sultry dances—give customers a place to check out their options, and escorts a place to show off their stuff. In exchange, clubs usually take a cut of an escort’s earnings and her tips.


Heroine Sheik
Bonnie Ruberg's blog about sex, tech, gender, and videogames

For many, escorting is quite literally a second job. Working men and women by day (it’s also very common to hear of stay-at-home, Midwestern moms who turn virtual tricks in their spare time), these players have joined the industry for the thrills, for the extra cash, or both. For a night of teasing, undressing, and making the most of their clickable parts, the pay can range anywhere from 400 to 25,000 Lindens ($1.60 to $100): hardly a fortune, but not too bad when you remember that Second Life sex workers never have to leave the comfort of their living rooms.

The money is a perk, says Werner Balczo (his in-world name), an exotic dancer at club Luna, but mostly he’s in it for the fun. “Life is good here,” he explains. “There are so many women around!” In real life, Werner says he's a thirty-two-year-old classical singer from Germany—not a tan, beefy stripper who likes to gyrate shirtless on the dance floor. In Second Life, he’s part of a severe minority: male sex workers.

Maybe it’s obvious that the majority of Second Life escorts and dancers would be women. What’s not so obvious is their real-life gender—or what to do about it. Last week we talked about how, statistically, half the female avatars in a world like Second Life are actually played by men. Usually, a hefty dose of gender-bending is expected (and accepted) in online communities. But when male players try to get jobs as female escorts, things get a little more complicated.

Afraid to anger their paying customers, who might feel deceived if they learn the girl they’ve just spent the night with was really a boy, some clubs screen out these “transgender”—or “poser”—players during the hiring process. “Are you male or female?” reads one application from a club that is “only looking for female escorts.” “No transgender, please,” reads another. “It is not fair to customers if one day you are a woman and the next a male.” More stringent club owners require that applicants undergo a phone interview so they can’t fudge their gender. But even the owners who take applicants at their words are willing to take drastic measures. If a female escort lets slip some detail from her real life that reveals she’s actually a man, says one such trusting club owner, she’s fired immediately. No questions asked.

Dream Girls owner Lotta Cochrane—herself an ex-Second Life escort and exotic dancer—takes a different approach to the gender of her workers. Instead of discriminating against them, she provides them with a non-judgmental environment where they can concentrate on their trade. The club got started, Lotta says, back when her and her partner were “working at a few different places, getting treated badly most of the time,” so they decided “to start a place run by girls for the girls,” i.e. the escorts—whatever their real-life gender.


Not only does that mean Dream Girls doesn’t take a cut of their escorts’ earnings, it also means that they don’t do gender verification. “One of my only rules,” says Lotta (also her SL name), “is that Second Life is Second Life, not real life.” You can be who you want; as long as you’re a happy, productive worker, it doesn’t matter to Lotta whether there’s a man or a woman behind your screen.

So far the acceptance approach seems to be working well for Dream Girls. With 98 escorts and 192 VIP guests, four locations, and three theme nights a week, business is booming. “We even had a bachelorette party for a lesbian couple last week,” Lotta says proudly. Now that gender worries are out of the way, everyone’s just having a good time.

Last week: OMG, That Woman I Had Cybersex With Is Really a Man!

Click Me runs weekly. Contact cybersex columnist Bonnie Ruberg at bonnie[at]heroine-sheik[dot]com.

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