The hype is familiar by now: You can do anything in Second Life: Go parachuting, go surfing, build a majestic building, fight vampires.
Or you can have sex.
As with every medium since cave paintings, sex is a big part of Second Life. The virtual world is a haven where people can fulfill their sexual fantasies by pretending to be the opposite sex, experimenting with homosexuality, owning a harem of sex slaves (who are themselves fulfilling their fantasies by role-playing as sex slaves), and more.
The sex is a sign that the virtual world is robust and thriving, said Philip Rosedale, founder and CEO of Linden Lab, the company that develops and operates Second Life.
"In a lot of ways, the presence of sex as an aspect of creative expression and playful behavior in a place like this is healthy, because it indicates we're doing something right," he said. The presence of sex is also a sign that people are engaging with the community and with each other, and connecting with each other as human beings, he added.
So how's it work, exactly?
Sex in Second Life starts with text chat. Participants describe what they're imagining doing with each other in graphic terms. Sometimes they talk to each other over Skype, or the phone. Soon, voice will be even easier in the virtual world -- Linden Lab is beta-testing voice integrated into Second Life, and plans to roll it out over the next few months..
Of course, there's also a visual element. Users can buy outfits to dress their avatars provocatively, or "skins" to make them appear nude. Default avatars have no genitalia, so users need to buy them.
Likewise, users can buy equipment, ranging from realistic-looking beds and other furniture to fanciful torture devices used in BDSM fantasies. The furniture, and other props, have attached software -- in Second Life jargon, they're "scripted" -- to animate the user's avatar through the motions of sex. Sometimes, the script is attached to a simple sphere, called a "pose ball."
Leading vendors of Second Life genitalia and sex equipment include "Stroker Serpentine," the Second Life alter ego of Kevin Alderman, of Tampa, Fla., as well as Xcite! (warning: link contains graphic images).
Nudity and sexual behavior is forbidden in Second Life outside of private areas and sex clubs. Free orgy rooms are commonplace, where users can try out sexual apparatus and pose balls and bring their own.
Interview With A Virtual Madame
Escorts, the Second Life equivalent of phone-sex operators or prostitutes, are quite common in Second Life.
Tiffany Widdershins is owner of one of Second Life's many bordellos. I met with her in her Second Life office, a replica of Bill Clinton's White House Oval Office. She offered me a cigar when I came in the room.
In addition to the Oval Office, her virtual bordello includes a bunny ranch modeled after a Vegas brothel, a locker room "complete with coach's office and showers," an area with a desert romance theme, and club and mall, she said.
"The stuff that really seems to go is the kinky stuff,"says Widdershins. "This is the place that guys and ladies do the stuff that they secretly want to try in real life, but likely never will. I think it's because it has no real-life consequences," she said in text chat in-world.
Widdershins's avatar is a shapely woman, wearing a G-string, heels, and a sheer top. Her rear end is tattooed with the name of the business: LuvRags.
She started in the sex business in Second Life four months ago.
"One learns a lot about the truth of of human nature from charging guys to pay for cartoon sex, and then watching them flock to it. 99% of people will tell you that they are against pornography, and yet it's 40% of online activity. The whole thing is pretty ridiculous, really," she said in a text-chat interview.
I asked her, "Why do you think people pay for it in Second Life? There doesn't seem to be a shortage of willing partners, and it's easy to look like a porn star."
She responded that the virtual escorts are better at it. "90% of sex is mental... and in fact 100% of virtual sex is mental.....so a professional here has to be a terrific manipulator of words and experience," she said.