Gender switching on the Internet isn't as common as believed

May 21, 2000

When it comes to gender switching, the Internet appears to be a far tamer frontier and much more conventional than many critics have claimed.

That's the picture that has emerged from the first studies of gender switching - assuming an alternate gender-based identity - on the Internet. American and Australian researchers surveyed more than 400 participants in text-based social and role-playing virtual worlds. The results, published in the current issue of the journal Information, Communication, and Society, showed that 60 percent of participants have never engaged in gender switching and have no desire to do so.

"The image of gender switching we came up with is considerably more benign than portrayals of both its harshest critics and most avid advocates," said Malcolm Parks, co-author of the paper and an associate professor of speech communication at the University of Washington. Parks' collaborator was Lynne Roberts, a doctoral student in psychology at Curtin University of Technology in Australia.

They also found that:

. The desire to play organized games in which players take the roles of fictional characters is the main reason for gender switching.

. The primary barrier to gender switching is the belief that it is dishonest or manipulative.

. The behavior of gender switching is experimental and temporary, rather than lasting or regular.

"There are three misleading stories about the Internet that get a disproportionate amount of attention based on their reality - gender switching, Internet addiction and weird and disturbing romances on the Internet," Parks said. "Gender switching became a lighting rod in the debate about the Internet being too free. Anytime you have a new medium people question if others are lying to them. A century ago people wondered if they could trust what other people were telling them over the telephone. Today the stereotype is if you go online you have no idea of the identity of other people and can't trust what is going on.

"We found most people are honest about their gender the vast majority of time. If you are talking to someone who says she's a 22-year-old woman, the odds are that's what she really is."

Parks and Roberts investigated text-based virtual worlds with no pictures called MOOs that were banned by some administrators of college computer systems because of alleged deceptive gender play. MOO is the abbreviation for a computer programming language called Multi Object Oriented and MOOs are a type of social and role-playing games. There are hundreds of these sites on the Internet with anywhere from several dozen to 15,000 participants on each of them at any time, Parks said.

The new journal article is based on two studies conducted by the researchers. The first included previously unreported data from a larger survey about the development of Internet social relationships. It asked 233 people participating in social MOOs if they engaged in gender switching and how much time they spent doing so on the Internet in the previous month, as well as collecting demographic data.

The second study was of 202 people active in social and role-playing MOOs. It collected similar data, as well as asking about people's main reasons for gender switching and their attitudes regarding gender switching. Participants also were asked to fill out three personality tests. Men slightly outnumbered women in both studies and most subjects were younger than 30, although the age range extended from 13 to 74.

While 60 percent of the individuals in both studies said they had never tried gender switching, 21 percent reported they were currently gender switching. Another 19 percent had experimented with it but stopped. However, one subgroup of subjects was twice as likely to engage in gender switching. It was composed of the participants in role-playing MOOs, about one-third of the subjects in the second study. The majority was either currently gender switching (40 percent) or had previously tried it (17 percent). Parks said role playing fictional characters, including opposite gender characters, is the primary purpose of role-playing MOOs.

So who, aside from this group, is likely to experiment with gender switching?

There is no easy profile or pattern to switching, according to Parks and Roberts' study, and switchers and non-switchers did not differ on standard psychological measures of shyness, extraversion or neuroticism.

"This is not about age or gender or personality," he said. "The best predictor for switching is time spent on the Internet. Those who switched had been using MOOs longer, spent more time on MOOs and visited more MOOs than those who didn't. People look around and say 'What haven't I done?' Some try gender switching and then most stop doing it after the experience."

People who had never engaged in gender switching provided more than 170 reasons for not doing so. The most common reason given was that they had no interest in altering their sexual identity. A belief that gender switching is dishonest and a desire to present themselves accurately on line were other frequently given reasons.

"Belief that gender switching is dishonest or manipulative is a very strong factor," said Parks. "When you probe this, you see that the Internet is a regulated, despite the perception that it is a wide-open frontier. People are bringing their off-line values and norms with them on to the Internet. "What is happening around Internet myths is typical of societal anxiety that crops up with a new communications media. Many Internet fears are exactly the same as those that existed with the introduction of television and the telephone. Of course, one person's fears are another's liberation," he said.

"The Internet is a wonderful place to escape the trap of gender categories or a place where people don't have to behave according to the rules. Role-playing is like attending a masquerade ball where everyone you are interacting with is behind a mask. Nothing is more basic than a person's sexual identity and the idea of people changing their identities has gathered a great deal of attention."

Parks added a cautionary note to the findings.

"This study only looked at two popular venues on the Internet. There are several social media that are bundled on the Internet and they may operate in different ways. I don't know how gender switching operates in chat rooms or how it will evolve as MOOs become more visual as technology improves. Gender switching will become more complex and difficult when live voice is added in two or three years. Things do change and change so fast on the Internet that they could be entirely different in five years."
-end-
For more information, contact Parks at macp@u.washington.edu or (206) 221-3249.

University of Washington

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