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My So-Called Second Life
Joel Stein steps into the virtual world and finds a lot of sex—and a guide named Cristal
Time Magazine
Joel Stein
December 16, 2006

I thought I'd want to have lots of sex. Meaningless, multipartnered, degrading sex. After all, if Second Life is a virtual community in which you can look however you want, do whatever you want and use the fake name you want, then I could make all my fantasies come true. And as I quickly learned, having sex is exactly what many of the people on the site spend their time doing. Occasionally, it seemed, with characters that look like giant fluffy squirrels—which is wonderful, because there is nothing like the warm flush of superiority you feel when discovering a fetish you don't have.

It is not entirely surprising that Second Life is a booming enterprise. There were more than 800,000 people in the past 60 days who spent time chatting in cartoon locations that were built not by the company but by enterprising users.

The growth of Second Life is particularly impressive considering that the program takes forever to download, requires a computer with a graphics card for gaming, sucks up hours just to design your character and—this is the genius part—has created the perfect capitalist system in which you pay for fake stuff (clothing, housing, hookers) with real money. People make thousands of U.S. dollars selling designs for cars or flipping virtual property. Many companies, seeing an opportunity for marketing and sales, have created virtual branches on Second Life: American Apparel has a clothing store, Adidas hawks shoes, Starwood previewed a new line of hotels, Reuters has an embedded journalist, Jay-Z played a concert and the Sundance Channel is setting up a virtual screening room. Apparently, people want to cram their second lives full of the same stuff they have in their first.

But Second Life is different enough (flying! teleporting! cloning!) that it functions as a therapist's couch on which you learn about yourself by safely exploring your darkest desires. Mine, I was shocked to find, do not involve sex. In fact, in my ultimate fantasy life, I do not have a penis. And since genitalia do not come without charge in Second Life, I could free myself from the gnawing distraction of a sex drive. Which meant that for the first time, I would be able to focus all my energy on a quest for power. I planned to put the Reuters guy out of business, own some kind of island where drone armies did my bidding and force people to follow laws based on my insane whims. Unfortunately, the other thing I learned about myself on Second Life, after spending half an hour learning how to walk, was that I'm too lazy to do any of those things. Or even draw my hair and eyebrows right.

After practicing walking at the Welcome Area until I could at least stumble at the level of a Malibu Mel Gibson, I was approached by Cristal Beese, who often looks for new people to help. Cristal clearly needed to upgrade her idea of a fantasy life.

After giving me a tuxedo, Cristal changed into a gown and a blond updo and teleported us to a ballroom, where we clicked on a button to dance salsa. All these graphics were impressive, but they really serve—like the stuff at any decent bar?as an excuse to talk about something. Once we typed to each other about how cool the dancing was, I learned a lot about Cristal's real life: her husband, her Peruvian background, her recent move to Holland. She called me "hun" a lot and lol-ed at all my jokes. She seemed so smart and interesting, I felt pretty sure she was a 25-year-old guy living in his parents' basement.

We also talked about sex a lot. Having sex in Second Life just requires selecting a series of buttons, but it's the instant messaging where the action is. This can get so serious that some people have virtual boyfriends they reserve their virtual sex for—which seems tender until you realize they are doing this in virtual sex clubs. And on the computer.

While we were walking around the ballroom, I learned that Second Life is aggressively heterosexual. Male avatars would not talk to me for more than a sentence or two. In fact, when I tried to talk to a dude who looked just like the Predator, he wouldn't even say hello. This may be because I opened with "Dude, congratulations. You're the biggest dork in Second Life."

I spent the next 41/2 hours with Cristal as she took me to a waterfall, a snowy Christmas scene, a shipwreck and a sex club. At some point, she offered me a free penis. Much as I didn't want to take it, it's damned hard to tell even a fake woman that you don't want the free penis she's giving you. So I thanked her. And I realized how incredibly nice she was and how—even in Second Life, where anything is possible—I wasn't really any different than I ever am.

Four days later, I went back to Second Life and found Cristal. After embarrassingly having to remind her who I was, she gave me her real name, Marita, and her Web address. It turns out, Marita is not only a woman but an awfully pretty one, who seemed to have a full life, just as she did on Second Life. It would have been a lot more exciting to know before we fake made out. But, I asked myself, would that have ruined the purity of our bodiless relationship? And also, should I have dropped $5 for a really sweet penis?
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