Sunday, 29 January 2012

Choose Freedom?

A few posts ago, I decided not to attempt to write about slavery in SL, as a friend of mine had done a better job on the subject than I could hope to. Well, whilst I still hold this belief, I have decided that I do want to say something about the matter. 

I apologise for lacking screenshots in this post - I did not want to implicate any sims or sim owners in this subject, as it is not meant to be an attack on such, but the start of a discussion of. 

It would appear that the terms "sci-fi" and "human slavery" are synonymous in SL, and I suppose that the notion arises out of the anxiety over controlling something as unfathomable as space. There are plenty of areas on our own planet that we have difficulty in policing, and it is easy to imagine how such a problem might multiply as humans stretch out onto other planets.    Many of the most popular sci fi sims appear to be through-points - space hotels, markets or truck-stops, designed to cater to the (temporary) needs of those passing through. As such, they can be read as liminal spaces, the nature of which is defined by whatever community happens to be gathered there at a time - soldiers, slavers, salvagers, clones, exiles, whatever. Taking into account the size of such sims, it is possible that the nature of the sim will be constantly in flux as new avatars teleport in, and resident avatars hop out. Given how easy it is for an SL user to change their avatar's clothes, it is possible that I could be the captain of a ship one minute, and a space hitch-hiker the next (I always have a towel ready in my inventory for such a purpose). 

That these sims locate themselves on "the outer rim" - on the edge of the known, mappable universe, as it were,  suggests a desire to be liberated from police-able systems. In terms of role-play, that is understandable, as it destabilises previously accepted social norms and makes possible a wider range of simulated activities. If the fear of punishment - albeit a questionable fear - is removed, how do humans behave? What governs them - and how strong is that governance? I think it is fair (if a little general) to say that, as a race, we are fascinated with the breakdown of society. We want to see what happens if we take on board the philosophies of, say, those in "Trainspotting", or "Fight Club", and SL offers a space in which we can do this without fear of permanent death.

Slavery works to challenge notions of equality, and represents for us, I think, the ultimate image of a person devoid of agency. Perhaps it is the closest we can come to the idea of "Hell on Earth", and I don't think it would be beyond reason to suggest that we (as society) view slaves as the lowest of the low. Are there any rungs left on the ladder to slide any further down at this point?

To return to "Trainspotting" and "Fight Club": it seems to me that many of the rules these films present to be done away with by their characters are rules concerning social responsibility. In becoming a slave, your actions become devoid of responsibility because you are no longer the one controlling them. When you place that situation into a world such as SL, it opens up a space of freedom that might begin to look attractive to inhabitants of a real world in which we are encouraged to constantly be aware of the consequences of every action we take.  
Slavery is a fact of life in most parts of the Rim and Deep black, and arguably in most parts of the ‘verse.  Slaves in the Rim and Deep black are acquired by many means. Slaves have a legal status, as property but with limited rights to care for their health and welfare. - "Slavery in the Outer Rim and Deep Black ver b-02" (a notecard available in SL)
However, when human trafficking and slavery is a fact of the real world, and we hear on the news stories of hundreds of victims the world over being forcibly removed from their home country and forced to work in another as labourers or prostitutes, where does that leave us? Suddenly, the social responsibility denied to a real slave becomes doubly encoded upon the virtual - and I am talking here, of course, of those who consent to allow their avatars to work as slaves, however temporarily, in SL. Bringing the word "freedom" into the discussion, on the side of the slavers, seems morally repugnant. Does the virtual world or, indeed, any world, have the right to take such an atrocity and turn it into a form of entertainment?

I am not suggesting, by any stretch of the imagination, that slavery as recreated in SL is anything akin to the kinds of slavery that go on in the real world, and nor am I saying that SL must become a site of protest for every ill that transpires in the realms of the palpable. But do we have an ethical responsibility, if we are to engage with slavery in SL, to stage some kind of political statement? Do we have a moral duty to denounce such practices and those that get direct enjoyment out of them - to de-eroticise what has arguably become a fetish? 

The subject becomes difficult when you take into considerable the consensual nature of SL. Nothing can be done to your avatar without your consent, and so the "plight" taken on by those in the virtual world is one that, for whatever reason, they have chosen to take on. It is not slavery, and not even a representation of slavery. It is the aesthetic, perhaps, of slavery - it looks like slavery but, actually, most of the agency lies with the slave. Ultimately, even if you feel as if you have been forced into slavery in SL, you can press the "escape" tab and the whole virtual world will vanish from your view. Your avatar will be wrenched out of that life instantly. 

Now, I do not engage in slavery, in SL or anywhere else. I have never dressed or cast Kitti as a slave, nor a slaver, and I do not frequent slave markets. I did try to free a slave character in a role-play scenario once, the subject of which became interesting when the slave had been conditioned such that she didn't quite want to be free, and Kitti had to begin imposing her own will upon the poor woman. It was an interesting situation, and one that, true to my maxims of role-play, was very difficult to write; but in agreeing to participate in this story, was I condoning slavery? 

In visiting sims, sci-fi or not, that contain slave markets and holding cells and which encourage human traffickers to pass through, are we condoning the mimicry, the attitude, and, in a wider sense, the cause?  I am not even talking, here, about sims designed purely for that purpose, and in several of the sci-fi sims I have in mind, the slave markets and quarters are hidden beneath the floor or down lengthy tunnels that is difficult to get to. It is not, necessarily, out and open, on display. But is that, in hiding the truth, as it were, making the situation worse?

Should we boycott them, all?

It is food for thought, and I'm not one hundred percent sure how I feel about this one.


  1. I'm not sure what I think Kitty..Is it too much escapism to create a world like SL where it is possible to completely escape the day to day goings on of the real world, or is it better to make SL as 'real' as you possibly can? By making it real and allowing human trafficking and slavery to go on in the virtual world, are we encouraging it and condoning it in the real world?

    On reflection I think I vote to abolish any form of slavery in the virtual world. If couples want to get kinky that is their personal choice, but trafficking and real slavery should be out.


  2. I love the way you write.

    Kitti writes: "Do we have a moral duty to denounce such practices and those that get direct enjoyment out of them - to de-eroticise what has arguably become a fetish?"

    It hasn't arguably become a fetish - it *is* a fetish, and part of the problem is that the role-played slavery you're writing about is actually based around the intersection of three quite separate things. One, you have slavery/rape roleplay. Two, you have the icky Gorean thing. Three, you have the BDSM sub/dom(me) interaction.

    It's a problem of representation, in some ways. On the one hand, should slavery and rape be hidden from fiction? That's a rhetorical question, obviously. But the fact is, it's not that they're portrayed in the impromptu fictions of SL roleplayers. It's that they're portrayed in such a horrible fashion. When you go to a sim like, say Necronom VI, and see this being played out, you know that someone, somewhere is masturbating over it. Someone is getting excited by it.

    It's not representation that's the problem, it's prurient representation. The Gorean scene in SL is a classic example of this sort of prurience. It's rape, misogyny and unhealthy power exchange wholly for the purpose of titillation. I'm not talking about banning consensual BDSM - but real-world BDSM has little to do with much of the collar-and-owner scene in SL.

    Have you ever seen Pasolini's film Salo, Or the 120 Days of Sodom? It's full of nudity, rape, explicit sex of both kinds... but at no point could anyone ever get off on it because, it being a proper work of art with a responsible moral centre, it shows the truth and horror of power and slavery, and disturbs. And that's how it should be: not a representation that says "let's have a closer look at that..." but one that says "this is what it is like. How does that make you feel?"

    I think the scene you mention with the slave-who-didn't-want-to-be-rescued is different at least in part because the whole point of the woman's condition was to make the scene disturbing and painful. Perhaps in specifics it had some of the same details, but no one is sexually getting excited over it.

  3. Thank you :)

    Yes - I think I have perhaps missed that angle out in my initial discussion of this, though I know that you and I have discussed it, if briefly, before. There is the question of what is being taken from the scenarios, which then brings into play all kinds of questions about predictability of audience response, and personal preference.

    The woman's condition in the scene I mentioned was very disturbing, and I myself felt disturbed, not only by her and her actions, but also by my own. I could feel where the scene was going, and I imagine that my realisation - that I was going to have to order her around to remove her from the original order - was quite palpable.

    I think it would be a mistake, however, to remove this representation from my discussion on the grounds that it was not for sexual gratification. Though the awareness of sexual gratification through such scenes makes it easier to instantly say "no, stop doing that!", I think that we have to consider (not necessarily ban) all kinds of representations, why we are choosing to represent them, and what repercussions that representation has.

    I then find myself trying to balance the social responsibility of such an action, as the immediate response is inevitably that if we really sat down and thought about what goes on in this world and the consequences of talking about it, we would probably never say anything. It is an argument based on something of a fallacy, of course, but I doubt I am alone in feeling the pressure of it.

    I haven't seen the film that you mentioned. And yes, when I was writing this, I did have in mind the sim you mentioned, along with Botany Bay - which, interestingly, has its own set of rules to limit what is "allowed" to take place regarding slaves on that sim. But they are a whole other blog post :P

    Please forgive my lacking eloquence. I have not long returned from what was arguably the most mind-numbing lecture of my whole academic career. I'd have waited to write this, but I am imagining that this afternoon's seminar is going to be challenging the previous assertion, and I wanted to reply whilst I had something left of my brain :P

  4. I think that feeling the pressure of it, as you say, is a Good Thing.

    In fact, here's my take on it: simply going to the people around you, "it's wrong to get horny over these prurient depictions of rape and slavery," only antagonises the culprits. It makes them *less* likely to listen to you. They'll be all American and cite First Amendments and Rights to Arm Bears and bollocks like that or they'll call you a prude or something.

    It's actually more helpful to participate in interrogating it. By exploring these things responsibly, by trying to understand them, by _making it hurt_ you do something useful. Interrogation is not validation. Or at least I hope it isn't.

  5. I don't think that interrogation is validation (or, at least, I'm hoping with you that it isn't :P), and I agree that there is little to be gained by saying "Oi, you, yeah you, you're being gross, stop raping those people, cut it out". That's why I didn't want to name names or anything like that. I think Mum is possibly right which what she says about escapism - it is "too much", almost, to think you can log into SL and carry out such acts and pretend that they have no political or social consequence. I think that they do, however minor or limited such may be.

  6. Oh, I completely agree. There is a consequence in doing these things. But it's a complex one and I don't think many people really know how thorny and complex it is.


All questions, comments and feedback are welcome. Thank you.