by John Suler, Ph.D.

Brad first met Natalie on a MOO. He was a college senior at an eastern university, she a junior on the west coast. They got to know each other better by corresponding through e-mail. Over time, he felt very close to her. Maybe, he thought, he was even falling in love. When he finally suggested, then insisted, that he give her a phone call, the truth came crashing down on his head. Natalie confessed to being a 50 year old man.

The beauty, and sometimes misfortune, of the internet is that it offers the opportunity for people to experiment with their identity. One way to do that is to switch one's gender to see how the other half lives. In a text-only chat room the first step is simply to change one's online name. In the visual "habitats" such as the Palace, there is the added challenge of creating an opposite sex "avatar" or "prop" to visually represent one's new self. The choice of name or avatar can greatly influence the image one wishes to cast - Bambi wearing skimpy lingerie, Rocky with sunglasses, Sheila in leather and chains, Lyle playing guitar, Hera in a long, white robe. After selecting a new name and appearance comes the even more challenging task of trying to play the role of the opposite sex person one has chosen. It's not an easy thing to do.

Gender swapping is probably much more commonplace than we realize. Everyone familiar with cyberspace life has heard of or even experienced the kind of dilemma faced by Brad. Personally, I have seen and heard of many more males switching gender than females.If this accurately reflects the population of cybercitizens as a whole, an interesting question surfaces. Why are males so interested in experimenting with a woman's identity? The answers go far beyond cyberspace and point to larger social and psychological issues. Here are a few possibilities:


Due to the pressure of cultural stereotypes, it may be difficult for some men to explore within themselves what society labels as "feminine" characteristics. These males may rely on the anonymity of cyberspace to express their "feminine" side which they feel they must otherwise hide. Some of these males may strongly identify with women.
Adopting a feminine role in cyberspace may be a way to draw more attention to themselves. Getting noticed and responded to in cyberspace is not always easy, especially in such distracting, "noisy" environments as the visual chat habitats. Donning a female name and/or avatar, especially a sexy one, will almost instantly draw reactions. The gender-switched male may even like the feeling of power and control over other males that goes along with this switch.
Some males may adopt a feminine identity to investigate male/female relationships. They may be testing out various ways of interacting with males in order to learn, first hand, what it's like being on the woman's side. Hopefully, they use that knowledge to enhance their relationships with females. Some, however, may be looking for ways to gain power and control.
In some online games where participants assume imaginary identities (e.g., MUDs), being a female may be advantageous. Sometimes males lend more assistance to females, so they progress faster in the game.
Disguised as a female, a male looking for intimacy, romance, and/or cybersex from another male may be acting upon conscious or unconscious homosexual feelings.
Transexuals (people who feel, psychologically, that they are the opposite sex rather than their given biological gender) and/or transvestites (people who cross-dress for sexual arousal or as an identification with females) may be drawn to virtual gender-switching. In rare cases, gender-switching could be a sign of what would be diagnosed as "gender confusion" - i.e., a psychological disturbance where one's identity as a male or female has not fully developed.

One reader of this article had this comment:

I think I can sum up a factor about Genderhacking by repeating a line I saw someone type in a chatroom once: "Won't someone at least pretend to be female?" Lets face it, the majority of users of the internet are still male, and in such an ambiguous environment as the internet, the ability to lose one's inhibitions is quite strong. With a great many horny computer nerds out there, and no counterpart women on the net, I think some men pretend to be women - not because they have any desire to have sexual experiences with men themselves, but because they wish to perpetuate some form of cyber experience. It is as if they are an actor, manipulating the puppet of a women (just as they might in their own mind, during a sexual fantasy) but in this case, they are sustaining the puppet for some other stranger at the end of another modem to play with. Once this cyberstory then exists, it doesn't really matter who wrote the woman's lines or who wrote the man's. For both can enjoy it from whatever perspective that they chose.

Wanting, and trying, to switch gender is by no means a new social phenomenon. Theories in psychology abound on this topic. But the online version of gender-switching is unique and important for several reasons. First of all, cyberspace makes it so easy. It provides an attractive opportunity to experiment, abandon the experiment if necessary, and safely try again, if one so desires. More and different types of people are going to try it than in "real life." It also provides researchers with a unprecedented opportunity to study how and why people gender switch.

Unfortunately, the wide latitude for online gender-switching makes situations like those of Brad much more common. Even though exploring the anima and animus can be enriching, healthy, or just plain fun - hurting other people is not an acceptable outcome. There is a very thin line between the right to experiment with one's gender and the violation of the rights of others by deliberately deceiving and manipulating them.

I won't attempt to draw that line in this article. I will, however, offer some tentative suggestions for detecting gender-switching. At some point in an online relationship, in order to protect one's feelings and even one's "sanity," it may become necessary to test the companion to see if that person is faking gender. For the moment, I'll focus on the detection of male gender-switching because this seems to be more common. However, I welcome ideas from readers of this article about how to discern female gender-switching.

Listed below are some questions one may ask when feeling suspicious about one's online "female" companion. I created this list after consulting approximately 30 women. These are questions that more women than men will be able to answer. The questions can be presented subtly as surreptitious detective work, or explicitly as a confrontation. In fact, if you've spent a good deal of time on the internet, you probably have already heard some of these questions mysteriously sneak into conversations. Some savvy male users immediately - and most likely presumptuously - test the waters as soon as they meet an apparently female user.

Please keep in mind that some people may experience these questions as very personal invasions into their privacy. The goal here is not to intrude on the other person's rights, but to protect one's own. In the case of an overt confrontation, it may even be a good idea to let the other know that one simply wishes to protect one's feelings. I would not recommend using these questions casually, without careful forethought or consideration for the other person's feelings. Applying them is probably most appropriate when the relationship has progressed to the point where you feel emotionally involved with the other person, but suspect that you are being deceived and manipulated into a false relationship.

Also, keep in mind that some women may not know or be able to verbalize answers to all of these questions, while some men may indeed know some of the answers. For some of the questions there may not even be a "correct" answer, or the correct answer may depend on such things as your geographical location and culture. Detecting gender-switching will be a matter of determining how many questions the person seems to get "right," combined with weighing the manner in which the person replies to the questions. Does the person fumble, confabulate, get defensive and angry, etc. But even this strategy can fail. In some cases, it may be impossible to tell whether the person is being deceptive.

Here are the questions. If readers have other suggestions for this list, or can suggest questions to detect female gender-switching, please let me know. For males, I also would recommend discussing these questions with some close female friends or relatives to hear their thoughts and opinions.


What is the difference between "junior" and "misses' sizes? (junior sizes tend to be smaller and may use a different size-numbering system)
What sizes do pantyhose typically come in? (usually A, B, Queen.... rarely, "small, medium, large" - but this may depend on geographical location)
What is the difference in how flushable and non-flushable tampons are made? (non-flushables have plastic in them - flushables have only paper and fabric)
What size ring do women usually wear? (5, 6, 7)
When coloring hair, how long is the dye usually left in one's hair?" (may vary, but approximately 25 minutes)
What is the average range of sizes for women's panties? (typical range is 2-10; average size is 6-8)
What negative effect may antibiotics have on a woman? (yeast infections)
On what day is flow the greatest? (first or second, typically)
When during her cycle is a woman most likely to become pregnant? (approximately 15 days after the beginning of her period)

One final suggestion. Tell the person you suspect of gender-deception that you would like to call her (him), or even arrange for a face-to-face meeting. A gender-switched person will most probably decline the offer. Of course, a genuine person might also decline for a variety of reasons. But for most true friendships and romances in cyberspace, there is a natural development towards wanting to meet the person in real life. In this case, if an online companion declines, there is probably some kind of deception taking place.

John Suler, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has published on psychotherapy, mental imagery, and eastern philosophy. He currently maintains several web sites.


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