Is your fantasy really worth it?

The term, "ageplay" has become synonymous with a form of BDSM role play where one individual (usually a sub) dons all aspects of a child (i.e., dress, demeanor, behavior) and the other (usually a dom) dons all aspects of an adult. This, however was not always the case. To better understand why there is such a division within the second life community regarding ageplay, it would behoove us to take a history walk to the origin of ageplay and explore its trajectory within the social landscape.

Well over a decade before the web became a household term, and right on the heels of the equal rights movement of the 1960s, society at large began to recognize and address issues of child abuse. United States legislative bodies enacted the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act [42 U.S.C. § 67] in 1974. CAPTA provided state level funding for child abuse prevention, investigation and prosecution of child abusers, and assessment and treatment of child abuse victims. In addition to the state level funding, it also set aside grant money for child advocacy organizations and further research into the issue of prevention and treatment of child abuse. With this move, several states enacted mandated reporting laws which are generally known as "Duty to Report."

By the mid-1980s, various child advocacy and research groups had been founded, and even though physical abuse, maltreatment, and neglect were the most common forms of child abuse, the issue of child sexual abuse became a prominent concern across the nation. Research during this period often involved identifying demographics and long term effects of child sexual abuse. The result of these studies brought not only more funding for more research but, in some states, funding for clinical programs as well. It was during this period that age regression therapy made inroads within the therapeutic community.

Even though age regression therapy’s earliest form hearkens back to Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer‘s most famous case in psychoanalytic history, the case of Anna O, nearly a century would pass before this form of therapy was seriously revisited. Age regression therapy almost always involved some form of hypnosis and was based upon the Freudian school of thought. The primary goal of this form of therapy was to regress the client back to the period when they experienced some unspecified forgotten trauma that was considered to be the root of their psychiatric distress. All in hopes of inducing an abreaction, which would then provide catharsis of negative energy and thereby restore them to emotional health.

It was also during this period when some practitioners began an augmented form of reparative therapy. Reparative therapy has its own long and sordid history, also dating back to Freud’s era. Reparative therapy’s goal was to "repair" a homosexual "back to health" where "health" was synonymous with heterosexuality. The most well-known and documented cases of that era are chronicled in Richard von Krafft-Ebing‘s book, "Psychopathia Sexualis." While reparative therapy was shelved as highly unethical, and homosexuality was removed from the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM) by its second revision in 1974, some still persisted, believing that homosexuality was a result of bad parenting. Thus, was born "reparenting therapy."

While reparenting therapy for homosexuals was discarded several lawsuits and licensure revocations later, some practitioners felt the underlying premise added value to their therapeutic milieu for trauma survivors. Those who continue to practice reparenting therapy today presume their client will benefit from role playing a healthy parent-child relationship. In order to do so however their client must get in touch with their "inner child." This concept was mainstreamed with the book, "Healing the Child Within" by Charles Whitfield MD in 1987. While some gave their newly found "inner child" names that reflected their adult selves (such as "Little Suzie" for Susan or "Joey" for Joseph), others found multiple inner children. The latter self-diagnoised or were clinically diagnosed with another hotly debated disorder, "multiple personality disorder" (aka, MPD, which was changed to "dissociative identity disorder" in the DSM-IV).

With the advent of online communication, a variety of "inner child" themed communities formed on bulletin board systems (BBS), Usenet groups, listservs, and eventually, web forums. As with any group who shares common areas of interests, backgrounds, knowledge, and experience, group-specific terminology arose within the "inner child" culture. For example, those self or clinically diagnosed with MPD, referred to themselves as "multiples", their inner children as "alts" (which was short for the clinical term, alter egos) and child alters as "littles." In some instances, a few felt MPD should be normalized, and compared it to the normalization of homosexuality in the 1970s. Although the diagnosis of MPD skyrocketed in the mid-to-late 1980s, it dwindled in the 1990s. And by the 21st century, those who diagnosed and treated this particular disorder were more often than not relegated to the fringes of the therapeutic community by mainstream psychology.

In the meantime, modern-day BDSM, which was originally largely practiced by homosexuals, began to make its own inroads into the heterosexual community in the mid-1970s. BDSM in its various flavors often involved role play, sometimes including adult-child scenarios between consenting adults. The latter, which eventually became known as "ageplay" was considered "edgeplay" by those in the mainstream BDSM community due to obvious ethical considerations of acting out child abuse scenarios on a play-pretend child. When considering some "ageplay" themes (i.e., parent-child, teacher-student, etc), it is not at all surprising some in the "inner child" movement (especially those who had experienced some form of sexual abuse) would find their way to the BDSM community, generally, and to the "ageplay" community, specifically. Thus the beginning of the perceptual synonomous meaning in the eyes of society at large.

When virtual worlds became a reality, they presented a rich fantasy environment for both groups. Inner children no longer need be fettered by their adult bodies in these immersive environments where they could cavort with flutterbys and unicorns. Some saw these virtual worlds as a means for reconnecting with their "inner child" to relive happier times, or in some cases, rewrite their childhoods with their new found family of choice. Others found a means to give thier various alters not only an identity but a voice as well. And yet others who wanted to explore their darker fantasies saw virtual worlds as a means to do so without reprisal from society at large. While the former is seemingly benign, this subject continues to evoke strong emotions, pro and con, within the second life community.

Why might that be?

The term, "child" brings with it implied innocence, wonderment, and purity. While some have a problem with any form of ageplay, it is not surprising that most, this writer included, have a problem with sexual ageplay. After all, why would anyone, excluding pedophiles, incorporate a child into their sexual fantasies, whether they do so in a real life BDSM setting or in a virtual world, such as second life? While BDSM ageplayers abhor being compared to pedophiles, claiming that it is not the child-like visage that draws them to that particular fantasy, rather the emotional vulnerability of that particular role, their argument is specious at best and a blatant lie at worst. Especially when virtual ageplay involves a graphically simulated child. If emotional vulnerability, a well-known and accepted mainstay in the dominant/submissive culture, is all they are attracted to, then why oh why the need for a virtual child? Or, in the context of second life, BDSM themes incorporating child avatars and/or child implements, even if their "scenes" do not involve explicit sex?

There is presently just such a debate taking place on second life’s market place forum, Xstreet, though the debate seems to have deteriorated into mostly ad hominem attacks, accusations of witch hunting, and the question of whether the avatar in a product advertisement is or is not a child avatar. The creator eventually stepped in to clarify that no, the avatar depicted is an adult avatar. While this individual and others seem to think that is answer enough to end the debate, it did no such thing. After all, whether or not the individual is donning an adult avatar, the issue being discussed involves implements associated with children (i.e., diapers, pacifier, etc).

The product involves mittens for "Adult Baby" bondage. Adult Babies (paraphilic infantilism) are another form of ageplay. What differentiates Adult Babies from their counterpart is that, while their fetish revolves around being swaddled in diapers, drinking from a bottle, and sucking on a pacifier, they remain in their adult form. What these type of ageplayers fail to acknowledge when debating the ageplay issue is that they get some form of sexual gratification from engaging in infantile behavior. And this very thing is why this topic will continue to be heated.

Why? Because the issue involves associating children with sexual fantasies. And while ageplay has long been a part of the BDSM culture, engaging in such raises numerous, well-founded concerns. The most important being the question of whether the adults engaging in this form of fantasy role play are at increased risk of acting out their fantasy on a real life child. Some will emphatically proclaim, "no, of course not!" while others, will emphatically proclaim, "this behavior is the stepping stone to real life child sexual abuse!"

What does the research tell us?

Although sexual ageplay proponents often cite the 2002 Ashcroft v Free Speech Coalition opinion, both the ruling (which focuses upon producing images for literary and artistic purposes as opposed to role play designed to sexually stimulate participants) and later research renders their argument moot.

For example, in 2005, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs funded the National Juvenile Online Victimization Study. The study’s focus was upon those arrested, indicted, and convicted for possession of child pornography. Importantly, the example used to demonstrate the "Description of a CP Possessor" involved a case of online ageplay, excerpted as follows:

"A 54-year-old man who was a lawyer met an adult woman, a nurse, online. They agreed to an online sexual role-play, in which she would be a little girl and he would be her grandfather. According to the investigator, at times during their online fantasy, the lawyer would say to the woman, “I need you to be an adult now,” and they would step out of the fantasy and discuss other matters. This relationship ended when the lawyer sent the woman child pornography and she reported him to law enforcement. The lawyer had a large number of child-pornography images. He told the investigator he had seen a doctor and been diagnosed as a “sex addict” about nine years before his arrest. After he was arrested he signed himself into a treatment program specializing in pedophilia. He pled guilty to CP possession, was sentenced to five years of probation, and was required to register as a sex offender." (p 18)

While the above example epitomizes the primary concern with regard to virtual ageplay, it is unfortunately, unsurprising. Due to the criminal nature of child sexual abuse, perpetrators often engage in protracted periods of fantasy. In a 2001 FBI behavioral analysis study of acquaintance molesters, Kenneth Lanning notes that

"Pedophiles almost always collect child pornography and/or erotica. Child pornography can be defined as the sexually explicit visual depiction of a minor including sexually explicit photographs, negatives, slides, magazines, movies, videotapes, or computer disks. Child erotica (pedophile paraphernalia) can be defined as any material, relating to children, that serves a sexual purpose for a given individual. Some of the more common types of child erotica include toys, games, computers, drawings, fantasy writings, diaries, souvenirs, sexual aids, manuals, letters, books about children, psychological books on pedophilia, and ordinary photographs of children." (p 62)

As previously noted, sexual ageplay proponents attempt to lump online interactive activity in with literature and art in an attempt to legitimize sexual ageplay by regularly citing the 2002 opinion. This similar tactic was used when second life first announced their new adult continent, Zindra, with the most vocal opponents of that particular decision purposefully asking inane questions such as, "Is Michael Angelo’s David considered adult?"

Despite the fact that not all are sexually stimulated by pixilated sex, the second life sex culture and sex business (both vanilla and kink) indicate that plenty are. The creation of Zindra supports this contention as well. Although some argue that pixel sex is nothing more than fantasy, the immersive quality and interactive nature of the second life fantasy increases the potential for real life acting out. Whether or not said acting out is legal or criminal in nature, one need only visit the various publications regarding real life rendezvous that began online.

While sexual ageplay opponents regularly point to the desensitization effect of engaging in virtual adult-child sex, which indeed exists, the pathway to real life criminal behavior involves a complex dynamic that goes beyond desensitization. This pathway is comprised of several key components, of which desensitization is but one. Although the pathway to criminal behavior may seem to evince a prima facie simplicity, it is important to understand it is in some ways reminiscent of a closed circuit feedback loop.

For example, real life social interaction is a key component for reality testing and internalization of acceptable behaviors that allow individuals to peacefully coexist within their community. Yet, some may find themselves socially isolated due to shyness, phobias, and/or the inability to recognize and respond to social cues in a socially acceptable manner. Research however indicates that there is another component that can increase social isolation, noting that there is an inverse correlation between Internet use and real life social activity. Specifically, extensive use of the Internet ensures isolation through the perception of safety and equalization. (Keisler & Kraut, 1999, Moody, 2001)

Furthermore, since acceptable Internet behavior is still, to some degree, in its formative stages, a person’s perception of acceptable behavior can become skewed over time and with increased Internet use. This is especially so when the individual’s primary social outlet involves online activity. Such skewing is in part due to the immersive experience that occurs in both 2D communities and 3D virtual realities, and in part due to the individual’s psychological construction of a “physical space” inside their head. (Suler, 2000)

This research indicates that the model of abberant behavior breaks down when considering who may be at risk for offending. The sexual offender typology has long involved social indicators, such as a history of real life acting out, to include but not limited to viewing child pornography and child sexual abuse. This model however is dependent upon real life social interaction, where such interaction inherently provides checks and balances with regard to individual moral barometers through the process of “social influence.”

In the case of sexual ageplay, interactive visualization reifies the surrealistic cyber landscape while at the same time desensitizing the individual to scenes they might otherwise find offensive. This desensitization process, in conjunction with the type of ‘group think’ that occurs between and within groups engaging in fringe behaviors, such as BDSM, and socially questionable behaviors, such as age play, provides an avenue for rationalizing behavior through a shared belief in a common enemy.

The end result is increased risk for engaging in behavior that is otherwise considered to be unacceptable within society at large, and thus, held in abeyance. Otherwise put, those of you who support and/or are compelled to engage in online sexual ageplay fantasies would do well to consider the role you play in increasing the risk of propelling a real life child into the nightmare world of child sexual abuse and exploitation.

Is your fantasy really worth it?

2 Comments

  1. Commentsichabod Antfarm   |  Saturday, 31 October 2009 at 19:05

    The best article on ageplay in Second Life and nobody has commented on it? I suspect that, as it's irrefutable, those who agree simply nodded and those who don't simply retreated further beneath their rocks. Not me though. Something this well expressed deserves recognition so, um, thanks for posting it, Angela.

  2. Comments@radarm   |  Monday, 16 November 2009 at 08:21

    Sorry, having some issues with the login process here. I couldn't get the OpenID option to work, so I'm using the twitter option, but it looks like I lost my comment so I'll repost.

    I just subscribed to your blog today, Angela, after Coronaverse. You hit the nail on the head with that last question. I wonder about SL a lot. It seems to be a dumping grounds for interesting use of time by grown adults quite often. I think it's a good question anyone using SL should ask about the use of their time in it. Great post.

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