Virtual bodies, mutable genders

Here’s an interesting bit of research from sunny Barcelona: men wearing a virtual reality headset that allowed them to perceive themselves as a female avatar started to identify strongly with their temporarily-assumed gender.

… men donned a virtual reality (VR) headset that allowed them to see and hear the world as a female character. When they looked down they could even see their new body and clothes.

The “body-swapping” effect was so convincing that the men’s sense of self was transferred into the virtual woman, causing them to react reflexively to events in the virtual world in which they were immersed.

Men who took part in the experiment reported feeling as though they occupied the woman’s body and even gasped and flinched when she was slapped by another character in the virtual world.


Later in the study, the second character lashed out and slapped the face of the character the men were playing. “Their reaction was immediate,” said Slater. “They would take in a quick breath and maybe move their head to one side. Some moved their whole bodies. The more people reported being in the girl’s body, the stronger physical reaction they had.”

Sensors on the men’s bodies showed their heart rates fell sharply for a few seconds and then ramped up – a classic response to a perceived attack.

As expected, the body swapping effect was felt more keenly by men who saw their virtual world through the female character’s eyes than those whose viewpoint was slightly to one side of her. In all cases, the feeling was temporary and lasted only as long as the study.

Plenty of opportunity for further research there; I’m no expert, but that looks to me like a validation of the theory that gender roles are socially constructed… but then that theory has been borne out by my personal experiences in virtual worlds, in my own behaviour as well as that of others.

I’ve heard it suggested before that a way to break down some of the more persistent gender prejudices in modern culture would be for everyone to spend a month living the life of the gender they consider themselves “opposite” to – maybe VR and synthetic worlds offer us the closest approximation of that classic science fictional plot device (Stross’s Glasshouse, anyone?).

4 thoughts on “Virtual bodies, mutable genders”

  1. I don’t read anything in this particular piece that suggests that the men had an authentic experience of being female. Not to say that they can’t have; only that reacting to someone rubbing your arm or slapping your face is not necessarily gender-specific behavior.

    In practical terms and mostly overall I share the opinion that that gender is primarily a construct, but it’s not JUST a construct: there are also physical components that influence how our minds feel. For instance, women as a rule have much better peripheral vision then men, which is why you can usually catch a man “checking someone out” but usually can’t catch a woman, even though women do check people out. (No kidding–see Allan and Barbara Pease’s excellent book The Definitive Book of Body Language for specifics on this–see .) Women have a larger corpus collosum than men (this is the part of the brain that handles traffic between the hemispheres) and a larger deep limbic system, which affects interpersonal bonding, emotional experience, and communication about emotions.

    With that said, our brains are incredibly adaptable, and I don’t know any reason why a person of one gender might not be able to think pretty much entirely like a member of the other gender in the right circumstances. But I did want to address the idea that gender is only a construct, rather than (as I’m proposing) a construct plus some basic neurological differences.

  2. Frankly, I’m skeptical of most of the data pointing to neurological differences. It might be that more women score in the higher range, but I bet there are plenty of women with lousy peripheral vision, and quite a few men who don’t lack the ability. Women are supposed to be better at fine motor tasks, too, but I’m not — I’ve had it tested and I score about 5 percentile. (I do much better with larger tools, such as swords.)
    The only differences between men and women that I am sure exist outside of social constructs are the ones involving the reproductive system. While there are a small percentage of people who don’t fit into either category on that scale, most of us can be labeled one gender or the other based on what we contribute to reproduction. For anything else, I don’t think we’re going to get any real answers until we have a world without all the social constructs — something I don’t expect to see in my lifetime, alas.

  3. As anyone who has been in contact with little children can confirm, there IS a big difference in behaviour between male and female human beings. In particular, males are clearly much more aggressive than females. Differences due to gender are indeed most evident *before* culture and education have had any real impact on children, suggesting that perhaps the net effect of our society is to tame, rather than emphasize, them. So, to me, the bottom line is: there are basic differences in behaviour that cannot be due to culture, while of course the latter has its own deep influence.
    By the way, I am surprised that Paul didn’t put a reference to Fluidity (by Erice Del Carlo) in this post!

  4. @Nancy, to take the example of the corpus collosum, that’s a structure in the brain that can be readily measured, and women do, on the whole, have a larger one–so I think that can be said to be a clear difference that isn’t dependent on culture, unless one proposes that girls are brought up in such a way that their corpus collosa grow larger (which doesn’t seem like an impossible category of events, but for which as far as I know there’s no evidence at all). Since female and male bodies have physical differences, why would it be strange that female and male brains have physical differences?

    @Giulio, I hear what you’re saying, and I do agree that there are non-cultural differences, but children are socialized from birth: adults talk to children differently based on their gender (or perceived gender).

    Enjoying the conversation, and apologizing that I now seem to qualify for an “I disagree with everyone!” t-shirt.

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