Are sexy avatars putting girls at risk?

A study finds that a "provocative" online identity leads to more sexual come-ons.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published May 27, 2009 11:01AM (EDT)

As any young lady today knows, showing a little leg on the shoulder of this here information superhighway will inspire a cacophony of virtual honks, whistles and propositions. Now, researchers have confirmed that Internet-age-old wisdom with a study of how teen girls portray themselves online, and with this new report comes a host of questions about sexual rites of passage in this digital age.

Researchers asked 173 girls between the ages of 14 and 17 to create an online avatar using a program designed specifically for the study. Like an Orange County housewife with carte blanche at the plastic surgeon's office, the girls were allowed to tweak their avatar's breasts and hips to their liking, in addition to their eyes, hair and skin color.  They also chose from a virtual clothing rack with everything from prim and proper coverups to outright streetwalking gear. The teens then filled out a questionnaire about their past experiences in the Wild Wild Web, specifically whether they had encountered sexual come-ons or arranged a real-world get-together with a virtual stranger. Finally, their online exploits were compared to the relative raunchiness of their digital creations.

It turns out girls who choose "provocative" presentations -- in the form of, say, a busty Second Life avatar -- are more likely to get sexual attention from fellow Web crawlers and, in turn, meet online suitors in real life. What's more, there's an even stronger independent link between girls who have been physically or sexually abused and those same online and offline outcomes; that should come as no real surprise, as we already know that victims of childhood abuse are generally vulnerable to revictimization. (Note that the study did not track how many real-life meet-ups resulted in any kind of sexual activity.) These two factors pose the greatest online threat to teen girls, the study concludes, not the favored bugaboo of "Internet naiveté" or "sexual innocence." (I'm sure I speak for the whole of modern girlkind when I say: Um, du-uh.)

The study's authors say there's a Proteus effect at play here: The way girls present themselves online not only influences the behavior of others but also their own. In other words, a girl's raunchy avatar might attract one-handed come-ons from strangers and influence the way she responds to those advances. It has to be taken into account, though, that sometimes girls create sexy online personae because they actually want to have sexy conversations. On a similar note, I have to say I'm a bit troubled by the subtle conflation of those two independent factors of abuse and sexual self-presentation in some of the media coverage of the study. It's as though girls' online sexual presence is in itself evidence of some form of past, current or future abuse or victimization.

Just try to imagine an article that switched seamlessly between talk of the sexual vulnerabilities of abused boys and non-abused boys alike. For a change, it would be nice to see some concern about the sexual vulnerability of teenage boys in this digital age. Surely someone out there must be similarly worried about how guys are being victimized and presented with things that they aren't ready for online.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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