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Original Article

Sexing the Avatar

Gender, Sexualization, and Cyber-Harassment
in a Virtual World
Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz1 and Shannon Schipper2
Department of Communication, University of Missouri, Columbia, MI, USA,
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

Women’s Resources Center, University of the Pacific, Stockton, CA, USA

Abstract. The present study explored the influence of avatar appearance on cyber-harassment in a virtual world. Specifically, this research
examined how avatar gender and sexualization were related to the experience of sex- and non-sex-related harassment. An international sample
of Second Life users (N = 216) completed an online questionnaire about their avatar’s appearance and virtual world experiences. Objectification
theory and the disinhibition effect were used as theoretical grounding for the study. Results revealed disparate virtual experiences for male and
female avatars and indicated that avatar sexualization was related to experiences of cyber-harassment for female avatars. The implications of
this research extend beyond virtual worlds like Second Life to other Web-based communication applications that utilize avatars.

Keywords: gender, sexualization, avatars, virtual worlds, cyber-harassment

As virtual play and computer-mediated communication The study surveyed an international sample of existing
become increasingly central to our daily lives, questions SL users to examine the relationship between avatar gender,
arise about how psychological phenomena observed in sexualization, and experiences of sex- and non-sex-related
other contexts may be experienced online. Second Life cyber-harassment in a social virtual world. The results of this
(SL) (http://www.secondlife.com) is currently one of the research suggest that cyber-harassment in virtual applica-
largest and most popular social virtual worlds available to tions may follow suit from the gendered nature of reported
Internet users. Over 1 million people per month choose to experiences of harassment in offline contexts. Although
spend part of their daily lives in SL (Linden Lab, 2011). avatar customization and virtual world interactions may be
This virtual community is a computer-simulated, persistent, playful in nature, the experience of cyber-harassment is
interactive world populated by users who may communicate very real. Our research invites scholars to further consider
synchronously with one another and actively contribute to how experiences of cyber-harassment are mapped onto
the creation of the world (Ivory, 2012; Jung, 2011; Pearce, experiences of play in virtual environments.
2009). The cybersociality of virtual worlds like SL offers up The implications of this research extend beyond virtual
a unique opportunity to study how sociocultural patterns of worlds like SL to other Web-based communication applica-
life may be extended into virtual spaces (Boellstorff, 2008). tions that utilize avatars. An increasingly wide range of
The present research examined how avatar gender and applications using 3D avatars are emerging as technology
sexualization were related to the phenomenon of cyber- advances and become more readily available. Theoretical
harassment. as well as practical implications are discussed and sugges-
Cyber-harassment was conceptualized as computer- tions are made for future studies.
mediated obscene comments, sexual harassment, and gen-
erally harassing behaviors aimed at debasing and/or driving
out a virtual world user. These unwanted communication
behaviors targeting members of gender and other nondom- Customizing the Avatar: Choosing
inant cultural groups online have largely been understudied the Virtual You
and trivialized (Citron, 2009). In a virtual world, the avatar
(i.e., 3D digital representation of the user) is central to Technological developments have enabled users to have a
communication exchange. We discuss avatar creation and great degree of control over avatar creation. This is partic-
(virtual) self-sexualization to contextualize the study of ularly true in SL, where hundreds of thousands of items are
cyber-harassment in a 3D virtual environment. Objectifica- available for customizing the appearance of one’s avatar.
tion theory and the disinhibition effect are used as theoret- Although a user can be anyone or anything (i.e., users have
ical grounding for the present research. the option of purchasing unique avatars such as robots and

Ó 2015 Hogrefe Publishing Journal of Media Psychology 2016; Vol. 28(4):161–174

DOI: 10.1027/1864-1105/a000152
162 E. Behm-Morawitz & S. Schipper: Sexing the Avatar

spider monkeys), typically avatars in SL are human, and practices of avatar customization in SL accentuate preexist-
their appearance is derivative of familiar social identities ing gender and beauty standards. In SL, normative male
such as gender. The processes of gender-based social iden- and female avatar bodies are most often idealized in shape
tification (Tajfel, 1974) and social categorization (Turner, and size, and clothing is provocative (Martey & Consalvo,
1978) as well as other social group distinctions are a reality 2011).
of the virtual experience just as they are a part of our offline
lived experiences (Watkins, 2010; Nakamura, 2008).
Research suggests that avatar appearance indicative of Virtual Sexualization
social group categorization is impactful on users’ percep-
tions in a virtual world (Lee & Park, 2011). Arguably, gen- Indeed, research suggests that many SL users create hetero-
der is the most dominant social identity used to organize normative, hypersexualized representations that conform to
avatar appearance choices. Avatar clothing, skin/shape, what is deemed socially desirable (Brookey & Cannon,
and hair are most often sold as gender-specific items. 2009; Martey & Consalvo, 2011). The culture of SL is per-
Creating and clothing the avatar is one of the most meated by images of objectified women, particularly in
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

important aspects of life in a virtual world. A customized popular shopping, dance club, and sex club destinations,
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

avatar serves to distinguish SL residents from newbies and has a tendency to reinforce gender norms by focusing
(users new to the virtual world) and functions as an act of on the importance of the sexual attractiveness of the female
self-representation (Rak, 2009). Indeed Rak states that ‘‘if body (Brookey & Cannon, 2009). Despite the potential for
Second Life has a gaming objective, it is the game of iden- virtual worlds to serve as an escape from ‘‘real life,’’
tity itself’’ (p. 153). As such, the modification of the avatar research (e.g., Falvey, 2011; Yee, Bailenson, Urbanek,
becomes an important form of communication in of itself. Chang, & Merget, 2007) suggests that social behavior
The outward appearance of the avatar communicates to oth- online is largely reflective of broader cultural norms.
ers who the user is or who they wish to be. Avatar custom- Female and male avatars alike are typically idealized
ization is often playful in nature, such that users feel they versions of the physical body of the virtual world user
can experiment with their appearance and identity in what (Bessière, Seay, & Kiesler, 2007). The curvaceously thin
might be deemed a low-risk environment (Behm-Morawitz, ideal (Harrison, 2003) is evident in female human and non-
2013; Bessière, Seay, & Kiesler, 2007; Jin, 2010). Despite human (e.g., ‘‘furry’’) avatars alike in SL, whereas male
the context of virtual play, one’s physical appearance in a avatars frequently adopt the larger, more muscular body
virtual environment may be used as a basis for (positive consistent with a widespread ‘‘culture of muscularity’’ for
or negative) treatment by others online (Boellstorff, 2008; men (Agliata & Tantleff-Dunn, 2004, p. 8).
Nakamura, 2008). Avatar appearance may have unintended Though women and girls are more often sexualized in
negative consequences for users. the media than men and boys, the sexualization of the male
Rak (2009) argues that appearance in-world is both a figure has increased over the past 2 decades, particularly in
form of social currency and identity. The avatar can serve magazines (Hatton & Trautner, 2011; Rohlinger, 2002).
as a prosthetic identity of the user, directly representing Thus, the present study does not dismiss the idea that some
how they view themselves in their everyday lives (also men may have sexualized avatars. Similar to women, men
referred to as first life or real life). Some users may create online may choose a sexualized appearance to appear desir-
their avatars as near-identical representations of themselves, able to other users online, to fit in with social norms of a
giving the avatar similar features and dressing the avatar as virtual community, or to explore facets of their identity
they would normally dress. Other users may design their online. However, from an objectification theory perspec-
avatars as a symbol of how they wish they appeared in first tive, the cultural dominance and privileging of men and
life or as a form of self-expression (Dunn & Guadagno, masculinity over women and femininity may result in more
2012; Jin, 2010; Rak, 2009). Individuals differ in avatar negative effects of sexualization of appearance for
choices based on a number of factors including personality women in comparison with men. Objectification theory
traits (Dunn & Guadagno, 2012; Sung, Moon, Kang, & Lin, provides a useful framework for understanding these
2011), self-esteem (Bessière et al., 2007), and life satisfac- consequences.
tion (Trepte & Reinecke, 2010).
Avatar appearance may also be more reflective of the
cultural norms of the virtual world, rather than an individ- Objectification Theory
ual’s preferences. In SL, as in other virtual communities,
there are norms governing avatar appearance (Martey & According to objectification theory, the sexualization of the
Consalvo, 2011). Bloustien and Wood (2013) note that human body is linked to objectification (Fredrickson &
although SL users seek to create avatars that reflect their Roberts, 1997) or the treatment of an individual as an object
inner self, they also have a desire for belonging and fitting of desire. Fredrickson and Roberts argue that objectification
in with the online culture. According to Lee (2014), is an experiential consequence for women existing in a cul-
‘‘virtual worlds create an appealing but illusory utopia, fool- ture (such as SL) that sexually objectifies the female body.
ing us into thinking that ethnicity and global inequities no Thus, it is typically women, rather than men, who experi-
longer matter. They promise to transform us while preserv- ence objectification as a form of oppression stemming from
ing the status quo’’ (p. 211). Along these lines, research the gendered sociocultural contexts that prescribe meaning
suggests that rather than challenge the status quo, normative to the body.

Journal of Media Psychology 2016; Vol. 28(4):161–174 Ó 2015 Hogrefe Publishing

E. Behm-Morawitz & S. Schipper: Sexing the Avatar 163

When someone is sexually objectified, there is a focus the perceived benefits of ‘‘fitting in’’ or playfully exploring
on their body parts, the baring of their body parts through one’s identity and sexual autonomy. Some evidence of this
provocative dress, and an emphasis on their physical already exists based on a laboratory experiment that tested
appearance and sexual attractiveness as being central to the short-tem effects of embodying a sexualized avatar in a
their worth (American Psychological Association, 2010; virtual reality setting on college women’s self-perceptions
Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). According to Nowatzki (Fox, Bailenson, & Tricase, 2013). Although this study
and Morry (2009), a woman may self-sexualize by engag- did not examine cyber-harassment, it provides empirical
ing in self-sexualizing behaviors (e.g., dressing provoca- grounding for the idea that embodying a sexualized avatar
tively), which may result in objectification and an is linked to negative outcomes for women, similar to effects
internalization of physical attractiveness as central to one’s of self-sexualization found offline. One such negative
worth. effect of virtual sexualization may be cyber-harassment.
The process of self-sexualizing via one’s avatar is evi- Additionally, unique characteristics of computer-mediated
dent when a user embodies an avatar that is sexualized in communication (CMC), in comparison with face-to-face
appearance. In line with Fredrickson and Roberts (1997), communication, may contribute to the phenomenon of
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

we conceptualized avatar sexualization in the present study cyber-harassment in virtual worlds.

This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

in terms of both provocative dress and idealized physique.

However, to be clear, this does not mean that selecting an
idealized female body shape for one’s avatar is necessarily Cyber-Harassment in SL
akin to the process of self-sexualization. The shape of a vir-
tual or real woman’s body may encourage others to sexual- The online disinhibition effect offers a theoretical explana-
ize her, but this does not indicate self-sexualization on the tion for why cyber-harassment may occur somewhat fre-
part of the woman. Likewise, women online may create quently in virtual worlds. Coupled with objectification
avatars similar in appearance to sexualized models preva- theory, online disinhibition explains why users of the sexu-
lent in media culture, but this may occur without the inten- alized female avatar would be subjected to harassment in a
tion of communicating a sexualized appearance. Martey virtual environment. The online disinhibition effect
and Consalvo (2011) suggest that women in SL may choose describes the propensity for individuals to express them-
such a sexualized appearance with the goal of representing selves more freely and engage in communication behaviors
themselves with what they perceive to be a culturally online even more so than they would do offline (Suler,
accepted idealized image of the female body. Self- 2004). Indeed, research suggests that some people are more
sexualization is thus not necessarily a conscious process likely to be disinhibited in interpersonal interactions online
on the part of the virtual world user; however, the negative than offline, disclosing information more quickly and tak-
consequences of objectification of the female body may ing more risks. This allows individuals to form meaningful
still follow regardless of a user’s intention. relationships and receive social support online (Baym,
Additionally, a new generation of women has emerged 2010). Certainly, virtual environments such as SL provide
who disagree with the notion that women are being sexually users with opportunities for personal and relational growth
exploited in pop culture and advertising. These women (Behm-Morawitz, 2013). Unfortunately, the online disinhi-
internalize a sexualized view of the female body and bition effect also results in what Suler (2004) terms toxic
express the belief that there is nothing inherently problem- disinhibition, where individuals feel free to engage in
atic with women being sexualized as long as the woman aggressive, harassing, and harmful communication behav-
maintains her autonomy. Evans, Riley, and Shankar iors online. We use Suler’s research alongside objectifica-
(2010) state that a ‘‘neo-liberal rhetoric of agency, choice tion theory as a guide for understanding gender-based
and self-determination’’ has ‘‘produced an ‘up for it’ femi- cyber-harassment in a virtual world.
ninity, a sexually savvy and active woman who can partic- Suler (2004) cites six explanatory factors for the phe-
ipate appropriately in consumer practices in the production nomenon of the online disinhibition effect. They are:
of her choice biography’’ (p. 115). By conflating sexual 1. dissociative anonymity (i.e., ability to hide identity,
empowerment with sexualization, women, according to
remain relatively anonymous),
these authors, maintain control of their own sexualization
2. invisibility (i.e., lack of physical co-presence),
by not seeking male approval for their appearance. In other
3. asynchronicity (i.e., not interacting in real time, not
words, they assert that choosing a sexualized self-
representation allows a woman to maintain power; this receiving immediate feedback from the receiver),
woman may be sexualized, but she is not necessarily being 4. solipsistic introjection (i.e., construction of others
objectified. This may offer one explanation for why women online as characters within one’s head),
choose to represent themselves through hypersexualized 5. dissociative imagination (i.e., feeling that what hap-
avatars in virtual worlds. Their participation in the pens online is separate from offline life), and
virtual world may allow them the opportunity to experiment 6. minimization of authority (i.e., status is less apparent
with what they conceptualize as their own sexual and less likely to be used to govern communication
autonomy. online).
In relation to the present study, objectification theory
would suggest that women who self-sexualize via their Some of these factors may not be experienced to the
avatar might experience negative consequences despite same degree in a virtual world like SL when compared with

Ó 2015 Hogrefe Publishing Journal of Media Psychology 2016; Vol. 28(4):161–174

164 E. Behm-Morawitz & S. Schipper: Sexing the Avatar

text-based only CMC environments. For example, the cen- 2001; MacKinnon, 1979; Murrell, Olson, & Frieze, 2011).
trality of the avatar in virtual worlds creates a physical pres- The present research helps us understand whether such pat-
ence that fosters a feeling of immediacy. The use 3D terns of harassment extend into a virtual community, by
avatars allows for nonverbal communication cues (e.g., ges- investigating how avatar appearance is linked to cyber-
tures and use of space) and interactive behaviors (e.g., a harassment in a virtual world.
hug) that add to a sense of co-presence. Additionally, com- First, the following hypothesis and question were posed
munication often occurs in real time via instant messaging to examine how avatar gender is related to the experience of
and/or voice communication. These communicative charac- cyber-harassment. It was hypothesized that women (with
teristics of virtual worlds may reduce invisibility, asynchro- female avatars) and men (with male avatars) have disparate
nicity, and solipsistic introjection. However, the use of the experiences of sexual harassment, in line with reports of
computer to mediate communication may still result in a sexual harassment in offline contexts:
feeling of distance from others and the consequences of
one’s actions. In other words, a sense of anonymity and Hypothesis 1 (H1): Women are more likely than men
imagination is fostered in virtual worlds that may cultivate to experience sexual harassment in the virtual world.
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toxic disinhibition.
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Further, the playful elements of SL (such as surfing or

dancing with your avatar) coupled with the motivation to We next explored whether or not women are more likely
experience enjoyment in the virtual world may contribute than men in SL to experience non-sex-related harassment.
to cyber-harassment. Entertainment theory research sug- Prior research only supports the idea that sex-related harass-
gests that being entertained is a strong motivation for indi- ment is a gendered experience, thus we might expect other
viduals to use media as a pastime; at the heart of it, people forms of cyber-harassment to be experienced equally by
seek to have fun and enjoy their media entertainment expe- men and women.
riences (Vorderer, Klimmt, and Ritterfield, 2004). This
motivation, along with the playfulness of the virtual world, Research Question 1 (RQ1): Does gender predict
may contribute to some users’ perception that SL is ‘‘just a experience of name calling, obscene comments, or
game.’’ Most relevant to the present research, Klimmt generally harassing behaviors in the virtual world?
(2011) argues that harassment in virtual worlds may begin
as a playful endeavor and be perceived as having less severe The next step in this research was to examine the rela-
consequences than similar communication patterns offline. tionship between avatar sexualization and experiences of
In this sense, cyber-harassment may be construed as ‘‘play- cyber-harassment. Careful theoretical consideration was
ful behavior’’ rather than truly harmful communication by a given to how to examine this relationship within the context
contingent of SL users. of avatar gender. Taken together, objectification theory and
There is a paucity of studies examining the experience sexual harassment research (e.g., Dougherty, 2006) suggest
of harassment based on appearance in virtual environments, that the relationship between sexualization and harassment
and most of such research (e.g., Biber, Doverspike, Baznik, is a gendered one. Avatar sexualization is likely correlated
Cober, & Ritter, 2002; Cooper, Safir, & Rosenmann, 2006; with avatar gender, such that female avatars are more likely
Franks, 2011; Herring, 1999) examines CMC (e.g., e-mails) to be sexualized and their owners more likely to experience
and sexual harassment in the context of academia and the disparate consequences of this, in comparison with male
workplace, or cyber bullying among school children (e.g., avatars and their owners.
Dempsey, Sulkowski, Dempsey, & Storch, 2011; Objectification theory argues most men do not live in a
Erdur-Baker, 2010; Katzer, Fetchenhauer, & Belschak, culture where the male body is sexually objectified in the
2009; Mishna, Khoury-Kassabri, Gadalla, & Daciuk, same manner as the female body. For example, Daniel
2012). Little is known about the phenomenon of cyber- and Bridges (2010) found that objectification theory did
harassment in virtual communities and Web-based applica- not explain men’s experiences, and Calogero (2009) argues
tions where users experience virtual embodiment in the that objectification theory is useful to understanding men
form of a 3D avatar. and body image; however, patterns of objectification pro-
The present study explored the gendered nature of the cesses were different with men in comparison with women.
experience of cyber-harassment by examining avatar gender Thus, objectification theory would argue for unique effects
and sexualization as primary predictors of sex- and non- of avatar sexualization for men and women. As a result, the
sex-related harassment in SL. Specifically, sexual harass- potential significance of avatar sexualization on the depen-
ment as well as general harassment (i.e., obscene dent variables may be masked by the inclusion of both ava-
comments, name calling, and other harassing communica- tar genders simultaneously in analysis. As a solution,
tion not specifically related to sex or gender) of virtual Hypothesis 2 was posed to test the relationship between
world users were examined. Results from this study will avatar sexualization and cyber-harassment for female SL
shed light on whether self-sexualization and social group users, and the relationship between avatar sexualization
(i.e., gender) membership in a virtual world have similar and cyber-harassment for male SL users was explored with
results to those in offline contexts, in terms of harassment. Research Question 2. The examination of the differing
For example, offline, women are more likely than men to motivations of male and female SL users further under-
report being sexually harassed in the workplace (Dougherty, scored the need to analyze men and women separately.

Journal of Media Psychology 2016; Vol. 28(4):161–174 Ó 2015 Hogrefe Publishing

E. Behm-Morawitz & S. Schipper: Sexing the Avatar 165

Hypothesis 2 (H2): Avatar sexualization is positively placed around the university campus and community where
associated with the experience of cyber-harassment the primary author of this study works. Because our survey
for female users. was written in English, it was required that the participants
be competent in the English language. As an incentive for
Research Question 2 (RQ2): Will avatar sexualization participation, SL users had the option of entering a lottery
be positively associated with the experience of cyber- drawing for 10 winners of 5,000 lindens (US $20) (the SL
harassment for male users? currency).
Two hundred ninety-one SL users completed our survey.
Participants were asked to answer the survey questions
based on the avatar that they use most frequently rather than
Method an ‘‘alt’’ (i.e., alternative avatar one may use in addition to
one’s primary avatar). Because avatar gender is of primary
Participants and Procedure interest to the present study, only participants who indicated
that their avatar has a gender were included in analysis.
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This study utilized an international sample of SL residents Participants were given the following choices in indicating
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

and used data from a larger study (Behm-Morawitz, 2013) their avatar’s gender: male (n = 83, 28.5%), female (n =
on avatars and presence in social virtual worlds. SL was 214, 73.5%), transgender: male-to-female (n = 4, 1.4%),
selected for the study because it is a well-established social transgender: female-to-male (n = 1, 0.3%), and nongen-
virtual world offering users sophistication in avatar custom- dered (i.e., my avatar does not have a gender) (n = 7,
ization. The avatar is central to the SL experience, and the 2.4%). Not all participants were retained in the sample
SL world is known for its user manipulability of virtual for analysis. Gender switching and transgender identity
objects and, more recently, for its increasingly user-friendly were used as filters. There were too few cases of gender
interface. SL remains one of the most popular sites in terms switching and of transgender avatars to assess the relation-
of numbers of people logging on each month and of the ship between these unique avatar experiences and the stud-
public attention that the SL world receives for its large user ied phenomena, thus these individuals were dropped from
base. Gen X Internet users make up a good portion of the sample. The data were also examined for outliers.
Second Lifers (Au, 2008), and the largest number of SL One female participant who reported an avatar age of
users live in the United States, followed by Germany, the 15,000 years was dropped. This left 278 individuals in
United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, and Australia (Metaverse, the sample.
2013). Country was used as an additional filter. Only partici-
SL users were recruited via a classified ad placed in SL, pants who reported their country to be from a Westernized
by viral promotion of the study, and announcement of the culture were retained in the sample. This resulted in a final
study on an academic Listserv. Additionally, fliers were sample of 217 SL users. See Table 1 for descriptive

Table 1. Characteristics of second life users and their avatars

Characteristic Male Avatars Male Users Female Avatars Female Users
Age Mdn = 31 Mdn = 45 Mdn = 29 Mdn = 42
SD = 13.80 SD = 11.35 SD = 7.89 SD = 12.75
Race (% White) 84% (n = 57) 94% (n = 64) 77% (n = 117) 83% (n = 125)
Skin color M = 4.10 M = 2.78 M = 3.06 M = 2.50
SD = 2.45 SD = 1.06 SD = 1.93 SD = 1.37
‘‘Avatar Looks Like Me’’ M = 3.40 N/A M = 4.21 N/A
SD = 2.03 SD = 1.75
Avatar sexualization M = 2.70 N/A M = 3.06 N/A
SD = 0.64 SD = 0.54
Avatar modesty M = 2.37 N/A M = 2.54 N/A
SD = 1.05 SD = 0.91
Avatar muscularity M = 2.94 N/A N/A N/A
SD = 0.93
Avatar body size M = 3.21 N/A M = 3.87 N/A
SD = 0.61 SD = 0.74
Avatar breast size N/A N/A M = 2.78 N/A
SD = 0.92
Notes. Skin color was reported on a pictorial scale from 1 (lightest) to 10 (darkest). The ‘‘avatar looks like me’’ item was measured on
a scale from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much). Avatar sexualization was scored from 1 (low) to 5 (extreme). For men, highly muscular,
trim, provocatively dressed avatars were indicative of sexualization. For women, very thin, provocatively dressed avatars with large
breasts were indicative of sexualization. Avatar modesty, muscularity, body size (reverse coded), and breast size were measured on
a 1 to 5 scale, with higher numbers contributing to a higher sexualization score. N/A = not applicable.

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166 E. Behm-Morawitz & S. Schipper: Sexing the Avatar

statistics. Sixty-eight men (median age = 45, SD = 11.35) participant race/ethnicity. They also used the same skin
and 149 women (median age = 42, SD = 12.73) were color scale to judge the skin tone of their avatar. Avatar race
retained in the sample from the United States, Canada, data were missing for four participants. A correlation anal-
Great Britain, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, and ysis indicated that there was no significant relationship
Belgium. In total, the majority of participants were from between avatar race/ethnicity and skin color and any of
the United States (74%, n = 160). SL users from the United the dependent variables. Avatar age was significantly corre-
Kingdom (9%, n = 25), Canada (5%, n = 15), and Australia lated with experience of sexual harassment, thus it was
(3%, n = 8) accounted for the largest non-US populations included as a control in the appropriate tests.
represented in the sample. The majority of male partici- Second, participants were asked to respond to the state-
pants were White (non-Hispanic, non-Latino) (94%, ment ‘‘My avatar looks like me,’’ on a scale from 1 (not at
n = 64), followed by ‘‘other’’ (4%, n = 3), and Hispanic all) to 7 (very much). This item was included to provide
or Latino (2%, n = 1). The majority of female participants additional context for the degree of avatar self-discrepancy
were White (non-Hispanic, non-Latino) (83%, n = 124), (i.e., how similar a user’s avatar appearance was to their
followed by Black or African American (5%, n = 8), actual appearance; see Table 1).
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‘‘other’’ (5%, n = 7), Hispanic or Latino (3%, n = 4), Native Third, to assess degree of avatar sexualization, partici-
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Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (2%, n = 3), Asian (1%, n = 2), pants viewed pictorial scales on three appearance dimen-
and American Indian or Alaskan Native (1%, n = 2). sions and indicated which image most closely matched
their avatar. We manipulated the appearance of a male
and a female avatar in SL and took photos in-world of
the avatars for scale creation (see Appendix). Scores were
Measures coded such that higher scores indicate greater sexualization.
The weight scores were reverse coded. A mean score was
SL Usage
created for each participant using the scores from the three
appearance dimensions (Table 1).
Time spent in SL each week and motivations for participat-
For female avatars, modesty of the clothing, breast size,
ing in SL were entered as control variables in analyses to
and weight scale dimensions were created. The avatar was
isolate the influence of the predictor variables on cyber-
necessarily clothed in beach attire for the breast and weight
harassment. First, participants reported how much time they
scale dimensions so that female participants could accu-
spent on an average weekday and on an average weekend
rately judge these body dimensions. To create the breast
day in SL. A weekly total (in hours) was created for each
size scale, breast size was increased by 15 points in the
individual. Participants spent a median of 10 hr per week
SL avatar appearance editor for each point on the scale.
(M = 32 hr, SD = 25.60) in SL. Frequent SL users will have
For female weight scale, breast size was held constant
had more experiences in-world, which may make them
across each scale point, and participants were asked to
more likely to have experienced all types of interactions,
judge their avatar only on weight (not breast size). Provoc-
including cyber-harassment.
ative attire and a slim body frame with large breasts was
Second, participants reported what motivated them to
conceptualized as being indicative of a more highly sexual-
participate in SL. They were given a list of 22 motivations
ized female avatar.
(e.g., friendships, make money, express my artistic side, and
For male avatars, modesty of clothing, muscularity, and
emotional support) and asked to select all that applied. How
avatar weight were judged. Similar to the female avatar, the
often and why one participates in SL may impact the user’s
male avatar was necessarily clothed in beach attire for the
perceptions of cyber-harassment in the virtual world. Corre-
muscularity and weight scale dimensions. For the male par-
lation matrices were run separately for male and female
ticipants, it was important that the shoulders and arms be
participants to look for significant relationships between
bare for determining muscularity. It was more difficult to
dependent variables and all SL motivations, with the aim
manipulate the muscularity of the stomach and chest, so
of identifying motivations that should be entered as control
the avatar was pictured in a tank top. Avatar muscle size
variables in analyses. Different motivations were signifi-
was increased by 20 points for each point on the muscular-
cantly correlated with cyber-harassment for men and
ity scale. When judging avatar weight, participants were
women. Controlling for the influence of these variables in
asked not to judge the weight scale based on muscularity,
the appropriate tests allowed us to see the unique contribu-
given that muscle size looks inconsistent as the body
tions of avatar gender and sexualization to experiences of
‘‘fat’’ and ‘‘thickness’’ sliders were adjusted for each weight
cyber-harassment. Explanation of which motivations were
point. Provocative attire and a highly muscular, slim body
included as controls is included in the reporting of results.
frame were conceptualized as being indicative of a more
highly sexualized male avatar.
Special instructions were provided for the male and
Avatar Appearance female modesty scales. It was noted that some people
change the clothing of their avatar frequently and try out
First, participants reported the gender, race/ethnicity, skin different styles. However, most people have a ‘‘go-to’’ look
color, and age of their avatar. See Table 1 for descriptive that they return to often. Participants were asked to judge
statistics. SL users reported the race/ethnicity of their avatar their avatar on the clothing scale based on which image
using the same categories provided for measurement of most closely reflected the modesty of attire they most

Journal of Media Psychology 2016; Vol. 28(4):161–174 Ó 2015 Hogrefe Publishing

E. Behm-Morawitz & S. Schipper: Sexing the Avatar 167

frequently wear in SL. They were asked to judge based on Table 2. Cyber-harassment frequencies for male and
modesty/coverage rather than particular style preferences female second life users
(e.g., preppy, goth, or athletic).
Type of harassment Men Women
Sexual harassment 13% (n = 9) 38% (n = 58)
Cyber-Harassment Name calling 37% (n = 25) 28% (n = 42)
Obscene comments 35% (n = 24) 37% (n = 56)
Other harassment 49% (n = 33) 36% (n = 55)
Participants were asked: ‘‘Have you experienced any of
Experienced one or more types 78% (n = 53) 77% (n = 116)
these types of attention/interactions in the virtual world?
Select all that apply.’’ Response options were social invita-
tions, friendship requests, lack of attention/residents ignor-
ing you, sexual harassment, harassment (other), unwanted Hypothesis 1 and Research Question 1
flirtation or sexual advances, name calling, obscene com-
ments, gifts (objects), gifts (money), friendly messages,
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H1 hypothesized that female avatars would be more likely

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welcomed flirtation or sexual advances, assistance (i.e., than male avatars to experience sexual harassment in the
help from other users), invitation to meet offline, and invi- virtual world. Support was found for this hypothesis. Avatar
tation to exchange ‘‘real-world’’ contact information. gender emerged as a significant predictor of sex-related
For the present study, analysis focused on (1) sexual harass- harassment. Owners of female avatars were more likely to
ment and (2) non-sex-related harassment: obscene com- experience sexual harassment than owners of male avatars,
ments, name calling, and general (i.e., other) harassment b = 1.76, SE = .44, p < .001, Exp(B) = 5.80.
that was not perceived to be sexual harassment. RQ1 explored whether women and men would equally
experience non-sex-related cyber-harassment in the virtual
world. Results indicated that avatar gender was not a signif-
icant predictor of being a recipient of obscene comments,
Results b = .32, SE = .35, p = .37, Exp(B) = 1.37, name calling,
b = .22, SE = .35, p = .53, Exp(B) = .80, or general
Logistic regression tests were used for analysis of the rela- harassment in-world, b = .22, SE = .33, p = .51, Exp(B)
tionship between avatar gender and sexualization with = .81.
experiences of cyber-harassment in the virtual world. A cor-
relation matrix demonstrated significant relations between
some of the demographic variables and the dependent vari- Hypothesis 2 and Research Question 2
ables. As a result, participant age and frequency of SL
usage were included as controls in all regression tests. H2 hypothesized that women with highly sexualized female
Additionally, motivations for using SL that were correlated avatars would be more likely to experience cyber-
with dependent variables were included as controls in the harassment than women with less sexualized female
appropriate regression models. avatars. Support was found for this hypothesis. First, the
Descriptive statistics of the appearance characteristics of relationship between female avatar sexualization and sexual
the SL users’ avatars in this study are presented in Table 1. harassment was examined. Female avatar sexualization was
The median age of the male avatar was 14 years younger related to the experience of sexual harassment,
than the median age of the male participants. Similarly, b = 1.23, SE = .44, p = .01, Exp(B) = 1.64, such that women
the median age of the female avatar was 13 years younger with more highly sexualized female avatars were more
than the median age of the women in the study. Female ava- likely to report experiencing sexual harassment.
tars were more sexualized in appearance than male avatars. Next, name calling was entered as the dependent vari-
Overall, the avatars were slightly darker in skin color than able, and controls included participant age, frequency of
the participants. This is likely because some White partici- SL use, and the emotional support motivation. Female
pants have non-White avatars. Most frequently, this ‘‘race avatar sexualization was positively related to experiencing
switching’’ was a White participant embodying a mixed- name calling in SL, b = .97, SE = .44, p = .03, Exp(B) =
race (‘‘other’’ race category) avatar. We also asked partici- 2.64.
pants to respond to the statement ‘‘My avatar looks like Third, the relationship between female avatar sexualiza-
me,’’ on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much). In par- tion and receipt of obscene comments was examined.
ticular, men seemed to disagree with this statement more Participant age, SL usage, and the game play and hunts
often than women. Overall, participants felt that their avatar motivations were included as controls. Female avatar sexu-
was only somewhat similar in appearance to their offline alization was positively related to experiencing obscene
self (Table 1). comments in SL, b = .87, SE = .42, p = .02, Exp(B) = 2.38.
In relation to the experience of cyber-harassment, Fourth, the relationship between female avatar sexuali-
approximately two thirds of male and female SL users zation and receipt of generally harassing comments was
reported experiencing some type of cyber-harassment in examined. Female avatar sexualization was not significantly
the virtual world. See Table 2 for frequencies and break- related to experiencing general harassment in SL, b = .65,
down by type of harassment. SE = .38, p = .08, Exp(B) = 1.91.

Ó 2015 Hogrefe Publishing Journal of Media Psychology 2016; Vol. 28(4):161–174

168 E. Behm-Morawitz & S. Schipper: Sexing the Avatar

RQ2 asked whether avatar sexualization would be in SL. Similar to offline contexts, women were more likely
related to cyber-harassment for male avatars. Participant to be subjected to sexually harassing behaviors.
age and SL usage were included as controls in the models. Indeed, women and men have disparate experiences in
The listening to music, friendships, and romance motiva- virtual worlds, both in their avatar creation and their inter-
tions were significantly correlated with some of the depen- actions with others online. Overall, the majority of SL users
dent variables and were added as additional control designed their avatars to reflect Western norms of physical
variables as appropriate. attractiveness. For instance, median age of the avatar was
Avatar sexualization was not related to the experience of approximately 10 years younger than the average age of
sexual harassment, b = .46, SE = .66, p = .49, Exp(B) = the participant, which suggests that residents are repre-
.63, name calling, b = .48, SE = .33, p = .55, Exp(B) = .96, sented by more youthful avatars in the virtual world. Addi-
obscene comments, b = .31, SE = .52, p = .55, Exp(B) = tionally, based on responses to the weight and muscularity
.74, or general harassment, b = .32, SE = .49, p = .52, avatar scales, the majority of participants had avatars that
Exp(B) = .73. The results indicated that avatar sexualization were trim and fit. However, consistent with prior research
was related to cyber-harassment only for female – on visual representations of women, the female avatar is
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not male – participants. more highly sexualized than the male avatar.
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

The avatar characteristics of the SL users in this study

also reflect a moderate degree of avatar self-discrepancy.
Overall, participants reported that their avatar was only
somewhat similar in appearance to their actual self. Dunn
Discussion and Guadagno (2012) suggest that avatar discrepancy is
common and may be due to virtual world users’ desire to
Contrary to the idea that cultural boundaries and differences create an avatar that represents the ideal male or female
are eradicated online, how others treat us online may be body. This is consistent with the findings of the present
dependent on the identities that we project virtually. study. Less clear is what motivations may be behind the
An online sample of international SL users was utilized desire to create an idealized avatar and whether or not these
to examine how avatar gender and sexualization are related motivations are gender-specific.
to the phenomenon of cyber-harassment in a virtual world. Next, gender differences were revealed when examining
The findings from this research increase our understanding the influence of virtual sexualization on quality of online
of how social group membership (namely gender) and sex- interactions. Specifically, avatar sexualization has deleteri-
ualization of the virtual self via a 3D avatar impact receipt ous outcomes for owners of female but not of male avatars.
of unwanted and harmful communication online. Objectifi- Highly sexualized female avatars were more likely than less
cation theory and the online disinhibition effect were used sexualized female avatars to experience cyber-harassment.
as theoretical grounding for understanding the potential Degree of sexualization for male avatars did not influence
consequences of virtual sexual objectification of women. experience of harassment, suggesting that the consequences
This research had two overall findings: (1) Women and of avatar sexualization are different for women and men.
men have disparate experiences of cyber-harassment. In line with objectification research (Aubrey, 2006; Jochen
Women were more likely to report being harassed in the vir- & Valkenburg, 2007; Murnen, Smolak, Mills, & Good,
tual world; and (2) Avatar sexualization was related to the 2003; Szymanski, Moffitt, & Carr, 2011), this study sug-
experience of cyber-harassment for women but not men. gests the sociocultural context of the (virtual) female body
Overall, the findings from this study suggest that cyber- leads to different outcomes of sexualization for women and
harassment is a relatively common occurrence in SL, with men, such that the sexualization of women leads to sex-
approximately two thirds of all participants reporting expe- typed or stereotyped treatment of women; whereas, the sex-
riencing some type of cyber-harassment. Toxic disinhibition ualization of the male form does not have the same negative
may be occurring in virtual worlds, such that users are dis- consequences for men. Taken together, these findings sug-
inhibited from acting out aggressively toward other users. gest that the relationship between virtual sexualization and
The playful elements of virtual worlds like SL may contrib- cyber-harassment is a gendered one.
ute to disinhibition to harass other users. Likelihood of The results indicate that highly sexualized female ava-
experiencing cyber-harassment, however, is at least in part tars received more sexual attention overall, such that they
dependent upon avatar appearance. garner a high volume of wanted and unwanted sexual atten-
Thirty-eight percent of women versus 13% of men tion online. The sexing of the female avatar becomes espe-
reported experiencing sexual harassment in SL. Sexual cially apparent when looking at the results of the
harassment is a communication phenomenon that is legally relationship between avatar gender and likelihood of expe-
defined, and defined most commonly within the context of riencing non-sex-related harassment. There were no signif-
employment and academic environments and decisions icant differences between female and male avatars when
(Biber et al., 2002; O’Donohue, Downs, & Yeater, 1998). examining other types of harassment in the virtual world.
Sexual harassment was less common among SL users, in This indicates that gender-based differences in experiences
comparison with the other forms of cyber-harassment, per- of cyber-harassment were centered on sex-related harass-
haps because participants define sexual harassment in legal ment only.
terms. Keeping this in mind, sexual harassment would be Taken together, the findings from the present research
most likely to occur in employment and educational settings suggest attitudes toward women’s bodies and sexism that

Journal of Media Psychology 2016; Vol. 28(4):161–174 Ó 2015 Hogrefe Publishing

E. Behm-Morawitz & S. Schipper: Sexing the Avatar 169

exist in life offline have carried over into life online, rein- example, may foster disinhibition, partially due to the belief
forcing the idea that life in virtual worlds tends to mimic that other users may desire what the communicator believes
life in the offline world (Boellstorff, 2008). This informa- to be playful, rather than harassing, communication.
tion is important for researchers, as virtual worlds become The present study provides evidence for a relationship
increasingly popular spaces to enact identity and interact between avatar appearance and being on the receiving
with others. Further, the use of an avatar to represent one- end of cyber-harassment in a 3D avatar-based environment;
self in online applications is becoming more frequent as however, much is still unknown about the processes
technology develops. Internet users should carefully con- involved in harassing behaviors. Future studies should ana-
sider their avatar’s appearance, as the gender and sexualiza- lyze cyber-harassment communication exchanges in virtual
tion of one’s avatar may elicit unwanted, harmful environments to help tease out the predictors and intentions
communication from other users online. This research sup- of those who harass others online.
ports the idea that, for female avatars, self-sexualizing
online may result in objectification of the virtual body
and receipt of cyber-harassment. In turn, this research sug-
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

gests that cyber-harassment prevention strategies should Limitations and Future Research
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recognize the greater likelihood that perpetrators will target

users embodying female avatars, in comparison with users The present research utilized a survey design with existing
embodying male avatars. It would be useful for cyber- virtual world users to examine the relationship between
harassment education to incorporate the gendered and social group membership (i.e., gender), avatar sexualiza-
sexualized nature of online aggression in avatar-based tion, and cyber-harassment in a virtual world. This design
environments into prevention strategies. was advantageous for gaining insight into the lived experi-
The findings of this study may be explained in terms of ences of virtual world users; however, we should be cau-
a gendered media effect, as we predicted based on objecti- tious about generalizing from the findings of this research
fication theory and the online disinhibition effect. Users based on a nonrepresentative and nonstratified sample.
respond to sexualized female avatars with a greater likeli- Additionally, to be able to make causal claims about the
hood of harassing behaviors due to both the culture of impact of avatar gender and sexualization on experiences
objectification of women and the toxic disinhibition fos- of cyber-harassment in virtual worlds, future studies should
tered in CMC environments. Female avatars, particularly build on the present research and experimentally test the
those that are self-sexualized in appearance, are targeted effects of inhabiting a virtual world as different social
as sexual objects and subjected to online harassment. These identities.
findings are consistent with ideas about the effects of ano- Distribution of the survey in the English language only
nymity and perceived disconnection of the virtual from the also limited the number of international participants who
real (Barak, 2005; Lapidot-Lefler & Barak, 2012; Suler, were able to take part in the study. Future studies might
2004). Users may feel free to engage in harassing behaviors consider developing instruments in other languages to col-
due to perceived anonymity in the virtual world, solipsistic lect data from a greater diversity of populations and engag-
introjection (i.e., construction of users online as characters ing in purposive sampling. Future work should also
rather than real people), and dissociative imagination (i.e., examine cyber-harassment in other avatar-based contexts.
belief that what happens online is separate from offline life) Future research might also measure the outcomes (e.g.,
(Suler, 2004). The playful aspects of the virtual world may emotional harm) of experiencing cyber-harassment in vir-
cultivate feelings of dissociative imagination and solipsistic tual environments. Related to this, a promising line of
introjection, in particular, by reducing the level of responsi- research would be the examination of how users cope with
bility felt by the communicator and/or by creating the per- online aggression and what may serve as protective factors
ception that harassing behaviors are merely playful and not for experiencing the negative outcomes of cyber-
to be taken seriously (Klimmt, 2011). harassment in virtual worlds and other online applications.
The propensity for women, more so than men, in the vir- Perceived social support in the virtual community, for
tual world to experience sexual harassment may also be example, may impact such emotional experiences of
explained by the transfer of offline behaviors – rooted in cyber-harassment (Fanti, Demetriou, & Hawa, 2012).
the gender double standard and misogynistic attitudes Additionally, the present study focused on cyber-
(Crawford & Popp, 2003) – to online communication harassment from the perspective of the recipient of the
(Biber et al., 2002; Erdur-Baker, 2010). Rather than being harmful communication. Future research should examine
an effect of the virtual environment, the observations of this the phenomenon of cyber-harassment from a perpetrator
study may be primarily an artifact of sexism that is experi- perspective to gain insight into how toxic disinhibition is
enced offline transferring to online spaces in a similar man- enacted in virtual worlds like SL. Features of SL, such as
ner. From this perspective, the CMC aspects of a virtual the possibility to remain relatively anonymous, should be
environment are not a factor in cyber-harassment studied as explanatory variables for the disinhibition effect.
experiences. An application of Suler’s (2004) six explanations for the
We suspect, however, that online disinhibition – along disinhibition effect to such a study would be beneficial.
with the playful aspects of virtual worlds – does play some Future studies should also consider adding additional mea-
role in cyber-harassment in an avatar-based environment. sures of cyber-harassment that assess the frequency as well
Klimmt (2011) suggests that the playful nature of SL, for as commonality of these experiences, and that probe virtual

Ó 2015 Hogrefe Publishing Journal of Media Psychology 2016; Vol. 28(4):161–174

170 E. Behm-Morawitz & S. Schipper: Sexing the Avatar

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Ó 2015 Hogrefe Publishing Journal of Media Psychology 2016; Vol. 28(4):161–174

This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

Female Avatar Appearance Scales

Journal of Media Psychology 2016; Vol. 28(4):161–174

E. Behm-Morawitz & S. Schipper: Sexing the Avatar

Ó 2015 Hogrefe Publishing

This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

Ó 2015 Hogrefe Publishing

Male Avatar Appearance Scales
E. Behm-Morawitz & S. Schipper: Sexing the Avatar

Journal of Media Psychology 2016; Vol. 28(4):161–174

This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

Journal of Media Psychology 2016; Vol. 28(4):161–174

E. Behm-Morawitz & S. Schipper: Sexing the Avatar

Ó 2015 Hogrefe Publishing