Through our explorations tonight, the class seemed to come to the same conclusions I did about the exaggerated visual rhetorics of gender in SL. In many cases, the understandings of feminine gender in-world seem to be based on the most sexually exaggerated media images IRL. Many of the easily available clothing options would get you arrested for public obscenity in the real world if you were to move or get hit by a stiff breeze...and they'd only be flattering if you were built like a fashion model. And, although there are many woman-friendly spaces in-world, to call many other spaces "sexist" would be putting it mildly. So why, then, do I think that SL can also be used as an online safe space for women and girls?
The major reason is based upon one word: play.
The great thing about SL--the main reason so many of us love it, I'd say--is that it offers infinite opportunities for play. If someone wants to experiment with appearance, an avi could be a safe outlet for such play. Honestly, looking at some of the things I wore as a teenager, I kind of wish that I'd had the opportunity to work out some issues of gendering myself in-world before taking them IRL, as the photographic proof would surely be less embarrassing in later years. And, yes, there are people in-world who might respond a certain way to a female avi in a provocative outfit...but wouldn't that happen IRL as well? Could that be an easier way to get used to some of the reactions of others to various forms of genderplay?
Further, since this sort of play with appearance--whether it's a ridiculously cut neckline or an endless round of debates over purses--is such a major part of SL, it might offer a space for some people, particularly women and girls, who think that online interaction is a bit intimidating, to play with appearance as a gateway to the more social aspects of the SL experience. I've ventured into SL alongside people of varying genders who were tremendously nervous about going online and meeting people; when they started their experience through, essentially, playing "dress-up" with an eternally changeable avi who's better than *any* doll, they got more comfortable with their separate online identity, and were then more willing to interact with others through it.
Additionally, SL offers the ability to make some physical and non-physical spaces "safe zones" for members of certain groups by requiring membership. People can network selectively outside of those groups and expand their horizons, while returning to those groups to talk about what they've seen and share experiences with members of a select group. Also, as people learn more about SL, they can start creating new things, giving them rhetorical opportunities that may not be possible in their real lives.
In short, I'd love to experiment further with "safe spaces" in SL with a group of women and girls at some point; although the ways to use it would take some experimentation, I think there's real possibility here.