Warning: this is a 10,000 word entry, not my usual page or two
I lecture occasionally about the future of sex, but I find gender as a whole is a fascinating subject. I don’t want my blog to get x-rated so need to be a bit careful what I cover and how, but I do think the future of gender is a topic worth writing about and I don’t need to get all adulty to make it interesting. If you are adult, you can use your own imagination to colour in any areas left uncoloured. Having said that, I’d still prefer you don’t proceed if you are under 18 or easily upset. I will cover this as far as I can.
I must also apologise at the outset that I haven’t managed to organise my thoughts on this very well. There are a number of dimensions to consider and it doesn’t lend itself well to a one dimensional article. There are probably some huge gaping holes in my coverage, even though this is a 10,000 word article. I think of this as an early stage in my thinking and therefore as a work in progress. I would welcome and thoughts on areas I have missed, and some of you will also have personal and first hand gender change experiences that are quite alien to me, that I would like to learn about. Although Einstein relied on it, and I love to copy his example, you simply cant do everything by thought experiment.
What is gender?
Wikipedia’s entry on gender is disappointing and seems lacking in scope. It is typical of academic treatments all too common in Wikipedia that use formality, obfuscation and unnecessary addition of superficial details in place of completeness of scope, understanding or insight. Nevertheless, it serves as a basic foundation on which to build. Its definition of gender:
“Gender is a range of characteristics of femininity and masculinity. Depending on the context, the term may refer to such concepts as sex (as in the general state of being male or female), social roles (as in gender roles) or gender identity.”
Its gender taxonomy is adequate:
and of course genitals, but also secondary characteristics such as breasts,
there are also differences such as
brain structure -special kinds of secondary characteristics, due to their influence on psychology and behaviour
gender identity – psychological identification with either of the two main sexes
gender role – social conformity with expectations for either of the two main sexes and finally
I really hope those keywords don’t cause me any problems.
At least that is all pretty clear, but it is clearly pre-IT thinking and too medically oriented so misses a lot of importance. Humans are advanced animals, and their brains and accumulated culture add a great deal of extra scope beyond what nature bequeaths to most creatures. There is no mention in the article of the huge degree of virtualisation, abstraction, compartmenatilisation, multi-dimensionalism or parallelism of gender common in virtual worlds, dream-space and social media and the associate impacts in real world psychology. It is purely two dimensional, recognising genetic and social gender but still only male or female. I don’t believe for a moment that gender has suddenly changed beyond recognition or that sociologists must all be blind, so I can only infer that the discipline of gender studies is deliberately self-restricting. I can’t imagine why.
I don’t normally bother with definitions anyway, preferring to live in an analog world where common sense rules. I certainly don’t recognise the Wikipedia one as anything other than of historical interest. But let’s start with it as just that, assuming the last 30 years hasn’t happened yet and that everyone is still hiding in a Victorian closet.
Male, female, what else for physical gender?
Male and female isn’t a bad starting point per se. Natural sexuality uses just two sexes. In the 1990s, a few of my BT colleagues did a study on the numbers of sexes that should be used in genetic algorithms (a method of engineering using random mutations on ‘genes’, which are typically options for algorithms, and fitness testing, loosely based on Darwinian evolution). They found that the optimal number of sexes averages between 2 and 3. Two is fine, and nature ran with it. But you could have 3 or 4 or any number. It isn’t optimal from an evolutionary perspective, but it is for purpose and that is all nature needs.
There aren’t any common names for additional genders yet, though I am sure names exist within subcultures. Sure, we have male, female, neuter and hermaphrodite and lots of intersex variants, some of which do have names, but that is just one physical dimension and even so, there is some overlap among the names, and disagreement and confusion as to their precise meaning. When we start to add extra genders, there will be far more possible combinations.
Initial (birth) physical gender in nature is largely determined by genes. Usually, two X chromosomes make a girl, and an X and Y create a boy. Even then, things can go wrong and some competitive sports issues have been raised in recent years by mismatches between chromosomal state and physical appearance, resulting in arguments over the gender of a winner and their consequential right to compete in that event. It is possible to have X and Y or two Xs and a Y and yet be born with an apparently female body. Before we start on designing new kinds of chromosome, let’s look briefly at what we might be designing them for.
Opportunity for new gender dimensions
Humans treat sex as a recreational and social activity as well as a reproductive one. Some future genders may be involved in reproductive processes and some may not. Some associated activities may generate sexual pleasure, others may not. Some genders could have roles as ‘bridges’ between two or more other genders, not directly providing any of the genes for future offspring, but involved as a necessary link in the reproductive process, as simple carriers, or genetic filters or processors. Regardless or the biological simplicity or complexity of the role, the organs, gender identity, social roles, rituals, and so on are essentially orthogonal dimensions, so could be designed pretty independently. The timelines for different types would not necessarily be similar, and designs could evolve over time. Obviously, making a new gender capable of reproduction is more difficult than just making a few cosmetic features, especially ones that aren’t deeply woven into the sensory or emotional or sexual response systems.
Adding new reproduction-capable genders or sexes will presumably require synthetic biology to create new genes, as well as a great deal of imagination and creativity to decide what gonads, genitals, other organs and sexual features to add. There is little point in speculating yet what they would look like, because it is a completely open space for creativity and experimentation.
Suppose as well as an X or Y, we were to add A, B, C… and Z chromosomes to carry the genes for them. They would need designed to achieve the features desired, but engineers will be able to do that in due course. We don’t yet understand how to design DNA to achieve particular features, but it is only a matter of time before we will. We will also one day be able to make DNA alternatives so won’t be limited by its capabilities. Physics and biology certainly allow it, the market will demand it, and engineers will build it. There are different ways of proceeding. We could end up with 3 or more chromosomes, or we could just modify existing ones to incorporate modified genes. Maybe only one type of cell is affected, or a few, or maybe all. Synthetic biology is a relatively open design space.
However, we choose to do the bio-engineering, by the end of this century, there could be a range of biological sexes to add to male and female. We will still have neuter, male, female, and hermaphrodite, but also gender A, B, C, …, multi-gender, hybrid genders, and so on ad infinitum. People may be able to pick any blend of them for their offspring. Instead of two genders and a few mutations, we will have lots.
Creating new types of sex organs and associated mating practices is one thing, but the whole of sexuality could be redesigned at the same time. These new sexes will often interact in completely new ways. There will be arguments over whether some should be classed as new species since not all will be able to interbreed with traditional humans.
New gender roles, identities and erotic preferences would all have to be designed and engineered. It would be possible to engineer what makes attractiveness to a particular type of person of a particular gender. This isn’t all new, sci-fi writers have included inter-species relationships for decades, though they have generally stuck with traditional male and female in each species. But at least they have got as far as working out some attractive features and rituals, for Klingons at least. Where there is a big gap is in the scope for many genders being involved in an interaction, rather than the traditional one or two. To paraphrase Peter Cochrane, we don’t have six genders in nature because the chances of six people getting together at once without any of them having a headache is minimal. We will one day have gender designers and engineers working with sociologists, neuroscientists and many other disciplines to come up with new genders, roles, practices, rituals and attractiveness design.
Change of physical gender today requires a lot of pain and mental stress, and isn’t something undertaken lightly. Even after all that, biotechnology still can’t offer a full chromosomal change and cosmetic surgery can only accomplish so much, so the changes are limited to outward appearance, organ reassignment and hormone medication. Results vary considerably in achieving a convincing change. Perhaps one day, if much hyped nano-medicine ever achieves its full potential, a full chromosomal retrofit and body reshaping may be possible so that the person becomes how they would have been had they been born their chosen gender. In that scenario, if the technology can do all that, then it can probably also achieve pretty much any body design desired, so gender change may be be just one option in a long selection of major body redesigns, way behind youth restoration in popularity. In the extreme, an average looking middle aged man may be able to change into an attractive young woman. And it need not be permanent, they could change back, though I wouldn’t expect much of a queue of attractive young women wanting to become middle aged men.
It is unlikely that it will become easy to change gender physically, so however much it may appeal as a concept, frequent recreational gender changing of their physical body is unlikely. It will still be something people do once at most.
Neural linking of external technology
Many people are well used to gadgetry in sex, some leave that kind of play for others. A variety of means are used to create stimulation, but electronic stimulators particularly hint at what the future offers. Stimulation is generated by using cleverly designed toys with electrodes that generate variable voltages and frequencies into relevant parts. In the next decade or two, active skin will use electronics printed directly on to the skin surface, along with some that penetrates deep into the skin to connect to nerve endings, enabling recording and replaying of sensations. It can then be expected that the sophistication, capability and personalisation of sex devices will increase dramatically.
It is possible that in the future, a variety of strap-ons, harnesses, sheaths and plugs will exist that not only create intense sexual stimulation, but do so from a library of recorded experiences, or indeed those downloaded from others. Future porn may well include recorded experiences from or with other people, and of course just like conventional porn, these could be enhanced with the neural equivalents of Photoshop. Further in the future, when we understand the brain better, and can engineer direct links into it, it may be that areas of some people’s brains may be modified or taught to treat the sensations from these devices as if they were truly part of their bodies.
This then reopens the scope for modification of gender. For example, it may be possible for a woman using a strap-on to feel as if it were an actual part of her, getting appropriate sensations from it. This could be sensations appropriate to males, or specially designed new ones for women. This is the most likely starting point for another class of gender modification. Toys could be added to an otherwise conventional body and linked into the nervous system and/or brain so well that they allow true full sensory transgender play. They could also be added alongside other sexual organs and sensations or, by perhaps using TMS-based signal attenuation, it could displace the original sex sensations. By generating another dimension for gender play, it greatly increases the scope for gender fluidity. When mixed with multiple genders, of course the scope increases still further.
The person wearing the device may well experience a convincing change in gender from a purely sensory point of view, but their outward appearance to another person would still be that of someone of original gender wearing a device. Outward appearance matters, but a convincing visual change to match the assumed gender could be done using augmented reality. Augmented reality adds another huge area for gender change and experimentation and deserves its own section later.
Unlike permanent transgender operations, these devices could be attached and detached at will, allowing people to oscillate freely among genders, opening the door to recreational gender change.
Recreational gender change
These future sex toys will allow a high level of sensory immersion in a different gender. Their use and popularity is evidenced by the high level of recreational gender change that already features heavily in virtual worlds. Virtual worlds have many applications, but highly relevant to gender play, they are often used for computer games and for socialising, often combining both. They are also heavily used for role play, exploration of new places,, cultures and experiences and experimentation.
Gender identity is a bit more fluid than Wikipedia suggests. People role play different genders frequently in computer games and social virtual worlds and the experience can vary across a broad spectrum from totally detached and 3rd party to fully immersive. Sometimes, people may compartmentalise the experience, so they remain fully their normal gender in their real life while playing as another in a game or in a virtual world. Or they might become fully immersed in the role and feel as if they are the other gender for a while. Over prolonged sessions, their gender identity may blur somewhat.
In gaming, people generally play as a character, such as a soldier or superhero, a wizard or alien. They explore worlds that range from totally fantasy to those based on real places and real life. Sometimes, games give a choice of character, and often people will play as a character of different gender to themselves. Men often play as female characters even if they don’t have any transgender intent. The standard justification is that they since they are looking at the world through a viewpoint just behind their character, they would rather look for the next 30 hours at an attractive female rear than a male one. Of course, it may also just be fun playing at being female for a while and then the role play can become a superficial gender change experience. Women gamers would find it hard to avoid having to play as a male character occasionally, since many games are designed with only male playable characters. Either way, games are a simple and painless way of exploring another gender superficially.
Virtual worlds and social networking
Such gender changing becomes a step more real once the game allows interaction with other people. It may still be in the context of a game or role play, but there is a wider spectrum of role play with other real humans involved rather than just lines of computer code. In a game, the real person hides behind their online gamer persona, which then hides behind the game character’s avatar. There is still little social risk since the game offers the excuse to play, but the degree of immersion into the other gender is consequently limited too.
When the game is removed and it becomes primarily a social networking world, like World of Warcraft or Second Life for example, the player is a step closer to their avatar and their immersion in the gender of their avatar is more real. The deliberate choice of gender and name for their avatar at the outset creates an extra level of buy-in. They are self-representing in a way that a computer game character isn’t. Choosing a different gender from their normal self is an act of minor but nevertheless deliberate deception. In spite of that, though some people may present in their normal gender, the temptation to try out a different gender at least once is irresistible to most people. About three quarters of people in virtual worlds and chat rooms have tried presenting as a different gender and some do so very often.
When they present as a different gender, the player must then consider not only what they look like to themselves on the screen, but how they present themselves to others and how they are seen. They also have to consider their personality, and the degree to which they modify that to support their virtual gender change. The level of association with the avatar varies from person to person and from time to time, but the result is that virtual gender play varies all the way from frivolous to deeply immersive and self absorbing in way that the person genuinely feels themselves to be the presented gender. It seems reasonable to say that although playing a different gendered character in a computer game isn’t always gender play, doing so in an online social context probably always is, even if it is temporary and far less committing than full gender reassignment. By being forced to interact personally rather than just hitting buttons on a controller, the buy-in crosses the boundary. Before looking at the future of this, we need to mention filters.
Reality TV is based in large part on the huge gulf that can occur between the image someone thinks they project and what is perceived by the viewer as reality. We see the world, other people and even ourselves through a series of filters. These are at least as important in gender play too.
Since people generally haven’t any actual experience of fully being another gender, they can only experience their virtual trans-gender through context-specific filters. When presenting to other people as a different gender in a virtual world, several of these filters come into play and they add another dimension.
Firstly, the superficial gender that is presented means different things to different people – beyond agreeing on genitalia, we don’t all share exactly the same prejudices about what male or female mean. People build up a picture in real life of how it must feel to be another gender and can play to that image but have no way of benchmarking that with real life feeling.
Secondly, no-one knows exactly how a particular image would be perceived by another. All they can do is to use their interactions with others as feedback on how convincing they may be.
Thirdly, even given an image that someone wants to project, there is another error in the actual presentation of it – there is no perfect feedback system that lets someone see accurately how others perceive what they think they are projecting.
Fourthly, there may be a fetishist bias to project an image that appeals to the tastes and fetishes of the person changing gender themselves. In such cases, the outward superficial appearance is what matters most to the person, and the acting out of a fantasy, rather than the immersion in the other gender.
So there are errors in presentation, interpretation and difference of meaning, and the experience of gender change may be diluted by other accompanying role plays.
Degree of reality
The other person may initially see someone in the gender they present, but anyone familiar with online social networking will learn to suspect a gender mismatch so they won’t necessarily accept it at face value. They may or may not know the person’s real gender, they may only believe it to a point, or they may realise they are presenting an alternative one. But they may not care. The same excuses for presenting a false gender may still be successfully offered if the player doesn’t want to admit to any transgender feelings, but gender play is so common online that few would really care. It is a lightweight way of experiencing gender play with others. The lower threshold for gender acceptance also means that the reality of the experience is reduced, since people don’t necessarily treat others as they would someone whose gender they are sure of.
Other social sites
In non-play social sites, role play isn’t assumed and the self is more exposed. Some sites such as Google+ enforce the use of real identity, others such as Facebook don’t. Gender play on social networking sites is therefore not as socially acceptable as in virtual worlds where it is considered a routine part of role playing.
Virtual worlds ought to be a place where new genders should emerge. The main barriers preventing this in the real world don’t exist, though there are still barriers of culture and imagination. So we should expect virtual worlds to be the first places for trying out new genders, with their associated cultural baggage, practices and rituals.
Future virtual worlds will have better graphics, full 3d immersion and eventually sensory recording and replay. The quality of communication with others and the quality of shared experiences in 3d realistic environments and situations will increase proportionately. These will make them a more realistic and immersive exploration of the other gender too, and will increase the overall feeling of reality of the experience.
What does the absence of new genders in virtual worlds teach us?
The lack of new genders on virtual worlds is interesting. People are certainly enthusiastic about experimenting. Changing into robots, drones, monsters, animals, furries, aliens, dolls, even objects is commonplace, and swapping between genders is also commonplace, but apart from male, female, neuter and some shemale variants, there conspicuously aren’t any other genders. Is this just failure of imagination, or does it simple reflect the fact that people are coming from an existing state with its associated sexual preferences, and are therefore only drawn to these options? The latter seems the more likely explanation.
Thanks to these filters, the degree of reality of gender changing experiences available in virtual worlds is highly variable, both to the person undergoing the gender change and to other people interacting with them. Adding future technology increases the potential sensory quality, but won’t necessarily change the social assumptions or trust. If the gender changing is just fetishist self-voyeurism or role play, then that may not matter much, but if the intent is to pass as the other gender then it would matter more.
Interaction in virtual worlds today is often just via text chat and animations, but voice changing technology may also be used to pretend in a little more depth. As this improves in quality, it may allow people to pass as an alternative gender much more easily and convincingly. Avatars can be made to look any way, and they will improve in quality over time too. They will become full 3d and some virtual worlds may become fairly convincing replicas of real life.
Artificial intelligence can also play a part, acting as a real time coach and filter, changing the outward presentation of a gender by altering or enhancing mannerisms, gestures and other body language, use of verbal language, such as choice of words, phrases, style, subject matter, the lengths of sentences and other clues to gender.
At that point we will really start to see crossover of the technology into other forms of chat, with webcams able to change video image, conversational style and content and voice in real time to allow people to pass in real life chat situations as another gender. Some may do so only in social interactions, others may use it for work too.
In chat rooms, ever since they started, some people have presented as different genders, so anyone’s friends lists will include some people whose real gender they know for certain, some they know for certain are gender-bending, and some in between, where there are varying levels of suspicion that they may not really be their presented gender. Virtual worlds added even more play potential, and soon webcams will increase it further still. Soon, thanks to the trend of working from home, we may not know the genders of the people with whom we are working. Not knowing the genders of all your friends is not new, but it also isn’t ubiquitous. Many people have never used a chat room or virtual world, so have no first hand experience of gender confusion. No doubt some people would consider it to be a social problem if people frequently present as another gender from time to time, others will feel perfectly comfortable with it.
Augmented reality is a bit different from this, offering more scope for change and adding still more new dimensions to gender play. AR allows computer generated images and data to be overlaid onto the field of view. This started off in everyday practice with simple text and symbols on smart-phone screens, but the idea space is over 20 years old now, and only the technology is holding back realisation. It will quickly evolve into a fully immersive overlay capability where the uses can selectively overlay or replace real world images with computer generate ones. So, virtual architecture may modify the appearance of buildings or streets, virtual fauna and flora will decorate them, and people can be cosmetically enhanced or simply replaced by avatars. That means a user could make all the ugly people look prettier, replace them with images of their favourite celebrities, or just delete them from the field of view (though some mechanism is needed to prevent collisions when they are physically close).
There are a number of choices that make it interesting.
Firstly, who controls how one person sees another. Is it the viewer, or the person being seen, or some third party such as an application or service provider?
Can someone assert their chosen edited appearance on the viewer, and can they do so differently for each group of potential viewers, or tailor how they appear to the context and specifics of that interaction? All of the above?
Does the viewer get to choose between an avatar and a real life image, even if an edited one, or an alternative avatar, or a cosmetically enhanced appearance, or is that also decided by the person being seen?
If the viewer has control, can they also choose the gender of the other people they see?
Can the person being seen assert their chosen gender, and hide their real one from the image production system?
Should there be a right to see how someone else is visualising you, or even how they are visualising others? If so, under which circumstances? Should the police be able to check that your visualisation of someone else isn’t demeaning or insulting, or a race crime? Should your use of overlays be forced to be recorded in case it needs to be policed in future?
Obviously, these choices give a lot of options for potential gender interactions. As well as gender, images could also show people with different ages, races, even species, or as an object, as someone else, or as a group of people, or show a group as an individual. Someone playing a character in a computer game or virtual world may find it fun to use that same character avatar on the high street. A full AR replacement of people in the street could be a very different world to live in.
There would be some social pressure on application providers to prevent too much abuse of such systems, but also some demands from minority groups to protect their specific interests. It seems reasonable that a transgendered person or a transvestite should have the right to present themselves as their chosen gender. Since someone may be just exploring gender options prior to considering becoming transgendered, that right would also need to extend to casual recreational gender change. But that only requires that their original gender be concealed from the viewer or system. It doesn’t prevent the viewer from replacing or modifying what they see. They could still replace any stranger’s image with a customised one of their own choosing, and it isn’t necessary to know anything about the stranger to do so. So it is possible to protect transgender rights while still allowing viewers to choose how they modify the world they see.
Augmented reality also allows people to select and apply components of how they (or an application provider) believe other genders might feel by changing the appearance of the world to that ideal. Certain parts of images may be enhanced or dulled to reflect the relative importance. A crude example may be feminising it by adding more pinks or flowers or children or female oriented ads. Hopefully, the reality would be a little more sophisticated.
Augmented reality will objectify women
Our treatment of others varies according to how we perceive their gender.
Augmented reality will bring many benefits and improve our lives in many ways, such as enjoying virtual architecture, playing immersive computer games while a partner is shopping, or enjoying artworks transposed onto walls in the high street. But it won’t all be wonderful.
In spite of marketing hype and misrepresentation of basic location based services, AR is only here in very primitive form today, outside the lab anyway. But very soon, we will use visors and contact lenses to enable a fully 3D, hi-res overlay on the real world. So notionally, someone can make everything in the world look how they want, but only to a point. They can transform a dull shop or office into an elaborate palace of spaceship. But even if they change what these look like, you still need to represent real physical structures and obstacles in your fantasy overlay world, or they may bump into them, and that includes all the walls and furniture, lamp posts, bollards, vehicles, and of course other people. Augmented reality allows us to change their appearance thoroughly but they still need to be there somehow.
When it comes to people, there will be some small battles. Each of us may have a wide variety of avatars, and may have invested a great deal of time and money making or buying them. Someone may have a digital aura, hoping to present different avatars to different passers-by according to their profiles. They may want to look younger or thinner or as a character they enjoy playing in a computer game. They may present a selection of options. The avatar they choose to overlay could be any one of the images on offer, that they spent so much time on. Maybe some people get to pick from several on offer, or are restricted to just one that is set for their profile type.
However, other people may choose not to see that avatar, but instead to superimpose one of their own choosing. The question of who decides what the viewer sees is the first and most obvious battle in AR and it will probably be won by the viewer (there may be exceptions, and these may be imposed by regulations). The other person will decide how they want to see you, regardless of your preferences.
Someone could spend a great deal of time making an avatar or tweaking virtual make-up to perfection, but if someone wants to see Lady Gaga walking past instead of them, they will. A stranger’s body becomes no more than an object on which to display any avatar or image someone else chooses. People are quite literally reduced to an object in the AR world. Those with concerns over objectification of women will not like what AR will bring.
Firstly they may just take an actual physical appearance (via a video camera built into their visor for example) and digitally change it, so it is still definitely still the target person, but now dressed more nicely, or dressed in sexy lingerie, or how they might look naked, body-fitting any images from a porn site. This could easily be done automatically in real time using some app or other. They could even use the actual face as input to image matching search engines to find the most plausible naked lookalikes. So anyone can digitally dress or undress anyone, not just with their eyes, but with a hi-res visor using sophisticated software and image processing software. They could put anyone in any kind of outfit, change their skin colour or make-up, and make them look as pretty and glamorous or as slutty as they want. The victim won’t have any idea what someone looking at them is seeing. They simply won’t know whether they are being treated with respect, flattered, or made to look even prettier, which they might not mind, or perhaps being digitally stripped or degraded which they probably will mind a lot.
Anyone can treat anyone else as just an object on which to superimpose some other avatar, which could be anything or anyone, a zombie, favourite actress or supermodel. They won’t need consent and again the victim won’t have any idea what the viewer are seeing. The avatar may make the same gestures and movements as the real person. In some ways this won’t be so bad. People are still reduced to objects but at least it isn’t that particular individual that they’re looking at naked. Most strangers on the high street were just moving obstacles to avoid bumping into anyway. Most people will cope with that bit. It is when interaction starts that it starts to matter. Many people won’t enjoy it if someone is chatting to them but looking at someone else entirely, especially if they are a friend or partner. Kissing one person while looking at someone else would be a breach of trust. This sort of thing could and probably will damage a lot of relationships.
It’s a fairly safe bet that the software to do some or all of this is already in development. Maybe some of it already exists in primitive forms but it will develop quickly once AR display technology is really with us. The visor hardware required is certainly on its way and primitive versions will be here by the end of 2012.
In the office, in the home, when you’re shopping or at a party, people won’t have any idea what or who someone else is seeing when they look at them. The main casualty will be trust. It will make us question how much we trust each of our friends and colleagues and acquaintances. It will build walls. People will often become suspicious of others, not just strangers but friends and colleagues. Some people will become fearful. People may dress as primly as they like, but if the viewer sees them in a slutty outfit, perhaps their behaviour and attitudes will be governed by that rather than reality. So there could be an increase in sexual assault or rape. Women especially may more often be objectified, in more circumstances. Many men objectify women already. In the future AR world , they’ll be able to do so far more effectively without everyone knowing.
Augmented reality accessories
It is possible to use virtual accessories as well as real ones. An augmented reality strap-on or vibrator may look similar to a real one, but of course doesn’t have the same physical presence and the same goes for any other imagined accessory for any future gender. If it is to have anything more than a symbolic presence in role play, it needs somehow to connect into the nervous system or at least to be able to create some sort of sensation. Linking a virtual accessory to the peripheral nervous system can be done via active skin, pressure pads, smart gloves or data suits. In the far future it may be possible link directly into the brain. There are lots of options.
The potential to make augmented reality accessories that can be associated with real sensations and take a real part in gender–related practices allows new genders to come into play long before they are possible to make genetically.
However, we must ask just how ‘real’ such genders would be. The people using such virtual appliances may take part in interesting experiences, but their original body and original gender remains intact unless they undertake further action.
It is possible to have original equipment disconnected or removed, and to use the augmented reality devices instead. It may also be possible to block or attenuate the sensations from them at the brain using derivatives of trans-cranial magnetic stimulation or some future signal blocking means. With this associated physical gender reassignment, augmented reality would offer a proper means of gender change with less trauma.
Once we start linking to the peripheral nervous system, we can dissociate the physical acts causing a stimulus from the sensation experienced. Though frivolous and perhaps ridiculous, it is entirely possible to create intense sexual sensation or even orgasm just by typing a capital O on a keyboard, or by any other action.
The existing nervous system is limited in its scope though, and it would be better to be able to map sensations onto new areas of the brain. Thanks to research and development on tools to help disabled people interpret the world around them, we know that the brain is able to accept stimuli and learn to interpret and experience them over time. This again offers scope for new genders before we get to building them genetically.
Compartmentalising and acting
Humans are skilled at presenting filtered or enhanced views of themselves to others. We talk of wearing a shield or a mask. We all do it all the time, at work and socially, presenting edited personas to different groups.
Some people are very good at it and become actors. The acting profession is a good point to look for gender insight. Actors often complain that people treat them as if they were the character they play, which shows that for some people, the line between fiction and reality can sometimes get blurred. Presumably, that would make it easier for them to take people’s presented gender at face value and perhaps not even consider whether it may be faked.
Another clue from acting is that actors sometimes practise for a role by immersing themselves in the character’s situation, so that they can begin to identify with it more closely and play the role more naturally. In essence they are deliberately blurring the lines of their own fiction and reality. Or at least part of it.
From birth, we start registering differences between male and female. Each of us forms a unique view of how it is to be our own gender and how it might feel to be another. If we try to act as if we were another gender, that is the prejudice we have to start from. To improve on that, some people live part or full time in the guise of the other gender, just as actors may live in their character. Gender reassignment surgery usually follows a lengthy period of such living, since it isn’t properly reversible, yet. This ensures that the person feels comfortable in their new gender before the final commitment. They will experience others’ reactions to themselves but may also feel differently while in the other gender. The playing of the new role is important because it changes how someone feels inside, not just how they look outside.
Recreational gender changing is temporary in nature and therefore lends itself more to compartmentalising rather than essentially practising a new life. Again, like acting, someone knows who they ‘really’ are, but allocates a sub-mindset to play their role. Someone presenting themselves as another gender in a chat room or virtual world is likely compartmentalising. They have a normal everyday life as one gender, but play act with a particular mindset in their chat room role.
There isn’t a limit on how many roles someone can act. In everyday life, we all have dozens of slightly different personas to cover all the different social groups we belong to. In chat rooms and virtual worlds, people often have several alternative personas, or alts. Some people use over twenty regularly. That is easy to understand, but what is surprising is that they manage successfully to use several at the same time. They may even have one of their alts apparently chatting to other ones so that they can maintain the pretence. This requires a degree of skill to keep them all separate and prevent others from suspecting. But it is exactly that skill that also allows someone to compartmentalise gender. People may have some alts in one gender and some in another. Some may flip between them. They use the appropriate gender filters to present each one according to circumstance.
Such compartmentalisation skill is common, and shows that some people will be adept at doing so with future genders too. They will have to juggle lots of roles, with all the associated memory and behaviours, and they will do so in games, chat rooms, social networking sites, virtual worlds, and augmented reality overlays, and in a wide variety of everyday business and social interactions, but they will have AI to help them translate body and verbal language between them, handle all their avatars, and even act in their place or alongside when they are not sufficiently present. We can only expect gender to become even more blurred and dynamic as recreational gender play becomes more powerful and immersive.
Blurring of gender identity
That raises the question of degree to which someone’s psychological gender identity can blur as a result of frequent recreational gender play. If someone puts effort into presenting as another gender for significant periods, running the appropriate emulators alongside the normal ones, it is inevitable that they will gradually adopt some of what they consider to be the attitudes of the other gender, and some behaviours will cross over into their other compartments. The various models all have to access some of the same underlying thinking and control processes – they won’t all be duplicated and kept separate – so the appropriate neural circuitry and skills will change accordingly. This must be especially so in areas that don’t get shielded from outsiders, the ones they don’t think of as particularly visible or gender-relevant, because they are less careful to keep them in separate compartments. Over time, their gender identity will inevitably blur. This may well make them more accepting and tolerant of the other gender, but if they are frequent recreational gender changers, that is unlikely to have been an issue in the first place.
Dreams are related to games and virtual worlds. They share some of the same mental emulation of a perceived reality, albeit in dreams the emulator is heavily distorted and filtered. Some people sometimes dream of themselves in another gender. It may feature as a central part of the dream storyline, perhaps that somehow they have been transformed, it may be that they just happen to be that gender, or it may be purely incidental, not particularly relevant to the storyline. Or it may be a way of indulging in an aspirational gender change for someone who has transgender thoughts. In lucid dreams, it can even be a form of recreational gender change.
Which brings us nicely to the idea that we will soon be able to choose what we dream of, and link our dreams to those of other people. Gender play in dreams may then become as common as it already is in virtual worlds.
Augmented reality could use a variety of displays, including goggles or active contact lenses. Contact lenses have the advantage of being under the eyelids so the images can be seen even when eyes are closed. During dreams, feedback from brain signals could be used to direct the selection of imagery produced in the lenses, enhancing dreams and allowing them to be linked with those of other people. This is closer than you may imagine.
Even today it is possible to pick up clues as to the images the person is seeing, and this could link into programming in an augmented reality system to generate additional appropriate imagery. We are all familiar with building external sound into dreams, and we should expect that augmented reality images could also be used by our brains. So if programs are designed well, they could use the topic detected from the sleeper as an input to search utilities, then playing appropriate media to enhance or even guide the dreamer. This would allow some element of choice before sleep, where the person could pick dreams from a menu, and have a good chance of experiencing them. Gender could be one of the choices of course.
It will be possible to link people’s dreams together, provided they are both in a dream state at the same time. Detecting signals from each one and feeding in appropriate augmented reality to each, they could be guided along converging paths until their dreams overlap. Then they would be able to interact with each other in the dreams using nerve signals to directly control the dream ‘avatar’ in the other person’s dream. Ongoing development of thought recognition should enable such dreams not only to be gently guided but also recorded.
Dreams feel more immersive and real than computer games so gender play in them may be more significant in some ways. Habitually dreaming as another gender may have long term effects on waking state too.
Voyeuristic gender play
People may choose to swap gender for a variety of reasons. Men often choose a female version of the hero in computer games, so that they can look at an attractive woman for the next 30 hours rather than a man. They are acting female for purely voyeuristic reasons, not as a means of gender experimentation. Similarly in virtual worlds, people may choose an alternative gender for the avatar simply so that they can look at them or watch them act out a role in a fantasy. This is very different from wanting to be that gender. However, someone else may do exactly the same things to try and experience being that gender. Intent is important, not the act. Intent governs the degree of association with that gender. Are they living the character, or just watching the character?
In contrast to voyeuristic play, someone may genuinely aspire to be another gender or to adopt some of its characteristics. They may want the full TG package, or may want to pick and mix from their picture of the traits on offer, TG-lite if you will. There are very many variants of this. Physically, there are lots of combinations of surgical and hormonal changes, as well as simple use of cosmetics. There are also many variations of feminised, camp or tomboyish behaviour, which may result from natural, environmental or medical use of hormones, exposure to cultural pressures or from deliberate personal choice. Pick and mix gender is illustrated in typical sissy play, where a basket of cherry-picked feminine attributes and behaviours are assembled while retaining the underlying masculinity. This falls short of the full gender change play that also happens in such worlds. The outlets in virtual worlds allow people to indulge many behaviours they associate with another gender safely, and they can do so openly or hidden as they wish. The result is a rich mixture of variations of the two standard genders.
Some people feel that they are the wrong gender and some badly enough to go through the trauma of surgical reassignment, but there are many more who would change if they could do so easily and painlessly, and probably even more who would choose to be another gender if they were able to live their life again or reincarnate. The social barriers to changing are high, as are the physical ones. But that doesn’t necessarily affect the aspiration to change gender. Technologies that allow this in part or avoiding negative social issues would cater to these latent gender changers and thus be relatively popular since they allow at least some of the frustrated aspirations to be achieved.
Environmental impact on gender - exposure to feminising chemicals
Many studies over the last decade (and even earlier) have shown endocrine disruptors (which mimic the behaviour of estrogens) in the environment causing feminisation in insects, fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles and mammals. Such chemicals come from plastics, packaging, pesticides, cleaning products and even shampoo and the linings of tin cans. In extreme cases, polluted rivers have seen 100% of male fish (Roach) becoming hermaphrodite. Effects are greater in the young. Google it for examples. You’ll find lots.
Humans are animals too of course, and although they may not have enough exposure to human endocrine disruptors in our everyday environment to cause adult men to actually change into women, again there do appear to be significant effects, especially on such things as sperm counts, breast development and testicular cancer rates. Sperm counts have fallen dramatically over the last few decades.
In the womb, effects are potentially far greater. In 2007, the Arctic Measurement and Assessment Program found twice as many girls as boys being born due to levels of chemicals in the blood of pregnant women there that were high enough to cause gender change. In Japan too, fewer boys are being born.
Surprisingly perhaps, the effects on humans have not had much study, but this is perhaps because of the potential reactions of militants in the gay and transgender communities. It is a sensitive area, but we ought to be able to discuss it properly and openly. We are using more and more chemicals in our everyday lives – more hygiene and cleaning products, more processed foods, more packaging, more plastics generally. Exposure to human endocrine disruptors is already high and may become higher if we keep brushing the issues under the carpet.
What is at stake?
If men are becoming feminised, we will gradually lose the contributions of one end of the masculinity spectrum. Gender lines have already blurred and are blurring further, and the impact on our culture is as important as the impact on health and fertility. These problems will escalate if unborn babies and younger generations with greater vulnerability are exposed to relatively higher exposures.
It does seem that men are showing their feminine sides far more than used to be the norm. Are metrosexuals in increasing abundance because of fashion and cultural exposure, or because of chemicals changing their preferences, or a combination. Why do men cry more now? Why are more men gay and bisexual than before? Why do far more teenage boys want gender changes than before? Any one trend arises from a combination of factors, but if the overall feminisation is due in part to chemical exposure, and it probably is, then perhaps that is a problem that should be fixed. Genders are important and should be a matter of choice human culture and social make-up shouldn’t be dictated by pollution.
Why does it matter?
Male, female, inter-gender and transgender people make diverse contributions to overall society and culture. The different ways men behave and think and react and emote, or not should be valued and preserved as well as other genders and behaviours. The feminised end of the male spectrum is growing, but we should worry about losing ‘straight’, non-metrosexual masculinity. It has value too. In the gender spectrum, one end of the male part is becoming fainter while the other intensifies.
So what to do?
If cultural and chemical effects on men created pressure in opposite directions, they might cancel to some degree, but they don’t. They both create feminising pressure. Men have been under strong social and media pressure to feminise for decades. It simply isn’t fashionable to be a man today. Male behaviour is ridiculed routinely throughout the media, especially in advertising, with men portrayed as cavemen and idiots in a world of highly evolved and intelligent women. Men are encouraged to explore and show their feminine sides. The UK and US education systems have been restructured to favour the ways girls learn. Boys are punished and put down in the playground if they dare to behave as boys. Selection of participants in reality TV shows such as ‘Big Brother’, ‘I’m a Celebrity’ and ‘Come dine with me’ greatly favours feminised men to fill the male half. TV presenting is the same. Women have significantly greater legal rights than men. In the workplace, women and gay men are heavily protected and given positive discrimination at the expense of straight men. While chemical exposure is already creating biological feminising pressure, society is kicking masculinity while it’s down.
We should obviously start to limit exposure to chemicals that cause feminisation. But society should also question its attitudes and consider the long term consequences of anti-masculinity pressure. Do we really want a world with only feminised men? Masculinity deserves to be preserved too.
Science fiction (such as Star Trek) holds the concepts of symbionts, organisms that share bodies, where one acts as a host or carrier for the other in a symbiotic relationship, though of course it could equally be parasitic or commensalistic. This sort of thing could extend to gender too, where two distinct characters interact, share or overlap in such ways that they form a gender together. Separately they may have no gender or hold a different one, but when linked together they generate a new distinct gender.
The question arises as to how far this concept could be taken. In principle, quite far. One group could participate in a number of distinct genders depending how they combine with other groups. Three or more could combine. They could have some physical, some neural, and some virtual links. With many different ways of connecting and sharing sensations, emotions and thoughts, with many combinations of organism and indeed synthetic organisms or AIs, the idea space is huge.
Some people have fantasies (or nightmares for a few too) of forced gender change. In the real world, this would be a relatively rare event (I assume that some people enslaved in the sex trade may have forced gender change, but have no idea how widespread a problem that is) but in virtual worlds, it apparently happens quite a lot. Of course, the victim may want it to happen, in which case they would simply be enjoying no-fault recreational gender change while pushing the blame onto someone else. But it could also be genuinely unwanted. As a part of role play or a game forfeit, and temporary, it may still be accepted. If it is permanent that might be very different. In such a case, it could have more severe consequences.
Widely different degrees of reality and immersion are possible, as I have discussed already. If someone is forced into a different gender even in a virtual world and can’t revert for some reason, maybe their identity irrevocably locked to that gender, then they would simply have to get used to it, or leave that virtual world. It wouldn’t necessarily always be possible to create a new identity to escape and the social costs of leaving entirely might make the new gender the lesser of two evils. This could extend to some augmented reality applications, again with varying degrees of immersion and realism.
A closely related problem is that if someone assumes a different gender in a virtual world for a significant time, they may accumulate valued relationships that would be damaged if they were to change to their real gender, so again the costs of reverting would be unacceptable and they are effectively locked in their presented gender. Since there is so much gender play in virtual environments, I suspect this is not likely to be a major issue overall, but it still could be for particular individuals or relationships. Although less likely than in socialising virtual worlds, it is possible that employees in geographically spread virtual companies could present to some or all of their colleagues as an alternative gender than their reality, and reverting could potentially thus come at a career cost. Video and voice changing technologies will make such pretence easier and perhaps more common. Fiction has many examples of people presenting in a different gender to colleagues for professional reasons. The spread of freelancing and virtual companies makes it more likely, and the potential lock-in would follow.
So gender forcing is already here, albeit mainly virtually. The magnitude of the problems would presumably simply scale with the degree and intensity of recreational gender play, since other forcing issues would correlate highly with this too.
Empathetic gender play
Compartmentalising allows people to assume multiple parallel threads of behaviour and present different genders or gender-related traits to different groups even at the same time. The personal psychological costs and difficulty associated with this would vary between individuals but if it is easy for someone, they may do it a lot. Even without any particular desire to change, they may simply find it easier to empathise with another person by assuming their gender during the encounter. It may be such casual gender changing would happen for other reasons too.
Gender as an art form
I’ve always found it fascinating as a technologist and engineer how the first users of new technological breakthroughs are so often artists. As we mess around increasingly with genetics, it can only be a while before we see the first artistic exploration of gender creation. I wouldn’t know where to start predicting what artists will do with it, I’ve already mentioned most of the available dimensions. Part of the fun of art is the surprise when it happens. Let’s wait and see.
How many genders are there?
Most people would initially count male and female, and quickly recall others such as shemales (or ladyboys) and hermaphrodites. But there are already a lot more combinations. Assuming many different degrees of casualness, immersiveness, and commitment, virtualisation, parallelism and multi-threading of gender play, on top of many different states and combinations of physical, hormonal and psychological base, there are already hundreds of possible gender states. This number will grow markedly as we add new dimensions for experimentation. Each extra dimension would include several possible states, so the far future will certainly contain thousands of potential variations.
The future of gender is a very diverse one!