There are probably no accurate statistics available on precisely what sex the user behind each avatar is in Second Life (SL).
A moment’s reflection would soon show that it is too easy to sign up with a sex other than the user’s real one and users often operate more than one avatar, none of which may correspond to their actual real life (RL) sex.
Some estimates, usually derived from user experiences, are that around 70% of users that use female avatars are in fact males, for example. A far fewer number of females operate male avatars.
It is impossible to know these proportions precisely. But it is certain that some avatars, and perhaps many more than one might imagine, are not the same sex as the person pressing the keys.
If you are a regular user of SL you may already have met avatars that you have discovered are not the same sex as the human in RL operating them. You may occasionally see a profile, often the profile of a female avatar, that provides reassurance of the corresponding sex of the human, sometimes saying they have been voice verified, or even verified by cam (using camera). Such verification is usually needed for escort services or other adult services and activities in SL. Verification is also need for age purposes in those instances.
Of course verification processes can be faked by the most devious of humans in order to enable an avatar to engage in activities that the ‘real’ human operator desires. It may well be that that extreme effort goes on in some cases. But the average human usually doesn’t bother, and writing that they have been voice verified may well be a ruse to enable them to slip under the average viewer’s radar.
The opportunities for people to explore how ‘the other half lives’ in terms of sex and gender roles are unparalleled in immersive environments such as SL. I distinguish here, as is usual in sex and gender studies between sex, the biological facts of being male and female (but yes, I know there are multiple variations on that these days too, however I will choose to remain very simple here and only refer to male and female), and gender, which is the collection of behaviors associated with being female or male.
Some stereotypical gendered behaviors are dressing in pink as a girl and blue for a boy, or wearing long hair to indicate femininity and short spiky hair to indicate masculinity, for example.
So by using an avatar of the opposite sex in SL to one’s RL sex, it is possible to experience, at least as far as a virtual reality (VR) environment allows, what a person of the opposite sex experiences in RL. But, being VR, the experience is never precisely identical to RL, and hopefully all users realize this. Of equal importance is the realization that behind every avatar is a real human, of whatever sex or gender role behavior set.
If, let’s say, a male user is seeking to gain a more full experience of a slice of life as a female, then they may take their female avatar and hang around a shopping mall and try chatting to the ‘girls’ (other female avatars) there while shopping, getting a feel for the social life of females. However if more than half of the ‘girls’ are in fact fellows, then the experience is rather unreal in more than one sense.
So at least for the sake of clarity about one’s individual SL experience, having some reliable knowledge of the real sex of the human behind the avatar could come in handy. Next time I will explore the more emotional and sexual side of this dilemma.