The Life and Times of a "Cyber Queen"

The following is something of a case study: the story of one internet user and his experience presenting cross-gender online.  From harmless experimentation to hardcore solicitation, alias "Rufa Hendeiger" went through it all.

Rufa first contacted me in the comments section of a blog post.  There, using the name "X_x_Lil-Anonymous," he confessed, "under the cover anonymity," to being "a complete cyber-queen!"

"I have no illusions," says Rufa "about the true gender of the slim yet large breasted 18-25 year old Asian full time students/part time lesbians I have met on AOL instant messenger. Or about 'their' pictures. And I’m fairly sure that the guys who are contacting me when I’ve got some ridiculous cutesy-feminine screen name (see above, add more pink) and asking about sex have any illusions either."

The quotes below are excerpts from an interview I conducted with Rufa via email.  Check back soon for the results of a Q&A session with the "cyber queen," and, after that, some humble commentary from yours truly.

"I'm only 23, and this kind of stuff is really an off and on thing with me, and lately it's been off for a good two years or so... for most of my life I have been a boy who did something that he was scared might ruin his life, and now I'm a man who is only slightly concerned it will come back to ruin his life later...

I remember the first time I played a girl online. I was about 13, I had a 33.6 modem, a copy of telnet, and the numbers for a bunch of local gaming BBS... My favorite was Midnight, because it was really small. It could only handle 5 or so connections at once, and the only game it had was MajorMUD. That forced people to party together who normally would not. And plus, it had a Real Live Girl who would sometimes play: the sysop's sister, who went by Sunflower. That made the whole thing cooler somehow.

I learned a hack on some other BBS to get into the mail system. Of course I used it to see what my friends over at Midnight were up to when I wasn't there. What I found was Sunflower's username and password in her mail. I immediately logged off and logged back on as Sunflower. She had a high level Ranger, which I had never played.

So bam, now I'm Sunflower in the middle of the night, using my cool Ranger stuff to bash monsters. Then, somebody else logs on. Busted. He could easily see that I'm logged on using one of the lines, and not as a local user, like Sunflower would be. But he doesn't. He messages me. Could I help him in the tombs? He needs new ring mail. Sure, I can.

So we bash monsters a little. I disable my attack/cast/heal/get gold script because I know that Sunflower doesn't use one. I make like I'm interested in what's going on with the guy and make vaguely encouraging remarks, because that's what Sunflower does. I say I've got horrible homework and talk about baseball because that's what Sunflower talks about. I'd played some D&D, so I just imagined Sunflower as “my character,” and off we went.

For some reason, everybody decided to log on at about 1:30 AM. Soon we got a full party. I started to become aware of the social dynamic that was surrounding me. The other guys argued, ragged on each other, fought over treasure, did the stuff that I would usually be doing, but as Sunflower, I was a little above it all. People considered what I had to say without first making a sarcastic comment, didn't rush for my gold, and if somebody gave me the business, one of the guys would say, “Hey, leave her alone, she's a friend.”

A little background here. At 13, I was really, really nerdy: red hair, glasses, no friends, the whole bit. I felt basically unwanted wherever I went. Later, I'd get a lot better at this kind of stuff, but at that moment, this was as wanted as I'd felt for a long time. It really started to get to me...

There was a shock of new feelings...

I never logged back on as Sunflower, since she really was my friend and I didn't want to piss her off, but I did play female characters after that. I remember justifying it. I would say that it was because people were nicer to girls, didn't grief them, shared items, etc. That was true, but really, it was that girls got a little more attention (both good and bad) and that I let myself play a more neutral, less extreme social role when I was in a female character. It was less work to be friends when you were a girl, especially with other girls. The fantasy started becoming less “I'm a magic warrior who can kill his enemies without consequence!” and more “I'm a pretty, hip teenage girl, one of the most sought after members of society, instead of a ugly, geeky teenage boy, one of the least sought after.”

I'm not quite sure how long after that my family got access to the internet... I used Excite to search for a MUD and logged on to the first one I found... I got my first solicitation for cybersex in like fifteen minutes.

Hey, new experience: rejecting someone! It felt kinda cool! Commence to bashing monsters. A day or two later, I'm in a party with a guy who asks for cybersex... I tell him, 'I don't think I'd be any good at that.' This is true, I'm a virgin and I've got only a hazy concept of what actually goes on during sex. However, I'm intrigued.

I search for any information I can get about cybersex, logs especially. I relate it back to my experience playing roleplaying games and playing MUDs as female characters. I copy some cybersex stuff into a text file, and log back into the MUD, intending to accept the first offer for cybersex I get.

I don't have to wait long. Soon I've got a private session with some random online adventurer. As the supposed female, I wait for him to kick things off. He waits for a moment and then jumps right in with something that boils down to 'I'm fucking you. I've got a huge dick.'

Jesus Christ. Way to fail to meet my expectations, sir... I cut and paste something in, but after that, I'm really struggling with something to say. I invoke the power of the internet and just log off, leaving the guy hanging in a MUD chatroom, never to be seen again.

So lesson learned. I had thought I was totally clueless about cybersex, but really, I had already built up some of the basic skills from writing stories and playing roleplaying games. I knew a story needed a beginning, a middle, and an end. I knew that we're both playing pretend together, and we shouldn't break the implied contract of how this pretend world worked. I knew that what we were doing was similar to what other people did, and I could learn to do it better by reading their records. Right there that made me 'better' than most of the guys messaging me for cybersex.

The next time out, I teamed up with a couple people, and struck up the standard MUD conversations. When I found a guy who was cool, funny, etc, I went ahead and asked him for cybersex. This time, I had done prep (like a DM!), and I took the initiative, setting a scene. We're in the enchanted something-or-other, tired from killing monsters, a moment of silence (an idea from a romance book). Bam, he takes to the idea right away, and we're doing all the romance novel stuff I had originally imagined we'd be doing.

It's addicting. It has a little creative spark, a little spontaneity. It makes me feel desired. It's reinforcing all that social-female fantasy I've got going, and adds in lots of powerful new stuff, courtship, attraction, a story to tell that's about me as a female, instead of just involving me as a female. And of course, its got sex and I'm a teenage boy. I start playing less of the MUD itself, using it more as a networking service. I also start getting my real life together, and the reduced computer time gets cut from the game playing, not the cybersex.

I keep doing the MUD thing for a while, but it gets pushed to the background after I discover instant messaging – ICQ mostly. I also develop a little baby conscience about deceiving these guys about my gender. Mostly, I've got a few people on my friends list who I do it with, no random people in the MUDs or chatrooms. If I meet someone who wants cybersex, I stop if any interest is shown as to my real life gender...

There's just too many benefits to being a straight white male in small town America. I like being just one of the guys. When I say, “I suck at football,” I don't want any questions as to how I define the word 'suck.' I don't want my friends and family to be tested by having a weirdo amongst them, because frankly, I don't think many of them would pass. I'm just barely scraping myself up to Whitey McNormal status from the untouchable geek caste, and backsliding is going to be painful. I have respect for those of us who are publicly identifying as gay, transgendered, genderqueer, what-have-you. That bell is impossible to unring sometimes.

When playing female characters in MUDs, I thought that I was gaining some kind of valuable insight into what it meant to be a girl in our society. I thought it might help me get a girlfriend. It's not really true, though. I could switch my femaleness on and off at will, and that's not what it means to BE female. What I was really getting was insight into myself, and that really did help me get a girlfriend, among other things...

Anyway, I ran out of money, and had to sober up and get a job. And that's where I stand today."

Comments on The Life and Times of a "Cyber Queen":


Posted Apr 18, 2006 2:27:56 PM | link

Detritus says:

It never occurred to me that the people engaging in this activity could be fully cognizant of their roles as just roles. This kind of made me sit up and take note; it really is just a digital manifestation of what can be seen in just about any major city when some guy decides he wants to try being a girl and goes over-the-top-fabulous.

In an odd way I’ve now got some respect for those that participate in the charade. I always saw it as a deceptive and potentially harmful activity (especially to the “queen” who may be supplementing and/or exacerbating a deeper psychological need). Now I see it as more of an exploration, so more power to you.

Posted Apr 19, 2006 9:50:36 AM | link

John Bilodeau says:

One of the problems with this sort of thing: Is there any reason we should believe the 'confession' is anything but an attention-getting lie?

If someone tells you they are a liar who misrepresents themself to get attention, they put you in a bit of a bind when it comes to interpreting the value of their account of things.

Posted Apr 19, 2006 12:28:10 PM | link

Arnold Hendrick says:

As this article demonstrates, online environments and in particular virtual worlds remain a rich environment for experimentation and learning. This includes learning about gender-based roles and forms of interaction, be they social, sexual, or whatever.

There is little doubt in my mind that a significant minority of players in MMORPGs use their characters as a "test bed" for learning about how to interact with people, including "serious" relationships and/or sexual activities. Everyone with half a gram of intelligence realizes that the other person(s) involved may be play-acting too, which could lead to blind-leading-the-blind situations. In addition, there are some people who simply enjoy role-playing. Online virtual worlds provide a nearly perfect setup for cross-gender roleplay. Certainly one should never other people are being completely truthful or honest regarding the RL identities. In fact, in most role-play situations I've completely given up worrying about the RL identity of the person and simply deal with the in-world character as presented.

One of the most interesting aspects of online gaming is how gamers seem to be maturing. It seems to me that when two MMORPG characters get a bit too romantic or frisky in public, the cries of "Get a Room" (even in games that don't have such facilities) occur much faster, much louder, and from far more voices in recent years. In times past, prurient observation or clumsy attempts to join in seemed more common. I believe that online gamers are becoming more "adult" in many things, including cybersex.

Posted Apr 19, 2006 4:02:01 PM | link

Scott Jon Siegel says:

One of the problems with this sort of thing: Is there any reason we should believe the 'confession' is anything but an attention-getting lie?

No more reason than we have in any other form of net-based research or anthropology. I suppose the more interesting question is: why do you automatically jump to that conclusion here and not elsewhere? What is it about Rufa's story that makes you feel it might be anything but the truth? -sj

Posted Apr 19, 2006 6:05:03 PM | link

John Bilodeau says:

SJ: why do you automatically jump to that conclusion here and not elsewhere?

The whole 'telling the truth about lying' mode just brings out my suspicious nature, I suppose.

SJ: What is it about Rufa's story that makes you feel it might be anything but the truth?

The reliability of the witness.

Posted Apr 19, 2006 7:30:42 PM | link

Scott Jon Siegel says:

Well, damn. Here I was hoping there'd be some deeper, gender-related reasoning to your suspicion. Oh well. ^_^ -sj

Posted Apr 19, 2006 9:50:33 PM | link

Holly says:

There's not much that's particularly unbelievable about this story. It's not the first time I've heard one like it and I went through a lot of similar stuff myself. And I agree with Arnold Hendrick that a lot of players, maybe even more than a significant minority, are using some kind of identity exploration online -- usually nothing quite as dramatic as crossplaying, maybe as simple or unconscious as just expressing their personality in different ways -- and then carrying those experiences back with them into the real world. If you look at Nick Yee's research about identity and player-avatar relationships, I think that's born out especially for younger players.

I crossplayed a lot when I was a teenager and into my 20s as well. I found it was pretty easy for me to "pass" online as a girl just by being myself, since I was never that inclined to engage in really overtly boy-like behavior--I'm probably not the only one, and actually, passing as a girl in online worlds was a pretty easy way to escape from that. I always tended to discourage flirtation or leading people on, as I didn't want to get entangled in anything messy, and had heard stories. Over time I was able to really explore the social role and be a more specific version of myself -- except female -- the kind of girl that I admired and thought was cool. Kind of tough, able to hang with the guys, but decidedly separate in many ways as well. Willing to smack one upside the head for acting like too much of a jerk.

A few years ago I came to the conclusion that I ought to explore this stuff a little more. So I started taking hormones and changed my name legally to that of one of my online personas. (Which was something pretty normal, not Sunflower or Elethandria or anything like that.) Yadda yadda yadda, the story goes on, and I think you get the gist of it -- I'm transgender. Nowadays I can "pass" just like I used to online, but pretty much anywhere I want, in part because I'm fairly small, young, cute, and unremarkable looking -- thanks for helping me figure this stuff out early, online worlds! The potential problems with relationships remain, but definitely not impossible to figure out. My family, my long-time friends, and some of my business associates and clients know that I'm transgender, but a lot of other people in my life don't, and it doesn't often come up; most of the people close to me are pretty discreet. So that's where *I* stand today, kind of a different spot than the narrator of the story above.

I do feel like crossplaying was a significant part of my journey to get here, which of course doesn't mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that most crossplaying players are trans like me.

So, I guess I could be lying about all of this too, right? Since I'm "crossplaying" not just in virtual worlds, but in some more complex, thorough fashion in the real world too. Of course, like "Rufa Heindeger" says, some bells are impossible to unring; unlike him I can't turn my femaleness on and off at will, nor can I really "go back," nor would I want to. This is who I am and it makes sense on a pretty deep level.

I'm curious, do you doubt this story since there are ways in which I'm not what I seem? (And other ways in which I certainly am, I should add.) I have to admit it is somewhat dramatized and focused on the subject of this post; there are plenty of other factors in my life related to being trans that I didn't mention. It doesn't surprise me much that questions about credibility and truthfulness come up when the subject of crossplaying is being discussed. Trans people are pretty used to being portrayed as liars and as inherently deceptive; it's a stereotype you see in television and movies, heck it's even been used in courtrooms as an argument to legitimize our murder. But hey, it's the only life we have; you do what you can with it.

Posted Apr 20, 2006 1:15:09 AM | link

Bonnie Ruberg says:

Holly, thanks for sharing your story! I think it's a great example of how cross-gender role-playing online can be a meaningful exploration -- if not for all people, than at least for some -- a real counter-example for all those who believe that the issue of presenting cross-gender lacks depth or true meaning.

Posted Apr 20, 2006 7:35:09 AM | link

Scott Jon Siegel says:

Wait a tick...

Me: What is it about Rufa's story that makes you feel it might be anything but the truth?

John: The reliability of the witness.

I misread this my first time through. I assumed you were referring to Rufa as unreliable, because of your previous assertion that it's difficult to trust someone who asserts that they have a history of lying (although, in Rufa's defense, he did say that he avoided lying about his RL gender).

Instead, it seems you're referring to Bonnie, which seems uncalled for. I revoke my cute smiley.

Posted Apr 20, 2006 7:41:45 AM | link

John Bilodeau says:

No, I wasn't referring to Bonnie. Your first impression was correct.

The reliability of the witness is only the first element of my reaction. It could just be the way the confession of 'Rufa' is written, but the type of self-identifications offered by the author, and the types of rationale,... I think there is a danger of losing some important information about this issue in accepting the self-analysis of the author too readily.

Although I'm suspicious about it, it don't doubt its value to a researcher. My original question was serious: Is there any reason to trust this particular story about 'Rufa'?

Holly seems to suggest that it fits into a familiar model: "There's not much that's particularly unbelievable about this story. It's not the first time I've heard one like it and I went through a lot of similar stuff myself."

I think that's an excellent gauge of reliability for a non-researcher, but I don't think the any social scientist would be comfortable limiting the field of reliable accounts to those that meet their pre-existing expectations.

I don't know how the issue of lying is being dealt with by the interviewer in this case (or if it even matters in a study of this kind), and that's really what I'm curious about.

Posted Apr 20, 2006 9:12:13 AM | link

Bonnie Ruberg says:

"I don't know how the issue of lying is being dealt with by the interviewer in this case (or if it even matters in a study of this kind), and that's really what I'm curious about."

I suppose I'm the one to answer that :-). I think the point you raise is an important one, as it exists in the background of almost all online research, but, I also think, for the most part, our suspicion has to remain a backdrop to the landscape of online research, and not a point of stagnation. What I mean is that, if we stopped short in front of every account and said, "How do we know you're telling the truth?", we wouldn't get anywhere. The unreliability of information is part of what makes the internet what it is. The crapshoot that occurs with a story such as Rufa's is a meaningful part of the territory.

Posted Apr 20, 2006 1:18:10 PM | link

John Bilodeau says:

Tanks Bonnie, I appreciate the reply. I'm going to read your Q&A post.

Posted Apr 20, 2006 2:47:37 PM | link

Mikyo says:

Some people indulge in games in order to NOT be themselves. To look and speak and behave like a hobbit, instead of like Bart Simpson in a hobbit costume.

That is the nature of FANTASY -- to want what we do not have. The old wish to be young again, but the young wish for maturity. The short would like to be taller, but some of the tall might prefer to be smaller.

It's called ROLE PLAYING. Yes, I know it is extremely rare in MMOs, where most regard their avatars as nothing but exotic combat vehicles. But I am encouraged to see someone studying it.

The games perfectly reflect our society. Young females are "sex objects" and young males are "violence objects." Whoever tries to break the mold will be either secret, or outcast.

Posted Apr 22, 2006 7:19:13 PM | link

Antony Mayer says:

One of the problems with this sort of thing: Is there any reason we should believe the 'confession' is anything but an attention-getting lie?
If someone tells you they are a liar who misrepresents themself to get attention, they put you in a bit of a bind when it comes to interpreting the value of their account of things.
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Posted Oct 21, 2006 6:33:20 AM | link