My job is weird and wonderful. As a scholar invested in in gender and sexuality in online gaming culture, I often find myself musing about digital genitals. No, not the digitally transmitted images of genitals put forth by the purveyors of online pornography (though there is some really fascinating work out there on this topic). I mean the genitals of digital bodies, the genitals of video game avatars. Specifically: why do we bother with them in virtual spaces where sex itself isn’t an affordance provided by the software? How are we using them if we aren’t using them for sexual pleasure or virtual procreation? What symbolic purpose do they serve in a world where bodies are mutable, swapable, or customizable?
I am thinking about this question because of a recent Kotaku article called “The Ups and Downs of Teabagging in Pro Gaming.”*
According to Giant Bomb,
Tea-bagging** is primarily used to make one’s death a more humiliating experience and provoking the other player. This action is most commonly performed in video games found within the first-person shooter genre; however, every game that has a crouch button and dead bodies is susceptible to this phenomenon. Tea-bagging is but one of the ways that the online first-person shooter community is forming a more juvenile identity in comparison with the other genres of video games.
Steps on how to tea-bag properly:
Kill opponent (this step is not necessary if your desired target is already dead)
Move up to your victim’s corpse
Stand on top of said corpse
Crouch and stand repeatedly, alternating, while being located directly over the corpse
This motion is meant to simulate the sex act of, in the words of the immortal cult film legend, John Waters, “dragging your testicles across your partner’s forehead… [or] dipping your testicles in your partner’s mouth.” It was, according to him, “a popular dance step that male go-go boys did to their customers for tips” that he subsequently featured in his 1998 film Pecker.
At first glance, teabagging seems like a way to reaffirm the gendered binary that aligns masculinity with strength and dominance and femininity with weakness in gaming culture. After all, as Maddy Meyers notes in her piece for Kotaku,
Competitive gaming has a long history with sexually-charged taunts. A decade ago, the colloquial use of the word “rape” as a synonym for “dominate” was still common parlance among pro gamers in both fighting games and team shooters alike.
When deployed among strangers, the teabag is obnoxious at best and sexual harassment at worst. In those moments, the teabag feels like a sexual humiliation ritual. The fact that it’s forced upon corpses adds a new level of grisliness. Teabagging among pro players could be seen as a teabag among friends, but the audience’s presence adds pressure to be cool with a form of taunting that’s actually pretty weird.
This kind of teabagging could be compared to the kinds of sexualized and/or violent touchdown celebrations that the NFL has disallowed.
But, as I discuss in my forthcoming book,*** the translation of embodied sex and gender roles from the physical world to the virtual world is not always simple and the ways that performative acts like teabagging are deployed can open up interesting cracks in our understanding of identity formation both online and IRL.
This is because the act of teabagging isn’t limited to just male players or even to male avatars. For example, according to Meyer’s reporting, female pro gamers like Leah “Gllty” Hayes have been known to teabag opponents during tournaments and male pros like Victor “Punk” Woodley still teabag even when they are playing using female avatars.
In other words, the ability to teabag online is not limited to only those who actual have testicles to drape on their fellow combatants. It is a performance that allows the teabagger to seize a masculine identity during a victorious moment. This kind of digitally-facilitated masculine identity is available to anyone, not matter the configuration of their undercarriage. It is also a fleeting kind of identity, one that could easily be taken away by another player in the next round of combat. The contingency of this kind of masculinity, when coupled with the practice’s origins in gay culture, could be read as somewhat queer in that it threatens the supposed stability and immutability that heteronormativity imposes on individuals and in that it expands the definition of what can be considered pleasurable in a homosocial context.
Of course, even if women are participating in the act of teabagging (and therefore successfully inhabiting professional gaming culture by proving that they are fluent in its bonding rituals) the gesture remains problematic in that it still rhetorically centers maleness, even as it uncouples what it means to “be manly” from actually having a male body. It still holds up weakness and failure as traits that are “feminine” and therefore posits that femininity itself is undesirable. But it does give us an opportunity to question the validity of systems that are set up according to people’s genitals, whether they exist on the screen or in our real world institutions.
*I see what you did there, Kotaku.
**Different folks seem to spell teabagging differently. Some sources use the hyphen and some did not. John Waters did not use the hyphen in his definition, so I’m following his example.
***I know, I know. I had to.