Is It Adultery If The Sex Happens In Second Life?

Is cybersex adultery? That's a question faced by a U.K. couple, who divorced after she caught him having cybersex with another woman in Second Life. She called up the real-life lawyers and kicked the bum out. But is it really adultery if there's no physical contact? Is it cheating if the two people having relations never even see each other, or hear each others' voices?

Mitch Wagner, California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

November 14, 2008

8 Min Read

Is cybersex adultery? That's a question faced by a U.K. couple, who divorced after she caught him having cybersex with another woman in Second Life. She called up the real-life lawyers and kicked the bum out. But is it really adultery if there's no physical contact? Is it cheating if the two people having relations never even see each other, or hear each others' voices?The Scottish Daily Record has the details, in deliciously salacious language:

Amy Pollard says hubby Dave romped with two virtual floozies on Second Life -- a Website where millions of real people live alternative lives in cyberspace.

"Virtual floozies." I love that. And they didn't just "fool around," or "have sex" -- they "romped." This puts a whole new light on my innocent memories of the kids' TV show Romper Room. Who knew Romper Room was porn?

By the way, Second Life is not a Web site -- it's an Internet application that's separate from the Web, and--

Oh, forget it. Who the hell cares about the technology? Let's get to the sex!

And after she woke from an afternoon nap and caught him red-handed for the second time, she stormed out of their house in tears and decided to call in the real-life lawyers.

Dave and Amy met in an Internet chat room and spent a lot of time in Second Life, the Record says.

Chubby, balding Dave became a superfit young hunk called "Dave Barmy", while Amy called herself "Aura Skye".

Just for the record: "Chubby, balding," Mitch Wagner often goes as a "superfit young hunk" with long, auburn hair in Second Life, and other times he goes as a steam-powered robot like something out of a 1950s pulp magazine. I also spent a couple of months as a chimp.

Like many men who enter Second Life for business, I went through a phase where I tried to duplicate my real-life appearance, but found that in the cartoon world of Second Life, a real-life person looked, ironically, less real than the 'toons.

Also, I think in Second Life, you present your ideal appearance -- not the you that you see in the mirror, but your best self that you see in your mind's eye. So using your RL appearance in SL is, ironically, less authentic than making up an avatar.

I've met several people in real life who I've gotten to know in Second Life, and, for sure, many of us are kind of dumpy and potato-shaped. But seeing their glamorous Second Life appearance makes me feel like I know them better than I would if I only saw what they look like in the physical realm. By seeing their real-life avatars, I've gotten a glimpse of how they see themselves, not just how the outside world sees them.

Oh, wait. There I go getting serious again. I've lost most of my readers now. In an effort to retain anybody who's left, I'll get back to the sex.

Amy says she began to suspect Dave a little while after they were married in 2005, according to the Record. She caught him with another woman in Second Life last year -- after hiring a virtual private detective to expose him. She forgave him, and they had a lavish Second Life wedding.

But this year, she found him fooling around with another woman in Second Life -- and, when she confronted him with it, he said he didn't love her anymore and their marriage was over.

The split is due to be finalised next week. Amy claims Dave is now engaged in real life to his Second Life mistress, a woman from America, even though they have never actually met.

And Amy has a new love of her own -- a man she met while playing the Internet fantasy game World of Warcraft.

The U.K. newspaper The Guardian (which some of my Brit friends call "the Grauniad") credits the British South West News Service with breaking the story. The Grauniad article is headlined: "How South West News Got Its Divorce Scoop In Second Life."

The way the Grauniad relays the details, you'd think that the South West News had infiltrated al Qaeda, or exposed massive government corruption, rather than the reality, which is that the South West News won the confidence of a couple of people going through a personal crisis and then put that couple on display for worldwide ridicule.

The chase for the couple began after the story broke on a satellite news channel. Reporters were despatched to Newquay to interview Taylor and Pollard. The pair, living in separate digs in Newquay, were understandably taken aback by the attention and reluctant to speak to journalists.

Fortunately for the pack, their avatars were less coy. While flesh and blood reporters and photographers banged on the door of the couple's homes, virtual ones were trying to doorstep Laura Skye and Dave Barmy in Second Life.

The two virtual reporters that found them were Jashley Gothley, all snug-fitting T-shirts and tight black trousers, and Meggy Paulse, who wears a red mini-skirt and a black slip top. Not sure where her notebook is kept.

Both were alter egos of journalists for the press agency South West News, which supplies national and international media organisations with stories.

So while Amy Taylor was refusing to answer her door to reporters in Newquay, her avatar, Laura Skye, was being won over by Meggy Paulse. Jo Pickering, one of the South West staff who "controlled" Meggy, said: "In real life she had rejected everything -- knocks on the door, letters, phone calls. But our characters started chatting and it was different. She began to trust us."

I wonder if Amy Taylor still thinks that trusting Jo Pickering was a good idea?

Fortunately, the divorcing couple were able to sell their story for real-life money. Because if the news media is going to make your life into a global freakshow anyway, you might as well get cash out of it.

How do avatars have sex, anyway? The enterprising journalists at the BBC are on the scene with the story.

Basically, it goes like this: If you want to make your avatar do some physical action, you need to run a little script called an "animation." Second Life avatars come with a few default animations built in, for walking and running and flying and so forth, but for anything else, you need to get an extra animation.

You can find animations all over Second Life. Mostly, they look like little blue or pink spheres -- blue for male avatars, pink for female avatars. They're called "poseballs." To activate the script, you just click on the poseball.

Animations make avatars go through the motions of dancing, and swimming, and fighting, and shooting guns, and fighting with swords, and doing all sorts of things that people do in real life.

And some of the animations put your avatar through the motions of various sexual positions.

We wrote about sex in Second Life not too long ago, interviewing several people active in the Second Life sex scene. I kept up a friendship with one of them, Jenna Leng, in Second Life and on various other social media. I also interviewed sex and relationship advice columnist Dan Savage to find out what he thinks. I enjoyed that; I've been a fan of his column and podcast for years.

Since the story of the Second Life divorce broke recently, it hit the front page of Google News Sci/Tech, which reports that the story has been featured in 303 articles in the U.K., America, Australia, India, and Thailand.

This story got a lot of discussion yesterday on FriendFeed after Mona N asked: "Is it adultery if it happens in a virtual world?" Squirrel Girl responded: "It's a simple yes for me." And Kamath said: "It 'happened' in your mind. That's all that matters. Answer: yes." The conversation continues here.

This is my $0.02: It pretty much depends on the ground rules you have with your real life partner. I'm not a priest or rabbi, so I can't tell you if cybersex is adultery in an absolute sense. But if you're tempted to hook up with another avatar in Second Life, you need to discuss that in advance with your real-life partner and mutually decide what you're comfortable with.

I don't think there's a universally agreed-on set of rules for monogamy and adultery in Second Life. But I don't think there are universally agreed-on rules in real life, either. Sure, the overwhelming majority of Americans would say that real-life sexual intercourse outside of marriage is definitely adultery.

But how about sexual contact that falls short of sexual intercourse? What if you get drunk and make out with someone at an office party? What if you never touch that other person, but you flirt excessively and are obviously infatuated? What if your contact is nonsexual, but you share emotional intimacies that you withhold from your partner -- having an "emotional affair"? Are those things adultery?

The answer: Every couple must decide for themselves. Every couple has its own rules.

What do you think? Is Second Life cybersex cheating? Let us know by leaving a message here -- or talk to me in Second Life. I have a couple of avatars; but the best one to get me on is the one with my real-life name, Mitch Wagner.

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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