Saturday, January 12, 2008

Cybersex and the Married Man

In real life, he is a successful 35-year-old business owner and husband-to-be. However, on Second Life, the virtual fantasy world with 11 million "residents," his avatar, Lugh Dragonash, is a cyborg, or human machine, which can make it difficult to meet women, he says.

Not that he's looking. However, he could, because in Second Life, you build your perfect pretend life, down to property, skin tone and a dream spouse. Even Dragonash's fiancee, who is 29 and unemployed but works as a go-go dancer in Second Life, has a boyfriend. She engages in cyber sex with him and, before you ask, Dragonash doesn't watch. No, he adds, it doesn't bother him.

"Nothing happening here (in Second Life) has an impact on my real life," Dragonash says. "She does her thing and I do mine. Fun is a priority. If it starts to have an influence on my real life it stops immediately."

The Spillover

For some, it's starting to. Online infidelity was once limited to chat rooms and dating sites. However, there is rising concern that virtual worlds like Second Life and Kaneva and role-playing games like EverQuest can escalate the potential for and extent of infidelity. After all, avatars, or alternative identities, do it all: shop together, get married in wedding ceremonies and even buy property with virtual currency they purchase with real-world dollars. They can also commit crimes against each other, get divorced and sue one another in real-life court over in-game disputes.

It's enough to have woes with a real-world spouse. Are we ready for secondary ones?

Players of EverQuest can get so tangled in their fantasy worlds that the affairs mimic those in soap operas, where the wife and mistress are essentially at war. Here's an example from a post on EverQuest Widows, an online support group on Yahoo (Nasdaq: YHOO) Latest News about Yahoo for partners of obsessed gamers.

"A couple of months ago, my hubby told me about a lady he was engaged to in the game," writes one sad "wid." "He broke it off with her when she wanted him to leave me and come marry her in real life."
Law Catching Up

Launched in 2000, the group's posts range from tales of low self-esteem and neglected children to missed holidays and anniversaries.

Legally, cyber-affairs don't, by themselves, constitute adultery. If cyber-cheating leads to a real-life affair, however, then the actual adultery can be grounds for divorce in jurisdictions that consider fault.

Furthermore, if cyber-cheating is egregious and leads to a regular pattern of cruelty in the marriage, or causes the cyber-cheater to abandon completely his marital responsibilities, it could be considered grounds for divorce in fault and mixed-fault divorce regimes, says Melissa Murray, a family law professor at UC Berkeley's School of Law.

On a recent final exam, Murray posed a question to a class of second- and third-year students about a man who was fooling around on Second Life.

"In the future, family law and other aspects of the law will have to wrestle with the question of how to deal with conduct in these virtual spaces," Murray says.
Symptom of Real Problem

Most of the time, at least in Second Life, it doesn't go that far, says Lisa Rein of Berkeley. Rein is a frequent lecturer on social networking and virtual worlds and has held San Francisco State University classes in art galleries on Second Life. She believes that virtual worlds are just the next phase on the online relationship continuum.

"People either understand the relationship their spouse is having online or they don't," Rein says. "And if you'd rather have a conversation with someone on Second Life than your own wife, yeah, you probably have a problem. But that's not different than any other online relationship."

By 2011, up to 80 percent of Internet users -- 250 million people -- will participate in virtual worlds, according to a recent report by Gartner Research (NYSE: IT) Latest News about Gartner. So the opportunities to make new friends and relationships are going to multiply beyond our current and somewhat limited MySpace Latest News about MySpace comprehension.
Looks Can Be Deceiving

That said, Rein and others stress that it's important to remember the infinite unintentional situations in virtual worlds that can be misconstrued as flirting or cheating.

"The rules of physics don't work in the virtual world," says Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which was launched five years ago to study social behaviors in virtual worlds. "You can share body space, override other people's behaviors and transport to another land."

More importantly, humans are not evolved enough to have a module to respond differently to virtual things, he says, so nonverbal behavior and reaction is almost identical online to what is in the real world.

Take Rein's Second Life avatar, Haley Bailey. She is a girl-next-door type (the unadorned, default avatar in jeans and a T-shirt) who has found herself, without intending to, in questionable situations.
Nice Outfit

Once, in Second Life, Rein wandered into a gothic night club where she accepted a gift of clothing from avatars she had just met. When she tried the clothes on, she found herself wearing a provocative outfit and drinking blood from a horn.

One Second Lifer who controls an avatar with the first name of Oz tell tales of roaming dark alleys where prostitutes beckon; he didn't mean to be there. Another relays how a slight arm movement put her in a missionary position with the avatar sitting next to her at a party.

"It's the nature of the environment to try things without meaning to," Rein says. "So there are circumstances where cuddling with a stranger could be perfectly innocent. You could just stumble into a situation, literally."

If a spouse were to glance at the screen at the wrong moment, Rein says, things could look really bad.

Another time, when she was in a long distance relationship, Rein and her boyfriend at the time met up in Second Life. After wandering around, they found themselves in a fancy bedroom of a big house. On the bed was a cuddle ball. They both reached over and touched it, and the ball put them in a cuddling position.

"It was really nice," she recalls. "And very empowering. I really felt like I was with him. But if he did that intentionally with somebody else, it wouldn't be cool."
Like a Real Affair

Clinical psychologist Kimberly Young, the director of the Center for Online Addiction Recovery in Pennsylvania, has been researching Internet behavior and online addiction since 1995. She estimates that 60 percent of her private practice clients deal with online affairs.

"Like any affair, the person emotionally shuts down from his or her partner and engages in emotional and physical relationships outside the marriage," says Young, the author of "Caught in the Net: How to Recognize the Signs of Internet Addiction -- and a Winning Strategy for Recovery."

Online affairs are harder to deal with and detect because they occur on a computer in the home rather than at a bar or office, Young says. What's more, they can be carried out while a husband or wife is sitting in the next room.

"The Internet provides the opportunity for affairs to happen when they (normally) would not have," she explains. "Usually the person is not seeking an extramarital relationship but discovers one online."

The effects, however, are just as devastating to the marriage, according to an article Young published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. Young writes that partners felt betrayed, rejected, abandoned and devastated and that it was "as emotionally painful to them as live, or offline, affairs."

As eWidower, an EverQuest Widow, says of his wife's transformation:

"She was so sexual and available to several guys online while she put me on the shelf," he writes. "At one point, she had even told me that I would get more intimacy if I would stop objecting to the guys online. She had also said that if I wanted more attention from her, I should take some lessons from the online guys... It was bad."

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