What Is Virtual Sex? (And Is It Cheating?)

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When 28-year-old Amy Pollard divorced her husband, she raised eyebrows. Not because her grounds for divorce were unconventional—infidelity—but it was Pollard's definition of cheating. She caught her ex having sex with another woman in the online world of Second Life. Or, specifically, she caught her husband's character having sex with another woman's character in the virtual game.

Pollard is also an avid Second Lifer. And the SL community had words for her. In fact, so many nasty ones that she disabled her IM in Second Life. Hundreds of SLers criticized and chastised Pollard for taking the virtual world into the real one.

And what a virtual world it is. Second Lifers socialize, flirt, cuddle, date—even marry. CNN.com recently reported on a Second Life bridal expo. Yes, for those who are planning a virtual ceremony. More than 800 attendees showed up.

And what comes naturally with marriage? Divorce. Second Life divorces happen, too. A Japanese woman was arrested on charges of manipulating electronic data (hacking into a computer) after, in a fit of anger, she logged on as her ex's character in the virtual game Maple Story and killed him. What caused her fury? The ex's character divorced hers in the game.

It's clear that the emotions that result from the online world boil over into real life. With sex comes jealousy—and not the virtual kind. So, the question we must ask: Is Second Life sex really sex? And is virtual infidelity as wrong as real-world cheating?

Wired columnist and sexpert Regina Lynn can't—or more accurately, won't—define fidelity. Even when we prompted her. "What constitutes cheating is defined by two people in a relationship, and I would not presume to dictate that to anyone else," she explains. "However, SL attracts imaginative, creative people who want to engage in interactive storytelling, and erotic play is a powerful facet of that."

Here, we get inside the head of a five-year Second Life veteran, who reveals what virtual sex is really like—and whether it's truly crossing the line. Kevin Alderman, aka Stroker Serpentine (his SL alias), has been married to his real-life wife for 16 years. He's been married to his Second Life wife for three, "which is two lifetimes in online years," he adds. Here, he opens up about virtual relationships, in his own words:

I have a loving family both in real life and virtual life. Are they "traditional" marriages? But then what is? My perceptions of the "perfect" marriage falls somewhere between "Ozzie Nelson" and "Ozzy Osbourne." Marriage is about mutual respect, support and honesty. I am not willing to discard the years of investment I have put into any of my relationships over an orgasm.

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I date prolifically in Second Life. Through many sincere discussions, my biological wife understands that my virtual escapades are an extension of my fantasies. She does not discourage them, nor does she participate in them. She gives me the freedom to explore my sexuality in a safe environment. I am very honest with her about my feelings for others. Does she get jealous? Absolutely! Just as I get jealous at times over her relationships. It's part of being human I suppose. We discuss it and we overcome it—together. Granted, every relationship is different. Virtual romance is not for everyone, there are inherent dangers, such as being stalked or finding out your partner is abusive or untrustworthy down the line. In reality and virtuality, we all lead multiple lives.

Both my "spouses" have met in real life. She has a very loving and supportive family of her own. I have spoken to her husband on several occasions. We even exchange gifts on holidays. My virtual "wife" and I have attended conferences and social events together. Did we think about sneaking up to our hotel rooms and seeing if we were as good a lover as online? Yes, I would be lying otherwise. Because we have not indulged our "coital curiosity" is one of the primary reasons we are a couple online. We leave the sex at the "X" (close window). Is this hedonism? Probably. Is it anti-establishment? Most likely. Is it love? Undoubtedly! Any relationship is only as healthy as the two people in it. With today's skyrocketing divorce rate, many including innocent children, I'm happy to report that my "marriage(s)" may not be considered 'traditional." It's all a matter of perspective. Use it or lose it.

It has been said many times before, the mind is our most erogenous zone. While the animations and avatars are very compelling and realistic, if there is no attraction or creativity then you are just "humping pixels." If your fantasy is about conquest or virility that may be gratification enough, but in my experience the vast majority of lovers require some level of intimacy. Dances, cuddles, kisses, and hugs are by far and away the most popular depictions.

When it comes to virtual sex, mutual masturbation is a large part of the attraction. Some participants actually describe their physical act and state of stimulation, while others just assume. Ideally, if the scene is set properly, if the text conversation is descriptive and immersive and the timing is intuitive, your partner will reach orgasm simultaneously.

Experienced lovers will give definitive indications such as "I'm close" or "Yes, right there...don't stop" to enhance and progress the loveplay. Unlike biological sex, masturbation almost always ensures an orgasm. The mind's eye plays a significant role, not just in terms of graphics, but also in the visualization of your remote partner pleasuring themselves. Many couples will also use integrated voice or webcams in addition to the animations and roleplay. A bit of practice and a patient partner can lead to some very intense sessions of mutual gratification. It sounds a lot like physical sex, doesn't it?

While a lot of media attention is given to gender-bending and infidelity, I'll share something a bit on the "lighter side."

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Once, while participating in a heated ménage a trois with my virtual spouse and another very attractive female avatar, we noticed that the emoting text was becoming very confusing and distracting. The chatline was displaying "...gently drawing my tapered nails along the inside of your muscular thigh" and "..our tongues dancing together in a torrid ballet of heated passion." However, the text was not corresponding to the appropriate characters animations. Caught up in the heat of the moment neither of us had realized what had now become blatantly obvious: the two females, whose characters looked similar, had mistakenly lost track of their respective avatar's actions. Of course, once we had our laugh, I quickly began to indulge a different fantasy altogether: twins!

Infidelity is defined and internalized individually in my opinion. Some people believe that finding another attractive is cheating. Others believe that it is the act of intercourse. Is it cheating when you fantasize about another when you masturbate? Is porn cheating? I'm not an expert on any of these matters. I do know that there are so many pressures on today's couples that sometimes we forget to reinforce the very things that bind us to one another, honesty, respect, intimacy and deep affection. I think the more important question is "Does your partner think you are cheating?" If you are unsure of the answer, maybe you should ask them.

There are millions of Second Life residents. Within the community, users can go to bars and clubs, and even do speed dating. There are online dating sites for users' avatars—so your character can date other characters. "Being in SL brings out the flirt in all of us," Lynn explains. "Virtual worlds offer endless opportunities for witticisms and wordplay and innuendo that isn't appropriate in most offline venues."

Clearly, this world is geared toward making connections. "People don't always enter the online world with a conscious need to escape, but it often becomes that," she adds. "But that's not necessarily bad, either."

Online sex, or more specifically, avatar sex, walks the line. Maybe Amy Pollard wasn't so crazy after all. Crazy or not, she didn't learn her lesson: She's currently dating someone she met through the online role-playing community World of Warcraft.

Photo: Flickr user, Zya Kraft