Beaux Grayson was on the sundeck of his home, curled up on the couch with a slender brunette, when his wife walked in.
"And went," as Beaux subsequently put it in a message he sent to his Second Life friends, "NUTZ."
She demanded to know who this woman in thigh-high boots on the screen was, laying there with her husband's avatar. So Beaux told her. "I gave her the facts (married, English, kids, etc.), but not the name and that we have known each other about two weeks." He tried to be as open with her as he could; he begged her to join him in Second Life so she could be with him there, especially on those days when he was traveling on business, and going in-world from his hotel room, when there wasn't much else to do. ("I could go out to bars, but found it 'safer' to have my social interaction on-line.")
Whatever explanations he gave her, they apparently weren't enough.
"So," Beaux continues, "last night after we went to bed, she got up and went into SL. The first thing she saw on the entry screen was the last thing I was doing: Cuddling on the couch." This is because whenever you enter Second Life, you see the final image of whatever you were doing, the last time you were in-world. No matter what has transpired, since then. Considering what they'd just been discussing, the picture of Beaux and the brunette on the couch might not have been the best thing for her see again. And though Beaux Grayson's wife had never been in-world before, she "managed to do some stuff that shocked me." He found that out after waking up, and greeting her in the kitchen.
"I said 'good morning'. She said it is not good." She suggested that he log into Second Life.
So Beaux went back in-world, to find that his avatar was now naked and gray and decidedly smaller-- and lying in the private room of a popular Mature-rated nightclub. "I don't know how she figured [out how to do] all that," Grayson says, astounded.
All this came out after I started looking into an online poll posted in the official Second Life discussion forum. Resident-created surveys are a staple of the Forum, sometimes a way to garner instant feedback on particular issues affecting the world; often a way to air personal grievances in the form of an opinion poll. The particular question, "Do you consider having AV Sex Cheating on your Spouse if the Flame has Gone?" was a simple one. The answers that followed, as they often are, were anything but that; they read a little like a society's first attempts to find a universally acceptable concept of infidelity.
And in a society that has grown to the size of a large, tightly-knit town, these questions are liable to be asked more often. Especially when so much of the town seems like a compressed version of South Miami, Amsterdam, and the Burning Man playa at full roar, and temptations are only constrained by the ethics of imagination. If they are at all.
As of today, 217 Residents (58.18% in all) had answered Yes, it was cheating, and only 156 (41.82%) had polled negative. One might think that such an ambiguous act (whatever it is, after all, it just occurs on a computer screen) would split the opinion a lot closer to 50/50, but many of the opinions accompanying the poll came with thoughtful and nuanced explanations.
"I have heard ad nauseum the argument that it is only a game," Jake Reitveld posted there, "and that SL relationships aren't real. But for me it's not the sex that is cheating, it's the sharing of intimacy, and all that takes is words. I often ask myself, if she is married, shouldn't she be having this conversation with her husband?"
"I was curious to know what people thought about infidelity on SL," Candy Bijoux tells me, explaining why she started the poll. Candy's in a unique place to know about the temptations of the Second Life flesh, as a self-described "avatar surgeon", who molds Residents into the avatar they most desire-- and often, it seems, the avatar that'll excite the most desire in others. ("Some have requested to look like certain celebrities... I have done Sylvester Stallone, Brad Pitt, Chris Noth... and this one [I'm wearing now], which is somewhat similar to Pamela Anderson or Jenna Jameson, facial-wise.* I tried making a Mel Gibson, but because of the SL Shaping Engine, I couldn't do [his] nose length. Though it is called that, it is really only Nose Protrusion.")
Candy herself has a Second Life relationship, but says she enjoys it with the full knowledge of her real life partner. So does her SL partner, "but we still love each other and care about one another. However, we both realize where we are currently in real life. We realize where we stand. It is important to have a mutual understanding."
As for Beaux Grayson, he's drastically scaling back his Second Life activity, and going to marriage counseling with his wife. "I fully realize that all of this is my fault," he tells me. "I wish I had been able to talk to her about our problems, but I just stuck my head in the sand and played on the computer. Now it will get some attention... I hope all this gets resolved and we can move on with our lives." In the process, he's gotten a new perspective on what he did, in the sessions he attends with his wife.
"The counselor described an affair as 'ANYTHING that takes away energies that should be going to your spouse.'"
The woman behind the brunette on Beaux's couch has her own insights, on the incident. "It was very upsetting and uncomfortable being in the middle of that real life fight," she tells me, after asking to remain anonymous. "This may be a game and we're all pixels, but behind these keyboards lurks a VERY real person and it's hard not to get involved when you talk to people day in and day out."
Other Residents have found a way to balance their in-world relationships with their physical ones. Even, in many cases, to have one enhance the other.
"Does my husband know?" Another woman wrote in the survey forum. "Yes. We share an office together, and usually he's in there the same time I am [in Second Life]. And he actually LIKES it... because it's like foreplay. It gets me all riled up for the real thing, and then I turn around and drag him off his computer... We enjoy our 'me' time, and then enjoy the aftermath too. Win-win. Cheating? Hell no."
*I'll leave it to readers to guess the brunette celebrity depicted in the final screenshot. - HL