Sex Play in Virtual Worlds

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When children play in proximity to adults, many of us naturally worry about less-than desirable results. This fear now animates discussions of children playing in virtual worlds. The FBI’s "Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety," for example, focuses on preventing sexual predators from approaching children online and explains how parents can recognize when their children have been contacted by a sexual predator. International authorities also have focused on sexual predators. These fears have precipitated concrete responses. In April 2008, a Congressional subcommittee met with virtual world creators to discuss the risks to children. In February 2009, MySpace banned over 90,000 registered sex offenders from its site and turned over their names after receiving a subpoena from the Attorneys General of Connecticut and North Carolina. To date, concerns for child safety in virtual worlds and social networking sites have focused almost exclusively on the risks posed by adults in children’s spaces. Little attention has been given to the risks to children who play in adult spaces not intended for them.

This article explores those risks and examines sex play in virtual worlds, a burgeoning phenomenon. Websites providing occasions and places to engage in virtual sex are spreading fast. Some help participants meet in the real world, and this bridging of the virtual and real worlds raises the question, how often will virtual sex lead to hook-ups in the real world? This article asks whether an adult who engages in virtual sex with a child may be subject to prosecution under existing laws prohibiting sexual exploitation of children, and concludes that in many states the adult would be. This article illustrates that children sneak into sites meant for adults with relative ease and teases out various scenarios in which virtual sex may occur and describes the graphic, interactive sexual exchanges in which children may participate. This article examines a number of state law offenses, including child molestation, taking indecent liberties with a minor, statutory rape, and other offenses against children, and charts how the application of existing crimes to virtual sex with a child builds on already broadened notions of child sexual abuse but serves the child protection rationales underpinning these statutes. Finally, this article considers a number of challenges to the application of existing crimes to virtual sex with a child, including challenges under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1127
Number of pages50
JournalWashington and Lee law review
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2009


  • Virtual Worlds
  • cyber law
  • Criminal law


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