Virtual Adultery: No Physical Harm, No Foul?

Kathryn Pfeiffer *

In 2007, Ric Hoogestraat’s picture-perfect marriage to his partner, Tenaj—which included a house with a mortgage, pets, and pastimes such as riding together on his motorcycle—earned notoriety precisely for the normalcy it exemplified. Their relationship, in fact, was anything but normal—because Tenaj was Ric’s virtual wife whom he met and interacted with daily through a computer game—and Ric’s real marriage was suffering. His actual wife, Sue Hoogestraat, felt “widowed” by her husband’s virtual life and did not expect him to return to her soon: “This other life is so wonderful; it’s better than real life. Nobody gets fat, nobody gets gray. The person that’s left can’t compete with that.” Although this type of behavior affects the marital relationship, the law does not consider it actionable conduct. With so much socially driven media available, however, it is difficult to draw a bright line between reality and fantasy. For example, an ABC News survey conducted in 2004 found that forty-two percent of women and twenty-five percent of men considered visiting websites with sexual content to be cheating. These findings covered only passive Internet sites—they did not include interactive sites in which a spouse engaged with a third person, like Ric and Tenaj.

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*    Law Clerk, Hon. Glen A. Huff, Virginia Court of Appeals. J.D., 2011, University of Richmond School of Law; B.A., 2006, Davidson College. This comment was a first-place winner of the 2011 McNeill Writing Competition sponsored by the McNeill Law Society of the University of Richmond School of Law. This comment benefited from the guidance of Meredith Harbach, Assistant Professor of Law, University of Richmond School of Law.