Human Nature

Virtually Abnormal

The perils of policing cybersex.

Eight years ago, when Bill Clinton was caught lying about his affair with a White House intern, Mark Foley voted to impeach him. “It’s vile,”said the congressman. “It’s more sad than anything else, to see someone with such potential throw it all down the drain because of a sexual addiction.”

As we say on the Internet: LOL. We now know that Clinton and Foley were on different teams, but not in the way Foley pretended. And the irony only begins there. The two men have played similar roles, not only in their reckless personal lives but in the cultural revolutions of their respective decades. Clinton introduced us to the ambiguities of sex. Foley is introducing us to the wilder ambiguities of cybersex.

In his 1998 deposition, Clinton was asked whether he had ever “had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, as that term is defined in Deposition Exhibit 1.” The definition referred to “contact” with the other person’s private parts. Clinton said he hadn’t. Seven months later, when he admitted that Lewinsky had given him more than pizza, Clinton argued that this didn’t meet the definition, because “if the deponent is the person who has oral sex performed on him,” the contact was only “with the lips of another person.”

That wasn’t even Clinton’s best line. During the deposition, his lawyer said “there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form” between Clinton and Lewinsky. When Clinton was asked later whether that statement had been false, he opined, “It depends on what the meaning of the word is is.”

Two months after offering those rationalizations, Clinton signed the Protection of Children From Sexual Predators Act of 1998. The measure, co-sponsored by Foley, extended the prohibition on enticing minors to cover “sexual activity,” not just a “sexual act.” It also added special penalties for using a computer. “There has been an explosion in the use of the Internet in the United States, further placing our Nation’s children at risk of harm and exploitation at the hands of predators,” the legislation warned.

But the Internet revolution turned out to be kinkier than the sexual revolution. The sexual revolution only changed how people touched each other. The Internet revolution took sex beyond touch. A degenerate like Foley can reach out and mess up your kid without even setting foot in your state. Is that abuse? It depends on what the meaning of abuse is.

Computers didn’t invent noncontact sex. That’s been around since the telephone. Ken Starr’s “Table of Contacts between Monica Lewinsky and the President,” for instance, lists 17 incidents of phone sex but only nine incidents of “in-person” sex. Most of the intern’s lip contact was with a receiver, and not the kind you can depose. But phone sex is risky. Someone might hear you. If you’re calling a minor, her parents might pick up the phone or eavesdrop.

That’s where computers come in. Clinton’s romp with Lewinsky during a phone call with lawmakers was “just sad,” Foley told reporters at the time. “It’s unbelievable that he could behave so carelessly in that setting.” Foley took more care. While voting, he never had sex in person, or even over the phone. He did it over the Internet. Boys chatting with Foley were interrupted by their mothers, but the chats were inaudible, so the moms never knew what was up. “Hope she didn’t see anything,” Foley told one boy. “No,” said the kid. “She is computer dumb.” “Good. Haha,” replied the congressman.

The ethereality of cybersex makes it hard to prosecute. Every state outlaws Internet solicitation of sex with kids. But if you postpone physical sex till your quarry is 18, as Foley tried to do, you can skirt these laws. That’s why he kept asking boys about their birthdays. Until that day, the sex had to stay online. Like Clinton, Foley carved out a kind of sex that in his mind wasn’t officially sex. For Clinton, it was oral; for Foley, it was digital. He’d pick you out as a page. He’d befriend you by e-mail. He’d groom you with instant messages. He’d find out your birthday. When you turned 18, he’d pounce.

What do you do with snakes like Foley? Some states pursue them into cyberspace and outlaw dirty messages. Georgia, for instance, forbids any “Internet contact” with minors involving “explicit verbal descriptions or narrative accounts of sexually explicit nudity” or even of “sexual excitement.” Actually, the recipient doesn’t have to be a minor. He can be anyone “believed … to be a child residing in this state.” You can charge Foley under this law even if he never goes to Georgia or writes to anyone there. All you have to do is meet him in a chat room, pose as an Atlanta teenager, and wait for him to say something gross.

If a pervert won’t act on his words, you can criminalize the words. If he won’t utter them, you can prosecute him for writing them. If he won’t come to your state, you can go get him. If he has no victim, you can invent one. This is no joke. In almost every state, laws specify that you can be convicted of an Internet sex offense against a child even if you contact no child and commit no physical crime. In fact, the most recently analyzed data, published by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, suggest that more people are arrested for using the Internet to solicit cops posing as kids than for using it to initiate relationships with real kids. The unnatural has been surpassed by the artificial.

Cybersex is only getting weirder. Most Canadian college students surveyed by a dating Web site say they’ve already had sex through instant messages. By year’s end, more than 100 million people will be playing online games. Fifteen million Webcams are in use; hundreds can be viewed for a fee, and many are pornographic. You can even interact with a “virtual girlfriend” on your cell phone. It’s a creepy world of imaginary meetings and deeds. The only thing creepier, perhaps, is to prosecute them like the real thing.

A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.