The perils of policing cybersex.
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.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.