VR pornography: new virtual permissiveness or just more exploitation?
Virtual reality pornography is currently a niche market, but that is changing. Offering many new sexual freedoms, it can have both positive and negative effects.
VR technology offers previously unprecedented freedoms to experience sexuality — with numerous positive and negative aspects that we'll explore. An unanswered question is whether ethical considerations can keep pace with industry developments.
Since the first Playboy magazine appeared in 1953, mainstream pornography has taken a remarkable course. VHS tapes made it accessible to a wider mass in the 1980s, and with the proliferation of pornography through the Internet, it established itself as a lucrative business.
Today, mainstream pornography plays a major role in shaping our understanding of sexuality, as the narratives it depicts are often considered "normal." At the same time, it encourages sexualized violence primarily against women and puts them (but also men) under considerable pressure to conform to the prescribed, often rather unhealthy role behavior during the sexual act.
Forms of VR pornography in virtual space
What new forms VR pornography might take in some kind of metaverse in the future is still open and dependent on further technological developments. However, the currently available offerings in virtual reality are a good indicator of the direction in which porn culture is developing.
Among the already known or foreseeable developments are the following:
- Real sex workers film themselves live via webcams, for example, via omnidirectional cameras, and communicate with their customers via chat. The VR customers, in turn, give instructions on what they would like to see and pay for it accordingly — in other words, completely analogous to current webcam offers on the Internet.
- Porn films in virtual reality with real actors or virtual avatars. When watching, one usually takes the perspective (point of view) of a performer.
- You take part in a virtual sex event with an avatar of your choice, for example, in a VR sex club. The other visitors are also real people with corresponding virtual avatars. Sex toys can be synchronized with virtual touches via Bluetooth, adding a real interaction to the visual stimulus.
- You are in a virtual room with virtual sex workers whose appearance can be freely modified. Actions can be selected via the controller. Stimulation of the user's own body takes place via Bluetooth-synchronized sex toys.
VR pornography: advantages and disadvantages
Sex workers who offer their services in virtual reality are in a certain "safe space" and are better protected from violence by customers. Sexually transmitted diseases do not play a role, and they can pursue their activity more carefree.
In the case of VR services involving entirely virtual characters, there is no danger that the sex workers have had to work under questionable conditions, have been mistreated, or even raped, unlike in the case of porn videos that have been filmed in real life.
The freedom to design both the desired partners and sexual acts has the potential to create more openness and tolerance. One experiences oneself in another body, another gender, and can gain experience with different bodies and genders. This can also be the first step towards living out fantasies that you have not yet had the courage to realize in real life.
The option of individually modifying virtual bodies can also be interpreted in the direction of "body positivity": In contrast to mainstream pornography, no supposedly perfect ideals of beauty are prescribed here. Instead, users can decide for themselves with whom they would like to have sex. Many different body types can be selected.
Conversely, users can participate in virtual sex events with an avatar of their own choice, eliminating any complexes they may feel about their own bodies. This opens up a range of possibilities for enjoying sexuality and intimacy free of shame. This could even lead to a more positive body image.
I see the greatest benefit in this context for people with physical disabilities who have a hard time finding partners in real life or whose disability makes experiencing sexuality completely impossible. Here VR pornography can contribute as a valuable technology in changing an attitude toward life.
The target group of VR porn technology is, unsurprisingly, primarily heterosexual, white, middle-aged men. Statistics show that there is a direct correlation between male porn consumers and attitudes that advocate violence against women. In the films examined, aggression was directed against women in 97 percent of all scenes.
The direct harm to women and our image of women that is institutionalized and normalized in mainstream pornography is likely to continue in virtual reality. In a reciprocal process, consumers' ideas about sex and relationships are further influenced and distorted, with very real social implications.
In my opinion, the immersive, more realistic experience, along with the options for action combined with freedom of design, creates an even greater power imbalance in VR porn films. This goes hand in hand with the user's illusion of being able to shape, own, and act out any desires they have for their sex partner without having to take her feelings into consideration. This serves the unconscious maintenance and eroticization of male power, the humiliation of women, and making them readily available for this abuse.
Of particular concern is that violent acts in VR applications are not sanctioned by VR HOT and other providers. When the only response to aggression is either pleasure or the lack of any response, users assume that women either enjoy it or that their feelings about it are irrelevant. This can normalize a sexual script that portrays a woman's body as a more or less willing object for direct (sexual) aggression.
Another essential point concerns the protection of minors. The requirement to identify oneself when renting or buying a porn video - in the past with VHS tapes, and now in the digital space as well - is hardly feasible so far. Yet most minors today come into contact with pornography at the age of 13, which can make it difficult to develop healthy sexuality. Politicians have not yet been able to establish effective control mechanisms to ensure better protection of minors in the digital space. Moreover, despite well-intentioned restrictions, it is only a matter of time before there will be larger child pornography networks in virtual reality.
VR porn and sex in the metaverse: As exciting as it is dangerous
Sex in the metaverse is an exciting new field with many possibilities, and we would certainly do well to see and promote the benefits. Again, the technological future can be understood as a social challenge that should be shaped democratically and collectively and made accessible to the widest possible audience.
The diverse possibilities for experimentation with regard to one's own body and that of one's counterpart, which can provide more tolerance for sexual niche interests in the legal sphere, are clearly positive. A great benefit is the enabling of sexual and intimate experiences even for people who are otherwise prevented from doing so due to physical limitations. For sex workers, VR pornography can also mean more self-determination and greater protection.
It is also encouraging to see that diversity can be thought of directly in the product design of VR technologies today. It is important to recognize the educational and creative potential of virtual reality porn across the board rather than viewing it only as lucrative entertainment for heterosexual men or leaving its design to a male-dominated industry.
Leading the way in this regard is, for example, the female-founded RD Land, which creates safe spaces for cybersex in the metaverse. Or Viro Playspace, which offers innovative, fantasy-rich sex experiences in virtual reality. There are also creative BDSM approaches like those of Deviant Tech to diversify the offering.
However, policymakers should create a legal framework for the virtual realm early on, analogous to laws for real-world offenses. This would also allow providers to be held accountable who intentionally move into a potential legal gray area through the design of their VR application. This would already set the stage for a more positive and regulated basis for sexuality in virtual worlds or a metaverse.
VR pornography providers, on the other hand, can already take the precaution of building mechanisms that register acts of violence and sanction them through unambiguous actions within the application.
Sex in the metaverse will have real effects and given the far more realistic staging in virtual reality compared to 2D films, these can hardly be underestimated. What social consequences the immersive experience of sexuality and the greater freedom of design will have for our understanding of sex is not yet foreseeable. It is mainly up to politics and industry to provide a socially acceptable and progressive framework for the VR sex industry.
Whether there is awareness or even sufficient will for this is doubtful, though; after all, politics has been asleep for years when it comes to digital issues in general and, say, deepfakes in particular. Why should this suddenly be different for VR pornography in the metaverse?