Virtual Reality: The Sexual Revolution is Not Taking Place

by Sarah Arnold, Maynooth University, Ireland.

Over the past few years Virtual Reality has once again been heralded as the revolution in moving image immersive entertainment. After any number of false starts, VR seemed at last to be commercially viable with the technological infrastructure in place and a number of companies and products at the vanguard of the imminent VR revolution. 

The promise of VR is that those engaging with it can experience physical and mental immersion. Virtual reality technologies can facilitate this in a number of ways. The headsets themselves function to immerse the user to the extent that their total point-of-view is retained within the virtual environment. Sensory input from audio-visual content further draw the user into the experience. Haptic devices, recreating the experience of touch, can provide additional stimuli through wearable technologies and feedback systems. In addition, virtual reality enables (or promises to enable) interaction in a number of ways. The user can interact with the virtual environment by, for example, touching objects or people in the virtual experience. The user can also interact with others in the environment, generating a sense of social presence similar to that offered by Second Life but with the added sensory experience. 

Given the promise of a richer sensory experience, it is perhaps not surprising that efforts are underway to deploy VR for the enhancement of sexual experiences. It is claimed that the porn industry will lead the field in virtual reality much as it was said to do with VHS. PornHub, Naughty American and other subscription-based porn sites have already launched VR porn channels and platforms. VR porn festivals have been held around the world and a whole host of stimulation devices – such as the virtual sex technologies by CamSoda – are in development or already available

Virtual sex is, of course, not exclusive to virtual reality. The interest in cybersex, teledildonics (remote sexual interaction technologies) and robot sex has long preceded today’s iterations of virtual reality. Howard Rheingold’s 1990 essay ‘Teledildonics: Reach Out and Touch Someone’ imagined a future in which sex technologies, super-computing and market forces would converge to transform sexual intimacy between people geographically distant from each other. In this world, all of the problems of one’s flesh are overcome with the liberating effects of technology: 

The secondary social effects of technosex are potentially revolutionary. If technology enables you to experience erotic frissons or deep physical, social, emotional communion with another person with no possibility of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease, what then of conventional morality, and what of the social rituals and cultural codes that exist solely to enforce that morality? Is disembodiment the ultimate sexual revolution and/or the first step towards abandoning our bodies. [1]

In the closest manifestation of the technologies Rheingold imagines, today’s teledildonic devices are combined with mobile technologies or VR to enable users to engage in sex using teledildonic devices like the Lovense or Fleshlight Launch. Each of the two are representative of the some of the ways that virtual reality is being used to facilitate sexual encounters. In the case of Lovense and other devices like it, sexual activity involves two or more ‘real’ humans, whereby the encounter is mediated by technology. Like Rheingold’s utopian vision, this kind of sexual encounter is social and communicative. In the case of devices like Fleshlight Launch, the sexual encounter can take place between human and machine, with the Fleshlight Launch trailer pitching the product more towards porn consumers. Virtual Reality technologies are, in these cases, imagined to solve a problem of material sex whether that problem is one of physical vulnerability – as Rheingold sees it – of physical distance or of physical isolation. 

But as much as VR is said to be able to facilitate sexual intimacy, it has equally been blamed for enabling sexual harassment and assault. In a highly cited article, gamer Jordan Belamire recounted her experience of VR game QuiVR in which she was persistently pursued, touched and harassed by another player. She wrote about the embarrassment, fright and anger she experienced after which she quit the game. Among those who read the article were QuiVR developers Jonathan Schenker and Aaron Stanton who considered Belamire’s report so seriously that they extended an existing feature to allow users to render themselves and the harasser invisible. 

Rheingold had, in fact, already imagined that the VR would have a safety feature that would allow the user to ‘turn it all off by flicking a switch’. Of course, this safety feature is a progressive approach to VR design and it is appropriate that VR developers consider the issue of sexual assault and harassment. But the necessity of it points to how VR sexuality is already tainted. In an article ‘Forget the Ethics of Robot Sex – What about VR Sex’, Kathleen Richardson suggests that VR can result in people being less empathetic. [2] She notes the potential for VR to be a ‘non-empathetic world where if you have the money and resources you can have your needs and wants met in these new ways by virtual agents. In that world, what it means to be human, what it means to be empathetic, what it means to be relational is under threat’. In this instance, VR promises not to revolutionise sex, but to enhance the existing problems of unequal sexual relations, as Rosi Braidotti has acknowledged:

Virtual Reality images […] titillate out imagination, as is characteristic of the pornographic representation. The imagination is a very gendered space and the woman’s imagination has always been represented as a very troublesome and dangerous quality. [3]

Here, VR is at risk of ‘intensifying the gender-gap and [increasing] the polarisation between the sexes’. In some of its current manifestations, not only will VR fail to provide the promised sexual Utopia, it will produce a terrain in which the worst type of sexual offences are common place and, more problematically, outside the bounds of criminal justice. Virtual reality is supposedly, after all, only virtual. And one of the most obvious consequences of this will be the exclusion of those who will most likely feel alienated from such virtual environments, something that has already been reported in the case of gaming as well as VR porn.  

Notes

[1] Howard Rheingold. 1990. ‘Teledildonics: Reach Out and Touch Someone’. Mondo 2000 2. Summer 1990, 52-8.

[2] Kathleen Richardson cited in Tracy Clark-Flory. 2016. ‘Forget the Ethics of Robot Sex – What about VR Sex’. Vocativ. 14 November.

[3] Rosi Braidotti. 1996. ‘Cyberfeminism with a Difference’. let.uu.nl. Universiteit Utrecht Women’s Studies.

Contributor

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Sarah Arnold is Lecturer in Gender and Production Studies at Maynooth University, Ireland. She is currently preparing the book Television, Technology and Gender: New Platforms and New Audiences. Her previous books include Maternal Horror Film: Melodrama and Motherhood and the co-authored The Film Handbook. Her research focuses on viewing spaces and environments of television and film, particularly in the context of gender and emergent technologies. She is also a regular contributor at CST Online

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