Virtual reality porn: the end of civilisation as we know it?

Technology is helping the adult entertainment industry enter the mainstream

Virtual reality: The introduction of new technologies into pornography can also serve to compound complex, societal ills. Photograph: AP Photo/Manu Fernandez

Virtual reality: The introduction of new technologies into pornography can also serve to compound complex, societal ills. Photograph: AP Photo/Manu Fernandez

 

In more innocent (stupid) times, people believed bicycle seats turned women into lesbians. While it has never technically been disproven, it’s probably fair to assume this hypothesis is nonsense.

The humble pushbike is no longer a bone of contention when the origins of sexual orientation are being discussed by the chattering classes. The homophobic anti-velocipede technophobes of the early 20th century were swiftly discredited and life went on.

Yet this is just one example of technophobia among many. “There have been concerns raised about vibrators making women lose interest in men,” explains Dr David Ley, author of Ethical Porn for Dicks, A Man’s Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure. “People in Utah believe internet porn will spell the end of marriages.”

The pornography business is an anomaly. On the one hand, it remains one of the most controversial and taboo multibillion dollar industries in existence. On the other, it has pushed the technological advances of various media and proven itself to be a most adaptable creature in the process. From photographs to magazines, VHS to the vast array of internet porn now available, the adult entertainment industry has always been ready to innovate the platforms upon which it serves up its saucy material.

Porn literacy

It was one thing looking at a photograph of a scantily clad model you hid under your bed in the 1980s. In 2016, both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology can provide consumers of porn a more realistic “sexual” experience made possible through technology provided by mainstream companies such as Samsung and Apple in conjunction with adult sites such as Pornhub.

As it becomes more and more like the real thing, the technophobe in us all must ask if this might pose new problems.

“Because it’s becoming more like the ‘real thing’, porn literacy is more important than ever,” says Marty Klein, author of His Porn, Her Pain: Confronting America’s PornPanic With Honest Talk About Sex.

“Consumers and their partners need to understand how it’s made, and how what’s portrayed is not what real sex is like.”

VR has already become a part of life in many ways, not just with porn. “As a society we continue to have trouble dealing with increasing opportunities to multitask, have asynchronous communication, and have constant, intense stimulation – all of which undermine intimacy,” says Klein.

However, others argue that advances in porn delivery are a predictable by-product of life in the 21st century. “To a large extent, social desire feeds technological change,” explains Dr Debbie Ging, expert on gender and sexuality in new media at DCU. “In other words, it may in fact be the lack of intimacy in a world already fragmented by people having to work long shifts and relocate to barely-commutable accommodation that drives people to seek out alternative forms of intimacy.”

Digital kicks

There are many ways to get your digital kicks on the internet, some of which include interactions with real people on the other end. “With virtual reality games or apps, the other person is not real,” says Ging. “Again most social commentary about this tends to focus on the potentially negative implications vis à vis intimacy – what happens when people get attached to or develop real relationships with their hardware and software, as in the film Her? This is a very valid question, whether you look at it from a philosophical, sociological or psychological perspective.”

The introduction of new technologies into a sphere such as pornography can also serve to compound complex, societal ills. As VR tech integrates itself into the power relations already present in the porn industry, it could reinforce unhelpful biases and distortions of reality.

“Take Love Plus, a dating-simulation game developed for the Nintendo DS, in which the female ‘dates’ modify their personas to adapt to the needs and desires of the [male] user,” suggests Ging.

“Here is the core of the problem – these technologies could be used in lots of different ways by different people but they are being, and will continue to be, marketed mostly to straight men. And, because they will necessarily tap into the existing, predominantly male heterosexual porn market, their development and use will be shaped by that sexual dynamic.”

Woman as product

As with more conventional platforms – DVDs, magazines, internet, etc – the problem is not necessarily with the concept of porn itself, which at the base level is just watching people having sex, but with the way in which so much porn depicts women as submissive and compliant, there to be consumed.

“Interactive virtual reality means the user can take control and fantasy to new levels,” says Ging. “Will that influence how a male user views real women? Or is it his views on real women that determine his taste in porn? In many ways, I think we are just looking at a more extreme manifestation of the power dynamics that characterise existing heterosexual porn and the relentless sexualisation of women online.”

The spread of this technology into pornography also reflects the wider permeation of VR technology into daily life. “The market for digital media in general keeps increasing,” says Klein. “VR porn is no exception. The main problem with this is that many young people may end up getting their sex education from it. A society that’s seriously concerned about this should create comprehensive sex education and make sure all young people get it. That, of course, isn’t happening.”

Not everyone is convinced AR, VR, or anything else will have any more of an impact on society than other media platforms used by the industry in the past.

“It’s doubtful that many people will pursue VR porn who don’t today pursue porn in general,” explains Ley. “In fact, VR porn may flop, as it might require viewers to be more active in situations where people are actually seeking a passive sexual experience. Just the same way all movies are not 3D, VR porn will appeal to some, but not all. I believe the fear of virtual reality porn is simply more technophobia as we’ve seen so many times before.”

Spuring growth: Porn set to be third-biggest virtual reality sector by 2025

A recent report from Deloitte Global predicted 2016 to be the virtual reality (VR) industry’s first billion-dollar year.

This estimate is broken into two parts: about $700 million in hardware sales, and the rest from content.

VR already has numerous applications for consumers and businesses.

In the short term, however, commercial growth is likely to be driven principally by the gaming industry.

Deloitte estimate about 2.5 million VR headsets and 10 million corresponding games will be purchased in 2016 alone.

However, the porn industry is investing heavily in VR too. For example, Pornhub.com – the 65th most visited site on the internet according to some data metrics – just launched a free virtual reality channel, a first for the industry.

Almost a decade since it was founded, Pornhub now carries over three million videos and attracts 60 million plus visitors per day.

According to estimates from US investment bank and asset management firm, Piper Jaffray, by 2025 adult content will be the third-biggest virtual reality sector, after videogames and NFL-related content.

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