It was first imagined as science fiction, and for a long time, it was roped alongside hoverboards and time machines as a distant, futuristic dream. But now virtual reality (VR) is slowly seeping into the tech-lover’s collection, and one very specific genre is on the precipice of going mainstream. Porn.
In 2016, Playstation, Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, and the lower cost Google Cardboard all released virtual reality headsets. And - surprise, surprise - the conversation has quickly turned to sex. Porn is already leading VR innovation.The question is less, will it happen, and more what the impact will be if it becomes more appealing than porn that doesn't require a headset.
For all the fascination it holds, VR is still in its Nokia 3310 stage. The porn industry, though, is full of innovation. After leading the way with internet cash transactions, it has turned its sights on the immersive experience of VR. In fact, virtual porn is already available for consumption on some adult sites, and it’s becoming rapidly more popular. It has grown by 250 per cent over the last year, faster than any other category. Unlike passively watching a film, virtual porn offers additional options such as zooming in, and even Bluetooth synchronisation.
A Newcastle University study published this month, titled ‘“They’re Just Tixel Pits, Man” has investigated the potential impacts of VR porn, and found that it might come with a few health warnings beyond just motion sickness. When the researchers discussed a hypothetical situation involving a virtual porn user, participants were split on whether his experience was wonderful, or "too perfect" - and degrading to women.
Research lead Mathew Wood said that for some participants, VR “meant pushing the boundaries, often with highly explicit and violent imagery”. With no limitations, virtual porn has the potential to be more addictive and violent.
“We know from current research into pornography that exposure to this content has the potential to become addictive and more extreme over time,” Wood said.
After reading the participants’ stories, the researchers also warned that VR porn also raises concerns of consent. A user could create a VR version of their partner and “do things [they] would refuse in the real world”. It could also widen the possibilities of revenge porn by allowing users to make and share 3D models of former partners.
Because virtual porn users can be participating in the sex scene, as opposed to simply being voyeurs, the researchers believe virtual porn could be viewed as closer to infidelity than regular porn.
Wood told me: “VR changes the experience of pornography - generally from third person to first person. This could be thought of as cheating, but whether this would be more so than watching pornography more widely we'll have to wait and see. Reports on the development of VR pornography are that they can be powerful experiences, and arguably could add a new element to sexual relationships, good or bad.”
As Wood suggests, the endless possibilities of virtual porn could lead to more experimental ideas of sex. For example, virtual reality could allow a male user to assume a female role, and vice versa. Wood believes VR could offer more emphasis on the “relational aspects” of sexual experience by focusing more on sensory, narrative-driven experiences. And playing a more active role could make users feel more responsible if they use violent or non-consensual content. Wood said, “Empathy is a huge factor in developing VR experiences, and I think it could foreseeably have a role if experiences were designed in certain ways."
But being so immersed in another world also has risks for users who may be unhappy in the real one. Psychosexual and relationship therapist Sarah Calvert has argued that some people use porn as escapism from an unhappy life, and unhappy feelings could be exacerbated on returning to their unchanged reality after going into a virtual world.
And when you’re in someone else’s body, if that body happens to be closer to the widely accepted ideal, it could leave your ego wounded. Cavert told the BBC that the self-esteem of young people in-particular could be hit if they use VR and look down to see “ripped abs” and a “big penis”. The trip back to reality, she said, could be damaging.
Porn already comes with downsides, including addiction, unrealistic expectations and the turbulence it can cause in relationships. VR porn could heighten these risks, just as the experience itself is intensified.
Wood said that, through his research he found that, for most people, VR porn “opened the doors to an apparently ‘perfect’ sexual experience – a scenario which in the real world no-one could live up to”. But as his study suggests, perfection may not be quite as blissful as it sounds.