A new adult VR experience is likely to make women sick, but not because of its content.
“The guy isn’t getting naked quick enough.” These were the words of a woman I’d known for just a few minutes, a fellow member of the media who, like me, had travelled to a co-working space in New York’s Financial District to get a glimpse of a whole new take on porn.
Erika Lust, an award-winning pornographer known for her cinematic, female-friendly approach to smut, had finally made the leap into immersive, 360-degree virtual reality porn, and we were some of the first people to get a look at her debut effort.
As I strapped on a VR headset, I was transported to a warehouse, where a sex party was ramping up all around me. Depending on where I turned my head, I could see all manner of sexual enticements taking place. Directly in front of me, a woman was stripping. If I turned 180 degrees, a male performer did the same. In one corner, a threesome; in the next, a foursome. Some performers engaged in light BDSM, others kept things strictly vanilla. It felt as though I were enjoying a sex party as a disembodied voyeur — a significant departure from the typical VR porn experience, where users are placed into a one-on-one sexual scenario, generally shot from the perspective of a male porn performer, whose naked body serves as a stand-in for the viewer’s own physique.
What does it mean to create something appealing to women using a film genre they’re presumed to dislike and technology thought to make them sick?
Lust’s film was dynamic and exciting, a sumptuous buffet of erotic action. But shortly into the presentation, I started to feel sick.
The nausea I felt wasn’t inspired by the content — Lust’s 360° of Lust is a beautifully crafted experiment in immersive sexual media. My reaction was a run of the mill episode of motion sickness, a nasty side effect of VR immersion that’s significantly more common for women than for men. As I grappled with my low-level nausea, it struck me that Lust’s latest project represented an interesting feminist challenge. Since its earliest days, the porn industry has been seen as the domain of men. Though it’s still in its nascent stages, the VR space is currently dominated by the same demographic. A report from 2017 found that a full 95% of HTC Vive users were men; although other headsets attracted more female users, non-Vive headset users were still 87% male. What does it mean to create something appealing to women using a film genre they’re presumed to dislike and technology thought to make them sick — and what might the process of overcoming those barriers teach us about the biases that shape our media landscape?
As major companies like Google and Facebook continue to invest in VR, it’s becoming clear that the medium is no longer a passing fad, but likely to be a significant part of how people consume media and entertainment in the future. Last month, Facebook hosted its sixth annual gathering of leading voices in the VR space; Google recently released a detailed VR tour of the palace of Versailles. Market forecasts predict the VR market will grow from $7.9 billion in 2018 to nearly $45 billion by 2024. Manufacturers who ignore the needs of women run the risk of cutting their consumer base in half — and, chillingly, creating a segregated media landscape where women have less access to a major media format.
To many people, the answer to why porn and VR are male-dominated spaces is self-evident: these media are just fundamentally unappealing to women. Much has been made of men’s presumably “natural” tendency to favor visual stimulation. On the wildly popular site Pornhub, where the vast majority of content is free, male visitors outnumber their female counterparts by more than two to one, with women making up just 29% of 2018’s userbase.
In a similar vein, some have argued that the motion sickness women experience in VR is due to a female tendency towards nausea more generally. In a 2016 study of 36 individuals where women experienced VR sickness at more than twice the rate of men, researcher Thomas Stoffregen postulated that women’s “postural sway” might be the source of the issue, rather than any issues inherent to the technology itself.
But there’s plenty of evidence that, rather than demonstrating a natural distaste for these media, women are merely reacting to the fact that the consumer experience is significantly less likely to be optimized for their needs. Pornhub, where the vast majority of content is created by men, with male viewers in mind, may be dominated by male users. But on Lust’s paysite, where films are created with female pleasure and enjoyment in mind, the gender demographics are far more even. According to Lust, women represent about 50% of her paying customers, a gender breakdown similar to the one seen on independent adult cinema streaming platform PinkLabel.tv, which primarily features content by female and queer directors.
In the VR space, many experts argue that it’s not a biological propensity for motion sickness, but rather the configuration of the technology, that makes women more susceptible to getting sick. Even if women are at an elevated risk of experiencing motion sickness in the physical world, the VR experts that I chatted with felt convinced that that wasn’t an effect that was destined to be duplicated in the virtual space — at least not if women’s needs were taken into consideration by designers.
“I think that the problems are surmountable,” says Eve Weston, CEO and Creator of Realities at the virtual reality company Exelauno, noting that manufacturers are already tweaking their designs to meet the needs of a broader range of people. As Ela Darling, a porn performer and VR pioneer serving as a brand ambassador for 360° of Lust, explained to me, there are a number of physical factors — including the size of a person’s head and the distance between their pupils, also known as interpupillary distance or IPD — that can affect how well a specific VR headset works for them.
With the right settings, most people will be able to enjoy VR without feeling sick. With the wrong settings, the quality of experience can be significantly worse. Interpupillary distance, for instance, is used to calculate the distance between a headset’s lenses; for the best experience, a headset’s IPD should be the same as the user’s. On average, women’s IPD is about 2 to 3 mm smaller than men’s, a small difference that can have a significant impact on a VR viewing experience, particularly if manufacturers aren’t providing enough customization options, or education about calibration, to help women adjust their devices to meet their needs.
There’s plenty of evidence that, rather demonstrating than a natural distaste for these media, women are merely reacting to the fact that the consumer experience is significantly less likely to be optimized for their needs.
Weston knows exactly how off-putting VR can be when headsets are designed with a one-size-fits-all mindset. At one conference, Weston had the opportunity to try out an underwater VR experience using a special mask that allowed users to enjoy scuba diving visuals while in a pool. “I was so excited to do it that I put my bathing suit on at a conference,” Weston says. “But then I got in the pool and the mask didn’t fit my face correctly. Either it was hitting my eyes, or I was breathing water in.”
But in the same way that directors like Lust have realized that women are all too happy to pay for porn so long as it’s created with their experience in mind, VR companies are keying in to the fact that VR can appeal to people of all genders — so long as the headsets acknowledge the needs of a variety of bodies. New generations of headsets are lighter, cheaper, and more portable than earlier designs, suggesting a manufacturer interest in expanding the VR audience. Weston points to the Google Daydream View as a headset with a lightweight design and range of colors that make it feel more accessible to a wide range of people — but since the Daydream View’s settings aren’t as customizable as competitors like the Oculus, it may need more than aesthetic tweaking before it can truly be considered women-friendly.
Some VR porn directors are confident that women could eventually make up a significant chunk of their audience. “VR ultimately is the perfect medium for women” to enjoy porn, says Anna Lee, a director and producer, noting that within the intimate confines of a VR headset, “even [male porn consumers] want very traditional, emotional connection-based content” — perhaps due to the fact that virtual reality appears to heighten our emotional responses to stimuli. In one study, researchers found that arousal (as in sensory stimulation, not as in sexual arousal) was higher for all kinds of images when they were consumed in a VR setting; when subjects were exposed to scary images (specifically spiders and snakes), VR seemed to intensify the negative reaction.
Lee, whose early experiments in the VR space included “girlfriend experience” or GFE scenes, has found that many consumers responded positively to quieter scenes driven more by a sense of intimate connection with the performer rather than boundary pushing. That includes men as well. “Male consumers were asking for [more emotionally driven scenes],” she says.
Lee’s new series The Black Box Collection offers viewers access to VR scenes of performers who directly address the audience without making any assumptions about their gender, offering viewers an intimate experience that Lee hopes will appeal to consumers across the gender spectrum. When women are envisioned as potential consumers, and products are created with their user experience in mind, it suddenly becomes clear that even barriers that seem biologically predetermined are often little more than design bias.