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Virtual reality could transform pornography – but there are dangers

Judging by the statistics, a lot of people must have received virtual reality technology for Christmas. Views of virtual reality pornography on one website spiked at 900,000 on Christmas Day 2016, three times what they were a month previously. Today, daily views are almost 250% higher than a year ago.

Virtual reality porn has arrived and with it has come the potential to create whole new immersive experiences. Aside from the headset devices available today, further developments could mean not just 360-degree 3D graphics but also technology that replicates taste, touch and smell.

This new use for virtual reality has been greeted with some of the same moral panic often seen when digital technology impacts sexuality, such as children being exposed to internet porn at a younger age or teenagers “sexting” each other explicit photos. While these are serious concerns, it’s worth remembering that every new sexualised use of technology has been threatened to corrupt childhood innocence, from the introduction of mainstream cinema to video tapes.

My colleagues – Gavin Wood and Madeline Balaam – and I have just published a study into how people might use virtual reality to access pornography as the technology develops. Several media reports focused on the potentially negative uses we highlighted, such as creating revenge porn and consent issues. But we also found that virtual reality has the opportunity to create new, more positive ways of experiencing pornography.

For our study, we asked participants to write a story about an imaginary character called Jack who was about to have his very first virtual reality pornography experience. By analysing the stories, we identified two main themes, one positive and one more worrying.

Euphoric or precarious? Shutterstock

Some stories illustrated a perfect scenario that completely immersed Jack in a euphoric sexual experience that was “beyond his wildest dreams”. The seemingly limitless imagination that can be applied to VR porn experiences could potentially open the door to a whole world of new sexual experiences.

But some of the stories also portrayed Jack’s experience as precarious, something so good that it started to take over his life or replace his real relationships. This suggests that virtual reality could affect not just pornography but also disrupt the ways we typically think about sex in real life.

There were also more sinister undertones to some of the stories. Some were bizarre. One involved sex with conjoined alien twins and one even featured “a small larva inserted into [Jack’s] ear which eats its way through his brain”. But others were more concerning, featuring violent and degrading imagery usually targeted at women. The enhanced possibilities virtual reality offered often pushed this imagery to the extreme.

Another story that surprised and slightly alarmed us was one in which Jack created a 3D model of his girlfriend. This raises ethical issues about the need to obtain consent for virtual reality porn experiences. Technology could even open the door to the next level of revenge porn, with people potentially creating and releasing 3D models of past lovers.

Better future?

These visions of the future of pornography suggest virtual reality could create and exacerbate some serious problems in a society already struggling to deal with the challenges the internet has introduced. We will have to wait and see how much of an issue virtual reality porn becomes. But it’s worth remembering that any technology can be used in positive as well as negative ways.

The interactive nature of virtual reality has the potential to turn pornography users from mere onlookers into participants in an experience. This means we can envisage a different kind of pornography delivered by these technologies. For example, it could immerse users in more realistic situations where users have to negotiate sexual relationships and in doing so learn about nuanced aspects of consent.

Some have argued virtual reality could be used to transform sex education. From our research with young people, we have found many rely on the imagery in pornography to teach themselves about sex. Since young people will always access pornography, perhaps we should be seeking to change these experiences into something more positive.

The more complete sensory experience of virtual reality could also help change the focus of pornography away from its current concentration on explicit acts, which has been linked to porn addiction. Instead, a focus on the sensory elements in virtual experiences could create alternative erotic narratives with more focus on personal interaction and foreplay. We even saw a suggestion that the confinement and social isolation of having a virtual reality headset on could give pornography a further erotic element.

True, the existing porn industry is unlikely to simply change the style it has relied on for years in favour of a more relational experience. But the internet has also made it much easier for new producers to enter the market that do offer alternative representations of sex. For example, sites such as Make Love Not Porn features videos created by ordinary couples that largely avoid the problematic imagery of mainstream pornography. Instead of predicting doom, perhaps we should insist on a more positive future from virtual reality porn.

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