Man wearing VR headset

VR porn is “just around the corner”, say researchers

Image credit: Dreamstime

Newcastle University researchers investigating how virtual reality could change the experience of pornography warn that it could allow for more immersive and active recreations of sexual violence, but the opportunity exists to develop a less exploitative form of porn.

“As a society we are always looking for new and novel experiences but the porn industry brings with it an added risk because of its sexist stance and exploitation of women,” said Dr Madeline Balaam, a lecturer at the university’s school of computer science.

“We are already obsessed with body image and the digital industry is no different, creating the perfect virtual woman from Lara Croft to sex robots. VR porn has the potential to escalate this.”

A VR headset, such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift or Playstation VR, could allow users to slip into immersive sexual experiences where they become an active participant in pornographic scenes.

In order to investigate how people would interact with VR porn, the researchers followed 45 participants through their first VR porn experience, in which they assumed the identity of a male character called Jack, and completed his story.

The researchers found that the resulting stories could be split into two distinct categories. The first group of participants took the opportunity to create the “perfect sexual experience”, often fantastical but not distant from reality. Some participants described this as being “better than the real thing”.

The second group, however, created “precarious” experiences, with stories that would – in real life – cross the boundaries of acceptability. The virtual women in these stories were subjected to degrading, violent and non-consensual sexual acts.

“We found that for most people the potential of a VR porn experience opened the doors to an apparently ‘perfect’ sexual experience, a scenario which in the real world no-one could live up to,” said Matthew Wood, a PhD student and lead author of the study. “For others it meant pushing the boundaries, often with highly explicit and violent imagery, and we know from current research into pornography that exposure to this content has the potential to become addictive and more extreme over time.”

“VR pornography is just around the corner,” he added.

The researchers commented that VR porn creates a “crossover between reality and fantasy”, with the potential to allow users to interact with simulations of real people. This raises questions over the meaning of consent in VR experiences.

“If a user created a VR version of their real-life girlfriend, for example, would they do things to her that they knew she would refuse in the real world?” said Dr Balaam.

The explosion of internet pornography has been widely associated with more explicit and violent sexual content becoming more accessible, including to people who have not yet reached sexual maturity.

“Pornography has been with us forever and is not going to go away,” said Dr Balaam. “But maybe virtual reality gives us the opportunity to influence pornography and introduce some new rules. Imagine a scenario, for example where a male participant is made to assume the female role in the virtual game.”

The Newcastle University researchers hope that their study will help inform development of this “very prominent, but not often talked about” interaction, such that VR porn could emerge to be less exploitative.

“The future of VR pornography could be more positive, if designed in a certain way,” said Wood. “In our research we also saw suggestions that VR could deliver more embodied sensory experiences, with more emphasis on subtlety and the relationship aspects of sexual experiences.”

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