SXSW's creepy virtual sex talk is everything wrong with VR hype

Never say 'sexual singularity' again

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VR developers are usually pretty positive about our present reality, even if the experiences they build are things that are difficult or impossible in real life. Nobody, for example, sells the ISS spacewalk simulator by saying Earth is for losers. “Oh, you’re not a 10-mouthed alien in a nightclub? I’m so sorry.”

So it’s... interesting, to say the least, that SXSW held a panel titled “The Future of Porn Is 3D Virtual Reality” that hinged entirely on the idea that touching another human being, or paying attention to anything a woman does, is boring and horrible.

Brian Shuster is the CEO of Utherverse, which produces the sex-focused Second Life alternative Red Light Center. He believes that over the past few years, RedTube-style video sites have transformed not just the porn industry, but the very way we view sex. A few minutes into the panel, he laid out his reasoning:

“Basically, you're looking at exactly the women you want to look at at that moment, and they're doing exactly the sex acts that people have compared to” what you want, thanks to user curation. Then, after watching exceptionally desirable “sexual athletes,” you go back to a fumbling and less attractive partner. “Screw that jazz! Porn is better than sex! I’m in complete control, I’m experiencing vicariously exactly what I want, and it's really great.”

If you’re at all familiar with evangelical Christian anti-porn arguments, this might seem pretty familiar. Here’s how "accountability and filtering" software company Covenant Eyes puts it: "It’s easy to stare at a photo or movie of a nude woman and create the perfect fantasy with her. But where do you live? You live in real life, not in fantasy. So what happens when the way we view women is completely formed in fantasy, then we get up from the computer to interact with women in real life? Problems ensue, and ensue quickly." Both think modern porn destroys men’s ability to relate to women; Shuster just thinks that’s a good thing, or at least an inevitable one.

According to Shuster, this disconnection is why Japanese youth have supposedly stopped having sex, especially when "having sex with a Fleshlight is almost the same feeling." Either way, he says the Japanese attitude "is universal in all developed countries right now," and we’re heading towards the "sexual singularity," defined as "that point in time when people will prefer networked sex over real-world sex." His talk’s title is a slight misnomer: 3D virtual reality isn’t supposed to be the future of porn but the future of the vast majority of human sexual encounters, which will be "hardly recognizable" in 15 years.

While I probably should have stopped listening at "sexual singularity," SXSW had promised an expert take on VR and the "growing influence of the female audience." Fortunately, women did come up, but only so Shuster could talk about why he wasn’t going to talk about them. "This entire speech I am going to discuss from a heterosexual male point of view," he explained. "It has application for every other gender, every other orientation ... It's just easiest for me to discuss in that context." Except for a couple of short asides, that promise held.

When Shuster brought up his big historical chart of erotic media, it was interesting to see what didn’t make the grade — mentioning the massive but stereotypically feminine genre of written erotica might have actually undermined the common VR-futurist claim that deeper immersion always drives out shallower, for example. Shuster walked through a detailed comparison of VHS and DVD porn, but his accounting of the past 50 years of sex and tech included nothing about sexting, slash fiction, or anything else not almost totally focused on men who like women.

After deciding to ignore half (or more) of the human population, Shuster moved on to ignoring the other interesting part of the VR equation: technological barriers. Forget the careful hype deflation of Oculus and Sony, or the frustrating and fascinating climb towards each new milestone. We’re apparently on the cusp of high-quality, fully interactive virtual reality and a revolution in simulated touch — I believe the phrase Shuster used was "ready to explode onto the marketplace." Not that we actually got to hear about any of it, because it involved "new kinds of haptics that I am not allowed to talk about," comparable to "the Matrix and the Holodeck." I have no idea what kind of haptics are in The Matrix, but since they can kill people, I guess they must be pretty good.

As Shuster continued, I tried to figure out how putting people in virtual space and re-skinning them would solve his original problem — the issue of perfect control. If there’s a single, defining element of enthusiastically consensual sex, it’s that one person doesn’t get to dictate everything about it — there’s exploration, compromise, and occasionally disappointment. In VR, everybody involved might be better-looking, but you’re fundamentally just adding another layer of complexity.
VR Porn SXSW

Thinking this might just be an oversight, I figured I should give him a chance to address it. So after waiting through a lot of questions that I didn’t transcribe but recall largely as "VR porn will be awesome, but I’m not sure how awesome," I asked how "networked sex" with a real partner would satisfy the desire for always seeing exactly the right woman doing exactly the right thing. I didn’t get his response transcribed perfectly either, but here’s the general answer in slightly less explicit language:

Imagine you’re with a partner, but what she’s doing doesn’t feel good enough. You can hit a button, and suddenly it’s a haptic recording of Sasha Grey, or anyone else in a library of experiences you’ve stored. Or, if you get bored, you can flip through avatars of different partners to shake things up.

Isn’t that just better porn, not "networked sex"? I followed up. Why does it matter that there’s a human behind it, if you don’t actually see or feel them, and they don’t have a say in what happens? "That’s his point!" someone muttered behind me. When the talk was over a few minutes later, a random male audience member approached me and called me a "ball-buster." I told him that I just want people to be honest if they’d rather have sex with robots.

Maybe Shuster is a troll whose audience didn’t get the joke, or maybe he actually is just as blinkered and hyperbolic as he sounded. Even if it’s supposed to be ironic, why did SXSW promise The Future of VR Porn and deliver The Ridiculous Future of Sex for Straight Men who Hate Sex?

I’ve had a wonderful experience in the VR community, although I’m not the only one who’s uncomfortable with its extraordinarily large gender gap. I’ve never encountered Utherverse in that community, and the single host who appeared briefly before Shuster wasn’t affiliated with VR at all. It’s not SXSW or the VR world’s fault that terrible speakers exist. But there’s no reason to host a prime-time panel on an incredibly popular topic — one that crops up constantly in even the most family-friendly talks — and give it almost entirely to one man who admits he can’t or won’t speak to the desires of an entire gender, and whose ideal experience is one where he can control people of that gender completely.

It’s not just creepy, it’s boring and narrow. The height of eroticism is apparently just straight guys getting better versions of things straight guys already have an endless supply of. Is Sasha Grey, an actress whose adult career ended before Oculus was even founded, really our signpost to the future? Here’s a short list of much cooler things, for example, that we could have talked about:

  • Will "we’re not compatible" take on a new meaning after companies introduce competing intimacy SDKs?
  • What does privacy look like when every encounter is streamed and, by extension, recorded?
  • What new, post-human bodies and sensations will we create?
  • Will communities start building universal fandom APIs, allowing artists to create thousands of their own immersive stories with the same sets of characters?
  • Since all sex would effectively also be pornography, what happens to people over the age of consent but under 18?
  • How do you apply copyright to a simulated touch?

Instead, SXSW gave us the worst pitch for virtual erotica since IGN described how to use it for homosexual aversion therapy.

I’ve discussed, and often critiqued, some extraordinary predictions about virtual reality. But this is the first time I’ve wondered why I bother to write about it at all. Even if nobody’s thinking about Utherverse specifically, it’s received wisdom that sex will be a huge driver of VR. It’s rare to meet a modern VR evangelist who won’t say, at some point, that the heart of virtual reality is the ability to make your fantasies come true. But unless a lot of people decide to actively fight the status quo, I’m increasingly sure that women like me will never be the "you" in that sentence — just the fantasy. If the medium actually does take off, it will be just as conservative as its predecessors.

At this point, the best I can do is make sure nobody utters the words "sexual singularity" ever again.

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