Forget The Ethics Of Robot Sex — What About VR Sex?

“Westworld” is inspiring all sorts of theorizing about the morality of sexbots, but virtual reality sex is already here

Photo Illustration: Vocativ
Nov 14, 2016 at 1:04 PM ET

Thanks to the popularity of HBO’s “Westworld,” it seems everyone wants to talk about the ethics of robot sex. The series, which imagines a futuristic amusement park filled with humanoid hosts programed to satisfy visitors’ every desire, including sexual ones, has spawned countless think pieces about the morality of human-on-machine screwing. It’s a fascinating area of inquiry, no doubt, but it seems both premature and a bit misdirected. Realistic sex robots are still a very long ways away — but realistic virtual reality sex has already arrived.

It’s the sexual ethics of VR that is relevant right here, right now.

VR headsets have only just begun to hit the mainstream market, but we are already hearing about the potential for virtual sexual assault. Last month, Jordan Belamire shared a now-viral story of getting groped during a multi-player VR video game, which she said “felt real, violating.” It isn’t the only time a woman has been sexually harassed in VR, of course. Then, this summer, the Japanese video game company Tecmo premiered a “Dead or Alive Xtreme 3” VR demo that allows players to poke at a protesting bikini-clad woman. Endgadget called it “basically sexual assault, the game.”

But the ethical issues that arise around sex and VR go far beyond just virtual assault. They include concerns around the type of sexual content that will be created — from nonconsensual pornography that allows you to have virtual sex with celebrity avatars to sexual encounters with simulated virtual children. There are questions around just what would constitute infidelity in this new ultra-immersive world, both when it comes to single- and multi-player experiences. And, some say, there is the very real possibility that VR sex will become so technologically advanced that it is actually preferable to real world sex.

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Kathleen Richardson, a senior research fellow in the ethics of robotics at De Montfort University Leicester is focused on issues around sex robots — she’s director of The Campaign Against Sex Robots, which should give you a sense for where she stands — but she’s also worried about the nearer-term reality of virtual reality sex. She believes that things like VR, and sex robots, encourage us to see other humans as property and decrease our empathy.

“[It’s] this extreme, non-empathetic world where if you have the money and resources you can have your needs and wants met in these new ways by virtual agents,” she said. “In that world, what it means to be human, what it means to be empathetic, what it means to be relational is under threat.” That not only has real world implications, she argues that “it is the real world,” meaning that what we do in virtual reality reflects our reality — including our ways of thinking about other people. “It only exists in the virtual world because it exists in the real world,” she explains.

Richardson’s position is often written about with some degree of amusement on the part of journalists — both because realistic sex robots seem so far off and because of the extremity of her rhetoric. But when it comes to the issue of sexual consent, there is more widespread concern from experts. There are two clear ways that VR sexual assault can happen: nonconsensual activity between players in a multiplayer game, as happened to Belamire, and the acting out of sexual assault with a programmed avatar or artificial intelligence. The former could become even more like real-world assault with the introduction of interactive body suits and teledildonics that result in physical sensations — meaning you wouldn’t just see yourself being groped, you would feel it, too.

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“At this point, the mainstream opinion is that virtual rape is not rape, but it is a form of sexual assault,” Philip Brey, a philosophy professor at University of Twente in the Netherlands who has written about the ethics of VR, told Vocativ.

The issue of acting out sexual assault on a purely computer-generated character is less clear-cut. This is where you run into the same criticisms we have seen around possibly every technological medium, from pornography to video games. In fact, many of the scenarios that tech ethicists and VR pornographers anticipate are fundamentally not all that unlike the sometimes hysterical worries that have come up with past technological advances — whether it be cybersex in AOL chatrooms, the proliferation of internet porn, or the advent of swipe-based dating. Except, virtual reality not only creates whole new ways of interacting, but also introduces whole new degrees of immersion, which further blurs the line between fantasy and reality.

As Brey put it in a paper, ethical questions are more pronounced in VR because it has “the greatest potential to approach a high level of realism.”

In the past, arguments over things like “Grand Theft Auto,” which rewarded players for murdering sex workers and garnered a fierce backlash, has broken down into two camps. As Brey wrote in his paper, the pro-censorship side has argued that “such games are immoral, that they hinder moral development, that they cause immoral or anti-social behavior in the real world.” Scads of research has been done on violent video games, and GTA in particular, and some evidence links them to increased aggression, but there is no evidence that they lead to real world criminal behavior. Although, one study found a connection between exposure to violent video games and acceptance of rape myths and tolerance of sexual harassment.

The anticensorship side has claimed “that since immoral acts in a virtual environment do not cause harm to others, the decision to engage in such behavior is private, and morality of these games or the right of individuals to use them should be decided by private citizens individually and not by the state or other acting body,” wrote Brey.

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The moral stance on sexual behavior in VR is likely to break down similarly, but perhaps with more intensity on the pro-censorship side. After all, GTA-style sexualized violence is one thing on a big-screen TV and another experienced via headset in an immersive, highly-realistic 3D world. People will be able to realistically play out every sexual taboo — even ones that would be illegal to act out in real life. Consider, for example, the potential for virtual reality computer-generated child abuse, rape, bestiality, or eroticized murder.

Richardson argues that this kind of content doesn’t exist separately from the real world. “Often, the way that we live our human relations are imported into the fantasy world that we create,” she said. “The fantasy world starts to reflect back to us what’s happening in our real world, so it starts to reinforce it.”

Brian Shuster, the founder of HoloGirls and a leader in the field of VR porn, is less convinced. “What you’re describing really are thought crimes,” he said. “My natural instinct is to say there is no thought that a person should be able to have which lands them in jail.” Although he notes that there is a degree of embodiment when these thoughts are translated into VR. “I don’t know where I come out on that,” he admitted. Shuster says that his experience so far is that people actually do not want to act out the sex they have in VR — they don’t really want to sign up for the intimidating reality of sex with a porn star, for example. Shuster has also observed that early adopter VR porn watchers are leaning toward less extreme content that is “much more heavily related to loving, less porny, and more real relationship kind of sex and interactions.”

Another tricky area is fake porn, where someone edits a person’s face into a pornographic photo or video. There’s no reason to think that this thriving online culture — which sometimes very realistically places celebrities as well as everyday people into porn — won’t seep into VR. In fact, it already has: Someone has developed an explicit VR experience starring a digital rendering of the fictional “Harry Potter” character Hermoine Granger played by Emma Watson. There have also been smaller steps toward realizing these kinds of fantasies in VR: Last month, the porn giant Vivid released a VR video in which the headset wearer is placed in the point of view of someone watching Kim Kardashian’s sex tape when a Kim K lookalike crawls out of the TV screen to perform for the viewer.

Shuster says it’s a certainty that software will allow anyone to take images of people — celebrities or otherwise — and render them into “very lifelike avatars,” and that there will be a “huge” market for it. Of course, people have in some sense always been doing this — “you’re attracted to a girl in the office and you go home and think about her and get yourself off,” as Shuster puts it. “But this takes it to a whole other level,” he said. “It really is a virtual kind of rape.” It might happen without the person’s knowledge, or it might get distributed in the way we’ve seen with revenge porn. “There’s going to have to, oh god, I hate to say it, but we’re going to need some kinds of [legal] protections,” he said.

All of these new ways to experience porn and virtual sex are likely to raise questions for those in monogamous relationships. After all, some people view even regular-ass porn as cheating — but a totally immersive, embodied porn experience? That’s likely to inspire a few hard conversations. Add the possibility of VR sex with strangers and technologies that create physical sensations for the user, known as haptic technologies — and, ooh boy.

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Shuster believes this will entirely change the way that we think about fidelity — cheating sexually will start to lose its meaning. “People will have to become much less concerned about the physical act of sex and much more concerned about the intimacy and relationship they have with their partner as a mental connection,” he said.

This vision — which, I have to say, seems a bit too optimistic about humankind’s ability to overcome sexual jealousy — doesn’t mean we will all become enlightened non-monogamists in the real world, says Shuster. In fact, he believes that VR sex will reach a point where it is so good that it is actually preferable to the real thing. Despite a growing chorus of claims that the coming VR revolution has been overhyped, Shuster predicts that in four years we’ll see the “ubiquitous adoption” of VR adult entertainment. From there, he says, there will be dramatic improvements in haptics that allow headset-wearers to feel that they are really having sex with another person — only it will be better than any real-world sex they’ve had before.

The potential for sexualized haptics has been hyped for years now, but has failed to result in any products that people are actually excited to bone. Shuster admits that we are in the “very early, clunky” stage of haptics, but he’s currently working on second generation haptics that he expects to be released early next year. He also has a patent pending on a haptic device that is nothing like an artificial vagina or dildo — he compares it to the gelatinous terminator in “Terminator 2” that can reshape itself, but is mum on the exact details.

Shuster isn’t the only optimistic evangelist: The founder of Shadow Robot Company, a leading haptic company specializing in anthropomorphic robot hands, told Fusion this year that full-body haptics suits are likely only a couple years away. Several mainstream companies are working on advanced video gaming haptics, including Tesla Studios, which is developing the Teslasuit — and there is very little new technology that people won’t immediately repurpose for sex. Then there’s sex toy company Lovense, which has partnered with Virtual Real Porn to produce haptics that will pair with VR porn videos.

Shuster imagines a not-so-distant future where “the sexual performance is, you know, Olympic level performance, it’s motion captured from the most spectacular adult performers.” He added, “The size can adjust, the hardess can adjust, things can pulse and throb and become wetter or hotter or colder or vibrate. You can have computers determining your levels of arousal so that if you’re getting close to finishing and you don’t want to, your partner automatically reduces stimulation.”

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That doesn’t just mean we’ll develop unrealistic expectations for our real world partners — at that point, he says, VR sex will simply become highly preferable to the real thing. “Virtual sex will be so much better than real world sex that couples in the real world that want to have sex will go to their separate locations to have sex,” he said with a laugh — but he’s not joking. IRL sex will be reserved for “fetishists,” he said, who get off on the authenticity of it — and, possibly, for procreation.

Ethics aren’t just about what is bad, though, and there is huge potential for VR to do a whole lot of sexual good. Already, BaDoink has launched a series of VR videos meant as a form of sex therapy. Virtual reality is currently being used for treatment of PTSD — and it’s possible to imagine similar applications for survivors of sexual assault. We’ve also seen VR deployed in all sorts of different ways to inspire empathy, and even to simulate the experience of date rape from two different perspectives. VR porn will undoubtedly do what regular porn already does, which is allow people to explore their fantasies — only it will be that much closer to actually realizing them. And that could bring a sense of realization and fulfillment — and, especially when other people are involved — community and acceptance.

Even the more dreaded aspects of VR, like digitally-created child porn, has potentially positive applications. Researchers in Canada are exploring the possibility of using videos of computer-generated children to both assess patients for pedophilia and treat it.

Shuster says there are some potential benefits to VR sex — for one, “you get rid of all the problems of unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases” (shame it isn’t already here for a reproductive-rights-repealing Trump administration).

But, even for a VR evangelist like Shuster, who is leading the way forward, there is doubt about the ultimate ethical ramifications of VR sex. “It’s a tragedy,” he says of the possibility of the death of real world sex. “Because real world sex develops a real world connection. The imperfections are what make it great.”