Technology

As virtual reality technologies have improved, the pornography industry was always going to be an early adopter, but are its claims of sex therapy are too far-fetched? By Gillian Terzis.

Virtual reality sex therapy

August Ames in Virtual Sexology.
Credit: BADOINK VR

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a bedroom that was not my own. I appraise my surroundings: a bed, a couple of bedside tables, a couch in the far corner. The aesthetic is minimal rather than minimalist. The lighting is warm and diffuse; the decorations tasteful but spare, a real-life rendering of a ’90s Freedom furniture catalogue. I see August Ames, flaxen blonde and smoky-eyed. Her voice is syrupy. “Hey baby,” she coos. I look down and am disoriented by what I see: I’m topless, pasty and clad in skinny jeans. A virtual man with a virtual bulge, an interloper in someone else’s fantasy.

Virtual Sexology, a subscription video series from Badoink VR filmed in 180-degree video, bills itself as part virtual reality porn, part sex therapy. The human body has long been a project for self-improvement. Why not broaden one’s sexual repertoire? Its eight-segment course promises to give viewers a “larger than life view of their sexual desires” and “increase stamina, refine lovemaking skills and push you to the head of the class in the bedroom”. The tone of the video is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, a little bit “sexy schoolteacher”.

The idea sprang to the mind of Badoink founder Todd Glider at a start-up conference, where a growing number of VR companies were beginning to embrace exposure therapy as a way of treating phobias. It got him thinking about the possibilities for porn. There’s a lot of moralising about porn being used by young adults as an unhealthy how-to guide, he says. Why not produce something that stimulates and educates? Glider enlisted a qualified sexual therapist for help. After all, he says, “we’re not educators or therapists, we’re entertainers”.

The therapy, if one can call it that, is best categorised as adult “edutainment”. August Ames wants me to relax. “Maybe we could do some breathing exercises, a little playtime?” In through the nose, out through the mouth. It’s followed by some deep-breathing exercises. At one point I’m encouraged to make a seductive moan. A voiceover periodically interrupts Ames’s sultry address to explain how breathing exercises can manage anxieties in the bedroom – anxieties that impede sexual function. Sometimes instructions are laden with innuendo, other times they resemble meditative koans. “Deep breathing and mindfulness can help you find mind–body relaxation to be your best sexual self,” the woman intones. This is probably true. Maybe I’d be more comfortable, Ames asks, if she were to unbutton her blouse? Each time we complete an exercise, an item of clothing is removed. Eventually she beckons virtual me to the bed. You can guess what happens next.

Virtual Sexology can be watched on Google Cardboard, Oculus Rift or Gear VR. Cardboard is cheaper, but its technical shortcomings in image quality and with high latency make the experience less immersive. Some of the scenes in Virtual Sexology can be watched while wearing a teledildonic device such as the Kiiroo Onyx, a Bluetooth-enabled sex toy that simulates penetration and thrusting in real time. It’s designed to bridge the gap between virtual and physical intimacy, which makes it ideal for VR sexual encounters and long-distance relationships. It’s said that Virtual Sexology can be taken solo or with a partner, but it seems primarily designed for straight men, who comprise most of Badoink’s viewer base. The series sits along videos that adhere to conventional porn narratives: Lez Be Friends, Police Bootality, The Donald Trump Sex Tape: An XXX Parody. The viewer is given a default virtual male body; the hang-ups discussed are largely physical (premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction). This means the therapeutic element of Virtual Sexology is limited to troubleshooting physical barriers to sex, rather than emotional or psychological ones. That said, it does make premature ejaculation less of a punchline.

In my case, having a virtual dick was a novelty that required the suspension of many degrees of disbelief. My categorical absence from the scene impeded any possible arousal – this pleasure wasn’t meant for me or my body. It might explain why some VR porn companies have elected not to use avatars at all. Ela Darling, co-founder and creative director of vrtube.xxx, produces camgirl shows instead of male–female penetrative sexual encounters. “It’s disorienting when you look down and you see a body that’s clearly not your body, whether it be because of gender or gender presentation, or culture or race or age or size,” Darling says. “I don’t want to make people who have non-conventional presented bodies feel in film even further stigmatised and outcast.”

Like Glider, Darling believes in the therapeutic potential of VR porn, although she takes a slightly different tack to realising it. “The sexual component, while very valuable, is secondary to personal engagement,” she says. Darling has been a cam girl for seven years and says that VR’s capacity for creating empathy goes both ways – for viewers and actors. Cam girls – women performing interactively in real time to online cameras – need to be the most “genuine versions of themselves”, but they have control over how much of their personality they can convey to the viewer. “You can really get a sense of deep, intimate connection, even more so than in a regular webcam browser,” she says. “People tend to engage with me better, they tend to be nicer. We forge a relationship a lot quicker.” Accountability and ephemerality are central to the fantasy.

Filming Virtual Sexology, on the other hand, is a different proposition. The male actor/avatar, whose face you never see throughout the film, can’t move his hands, make audible breathing or moaning noises, because doing so would disturb the viewer’s virtual world. “Our members are very vocal about what they like and dislike,” Glider says. “He has to lie there like a statue frozen in space.” Meanwhile, the female actress can’t look into her scene partner eyes – she has to maintain prolonged eye contact with the camera. This makes the experience an especially intimate one for the viewer, but “it’s very different from a normal porn shoot”, Glider says. “The two performers are probably never more disconnected than they are when shooting VR.”

Both Glider and Darling want viewers to feel comfortable and desired when watching their productions. After all, there’s nothing worse than being in the – virtual – home of a person who doesn’t really want you there. Darling says it’s harder to fake emotions and orgasms in a virtual reality shoot because any lack of interest is obvious. But for most viewers, I think this is less of a hurdle than the fact that a lot of VR porn is a passive rather than interactive experience.

Then there are the financial questions. Is VR porn enticing enough for people to pay for it? Like any business in the entertainment and media industries, its business model has been upended by the internet. It’s hoped that VR porn can usher a return to the subscription-based model. Glider says Badoink is already profitable, and that the join volume has increased by 1400 per cent since its launch last July. But even he is cautious about his prospects. “There’s still an enormous percentage of the American population that doesn’t even have any idea what VR stands for,” he says.

Developments in technology are reliably accompanied by intergenerational moralising and panic, particularly when sex is involved. One can imagine the mountain of think-pieces about millennials electing to have sex with holographic avatars, or donning gloves that emit haptic feedback and allow them to experience the sensation of touch.

VR sex won’t replace the real thing, but at its best it could augment it. Technology is an embodied experience – one that, even at its most virtual, can have material effects on our physical selves. While real-world desire is partly a function of proximity, virtual desire demands something more finicky but just as true to life. Can we be seduced by images, fantasies, by holograms of the unreal? We already know the answer. “Seduction is always more singular and sublime than sex and it commands the higher price,” Baudrillard wrote, and he’s not wrong – the prelude can be more tempting than the act itself. VR porn doesn’t need to mimic reality to succeed, but seducing us might prove a harder task.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 15, 2016 as "Red light therapy". Subscribe here.

Gillian Terzis
is a San Francisco-based writer.

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