Just as we can be sure that the emerging sex technologies will create novel erotic possibilities, we can be certain that new ethical boundaries will follow with them. The question is whether these new ethical and legal rules will be based upon calm reflection or moral hysteria. The history of the internet suggests the latter.
The advent of high bandwidth and video streaming quickly led to moral panics over 'tube porn', the alleged dangers of which have been likened by anti-porn activists to alcoholics having their tap water replaced by vodka. Presumably these campaigners will see virtual reality porn as akin to replacing the alcoholic's actual blood system with vodka. We have already seen that VR porn is allowing the growth of previously unheard of fetishes, for example - macrophilia - the sexual fetishisation of gigantic women. Add to that the much greater realism of virtual reality, which will only increase over time, ever more blurring the boundaries between the digital and the real, porn and sex.
Britain's top middle-class tabloid (popular newspaper) is the Daily Mail. It specializes in moral outrage. It has apparently already covered virtual reality porn in 19 different articles. Make that 20 as of this week, with another story on VR, in this case a prediction that soon it will be indistinguishable from reality, being exploited to detail VR porn. Popular media is clearly obsessed by the nascent virtual reality industry. There is an awareness of how this new medium might quickly change the world. And of course, first of all everybody wants to know how it will change sex and porn.
But the truth is we don't know how it will change anything. The number of people looking at VR movies is still too small, the content still too basic. And this is why it is disturbing that voices are already being raised calling for new laws, articulating new fears, and making some extraordinary claims about a medium which has barely been born.
A 'social justice warrior' (sjw) has already claimed to have been sexually harassed and even groped in virtual reality. Sex counsellors have quickly seized on the opportunity of gaining free publicity and new customers through shouting the claim that VR porn is harming relationships. There have even been the first calls for the law to treat 'crime' in the virtual world the same as in the real world - on the basis that 'if it feels real, it is (and we ought to treat it as thus)'.
A comedy song, containing the lyrics - 'bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift' - has kicked off a debate about the ethics of having sex with celebrities in virtual reality. Do celebs, or does anyone, have ownership of their image rights for use in virtual worlds? Having realistic sex with the avatars of celebs, or the girl next door, will likely be one of the most popular usages in virtual and augmented reality (as well as 3D printed sexbots and dolls). Or it will be so long as badly thought out new laws get in the way. Adult company SugarDVD declared its intention two years ago to enable users of devices such as the HoloLens to be able to download the avatars of famous celebs or pornstars for the user to have sex with.
The idea that 'if it feels real, it is' has dangerous implications for the future of virtual reality porn. Playing a VR porn video would no long be regarded simply as watching porn, but rather as engaging in sex with the actress, bringing up legal issues of consent. Would the viewer have to personally obtain consent from the actress before each playing of the video, or would the contract the actress signed with the porn studio suffice as 'advance consent'? There would still then be a potential problem regarding prostitution laws.
The issue of consent would be even more problematic for virtual reality sex using the downloaded avatars of non-pornstars, be it celebs or members of the public. If the law really does at some point treat virtual sex the same as real sex, 'revenge porn' would become 'virtual rape'. At any rate, the current debate triggered by a comedy song suggests that virtual sex with the avatars of real people will be an area that lobby groups will inevitably press for new laws in.
For many, this might appear relatively problematic. Why does it matter if virtual sex (and virtual life in general) is treated the same as real life? If VR becomes gradually indistinguishable from real life, then of course we should prohibit from VR behaviour we would not tolerate in the real world.
I would argue that this is a simplistic point of view. No matter how realistic it becomes, the virtual world will remain in part an extension of the individual imagination, and we need to tread carefully when legislating against thought and the private sphere . To return to the idea of 'bedding Taylor Swift in the Oculus Rift'. Millions of men (and women) have sexual thoughts regarding celebs. Probably millions have masturbated thinking of Taylor Swift. Of course, the idea that Taylor Swift has been 'raped' or 'violated' in any sense would only appeal to the most radical of feminists.
Of course, we might say that virtual reality will surpass imagination and that is the difference, but it remains only one of degree. Unless the 'unconsenting' person whose avatar is being sexually used in VR physically feels the sex, then it remains a fact that only the avatar, an image - no matter how realistic - is being acted upon and not the person.
There might be a pill that could heighten the imagination, and/or remove the suspension of disbelief in a person taken it, so that he could have incredibly lifelike experiences in his imagination, and fully believe it to be real as he experiences it. This is essentially what virtual reality aspires to, and indeed future gazers usually see the end point of the technology involving some kind of direct manipulation of the brain. This final realization of VR might not however be a one way process. It may be similar to the phenomena of lucid dreaming, in which the dreamer can direct his own play, knowing that he is asleep and dreaming. A.I. would be able to detect and cater for the user's ultimate fantasies and desires, and act on his choices and immediate wants in real time. The final goal of virtual reality is simply unbounded and heightened imagination.
Of course, virtual spaces can already be shared, but that poses a different set of problems in that actual people are being acted upon, even if only virtually. As augmented (or mixed) reality becomes more ubiquitous, the everyday world will mesh with our virtual worlds, and how and to what extent those worlds will be open and shared will throw up another set of ethical problems. On that final note, I caught a short sci-fi video on the future of augmented reality yesterday that can only be described as 'unsettling' (needs to be watched all the way through).