Presence and sexuality: Is an affair in VR still cheating?

[This first person report considers the emotional implications of presence in the context of sexuality; it’s from Motherboard, where it includes the 0:58 minute trailer for the film “I Am You” and an additional image. For more about the VR film, see coverage in CBC News. –Matthew]

Is an Affair in Virtual Reality Still Cheating?

Written by Zoltan Istvan
November 19, 2015

I hadn’t touched another woman in an intimate way since before getting married six years ago. Then, in the most peculiar circumstances, I was doing it. I was caressing a young woman’s hands. I remember thinking as I was doing it: I don’t even know this person’s name.

After 30 seconds, the experience became too much and I stopped. I ripped off my Oculus Rift headset and stood up from the chair I was sitting on, stunned. It was a powerful experience, and I left convinced that virtual reality was not only the future of sex, but also the future of infidelity.

Okay, I could be wrong. When I told my wife about it, she laughed, saying, “It’s a just a software program. It’s just a sexy lady made of 1s and 0s appearing real to your visual cortex.”

Perhaps my wife is right. However, I couldn’t help thinking: What happens when the software seems even more real than the actual thing?

My brush with virtual infidelity came about after giving a speech at WEST, the Wearable Entertainment & Sports Toronto conference. Companies developing software and programs for the gadgets lined the hallways outside the conference with tables for their products, and they had an excellent array of gadgets on display to play with. I sat down at one run by the company Cinehackers that promised a movie-like experience with the Oculus Rift.

Cinehackers had created a way to let virtual reality users feel like they were in a first-person perspective movie, kind of like Being John [Malkovich].

Within the first few moments of strapping on their Oculus Rift and earphones, I was immersed into their cinematic programming. It was hard to distinguish that I was looking at a program instead of being in real life. The film that had me holding hands with a young woman is called I Am You.

While VR sex has been explored at length, even by people using full-body haptic suits to experience full sexual immersion, the idea of digital infidelity and the confusing moral implications is largely uncharted.

“It makes no difference if the cheating occurred in person or online through the use of porn, webcams, social media, or some other digital technology,” said Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S, a therapist and expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality. “A ‘virtual world’ affair is every bit as painful to a betrayed spouse as an in-the-flesh affair.”

That was the typical response from the people I spoke with, but I’m not convinced of that interpretation. Many people in the Western world deem pornography as acceptable to enjoy, partly because they believe it doesn’t affect their actual physical world that much. Looking at porn on a computer screen—or a magazine in your bed—is just not really that real. After all, you can’t get an STD from your television or get your smartphone screen pregnant. Few except the diehard prudish would insist some kind of moral line is being betrayed. So when does that moral line get crossed? When does one’s spouse or partner say enough is enough—you’re cheating on me?

Perhaps technological progress will determine that moment, and based on my WEST experience, it might be coming sooner than people think.

Over the next coming decades, virtual sex could alter how we love one another. I see a day coming when people could break up over a partner’s desire to use virtual sex as an outlet, whereas in the past, causal porn as we know it today would’ve been tolerated. This is because virtual sex is so much more powerful—it’s truly immersive. And that could scare real life partners off.

Porn has never really attracted me that much, partly because of a story I heard when I was younger, about a chicken that kept trying to mate with a cardboard cutout of a chicken that was dangled in front of it. I could never get the image out of mind that human porn was similar.

But virtual reality is way different [than] that. Many of the senses are stimulated in life-like ways. And it’s going to get way more powerful too, way beyond just visuals. In the future, sex contraptions will become more common, where users dawn haptic suits and other types of technology that help mimic real sexual motions. Of course, speakers can already make people hear auditory moaning. And even sex scents released into the air may one day occur—there is already a company that creates odors for gaming.

The core dilemma of what I experienced in VR in Toronto wasn’t just about sex or intimacy. It was about the possibility of finding amazing love so easily. And that’s where I think virtual porn will make it challenging for people and couples. A future is upon us where we will be able to intimately bond with near-perfect individuals in VR all the time, one that may even include Hollywood actors or celebrity models, in the case of Cinehackers. We can build castles and paradises with these very real-looking virtual people in Second Life and elsewhere. How will our spouses back in flawed biological flesh ever compete? Will we ever be satisfied again in the physical world? The difficult truth is: maybe not.

Fidelity, for the most the part, has long been a way to preserve a genetic line and keep resources within reach of [a] small group of people. But is that because no other challenge has arisen to fidelity? Many people would say fidelity is not broken with porn use. But what about sex with a life-like robot?

I hear friends tell me all the time that they’ll never have sex with a robot. When I ask them why, they have no substantive answer, except to tell me “it doesn’t feel right.”

This “not feeling right” is a concept that some people call the Uncanny Valley, a concept discussed 40 years ago by a Japanese professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology about the point where robots that appear human repulse people. However, a growing robotics sex industry, now over many millions of dollars strong seems to counter that argument.

Emma Cott of The New York Times recently wrote a story about a sex doll maker that seems to support this: “The creator of the RealDoll says he has sold over 5,000 customizable, life-size dolls since 1996, with prices from $5,000 to $10,000. Not only can his customers decide on body type and skin, hair, and eye color… a craftsman was even furnishing one with custom-ordered toes.”

Not that I’m going to be doing this anytime soon, but personally, I feel more comfortable having so-called extramarital sexual liaisons in cyberspace with software than the real world with a robot that calls out my name and asks me how my day went. I think my wife—and the spouses of other people—will feel the same way. For this reason, I don’t expect robot sex to become nearly as pervasive as virtual reality sex, which is simpler and less complicated.

Whatever happens, the old rules of fidelity are bound to change dramatically. Not because people are more open or closed-minded, but because evolving technology is about [to] force the issues into our brains with tantalizing 1s and 0s.


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