Study Finds

Study: VR Porn May Harm Real Relationships With ‘Perfect’ Sexual Experience

DENVER — As virtual reality headsets become more commonplace, it’s no surprise that the pornography industry sees the technology as a potentially huge opportunity for development. Now a new study shows that VR porn may take the industry to new heights, providing consumers with thrills and fantasies as good as the real thing — and could even endanger real-life relationships by creating the “perfect” sexual experience.

Researchers at Newcastle University in England sought to discover how people envision and expect porn consumers to take advantage of virtual reality. They found that one of the key differences will stem from how users respond to the ability to actually “participate” in porn scenes as opposed to being just a spectator in the traditional print and video forms.

A new study finds that virtual reality pornography may open doors to people searching for their “perfect,” and potentially extreme sexual experience.

“One of our findings suggested VR pornography could be something more like cheating on a partner because of the increasing ‘reality’ of the VR experience,” explains lead researcher and PhD student Matthew Wood in a university press release. 

Co-author Dr. Madeline Balaam adds that the sexual exploitation of women already seen in tradition porn could be heightened in a VR world where there are no rules or boundaries, and users could do things they might not otherwise be able to do with their partners in real-life relationships.

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“Our research highlighted not only a drive for perfection, but also a crossover between reality and fantasy. Some of our findings highlighted the potential for creating 3D models of real life people, raising questions over what consent means in VR experiences,” says Balaam. “If a user created a VR version of their real life girlfriend, for example, would they do things to her that they knew she would refuse in the real world?”

That question, Wood says, could mean more people would turn to VR porn to experience dream scenarios and enjoy the ideal fantasy they’d never otherwise be able to participate in.

“We found that for most people the potential of a VR porn experience opened the doors to an apparently ‘perfect’ sexual experience – a scenario which in the real world no-one could live up to,” he explains. “For others it meant pushing the boundaries, often with highly explicit and violent imagery, and we know from current research into pornography that exposure to this content has the potential to become addictive and more extreme over time.”

For the study, the researchers recruited 45 people from online writing forums, social media sites, and similar communities on the website reddit.com to participate in their experiment. Twenty-four of the participants were male, 18 female, and 3 identified as other. Most were heterosexual (30 of the individuals) and white (36). Only three of the participants said they were regular or “semi-regular” users of VR, while 26 identified as non-users, and 14 as non-regular.

The writers were then given the following prompt:

“Jack starts up his new virtual reality headset and positions it carefully over his head. He isn’t quite sure what to expect. He’s about to have his very first virtual reality porn experience…”

They were then given 10 minutes to finish the ending to the story. Wood says the responses were they grouped into two different segments.

“The first group was what we called the ‘perfect’ scenario – some were lavish and fantastical, others were quite close to reality, but all of them were the perfect sexual experience, described by our participants as ‘better than the real thing’,” he explains. “The second was the ‘precarious’ experience, and these stories often went beyond what would be acceptable in real life with sometimes violent imagery, featuring men performing degrading sexual acts on women or forcing themselves upon them.”

The researchers believe users may also turn to the technology as the next wave of “revenge porn,” modeling characters after actual former partners.

Of course, though their method for predicting how users will approach virtual reality porn in the future is purely speculative and based on the minds of creative writers, the authors believe their study is still an appropriate means to exploring just how far people will go with the technology.

“We argue such speculative work is valuable and important in asking questions around the sociocultural and ethical implications of technology, and we argue this should also include matters of technosexuality,” the authors write in their paper.

If tackled early enough, manufacturers could help ensure that the technology is used in a safer, more ethical manner.

“The future for VR pornography could be more positive, if designed in a certain way.” says Wood. “In our research we also saw suggestions that VR could deliver more embodied sensory experiences, with more emphasis on subtlety and the relational aspects of sexual experiences.”

The study was presented by the authors at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Denver earlier this month.

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