If It’s OK to Fantasize About Someone You Know, Why Not in VR?
Erotic deepfakes are only going to make the question of sexual ethics muddier and more confusing
In a 1990 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a socially anxious crew member named Reginald Barclay manages his fears and insecurities by retreating to the holodeck, where he programs fantasy versions of his fellow crew members. His male colleagues are recast as his adoring acolytes, while his female ones are made hypersexualized and subservient. When his colleagues stumble upon their fantasy counterparts, they are understandably uncomfortable and upset by the liberties Barclay has taken with their images and identities.
The episode was intended more as an allegory about the dangers of retreating into fantasy than a literal warning against virtual reality. But nearly 30 years later, Barclay’s holodeck adventures feel less sci-fi and more like current technology. Over the past few weeks, Vice has run a series of stories exploring the bleeding edge of rapidly advancing VR porn tech — including lifelike VR models, often based on real people, that are designed to sync with an interactive sex toy like the Fleshlight Launch. While this technology, found on communities like Virt-A-Mate, isn’t as seamless as the holodeck where Barclay turned his colleagues into his own personal puppets, it’s still a shockingly easy way to create intensely intimate, sexualized media featuring people without any consent from those whose images are being used.
As Vice has pointed out, these avatars can quickly cross the line into revenge porn territory. Within the Virt-A-Mate community, many users not only create 3D avatars of real people, but freely distribute those avatars, transforming images of people (most of whom are women, like the vast majority of deepfake porn victims) into publicly shared sex toys. In a society where women still face public humiliation, experience severe trauma, and even lose their jobs after suffering revenge porn abuse, it is chilling to think that sites like Virt-A-Mate make it even easier to violate others.
But as terrifying as the potential for high-tech porn deepfakes to create a new kind of revenge porn may be, the impulse that drives members of the Virt-A-Mate community to recreate real people as 3D automatons is hardly new. In the privacy of our own minds, many of us are turned on by fantasies about celebrities, friends, coworkers, colleagues, and even exes. A sense of familiarity — as well as the existing emotions we bring to depictions of people we already know — can help explain why, for so many of us, erotic depictions of real people are more enticing than similarly sexed up imagery of invented characters. When given the opportunity to explore their sexual fantasies, “people... recreate what they know,” says Kyle Machulis, creator of Buttplug.io, an open-source software platform that enables sex toys to be controlled by various forms of media (including porn and video games) and was used to facilitate Virt-A-Mate’s ability to interact with masturbation sleeves. For many people, “what they know” amounts to other real people.
Online erotica communities like Literotica and Archive of Our Own both include sections where users share stories involving celebrities and other real life people. Games like The Sims have long allowed mods that give users the ability to create characters that look like real life people, and to put those characters into sexual scenarios. Pipedream Products offers a line of “parody” blowup dolls intended to evoke comparison to celebrities including Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, and Katy Perry. And though the ethics of saving naked photos of one’s ex after a breakup is a hotly debated topic, plenty of people admit to doing it.
Where does your imagination end and someone else’s consent begin?
The difference is that highly customizable VR tech makes it easier and easier to transform the fantasies in our heads into fully immersive experiences, to take the complicated, confusing, and sometimes deeply uncomfortable scenarios that turn us on and effortlessly make them into something more real. That doesn’t mean that everyone who considers exploring a fantasy about a real person in a VR simulacrum is a creepy purveyor of revenge porn. But it does make the line between ethical and unethical behavior surrounding these fantasies easier to cross.
Even before these deepfake porn services popped up, that line could already be difficult to define. Anne Hodder-Shipp, a certified sex and relationships educator who frequently teaches about consent, says that it can be easy for our fantasies about real people to shift from admiring them to dehumanizing them. It’s natural to think about someone we’re attracted to when we’re fantasizing, but it’s important to maintain a mental separation between our fantasy and the actual human being — to avoid reducing another person “just a conduit to... getting off.” That is something Hodder-Shipp considers “a yellow flag, something to be aware of and to notice if you cross into that territory with your fantasies.”
For long-time erotica author Rachel Kramer Bussel, who launched her writing career with a fictionalized tale of a sapphic tryst with Monica Lewinsky, stories that feature real people without their consent can feel ethically murky. Although she sees public figures as relatively fair game for erotic writers, she’s aware that these stories can have negative consequences, or at least feel deeply uncomfortable, for the subjects — a point that was driven home for her after Kramer Bussel herself appeared as a character in someone else’s work. “It wasn’t a malicious piece of writing,” she says. “But being on the other side of that gave me a little bit of insight into what someone might feel — what perhaps Monica would have felt reading an erotica story about a character who basically is her.”
With written stories, Kramer Bussel tells me, it’s always pretty clear that the fantasy is wholly fictional, that it’s not necessarily based in genuine knowledge of a person’s sexuality or sexual expression. With deepfakes, on the other hand, that separation between fantasy and reality can feel much more murky: if you can see, rather than just imagine, a person acting out your most depraved fantasies, it’s easier to forget that what you’re consuming is still just a figment of your imagination, rather than who the person truly is.
And when those VR creations are being passed around the web, reducing real people’s visages to little more than pliant, programmable sexbots, freely available for use, it’s clear that the “yellow flag” Hodder-Shipp mentioned has shifted into red flag territory. By that point, it’s no longer a question of whether we, personally, need to step back and remember that our fantasies about a person aren’t grounded in reality. Once we’ve moved from private fantasy to publicly shared commodity, it’s clear that we’re in the wrong.
But there’s a vast landscape of possibility between VR fantasies that only involve fictional people and VR fantasies that are clearly being used to cause harm in the real world. And it’s worth asking whether there’s any way that immersive VR can help people explore their fantasies in a more intimate and immediate manner without crossing ethical lines. Would we feel as negatively about Virt-A-Mate if its users uploaded someone’s photo for a single use, immersive erotic experience, one where the image wouldn’t be saved and couldn’t be distributed to other users — something that more closely approximates fantasizing about someone in your own head?
For people looking for an ethical way to explore their fantasies in immersive VR, a setup like this might be the closest one can get to an “ethical deepfake,” a method that allows someone to toe the line between privately living out a lurid fantasy while ensuring that the subject of that fantasy never has to know about it or feel publicly violated and used. But keeping that private fantasy private — that no one ever attempts to capture and save it, that hackers never get ahold of the intimate details of what people are doing in their VR helmets — isn’t likely to be easy.
Not everyone in the virtual sex space is as libertine as Virt-A-Mate. Like Virt-A-Mate, Virtual Mate combines virtual reality helmets and interactive sex toys to create an experience that simulates sex. But unlike Virt-A-Mate, Virtual Mate only allows users access to characters created for the service and approved, licensed likenesses, like a wholly fictional performer named Sheila or the porn performer Tera Patrick. When we chatted, I asked Virtual Mate’s CEO Jeff Dillon whether he’d be more open to allowing users to create their own avatars from a photo if there were no way to distribute the avatar.
As much as Dillon can see the appeal of offering users the chance to make any fantasy a reality, he said he would still not be comfortable with enabling such a service. “It still comes down to consent,” he says. “There has to be some sort of consent around that [use of an image],” particularly for media that’s so intimate and sexually explicit.
“I don’t think these are issues that will ever get resolved,” Kramer Bussel tells me. Writing, she reminds me, is a much older technology than virtual reality, and we’re still grappling with the ethical issues of what it means to write an erotic story about someone — or any kind of essay — without their consent.
But those of us who choose to employ customizable virtual reality to explore our sexual fantasies will have to grapple with how we balance our sexual desires and urges with someone else’s right to control the use of their own image. Maybe we’ll decide that using approved, licensed content is the only ethical route; or that hyper customized images of exes or friends or celebrities are totally acceptable, but only when they’re for personal use and not public distribution.
Wherever we land, the process of figuring it out is “going to be a slow and horrible process,” Machulis says. After all, we’re attempting to resolve one of the most perplexing questions possible: “Where does your imagination end and someone else’s consent begin?”