Immersive VR is the Next Frontier of Sexual Experiences
The sextech revolution is one of the most overlooked trends of the 21st century
I’m a big fan of Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report. Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1956 futuristic short story, it has a nice mix of science fiction and age-old human struggles. It’s existential and provocative. But most of all, I like it because it eerily portends a myriad of technological trends that are now on the horizon.
Take, for example, the virtual reality club scene. In a scene near the middle of the film, the owner leads a client down a long hall of VR booths, suggesting that many of his patrons like to engage in role play and sex with celebrities. When one door opens, the viewers get a brief glimpse of a man in a booth wearing a haptic suit, interacting with a scantily-clad hologram. The moaning and movement suggest sex. This client though, wants something else. He wants to kill his boss.
When I get asked about the future of tech and sex, it’s the combination of desires from this scene that I think about the most. I wonder if the Freudian cocktail of sex and aggression will prove irresistible. I wonder if these experiences will actually change our neural networks, wiring us for pleasure for fantastical experiences and dulling us to earthly ones. I wonder… in a world where only our imaginations limit our experiences, how will the real world ever compete?
Because of an emerging sextech revolution, I might get the answer to my questions sooner than I thought.
A Sextech Revolution
Over the past couple of decades, self-pleasure has enjoyed a wave of good press. Cultural norms have loosened enough to allow discussions of sexual intimacy in the public discourse; science has supported the physiological value of orgasms; and the rainbow of sexual configurations has widened to include solo sex in the spectrum of sexualities. Self-pleasure is so well-regarded of late that a recent survey by Tenga showed that 84% of Americans consider masturbation a form of self-care.
Perhaps because of this, we also have a rapidly growing online sex market. From pornography to video games, the internet has long been providing a cornucopia of potential erotic pleasure. But a recent boom in sextech means that physical sex devices are now also making their way into the mainstream. A growing range of teledildonics (interactive sex toys that can be operated from a distance) can be found with a simple internet search.
For example, Kiiroo’s $219 Onyx+ male masturbator offers automatic, manual, and interactive modes that all include a soft-touch vibrating sleeve with contracting rings to simulate the act of intercourse. On automatic mode, it may be little more than a high-tech Fleshlight, but it’s the interactive mode that’s really innovative. Its internet connectedness means you can link it to a lover’s device, VR, 3D, or 2D interactive videos, and even the webcam of your favorite online performer. And just like that, simulated sex with a partner goes beyond 2D and becomes an immersive, tactile experience.
Though not quite like the VR booths from the movie, these immersive sex toys provide a glimpse of the present technological offerings. But do people really want these immersive sexual experiences? A study recently released by the Kinsey Institute suggests yes, they might. And two of their findings might surprise you:
1. It isn’t just young adults who are embracing sextech, and
2. Use extends far beyond your run-of-the-mill internet porn.
Utilizing a nationally representative sample of US adults 18–65 years old, researchers from the Kinsey Institute asked individuals about their participation in a range of sextech activities from VR pornography to teledildonics. Not surprisingly, traditional online porn still reigned supreme, with half of participants reporting they viewed pornography clips online. And sexting wasn’t far behind: 29% indicated they send sexual images.
The more surprising findings concerned the novel sextech. A significant minority indicated they had engaged in a variety of novel sextech activities, such as visiting camming streams (18%), playing sexually-explicit video games (13%), tipping or participating in camming streams (11%), engaging with VR porn (10%), using teledildonics (9%), and sexting with chatbots (8%). Extrapolating those percentages to the US population, this equates to millions of individuals espousing sextech.
And yet, they aren’t espousing it equally. Similar to other technology usage trends, younger participants were more likely to indicate engagement in all types of sextech. As an example, 66% of those 18–20 indicated they view online porn as compared to only 31% of those 60+. But middle age and older adults are not eschewing sextech entirely . For example, in the 50–59 age group, 38% send sex pictures, 10% say they visit camming sites, and 4% use teledildonics. The sextech market apparently spans all age ranges.
Novel sextech is also significantly more likely to be used by men, sexual minorities, those with higher incomes, and those who are more religious. According to the authors of the Kinsey study, the surprising high use of novel sextech among those who are more religious might be due to the fact that these activities are more gamified (which may feel less inconsistent with strict ideologies) and have not yet had the opportunity to be publicly condemned by prominent religious figures.
Criticisms of Sextech
Yet, this wave of internet-fueled sex is not without criticism. For years, media headlines have been warning against the potential downfalls of internet pornography. These headlines have been based on numerous research studies showing a plethora of negative correlates of porn use. As an example, studies show that porn addiction changes how the brain reacts to sexual stimuli, and some types of porn use, namely compulsive porn use and porn use that the user finds distressing, are associated with a host of negative outcomes, including lower levels of sexual satisfaction, more sexual dysfunction, and even sex avoidance.
Novel sextech may face similar criticism as more of these activities start to pervade the mainstream. Whispers of concern are already emerging that these immersive online experiences might increase unrealistic expectations and decrease sensitivity in face-to-face sexual encounters. And the immersive experience of VR worlds, where individuals embody a digital avatar that represents their physical body, might be both a pro and a con of the space. VR users are reporting a host of harassing and assaulting experiences, including a woman who only months ago wrote about her experience of being taunted and sexually assaulted within a few minutes of joining a metaverse venue.
Undoubtedly, future research studies will focus on the ways in which this novel sextech is affecting our development and relationships. This new study serves as an undeniable call to action for sexuality and relationship researchers. But for now, we simply know they are being used. By many. And the long-term effects are currently unknown.
That is, of course, unless Spielberg decides to make another movie.