How will virtual reality porn affect our relationships?

We need to talk

How would you feel knowing your partner was immersed in a virtual sexual fantasy without you? Porn in general is already a divisive issue, but virtual reality is going to create a bigger talking point..

In fact, it's already begun - VR porn is a thing. Pornhub has opened a video section for VR, and with the right equipment you can be immersed in 360-degree videos. Other companies are doing it too, but it's fair to say that this type of content is far from hitting the mainstream; much of the content is clunky and in need of refining, while VR systems are still expensive for most users.

Not to mention that some people like their porn to be discreet. It's easier to quickly close a laptop than it is to hide a giant box strapped to your face when asked, "What are you up to, hun?"

Most people probably won't even try VR porn until the systems are cheaper and more sophisticated, but you'd be forgiven for thinking there was some sort of VR porn epidemic on the way considering how much buzz there's been around it.

It's easy to focus on the tech. "VR porn will ruin us!" "Sexbots will ruin us!" "The internet will ruin us!" "VHS will ruin us!" It seems that every time a new technology has embraced porn, we ask questions about how the tech could ruin our social lives.

That being said, VR is fundamentally different as a technology. Never before have we had the ability to use porn that is so immersive, intimate, and potentially interactive. If VR is fundamentally different, partners might need to address what this means for their relationships.

Porn, VR and you

People have worried about porn being damaging to relationships long before VR was on the scene.

Of course, plenty of couples are happily using porn frequently and are in very healthy relationships. People come in all shapes and sizes and our opinions on porn are just as diverse. Some couples avoid porn; some embrace it. Some people use porn in private because their partner doesn't approve; some watch it together.

For all these reasons, it seems impossible to investigate the effect of porn on relationships. What type of porn are we talking about? What type of relationship? Who's involved? It's already a complicated issue before we even address the use of the VR.

It's important to clarify the type of porn that's going to be on VR at first. Instead of watching a porn video on the TV, you see it up close by wearing a VR headset. The camera used by the filmmakers can record in 360 degrees, which creates the illusion that you're there in the room with the performers. That's the major difference: it feels like you're there and you can choose what to look at.

However, VR porn won't stop there. As interesting as this form of porn is, it's just the same as traditional porn with the ability to direct your attention as you please. The feeling of being in the room does make it different but it's not as immersive as VR porn will be when it embraces technology from video games and creates interactive experiences.

Regardless of whether the video is on a laptop screen or a VR headset, a video is just a video. The really innovative porn will use VR to let users interact with characters and become fully immersed in sexual activities. Instead of watching actors undress, you could undress a character that appears to be in the same room as you. Combined with augmented reality, an actor could be on your own bed rather than some movie set.

Since VR porn will include both 360 video and interactive experiences, it's worth asking if they're fundamentally different when it comes to their effect on relationships. I decided to ask around and get a feel for how people felt about the technology.

VR

Gauging the mood

To really get to grips with attitudes about VR porn, I made a survey for friends and family to get an idea for how people felt about VR porn and relationships. This isn't a scientifically rigorous investigation by any stretch of the imagination but I did get answers from over 600 people from many walks of life. It doesn't prove anything but it gives us a rough idea of how people feel about VR porn.

I asked a few questions to find out if people or their partners used porn, then I asked if they would be comfortable to learn that their partner uses porn. I asked this same question again for VR porn where the user watches 360 video porn and one more for interactive VR porn with 3D characters.

Generally, the attitudes toward traditional porn and 360-degree VR porn overlapped. The people that were uncomfortable with their partner watching porn videos were also uncomfortable for them to use VR porn. Most people that were comfortable with partners using traditional porn didn't mind if the experience was 360 and used a headset.

The result that stood out was the distinction between using VR to watch 360 video porn and using interactive porn software more like a video game. Some of the porn-positive people who were happy with their partners using VR headsets to watch porn videos were uncomfortable with the idea of them using it for interactive experiences. Intrigued, I asked some of these people (who asked to remain anonymous) to explain their answers.

"With 360 video porn, the experience is created by someone else," one participant told me. "With interactive VR porn you create the experience. That's the difference."

The idea that the interactivity of VR porn makes it different from traditional porn was shared by almost all the participants I spoke with. One participant was particularly disgusted with the idea so I asked if they would feel like they were being cheated on.

"I wouldn't feel like they cheated on me, it's not the same," they said. "But it is closer to that than just watching porn. I guess it makes me uncomfortable because it's so close to just having sex with me yet they've decided to do it on their own. It's something we could be doing together and they choose the VR."

I asked if choosing traditional porn over real sex was also a betrayal. "I think that's different because it's not like having sex with me. It's not interactive."

The feeling I got from this small survey is that people agree porn is sexual but it isn't actually sex; while interactive VR porn is uncomfortably close to the real thing.

The question is: does being close to the real thing have to be uncomfortable?