Devin Vosburgh ventured into the world of virtual dating following a heartbreaking divorce. “I was looking to mingle with people in a way that wasn’t too personal because I was in a weird place,” said Vosburgh, who works in marketing. He didn’t want the awkwardness of trying to get someone to leave his apartment if things didn’t go well. If necessary, he could just close his laptop and be done with it. It sounded safe and fun.
For a laugh he dressed his avatar in butt-less chaps and an albino squirrel mask, but his screwball joke freaked out the other users on the virtual platform Red Light Center, which bills itself as “The world’s largest adult virtual community.” A woman acting as a virtual security guard of sorts checked on him. She told him to tone it down but secretly took a liking. Her name was Nicole. She was Canadian, spoke her mind and wore all black. And she loved Vosburgh’s quirky sense of humor.
Five months later they started talking outside of the game’s chatroom, scheduling weekly Skype dates. Sometimes they’d cook the same dinner and eat it together remotely, with him in Rochester, N.Y., and her hundreds of miles away in Manitoba. Other times they’d hang out virtually, where they would have sex or meet up with friends.
The real-life plunge came a few months later when the pair arranged to meet in a hotel in Rochester. Nicole thought it might be a catfishing scheme. She’d had bad experiences in the past and was so nervous she puked on the way to meet him. “It was a big leap of faith,” said Vosburgh, who had the jitters, too.
“Our first hug was awkward. The safety of the keyboard wasn’t there anymore,” he said.
Once the nerves wore off the two got cozy, ordered pizza and watched a Superman flick.
They dated long distance for nearly four years, meeting every two months until she moved to New York to be with him. They married in real life in 2012 and now have a daughter together. All because they met on Red Light Center.
“I found someone I love,” Vosburgh said. “You think you’re going to porn site, but you’re really going to a social community.”
Virtual reality has gone from being the future to the present of adult entertainment, which was inevitable, given the porn biz’s constant adaptating of new technology. What’s interesting, though, is how many couples are meeting in virtual worlds and having real-life sex, dating and even getting married. No one officially keeps count of how often virtual relationships blossom into real-life encounters, but experts and users say it definitely happens, a lot. With increasingly realistic virtual reality environments set to augment the way we work, play and socialize in the not-too-distant future, early adapters like Devin and Nicole may have uncovered the future of dating.
Some 43 million users worldwide have a presence in a virtual world, a number that is expected to quadruple in the next few years. Platforms such as Active Worlds, Blue Mars and Second Life are among the most popular. Players immerse themselves in video game-like environments where you control everything from dance moves to sex positions. On Red Light Center you can join a wild orgy party happening in real time with strangers all over the world. Or do it Kama Sutra-style in, say, a glittering castle on the moon. Think of the most bizarre sex fantasy you’ve ever had. Maybe you’re wearing a papal tiara while a woman French-tickles you in a bathtub full of pudding. (Hey, don’t judge.) Whatever it is, chances are you can make it happen virtually.
The high-tech adult playgrounds in which users design their avatar selves are places where people make new friends–sometimes with benefits. Men practice wooing women, hang out online, go on dates and even get married, sometimes all before they hop in the virtual sack.
“It’s the best training tool for real life. It builds confidence,” said Brian Shuster, CEO of Red Light Center, which is NSFW, if you’re thinking about clicking that link.
For shy guys it’s a way to sharpen skills with women. For emotionally bruised men, including the freshly dumped or divorced, it’s a low-risk place to test the waters. Long-distance couples say it helps them feel connected. Long-term lovebirds say it spices things up.
And that’s the unexpected twist. Having a second life online, which has been criticized as anti-social and isolating, actually leads to more sex in real life for some. Of the roughly 10,000 couples who have gotten hitched virtually on Red Light Center in the past decade, about 100 went on to meet and get married in real life, according to Shuster. Other couples met online then hooked up in person later for casual sex or dates, some of which led to relationships.
Adam (not his real name) is an introvert who sometimes dons a tux virtually. He said living online has helped him “open up.”
His personality is reserved, but his second persona lets him channel his inner party animal. “I don’t dance in real life, but in virtual reality, I salsa, I grind,” he says. “If you’re shy, it’s a way of helping you open up. And nobody can see you blush.”
For guys like Adam it’s social training wheels. “It’s a great way of learning how to be open with people. You get immediate feedback. If you act like an ass in VR, you’ll get treated like an ass,” he says. "But If you ask a girl for a hug, you don’t have to worry about actually getting slapped.“
Five years ago Adam met a woman who was dressed as a sexy blonde biker. She goes by Groovy Girl. They talked for weeks, fell for each other and planned a big elaborate virtual wedding with a DJ, flowers and a giant cake upon which they would dance. They spent weeks planning and designing their big date, and even though it was make-believe, the wedding brought them closer together.
They soon began having virtual sex. “It’s like the real world. A person asks (for sex), and another person replies,” Adam said. “There are 50 different positions—everything from cowgirl to blowjobs. We went through all of them, just testing them out until we found five or six positions she likes.”
The marriage courting fantasy is popular with women who are turned on by sensuality and a storyline, Shuster says. At the weddings, users design everything from the color of flowers to invited guests, and these events generally cost between $150-$300. “Even if a guy isn’t into hoopla and pizazz of a wedding, he’s into making his woman happy. You have to at least pretend you’re interested in something besides sex,” said Shuster.
The way the site has evolved, from a sex site to a social community where people connect, he says, is a good sign. “We’re rapidly approaching a point where man and machine merge, where sex can be better and safer outside of real life,“ Shuster said, pointing to tech such as Oculus Rift and teledildonics. "But even with all of that, people still want to feel special to someone.”
In Adam’s case he eventually met the biker in real life. They drew the line at friendship, in part because she was much younger. They watched a fireworks show together and talked about family before he drove her home. But in their virtual world they still hook up and own an apartment together that has an orgy room.
Emilio, a computer engineer from Mexico City, moved in with his now-girlfriend after tying the knot virtually four years ago. In the game he liked Alejandra immediately. For starters, they were both dressed as vampires. But she also had a sarcastic sense of humor that drew him to her. They bonded over their passion for Gothic architecture and began casually dating online.
That quickly lead to virtual sex, which didn’t last long. “The first time we started to have sex in the game we stopped in the middle after 15 minutes. I called her, and we started having phone sex,” he says.
A few months later they met for coffee, talked for hours, and she moved in with him a few months later. Today they still play, sometimes sitting at computers side-by-side in their home. “It spices up our relationship,” Emilio said. “It’s a fun way to role play. And when I’m traveling we talk and have sex in the game.”
In the right hands having a virtual presence can have a positive effect on sex. Robert Weiss, an expert on sex and digital technology who specializes in sex addiction therapy, said, “Technology can bring us closer together. In this case, it’s a form of social bonding, an entertaining form of play that’s more engaging with other people than by yourself.”
Couples who sext feel more positive about their relationships, and virtual socializing could serve a similar function, Weiss said. “I deal with people who have turned to technology such as porn or Tindr as a form self-soothing or escape. But certainly for established couples, virtual reality can be a gift,” he said.
Of course, there's not always a fairytale ending. There are horror stories about creeps, catfishing and virtual porn addiction. Younger people are at risk because they are more likely to invest emotionally in a relationship without first meeting face-to-face. Some users string people along for years without ever actually meeting. Weiss encourages couples to meet before making a commitment to each other.
“The truth is that you don’t need to have good social skills to get laid in virtual reality,” he said. “People are more comfortable and feel less vulnerable in that world. And if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t hurt the way it does in real life.”
Now that Devin Vosburgh and Nicole share a life together, they don’t play the game. Visiting a virtual world is fine. But living there? No thanks.
Said Vosburgh, “It was a tough-but-refreshing transition to real life. With the real us, there are ugly parts, and you have to love that as well. It takes work, trust and honesty.”
It’s not always pretty, he said, but it’s real.
Natalie O’Neill is a journalist in Portland. Follow her on Twitter at @inkonthepad.