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Virtual Reality Will Revolutionize Sex, Unless Censors Get in the Way

Virtual Reality Will Revolutionize Sex, Unless Censors Get in the Way: Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift

Little-known fact: When the telephone was introduced to Victorian society, conservatives lurched into crisis mode. Here was a device, they thought, that would allow home-bound women to speak with secret lovers and plot adulterous affairs. Their concerns weren’t unwarranted: “Couples forbidden to meet in person,” says Nigel Linge, a professor of telecommunications at the U.K.’s University of Salford School of Computing, Science and Engineering, “could plan to elope—which is reported to have happened.”

Since then, moral panic over technology has erupted anew with every advance. Motion pictures once threatened to entice young, unchaperoned women to set off for Hollywood; the VCR brought any media—even pornography, God forbid—into living rooms worldwide. Even the Polaroid once augured the fall of mankind, having liberated personal photography from lab developers’ watchful eyes. To be sure, technology and sex have always met on the cutting edge. Kinks and fantasies flourish online, and the internet has unbound sex from proximity, bringing about new universes of romance and intimacy for couples and strangers alike.

Next year, another leap forward occurs with the arrival of Oculus Rift, the first mass-produced virtual-reality headset to achieve what has been termed “presence,” or an experience so real it causes the same physical reactions one would have in real life. Users’ feet tingle when they approach the edge of a virtual building; if they turn to face a tiger, they feel a rush of blood to their extremities. The device could herald profound changes in fields from architecture to medicine, from gaming to education, and the possibilities for sex are endless.

It is also likely to refine the boundaries between censorship, technology and sexual liberties, as new technologies have in the past. When the internet reached near universal adoption in the 1990s, Congress passed the 1996 Communications Decency Act to protect minors, imposing criminal sanctions on anyone who made “obscene or indecent” materials available online. The Supreme Court struck down the CDA on First Amendment grounds, but Congress redoubled its efforts in 1998 with the Child Online Protection Act, which penalized companies for making available materials deemed “harmful,” including sexually explicit content. Again, the Supreme Court struck it down.

Internet pornography only flourished in the decades that followed: In 2000, 25 million U.S. residents viewed online porn on a weekly basis. By 2002, the industry generated $1 billion, and by 2013 pornographic websites had more visitors than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined. Most online censorship now comes from the tech juggernauts themselves. Facebook restricts the display of nudity, Instagram’s terms of service ban “nude, partially nude…pornographic or sexually suggestive photos,” and Apple employs censors to comb through every application submitted to its App Store for explicit content.

It remains unclear what restrictions Oculus may face. “The Rift is an open platform,” said founder Palmer Luckey earlier this year. “We don’t control what software can run on it. And that’s a big deal.” But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg bought Oculus for $2 billion in 2014, and his company will devise the terms that govern its official store. This June, a Facebook representative told Business Insider that pornography would be forbidden from the Oculus Store, but developers will likely be able to release uncensored content for the headset independently. In that case, Oculus could have an impact on human sexuality on par with the webcam, one of the most influential pieces of technology for sex since the internet itself. By allowing users to enter safe, inhibition- and judgment-free worlds, its impact on individual sex lives—especially women’s—has been enormous.

Kate, 24, has been an online exhibitionist under the user name AwesomeKate for the past three years. “I had a pretty good sense of myself sexually,” she says of her pre-cam life, but “on the internet, you can lay it all out there. I can just be an absolutely sex-drenched person. I watched my sexuality flourish.” The same happened for 25-year-old Marissa Frost, who started camming several years ago. “I’ve always been sexually open,” she says, “but in real life, I’m shy. To find things that you didn’t think you would be into and be really into them when you’re camming is something I can take into my personal life.”

Those disinhibiting effects will be amplified by virtual reality, which will divorce sexual experimentation from fear and physical danger. This became apparent earlier this year at the XBIZ 360 conference in Los Angeles, where a company named Red Light Center unveiled a program that immerses users in a virtual Roman orgy. Attendees sat down, strapped on an Oculus headset and witnessed themselves on a white terrace under a crisp blue sky. When I did so, my senses became immediately attuned to this new world. With my virtual self flanked by couples having sex in all manner of positions, the effect was physical and immediate; I felt my stomach turn warm and my blood rush. It wasn’t until the Oculus was lifted from my head that I returned to the reality of a drab hotel conference room, surrounded by other journalists and early adopters. As far as your brain and body are concerned, you’re gone.

“I’m almost thinking of Oculus as a training tool,” says Justin R. Garcia, director of education and research at the Kinsey Institute. He envisions myriad uses for the device. “Virtual-reality-type sexual experiences might help people with their sexual initiation, and to practice overcoming fear and anxiety. For those who are bored, high-sensation seeking or risk seeking, it will help them have fun and remove some of the inherent risks.”

Kate experienced that firsthand. “If I have 400 people watching me online, I visualize an auditorium full of people masturbating with me on a stage,” she says. “It feels absolutely incredible.”

Zuckerberg, for his part, now faces a choice: censor his new toy as he does his website, or allow virtual reality to upend sexuality as we know it. Every communication platform must grapple with the same issue, deciding whether and how to limit its users’ disseminations. While Facebook disallows all nudity except depictions of breast-feeding, Twitter eschews most censorship, for good and bad: The platform has become as key for ISIS recruitment as it is for lending a voice and platform to those whom traditional media outlets can’t reach. These companies must decide whether to tailor their tools to the demands of the moralists. What we do know is that the future of sex is around the corner. Here’s hoping we’ve finally buried our Victorian sensibilities.

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