Virtual Reality (VR) – Questions re Compulsive Sexual Behaviours

I’ve been discussing with my therapeutic colleagues whether virtual reality (VR) cybersex provides a medium for compulsive sexual behaviour akin to forms of online pornographic content.   Or whether VR can, as has been done with nicotine and gambling, be used therapeutically with problematic sexual behaviours, (Park, et al. 2015).  Since no academic literature yet exists on VR cybersex, it would be premature and irresponsible to associate it with a ‘next wave’ of compulsive sexual behaviours.   Yet, there are similarities in the mediums.  So how does VR compare to the 24/7, on demand, stimulatory experience of internet pornography, a current online medium that for some becomes compulsive and problematic?  This is an exploratory article designed to raise questions for therapists working in the field of compulsive sexual behaviours.

Shifting Towards a Virtual World

Some of us may remember when cybersex gave us one (visual) or two stimuli (auditory) by looking at pornographic images or sexually explicit videos.  Cybersex now provides ‘engagement’ opportunities, e.g. conversations, interaction of sexual avatars,  remote teledildonics, etc..  Yet much of cybersex’s medium takes place on a ‘flat’ screen, and stimuli from the ‘real’ world (location, touch,pressure, peripheral vision, sound, smell and taste) remind us it isn’t ‘real’.  

VR provides immersion into a reality so that the user “feel[s] like they are experiencing the simulated reality firsthand.” (   Some VR experiences are more ‘passive’ taking the point of view (POV) of a participant, like riding a roller coaster.  Other VR media allow three dimensional movement of the participant within a new reality; good for fighting zombies in an apocalyptic world, or dinosaurs in a Jurassic forest.  Whether passive or active, VR completely replaces visual and auditory cues.  As a result, one’s sense of position and balance becomes congruent with the virtual, rather than the real world.  The real world shifts a little further away, akin to what Milgram envisioned in 1994 as a shift on a continuum from ‘real’ to ‘virtual’ environments.

VR Cybersex – What’s Different?

The first wave of VR pornography has been ‘point of the view’, i.e. the experience of inhabiting another’s body.  The VR user sees, as if with his own eyes, everything its new ‘body’ is doing and with whom it is doing it.  Even though the user has no ability or choice in interacting with this body or the other people in the experience, the stimulus cues provide a sense of integrating with the body and of being ‘in’ the virtual world.  

Though there are no published studies on the VR pornographic experience, first hand accounts are available.  They convey something ‘different’, a more ‘real’ experience than 2D pornography.  This shift in experience is reminiscent of Naughty America’s goals, “Our customers want to get as close to reality as they can get, without reality getting in the way,” (Hamill, 2015).  Users trying virtual pornography for the first time similarly report, “I underestimated how realistic it would be because they got very close to me,  It felt pretty real,” (BuzzFeedBlue, 2016).

Is VR pornography as easily accessible ?

With a VR headset (now free with some pay subscriptions), a virtual pornography experience is just a headset, headphones, and mobile phone away.  For those trying to overcome the technological ‘how to’, YouTube videos are already available to help the viewer get their phone VR porn ready.  For a better quality stimulatory, immersive experience, high end headsets with a higher price tag are available.  Yet, the bulky headset and the need for headphones make it unlikely VR technology at present will be easily accessible and hidden in a work or home environment.  Still, the technology does provide the opportunity for instant sexual, 24/7 access, anonymity, and the potential in the near future to be more affordable and provide a variety of sexual genres.

What issues does this raise of a partner’s experience of VR pornography?  Again, the research is yet to be carried out.  Harrison (2016) raised this issue with a non-scientific sample of couples’ perspectives of how they would feel if their partner were engaging in pornography.  I was struck by one respondent who felt that it was the interactive component of VR that made it different from 2D pornography.  Regarding VR pornography, he/she replied, “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.”

What does the future of VR cybersex hold?    

VR porn designed for two people is a predicted future feature, as well as watching one’s adopted body engage in sexual activity that may be controlled remotely, (Sloat, 2016).  Motion sensitive suits and teledildonics (dildonic devices synced to the virtual experience) open this field.  CIO of Naughty America, Ian Paul thinks the VR version of pornography will shift from the passive, depersonalised version to a more intimate one. (Lee, 2016).  Albeit, this could be seen as “an extremely isolating way of experiencing intimacy…and can function to reinforce unrealistic norms around bodies and sex,” (Core 77, 2016).

A therapeutic thought…

I linger with something I read by Weisel (2015) discussing media addicted (not pornography addicted) clients.  Weisel proposed that the person “immerses” himself into an alternate reality, to attempt to self heal “into new forms of being or onto another stage-set, in order to prevent the return of the trauma” (p. 205).  What the computer programme creates are symbols in the fantasy experience that become ‘relational artefacts’, i.e. virtual objects upon which the client creates an attachment.  It is this attachment, Weisel believes, that gains power because the relational artefacts “facilitate a sense of continuity which is endlessly renewed without any need for separation”, (p. 209).  A media-addicted client shows one of two defenses:  phantasy and reality are kept separate (rather than integrated into a triangular experience), or extinction of connectedness and a staying in a state of ‘non-experience’.  Rather than connecting with real-life relationships, the person develops a safe, separate, fantasy existence that becomes a repetition compulsion, and creates greater isolation from connection from self and others.  I wonder how this matches the therapist’s experience of working with problematic sexual behaviours particularly given we often see trauma and attachment issues driving management (with pornography) of negative feeling states.  

Still, without valid and reliable research, it is only conjecture that VR technology may provide a medium for compulsive sexual behaviours akin to what we see with internet pornography. There are distinct similarities in terms of accessibility and engagement.  By hijacking additional senses, VR takes the user into feeling the fantastical is “real”.  And how could we use the technology to provide therapeutic support? The psychology and neuroscience of our experience in VR is an exploration that is just beginning.

Author:  Cecily Criminale, MS, MEd, MA, MBACP (Reg)

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