Sex in the metaverse isn’t all fun and games

The metaverse has arrived as a virtual layer on top of our physical world, but does trying to build real life experiences lead to real life concerns? Lily McGonigal breaks down the worries around digisex, virtual consent and sexual power imbalances in this new age.

In 2021, the word “metaverse” entered Collins Dictionary’s Top 10 Words of the Year, nearly three decades after it was first used in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash. Describing a highly immersive virtual world where users can meet, socialise and shop, the term regained mainstream popularity following Mark Zuckerberg’s rebranding of Facebook to Meta last year. Predicted by analysts at JP Morgan to be a trillion-dollar opportunity, the metaverse has been hailed by enthusiastic Silicon Valley executives as the wave of the future, with Meta describing it as “the next evolution of social connection”.

The excitement that surrounds the metaverse is understandable: though it’s still in its early days, it is easy to imagine the utopian potential of such technology when we look to the creative activation already happening in the space. For Gucci Garden, Gucci collaborated with the gaming platform Roblox to reimagine the traditional shopping boutique as a blooming paradise; on Fortnite more than 12 million users gathered under candy-pink CGI clouds to watch rapper Travis Scott perform a live in-game concert; and at Burning Man’s virtually reconstructed festival – complete with VR neon psychedelia – the event climaxed in the virtual ceremonial burning of a giant wicker man. Meta also tapped into this surrealist paradisal imagery for its recent advert: gallery visitors are shown staring wide-eyed as Henri Rousseau’s painting Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo (1908) is brought to three-dimensional reality, the lush greenery and animated jungle animals virtually bursting out of the frame and into the gallery space. As the film ends, a vaguely ominous message from Meta flashes up on screen: “This is going to be fun.”

As with any new technology, it hasn’t taken long for the conversation to turn to how the metaverse can be utilised to satisfy the most primal of human needs: sex. This is perhaps unsurprising when we look to earlier examples of virtual worlds, most notably the online platform Second Life, which frequently made headlines due to numerous reports of in-game affairs ending in real-life divorce. While the thought of a virtual relationship may have been met with hesitancy in the past, people’s openness towards the involvement of tech in their romantic and sexual lives is increasing – as shown by the ubiquitous popularity of dating apps. In 2021, a study by the customer service platform Tidio found that 88% of respondents believe it is possible to form meaningful relationships in virtual space. Such open-minded attitudes towards digital sexual experiences look set to become more commonplace as developments in sex tech create increasingly immersive cybersex experiences that can replicate auditory, tactile and even olfactory sensations. More intimately, teledildonics can facilitate physical intimate touch between long-distance lovers, while 3D scanning allows for the creation of more realistic personal avatars and VR holograms can bring your fantasy lover(s) into your own bedroom.

“We are wired to socially connect with others, and this sense of community is crucial for our mental wellbeing. While the metaverse allows for these interactions to happen digitally, there is a danger that such connections could replace building authentic in-person connections.”

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The erotic potential of these technologies is often used as evidence that the metaverse can revolutionise our sexual lives. We are encouraged to envision multisensorial, hedonistic dreamworlds where – through our avatar selves – we are free to express ourselves and safely explore our desires, unshackled by the identities we have to live with in real life. Except so far it hasn’t quite worked out like that.

Last year, Nina Jane Patel – a futurist working on creating safer metaverse spaces – shared her experience of being subjected to virtual sexual assault within seconds of entering an open metaverse space. Patel’s story does not appear to be an isolated incident: on Reddit, users write of their exhaustion at regularly experiencing sexism in VR gaming spaces, with one noting: “The last thing I want in a game where I am literally trying to escape the reality of my daily life […] is the threat that I’ll have to deal with more of the same bullshit I face in real life.” Another user highlights the victim-blaming at play when these incidents are discussed in the media: “There’s the suggestion to ‘not choose a female avatar’, like it’s a woman’s fault for representing herself in a virtual world.”

Such anecdotal evidence is corroborated by a study by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, which found that users on VRChat – the most reviewed social app in Facebook’s VR Metaverse – are exposed to abusive behaviour every seven minutes. These incidents included bullying, sexual harassment and children being exposed to graphic sexual content. A BBC News investigation found similar, with the researcher posing as a 13-year-old girl and witnessing grooming, sexually explicit material and a rape threat inside the VRChat world. The report also highlighted how children as young as 13 were able to enter VR strip clubs, where avatars simulate lewd sexual acts.

Many still dismiss the seriousness of these virtual incidents – top-rated comments under a newspaper article on Patel’s story include “Nothing happened to you… it’s a computer game” and “I can’t help but think what do you expect.” What is not acknowledged is how the immersive nature of today’s VR technology can create an experience that feels incredibly realistic. As another Reddit user describes VR’s convincing sense of presence in space, “When someone gets up close to your face you really feel the discomfort of personal space violation […] we really shouldn’t underestimate the intimacy and emotional exposure VR technologies present by producing such a convincing sense of personal presence.” Being violated through VR can therefore feel worryingly close to being violated in person, particularly to those who have experienced sexual assault in the past.

 

Incidents of assault point to a key issue in the metaverse: protected under a cloak of anonymity online, people act in ways they would never in person. While the metaverse may provide escapism from reality, this escapism can quickly turn into an unhealthy disconnect between our online and offline selves. This is hardly a revolutionary statement and the past decade has seen much analysis of the abusive behaviours of anonymous social media trolls.

“Incidents of assault point to a key issue in the metaverse: protected under a cloak of anonymity online, people act in ways they would never in person.”

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Yet while we are aware of this disparity between how we act online and how we act in person, the results of a Statista study last year still prove shocking. When asked “What things would you do in the metaverse but never in real life?”, 20% of respondents said they would play adult games that engage in extreme violence and/or sex; 18% would conduct unethical experiments on virtual humans; 18% would watch virtual executions; 17% would own a virtual harem; and14% admitted they would engage in hate speech.

While the respondents clearly state these are fantasies that they have no intention of acting upon in real life, the real-life implications of such behaviour is nonetheless worrying: what happens when those who choose to watch virtual executions become desensitised to the violence and crave something more? How do we define morality in a space where the line between reality and illusion is already so blurred?

Since Patel’s story broke, Meta has unveiled a “personal boundary” function that creates a bubble around your avatar, preventing other users from coming within 4ft of your personal space. The feature unintentionally (but perfectly) symbolises a widespread problem when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment: rather than the perpetrators being challenged, the onus is placed on the victim to cover up and protect themselves. But it is also emblematic of a wider problem often overlooked amid the metaverse hype: the clinically sterile environment of the metaverse can feel not only boring but decidedly unsexy.

This is seemingly intentional on Meta’s part. In an internal Meta memo seen by the Financial Times, Andrew Bosworth, now the company’s chief technical officer, is said to have described how he wanted its virtual worlds to have “almost Disney levels of safety”. The implication of this appears to be that Meta wishes to avoid the subject of sex entirely. When Zuckerberg shared his keynote outlining Meta’s vision for the metaverse, he spoke of the benefits to trade, education, commerce and exercise. This focus on productivity was made explicit in a section of the talk titled Work Better Do More. It appears that Meta’s vision of the future of human connection is a world where productivity and business – not creativity or sexual freedom – are the central focus. This is perhaps unsurprising when we consider Instagram and Facebook’s reputation for unfairly censoring those posting creative content deemed to be sexually explicit. Nonetheless it makes it difficult to envision Zuckerberg’s metaverse as the future when it appears to be entirely sex-free.

Decentralised platforms – those that are built and established by communities – provide something of a subversive antidote to this corporate sanitisation. With users having more control, such platforms often prioritise freedom from censorship and focus on creating space for (often marginalised) people to safely explore their identities and desires. Yet even these platforms are not entirely free from criticism: a larger debate still needs to be held about the potential negative psychological consequences of sex in the metaverse. As humans we are wired to socially connect with others and this sense of community is crucial for our mental wellbeing. While the metaverse allows for these interactions to happen digitally, there is a danger that such connections could replace building authentic in-person connections – meaning people will miss out on experiencing real life in the present moment.

Further, many people still have valid concerns over involving any tech company in their private lives in this way. Such concerns are valid when we consider the tech industry’s reputation for data leaks and shady privacy policies. The worry that our data may be sold on and used by third parties in ways we still aren’t fully sure of is unnerving at the best of times, but even more so when this information concerns explicit details of our sexual behaviours and innermost desires.

At the moment, sex in the metaverse still seems to resemble masturbatory rather than mutual pleasure, indicating the problematic power imbalances that remain at play. These power imbalances don’t just exist on an interpersonal level between users but also on a much larger scale between users and platform: entry to a virtual nightclub in return for corporations having access to our most personal data seems an unfair exchange.

Another problem perhaps lies in how we view sex in the metaverse at large. In judging it as an entire replacement to, rather than an extension of, our IRL sexual lives, we may actually fail to recognise the opportunities the metaverse could have to radically change our sex lives for the better. Indeed, there is much to be excited about: community-built digital spaces elevated by immersive sex tech are genuinely exciting, offering pleasurable experiences that mirror – or even surpass – the joyful, messy, carnal connections we experience in real life.

“At the moment, sex in the metaverse still seems to resemble masturbatory rather than mutual pleasure, indicating the problematic power imbalances that remain at play.”

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Nevertheless, we must always remain critical of the involvement of any tech company in our intimate lives; critical of allowing our most precious, primal desires to be reduced to data patterns; critical of letting artificial intimacy become a quick-fix substitute for authentic human connection. Put simply, we may have fun in this world but must approach it with caution. If we don’t we risk denying ourselves the pleasures of being an active, consensual participant in the decentralised digisex revolution, instead settling for being a passive observer of this future, watching alone from behind a pixelated bubble.

  • Writer Lily McGonigal

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