The reality of VR porn gettyimages 526725634

Tech and porn are intimately connected. The porn industry has been an early adopter of new tech time and time again, and virtual reality is just the latest tech star the industry wants to get into bed with.

Investment bank and asset management firm Piper Jaffray estimates that by 2025 porn will be the third-largest VR sector (after video games and NFL-related content). In a racket like this, the guiding doctrine must be: The more realistic, the better, right? But in virtual reality, maybe caution is advisable.

Several prominent psychologists have raised concerns about the implications of adult entertainment becoming more and more like the “real thing.”

And therein lies the first misperception: The kind of sexual activity portrayed in pornography isn’t all that realistic to begin with. “Because it’s professed as becoming increasingly like the ‘real thing,’ porn literacy is more important than ever,” Marty Klein, author of, His Porn, Her Pain: Confronting America’s PornPanic with Honest Talk About Sex, told me. “Consumers of porn — and their partners — need to understand how it’s made, and how what’s portrayed is not what real sex is like.”

Won’t somebody think of the children?

VR porn may still be new, but it is quickly moving mainstream, thanks in no small part to companies like Samsung and Oculus Rift (owned by Facebook) developing more affordable headsets that work with the VR video content being provided free of charge on adult sites such as PornHub.

It is without question a more intimate pornographic experience than the traditional voyeuristic perspective from a magazine or DVD.

Using a Homido VR headset with my iPhone 5 clipped to the front, I “sampled” various online VR porn videos. The number of options still seems fairly limited, especially when you consider a site like PornHub carries more than three million videos alone. But the experience, even on a VR smartphone headset, was still pretty impressive.

UCLA’s Professor Neil Malamuth has been studying the effects of pornography for decades. He recently sampled VR porn for the first time, too. “I was most surprised by the extent to which the video felt more personal than any conventional porn I’d viewed before,” he told me. “You get a far greater sense that you are in the room with a woman and she is talking directly to you and looking you straight in the eye,” he said. “This naturally appeals on a more personal level than traditional videos, which have a voyeuristic quality.”

But all that eye contact and direct communication is a one-sided transmission. And when fiction gets that close, you start hoping it’s real — or at the very least like a “choose your own adventure” story.

Such a convincing level of faux-intimacy, therefore, couldn’t be without some psychological or social implications.

I believe the fear of VR porn is simply more technophobia as we’ve seen so many times in the past.

— Dr. David Ley

In an interview he gave earlier this year, Malamuth compared the effects of porn with alcohol. “If you asked me, ‘Is alcohol good or bad?’ the answer is, well it depends. For some people it’s really bad — people whose lives have been ruined by alcohol consumption. For others, it’s neutral or it might allow them to de-stress, and make their sex life more interesting. I think the research shows similar conclusions for pornography depending on the cultural context, the individual factors, the amount consumed, and other features of a person’s life.”

Following on from this logic, the impact of VR porn will also vary between individuals. As the experience becomes more realistic and certain elements are accentuated, there could be negative side effects, particularly for men already at risk of committing sexual aggression. “For this substantial at-risk minority, porn tends to add fuel to the fire,” Malamuth said.

On the flip side, the illusion of intimacy portrayed though VR may in fact lead to more satisfying sexual experiences for others, without necessarily having negative effects. “For some it may become a preferred form of sexual experience that is more physically and psychologically satisfying than having sex with a real partner,” he added.

Society has a long history of wild, groundless speculation when it comes to assessing the merits, or otherwise, of any new tech on the horizon. (At the turn of the 20th century, many in the medical profession believed bicycles turned women into lesbians.)

So not everyone agrees that VR is any more significant a medium than the postcards, magazines, videotapes or DVDs that came before it. “I believe the fear of VR porn is simply more technophobia as we’ve seen so many times in the past,” clinical psychologist Dr. David Ley, author of Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man’s Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure, told me. Just like the fear that bicycle seats would turn women into lesbians, there have also been concerns over vibrators and how they could make women lose interest in men. People in Utah believe internet porn will herald the end of the institution of marriage entirely.

“It’s doubtful that many people will pursue VR porn who don’t already pursue adult videos more generally,” Ley added. “In fact VR porn may flop as it requires viewers to be more active in situations where many are actually seeking a passive sexual experience.”

There is one pretty novel aspect to this technology, however, which does separate it somewhat from porn’s more primitive guises of days gone by. VR technology can enable users to switch roles so they can view things from the perspective of their sexual partner. For example, a man may switch his viewpoint to have a woman’s body or vice versa. “You look down and suddenly see what is your pretty vagina and beautiful legs,” explained Malamuth. “It’s a totally new experience, which could be very disturbing for some people. Others, however, might appreciate it for opening up brave new dimensions to their own sexuality and sensuality.”

Featured Image: gremlin/Getty Images