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What will sex look like in the metaverse?

The metaverse is cumming, with the help of new sex tech

In October 2021, Mark Zuckerberg emerged from the depths of scandal armed with a keynote of his plans to build out the metaverse. Over the course of 77 minutes and a colourful CGI montage, the tech founder described a virtual reality-based network of 3D online worlds. From working and shopping to partying and attending concerts, everything is possible in Zuckerberg’s metaverse – except for a digital hook-up.

Those familiar with Meta’s history weren’t surprised by the omission of virtual sex from the roster of approved activities. Facebook and Instagram already employ a strict anti-nudity policy, which even prohibits female nipples and often shadowbans or outright removes anything it determines to be explicit content. In November, Meta’s new CTO Andrew Bosworth said he planned to institute “almost Disney levels of safety” across the company’s metaverse operations, thus confirming that the Zuckerbergian digital universe intends to be a sexless place.

But there’s a new vanguard of sex workers, pornographers, and tech developers who are working against the grain of Zuckerberg’s squeaky clean vision to develop interactive sexual experiences for the metaverse through virtual reality [VR], artificial intelligence [AI], and teledildonics – aka, Bluetooth-enabled sex toys. After all, virtual sex is already a thing and porn will always find its way into new technology, so why not use the metaverse to facilitate sexual experiences that are affirmative, consensual and actually good?

Ela Darling, a VR porn star and cam girl based in Los Angeles, says she grew interested in filming more immersive content after sampling a VR headset at a tech conference in 2013. “Any time I come across a new technology, I ask myself two questions,” Darling tells Dazed. “How can I fuck with it and how can people watch me fuck with it?” 

Her first VR porn was a solo masturbation scene recorded using two GoPro cameras hitched onto DIY mounting rigs. The cameras captured her from 180 degrees and the different angles were “stitched together” in the post-production stage to render a 3D image of her body. Darling describes working with VR as “walking into a workshop that you’re very familiar with, but every time you reach for a tool, it doesn't exist yet.”

“The creation process has gotten a lot simpler over the years,” she notes. Along with continuing to make adult content a decade later, Darling is the marketing director for ViRo Playspace, an online platform for anonymous “adult-themed exploration.” Users head to the site for encounters with virtual camgirls, made interactive by the option to sync teledildonics to on-screen actions. It’s also one of few platforms offering VR experiences for BDSM kinks, furries and the queer community.

“Any time I come across a new technology, I ask myself two questions: how can I fuck with it and how can people watch me fuck with it?” – Ela Darling

While some personas are AI-driven, others, like the cam girl Vex Ruby, are digital representations of female performers who are engaging with viewers in real-time. “She looks like a video game character, but she’s fully motion-tracked in real-time in a motion capture suit,” Darling explains. “And so when our users are connected to the app, she has this little device to buzz their toys.”

Vibease, a teledildonics company that works with a variety of VR platforms, reported its sales have increased by 50 per cent over the pandemic. “People started to use teledildonics to bridge their sexual and intimacy needs,” Vibease co-founder and CEO Dema Tio says. Since teledildonics essentially mimic human touch, they’re often used by long-distance couples.

Darling’s ViRo Playspace is also currently exploring the development of safe “social spaces” so that people can have sexual encounters in VR outside of the porn and camming contexts. “People could rent a room, send a link to their partner, join each other in this private room and just hang out or engage each others’ toys,” Darling says.

“The metaverse offers the chance to democratise experiences by making spaces accessible by anyone with an internet connection, so it’ll be really interesting to see how it will democratise access to sexual relationships,” Tio adds, conceding that while Meta will undoubtedly impose restrictions, he believes there will be multiple decentralised metaverses.

A monopoly over the metaverse is also a concern of Cindy Gallop, the founder of MakeLoveNotPorn, a publisher of user-submitted, human-curated “real world sex videos”. 

“The amazing thing about our videos is that we are a unique window into the way that we all have funny, messy, ridiculous sex in the real world,” Gallop says. But like many indie pornographers today, Gallop fears that her company will be excluded from an industry-wide shift to the metaverse due to the high costs associated with producing VR content and other high tech ventures. As a porn company, the process of finding investors and raising funds is especially difficult, as is locating individuals and companies in tech who are willing to collaborate on projects.

“When we talk about the future of the metaverse, who do you think in the porn industry is gonna have funds to dominate that, versus what should be a fully diverse and inclusive spectrum of entrepreneurs in porn?” Gallop asks. “Money is what drives all of this and the metaverse right now is being built and owned by white men without the rest of us participating.”

“The amazing thing about MakeLoveNotPorn is that we are a unique window into the way that we all have funny, messy, ridiculous sex in the real world” – Cindy Gallop

In addition to serving self-pleasure and intimacy purposes, there’s educational potential for virtual spaces in the metaverse to promote sexual wellness and communication, both online and offline. Gallop foresees the metaverse as “a reference point where technology will encourage closer connections, deeper intimacy, better sex and therefore better relationships in the real world.” 

Sex tech researcher Bryony Cole agrees that the metaverse can offer new opportunities to overcome any awkwardness tied to learning about sex. “I believe there is a great potential for sex education and sexual health support in the metaverse. Because the topic of sex is still so stigmatized, the combined anonymity and intimacy of virtual worlds makes it an ideal platform for education and health topics to thrive,” she says. Instead of entering a sex shop in person, for instance, a user could visit an online store in the metaverse, where they may feel more comfortable talking to a clerk about what they’re looking for. The same goes for sexual health classes or workshops. “Personally I’m invested in a harmonious future that is respectful, less judgemental and more open because of the level of awareness the metaverse hopefully brings,” Cole continues.

Of course, for this to happen, Cole stresses that “it’s critical that we engage creators with a range of sexual experiences, orientations, abilities and backgrounds in order to build an inclusive and representative space.” The metaverse won’t be a safe or fun place for sex if it’s not designed with everyone, especially marginalised people, involved in the process.