Image: Shutterstock

VR Porn Could Break Boundaries, But So Far It’s the Same Old Clichés

It's new technology, but the same porn—for now.

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Apr 19 2016, 10:00am

Image: Shutterstock

Donning a Samsung Gear VR headset in a crowded hotel lobby at 5 PM on a sunny Barcelona afternoon at Mobile World Congress this year, it was jarring to think that within a few seconds I'd be transported to a plush apartment room somewhere in California to receive oral sex from two women who couldn't keep their hands off either each other or me.

I looked down and, confronted with a bronzed six-pack that clearly wasn't mine, my brain started to wrestle with its senses, fighting itself from being tricked into thinking I was where my eyes were telling me I was.

But after a minute my senses gave way, and I was fully immersed into the virtual reality world of porn. The only problem? It was the same porn.

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Virtual reality offers porn studios a new medium to create with, but some think that the technology needs to get into the hands of independent producers and directors who argue that they're making porn for everyone, not just for men.

Erika Lust filming. Image: Erika Lust

Erika Lust, Swedish feminist porn pioneer and producer, told me she thinks there's a danger of virtual reality porn heading down the road of a "made for men, by men" narrative.

"The VR adult films I've seen have all been very, very mainstream and poorly made. And by mainstream, I mean the same old silicone fantasy that has been the hallmark of the porn genre for years and years," said Lust. "Mechanical sex and fake orgasms, no passion, no context. Women as objects, men as penises. I think we have a long way to go before we can get a pleasurable experience in VR."

Browsing online forums like Reddit and looking at the VR porn movies already on offer online today, it's clear to see that a majority of studios are making the same sorts of mainstream porn already on offer without VR.

But Lust believes that independent studios could well take advantage of VR if costs of the technology start to come down, giving their productions a whole new audience and diversifying the porn available.

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Pornography, as much as people still don't want to talk about it openly, is a technology master. An early adopter, pornography pioneered many internet technologies years before the giants that now grace our everyday internet-led lives. Dutch porn makers Red Light District started one of the first internet video streaming sites way back in 1994. The pornography industry basically forged the video-as-a-service model used by later upstarts YouTube and Hulu more than a decade later.

So it's no surprise that with the recent explosion of virtual reality devices available for consumers, such as the upcoming Oculus Rift, the DIY Google Cardboard, and the smartphone-powered Samsung Gear VR, porn is up there leading the charge.

This year there are scores of sites offering virtual reality porn for users to download and stream in the comfort of their own virtual reality. Pornhub, one of the biggest porn sharing websites on the internet, announced a dedicated section for VR porn in March. One porn company I spoke to, Naughty America, is churning out more than two new VR videos a week, and offers various subscription packages for its VR customers.

But with new technology comes new opportunities, and some hope VR could be a tool for creating porn that appeals to a wider range of preferences when it comes to gender and sexuality.

I asked prominent UK sex blogger and author Girl On The Net about her thoughts on whether VR porn can offer a new medium to create and share porn without having to deal with the traditional, mainstream porn industry that consists, with few exceptions, of plenty of male executives.

"Yes, definitely, but it needs to get cheaper first," she said.

"I think it could be incredibly revolutionary. Most notably because VR porn gives us the chance to inhabit different bodies and experience sex from different perspectives—for instance I can shag someone with a strap-on while he's watching VR porn that has him in the body of a girl getting shagged, and vice versa."

Girl On The Net argues that when the price of virtual reality technology comes down, independent and feminist studios who want to make porn will be able to do far more "imaginative" stuff that what the mainstream studios are doing with it.

"People [will] sit up and pay attention to indie producers and start opening their wallets to support their work; mainstream studios realise they have to raise their game; then comes the revolution," she said.

"VR porn gives us the chance to inhabit different bodies and experience sex from different perspectives."

Ultimately, the point of virtual reality is to bring you closer to the action, to give you the lead (or indeed submissive) role, and independent, feminist studios like Lust's claim their porn does far more for the movement to make porn for everyone than the traditional studios drip-feeding mostly male audiences with the same clichéd porn scenes.

But as Girl On The Net points out, costs are currently locking out most indie producers with smaller budgets. Lust says that producing a VR film would cost her around €20,000, but for fairly established studios, VR technology isn't the biggest expense. Smaller studios or those just starting may have trouble coughing up the cost of today's VR camera. A 360-degree camera like this new Orah 4i starts at around £2,500. GoPro's cheapest VR camera is around £2,000, with the company's premium Odyssey rig selling for £10,000. Sites like Brazzers and Pornhub are capitalising on their already-established revenues to produce heaps of VR porn, but indie studios offering VR experiences are still few and far between.

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Lust says that the mainstream production houses making virtual reality porn today have the most money, and that with this new technology, porn is falling into its old patterns with the producers able to exercise their "conservative" porn ideas with virtual reality thanks to their economic power.

Erika Lust filming. Image: Erika Lust

But she is overwhelmingly optimistic about virtual reality's potential, not only in porn, but as a greater immersive cultural experience as a whole.

"That can be a great thing for women, and for people in general," she said. "Just in terms of expanding empathy, imagine everything you could do with VR. Imagine putting someone into the position of being a woman walking home in the night and being followed... Scary, yes, but a reality for many," she said.

Lust told me that she has plans to implement virtual reality technology in her productions this year, with a passion ignited from "dreadfully stereotyped" mainstream porn.

"When I do I'll make sure to include my values: creativity, realism, diversity, pleasure and making sure there's a narrative there," she said. "Our biggest sex organ is our brain—and it deserves to be stimulated with all the senses. I'll definitely have that in mind when I start using this new technology."

For now, those using virtual reality porn the most are arguably just getting the "old ideals" of pornography, but strapped to their heads. In time, with a demanding and eager market, we could see this new technology draw from new ideals of porn watchers around the world.

"Besides, women as consumers is a force to be reckoned with," finished Erika. "It's not just white, heterosexual men who watch porn—there has to be a wider selection of VR content for a commercial reason too."

Silicon Divide is a series about gender inequality in tech and science. Follow along here.