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​VR Needs to Be Pleasurable for Women Before VR Porn Can Be

Virtual reality is designed for men.

Look at any tech expo roundup and it's clear that VR isn't going away. From gaming to porn, virtual offices to activism, mental health treatments to space exploration, developers and researchers are finding new ways to develop and innovate in virtual reality. But among all this hype and innovation, there's one thing we're not talking about: women.

Studies have found that women experience VR differently to men, and not just because the headsets are often bulky and too big for women's heads.

The different responses women can have to VR could affect their enjoyment of the technology—which is perhaps important nowhere more than in VR porn. Feminist porn director Erika Lust says that directors should refuse to work with technology that isn't "pleasurable for women."

"If the VR experience wasn't pleasurable to women I just wouldn't work with it," she told me.

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One major example of gender differences in VR is that women are far more susceptible to VR-induced nausea.

Tom Stoffregen has been studying motion sickness for over 25 years, with research spanning traditional seasickness, Air Force flight simulators, and VR devices like the Oculus Rift. His research has always suggested that women are more likely to experience motion sickness—in the case of seasickness, for example—but that this gender divide becomes even more obvious in VR.

In one 2015 study, Stoffregen found that for every one man that gets sick using the Rift, four women did.

"There are so many women wanting to watch VR that there should absolutely be a smart solution for issues around motion sickness and nausea"

The study measured body movement, with participants playing a Rift game for 15 minutes and researchers recording the time it took for someone to feel nauseous. Of the 35 percent of subjects who felt unwell within ten minutes, 70 percent were women. It's a major design flaw, says Stoffregen.

"Engineers, the people who design VR systems, tend to think about motion sickness in terms of the technology—resolution, frame rate, things like that—and in terms of the sensory systems that the technology was designed to stimulate, usually the eyes," he told me. "That's the origin of the impetus to focus on things like visual field size. But there's no science behind it."

Instead, Stoffregen believes that "susceptibility is related to the degree to which people can stabilise their own bodies." In other words, on the whole, men are able to stabilise their bodies better than women because they have higher centres of gravity, larger feet, and are heavier. This, Stoffregen says, is why men are also less susceptible to more traditional forms of motion sickness like seasickness.

"It's not surprising that men and women respond differently in a postural sense to unfamiliar motion situations," he said. "A person using VR must control and stabilize their own body. The more compelling the VR, the more likely it is that the person will try to stabilize the body relative to the virtual world. But that is a mistake; the body is not in the virtual world, and we need to stabilize it relative to the physical world, gravity etc."

"First off, companies need to recognize that their products are sexist"

Other researchers have also found gender differences in the VR experience. A study from Microsoft's danah boyd (who chooses not to capitalize her name) also found that there's a difference in how men and women experience the various methods VR producers use to suggest distance. Motion parallax, which uses perspective to suggest distance, is processed far better by men than women; shape-from-shading, which uses light to alter the way you perceive objects, is processed better by women. Most systems use motion parallax—mostly because it's easier to program—despite the fact it can make the VR experience far less pleasurable or immersive for women.

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So what happens when the tech meets that other industry with an obvious gender divide, porn?

Porn is often (falsely) considered to be an entirely male pastime. It's easy to see why; despite the fact that one in three adults browsing the internet for porn are women, according to Nielsen, take a quick look at the homepage of pretty much any mainstream porn site and you'll be faced with a deluge of male-centric PoV clichés.

It's another example of "male as default"—the idea that men are a "neutral" category, with women in a separate, non-default, and markedly different one.

So when the two industries come together, it's unsurprising that women are often excluded.

But as we've seen, this isn't just a content problem; it's a design problem. Motion sickness, nausea, ill-fitting headsets—even if porn has been directed by inclusive filmmakers, how can VR porn possibly be conducive to a pleasurable or immersive experience for women?

Erika Lust on set. Image: Erika Lust

"There are so many women wanting to watch VR that there should absolutely be a smart solution for issues around motion sickness and nausea," said Lust. "It's not like virtual reality environments are just used in porn; it's an immersive experience that's used in art, exhibitions, cinema...so if there are problems with it regarding the female experience, there should absolutely be improvements."

Scientists and directors agree: the issue isn't insurmountable. Including women on design teams and being mindful of gender throughout the process can help make products more inclusive, both in terms of content and production.

"VR companies need to stop looking at this as an issue of technology design," Stoffregen said. "It's an issue of how the user and the technology interact."

"First off, companies need to recognize that their products are sexist. Not sexist by intent; rather, sexist in their effects," he added. "Having women on design teams can help, but not if they, too, buy into the unhelpful 'tech only' thinking that has prevailed. The technologies are ours to create, and if we create technologies that discriminate (with or without intent) then the makers can—and should—be held liable."

Lust shared this opinion: "We shouldn't fall into this 'not suitable for women' tag again. We've had enough of those and we're proving them all wrong."