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In the 21st century, porn is an economic and cultural engine unto itself, exerting influence on the economy, the bedroom and our technological world. It is sex education for this generation.

And it is readily accessible, for free, 24/7 on the internet. While porn may be one of the oldest iterations of human culture, it is not immune to the rise of free (and/or pirated) content.

In this multi-part series, we’re looking at ways the internet has changed pornography: how it’s affecting performers, aesthetics, technology, and us. First up…porn’s role in pushing VR technology forward.

Part I. The Rise of Virtual Reality Porn

Porn has always sat at the forefront of tech innovation. Are you old enough to remember Betamax? No? Well, before VHS ruled the video world, Betamax and VHS were competing formats in the 1980s.

Betamax didn’t want to have porn on their format. VHS put up no such fight. Blu-ray won out over HD-DVD two decades later in a similar manner. The internet may have been invented by the military, but was adopted by a critical mass of consumers because of porn.

Online credit card payments and other forms of e-commerce were pioneered by porn sites, not to mention streaming technology. Now, porn is pushing the development of virtual reality and making it accessible to the masses on a scale that no other entertainment sector is.

Porn’s relentless drive to innovate has always been underpinned by the desire to reach an unlimited but historically shy audience. The internet promised an immediate, ubiquitous way to connect with millions of consumers in the privacy of their own home; it was the holy grail that would open up new revenue streams, reach wider audiences, exponentially increase the scalability of the product, and allow instantaneous transactions.

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But it’s proven to be a double-edged sword that has started to threaten the bottom line of porn producers – the internet has meant the democratization of porn production.

Suddenly anyone could film themselves in their bedrooms and upload it to the web. And, just as record labels battled with piracy and the challenges of monetizing content streaming, porn producers and performers alike have found themselves struggling to compete with a limitless online sea of free content thanks to enterprising folks at home and the futile struggle against online piracy.

Where performers have turned to cam work as an alternative revenue stream (more on that later), porn studios are looking even further ahead. Enter Virtual Reality.

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Once promised to us with flying cars, VR technology is here — a little clunky, but expect it to streamline exponentially over the next few years.

At this stage, there’s a bit of setup and planning involved: you need the hardware (headsets are on the market from the likes of Google, Samsung, and Sony) and the software (either an app on your phone, a Playstation, or desktop programs to play the VR files) before you can get to downloading your rather large VR files.

From there, you’ll find yourself in an immersive video, most often positioned as a participant in the scene rather than watching someone else have sex.

That subjectivity can be disconcerting for the average porn viewer who’s used to being a fly on the wall. But it’s right up the alley of those who enjoy POV clips and avatar-based VR porn is near-revolutionary in terms of representation: You don’t have to be a muscled white guy unless you want to be.

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That ability to position the viewer in a different body – as a person with a different gender, skin color, body type, or physical demeanor – is one of the most interesting things about VR porn. It represents the potential to disrupt heteronormativity by allowing users to safely explore new behavior, roles, and subjectivities that they may not feel comfortable exploring in real life.

VR – by positioning its viewer as a subject in the porn scene rather than a voyeuristic viewer – could be a radical tool for developing empathy toward and between sexual partners.

Internet porn removed the geographic barriers that had historically isolated anyone with a sexual taste that sat outside the mainstream. During the next stage of the sex-tech revolution, VR has the potential to expand our experience of human sexuality from multiple angles (no pun intended).

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Taking its cue from VR is the emerging world of teledildonics. Yes, you read that right: teledildonics. In its twinned emergence with VR, users are already able to watch a scene and have a male masturbator toy move in concert with the action. Next on the horizon is remote communication between toys.

Products like Kiiroo — originally designed for long-distance couples — are finding new markets with webcam performers, enabling a viewer to experience real-time sensations in a toy directed by a performer’s actions on another toy a zillion miles away.

You could be watching someone on a camera giving oral to a dildo, and the masturbator toy in front of you would be recreating those specific sensations for you in real time.

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So far, unfortunately, teledildonic technology really only goes one way – from female giver of pleasure to male receiver. And this ultimately reflects what technology isn’t changing about porn — that is, the centrality of the male gaze to its production.

Even a company like VRtube.xxx, helmed by female cofounder Ella Darling, still speaks exclusively to men in their product pitch. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

VR porn also has its own unique risk factors. By blurring the lines between ‘virtual’ and ‘real’, the lines around consent become fuzzy.

Robyn Beck / Getty

When a performer licenses their likeness for VR, do they have control of what that likeness is programmed to do for all time? Or is it possible that a license holder could have the performer’s image doing things in VR porn scenes that the performer would not or does not consent to?

Is VR porn “too perfect” or “too real”, affecting viewers’ ability to enjoy real-life sex with the give and take of an equal partner rather than an image that exists solely for the viewer’s pleasure?

And this leads to perhaps the most important footnote to any discussion about VR porn: the “reality” in “virtual reality” is still constructed. Who it’s made by, and for, determines how much like real sex it actually is.

Read our beginner’s guide to sex positions that burn the most calories.

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