Virtual reality pornography and tech-related violence against women: To boldly go have sex where no one has done it before!

4 April 2016

Imagine a woman standing naked while a few dozen cameras take pictures of every inch of her body, including pictures of her sexual organs, her facial expressions and her sexual identity. As though magically, these thousands of images are used to create an anatomically accurate virtual reality avatar ready to offer visual and sensorial pleasure to users. The porn star avatar lives in computer-simulated reality or virtual reality, where a user can interact, touch and even soon engage in sexual relations with it. The lifelike dynamic avatar is developed using advanced graphic image engines and offers the potential for interactive responses with the user, thanks to advances in simulated reality devices like the Oculus Rift and responsive sexual devices.

These online pornographic interactions are the brain child of Holodexxx, a Toronto-based company that brings together existing virtual reality technologies already used by video gamers and the porn industry. The porn star avatar will perform in an adult video game, where players can "live out their sexual fantasies."

The impact of virtual reality porn is relatively unknown but if we base ourselves on the porn industry and author Sarah Ratchford, in her article “Behind the Scenes of Tori Black’s Virtual Reality Porn Debut”, it is a game changer. To boldly go have sex where no one has done it before. These changes to the way we interact with pornography could have both positive and negative impacts on the rights of women, girls and members of the LGBTQIA community to find safer internet spaces to express their sexuality and live their lives without violence.

At the moment, there is no predominant international body of law that regulates the distribution, purchase or possession of internet pornography. Each country has had to develop its own laws that govern internet porn industries, and these primarily focus on:

  • Prohibiting all material labelled as pornographic or certain or all types of pornography that features violence or bestiality.
  • Preventing minors, variously defined as under 18 to 21 years of age, from using porn services.
  • Law enforcement mechanisms to ensure legal age of performers.
  • Virtual avatar, give me pleasure!

    In its simplest form, virtual reality porn involves one person interacting with a porn star avatar, controlled by a programme, to fulfil sexual desires and derive pleasure. Assuming that laws are invested in women’s safety and are respected, virtual reality porn can provide a physically and socially safer environment for users to express sexual desires or engage in socially restricted taboos without harm to themselves or to another person. Importantly, this can be an environment where people can experience non-traditional forms of sexual pleasure without fear of suffering violence and social repercussions.

    Two avatars are better than one!

    As it stands, the only lifelike avatars available on the market are pre-selected porn stars. However, the company intends to expand the access to the technology and allow regular people to create avatars of themselves, using their own likeness or not. As such,

    "[You can] assume the body you like, assume the gender you like, the race you like, and be yourself and explore sexuality. It's amazing; it's what we're on this planet to do."[1]

    From a rights-based approach, the nature of virtual porn with multiple users could result in the breaking down of gender stereotypes and discriminative norms that are prohibited by international human rights standards. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that

    “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms…without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”[2]

    The technology gives users the ability to choose their virtual representation independently of their physical bodies. This means that anyone, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, disability, age, etc., can engage in consensual sexual activities with other members. It could be argued that cultural stereotypes become less important as the users are no longer limited to their offline identities. Two adults can be engaged in a sexual encounter purely based on their minds without the burden of social, racial or gender divisions and inequalities.

    As an example, a woman could decide to represent herself as a man and then engage in sexual activities with a female avatar and a women user. Interestingly, how would you define this type of sexual interaction where two women are having virtual sex but as a heterosexual couple? Overall, it blends the distinctions between sexual orientation, as well as promoting transgender, transracial and intergenerational sexual interactions.

    The darker side of virtual reality porn: Opening the holodeck to tech-related violence

    In this situation, there exist areas of concerns for rights violations along these lines:

  • Non-consensual creation and use of avatars
  • Tech-related violence against women
  • Sexual violation of children
  • Hacking, invasion of privacy and violence based on sexual identities.
  • Non-consensual creation and use of avatars

    "I don't care what my avatar does," she says, "because my avatar isn't who I am. So yeah, all the things that you want me to do that I decline, go ahead and have my avatar do them and be like, 'Hey, look! She finally did it!' I'll be like yeah, great. It didn't cross any of my boundaries because it's all in the computer... I'm completely disconnected."[3]

    In an ideal world, existing porn industry norms would be respected, and the person whose images have been used to create the virtual avatar would have to consent without fear, coercion or violence. In its study on tech-related violence against women, APC has highlighted the non-consensual dissemination of survivors’ images in the use of so-called “revenge porn”.

    This violation involves uploading either consensual or manufactured sexual images of ex-girlfriends to a porn website without their consent. The virtual porn industry slogan states “At your own risk and peril”. However, no policy or practice is being developed to protect users and avatars faced with non-consensual use of their images. As it stands, avatars will not be allowed to participate in sexual acts that the person on which the avatar is based would have refused. This seems to demonstrate that the company is at least trying to show good will and respect basic rights.

    Tori Black, a famous porn star, maintains that the behaviours of her virtual avatar do not reflect her real world boundaries.

    "I don't care what my avatar does," she says, "because my avatar isn't who I am. So yeah, all the things that you want me to do that I decline, go ahead and have my avatar do them and be like, 'Hey, look! She finally did it!' I'll be like yeah, great. It didn't cross any of my boundaries because it's all in the computer... I'm completely disconnected."[3]

    It is difficult to assess if Ms. Black’s take on personal boundaries reflects the preference of most workers in the porn industry. However, the decision to agree to a given sexual act, be it based on physical or moral restrictions, becomes harder to monitor or control in the virtual world. Holodexxx has made it clear that the models they choose for their avatars have consented to all the acts that the user can imagine.

    Tech-related violence against women

    Virtual reality pornography positions itself as games where users can express sexual desires. However, what if the user’s desires include acts of sexual violence against women?

    Holodexxx considers their virtual porn interface as a video game. The debate about whether or not games affect behaviour is ongoing. While some studies have found a link between increased video game use and decreasing crime, other studies suggest that “regardless of age group, gender or culture, violent video games increased the likelihood of aggression and decreased empathy.”[4] Female gamers, especially with regard to violent games, have expressed an increased use of degrading and violent language being used as an expression of online cultural norms associated with masculinity.

    “The community norms around gender, i.e. the norms of social interaction and group dynamics, are hyper-stereotyped – like the exaggeration of personalities – and the only version of hyper-masculinity is one that allows misogyny and sexism to flourish.”[5]

    This fact, accompanied with the prevalence of tech-related violence against women, make virtual reality porn interfaces a likely space for sanctioned patriarchal gender-based violence and abuse. Concerningly, unchecked virtual reality porn has the potential to become an environment that promotes violence against women through its treatment of its avatars and its complicity with online harassment and cyber stalking and culturally justified violence against women and users.

    Virtual reality pornography positions itself as games where users can express sexual desires. However, what if the user’s desires include acts of sexual violence against women? As of yet, Holodexxx does not intend to allow users to engage in violent sexual acts such as virtual rape and violent sexual encounters, but it is taking minimal precautions against hacking and is silent against the potential use of this technology as an enabler of tech-related violence against women. Based on this relatively new technology, Holodexxx still retains control over the content and assures that all avatars are created respecting industry norms found in Canada.

    Are children at risk of sexual violations?

    The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography is the international tool that protects children against the use of their images for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

    It prohibits the use of “any representation, by whatever means, of a child engaged in real or simulated explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child.”[6] Virtual reality porn would have to conform to these standards against the sexual abuse of minors. For example, it would be considered illegal for any user to have sexual encounters with a child avatar because it is illegal to use sexual images of children. It remains important to be vigilant against hackers making child avatars for the purpose of exploitation.

    Another area of concern is the use of virtual reality porn by minors. Some internet porn sites require that the user declare his or her age of majority to access the content on the site, but in reality little is done to verify this information. Particularly dangerous is the use of virtual reality porn by minors who engage with adult users. Virtual reality could become a breeding ground for paedophiles and targeting of young girls for the purpose of sexual exploitation. For example, it would be illegal for an adult using an adult avatar to engage with a minor using an adult avatar.

    As it stands, it is difficult for adult users to identify underage users and consequently, they could be responsible for engaging in a sexual encounter with an underage user. It is not clear if such sexual acts will become prosecutable in law and where the user’s and the company’s liability begins and ends. At present, Holodexxx does not have any clear corporate responsibility policy to deter use for these purposes.

    Hacking, privacy and violence based on sexual identities

    How safe is virtual reality porn with regard to hacking and potential modifications to existing avatars? Holodexxx does not seem too concerned and says that it takes reasonable measures to protect users and the avatar images. However,

    “The hacking question is a risk everyone involved in the Industry will have to take. Music and films get hacked, and this game is as susceptible as anything else. It's something that we can't do too much about," Young says. "There's really not too much a small start-up can do to prevent that." He says they'll put in reasonable measures to protect themselves (and the avatars), but in the long run, “it's a gamble for everyone.”[7]

    Hacking can also have a direct impact on privacy issues and protection against human rights violations based on sexual orientation. Although virtual reality porn does provide a safer environment to exercise the expression of sexuality for members of the LGBTQIA community, if not protected sufficiently, these spaces can be used to identify and target certain individuals, which can result in extreme cases of violence and rights abuse. Violent fractions of society with the right amount of technological savvy could hack these spaces and use private information as a weapon against anyone that deviates from the heterosexual norm.

    If a case of tech-related violence does occur, one would hope that as a minimum, the company will take swift actions to rectify the rights violation and assist the survivor to find justice through the judicial avenues available in her or his jurisdiction. There exists no policy available at this point of development.

    Conclusions

    As virtual reality porn becomes commonplace, so will the need to closely monitor it for sexual abuse against women, children and members of the LGBTQIA community. As such, reflections on possible impacts are required to identify the needs of survivors and areas of intervention for women’s organisations working against tech-related violence.

    Work must be done:

  • To undertake research and share information, in partnership with civil society actors and transnational cyber crime and law enforcement agencies, on tech-related violence in virtual porn.
  • To respond to these technological changes and enact laws that prohibit sexual violation and targeted violence against women, children and members of the LGBTQIA community.
  • To make private companies in virtual porn accountable for taking the appropriate measures to protect against violations, such as non-consensual image use, child sexual exploitation, accessing private information on sexual preference, and online harassment and cyber stalking of women. Clear policies and procedures must be put in place to identify rights violations and rectify abusive situations as quickly as possible.
  • To develop public awareness on virtual reality porn.
  • To empower users as customers to demand that human rights standards apply to their virtual reality porn experience.
  • To ensure that virtual reality porn is a safe space for users, including women, to enjoy their sexuality.
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    Footnotes

    [1] Ratchford, S. (2016, 7 January). Behind the Scenes of Tori Black’s Virtual Reality Porn Debut. VICE. www.vice.com/read/behind-the-scenes-of-tori-blacks-virtual-reality-porn-...
    [2] For the full text of the Declaration, see: www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights
    [3] Ratchford, S. (2016, 7 January). Op. cit.
    [4] O’Callaghan, T. (2010, 2 March). Can violent video games make kids more aggressive? Time. healthland.time.com/2010/03/02/can-violent-video-games-make-kids-more-aggressive
    [5] Moawad, N. (2015, 22 October). The thing about gaming. GenderIT.org. www.genderit.org/articles/thing-about-gaming
    [6] For the full text see: www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/OPSCCRC.aspx
    [7] Ratchford, S. (2016, 7 January). Op. cit.

     

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