The brave new world of virtual reality porn has a lot of legitimate draws — but how will it affect sex and relationships with people IRL? Here, experts discuss.

By Jillian Dara
January 19, 2021
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Advertisement
Credit: Getty Images - Design: Alex Sandoval

It was only a matter of time before tech entered the bedroom. We're not talking about the latest sex toys or sex-improving apps — we're talking about virtual reality porn.

VR porn, the computer-generated simulation of three-dimensional sexual interactions, first entered the market less than five years ago — just as the concept of virtual reality began to take off by way of video games and travel simulation. The year 2016 was a period of "massive growth" for VR porn as new devices came to market, including smartphone connection and virtual reality goggles designed specifically for virtual porn use, says Rene Pour, CEO of VR porn site Reality Lovers. And by 2017, PornHub shared in a report that VR was one of their fastest-growing categories, with VR porn videos being watched 500,000 times each day.

"With advances in VR technology as a whole, the experience of VR porn is quickly changing the landscape of visual erotica from a two-dimensional experience (in which the consumer is more of a voyeur) to one that intimates a much more three-dimensional and immersive experience," says Kate Balestrieri, Psy.D., a certified sex therapist and founder of Modern Intimacy in Beverly Hills, CA. But is this a good thing? And what might it mean for your ability to connect with other humans in the flesh?

The VR Porn Experience

VR glasses were initially designed to plug into your smartphone or a home device, such as a PlayStation, in order to access content which would then be displayed through the glasses; however, the most modern VR goggles are wireless, stand-alone devices with internet connectivity, thus no additional hardware is required. You can download or stream the content directly, making it even easier to use — and an even higher quality experience, says Pour. The Oculus Quest (Buy It, $399, amazon.com) is the mainstream device currently offering the "best experience yet," he says.

Reality Lovers is one of the leading companies in virtual reality porn, with others including Naughty America, VR Bangers, VRporn.com, SexLikeReal, and VirtualRealPorn, and some more conventional sites like Pornhub and Redtube offering VR porn channels as well. As with traditional, two-dimensional porn, these VR companies run the gamut when it comes to the quality of experiences; some sites offer free content, and others are based on membership subscriptions. Generally, the more you pay, the higher the production and video quality will be, but in the case of VR, the device you're viewing it on will impact your experience as well.

"VR headsets are the baseline requirement for viewing VR porn, but some of the most exciting advancements in the technology are actually in sex toys that accompany VR porn," explains Caitlin V. Neal, M.P.H., resident sexologist for sexual hygiene company Royal. "The majority of these toys are designed for people with penises and are essentially mechanical strokers that can either be synced with the porn you're watching or with another toy operated by someone else." Some VR sex toys — for example, those from top retailers Kiiroo, LELO, and Lovense — can connect directly to the goggles via Bluetooth so that what you feel and what you're watching syncs up, says Pour.

Though technology hasn't permitted VR porn to relay some of the other sensory elements of a sexual experience (think: smell, taste, or the feeling of actually touching a partner) yet, "the size and proximal distance of virtual partners alone can turn a consumer's world around," says Balestrieri. Watching porn on a two-dimensional screen depicts bodies that are not life-sized compared to those in virtual reality. This can excite the brain in different ways and can even stimulate some people to unconsciously engage in sex-emulating body movements since the experience feels so real, says Balestrieri.

"As a viewer, you're close to the actors like never before," says Pour. "All POV videos are recorded in the exact eye position of the actor. Through the lenses of the goggle, you can see the situation or the sex partner in the same way as the actor perceives them."

Interestingly, preliminary research on VR porn found that this first-person perspective is like a golden ticket for inducing arousal in both genders. In a study published in Computers in Human Behavior, the "participant" perspective consistently resulted in greater arousal compared to a voyeuristic view, regardless of whether it was viewed as VR or "traditional" 2D porn.

How VR Porn May Affect Your Relationship with Sex

Everyone has different sexual preferences — both in the bedroom and on the screen — and this stands true relative to VR porn as well. And, like in many porn-related discussions, gender appears to play a role as well; the aforementioned study on VR porn published in Computers in Human Behavior showed that men found VR pornography more arousing than 2D scenes, but this was not the case for women.

"There are many factors that go into how someone views or responds to erotica, and those include everything from their background to their past experiences to their beliefs and more," says Searah Deysach, sex educator and owner of pleasure shop Early to Bed. "For some, VR porn will enhance their sexual repertoire, either alone or with a partner. For some, it will be a way to feel connected." For couples looking to spice things up, VR porn could provide "a new method of kink to explore" and for partners who may have a low sex drive, this platform could "give their libido a boost," says Deysach.

Even if it's not a user's intention, VR porn may be useful for developing empathy. "Some folks may be curious about assuming the other person's POV, which could result in spontaneous empathy development and a reconsideration of previously held beliefs," says Balestrieri. In fact, The Journal of Sex Research published a study on using VR as "empathy medicine," and found that "VR pornography seems to be a powerful tool to elicit the illusion of intimate sexual experiences." The study participants, which included 50 healthy males, reported feeling more desired, flirted with, and connected by way of eye contact during a VR porn experience, as well as more likely to feel close to the actors. Their saliva levels of oxytocin (known as the "bonding" hormone) were related to the perceived eye contact with the actors, meaning this chemical might play a role in the perception of increased intimacy during virtual interactions. VR porn might offer people a way to reap the benefits of human intimacy and connection when it's not readily available or an option IRL — especially, say, amidst quarantine isolation and the current loneliness epidemic.

VR porn is also emerging as a potential tool for sexual trauma survivors looking to safely explore intimate experiences again. "It offers a survivor the opportunity to develop more sensory awareness of the cues that tell them what they like and what they don't and the ability to practice stopping when they want (something survivors sometimes struggle with)," says Balestrieri. This falls under the umbrella of exposure therapy, a technique used to treat certain anxiety disorders, including phobias, PTSD, OCD and panic disorders. It's meant to help "break the pattern of avoidance" by exposing a patient to the thing they fear most, but in a controlled environment, according to the American Psychological Association. (Related: How Sexual Assault Survivors Are Using Fitness As Part of Their Recovery)

On the other end of the spectrum, sex professionals recognize the downsides of VR porn. "It's a lot like the rest of porn that exists today; some people find their use problematic and issues range from relationship or marital problems to dependence on porn itself," says Neal.

Dependence can result in pre-mature orgasms, lack of orgasms, distraction during sex, reliance, addiction, and desensitization. "VR porn, because it is new, so completely immersive, and without many in-vivo consequences, may excite a dopaminergic release that keeps someone coming back for more, to the point of detriment," explains Balestrieri. Meaning, you get a dopamine release from this type of activity and, like anything that releases this feel-good hormone (i.e. sex, exercise, food, social media), it runs the risk of becoming compulsive. Compulsivity could lead to dependency which, ultimately, can affect relationships. "Coupled with the intentional escapism of porn, this medium could result in many people seeing unintended consequences: broken trust in relationships, sexual dysfunction with partners in real life, partner insecurities and distress in relationships," says Balestrieri. (See: Is Porn Actually Addictive?)

Not to mention, "the kind of sex that happens in a lot of porn is not the kind of sex that is happening in everyone's bedrooms," says Deysach. "Porn should not be an excuse to hold your lover (or yourself) to an impossible standard. If it's a fun, sexy outlet, great, but if it causes stress or disappointment with yourself or your partner, it is time to examine your relationship to porn." Of course, these expectations aren't limited to sexual prowess, positions, and even sex noises, but can also extend to the bodies depicted in porn, as well as beauty and grooming standards.

Checking In On Your Porn Use

Whether you or your partner are dipping a toe into VR porn or simply continuing with 2D viewing, Balestrieri affirms the importance of communication. "In any relationship where the use of porn is a secret, it's likely to wreak havoc on the relationship when it comes to the surface." That is why Balestrieri encourages partners to not only discuss pornography before viewing but also for you to individually and realistically assess your porn consumption, asking questions such as, "How does my partner feel about it? Do I feel comfortable talking with my partner about it? Why or why not? Am I willing to prioritize my relationship if my partner is not okay with my porn use?

Whether you're intrigued by the rise in virtual reality porn or this sparks an interest in understanding your relationship with porn in general, it's worth thinking through. Consider pondering (or even journaling about) some more of Balestrieri's questions below to fully evaluate how porn use (virtual or otherwise) may affect your relationship with sex.

  • Have I thought about how I might know what constitutes too much porn use, for me?
  • Does my porn use get in the way of any other life tasks or hobbies?
  • Can I still connect to real-life partners sexually? Have I experienced a loss of arousal with partners in real life?
  • Do I feel irritable, sad, or anxious if I go without porn for a week?
  • Do I use porn as a weapon (watch it to get back at my partner)?
  • How would I feel explaining my relationship with porn to my kids when they are older?
  • Do I have any shame after watching porn? Watch it in secrecy?

The Future of Sex Tech and VR Porn

While sex tech might feel inherently riskier or less authentic than coupling up with another human IRL, VR porn can offer more realistic and connected experiences for those who can't safely partner up, simply don't have a partner at the moment, or who are in a long-distance relationship (just look at the boom of remote control sex toys!). In the future, imagine the ability to have VR sex with your own partner even when you aren't physically together, don't feel up for it, or have other life obstacles getting in the way of getting it on. "I think the demand will trend more toward people having virtual reality sex with each other rather than simulated experiences that are pre-recorded with professionals," says Pour. Of course, that might bring a whole new set of problems (think: cybersecurity, the ability to virtually cheat but with people you know, etc.), but we'll have to take that in stride.

As the sex tech space continues to grow, Balestrieri predicts that the influence of technology on an already charged human experience is likely to foster new dimensions of sexuality — VR porn is just the start. And if this all freaks you out, you can take comfort in her reminder: "We are meant to touch each other's skin. Smell each other's breath, taste each other's skin. No technology can replace the real-life imperative of the sexual experience."

Comments

Be the first to comment!