The Rise and Feel of VR Pornography
The porn industry may have changed a lot in the digital age, but some things still live up to the stereotype. Like, say, this house in the San Fernando Valley, which is the nation’s capital of adult film production. From the outside, it doesn’t look all that different from the other million-dollar properties in this Los Angeles suburb.
Inside, it’s just another day at the office—if your business happens to be making adult films. At the moment, the statuesque naked woman on the four-poster bed in front of me is—and really, there’s no more polite way to say this, so bear with me—inserting a string of oversize beads into herself, while a naked guy stands next to the bed, a towel hanging from his erect penis.
But August Ames and Tommy Gunn, as fans might know them, aren’t here simply to have sex on camera. If that were the case, then the VR camera rig in front of Gunn’s face wouldn’t be forcing him to lean back so far at the waist that he retires to a daybed in the corner to stretch between takes. (“My hip flexors are killing me,” he growls during one lull.)
If Ames and Gunn were making conventional porn, then she might not be getting so close to the camera lenses, cooing into them as though they were a lover’s ears. If they were just making your standard wham-bam-thank-you-surgically-enhanced-ma’am porn, with three Xs but only two lousy dimensions, then the CEO of the company bankrolling this shoot might not be sitting downstairs, having flown here from Barcelona just to be around. And there definitely wouldn’t be a “clinical sexologist” overseeing the shoot, making sure that the action unfolds in accordance with maximum therapeutic value.
But this is VR porn—in which intimacy is the watchword, eye contact is everything, and studios are sensing money-making potential the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the internet came along and almost cratered the whole damn industry.
Welcome to sunny Encino. Please don’t step on the Ben Wa balls.
The Man Who Would Be (BaDoink) King
Todd Glider never meant to get into porn. Back in the mid-1990s, he was the living embodiment of the mid-1990s: a 20-something with an MFA (“pipe, tweed jacket, all that,” he says), living in San Francisco, making zines. Then his girlfriend got a job in Los Angeles, so he started looking for employment in Southern California. One of the listings he saw asked for an “HTML programmer.” He got the interview and the job, but “HTML programming” turned out to be “writing erotic copy for an online adult company.”
The job, Glider found, suited him fine—as did the adult industry as a whole. He became the creative director at that first company, then moved overseas to work in Europe. In 2010 he became CEO of a large “digital entertainment company,” which now serves as an umbrella over several smaller adult brands. One of those brands is BaDoinkVR, the studio creating the scene that’s being shot upstairs today.
BaDoink—and by all means, take a moment to enjoy that glorious name—released its first VR porn scene in the summer of 2015; the company was profitable within a year. It’s gone from 10 employees to more than 90, a workforce that is “overwhelmingly coders,” Glider says, sitting in the living room of the Encino house. He’s sturdily built, with a shaved head and a gregarious mien, and is dressed like he’s heading onstage to talk to a crowd of tech developers: dark gray button-down, black pants, Apple Watch. That’s not unintentional. The way Glider sees it, VR has the potential not just to make porn profitable again, but to make the tech world respect the adult film industry. “This is the first time I feel like we’re leading in any way,” he says. “Silicon Valley left us in the dust, but now adult is carrying the torch.”
Historically, the desire to see naked people doing naked people things has driven the widespread adoption of otherwise niche consumer technology. VCRs, CD-ROMs, and even streaming video owe much of their early, uh, market penetration to the fact that they made watching porn more convenient and more private.
But technology giveth, and technology taketh away. The same streaming video compression that turned YouTube into a juggernaut also robbed the adult industry of a huge chunk of revenue. Consumers who once bought or rented DVDs could now just go to so-called tube sites where they could watch high-def porn—usually pirated—to their hearts’ (or other body parts’) content.
For years, adult film studios did what they could to fight the tide, jumping on whatever technology might help them make some money again: 3-D TVs, ultra high-def resolution. Nothing worked, because nothing made porn seem fundamentally different. At the end of the day, consumers were watching other people have sex. Nothing would change that.
Nothing, that is, but the transformative power of feeling like you’re actually inside the movie—a sensation known in VR circles as presence.
Merry Christmas, Here’s Your Foursome
Meet Scott (not his real name). Scott is in his mid-50s, married to his college sweetheart. Lives in the Pacific Northwest, works for a software company. Scott had never paid for online porn in his life. Wasn’t what you’d call a connoisseur. Didn’t know any stars, wasn’t familiar with its various genres. (Yes, there are genres. Please don’t act surprised.) He’d watch some porn if he was on a business trip or if his wife was gone for the day and he was bored. But then Scott got a mobile VR headset for Christmas. He messed around with the preloaded games and experiences—hung out inside Cirque du Soleil, did some space exploration—and started looking around for things to do. The first stop was YouTube to search for VR game demonstrations.
A funny thing about YouTube’s recommendation algorithm: Turns out that if you go looking for VR stuff on YouTube, then the site will start suggesting other videos it thinks you’ll enjoy. Eventually, you’ll likely come across a “reaction video,” as it’s called, in which people watch VR porn for the first time. It’s a split screen: On one side you see an appropriately blurred scene of what the user is seeing in their headset, and on the other you see the headset-wearing viewer, their expression likely somewhere between shocked and amused. “Interesting,” Scott thought. “Maybe I should check that out.” So he went looking for that and soon found a free full-length sample from a studio called VirtualRealPorn. (It’s no BaDoink, but what it lacks in creativity it makes up for in clarity.) Downloaded it to his phone, popped that in his headset. This wasn’t meant to be an erotic journey of self-discovery; Scott’s clothes stayed on, and he didn’t even touch himself.
The video in question, “Your Neighbors and You,” is 29 minutes long. That was an eternity when it was released in 2015—when most video-makers were so concerned about motion sickness that they produced clips that lasted less than 10 minutes. When the scene begins, you find yourself in bed; a male body stretches away from you, its lower half covered by sheets. The scale is a little strange if you’re sitting up in real life, the way Scott was, but you still realize that the body is supposed to be yours, despite the fact that you can see only its stomach and southward. But don’t think about it for too long, because three women just walked into your room. “He’s even cuter in real life than he is from across the road,” says one with a British accent. “Shall we wake him up?” The other two women crawl onto the bed and put their faces close to yours. “Good morning,” one of them whispers in your left ear. She giggles. The sound is incredibly close to your ear, and incredibly lifelike.
The way things proceed from there is, in one way, utterly predictable: The four of you have sex in every conceivable permutation. Gymnastic carnality aside, though, you’re struck by certain aspects of it. For one, the male performer—i.e. you—doesn’t move. Like, at all. The hands reach out a few times to hold and squeeze various things, but the actor—your character, essentially—is for all intents and purposes completely passive. Stranger still, the three women stare into the camera nearly the entire time (at least when they’re, um, facing the camera). If this were conventional flat video, the constant fourth wall-breaking might seem strange. In VR, though, the effect turns from a gimmick into … well, into a moment-maker. Depending where you look, and how skilled an actor the performer is, you really do feel like you’re staring into each other’s eyes.
Scott watched all this in amazement. He had two thoughts. The first was: “This is an experience I was not expecting.”
The second was: “I want to see more of it.”
Scott wasn’t alone, in either his curiosity or his timing. On Christmas Day 2016—when he got his headset—online tube site Pornhub saw its VR video views jump from around 400,000 a day to more than 900,000. But Scott wasn’t looking for the short preview snippets available on tube sites; he wanted the real thing. “I just couldn’t believe the immersion level that it provided,” he says. “Even though it was a little fuzzy, everything made me realize that this is more than just watching a video in 3-D. When a woman comes up close to your face, you can feel the heat coming off of her, you imagine that you feel her breath. Your brain is tricked into sensations that aren’t there because of the ones that are there.”
So he researched some more, tried out the offerings of a few VR studios. Eventually he settled on a site called WankzVR. (BaDoink, you have a challenger!) He liked that its videos had a sense of humor; there was a Game of Thrones parody and a zombie-themed scene that had come out around Halloween. Most of all, though, he says, he liked that “the biggest emphasis seems to be on making it real. Making it intimate.”
Adult studios, and the consumers who congregate on their message boards and on Reddit to share feedback, call this “the girlfriend experience,” or just GFE. And for most companies that jumped into making VR porn, it became the watchword. “That was on the top of everyone’s list when we first started making content,” says Anna Lee, the president of adult VR studio HoloGirls. “‘Give me a girlfriend, make me believe that she wants me, make her look at me, make her be intimate with me.’”
But perhaps no one made intimacy the cornerstone of their productions the way Wankz did. The studio created a camera rig that let performers come riiiiiiiight up to the lens so they could pretend to kiss it. More and more of the company’s scenes became dedicated not to the sex act itself, but to foreplay and face-to-face interaction: whispering, teasing, eye contact. It even started filming the actual sex in a way that explicitly cropped out penetration.
Male viewers might, for example, see themselves having sex with a woman in the missionary position—but the camera is tilted such that if they look down, their view stops just below the woman’s waist. (Some VR video, including the majority of adult VR, is filmed in 180 degrees, which leaves some areas of the virtual sphere blacked or grayed out.) The focal point, instead, is on the woman’s pleasure: her facial expressions, the sounds she makes, the way she moves.
It’s hard to overstate how fundamental that shift is. For tens of thousands of years, the vast majority of erotic art has presented sex in a single fundamental way. Regardless of the surroundings, regardless of the position, regardless of what body part is contacting what body part, sex has defaulted to … well, generally at least one person’s genitals being stimulated. In the hands of Wankz and other VR studios, sex in VR becomes not action, but reaction. The action, studios know, is already taken care of. It’s happening outside of the virtual bedroom, with the viewer taking matters into his or her own hands.
Mars, Venus, Etc.
Let’s take a moment here to address the obvious: This is all sounding pretty one-sided. You can find VR porn that puts you in a woman’s body, and there’s stuff targeting gay men, but much like the adult industry as a whole, the vast majority of adult VR content has catered to heterosexual men. The reason for this, to a large degree, is that’s simply where the money is: According to Pornhub’s data, male visitors are 160 percent more likely to watch VR content than women. In fact, women constituted a mere 26 percent of Pornhub’s overall visitors in 2016.
Consider, though, the idea that VR porn may be more human and less baldly objectifying than conventional porn is. That in turn could make it more appealing to women. That would be, to say the least, a dramatic reversal of recent trends in the field. After high-speed internet and streaming technology gave way to tube sites, the rise of smartphones made porn more snackable than it had ever been. In 2015, mobile users accounted for 53 percent of Pornhub’s traffic, and that proportion has only grown. (In the States, the curve is even steeper: In 2016, 70 percent of Pornhub’s US traffic came from mobile users.) On average, people spend less than 10 minutes per visit to Pornhub—enough time to find the clip they want, handle their business, and move on.
Much like the rise of MP3s created a precipitous dip in album sales, so too did plentiful (and free) porn clips replace full-length movies as the conventional unit of consumption. Whether by cause or by correlation, the porn industry was becoming a buyer’s market, and the economic impact trickled down to its workforce: Performers earned less and less for sex acts. Those sex acts, in turn, were filmed in increasingly demeaning ways. A 2010 study of 300 popular porn videos found that 88 percent of them featured some degree of physical violence toward women such as slapping, spanking, or gagging. That’s not to kink-shame or to deny that a spank can’t be pleasurable for both parties, but when everything was available for free, going to extremes became the way to stand out.
Virtual reality, though, has the potential to reverse that trend through the magic of empathy. With the frame gone, the viewer is in the scene. And once you’re in the scene, thanks to presence, you’re no longer a voyeur. You’re a participant. No more detachment, no more desensitization.
Does that make things more arousing? More difficult? Awkward? Embarrassing? It depends on the scene. It depends on the person watching it. But regardless, that potential to implicate the viewer, to put them on equal footing with the fantasy they wanted to see, promises to upend pornography in a way no one has considered.
We’re already seeing that in these early days of VR porn. “People are responding to what’s kind of the antithesis of traditional porn,” says Doug McCort. And if anyone should know, it’s him. For the past two years, the 46-year-old Alaskan has been reviewing almost every VR porn scene released online for his website 3DPornReviews.com. And I don’t mean he watches a scene and then does his best Roger Ebert impression; I mean he really reviews it. He watches it once, to make sure it’s worth writing about—there are so many releases these days that he has to be a bit more discerning—then watches it again, pausing and unpausing, grabbing screenshots for his readers, taking his headset on and off. All told, each review takes four to six hours on average, sometimes more.
“Porn had kind of degenerated into gonzo-type shit,” McCort says, using the industry jargon for hardcore, pretense-free porn. “Where else are you going to push it after 40 or 50 years? All you can do is push through visual extremes or physical extremes, and that’s silly. VR offers access to things that you just can’t get in porn. You’re seeing a throwback to the basic things that are erotic when you’re in close proximity to another member of the opposite sex. It’s far from pornographic and much more like human intimacy.”
Performers have become more than fantasy objects; they’ve become fantasy partners—and more important, they’ve become people. “I find that I care more about the people in the scenes than I used to,” Scott says. “Even though they’re still playing themselves being a porn star, their personality comes through in a way that I find kind of fascinating—so I actually seek out behind-the-scenes interviews or podcasts where they’re guests, just to hear a little more about their life.”
Sounds like a crush, doesn’t it? Scott maintains, though, that VR porn has actually rekindled his connection with his wife of nearly 40 years. “My interest in sex with my wife has increased significantly,” he says. “She thinks it’s because I got a different job and I’m less stressed out, but it’s actually because I realized how enjoyable my intimacy with her is. When I first started watching VR porn, I thought, ‘Maybe this is an opportunity to fantasize about one of the women I had this experience with in VR when I’m with my wife.’ That did not work. There was this cognitive dissonance that actually made the sex worse. Focusing on my wife as my wife, the person who loves me and who I love, was so much more satisfying and exciting—even though I had this separate set of experiences in VR that maybe made me interested in having sex that night.” VR might have been an aphrodisiac, in other words, but it wasn’t a replacement.
Virtual Sex, Real Intimacy
Back at the BaDoink shoot, not everyone is a VR vet. This is the first time for Tommy Gunn, the male performer—but since he’s appeared in more than 1,700 films, it’s going to take more than some fancy cameras to faze him. “From what I understand,” he says, “I just have to lay back and enjoy the ride. It’s better than a sharp stick in the eye.”
Gunn looks a little like Bronn, the roguish sellsword from HBO’s Game of Thrones—if Bronn had grown up in New Jersey and liked customizing military vehicles. He shares Bronn’s plainspoken manner as well. “Porn is, at the end of the day, a penis in a hole,” I hear him tell a crew member in the kitchen before the shoot. “That’s what it is.”
Or maybe that’s what it used to be. VR is changing things. For one, there are those aforementioned ben-wa balls, which at least for the moment are occupying August Ames’s attention. (“Looks like a cat toy,” Gunn says from the daybed between takes. He’s part right; however, being bright green with red, they also look like two tiny heirloom watermelons.) And they’re just one of a number of things different about this movie-to-be, which is BaDoink’s attempt at using VR to make adult content that’s both intimate and instructive.
Like many other VR porn pieces, Virtual Sexology is being shot from the first-person perspective of the male performer (in this case, Gunn). This perspective isn’t new to porn; POV (point of view) is now a genre all its own. But it’s close to the default treatment in VR, at least in these early days of the technology, because it creates so much face-to-face intimacy for the viewer.
Also, as in many other VR porn experiences, the director tells Gunn that he needs to remain mute and largely still. That can lead to some odd contortions, since the camera rig needs to be placed at his eye level without interfering with what I’m just going to call his operational appendages. As uncomfortable as that may be for him, though, it’s a must for VR—because it forges a stunning link between the viewer’s brain and the body that presence tells them they’re occupying.
But more than the camera angle, it’s the very structure of Virtual Sexology that makes it unlike just about any VR porn movie (or porn movie, period) out there. That starts with the sexual encounter itself. Although it includes most of the menu items you’d expect, it’s more like an instructional video: Throughout, August Ames looks into the camera and coaches “you” (as embodied by Gunn) through various techniques that range from deep breathing to ways to delay orgasm. 1
The actual script is mostly voiceover—in the finished film, a female narrator will handle the exposition, providing somewhat clinical commentary on the benefits of Masters and Johnson’s “squeeze” technique or how various positions can maximize stimulation for either or both parties—which makes August Ames’ dialogue sound like a cross between an overacting porn star and an everyone-gets-a-trophy preschool teacher. “Oh my God,” she coos breathily into the camera during a segment on Kegel exercises, as Tommy Gunn does what can only be described as dong push-ups, a towel draped over his laboring penis, “your dick is so strong.”
If you think that sounds cheesy in writing, imagine standing on a powered-down treadmill in the fully furnished rental house, a scant 10 feet from the bed, scribbling notes furiously. And if you think it sounds like another sad example of the adult industry peddling the myth of a subservient yet sexually insatiable woman, you’re … well, you’re not wrong. At least not in this case.
But the porn industry’s embrace of VR isn’t confined to heteronormative, male-first fantasies. After BaDoink released Virtual Sexology, in fact, it went on to make a sequel shot from the female performer’s point of view. Another site, VR Bangers, recently released a male-female scene that was shot from both the man’s perspective and the woman’s, and then synchronized—with the hope that a couple at home will pop on their headsets, reenact what they’re seeing, and enjoy being other people for 17 minutes and 26 seconds. (Or however long it takes before they, uh, get bored.) There’s gay VR porn, trans VR porn, BDSM VR porn; basically, find a flavor, stick a “VR” in the middle of it, and it likely exists. And if it doesn’t, it will soon.
And with that endless proliferation comes a new question: What does this degree of immersion mean? Does it constitute cheating on your partner? In committed relationships, the question of whether watching porn constitutes trespass or even infidelity simply doesn’t have a single answer: Every couple is different. Yet, the added power of presence introduces a new complexity to the question. Is getting aroused by the depiction of another person different when that depiction expressly creates the illusion that you’re really there with that person?
This was something that Scott ended up grappling with. During his time on the message boards of his favorite VR porn site, he wrote, he had read other men’s stories about watching VR porn with their wives. Some had simply shown their wives movies shot from a woman’s perspective; others had had sex while wearing a headset. Scott began to wonder whether such a thing was possible in his relationship. Unbeknownst to his wife, VR porn had already rejuvenated his sexual connection with her; why couldn’t he tell her about it? So he did.
It didn’t go well. She asked to see one of the scenes he had watched—and after watching the entire scene, she said, “This feels like adultery.” Scott was shocked. In his mind, VR porn was simply fantasy, albeit particularly vivid fantasy. His wife, though, reminded him of a book they had read together that stressed the power of visualization: If you practice shooting free throws in your mind, for example, your subconscious will eventually internalize the repetition, leading to real-world improvement. VR porn, his wife said, was similarly conditioning his mind to have an affair—it was an adultery simulator. (The fact that Scott had researched his favorite performers didn’t help either; they were becoming like girlfriends to him, his wife said.)
Scott didn’t think that he would ever cheat on his wife, but he canceled his WankzVR membership—and began to think critically about his own VR consumption, as he explained to me in a thoughtful email:
I had convinced myself that VR porn was different—it was good porn. Regular porn depicts a man (or men) carrying out acts on a woman, sometimes in very degrading ways. In VR porn, the woman is generally seducing you, making love to you. She’s the one in control, she’s empowered. The scenes tell a story and there is some thought that goes into the dialogue and plot. The sex itself tends to be more tender, more real, with longer foreplay and more realistic endings. I reasoned that if VR is rewiring my brain, at least it’s very close to the real experience of sex.
In hindsight, I now realize that while VR porn is different in many ways from traditional 2-D porn, the high that it can produce is significantly more potent and thus more dangerous. The combination of a realistic 3-D environment containing a person who is focused on pleasuring you triggers dopamine spikes that flat porn can’t touch. I remember the first time a girl whispered in my ear in VR—I could swear that I could feel her breath and the heat of her cheek radiating against mine. It sent tingles down my spine. That feeling lessened in later videos, so I realize that my brain was, in fact, getting used to the experience (desensitization).
“I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet by coming clean to my wife when I did,” he wrote; he was excited to rediscover “authentic sexuality” with her.
I’m happy for Scott. Happy that he was honest with his wife; happy that she was honest with him; happiest of all that they found a way to move forward.
And this couple will certainly not be alone in wrestling with these issues. Because the intersection of VR and eroticism is just beginning. We’ll continue to see the adult industry create content to match the capabilities of the most powerful headsets, just like it has always been at the forefront of technological adoption. As VR reaches everyone, we’ll see studios like BaDoink and Wankz and Yanks and Kink.com and Naughty America and a dozen others broaden their offerings, catering to the panoply of tastes.
We’ll see livestreamed “camming” improve, with cameras that allow viewers to lean in closer to the performers they see in their headsets, and we’ll ultimately see performers wearing their own headsets, connecting with paying customers for private time (as avatars only, of course). And just as certainly, we’ll see handwringing about how the immersive qualities of VR porn make it a danger—to young people, to women, to relationships, to the fabric of society itself. ’Twas ever thus, right?
But consider this: The intimacy Scott and his wife share now is stronger than it’s been in years. And that’s thanks to VR.
1 In December 2017, during the book’s final editing phase, we learned the horrible news that August Ames had taken her own life. She was 23 years old.