In The Future of Sex I, I wondered about the impact on our relationships and our psycho-sexual development in an environment that includes the wide availability of all forms of sexual activity on the web:
We have gone from the Missionary position for most, with a full range of sexual appetitive behavior reserved for only the very wealthiest and debauched elites, to the entire sexual smörgåsbord now being available to all, starting at a very young age. I believe this has changed the way we experience and relate to our own bodies and others, but, again, do not think this has been well studied. It is certainly a part of the burgeoning Narcissism that permeates our culture, an increasingly voyeuristic culture, I hasten to add. The availability of Porn designed and directed at all different tastes and temperaments means that one does not have to develop one's sexuality in relation to another person, but can develop a fully formed (though unrelated) sexuality in isolation.
The Future of Sex is rapidly approaching. The relationship of Sex and technology will come to fruition with the advent of fully immersive virtual reality. The use of haptic suits and 3-D goggles, or some approximation, will allow the voyeur to enter into his own sexual fantasies in ways never before possible. This has the potential to shake our concept of the self and our understanding of intimacy; it is a truly disruptive technology, and this technology will arrive much sooner than most people realize.
The most obvious effects of the internet sex revolution include changing sexual mores, the pornification of mass culture, and increasing difficulties for many, many people in forming and maintaining intimate relationships. As the Future of Sex arrives, in the form of fully immersive virtual reality, these issues will worsen, and novel forms of psychopathology will arise.
Pornography has existed for as long as man has been capable of representative and symbolic expression. Its penetration (if you will pardon the pun; most pornography is designed for men, after all, though women are catching up) into popular culture was always limited by the inherent limitations of the extant media. Traditional porn, in books, playing cards, and film made porn available to more and more people though historically porn was a devalued and debased form depicting devalued and debased women and men. With the advent of the VCR in the 1970's, porn became a more lucrative enterprise and for the first time, there was a market that responded to competition. Porn increased its production values (which meant better looking men and women) and eventually the increased ease of availability not only led to the explosion of product for the mass markets, enough so that robust niche markets could be exploited for profit, but also to the idealization of the porn star. Porn has now become socially acceptable in large swaths of the culture and the idealized porn star has replaced the Hollywood actress as the idealized woman for many young men.
As our virtual reality experiences slowly become indistinguishable from non-mediated reality, we can expect two problems to worsen. First, no women will be able to measure up to the porn star. Impossibly thin waists and enormous gravity defying breasts, along with the willingness to do anything that a man desires, are hardly attributes likely to be found in most young women. Further, although most of the animus toward porn will be directed at its objectification of women, young men will find themselves failing in comparison to the hugely endowed, insatiable, and indefatigable men with whom they compare themselves. In other words, everyone will lose out in comparison to the caricature filled world of porn.
The healthier, more secure, more future oriented young people will, after dabbling with porn in adolescence, recognize that there is greater fulfillment in a relationship with a real human being rather than a cartoon character. Yet, if our experience with drugs and alcohol is any indication, the problems of substance abuse will pale in comparison to the number of young people lost in preference to the "perfect" world they can construct in virtual reality. The siren call of sexual delights with the perfect woman or man (women or men) will be impossible to resist for the marginal or insecure person who has minimal sexual possibilities in the real world. The secondary effects will mean that young men and women will react to the virtual competition by trying to make themselves into more perfect sexual objects. Adolescence is likely to become an even more parlous time than it is already. This will be one more hurdle, perhaps the most difficult hurdle, for our children to negotiate on their way to adulthood; many will fail.
Note as well that for adults, the opportunity to regress and enter into a fantasy world will also be a powerful lure away from the disappointments and failures of an ungratifying real world.
In addition, the advent of fully immersive virtual reality may very well impact our concept of self. Studies of Out of Body Experiences and more recent experiments on phantom limb pain have shown that our sense of self does not necessarily coincide with our physical limitations; in other words, we are quite capable, with the correct situation and stimuli, of inducing our self to leave our body and inhabit a virtual body. Fully immersive virtual reality may be easier than once thought.
Dissociation and depersonalization are typically anxious states. Patients who describe Out of Body Experiences often worry about finding their way back to their bodies; the sensation of being disconnected from one's body can be terrifying; you can become convinced you are dying or dead. In other cases, when the experience of reality is blurred, other people can seem to be less real; in some psychotic states, the people in one's environment are replaced by doppelgangers.
As I pointed out last week, most of Modern Medicine, indeed most of Modern Life, is a Naturalistic experience. We are adding new variables all the time. Virtual Sex has the potential to become a Great Filter if we are not able to master the temptations.