It comes as no surprise to virtual reality evangelists that the porn industry is embracing new immersive technologies with a borderline masochistic fervor. Pornographers have always been early adopters and there is a natural product here: Simulated sex could become a billion dollar industry if it proves technically feasible. Most of the obstacles standing between those who wish to sell sex and those who wish to experience it digitally are technical in nature, but there are cultural hurdles as well. Just as the proliferation of online pornography triggered paroxysms and a lot of uncomfortable conversation about the state of monogamy in the nineties, virtual reality sex will lead to lot of uncomfortable conversations in the teens or twenties.

Currently, the difference between virtual reality porn and traditional smutty video is minor. Though some studios put out videos that integrate with Rifts and Samsung Gears to allow viewers to look around the San Fernando Valley duplex in which the action is going down, the only agency currently afforded to consumers is where to look. Though this isn’t that different than POV porn, scenes short from the perspective of participants, it is certainly more immersive — though apparently not enough so to force a conversation about whether or not this constitutes a new form of sexual consumption or a new assault on monogamy.

That conversation seems likely to arrive when technology allows for peer-to-peer hook-ups and the webcam feedback loop gets physical.

“Porn and sexuality have always been major drivers of technical innovation so I think, yes, an inevitable progression will be virtual reality porn designed for two people,” Loyola Marymount cyberpsychology professor Richard Gilbert tells Inverse. “I think that experience will likely be a strong draw.”

Gilbert also predicts that eventually there will also be motion detector systems that will allow what goes on in the simulation to be a mirror of what the person is actually doing with their body. When you have that, then you have the ability to have interactive sexual relations in a self-contained virtual world, says Gilbert.

This is banner news for the pornography business, which has typically made money by releasing products designed to appeal to large communities, not individuals. Studios are not currently set up to create specially tailored sexual experiences or serve as techno-cat houses. On some level, web cam services are, but those exist largely because the hardware in question is cheap. The adoption of technology capable of allowing for simulated sex will be extraordinarily expensive, meaning it’s unlikely to be broadly adopted by consumers and therefore unlikely to be — immediately anyway — a smart investment for studios or freelancers.

This will remain true until the inevitable cultural debate over the technology is resolved, which will likely happen as costs come down and will likely take a while.

May the 4th be with you. TB to my first VR porn shoot w VRTube 2 yrs+2.5 weeks ago.

A photo posted by Ela Darling (@eladarling) on

In the journal Psychology and Sexuality, Gilbert and his team investigated the sexual behavior and attitudes in Second Life. He and his team looked at 217 participators in the virtual world game — about 51 percent who were in a real-life relationship and 49 percent who were not. Within the game, 43 percent of the players had sexual experiences. In Second Life users can purchase and attach virtual genitalia and engage in sexual relationships with other players. They found that 60 percent of the subjects actually had more satisfying sexual sexual experiences in Second Life than in real life.

“There’s a significant amount of people who become emotionally attached,” Gilbert says. “If you go into these virtual worlds you have the capacity to marry individuals. Some of these relationships are people in the virtual world are their primary relationships and in other cases they are in relationships that are in addition to a physical world relationship that they’re in. That produces a lot of issues of whether they were cheating or not.”

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Most relationships — the healthy ones anyway — are two sided, which means that the participants operate based on some shared premises and assumptions. The adoption of technologies is fraught because two partners may react to them in different ways. There are no applicable premises or assumptions. But that doesn’t mean that everything must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Virtual reality, as Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University has proved in several studies, promotes “social presence.” It is a medium designed to make people feel as significant as they do in non-virtual life — and to feel obliged to act as they would in the real world. When NPR conducted a (sadistic) experiment in virtual reality involving an assault upon a female’s avatar, her begoggled significant other felt an immense need to protect her. Bailenson says this is natural.

Because of the VR interface — images, voices, movements — the contours of real world relationships can penetrate virtual space.

“You know, I asked people if they felt that their virtual relationships were somehow unreal or pretend,” says Gilbert. “And there is a realism to the relationship in most people’s mind. We still aren’t sure where how to determine what is ‘reality’ in the consciousness.”

Benjamin Lok, a professor of computer information and sciences at the University of Florida, tells Inverse that it’s not so much that people are uniquely responding to virtual reality — we just really get into stories.

“Most of the time when people are in these virtual environments, it’s no different than watching a movie of playing a video game,” Lok told Inverse. “What we find from a research perspective is that for the most part people treat it as real. You can convince yourself. We like to play along.”

In a sense, narrative is the core issue here. If the accepted narrative is that simulated sex is roughly equivalent to sex, then the monogamy narrative at play in many relationships is jeopardized by virtual reality technologies. On the other hand, if using those technologies is not considered cheating, the monogamy narrative remains in tact. Everyone continues to play along. Still, it’s unlikely the technology wouldn’t affect cultural norms around relationships. Just as hook-up apps have changed the culture of dating, hook-up hardware will almost inevitably change the cultural conversation around sex, forcing user to — at minimum — draw distinctions between the significance of different acts.

But don’t expect the talk to be simple. Virtual isn’t always virtual and real isn’t always real.

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Virtual reality, as Lok says, is designed to facilitate social experiences. Sex is a socially significant behavior and there are a ton of varied social norms around it. There is a level on which socialization is consistent across mediums. Expecting a new medium to be different is techno determinist and reductive. Still, expecting new technologies not to change the way we socialize is just naive.

Photos via Getty Images / David Ramos