This weekend on Saturday Night Live, trippy hippie Father John Misty debuted a song that gave listeners a glimpse into the problematic future of virtual sex: “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift/After mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes,” his song, “Total Entertainment Forever,” begins. The scenario he posits raises a major concern ethicists have about the future of sex: Should we be allowed to have sex with a virtual stranger, even if that stranger’s face has become ubiquitous?
It’s a dilemma we should deal with sooner rather than later. “[If] you don’t think that this virtual reality thing isn’t going to turn into sex with celebrities, then you’re kidding yourself,” Father John Misty said in an interview with Exclaim! about his lyric. He’s probably right.
Swift is notorious for fiercely protecting her pseudo-virginal public image, so it’s safe to assume she wouldn’t let a VR designer get away with using her face in a sex app, especially if doing so allowed the designer to make a profit (and let Father John Misty have sex with her). But would she have the grounds to sue? A similar dilemma was raised in 2016, when Ricky Ma, a Hong Kong-based designer, created an animated sex doll that looked exactly like Scarlett Johannson. Was Ma innocently customizing his sex doll to his tastes, as companies like RealDoll do when they let their customers choose bespoke nipples and labia, or was he straight-up stealing Johannson’s likeness?
Custom sex dolls and VR sex apps are only getting more popular, so it’s urgent that we set ground rules about who we can have sex with in an ethically and legally correct way. The first step is defining what exactly disturbs us so much about the concept of having sex with synthetic celebrities. Nobody would bat an eyelash if someone masturbated to the image of Swift online or one of Johannson’s movies, so what is so different about having sex with a doll or avatar bearing their face? In a discussion about Ma’s Johannson-inspired sex doll, University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo told Wired that the major issue was that the doll “being animate all of a sudden for some reason feels too invasive.” This is a good place to start: Calo’s concern is, rightfully so, for the owner of the face. If using a face causes personal harm to a person — regardless of how we choose to define “harm” — then we should seriously consider designing protective laws.
According to Calo, some of these laws already exist, but they seem like they were primarily designed to prevent the individual from missing out on the profit another person could gain from using their face. “If [Ma] were to gain commercially in almost any way from this, and even arguably the notoriety he has gained from this, Scarlett Johansson could almost certainly sue him,” he continued in his interview. There’s a precedent for celebrities like Vanna White and a pair of actors from Cheers successfully suing people for creating robots that resembled them and using them for profit, which Calo outlined in a 2016 paper.
Of course, it’s always possible that less prudish and more enterprising celebrities will sell the rights to their appearance to turn a quick profit. In his book Love and Sex With Robots, tech expert David Levy suggests that the royalties a celebrity could earn from selling consent could amount to a sizeable revenue stream. Tech journalist Peter Nowak, author of Sex, Bombs, and Burgers, summed up the inevitability of this scenario in an interview with the Daily Star: “When sex robots do arrive and attitudes towards them change, one thing is definite: they will sell.”
Father John Misty, whose album focuses on questions of what society’s “progress” looks like, intends for his song to be cautionary. “The fact of the matter is, I don’t want that to happen to Taylor Swift. That is the worst thing I can think of; that is so horrible,” he told Exclaim!, continuing by explaining that the democracy of information created by the internet has been perverted. “[It] turned into pornography, followed only by outrage,” he said. While he makes a good point, moral outrage doesn’t have to be inevitable: Laying the legal and mental groundwork to deal with these issues now can help us avoid these debates in the future and make VR sex safer and more enjoyable for everyone involved — regardless of whether they are virtual or real.