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Virtual reality tech, long in use for gaming (pictured), could be used for pornography (MAURIZIO PESCE (CC BY 2.0)

Serious newspapers still divide their culture sections into television, books, theatre, film, music and, at a pinch, gaming, as if those old categories covered the only entertainments on offer. No one has a YouTube correspondent, even though culture today is overwhelmingly found on the web. No one, not even Standpoint, has a pornography correspondent, even though a large part of web culture is pornographic.

Everyone lies about sex, and measurements of the porn market’s size are notoriously unreliable. Journalists quote a figure from 2010 that 37 per cent of the internet is made up of porn. It’s not true now, and almost certainly was not true then. The best estimate is that the sweaty fingers of users looking for pornography type about 13 per cent of all searches. Even the scaled-back figure reveals a vast market for carnal pleasures. Just one site — Pornhub — had 28.5 billion visitors in 2017.

Radical feminists and moral conservatives aside, the dominant mode of thinking in Western societies has held that society has no right to interfere. “What consenting adults do in private is their business. As long as they harm no one else, they should be free to behave as they choose.”

The harm principle is about to be put to a searching test as technology makes the dividing line between virtual reality (VR) and actual reality meaningless. VR platforms can provide immersive experiences, which are so convincing the user feels they are authentic. Soon you will be able to turn yourself, your friends, neighbours and celebrities into avatars. Headsets will deliver sights and sounds as you play with them. Olfactory gasses and oils will provide the appropriate smells. The sensations of touching others and being touched yourself will be created, indeed already are being created, by “haptic” vests, gloves, masks and armbands. Meanwhile, a patent that crippled the development of teledildonics — web-controlled vibrators and dildos — that can mimic sex at the command of a long-distance lover or a machine that reads the participants’ responses — expired in August. Maxine Lynn, a US intellectual property lawyer with expertise in sex and technology, announced in a suitably ecstatic voice that “the race will be on to create the most fantastic orgasmic experience possible over an internet connection”. The SexTech market was “exploding with demand”, as the existing traffic to pornographic sites showed. It will be met.

No “others” will be hurt in the new world of immersive sex. Indeed, no one apart from the user need be involved in the games. VR can be a solipsistic entertainment with just one player. But the moral questions will be extraordinarily hard and push the liberal consensus on sexual morality to the point of breakdown.
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Daniel Bamford.
November 8th, 2018
6:11 PM
Nick Cohen name-checks John Stuart Mill and Prof. H. L. A. Hart in support of the argument that ‘the law had no business regulating the sexual morals of adults in private as long as they caused no harm to others’, but then makes a special case to abandon this argument, because it does not ‘feel’ right in relation to ‘virtual reality’ simulations. Is this freely acknowledged ‘non sequitur’ really worthy of a full page article in your magazine? The problem lies with Nick Cohen’s false premise, rather his moral intuition: None of us live in total isolation and everything we do effects other people either directly or indirectly. It is ironic that it should be necessary to explain this to someone from a socialist political background, like Mr. Cohen. As Jonathan Sacks argued in relation to his recent BBC Radio 4 series ‘Morality in the 21st Century’: ‘Morality, like language and football, is a social practice. It is the set of values, virtues, customs and codes, that create and sustain communities. It is what turns a group of disconnected “I”s into a collective “We.” So the idea that morality is whatever we privately choose, or feel, or intuit it to be, struck me as nonsensical.’

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