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Consider the following examples offered by Jamie Susskind in Future Politics (Oxford, £20), his study of how modern societies should respond to the web revolution. Should 21st-century onanists be allowed virtual sex with avatars of their husband’s or wife’s best friend, or the woman across the street or across the desk at work? No one would be harming them. But if they found out, they would in all likelihood be disturbed, maybe profoundly so. My guess is that they would want easily enforceable image rights over virtual incarnations of themselves so realistic it was possible for people they knew and near-strangers — the man in a corner at the bar, the colleague they never noticed at work — to have sex, of a sort, with them without their consent. Porn stars are already selling the rights for VR companies to use their images in the sexual equivalents of avatar-based gaming. The actresses have consented. What happens when the technology accepts and reproduces images of people who have not?

Children, by definition, are not consenting adults. The ban on child pornography is justified because its production inevitably involves their rape and abuse. That explanation sounds reasonable until you notice how it ducks a moral issue. Most people think the consumers of child pornography are dangerously immoral: they don’t want “pervs” near children. But liberal philosophy justifies the ban on child pornography because pornographers abuse the young , who cannot give adult consent. Soon the almost imperceptible difference in the moral emphasis on the depravity of the consumer and the crimes of the producer will gape open. Technology will allow consumers to “abuse” avatars of children. No actual child will be raped or harmed. All that will be “touched” are computer-generated images. Does that feel right?

The argument about sexual morals was settled by the Hart-Devlin debate of the 1960s. Professor H. L. A. Hart echoed John Stuart Mill and said the law had no business regulating the sexual morals of adults in private as long as they caused no harm to others. Lord Devlin, a judge of the old school, said society needed shared morals. To let immorality go unpunished, even if it harmed no one, would turn us into a “nation of debauchees”.

They were arguing about the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and I am glad to say Hart’s views prevailed. But his and Mill’s victory was far from total. Look around and you will see that the Victorian neuroticism about sex has been replaced by the modern neuroticism about race and gender. “Hate speech” laws and codes punish real and imagined racist speech, for example, without bothering to prove that the speaker was inciting harm in the form of violence against a targeted ethnic minority. It is enough that it causes offence, just as it once was enough that men exchanging kisses caused offence. They may hate to admit it, but many “liberals” share Lord Devlin’s view that the defence of the fabric of society requires that immorality be punished, regardless of whether they can prove that it caused harm to identifiable victims.

Attempts by the radical feminists of the 1980s to demonstrate that pornography caused men to rape or demean women failed. But I wonder if modern societies will pause and enter learned discussions on whether virtual child abuse leads to actual child abuse, or the “torture” of prisoners in a virtual reality concentration camp leads to sadism and cruelty. My guess is that most citizens won’t wait. They will just assume that it does and say the risk of waiting for proof is too great. Although I am a convinced defender of sexual freedom, as long as it does not harm others, and of freedom of speech, as long as it is not an incitement to violence, I won’t oppose them, because the virtual sex will feel too real to be dismissed with a knowing shrug of the shoulders.
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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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