Can society stand by and allow the technology that allows people to simulate sex with their neighbour?
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.
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.