These days, talk of the metaverse is inescapable. We take work meetings and suck up to our bosses in a virtual boardroom, attend couture fashion shows alongside BFFs, and even belt out “About Damn Time” at Lizzo and Charli XCX concerts in the world of virtual reality. And pretty soon, we might be having sex in it, too.
With growing advancements in the world of VR, it’s only natural for people to wonder what might come next. And with the sex industry and sex in general making a large shift to virtual spaces during the pandemic (hello the re-emergence of phone sex and the rise of OnlyFans!), it makes sense that sex and intimacy would be the next step. But what does sex and intimacy in the metaverse actually look like?
If you’re surprised to hear that sex is going digital, you shouldn’t be. People have been using virtual spaces for the purpose of sex and intimacy since pretty much the internet started. Who doesn’t remember the thrill of messaging your boyfriend semi-naughty things over MSN Messenger? A decade earlier, popular games like Second Life allowed users to engage in intimate and romantic acts in chat rooms.
The reasons why someone seeks intimacy have remained the same, but for some, the prelude has changed from dinner and a movie to logging in from your living room. Online spaces, like the metaverse, allow people a potentially safer space to explore desires, fantasies, kinks, fetishes, and things that they don't feel comfortable or are unable to pursue in their physical lives. A digital space can also be a place for people with less physical mobility or who don't have the ability to experience certain types of pleasure IRL. But overall the metaverse is an open playground for anyone. “I want to dispel the myth that folks that would participate in sex or intimate relationships virtually are only people who can't get it in real life,” says sex and consent educator Samantha Bitty. “The truth is that there are so many different reasons for people to engage in intimate relationships virtually.”
So how does sex in the metaverse actually look, and more importantly, feel? Well, it kind of depends. Just like sex IRL is varied and diverse, so too are sexual experiences in virtual reality. The multi-sensory part of VR means that four of your senses are engaged within the online space, providing users with, “a combination of audio, visual, tactile (haptic), and even olfactory stimulus that lends to a more robust sense of immersion in the digital world,” says Brian Sanchez, lead character artist at RD Land, which specializes in creating safe spaces for cybersex, alongside other VR experiences. Currently in beta, the platform allows gamers to use devices like vests, gloves, and adult toys to engage these senses. Companies like RD Land are hoping to push these boundaries of how users perceive the world around them, by subverting the way their senses react. For example, instead of just playing The Weeknd's latest album to get you in the mood, you could be in a virtual room where your device will vibrate differently to the beats of horny Drake or upbeat Lizzo and give different sensations. “In our worlds, every sensation can bring pleasure if the user so desires and so allows,” Sanchez says.
Viro Playspace is also testing the waters. Similar to RD Land, the sex-positive company allows users to fully immerse themselves in different scenarios and engage with digital avatars for pleasure. You can have a one-on-one session with Emy, a vampire from Siberia who needs to consume blood to live, or experience Scalie Seduction, which brings gamers face-to-face with a “smokin’ hot dragon babe.” Other interactions include a sexual encounter underneath a waterfall while out for a hike (no fear of ticks or being caught by other hikers, included), and being dominated by an avatar who “puts the suck in succubus.” (Yes, we're serious). Unlike RD Land, Viro Playspace is completely focused on fantasy, and produces and sells Bluetooth-enabled adult toys so users can actually physically feel what’s happening to them virtually, like clitoral stimulation, in real life — all while watching it on screen.
“Technology has evolved faster than our ethics around sex and relationships in those spaces.”
Sex in VR is taking the next step of what's already happening in the sex toy industry (like Bluetooth devices), but doing it in a much more immersive (and arguably) more pleasurable way. “If you look at certain sex toy companies, they have apps where someone could be in Australia on an app and you could be in Canada and they can operate your vibrator or your app and be in possession of the stimulation and the pleasure that you feel,” Bitty says. “So how is that different from if someone was hooked up to a virtual reality?”
In his book, The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything, author Matthew Ball theorizes what sex could look like with ongoing developments in the metaverse, pointing to the development of haptic bodysuits and vests, which allow you to feel virtual environments and stimulate your sense of touch, like feeling rain on your skin or a massage on your shoulder (or... another part of your body). Suits like the Teslasuit, which uses muscle stimulation to simulate real feelings and sensations on your body, currently run for around $20,000, meaning that not many people, aside from maybe millionaires, will be running to get them. But we’re at just the beginning of a burgeoning industry, and gadgets that help you feel the sensory resistance of drawing a bow and arrow in games like In Death: Unchained could also in theory be used for other sensory experiences.
Specifically, Ball points to the development of CTRL-labs, an armband device that records electrical activity from skeletal muscles and can pick up the smallest of hand gestures — like pointing one finger or beckoning someone — and reproduce it in a virtual world. Although it’s a device that’s most often used for something like a virtual concert, the idea is that it could be used for more sexual or intimate activities. Instead of people throwing hands in the air at a virtual concert, in theory virtual hands could be on you. The opportunities and pleasure are endless.
Of course, as with anything, there are challenges and drawbacks. There are concerns about safety around unwanted encounters, and some see the metaverse as potential grounds for predators. And we can't blame them. In May of this year, a report was released detailing several accounts of sexual assault and harassment in the metaverse. But “our outside world is [already] a predatory space.” Bitty says. The real issue surrounding sex in virtual spaces, she says, has more to do with us as people — and the mentality around virtual intimacy — than the actual technology itself. “Technology has evolved faster than our ethics around sex and relationships in those spaces.” We’re still waiting for people to stop taking liberties online, like touching people without their consent or using slurs that they’d never utter in person. “Like with any other kind of sex, we have to treat it with the same ethics and values that we would in our in-person relationships,” she says. “So coming to it with authenticity, empathy, and those sorts of things is really important.”
How we get there — and whether or not we get there — remains to be seen. Experts differ on whether or not the metaverse is officially and actually “here.” Like with anything new, the OG internet, TikTok, or even Instagram, it’ll take time to work out the kinks and figure out what works best for users.
But virtual intimacy — and the platforms that help users find it — can be vital. Sanchez points to one user who is in a wheelchair and disclosed that sexual intimacy was something they were unable to find or access regularly. “Yet in our [digital] worlds, they could find that type of much needed and humanly vital intimacy without judgment and without any perception of body or gender,” he says. And that’s a big deal. “Our real-world bodies don't matter,” he adds. “We can choose how we are represented. We can choose a body that feels better to us or allows us to feel in different ways, and have a safe space where we can consentingly engage in exploration around our digital identities.”