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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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