Because nothing says “spice up your sex life” quite like buying a virtual sex suit.
For the past few years, conversations around virtual reality changing our lives have been growing more and more prominent. Although some people take an optimistic stance, most have been skeptical—or at least undecided in judgment. In particular, this skepticism seems to focus on how VR can influence our relationships and intimacy: now that apps like Tindr and Grindr have made the way we date more virtual, we increasingly question how “social” the aspect of social media and the virtual world truly is. Since so many of us are confined to the parameters of our bedrooms, our fingers carefully hovering over the seemingly unlimited platter of people dating apps serve us, it makes sense that the nuances of what constitutes a meaningful interaction become vaguer and vaguer.
However, Tindr, Grindr and all the other apps at the center of these debates are designed with single people in mind—leaving those of us in long-term, monogamous relationships out of the conversation. So, I spoke with with Dr. Caroline J Falconer, a research fellow at the University of Nottingham who specialises in VR and Avatar therapy, to learn about some of the ways VR could benefit or affect people in committed relationships.
The internet is rife with stories about futuristic sex dolls, Oculus Rift ‘sex suits’ or the growing market for virtual reality sex toys—so chances are that the first things you think of when I put the words “virtual reality” and “intimacy” together are immersive pornography and sex. So, let’s get right to it: according to Dr. Falconer, there are two potential ways to implement virtual reality into a monogamous couple’s sex life. The first primarily affects long distance partners: they can use headsets and teledildonics to simulate sex since they cannot be together physically. Teledildonics – for those of you less savvy on the technological advances of dildos – are sex toys for both men and women, controlled remotely by someone else. So far, teledildonics have been discussed with more excitement than controversy: since they involve only you and your significant other, they ease the difficulties of remaining monogamous while you’re apart by letting you satisfy each other sexually in an arguably more stimulating way than phone sex. Plus, they’re already affordable: with most selling under $200, you can bet that teledildonics will soon play more and more of a role in long-distance relationships.
However, what about those of us in monogamous long term relationships that aren’t long distance? It’s not completely unheard of to be madly in love, yet still crave a break from the sexual monotony that inevitably arises after an extended amount of time with the same person. “Through the use of these digital devices (VR and teledildonics) partners can have some form of sexual relations with others but still, in the traditional sense of the word, remain faithful,” says Dr. Falconer. What we’re talking about here is strapping on a VR headset, setting up your robotic dildo, and letting yourself be immersed in a sexual experience with anyone in the world in order to satisfy your lust for something new sexually. It already exists, too: recently, Japanese company Tenga developed Illusion VR—a “full body interface” that simulates the feeling of human touch plus immerses you in virtual reality via a headset to create quite possibly the most realistic virtual sex experience on earth.
“I suppose everything will come down to changes in sexual norms, which clearly we have seen over the decades,” Dr. Falconer adds. “With changes in sexual norms, and the inevitable ubiquitous rise of digital, I can certainly see VR and teledildonics being incorporated into relationships. However, for some this will still be an alien concept, which is also perfectly acceptable.”
Although sex is an important part of building intimacy between you and your partner, it’s not the only thing that matters—which is why virtual reality can now also be used to promote intimacy outside of sex. In one of the first studies of its kind, Dr. Falconer set out to use virtual reality and avatars to improve individuals’ self-compassion, which she believes could have an enormous impact on a long term relationship. In the all-female study – although it could be used for any gender – participants had virtual avatars created of themselves and were instructed to use their avatar to console a troubled child avatar. After about 20 minutes of kind words and consolation, the perspectives switched—and the women found themselves in the children’s bodies, seeing themselves and listening to their own words of kindness replayed for the remainder of the experiment. “We found that this exercise provided individuals with an experience that encouraged them to be more compassionate and less critical towards themselves; an experience or lesson to draw upon in a time of in need,” says Dr. Falconer. Dr. Falconer isn’t alone in her opinion, either: more and more conversations are popping up exploring virtual reality’s empathy-developing and emotion-impacting potential, especially through the use of virtual body-swapping art projects. So how does this relate back to your relationship? At its core, empathy promotes greater understanding and open-mindedness. By restructuring the brain to be more compassion-focused and less self-critical, you change the way you interact with your partner—and experience increased empathy.
So while the troubling aspects of virtual reality still exist and we can’t promise that you won’t walk in on your significant other virtually entwined with a fantasy creature, there are some arguable benefits to it as well. As with any topic in a long term relationship, if communication is open and you are willing to at least discuss possibilities, I can certainly see ways in which virtual reality could benefit monogamous relationships—even if you’re not all that into teledildonics. As we inch closer and closer to having a personal VR set in every home, it might be a conversation you have to have—perhaps even sooner than you think.