IEET > Rights > CognitiveLiberty > J. Hughes
From Virtual Sex to No Sex?
J. Hughes   Feb 28, 2007   Ethical Technology  

An inquiry from a journalist about the phenomenon of sex in the virtual world Second Life (NSFW) got me waxing eloquent about a topic interwoven with my Cyborg Buddha book project: the future of sex. Here is my thesis: the two most important developments in the technological control of sex are both already occurring; first separating sex from physical contact, and then establishing our control over our sexual feelings altogether.

Sex is already moving in a virtual direction, between widespread access to and use of porn, phone sex, video-interactive sex, sex in virtual worlds, and eventually teledildonics, the use of body suits and tactile equipment controlled from afar. Electronically mediated sex and porn are safer (no diseases or pregnancy), easier (lengthy courtship and foreplay are unnecessary), more convenient (available any time you are) and more likely to be exactly what you want (your partners can be anyone, or anything, you desire, without any physical defects). The virtualization of sex has progressed from the first erotic paintings and photographs to sex in Second Life. Teledildonics is the next step, and it has been around since the early days of the Web. But the equipment has been so crude that it has not provided a very interesting experience for many. In about ten years however I’m sure that Wii-sex will be quite popular.

The growing sophistication of AI and robotics to detect human emotion, anticipate human desires and respond in ways that simulate a human response will also speed the virtualization of sex. People who are too busy, shy, or unappealing, or whose preferences are too elaborate or taboo to reveal to a living person, may turn to robot sex as an alternative. Of course, we will have a serious problem of robot rights if and when machine minds achieve true self-awareness - perhaps a problem of apocalyptic proportions - and this would effect robot sex like everything else. (It would be bad if the first god-like AI was a former sex slave.)

Lots of people are horrified that virtual sex and porn are reducing desire for and tolerance for physical sex, especially with spouses or partners. But I think that this is first a matter of individual preference; many will still prefer body sex. The decline in physical sex will also soon be overcome by neurotechnologies that control and channel sexual desire. Soon, in addition to Viagra, we will have chemicals that increase and channel desire itself. Right now we can chemically castrate pedophiles and turn off their obsessive thoughts about children, along with all of their sex drive. We can stimulate sexual desire in men and women by increasing their testosterone. We can increase feelings of trust and bonding with oxytocin.

Eventually we will be able to directly stimulate the parts of the brain that desire specific partners or experiences.  In the future we will be able to specifically turn off sexual thoughts about children, and turn on appropriate sexual thoughts about adults. We will be able to make gays straight, and straights gay, and everything in between. There will be no more necessity for sexual boredom between long term partners. We will be able to wire ourselves to only desire sex with our spouses, to only desire it in-body, and to desire it according to an agreed upon frequency. Or we can turn off our jealousy, and turn up our libidos, if we have agreed to a polyamorous lifestyle.

When we have our brains laced with nano-neural networks (40 years?) we will eventually be able to experience completely virtual body sensation, so we can have equal or better quality sex with partners in virtual reality, or with combinations of virtual reality and material reality; two real people in a virtual space, a virtual partner in a real space, two real and one virtual person in a semi-real space, whatever. Nano-neural networks and new psychopharmaceuticals will also allow us to modify and enhance sexual and emotional experience, to have orgasms as long and hard as we like, or no orgasms, or to have an experience of cosmic love and oneness instead of an orgasm, experienced as a bolt of tingles through every inch of our body.

Also, as we gain complete control over the neurochemistry of sex, love and bonding we can make conscious, explicit choices about our feelings and desires. Just as we have prenuptial contracts for property, partners may agree to lock their love and sexual desire onto their partners for a specified period, or at least go to marital counseling to have adulterous feelings modified. This technology will also be a huge boon for celibate religious orders, who will be able to turn off their mendicants’ sexual feelings. (Perhaps not taking your celibacy pill will be the mark of true self-flagellant.) I suspect that as the range of sexual choices expand, and the potential for sexual addiction grows, a lot of people will adopt either strict monogamy or even celibacy, channeling all that energy into other pursuits.

The challenge will be to remain a liberal society as the birth rate drops and the risk of virtual sexual obsessions grows. These neurotechnological controls over sexuality could enable new forms of Puritanism and repression in authoritarian societies, “curing” homosexuals and enforcing monogamy on people against their will. We will have to work hard to defend cognitive liberty and sexual liberalism against the forces of repression, partly by developing the means for people to control and channel their own sexuality. The debates over the limits on sex in virtual worlds is only the beginning.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


And what I think is interesting is where individuals and society at large deem to draw the line as to what is sexually acceptable.  Is it cheating to have sex with someone else, if you are poly it isn’t.  Is it cheating to kiss?  It might be to some, and not to others.  It could be to some people that holding hands is cheating.  Some people it is OK to watch porn, but not OK to watch someone live (even if you aren’t participating in any other way). 

I think our boundaries are being challenged my the online world.  Is it ok to do things in second life that you would not be allowed to do in real life?  What makes it ok or not?  And how did the line originally get drawn in the sand that sex was NOT to be with anyone else?  There are so many questions.  I believe that as a society we need to re-evaluate why we have the ‘boundaries’ that we have.  Because soon they will all be challenged, one by one, by sex with robots, or through the web, etc, and we should all already know why we stand where we stand. Otherwise we are not likely to be able to cope with the myriad of complexity that will ensue.

You mentioned some really interesting points Isabella.

“I think our boundaries are being challenged by the online world.  Is it ok to do things in second life that you would not be allowed to do in real life?  What makes it ok or not?  And how did the line originally get drawn in the sand that sex was NOT to be with anyone else?  There are so many questions.  I believe that as a society we need to re-evaluate why we have the ‘boundaries’ that we have.  Because soon they will all be challenged, one by one, by sex with robots, or through the web, etc, and we should all already know why we stand where we stand..”

That paragraph alone is enough to keep us thinking for at least another 30 years ..

Finally, real sexual freedom. No pre sex song and dance, stress or having to deal with the emotional whims and feelings of another. No more sexual boredom. Unlimited variety and sexual desire as a hunger as easily satisfied as an empty stomach. No more women being the sexual gatekeepers demanding some kind of payment (monetary or emotional) in order for a man to take care of his sexual urges.

As a show of intimacy and love body to body sex will always be there. But when neither of these things exist, virtual sex, with a physical component via some kind of body suit, will truly be a godsend. 

I am just sorry I am too old to live to see this brave new sexual world.

I think the human animal ultimately wants what it can’t have.  If virtual sex becomes so common place that it supplants physical sex, then physical sex will become the new, more sought after thing.  Regarding prenups for virtual sex, I doubt this will ever happen, given current prenups regarding sex are unenforceable as they’re considered against public policy…but who knows…if virtual sex gets to the point where it’s destroying marriages left and right, maybe prenups will become in line with public policy.  Interesting times ahead.

First of all I agree with everything that was said by mike and isabella.  they both make fine arguements.  However, I doubt this will happen anytime in our lifetimes and even if it does, we’ll be too old to enjoy it.  If such a machine were to be on the market today, it would more than likely be too expensive for the common person to afford to where only billionaires like Trump, the Hiltons, and so forth could buy it.  Therefore, it wouldn’t do as well because it’s not practical.  Just like television didn’t really take off until everyone could afford it.  Now, it has become part of our american lives to have at least one tv in every home..  Maybe in the future if the economy ever picks back up to prosperity, then maybe it’ll happen.  But with the national deficit and the escalating wars overseas, I doubt we’ll see it happen in our lifetime.

However, even if it does happen, there would be a lot more moral questions involved than than the ones proposed by isabella.  From reading the paragraph, it says it could change a person sexual preference, change a partners opinion to become more open to multiple partners or designate him/her to be loyal to their spouse, and control how much sex drive a person could have.  Or perhaps maybe change a person’s pedolophillia tendencies.  Here’s the moral dilemma i have about this.  Assuming this actually works, we don’t know what the long term side affects would be since we would be talking about tampering with people’s brain waves, so this could cause brain damage if something were to go wrong during the process.

Secondly,  although this whole process sounds ideal in reducing the risk of STDS and early pregnancies among teens, who’s to say this technology couldn’t fall into the wrong hands.  Ever since the spread of information has been infinite since the launch of the internet, we’ve seen a lot of computer hackers manage to take advantage of it by stealing people’s money when they log into their banking accounts to even going as far s to steal other people’s identities once accesing their information.  Accessing illegal government files and downloading tons of information.  Such would be another problem.  Although it is tough to say if in the future online security will be a lot more tougher or not, that still doesn’t diminish the possibility if that technology fell into the wrong hands.  Stalkers could easily make any woman or man fall in love with them or use them for their own sexual favors anytime they chose against their will or…in this case after manipulating their will into submitting to them.  Then if you tried to file a complaint about it to the authorities, can you honestly claim it was rape if the person’s personality was manipulated to accept it? 

Plus, who’s to say the government won’t try to use this to their advantage as well by using it turn every gay person straight.  Sure, you can argue saying that racial tolerance towards gays might be deminished by then, but it took years for racism against other minorities to subside to the level of near equality that it is today.  Yet, there is still racial stereotypes and prejudices even though racial tolerance has gotten gradually better over the years.  Who’s to say politicians might not try to use this to allegedly cure people’s homosexual tendencies without them knowing it.  This would raise a more moral dillema since there would be no way to stop them once the procedure is done.

Plus, who’s to say this would cure pedophilia tendencies or a person tendency to rape someone?  For all we know it could only enhance their desires further to uncontrolled rage.

Anyway, I know this all must sound like senseless ramblings of “what ifs” scenarios, but it’s worth thinking about.  Sure, its easy to say that this new technology is perfect to satisfy our sexual urges without the fear of rejection, STDS or any kind of commitment.  However, like the old saying goes, “if something is too good to be true, then it probably is.”

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