Tori Black lies naked on a cushioned ottoman, flat on her back. Her legs are spread wide. She’s enclosed in what looks like a makeshift dressing room, ensconced by white curtains, with 44 cameras pointed straight at her vulva.
“Do you want me to pose my vagina in any type of way?” she asks.
“Hold on,” someone shouts from offstage. “Can you spread your legs a little wider?”
“These vagina lips! They are unruly!” Black hollers back from behind the curtain. A small team of men sit behind a series of monitors on the other side of the curtain, scanning the results of Black’s work.
We’re in a rundown industrial area on the outskirts of Toronto in what looks from the outside to be a derelict building. It was once home to the local Knights of Columbus chapter, and then it was a church. Now—and probably much to the initial inhabitants’ chagrin—the building is home to Holodexxx, a company that makes virtual reality pornography.
Black is here to create her virtual avatar. The final product will perform in an adult videogame, where players can “live out their sexual fantasies.” Though Black doesn’t perform anymore, she’s still one of the most well-known names in the industry. So she’s freezing her 27-year-old self in time.
Black’s nose is so stuffed up she can barely breathe. And yet, surrounded by the Holodexxx team and a VICE camera crew, she is totally nonplussed at being both the target of so many cameras and the only naked person in the room. Some of us try hard not to stare at her exposed labia, but I get the strong sense that she really doesn’t care.
“People are always asking me, ‘How are you so comfortable being naked?” she says, as though reading my ever-awkward thoughts.
“Well,” she says, looking at a nonexistent watch on her naked wrist, “I’ve been naked for about a decade now. That’s how.”
She goes through every pose one might reasonably desire a sex partner to strike. She squats low. She sticks her butt out and throws a sassy glare over her shoulder, one finger in her mouth. She kneels on all fours, tooching her booty.
Black is not the first porn star to be reborn into the virtual world. People are already usingVR machines for sexual purposes. VICE made a doc exploring that in 2014. But the advent of VR, as with any major new technology, raises a number of questions: What about consent? How will real-world boundaries be respected in a virtual realm? What are the implications here for human-to-human physical intimacy? What happens to an avatar if the system is hacked? And does it matter?
But first, here’s how the game works. One puts on a virtual headset like Avegant Glyph or the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift (which, for the record, does not condone the use of adult content on its system, but won’t block it either). Right now, the game is designed such that the player has two controllers which they use as hands to do what they will to the performers in the game. In time, teledildonics will be part of the equation, too.
People are scanned by standing in the custom-made VR rig, which is just 112 Canon Rebels mounted on various poles in a shape vaguely resembling a square. The cameras grasp their victim subject from every angle, and through a relatively quick editing process, they are turned into a 3D version of themselves.
The Holodexxx team ambitiously claims that, soon, virtual reality will be even more ubiquitous than the cell phone. As far as when they expect that to happen, the answer is unclear. One team member says 10 years, another says 20.
Who is this game for?
The men who run this company are Morgan Young, Craig Alguire, and Chris Abell. They’ve been working on Holodexxx for the past eight months or so. Young and Alguire come from the gamer world, and Abell has a background in film. They started their current operation with 12 cameras total, until Abell, their creative director, came on board and bought an additional 60 cameras. They were set up in Young’s bedroom until the rig got too big for that arrangement to be practical. Then, they all quit their jobs to make VR porn full time (they also use the rig to scan people for non-porn commercial work).
They’ve caught on quick. They give clear directives: “Alright, pouting in 3 ,2,1!” is the kind of directive Abell often shouts from behind the monitor.
Abell is responsible for writing the 200-or-so lines of script. They include a lot of instructions women use when they want their partner to climax, like “harder” and “faster” and “fuck me.”
The lines lead me to wonder who this game is really for. Thus far, all but one of the performers scanned have been straight-sized women. They come from a variety of racial backgrounds, but all have the classic porn performer shape. Right now, the avatars can be edited to have bigger breasts or butts, but can’t be made thicker across the board without damaging the realistic quality of the imaging. One man has been scanned, but I ask the team whether there will be more focus put on entertaining women, and whether fat and queer and trans people will be scanned.
Young, one of the company’s co-founders, says representing all bodies, genders, and orientations is important as the game develops.
“We have an opportunity right now to potentially reset how the industry moves forward,” he says. “We’re three young dudes. We don’t want to come across as chauvinist. We’re making a very concerted effort to make sure that everyone’s represented equally.”
Young says this is a good opportunity for people to gain more agency over their identity.
“I think there’s going to be almost like a renaissance. People are going to be able to explore their sexuality in a way that they’ve never been able to before.”
“It’s crazy too, because people may not choose to represent themselves the way that they are in the real world in a VR space,” he says. “You know, I might talk to you and you like lizards, and you’re a big lizard. And I’m an ice cream cone. But if that’s how I choose to represent myself as an avatar, then so be it. And we can still step into a space and have an exciting, interactive and intimate connection with each other.
“[You can] assume the body you like, assume the gender you like, the race you like, and be yourself and explore sexuality. It’s amazing; it’s what we’re on this planet to do.”
Abell adds that those who might be experiencing sexual blocks can break them down in the relative safety of the virtual landscape. If someone wants to experiment with group sex but is too scared, for example, or if they’re older and haven’t had sex, they can try it in the game first.
While the game can play a major role in helping an individual validate themselves, it can also make an existing relationship between two people that much more powerful. Games like this can, for example, bring a new dimension to long distance relationships. Through the use of teledildonics, people can get each other off from afar.
A look into the ethics of this metaverse
While VR porn has its upsides—”safe” exploration of unchartered sexual desires, the ability to fuck a long distance partner using teledildonics, and even just a more interactive way to watch porn—there are ethical questions that come into play, too. How to ensure a porn performer’s boundaries are not crossed in the virtual world? To what degree does this matter? What happens if someone hacks the game and gains control over someone’s avatar? What about virtual rape?
Holodexxx says the hacking question is a risk everyone involved will have to take. Music and films get hacked, and this game is as susceptible as anything else.
“It’s something that we can’t do too much about,” Young says. “There’s really not too much a small start-up can do to prevent that.” He says they’ll put in reasonable measures to protect themselves (and the avatars), but in the long run, it’s a gamble for everyone.
While the company can’t ensure the safety of its avatars forever, Young explains that any boundaries the performers want respected within the game will be observed (though they do try to hire people based on their openness to being put in a variety of sexual scenarios).
“We’re dealing with someone’s likeness, and it’s no longer just an approximation of what this person looks like. It really is them. It’s photo real…there’s a human being behind that avatar.” As a result, he wants to make sure everyone feels comfortable. This means that if a performer doesn’t do a specific act in real life, the game will restrict that action in virtual life, too.
So far, the company hasn’t come up against any obstacles in this regard.
In a similar vein, one can’t help but wonder about the life cycle of these avatars. After their exclusivity contract with Holodexxx is up, what happens to the them? Do they become zombies? Is there a wasteland of unemployed avatars out there in another world? Are they being tied up and blindfolded or enslaved? Young says he doesn’t have an answer.
“I don’t know where the technology will be in five years—it’s hard to say.” He says the best the company can do is make the effort to protect its performers in the long run.
I ask Black what she thinks, whether she needs her real world boundaries to apply in virtualland.
“I don’t care what my avatar does,” she says, “because my avatar isn’t who I am. So yeah, all the things that you want me to do that I decline, go ahead and have my avatar do them and be like, ‘Hey, look! She finally did it!’ I’ll be like yeah, great. It didn’t cross any of my boundaries because it’s all in the computer… I’m completely disconnected.”
She says the virtual porn landscape is a place for exploration, and those who are uncomfortable with the idea of lack of consent just shouldn’t get involved with it. But if VR is the future of porn, I ask, what are people to do? Her answer? Find a new career.
It’s a harsh response, but Black may be right that that is pretty much the only option to ensure complete control.
I’m still worried about the ethics here, though. So I get in touch with Sonya Barnett, a sex educator and feminist activist who also makes porn, to see if she’ll share her thoughts on some of the potential ethical fallout here. She says she’s not sure there’s a way to ensure real-world boundaries are observed in the virtual realm.
“As much as I want to say that having someone create an avatar of you/a porn star/a celebrity/a neighbour—or abuse one that already exists—is something that needs to be policed,” she tells me, “people do that kind of thing already with virtual beings: they fantasize about others all the time, whether they watch a porn scene on continued repeat, or jack off to print magazines, or photos, or dolls.
“Is it not an extension of a pornstar-branded Fleshlight or specially modeled dildo?”
While some virtual communities self-police unethical behaviour by flagging, that can be impossible in a private-use VR world. Ideally, Barnett explains, algorithms could be used to prevent the abuse—or creation—of other people’s avatars. But she’s not convinced that’s possible, or that it would eradicate unethical use.
“Also problematic is that the onus is put on the person who wants to prohibit use of their image, who has to then create restrictions for those algorithms to work. It’s like creating a ‘publication ban’ on your image.”
What’s left, then, is questions. Barnett lists hers off:
“[If] a person is using or abusing an avatar in private, just how much danger is the real live version of that person in? Could a virtual realm be a safe space for people to play out their worst fantasies? A similar question arises in regards to pedophiles using animated or illustrated content vs the photographing of actual children, or even those who engage in rape fantasy play. Is there harm in any of these cases if no actual person is on the receiving end?”
Thus far, the answers remain unclear to everyone involved.
Nervous semi-luddites like myself have been heard expressing consternation about the potential fallout when it comes to real human intimacy. If people can enter a game and “fuck” famous porn stars with bodies deemed “perfect” by Western beauty standards, will they bother to seek out connections with others? As we chat, Young makes me think about this question in a new way. He uses Skype as an example—right now, we can see and hear the people we Skype, but VR will allow us to step right into their space.
At this point, Barnett is not concerned that VR activity will replace the need for real physical intimacy. But, for people who, for whatever reason, don’t have access to a flesh and blood partner, she says “a virtual partner for many is better than no partner at all.”
Young claims the game will enhance, not detract from, intimacy between people. People made the same argument, he says, with the birth of the cell phone and the internet. He sees VR as an extension of social media.
“I don’t see [VR experimentation] being a blockade, like a one-off thing you do by yourself in the seclusion of your home. I think this is going to be a persistent online, multi-player experience. You’ll log into the metaverse and this is where people will spend their time.”
In other words, why not have a virtual orgy with the people of your choice rather than watching a passive 2-D version?
Despite people’s fears, Young says VR is already “too big to fail.”
He thinks that average household use will be quite common by about 2018. People will use the headsets, he predicts, not just for entertainment at home, but “outside, on public transit, as the headsets become more slimmer and ergonomic and refined and powerful. It’ll be like putting on a pair of sunglasses. You’ll step out in the world and you might be in a virtual world. Yup.”
I tell him it wigs me out to imagine everyone wandering around with their freak goggles on living in a world where they’re on virtual acid. What will we be seeing if we’re not occupying the physical world? How will we not get run over or something? Will we be undoing the knack we’ve evolved for recognizing danger?
I ask how he’s so serene in the face of all this. He says it’ll just be “another method to leverage human connectivity.”
This calms me down. But at the end of the 12-hour shoot day, just when I’ve started to ease into the idea of this technology not being utterly terrifying, he adds under his breath:
“Say goodbye to reality as you know it.”