Despite the fact that sex is a basic instinct and a near-universal experience, we know remarkably little about it. And so, this week, we’re teaming up with our friends at Futurism, oracles of all things science, technology and medicine, to look at the past, present and future of pleasure from a completely scientific perspective.
Sexual psychologist Cathline Smoos spent most of last year having freaky, virtual sex with her two then-boyfriends. Usually, they fooled around together in the trippy, immersive game VRChat, but one day, they decided to explore what it would be like to have sex as objects instead. In their respective bedrooms on different corners of the globe, they strapped on their VR headsets, and embodied two non-human avatars; Smoos chose a chest of drawers, her partner a TV.
First, they warmed up by virtually rubbing up against each other, using the VR hands attached to their avatars to gently caress one another in the metaverse. Although there was no physical touch, they both felt sparks when their avatars made contact. Smoos calls this the “phantom touch” — when she gets down and dirty in VR, her real-life body feels an erotic tingle, too. Research backs this up — because you perceive virtual touches as being real, it’s common to feel an actual sensation.
Gradually, this light foreplay escalated as Smoos’ TV-shaped partner gently tugged at the handle of one of her polished drawers. “He opened it slowly at first, and then he sped up,” she tells me, leaning in slightly. “It was so weird, I thought I’d feel the sensation on my chest — that’s kind of where I imagined the drawer would be on my body — but instead, I felt it on my knee. Soon, I was like, ‘Oh fuck yeah, open them again!’”
Here, sipping a gin and tonic outside a bar in Barcelona, Smoos practically orgasms at the memory alone.
Boned-up tech-heads worldwide have spent years exploring the erotic possibilities of VR. With nothing but a headset and some lube, users can step inside a multitude of virtual porn scenes and watch 3D models fuck in front of them. You can even jackhammer a virtual girlfriend with your 10-foot-long, pixelated dick if you so choose, thanks to games like VR Kanojo.
But now that experts have nailed the basics of virtual fucking, VR is being pushed into erotic new realms. The last few years in particular have seen the advancement of “body-swapping,” a burgeoning field in which users wear a headset rigged with cameras and motion sensors to “swap bodies” — or even genders — with an actual person. In other iterations, you can “embody” a virtual avatar and act out various scenarios, just like Smoos experienced. This tech can get experiential, too — real-life facilitators can use props to enhance the thrill by evoking your senses of touch, taste and smell, on top of the audiovisual headset experience.
Smoos is somewhat of a trailblazer in these fields. In her native France, she spent years meticulously researching the ocean on a quest to make it her lover, as part of a research passion project on the potential of sextech. “I listened to ocean sounds while I fucked, masturbated and slept,” she tells me. “I wrote down so many sensory descriptions that I filled entire notebooks. Some waves are just sexier than others.”
After figuring out the most erotic components of her elemental lover, Smoos spent three weeks microdosing LSD and immersing herself in a sensory deprivation tank, all in the name of simulating what it would actually be like to fuck the ocean. “I used a waterproof VR headset to program these dreams where I was swimming with whales, and I had a sex toy that was connected to the metallurgical data of the ocean in real-time,” she explains. In these psychedelic, virtual fantasies, she’d swim around the world as waves of pleasure — stimulated by the sex toy — lapped against her body. “It would be like, ‘Okay cool, I just had my first orgasm next to Los Angeles. Now to England!’ It worked so fucking well, and now I’m so connected to the ocean. I always tell people: ‘Don’t you dare throw a cigarette in the ocean. That’s my fucking babe!’”
Soon after the project wrapped, Smoos moved to the coastal Spanish city of Barcelona. “My friends joked that I was reunited with my lover,” she laughs.
It’s not just the water that lured her in. For the last few months, Smoos has been collaborating with Daniel González of VR studio BeAnotherLab, a world pioneer of one of the most literal examples of “body-swap” tech. It’s a nonprofit enterprise, one which builds on various studies indicating that VR can increase empathy, reduce implicit racial bias and even potentially treat phobias through “virtual reality exposure therapy.” Headsets can also allow people to virtually see themselves, which could have huge implications for treatment of body dysmorphia.
Despite the advanced tech, there’s no lick of Silicon Valley shimmer to BeAnotherLab. Nestled in a nondescript alleyway, the studio is part of a network of connected buildings, which house a gallery and an artist co-operative. Artists live here rent-free, in exchange for exhibiting their work. It’s in a darkened corner of one of these cavernous buildings that I’m introduced to a young blonde woman, Angelica, who sheepishly shakes my hand. In just a few minutes, she’ll be inside my body, and I’ll be inside hers.
To say it’s a bizarre experience would be an understatement. We both sit on opposite corners of a black screen, as Smoos and González — both of whom act as facilitators — strap us into VR headsets. A page of text instructing me to move slowly and carefully flashes before my eyes. Seconds later, I look down tentatively. I’ve seemingly grown breasts out of nowhere, and Angelica’s gray, roll-neck sweater is now my own.
It’s a disorientating ride, a sort of intensely intimate dance. Angelica moves her hands gently, and I’m asked to mimic her movements as we cautiously explore our new bodies. Although I’m touching my own skin, it feels weirdly electrifying, like a rediscovery of your own flesh through the eyes of someone else.
Soon, Smoos and González walk into the frame. They give us ornaments to hold, massage our feet and then outstretch their arms, helping us slowly to our feet. The black screen is removed, and there, through the camera on Angelica’s headset, I can see my own body moving toward me, arms outstretched. The experience ends with me giving myself a hug, and a quick kiss on the cheek. It’s definitely pleasurable, but not exactly sexy. That’s not to say it couldn’t be, though; body-swapping with a sexy someone to vicariously — and consensually — explore their body could be a way hotter experience.
That said, these headsets have toured VR expos worldwide, and they’ve definitely enabled some sex along the way. “We’ve heard so many funny stories of people who didn’t know each other before they did the body swap, and they ended up becoming a couple afterwards,” explains González. When it comes to straight-up sex, this tech is arguably the most limited in terms of erotic possibilities, as it’s so tethered to reality. “Basically, if you had sex while you were wearing these headsets, you’d just have the impression that you were fucking yourself,” González laughs.
It’s an interesting possibility. It might feel clunky and awkward, but you could theoretically see your own body through someone else’s eyes, or perform a sexy little striptease — provided you can pull off seductive choreography in a bulky headset, a feat even Dita Von Teese might struggle to manage. Provided you’re not dissuaded by seeing yourself groping at the air with a giant machine strapped to your face, you could definitely spank, touch and tease the body-swapped version of yourself — if your partner is game.
Performing strip-teases and fucking yourself might get old quickly, but this tech could be a real game-changer for trans communities. “We were asked by a trans woman if she could swap with a cis friend, to basically look down and see what it would be like to not see a dick. She was considering surgery, and wanted to experience this beforehand,” González explains. “Her friend was completely okay with letting her do the swap, so we gave them some privacy and they both got naked.” He doesn’t elaborate, but says it was a pretty mind-blowing experience for them both, and one that ramped up the intimacy of their longstanding friendship.
With VR, you can step into virtual, pre-recorded stories, too. In one, I embody the POV of a trans guy named Jonah, and vicariously experience the joy of seeing my post-top surgery chest for the first time. It’s seemingly a powerful tool for trans people experiencing dysphoria, one that allows them to trial the body they have in their mind and feel the rush of gender euphoria that comes along with it.
Seeing your own body language reflected back at you can work wonders in the corporate world as well. Christophe Mallet is the founder of BodySwaps, a London-based company that uses VR to help with “soft skills” at work. Building on the work of scientists like Mel Slater — a VR hot shot known for spotting tech’s potential to transform self-perception and enrich people’s lives outside of gaming — Mallet uses tech to nurture the workplace skills of his clients. Whether job interviews turn you into a quivering wreck or you’re an employer wanting to give employees a more immersive training program, BodySwaps caters to a spectrum of folks all keen to truly nail their professional skills.
In the company’s second-floor London office, all exposed brick and chattering, friendly co-workers, I slip on a headset and trial the tech myself. First, I choose a pre-selected virtual avatar, a young, brunette woman in skinny jeans and a mustard sweater. In her body, I sit through a consultation with two job interview coaches, and then move into the kind of spacious yoga studio usually seen in Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP documentaries as a virtual coach teaches me breathing exercises to manage anxiety. In another module, I’m transported into a cozy, virtual living room where I’m sat across from a woman who struggles with suicidal thoughts. After listening to her despair, I’m instructed to record a message to help her cope; then, I switch with her and watch my own avatar back, body language and all. Through repeated trial and error, I learn communication skills tailored to those suffering with mental illness.
The work isn’t exactly erotic, but Mallet is a VR enthusiast in his spare time with a handful of his own experiences. He hypothesizes about virtual worlds where “you could embody a human avatar, an animal, whatever you like, and virtually fuck a dragon.” But in his eyes, things get trickier when you introduce the human aspect.
Mallet recalls himself feeling accidentally emboldened in this digital parallel reality. “In one VR game, I was doing a tutorial when I saw, in this virtual world, a super beautiful robot woman,” he recalls. “I went out to touch her, and the robot said, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ I was in a multi-user environment, and the sexy robot turned out to be a man. It was the first time in my life I [knowingly] invaded someone’s privacy.” This breach of consent may have been virtual, but Mallet points to research showing “when someone in VR reaches out to you, you’re still perceiving it as being reached out to.” It’s virtual, but it feels real enough to leave a mark.
Of course, you can take off the headset at any time, but pushing VR further into the realms of sex could enable people to breach boundaries virtually. Thankfully, this isn’t currently happening on any large scale — body-swap tech is still largely inaccessible, and although VR headsets can be bought and used at home, some of the more advanced examples can only be enabled by facilitators in genuinely safe, controlled spaces. If they were to be rolled out more broadly, they’d be wildly expensive, too, with some of the better headshots costing in at least the thousands each. This could change in the distant future, but the conversations around sex-tech and consent are currently more rooted in the “if” rather than the “when.”
Still, González and Smoos have both considered this at length during the development of their new project, Imbue VR, which is designed for couples rather than sex parties. Basically, these are erotic VR fantasies controlled through a game and linked to an app. Smoos shows me a prototype: Together, you select a fantasy, and then one partner wears a headset while the other is given a series of instructions using props.
It’s still in development, but a standout fantasy transports you to a secluded mountain with a horny, dominant goddess, who feeds you fruit — cue González teasing a sliced tomato into my mouth — and urges you to succumb to her feminine wiles. In another, I find myself as a horny dude on a rooftop with a sexy Spanish woman dressed in a tight, black pencil skirt and a white top, her nipples poking through. The woman tips her head back flirtatiously, moves over to me and gradually starts unbuttoning my shirt — but in reality, it’s Smoos sliding her hand down my chest and giving me a lap dance, with pre-agreed consent, of course. “I won’t touch your balls, seeing as this is only a demo,” she laughs.
When it comes to “body-swap” tech, this is where the meat really lies. I’m virtually embodying the fantasies of a million dudes, yet I’m simply sitting in a chair while a trusted partner — in this case, Smoos — stimulates me in real life. It has the potential to be exponentially hotter than VR porn, as you’re actually embodying someone who’s in the fantasy, rather than a voyeur outside of it. Especially for couples looking to get adventurous, it could be a fun way to trial new kinks, like BDSM power exchanges or sensory play.
Naturally, development requires investment — and there’s still reluctance from tech firms to have anything remotely pornographic in their portfolio. Yet it’s clear there’s real, sexy potential here. Whether you’re embodying avatars and “fucking” virtual partners with the help of sex toys, or watching yourself perform a sexy strip-tease through the magic of VR, there’s a world of eroticism to be explored. At its core, though, horny sex in the metaverse comes with the same basic rules of IRL fucking — always seek consent, and don’t be a dick.
Unless, of course, you’ve embodied a giant, cock-shaped avatar — then, you can be a dick for as long as you like.