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My VR Porn Diary

'Future Sex' author Emily Witt recalls her encounters with looming sex gods, tentacle monsters, and pneumatic dominatrices.

This story appeared in the February Issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Our bodies are slow to traverse great distances, they have trouble meeting other bodies, they sit alone in rooms on Saturday nights. They want to have sex, but don't make the effort to connect, and so they have to make do alone. A future where humans can't put on haptic playsuits and fuck each other in the Matrix is like a future without self-driving cars or space travel: Until we get there, we will be imagining it.

After years as a false promise, a leftover catchphrase from the 1990s, virtual reality is finally a future that we can inhabit. In 2016, the release of consumer machines like Oculus Rift and HTC VIVE led to the sudden proliferation of virtual reality porn. An $800 investment gets you a cumbersome headset, a pair of hand controllers, and the chance to look down and see a torso that is not the same gender or color as yours. 

A friend set up my borrowed VIVE, narrating the process of setting it up as he went. The first experience of virtual reality is a lot of virtual reality menu screens and a lot of calibrating. "I'm in an IKEA kitchen, and it's falling apart," he said, describing the virtual room where a "typical British-accent C3PO" taught him how to aim and shoot with his hand controllers. Once he finished calibrating the sensors placed in opposite corners of my one-room apartment, he handed over the headset. The welcome screen of the VIVE has a night sky and a glimpse of planet Earth from outer space. The words this is real hang over a horizon of clouds. 

The equipment of virtual reality sex is cumbersome. The plugs of the machines fill an entire power strip. You can't just lie in bed and turn it on when you're horny; you have to get up, put on a headset, and shoot lasers at menu screens. Following the lead of iTunes, you also can't buy porn from the app stores of these machines—just violent video games, Selfie Tennis, and digital re-creations of threatened ecosystems. My first evening in possession of a virtual reality machine I came home from a night out, put on my headset, and watched jellyfish float around to a soundtrack of New Age arpeggios. I was a bodiless fragment of plankton in a vast ocean. A sea turtle swam gently beneath me. The anemones swayed with the currents. 

Illustrations by Deshi Deng

I began watching porn the next day. At this stage in history, the vast majority of VR porn is POV porn. A static, silent torso is your avatar, the torso in place of your own as you look down with the VR headset on. Giant sex gods loom over you, fucking you as you study their tattoos. This kind of porn is available on sites like Badoink, Naughty America, Hologirls, Pornhub, KinkVR. Sometimes, your torso is a woman's; other times, it's a man's. The torso is always headless—the frame cuts off at the neck, so you feel as if what you see below is just an extension of yourself, like those carnival paintings where you put your face in an oval to be photographed as Tarzan. Your avatar's body is positioned inertly, lying on the ground or sitting in a chair. Then one or two people take on the roles of operators, their breasts and genitals centimeters from your face, doing things to each other and penetrating you. The view on the majority of these videos is only 180 degrees, so if you turn around wearing your headset, a mirror image of the sex that was happening in front of you is playing out behind you. These are rote porno fantasies: pool boys, stepmoms, your sister's best friend, a dick in a box of popcorn. A yoga instructor, a tarot card reader, a master and his house slaves. 

In Sharing Is Caring, a video I downloaded from a company called Wankz, my avatar was a woman. She was topless and wearing a miniskirt. She had a nice tan, small natural breasts, and a French manicure, which turned out to be the thing that most disrupted the fantasy that this was "my" body. Her (my) torso lay supine in a bright day-lit room with a stalactiteish glass sculpture in one corner and white couches in front. A giant man and a woman stood grinning over her. Imagine lying on your back staring up at a large flat-screen television, except that the television has burst out of its rectangle and envelops you. The man and the woman did lots of things to the torso: sucking its nipples, fingering it, penetrating it, having sex with each other while the torso let out a steady stream of inarticulate moans and I contemplated what it was like to be a tan person with a French manicure.

"That's a perfect little pussy, that's a perfect pussy, good baby," said the sweaty British man who was my torso's lover. He wielded his uncircumcised dick for a close-up. I watched a lot of it, and VR porn of this genre is at its best when whatever it is you want to see is hovering nearby: breasts hanging over you, an ass lowering itself down over your face, glistening cocks offered up for tasting. Or when you look up, and there's a body on top of yours, a face gazing into your eyes with interest. Even with this basic format, these basic fantasies, VR porn is a vast improvement on watching porn on a laptop. You feel like you're in the room with them, these giant, strange sex people.

A static, silent torso is your avatar, the torso in place of your own as you look down with the VR headset on. Giant sex gods loom over you, fucking you as you study their tattoos. 

But there are some things I don't understand about POV VR porn. The avatars never speak. We never see their faces. They never swap out one torso for another mid-shoot. The fixed camera angle is suffocating, but when I watched a video called Empowering Ava, where the camera was not POV but installed in a corner, I understood that for now the limitations of the technology make it best to put the camera where you can see the action. Empowering Ava is a porno that's meant to appeal to women. I watched a wife have anal sex with her husband using a vibrating dildo. They were so far away, this adventurous married couple, across the room from "me." Also: an adventurous married couple? Not my fantasy. "I can't believe you're into this," the husband kept saying.

The dream of virtual reality was not watching more lifelike versions of the same videos. The dream was a matrix, a metaverse, an Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation [OASIS] (choose your favorite science-fiction novel's name for it), where you have an avatar who is slimmer, wears leather and a samurai sword, has a lavender side haircut, goes to nightclubs. One day, I logged on to a site called 3dx Chat. It's an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game): a virtual world where avatars meet and, in this case, have casual sex with one another—real people interacting with their virtual bodies. I picked out my avatar and named her "embot." I could adjust everything from her haircut to her "eyebrow intensity." All the wardrobe options were "sexy." I clicked through schoolgirl skirts and cropped white tank tops that allowed the bottom half of my avatar's giant breasts to peek out the bottom. I dressed her in a black leather corset and sent my goth redhead out into the world to meet gym-toned, pyramid-torsoed men. I joined a room called "Yacht Sex" that had around 50 people hanging out in it. The password was "fuck me." I wandered the wood interiors of the yacht and gazed out over the sea. Clicking buttons, I accidentally took off my avatar's hot pants, and then quickly put them back on. I passed couples making out in the hot tub on the upper deck. You could choose your sex positions from an extensive menu. I went to the nightclub. My avatar danced, surrounded by other avatars wearing LED wristbands. The only problem was I wasn't in virtual reality—the patch to toggle in wasn't working. I had to imagine what it would be like with a headset on.

Between video porn and online role-playing games are interactive virtual reality games. Japanese software companies excel at these fantasies, offering up interaction with animated characters in games like Custom Maid, which looked as patriarchal as it sounds. I played an English-language game called X Story Player. It sort of worked in VR, except that whenever I tried to use the hand controllers, my avatar spun around like a top. My avatar was a "nerd" working on an experiment in a lab. He masturbates into a container and runs his own DNA through the machine he has built, thereby creating a tentacle monster that is in turn stimulated by pornographic imagery. The creature escapes, leaving a trail of slime and lustful women in its wake. My avatar got a blowjob from a dead-eyed woman named Saiko. "I feel so strange," she said. She looked strange. She was sitting on her bed with her dress falling off her next to an open box of cornflakes and a half-eaten container of take-out Chinese food. "I have an enormous craving for something, but it is not food. Oh, God, it is so overwhelming." She beckoned my avatar closer, opening her mouth to receive him. Mascara ran down her cheeks, and when I stopped pressing arrow keys, she floated ever so slightly, quivering in digital space. 

I preferred FemDomination, an interactive game in a 360-degree virtual reality environment. Maybe it was my favorite virtual reality experience of all, which is an embarrassing thing to say about a game where dominatrices with pneumatic Lara Croft bodies peg a male avatar who's strapped into a torture chair with a chain around his scrotum.

The entry screen of FemDomination reads WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF SEX AND SUBMISSION. You stand outside a massive stone temple illuminated by the light of the full moon. Crickets sing, the wind blows, and birds flap across the starry night sky. You enter the temple by walking underneath a statue of a woman on all fours, passing along a chamber lined with hieroglyphic depictions of people getting sexually tortured and on into the best virtual menu screen of all: a room where you stand flanked on both sides by monumental trans-bodied stone statues having oral sex with each other while music I can only describe as "sex techno" plays. 

I selected the "orientation" option from the virtual menu and looked down to see my digital body strapped naked into a wheelchair. I turned around and stared up at the leather-encased breasts of my vacant-eyed attendant. Things escalated from there: A dominatrix hypnotized me by waving a glowing green crystal before my eyes; I lay on my back at the top of an open tower beneath palm trees and stars while a raven-haired vixen said things like, "It's the easiest thing to turn a man into a slave: Just get him hard for you, and he will do whatever you want." A dominatrix with an Australian accent gave my avatar a prostate massage. "Say, 'Yes, mistress, milk me, please,'" she said. As she abused this particular torso, another woman held his arm down, gazing benevolently down with a druggy, unblinking stare. I toggled between "arousal mode" and "experience mode." I chose the "dildo belt" fantasy over one called "Kali's teeth." I felt turned on by cartoon vaginas and puddles of cum that glowed in the dark like lint under a black light. 

When Earth is overheated and diseased, and what used to be nature is only so many mountains of trash, and the Trump family only lets us live so we can buy Ivanka Trump business-casual suits, the virtual Great Barrier Reef will remind us of a place that is now bleached and skeletal, and virtual sex will happen as much as actual sex. The virtual worlds are becoming more intricate as the one we live in has become an exploding IKEA kitchen. One day, we will traverse our cities in self-driving pods, and when we are tired of looking at social media feeds, we will put on headsets, set the eyebrow intensity of our avatars to level 10, and stare at animated plasticine genitals. When you have machines to do everything for you, you become a machine yourself. I liked virtual reality sex. It was fun. I look forward to more. I look forward to having it with someone I love.