The ancient devil, we learn from the Book of Job, tormented ancient man by taking away what he needed. The modern devil, we learn from the Faust legend, torments modern man by giving him what he wants. What if you could act out any fantasy that entered your mind, explore any perversion, enflame any hidden desire, and do so with no cost and no consequences? You soon would become a devil yourself, addicted to your own morbid fantasies and incapable of emotional response to another human being.
Western society has inched towards this condition for some time. Early in 2016, it took a giant and irreversible leap across the moral barrier. Films of sexual practices whose existence were unknown to most people a generation ago have been available for some years to anyone with an Internet connection. Now the Japanese firm Tenga has developed the first virtual reality sex machine, complete with bodysuit and Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Soon you will able to be anyone you want to be, and have anyone you want any way you want.
Contrary to T.S. Eliot, the world will end not with a whimper but a bang.
The machine is still a prototype, to be sure, employing rather crude mechanical applications and images from animated pornography. Future iterations, though, will permit multiplayer participation like many of today’s computer games. According to the website Inside Reality, “The sex system is designed to work with a game called ‘Sexy Beach,’ but in the future could be used for intimate cyber meet-ups with those you may or may not know personally. There are multiple facets to the Illusion VR, which when combined, present the user with a fairly accurate portrayal of a sexual encounter. First is the body suit itself, which can send impulses all over the wearer’s body to make it feel like another human being is touching them.” Other details are unsuitable for this publication.
Future users will choose an avatar and “play” with cyberspace partners, or with virtual partners conjured up by Artificial Intelligence applications. Instead of the crude anime images used in the machine’s first generation, I presume, future versions will sample the bodies of live models and convert them into manipulable sensory data. Kim Kardashian will make millions by trademarking her own avatar for virtual reality applications.
Men notoriously prefer that their sex partner turn into a sixpack and a pizza after coitus, and virtual reality sex will eliminate the need to pretend to show interest in a live female after she has served her purpose. But that is the least of the problem. Facebook presently offers 56 gender options (adding one more presumably would have risked a copyright infringement suit from Heinz Foods). Inventing one’s own identity, including one’s own sexual identification, is the definitive claim of modern liberalism. It was enshrined as a putative Constitutional right in the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, in the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy: “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.” The cutting edge of self-invention is to decide whether one is a genderqueer nonbinary transman or a gender-questioning neutrois two-spirit. These categorizations, to be sure, are provisional; the graduates of Gender Studies programs at elite universities invent new ones every day.
Many things about this manner of self-invention are ridiculous, of which the most obvious is: if you are a genderfluid neutrois FTM, how likely are you to find a Saturday night date with a Gender Variant MTF, or whatever you think your sexual counterpart should be? Our brains and bodies are hard-wired for two and only two gender roles, namely male and female, and most people develop their sexuality by encountering people of the opposite sex. That was then. Virtual reality sex solves the Saturday night date problem. If you can’t find your other half, whatever that might be, the machine will conjure it up for you. In the Marlowe and Goethe versions of the Faust story, Mephistopheles revived Helen of Troy for the bedeviled doctor’s pleasure. Technology will provide sex partners as diverse as the cuisine available from Web-based delivery services.
Not in his worst nightmares could Aldous Huxley, the author of the 1931 dystopian novel Brave New World, imagined what will happen next. Every conceivable sexual variation, including some that no-one has yet invented, will become available as a virtual reality exercise supported by high-speed computing and AI programs. Every adolescent will have access to sexual practices that would not have occurred to Nero or Caligula. The polymorphous perversity of the ancient world and the depravity of Rome in its decline will seem quaint by comparison.
We can make a reasonably accurate guess about where this will lead, because Internet data tell us what pornography users most want to see. According to Pornhub, the most frequent Internet searches for porn videos are “teen” and “Lesbian.”
The lack of interest in conventional sexuality is striking, but not surprising. What used to be accepted as normal relations between adults bore an association with responsibility: love, commitment, marriage and children. The designer identities promoted by modern liberalism instead promise narcissistic gratification. Porn users’ predilection for underage females is particularly disturbing: it suggests an impulse towards power and control rather than give-and-take, a fantasy version of statutory rape.
We already know the end of the story, because we have seen in the land that invented the sex robot, namely Japan. As the Guardian reported in 2013, “A survey in 2011 found that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship, a rise of almost 10% from five years earlier. Another study found that a third of people under 30 had never dated at all.” A government report that year found that 45% of women aged 25% of men aged 16-24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact.” Virtual reality sex will spit out a generation of dysfunctional recluses incapable of human intimacy.
There are few institutional barriers to human-machine crossover in sexual relations. The Supreme Court itself has established the right to define one’s own sexual identity as a principle in Constitutional law. The vanguard issue no longer is same-sex marriage, but the right to unlimited sexual variation. When North Carolina last month enacted a law that would limit the use of public toilets to people born with the corresponding gender, the Obama administration threatened to withhold billions of dollars of public funding from the state for alleged discrimination against a sexual minority. The mayors of San Francisco and Seattle banned all official travel to the offending state.
A generation of American college students has grown up the dogma that there is no greater good than inventing one’s gender identity and no greater evil than frustrating it. It is mad and unreal. Virtual reality cannot transform the madness into reality, but it can make it the next best thing, a fantasy sufficiently vivid to embrace as a lifestyle.
In the Faust stories and their numberless variants, the opportunity to have whatever you wish for is a curse rather than a blessing, and the result of unrestricted choice is the end of the wisher. Now you can wish for whatever you want, with no consequences except, in the long run, to your psyche. It won’t be the end of you, just the end of the world.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.