A Philosopher's Blog

Virtual Cheating III: “Robust” VR

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 26, 2017


As noted in previous essays, classic cheating involves sexual activity with a person while one is in a committed relationship that is supposed to exclude such activity. Visual VR can allow interaction with another person, but while such activity might have sexual content (such as nakedness and naughty talk) it would not be sexual activity in the usual sense that requires physical contact. Such behavior, as argued in the previous essay, might constitute a form of emotional infidelity—but not physical infidelity.

One of the iron laws of technology is that any technology that can be used for sex will be used for sex. Virtual reality (VR), in its various forms, is no exception. For the most part, VR is limited to sight and sound. That is, virtual reality is mostly just a virtual visual reality. However, researchers are hard at work developing tactile devices for the erogenous zones, thus allowing people to interact sexually across the internet. This is the start of what could be called “robust” VR. That is, one that involves more than just sight and sound. This sort of technology might make virtual cheating suitably analogous to real cheating.

As would be expected, most of the research has been focused on developing devices for men to use to have “virtual sex.” Going with the standards of traditional cheating, this sort of activity would not count as cheating. This is because the sexual interaction is not with another person, but with devices. The obvious analogy here is to with less-sophisticated sex toys. If, for example, using a vibrator or blow-up-doll by oneself does not count as cheating because the device is not a person, then the same should apply to more complicated devices, such as VR sex suits that can be used with VR sex programs. There is also the question of whether such activity counts as sex. On the one hand, it is some sort of sexual activity. On the other hand, using such a device would not end a person’s tenure as a virgin.

It is certainly worth considering that a user could develop an emotional relationship with their virtual sex partner and thus engage in a form of emotional infidelity. The obvious objection is that this virtual sex partner is certainly not a person and thus cheating would not be possible—after all, one cannot cheat on a person with an object. This can be countered by considering the classic epistemic problem of other minds. Because all one has to go on is external behavior, one never knows if the things that seem to be people really are people—that is, think and feel in the right ways (or at all). Since I do not know if anyone else has a mind as I do, I could have emotional attachments to entities that are not really people at all and never know that this is the case. As such, I could never know if I was cheating in the traditional sense if I had to know that I was interacting with another person. As might be suspected, this sort of epistemic excuse (“baby, I did not know she was a person”) is unlikely to be accepted by anyone (even epistemologists). What would seem to matter is not knowing that the other entity is a person, but having the right (or rather wrong) sort of emotional involvement. So, if a person could have feelings towards the virtual sexual partner that they “interact with”, then this sort of behavior could count as virtual cheating.

There are also devices that allow people to interact sexually across the internet; with each partner having a device that communicates with their partner’s corresponding devices. Put roughly, this is remote control sex. This sort of activity does avoid many of the possible harms of traditional cheating: there is no risk of pregnancy nor risk of STDs (unless one is using rented or borrowed equipment). While these considerations do impact utilitarian calculations, the question remains as to whether this would count as cheating or not.

On the one hand, the argument could be made that this is not direct sexual contact—each person is only directly “engaged” with their device. To use an analogy, imagine that someone has (unknown to you) connected your computer to a “stimulation device” so that every time you use your mouse or keyboard, someone is “stimulated.” In such cases, it would be odd to say that you were having sex with that person. As such, this sort of thing would not be cheating.

On the other hand, there is the matter of intent. In the case of the mouse example, the user has no idea what they are doing and it is that, rather than the remote-control nature of the activity, that matters. In the case of the remote-control interaction, the users are intentionally engaging in the activity and know what they are doing. The fact that is happening via the internet does not matter. The moral status is the same if they were in the same room, using the devices “manually” on each other. As such, while there is not actual physical contact of the bodies, the activity is sexual and controlled by those involved. As such, it would morally count as cheating. There can, of course, be a debate about degrees of cheating—presumably a case could be made that cheating using sex toys is not as bad as cheating using just body parts. I will, however, leave that to others to discuss.

In the next essay I will discuss cheating in the context sex with robots and person-like VR beings.


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  1. DH said, on June 27, 2017 at 10:58 am

    All interesting points. I would point out that haptic devices do exist for VR applications, they have for years. While they are still “in beta” for the most part, I’d say that their development for different applications (including sex) would be market driven rather than technology driven. I attended a VR/AR conference in Toronto this weekend, where several (non-sexual) VR experiences were demonstrated – wherein the user wore a haptic vest or other clothing/devices that communicated various levels of touch response to the user. I saw similar devices being demonstrated at the SIGGRAPH conference in the 1990’s.

    Touch paddles are being developed for digital sculpture as well – sculpture applications such as Pixologic Zbrush or Autodesk Mudbox, which traditionally use tools accessed via stylus or mouse are now using an immersive VR experience like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift with haptic paddles so the artist can “feel” the sculpture medium in his hands.

    Haptic gloves have been around in various forms since the 1970’s.

    As to the ethics and/or morality of this kind of thing, I would say that this is entirely up to the people who are making a commitment to each other. There are marriages, for example, that allow for all kinds of outside sexual experimentation with machines or humans or both – but insist upon singular and monogamous emotional bonds as the most important factor. Other couples might agree that the use of sex-toys should be limited to use only with each other – while still others might encourage private use to compensate for differences in libido.

    There are also relationships, as I have pointed out, that are far more restrictive and border on the oppressive and unfair (“I am no longer going to have sex with you, but you are prohibited from seeking physical pleasure elsewhere”). Of course, a utilitarian argument could be made that in this or other cases, a seemingly immoral act of infidelity could lead to discovery, discussion, and repair of a damaged relationship.

    I cannot imagine a force or entity that I would allow to define what is moral and/or ethical behavior within my own marriage, other than what my wife and I mutually agree upon. In my view, to pass that kind of judgement on others is, in itself, immoral. To all of your arguments, then, I would have to respond with, “OK, well, whatever works for you in your own relationship is OK by me.”

    The only possible exception to this would be within the legal argument. There are legal definitions of adultery and infidelity that can be grounds for divorce, resulting in the transfer of wealth from one individual to another, but I do not ascribe to any connection between the law and morality. Any correlation between the two, in my opinion, are purely coincidental.

  2. TJB said, on June 27, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    I think there are a lot of marriages out there that could be saved by this sort of technology.

    I think most commonly the wife loses interest in sex, but the husband doesn’t. Eventually he leaves the relationship, and the wife tells her friends “I don’t understand what happened.”

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