Fewer Cumshots, More Lady Pleasure: The Changing Face Of VR Porn

Virtual reality could become the next frontier for feminist media.

The opening scenes of Empowering Ava are, in a word, disjointing — especially if you’re not used to the sudden, voyeuristic intimacy of virtual reality porn.

Directed by feminist porn pioneer and all-around badass Angie Rowntree, the film focuses on Ava, an erotic novelist who explores sensual pegging with her husband. It was designed to be viewed as a 360-degree experience on desktop or virtual reality headsets, including budget options like my own dented Google Cardboard.

I knew these facts going in, but nothing quite prepared me to be transported into Ava’s home, watching her work on her novel at her kitchen table. From my perspective, I was standing a few feet in front of her, watching as she engaged in a casual conversation with her husband. It was so normal — and I was quietly observing from a corner of their world.

“So much porn is focused on male pleasure and on the male orgasm,” Rowntree said. “There often isn’t is much attention paid to the woman’s pleasure, to her satisfaction, or to the idea of mutual pleasure between partners.”

VR inherently changes that attention. It takes the viewer beyond just watching a movie and “immerses them in the story and the environment of the film, leading to something that’s a more complete experience,” Rowntree said.

Immersion is a huge deal for VR, but it’s even bigger deal for the empathy, emotions, and intimacy that VR porn has the potential to create, particularly for women.

The Growing Relationship Between VR And Porn

Empowering Ava is a film directed by a woman and created for women, and that difference is palpable from the get-go. It places the onus of action on Ava as she introduces her husband to pegging, but it also invites the viewer to connect to the smaller moments of sex that are just so real — like when Ava and her husband scramble to track down their bottle of lube.

“To me, the most important aspect of making porn for women is grounded in the characters and the performers who play them,” Rowntree said. “Give them life, give them agency, make them something more than the canvass on which a man’s fantasy is played out.”

The first examples of VR porn Rowntree saw were all shot in point-of-view (POV) style, and she was unconvinced that POV would be the right way to go for her work Sssh.com. In Empowering Ava, Rowntree’s 360-degree perspective is cinematic, leaving room for the viewer to connect with the characters on an emotional level, rather than act as a participant.

Acclaimed erotic film director (and fellow badass) Erika Lust shares Rowntree’s ethos. “The majority of VR porn available is completely opposite to the story I tell,” she said. “It is crowded with male-centric clichés.” Her short film Memory Files of You follows a man who uses a futuristic virtual reality headset to relive intimate sexual experiences and lingering memories with a past lover.

“The best part of sex is the intimacy you can experience with another person, and VR porn can help achieve that,” she said.

Lust has plans to direct her first VR short film soon, and she views the medium as a way to open up new worlds of experimentation and possibilities. “We can now make films that have the ability to teach, to inspire, and to connect with another human being, exploring their body guided by them, not just using them like a virtual sex doll.”

But while VR porn has huge potential, it also faces distinct growing pains that are echoed throughout the VR industry.

The Barriers Facing VR

Both Rowntree and Lust commented on a huge obstacle facing VR today: accessibility. Although it’s a few years ahead of augmented and mixed reality, VR is still in its infancy, and the technology available today is distinctly unsexy — it’s clunky, heavy, and expensive.

Rowntree hopes that as VR becomes more popular, headset prices will become more reasonable, and product options will become more comfortable. (As budget-friendly as Google Cardboard is, I can only wear it for a couple of minutes before remembering that I’m holding rough cardboard against my face.) Presently, in order to watch something in VR, you either need a phone powerful enough to run the video without turning into a hot mess inside of your headset, or you need an expensive rig that tethers to a powerful PC. There aren’t many options in between.

At this year’s CES in January, Intel revealed the developer kit of its experimental merged reality headset, Project Alloy. Besides the headset’s ability to turn objects inside real rooms into elements of a game (think Pokémon Go, but better), a huge part of Project Alloy’s appeal is its distinct lack of cords. it’s entirely untethered, creating a self-contained unit that gives the viewer space to roam freely in a fully immersed experience. But Project Alloy also isn’t available as a consumer product, which likely means it’s hella expensive; instead, Intel hopes to work with developers to develop their own headsets using their hardware.

Cost isn’t limited to consumers, either. Lust commented on the need for lower production costs, which could encourage smaller producers to bring their perspectives into the VR space.

“Until then, we are left with an extension of mainstream adult cinema,” she said. “Same content, another technology.” Same exaggerated climaxes and cumshots, just another way to watch them.

And when the market is saturated with the same type of film, it drowns out the work being done by the innovators who celebrate sex-positive inclusivity — the same people who could be the key in taking VR porn mainstream.

From Oculus Backers To Sex-Positive Founders

In 2014 in Vancouver, Canada, Markus Edge jumped on the opportunity to become a Kickstarter backer for the Oculus Rift. He later invented a VR camera as a hobby and experimented with filming sex videos with his partner, Tutu Nymph. At the time, the fledgling VR porn landscape was bare. “We thought to ourselves that these videos were not to scale like ours were, which invoked presence,” Nymph said.

Nymph and Edge combined their two loves — VR and sexual exploration — to form MetaverseXXX, an independent virtual reality porn studio that promotes sex positivity and ethical practices.

“We are not affiliated with any major companies. We started this company with our own money and the hard work of ourselves and a community of people,” Nymph said. The company does not have any investors, instead following a model called a Peoplestarter — a revenue model that fairly pays all individuals involved in the creation of content on MetaverseXXX.

“We capture genuine, sexual experiences that you can feel are authentic in VR,” Nymph said. Because their content is entirely talent-led, it’s revolutionary in the VR space because it invites perspectives and experiences that are far outside of the mainstream — including different kinks, body types, sexual orientations, abilities, and gender identities.

“Our stats indicate that 46% of our traffic is female. However, these stats are not the norm in mainstream porn, so we must be doing something to have such a high percentage of women,” Nymph said. “Female feedback has indicated that some of our trans and our female POV videos have something to do with our female appeal.”

However, Nymph isn’t purporting to know what women want from VR porn. Rather, the content on MetaverseXXX is formed from ongoing conversations between the site’s creators and audience about inclusivity, breaking stereotypical porn tropes, and creating a range of content that meets different tastes.

“Do trans women want the same content as cisgender women? How do agender or nonbinary people fit into this equation?” Nymph said. “It’s not just about creating female-specific porn. It’s more about creating different types of content for different types of people…women are creating content that they themselves want to see.”

Lust and Rowntree shared similar sentiments: not all content is suited to VR, just as not all VR porn needs to follow emotional narrative arcs. For some audiences, a male POV cumshot is enough — and that’s okay. What matters is creating spaces for different voices to safely express and explore their desires, questions, and pleasures in a healthy, consensual way.

“Some people’s first and sometimes only experience with sex, sexuality, and even so-called sex education is done through porn,” Nymph said. “Most porn does not seem to focus on the women being pleasured or having orgasms or really enjoying herself. Women are usually shaved and have certain types of looks and certain body types.”

In this way, VR’s level of immersion is key. The viewer is transported into a new world, safely experiencing emotions and perspectives outside their own. Nymph believes that, one day, virtual technologies will become advanced enough to create a new digital sex trade industry. “You will be able to have sex with some sort of haptic feedback device or robot that is either programmed to coincide with the models in the videos or is being controlled by a sex worker that is in the comfort of their own home,” Nymph said.

But until that happens, Nymph believes that VR developers — and in particular, creators in VR porn — have a unique responsibility to their viewers by promoting healthy sexual relationships. According to Nymph, “Filming real sexual experiences, using proper terms, focusing on other people’s pleasure besides just the cisgender males, and putting out educational content” is part of the way to get there.

“VR is very powerful, and so is VR porn,” Nymph said. “I think that the industry, including ourselves, needs to be conscious of this, and hopefully they use some of this power to enact positive changes.”

Even after nearly 20 years in the industry, Rowntree shares the same goal. “I want to provide our members and fans with adult entertainment that speaks to them, resonates with their fantasies, and enables them to explore their desires in a way which leaves them feeling empowered and validated,” she said. VR is just one rapidly developing part of that journey.

By Rebecca Paredes