Permission to Touch a Virtual/Real Performer

Tina Wang
7 min readJan 14, 2018


Promotional poster found in a NYC subway car

I was a performer for the Museum of Sex’s Virtual Reality installation. It opened to the public on October 2 this past year. According to its official description, the installation is “an exploration of anticipation, sexual attraction, identity, presence, touch, scale, comfort, daring and spatial awareness — around a shared infinite pole dance in space.” Imagine reading that online and having an idea of what you will expect to experience. As a performer, I was trained to help the guest get into VR gear comfortably while creating an atmosphere and character of intrigue.

I will recount in italics the version of the exhibit that I was trained to facilitate. As you read my following account, would your expectations of what you will experience change?

You are a guest to the installation. You sign a consent form agreeing to be touched or requesting not to be touched. You are led through a dark corridor to a closed door and told your experience begins once you open the door. I am standing on the other side of the door, wearing a little black dress, black leggings and boots, my silhouette backlit by red light. As I outfit you with a harness, I rehearse from the script that the harness should be tight against your body for your tactile pleasure. (Again from the script) I encourage you to touch and interact with “whatever and whomever” you see in the VR world.

The installation begins. You appear as an avatar in the space: your actual features abstract into the figurative contours of your gender. In your headset, you see virtual dancers coming down a virtual pole. You may or may not reach out to touch them. When you touch them, the dancers dissipate into light particles. The pole disappears from your vision. This is when you might notice one to three other avatars, guests and/or performers that entered the installation the same time as you. You might do what you did before and try to interact with them. A light show happens when avatars touch. A couple minutes after that, you see a new female avatar, called “the Queen,” a real performer, holding a wand. When she approaches you with the wand, you feel a vibration run across your harness (because it is fitted with a vibrator that runs vertically across your crotch). Her role is to encourage you to interact with the other avatars. You might interact with her as well. Couple minutes later, the tech crew, consisting of performers on standby and a computer engineer, invisible to the guests, ends the installation, resetting the VR program. Exit signs appear in your headset. At that point, I will approach you to help guide you out, as your headset is still turned on with the exit screen showing. You start walking out by following the exit signs, supported by my hands guiding you out. I help guide you back to the initial room in which you were outfitted. When helping you undress from the VR gear, you might still be dazzled by the installation. Perhaps you will thank me as I walk you to the exit.

Though there were various guest reactions, performer personas, and iterations of crew on deck, this is the playbook we rehearsed. After two months of rehearsals, during the second week of previews, having practiced on about forty guests or fellow performers, two back-to-back incidents caused the Museum of Sex to heighten its guard to make the installation safe for all performers. I will now recount to you those two incidents:

I suit up a male guest to experience the installation. The installation begins. He notices a single female avatar moving through space. After watching the pole scene, he interacts with her by swiping his hand at her and hitting her. After touching her solid body, he walks away from her. The “bit” with the Queen and vibrating harness occurs. He approaches the first avatar again. He places both palms on her sternum and grazes his hands down towards her breastplate. In real life, the female performer looks down to her breasts being touched. In a moment of panic, I stepped out of my performer role into the role of crew to separate him, ending the exhibit to begin exit protocols. When helping him undress from the VR gear, he asks if he touched someone real. I was uncertain of the right response to give, so I revert the question back to him, asking him what he thought.

A second male guest enters to experience the exhibit. From the get-go, he was more overtly friendly than other guests. After saying hello, he reaches out to shake my hand. I shake his hand, but was hesitant. When reciting the script about the harness fit, he answers by wrapping his fingers around my wrists tightly and asks if that was the amount of tightness the harness should feel against his body. I was confused but remain in character, wrapping my fingers around his wrist to communicate the tightness of the harness fit. He asks if he was going to enter a sex world. I smile nervously, not sure what to say. The installation begins. After watching the pole scene and feeling the vibrating harness initiated by the Queen, he approaches a group of two female avatars. He reaches to one of them from behind and grabs her breastplate with two hands. In real life, the guest looks down to his chest being touched (as his avatar’s gender was accidentally set to the female setting). The tech crew ends the installation early. As I walk him back to the dressing room, he clutches firmly onto my hands, saying he is scared. I do not remove his headset but assure him he is safe. Eventually, we end up chest to chest. That is when I break character and remove his headset. He shows surprise in seeing me. When helping him undress from the VR gear, he mentions that the installation felt short. I smile politely and encourage him to come back. He approaches and proceeds to give me a hug before exiting, draping his hands low enough to touch my buttocks.

The creative director immediately banned all single men from entering the exhibit once he found out what happened to me. The owner offered his sympathies and said he would understand if I did not choose to “soldier on” and continue to perform for the exhibit. The PR team changed the language of all of the advertising material; it was now phrased as an exhibit you take with people you know, not one you take alone, “The Couples VR Experience.” A month later, I was told that the security measures were all installed: a security staff was brought on, panic button was installed, a Museum staff would always be present when performers worked, and the script for the performers was revamped. Two months later, I was asked to come back to work, as the exhibit was going well enough with all the technological updates and full safety measures installed that the staff wanted the exhibit to go into full operational mode.

While an essay titled “Sexual Harassment at the Museum of Sex” does have a juicy ring to it, this is neither my story nor my point. The stories of the #MeToo movement tend to show a clear and long-term dynamic of an abuser asserting power over the abused. In contrast, I was an outlier in an elaborate “technology meets real life” web of delicate moving parts. This is a reflection on where real responsibilities lie in the virtual world. I suspect more and more art like the Museum of Sex’s VR Experience will be created as digital technology blends more seamlessly with real life. Yet under the premise of boundary-pushing art, I see our sense of ethics and morality inevitably stretched as well. And if this kind of art coaxes different people into different comfort levels, how can everyone still enjoy art together, in the pursuit of our real and imagined pleasures?

It was mere chance that these particular guests happened to visit the exhibit during its beta testing, where the rules of the virtual reality experience were not yet clearly defined. And I could have always stepped out of the room. Close friends and fellow performers that I talked to express concern, suggesting implicitly or explicitly, that what I went through was part of the advertised job. Even the person whose breasts got touched stayed on and recommended that I should have had a more domineering presence during the exhibit. I could have said no and called for help, why didn’t I? After all, this was the Museum’s first actor-oriented interactive exhibit, and the Museum staff would not have necessarily been aware of the harassment “loophole” in their interactive VR experience. Most importantly, the harassment incidents were not swept under the rug; the staff reacted immediately to my report and made changes.

Nonetheless, the harm was already done. I trusted in the Museum staff’s expertise to put me, a first-time virtual reality performer, in a safe place to work without compromising my own dignity and safety. During previews of the exhibit, where guest behavior had been hesitant and non-interactive, my job was to make the guest feel comfortable to interact with the exhibit. I had been constantly reminded of the disposability of my position — no signed work contract, pay rate reduction post hiring, unaccounted hours in my paycheck, not to mention, last-minute rehearsal and performance workday cancellations. As a result, if script protocol included a reminder to guests of their freedom to “touch whomever and whatever” they saw, I had no choice but to follow protocol. The two incidents and its aftermath would only show to me how much I was like a virtual avatar, dissipating in light after being touched by another avatar, with the exhibit still running and charging guests, during the month when safety measures were still being installed.

This is not a tale of retaliation or technology phobia. After all, similar conversations have already taken place in the online gaming world. And I was eventually offered my job back. What is key to reflect on with this particular VR installation is the fact that the virtual avatar was sometimes a real person. So how do you fault a guest who is encouraged to keep an open mind and thinks they are touching an avatar, but ends up harassing a real person? I hope future makers and creators will continue to examine their safety protocols with as much rigor and attention as they do to the creative development of their artistic ideas.