I was recently asked to provide some comments for a journalist on the psychological and social impact of ‘sex tech’, so I thought I would also write a blog post about this. Sex tech is already advancing at a pace, and fifty years hence, early twenty-first century sex will likely seem very primitive indeed. There is always a lot of anxiety about technological change, particularly when it affects human relationships. But evolution happens: in biology, in culture, in technology. Critics often make the mistake of assuming that in providing biological explanations for behaviour, evolutionary psychologists are arguing that human nature is deterministic. In fact, evolved human behaviours are adaptive in large part because they are flexible and responsive to different environments and circumstances. Humans have evolved to be able to learn from and adapt to cultural change. Therefore, panics about dystopian consequences of new technologies tend to be misguided; to a great extent, we adapt. The psychological implications of sex tech will, of course, partly depend on the particular technology and how it is used. Many current technologies are designed to enhance sexual experience with a partner. Others are designed to help improve sexual performance and may result in more sexual confidence. ‘Fulfilling’ sex with a partner is likely to enhance intimate relationships because orgasm is associated with the release of oxytocin, a neurohormone which promotes attachment and pair-bonding, released as we fall in love. Such technologies are therefore likely to have a very positive effect on intimate relationships.
More interesting in terms of psychological consequences are technologies designed to provide sexual experiences in the absence of a human partner, for example, via a combination of virtual reality pornography, teledildonics and perhaps even neural stimulation. Largely without being aware of it, pornographers have designed content which satisfies evolved sexual appetites. For example, men have evolved preferences for healthy, fertile partners with indicators of good genes since mating with women with these features would have led to higher levels of reproduction in the ancestral environment, and attractive, healthy offspring. Men have also evolved preferences for high numbers of sexual partners since men’s lower minimum investment in offspring, the energy needed to copulate, meant that mating with many women would result in many offspring. Pornography responds to these preferences by providing, for example, fantasy scenarios of numerous young, sometimes impossibly attractive and sexually available women, far beyond what is possible in reality.
In this way, pornography may function as a supernormal stimulus; it provides an exaggerated form of a stimulus that humans have evolved a preference for, and in doing so, results in stronger responses in the brain’s pleasure and reward systems. The same principles underlie overconsumption of ‘junk food’. Junk food has also been engineered to fit our evolved appetites – for fat, salt and sugar, rare commodities in the ancestral environment, resulting in very strong preferences for them. Food technology has led to fat, salt and sugar not only being readily available, but engineered into supernormal stimuli such as burgers and doughnuts, which are often preferred over food in its more natural form, because they elicit stronger pleasure and reward responses. One of the consequences is an obesity crisis as humans struggle to resist these heightened pleasure responses.
Although there are concerns about the potential for addiction, in general, people have not given up sex in favour of pornography. Despite the supernormal stimuli on screen, watching pornography actors is clearly not the same as having sex with them. However, as virtual reality becomes more realistic and immersive, and is combined with teledildonics and neural stimulation to mimic and even improve on the experience of sex with a human partner, it is conceivable that some will choose this in preference to sex with a less than perfect human being. People may also begin to fall in love with virtual reality partners, an issue explored in the recent film Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix’s character falls in love with an operating system called Samantha.
I argued in my last post on relationships with fictional characters that we already have valuable relationships with fictional characters. People fall in love with fictional characters in books and films, even without the opportunity to interact with them. Some people claim to have fallen in love with video game characters. As virtual reality becomes increasingly indistinguishable from reality, these parasocial relationships will become more common.
What are the psychological implications of having intimate relationships with virtual beings? There are many people living alone, who perhaps have not been able to find a partner, or have lost a partner. Virtual sexual partners may provide significant psychological benefits for them and are surely better than no partner at all. However, there are potential problems. For those already in intimate relationships, the psychological impact of parasocial relationships in virtual reality may depend on whether we can negotiate the co-existence of real and virtual relationships. Most people successfully integrate other forms of virtual reality into their lives, but virtual sex (not to mention love) will be seen by some as infidelity, and will present real challenges to relationships.
If virtual reality is chosen to the exclusion of human relationships, the lack of human contact could be harmful. Currently, virtual reality characters do not provide physical closeness, and cannot provide the depth and complexity of human interaction. Humans are a social species and well-being is linked to social relationships in both sexes. In the much longer term however, technology may overcome these problems. It is already possible to order realistic, customised mannequins resembling your ideal partner(s). When eventually there are intelligent robots indistinguishable from humans apart from their lack of bad habits, imperfections and need for investment, not only are we likely to choose them over ‘real’ humans, psychologically we will not suffer if we are not able to tell the difference.
In terms of the impact on society, if technologically enhanced virtual sex becomes preferable to sex with humans, we may see greater numbers of people living alone, spending more time in virtual reality. Based on data suggesting that many young Japanese people are avoiding sex and intimate relationships, some have suggested that this may already be happening in Japan. Although the desire for human interaction is unlikely to decline significantly until robots can pass the Turing test, we may see human relationships increasingly conducted online, in virtual reality. It is likely that social norms about sex and relationships will change. We tend to think about issues such as virtual reality and robot sex within the context of current social norms. But if we think back to social norms about sex just a hundred years ago, it is obvious that they have changed rapidly and radically. Robophilia may be alien now, but could be normal in the near future as attitudes evolve with technology.