Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Technology and the Dematerialisation of Sex

The 'sex scene' from Demolition Man

(This article was originally commissioned for the Wired Ideas column, but due to delays on my part, and the subsequent discontinuation of that column (as I understand it) it never appeared. Rather than consign it to the dustbin of history, I have decided to publish it here. Obviously, given the intended audience for the original piece, it is a bit shorter and snappier than most of the things I write).

As ever, science fiction got there first. In the largely forgettable 1993 action movie, Demolition Man, two characters from the 1990s, a hard-hitting cop played by Sylvester Stallone and a psychopathic criminal played by Wesley Snipes, are cryogenically frozen for their misdeeds. They are resuscitated in the year 2032. The future, they quickly learn, is very different. A good-natured, pacifist ethic that eschews violence and confrontation has become widely adopted. Physical sex is disfavoured. This is comically revealed to Stallone's character when he enthusiastically welcomes an invitation to have sex from the female lead (played by Sandra Bullock). Sex, for her, involves donning a neurostimulator helmet that allows for a 'digital transference of sexual energies' between two people. When Stallone suggests they do it 'the old-fashioned way', she reacts with disgust.

I don't suppose we will ever fully embrace the Demolition Man-style ethics of virtual sex, but we could end up in a world in which virtual sex is the ethical preference for most casual or first-time sexual encounters, with the 'old fashioned' method being reserved for special intimate relationships and procreation. 

It is important to be clear about the nature of this claim. An extended definitional analysis of what it means to 'have sex' or what counts as 'sexual activity' would take more time than it is worth. Suffice to say these concepts are contentious and open to interpretation. For the remainder of this article, I presume that sexual activity is any activity involving sexual stimulation and gratification. Although masturbation is an important form of sexual activity, I presume that most people, when they talk about 'having' sex, have a partnered or interactive form of sex in mind. I then draw a distinction between physical, in-person, sex and digital or virtual sex. The crucial point about the latter is that it does not involve direct, physical contact, between sexual partners. It involves an interaction through a digital/virtual medium and via a digital/virtual avatar (I use the terms 'digital' and 'virtual' interchangeably). What I am suggesting is that this latter form of sexual activity might become the ethical default. In other words, it will be presumed to be the primary form of permissible sex and it is only if special conditions are met that physical, in-person, sex will be deemed ethically permissible.

Three factors point toward this outcome. The first is that there is already some evidence to suggest that people are avoiding, or reducing, the amount of in-person sex they have. For example, in 2021, the US Center for Disease Control, published a study indicating that only 30% of teenagers reported that they had ever sex, down from over 50% in 1990. The ensuing suggestion of a “sex recession” among Gen Z  may be overblown—for example, some commentators have counter-argued that although younger people may not be having as much penetrative sex as previous generations, they are engaging in other kinds of sexual activity, and perhaps their sex lives are overall better and more satisfying—but the CDC finding is not an outlier. Studies in Japan,  Australia,  the UKSweden and Finland all indicate that people are having fewer sexual encounters than in previous generations. This is true both within long-term committed relationships and in more casual sexual encounters. 

There are many potential explanations for the great 21st century sex famine, from technology to the modern workplace.  The Finnish study provides one intriguing hypothesis. Every few years since the 1970s, an ongoing study called Finsex has collected data on the sexual behaviours of Finnish adults. In its 2015 iteration, it found that both male and female respondents had masturbated significantly more in recent decades, and that the more people masturbated, the less partnered sex people had. This was particularly prevalent among younger generations. The suggestion from the study's authors was that perhaps people were using masturbation as an alternative to partnered sex. To put it another way: a substitution effect was at play. People were swapping in person sex for a more convenient, and almost as good, alternative. 

Is it really that surprising that masturbation is on the up, and partnered sex on the decline, given the pervasive, always-at-the-tip-of-your-finger, availability of internet pornography? In general, people want to do things that help them promote or pursue their values. If they can access a cheaper, almost as good version of sexual pleasure, through other means that don’t require navigating the complex social dynamics of dating and casual hookups, then they might be enticed to do so via digital or virtual forums. According to one 2019 study, there is evidence to suggest that people do substitute pornography for interpersonal affection.  

This leads to the second factor supporting the move to virtual sex. Internet pornography, at least right now, may do it for some people, some of the time, but it is not so close to the real thing that we are likely to see it as the ethical default or norm for sex. But developments in sextech, both ongoing and future, will make it likely that more people will see virtual sex as a meaningful substitute for the real thing. Developments in generative AI, for instance, already allow people to create realistic and emotionally satisfying AI companions. The emotional turmoil experienced by users of the Replika AI chatbots, when changes were made to that platform in early 2023 -- changes that effectively resulted in the 'deletion' of prior companions -- provides clear evidence of this. It seems likely that people will be able to generate realistic 3D virtual sex partners, with emotionally satisfying 'personalities', in the near future. When this possibility is coupled with advances in immersive VR, and haptic teledildonics (the ability to transmit sexual touch via a digital medium), it is not hard to imagine virtual sex becoming a more plausible and desirable alternative to physical sex. And virtual sex with an AI partner is just one of the new sexual options added by technological innovation. Advances in VR and haptics, in and of themselves, will allow humans to see the virtual medium as an 'almost as good' way to interact with one another.

You may be wondering, however, how we get from this to the idea that virtual sex will become an ethicaldefault. You could accept the argument that people are turning their backs on physical sex in favor of digital sex without supposing that the substitution of virtual sex for in-person sex will become moralized in any way. How could the moralization happen? 

This is where a third factor becomes important. If the perceived cost of in-person sex—not just financial costs, but emotional, social, and health-related costs—increases to the point that people are presumed to be taking a significant ethical risk if they opt for that over the virtual equivalent, then this could precipitate a change in social moral attitudes. Variations in the perceived cost of an action are already known to play a role in changing social moral beliefs. One of the best-studied examples of changes in social moral attitudes concerns how  non-marital and casual sex become more and more permissible in the course of the 20th century. A commonly cited cause of this is that the availability of effective forms of contraception reduced the negative costs associated with casual sex, particularly for women.  This meant more people were willing to engage in sex outside of marriage, which made it more socially acceptable and, eventually, this altered social moral attitudes. Casual sex lost some of the moral stigma it once had.

The same thing can happen in reverse. If the perceived costs of an activity go up, then it can acquire a moral stigma that it didn't previously have. This is something that may be slowly happening with respect to the use of fossil-fuel based automobiles and the consumption of meat. It’s not much of a stretch to suppose that something similar may happen with in-person sex. Sex undoubtedly has significant benefits, but  it also has significant costs. Not all sex is pleasurable or satisfying. Some sex is coerced and morally unacceptable. As a society, we are becoming increasingly aware of both the prevalence of non-consensual, unwanted sexual contact and the harms that it can cause. Victims of sexual assault and violence are speaking out and calling out their attackers, and their attackers are facing both social and legal reprimands as a result. This is all well motivated: there are strong moral reasons to favour this increased moralization of sex. But this could, in turn, have an impact on the perceived permissibility of in-person sex: if it carries the risk of significant interpersonal harms, unwanted trauma and social ostracisation, then we should be very cautious about its pursuit. If this happens, substituting in-person sex for a more convenient, almost as good, and less costly form of virtual sex, could become the social norm.

Admittedly, this presumes that there is an important moral difference between in-person sex and virtual sex. Some people might dispute this, arguing that, the potential costs are equivalent: one can also be harmed by unwanted virtual sex and one can be morally chastised for perpetrating virtual sexual assault. (Indeed, I have argued for something like this view in several academic papers over the past decade.) But even I would concede that there are some differences between the two kinds of sex that can reduce the perceived moral costs of virtual sex, such as the increased physical distance between participants, and the greater flexibility when withdrawing from unwanted or unpleasant contact. In addition, costs arising from healthcare risks and unwanted pregnancy are also reduced in the virtual environment. 

This does not mean that in-person sex will disappear. There are strong emotional and biological reasons why people will still be drawn to it. It just means that the moral barriers to in-person sex will be raised and that it may become less frequent and less socially acceptable as a result.


  1. Yes, it is interesting. Sexual activity is physical yet much of kit depends also on state of mind. The same is true for our enjoyment of drama, music and other arts: we use experience, intuition and inference to figure out what happens next and are gratified when we are right...occasional twists of plot or action are stimulating and add substance to our experiential library. So, if evolution is predictable, as has been discussed, virtual sex could supplant casual sex, sooner than one might think. That would change many things and put some people out of work.

  2. Have been thinking ahead of this curve; beyond the event horizon and into the black hole. I imagine others have also, if and only if, they are responsively conscious. Dematerialization of sex is only one piece. The larger pie is dematerialization of society, period The advent of *social media* is a bigger portion of pie. We are advised we may have friends, numbering in the thousands---or more. Well, you can't do that. Since dangling my toes in the piranha pond of philosophy blogging, I have, maybe, three or four new contacts, who MAY *give a flip* about me, who I am---how and what I think. We do not spend time talking about glory days or banalities. There are neither in our relationships: We DO philosophy, with smatterings of physics, science and brain farts added for seasoning. I am happy to eschew SM. It just reeks of narcissism. To me. I dematerialize---you, demateriaise---even my tablet is confused. The tablet is at a disadvantage---which disadvantages me. Yawn.