VR Sex In Movies: A History of Light and Shade

July 7, 2016
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It might be difficult to think so nowadays, but the above image at one time represented mainstream Hollywood’s best efforts at pushing together the then-burgeoning realm of VR tech with sex. The image is taken from 1992’s Lawnmower Man; a film that wasn’t even well-received when it was released in those days of lower expectations. Now it looks even more dated than a calendar from… well, 1992.

The Lawnmower Man may not be raised up to the pantheon of greats when it comes to the silver screen – even with a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan giving it his usual suave and sophisticated best – but it endeavoured to remain in the public consciousness for another reason: the era-defining hey-it-looked-pretty-good-at-the-time sex scene. Maybe some of you reading will be too young to remember – and if so, damn you – but the release of the Lawnmower Man saw a sustained ad campaign promoting the latest and greatest advancements in CGI. This wasn’t the future any more; it was very much the present.

The story of virtual reality/intelligence initially aiding a man with learning difficulties (our titular character, for those keeping score) would have enlightened an audience with zero knowledge – bar the odd few with specialist interests – of the availability, capabilities and limits of VR. Or failing that, the extent to which computer graphics had come on in the final decade of the 20th century. Somewhat ironically, the 2015 view of The Lawnmower Man is that this very, very loose adaptation of Stephen King short story – King actually SUED to have his name removed from the credits – is nothing more than an embarrassing time capsule of a point in history where we collectively assumed we’d reached an apex of digital technology, or had at the least plateaued for some time. It’s the film and tech equivalent of dressing like a boy band – y’know, dungarees, chunky boots, maybe even a beret – thinking you were oh-so-cool before finding the photos again as an adult and melting into the carpet with shame.

One of the load-bearing weights of the film – “the Citizen Kane of cybersex movies” in some quarters – is the rather surreal sex scene that takes place between a newly-intelligent and power-mad Jobe (Jeff Fahey) and Marnie (Jenny Wright)…

While the effects will have dazzled at the time – and as the first known instance of VR sex in the movies its place in history can not be forgotten – this cyber-tryst is far more a cautionary tale than one of love, respect and union.

“In here we can be anything we want to be” promises Jobe. And for a while he’s right. Watching the two of them get close before literally melting into each other represented not just the pinnacle of the ways and means of representing VR on the silver screen, but also show the extent of the human imagination when it came to such matters. Besides, as history has shown us time and again, sex is not only an early adopter of the latest technology, but it’s pretty much the first thing that comes to mind when we have something new to play with: “Well hey, this is good and all that but… can we use it to fuck?!”

It’s a thread picked up on early in the film, Larry (Brosnan) has a brief argument with his wife about the amount of time the future 007 spends in his basement tinkering with his VR gear. “Falling, floating, flying?” she sighs, at the end of her tether. “What’s next? Fucking?”

The pursuit of organic ecstasy through mechanical and virtual means is a theme that has provided a steady undercurrent of material in cinema since that first flourish. What had long been discussed and ruminated upon in cyberpunk novels almost a full decade prior to the release of The Lawnmower Man finally had both the go-ahead and an outlet in which to explore the topic visually. From creaking, under-funded B-movies to Hollywood blockbusters, a slew of releases came from the shadows in an attempt to make sense of the possibilities now afforded to us.

One of the most famous – for better or worse – is the interactive sex session between Sly Stallone and Sandra in Demolition Man (1993). With a growing attraction and chemistry between them, Bullock’s Lenina Huxley asks Sly’s John Spartan quite plainly if would indeed like to have sex. The reality of the situation – the viewer and Spartan both propelled into the year 2032 – is that there is no reality at all. Spartan and Huxley conduct their intimacy via headsets; an encounter that not only totally baffles Sly but seems as erotic as grinding against an autopsy table.

Despite its unintentional comedy – Sly calling sex “boning… the wild mamba… the hunka-chunka” is given extra comic value when delivered in that trademark drawl – the scene adds gravitas to the argument that VR sex presents humanity with a more inclusive, cleaner and safer form of the beast with two backs. However, it is Huxley’s shock and revulsion at Spartan’s request to “do it the old fashioned way” that is answered with “You mean… fluid transfer?” before going into a monologue that reveals not so much about the character, but the politicized nature of sex in Demolition Man, and the eerie ways in which the philosophies espoused by the film’s utopic dystopia don’t seem so implausible in our own world.

“Vir-sex has been proven to produce higher orders of alpha waves during digitized transference of sexual energies” pleads Huxley, before going on to say: “The rampant exchange of bodily fluids was one of the major reasons for the downfall of society. After AIDS there was NRS. After NRS there was UBT. One of the first things Dr. Cocteau was able to do was outlaw and behaviorally engineer all fluid transfer out of societally-acceptable behavior. Not even mouth transfer is condoned.”

As for children: “Procreation? We go to the lab. Fluids are purified, screened and transferred by authorized medical personnel only.”

Blindingly obvious comparisons to Brave New World aside – one of the lead characters is called Huxley for God’s sake – the use of VR sex in Demolition Man differs greatly from The Lawnmower Man in that while the latter is about personal pleasure, control and the pushing of boundaries in both realms, the former’s use and subsequent necessity is for a darker reason altogether.

As noted by Simon Wiscombe in his essay Sexual Repression as a Tool to Control Underground Culture, ‘Vir-sex’ is the inevitable by-product of strict and remorseless social engineering designed to root out homosexuality and anybody that doesn’t represent the white, middle-to-upper class constructs of Dr. Cocteau’s ‘perfect society’ (motto: “Be Well”). The repression of the physical act of sex (a theme visited in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four) and the implication that lab-based procreation is a costly procedure – along with those snazzy sex helmets – means that the world of Demolition Man is a bleak landscape where one race and one socio-economic demographic rules; the eradication of those below them their aim.

As Wiscombe goes on to say: “While science fiction films are known for their dystopian futures, most of which have racial and homophobic undertones, Demolition Man is unique in that it directly approaches sex from a societally controlled perspective.” The use of VR sex – and its depiction in movies – as a tool for social control is unique. And let’s be honest, for a film with Sly Stallone, those damned three seashells (seriously though, how DO they work?) and plenty of lame jokes, it’s a very deep – albeit totally dark – way of approaching the topic.

Aside from the blockbusters and their wider-reaching themes and implications, Hollywood has made various attempts at pinning down the body and mind when it comes to virtual reality sex. Some were ok… some were a little misguided… and some, erm, well maybe some were good? Whatever, let’s see for ourselves shall we?

Menno’s Mind arrived in 1997 but looks as if it could have come from the 1950s instead. Not even a turn from Bruce Campbell as the ‘Rebel Leader’ could save this weird little flick. But the film’s story centring around the creator of The Resort – a VR paradise where users can act out their deepest fantasies via VR by feeding their info into… *drum roll*… The System – brings in a few ideas about how such a system can be abused.

The film’s highlight – since we’re feeling so generous – is watching some hapless goon called Milton get the full Resort treatment. That is to say an attractive, willing and topless blonde begs for Milton’s attention. In the NSFW scene a snot-nosed and extremely punchable computer dude strings poor Milton along before editing the program so his wife shows up and duly puts an end to any good feelings he may have had by kneeing him in the bread basket.

Virtual Girl (1998) – a softcore porno of questionable quality in every department – took a leaf from the Fatal Attraction playbook and has our eponymous cyber lover go a little crazy and become dangerously obsessed with her creator. As you’ll be able to tell from the… uhh… highlights video below, Virtual Girl didn’t exactly set the world alight. It’s also crazy to see how far we have come technologically when making a love slave on a CD-ROM (come on now) was considered the height of advancement. Still, count your blessings; a few years earlier and we would have been at the mercy of “3½ floppy” jokes. Small mercies, eh?

So did Virtual Girl teach us anything about the encroaching VR revolution? Well… no, not really. If anything it taught us guys not to fuck about and start an affair with a murderous and sentient virtual reconstruction of a real woman. And that’s a lesson we can ALL heed. Right?

You’ll notice a distinct lack of Japanese input thus far. Given the country’s track record for taking ideas and adding all manner of madness to them, surely their take on VR sex would be something else entirely? Well, that’s entirely correct.

I.K.U. (2000) seemed to have hit the market at the correct time. With the turn of the millennium promising so much – people just assuming the magic number 2000 would usher in an instant technological utopia – it was only natural that cinema would express such desires. I.K.U. stands as one of the more intense attempts to qualify the potential and consequences of fully-integrated VR into human sex lives. Indeed, as Cyberpunk Review puts it: “you get a bit of everything here – guy-on-girl, guy-on-guy, girl-on-girl, girl-on-transgender, voyeuristic sex through a fish tank while eating sushi, sex in a spider-web…well, you get the idea.”

I.K.U. – as you can sense – runs the gamut of madness from the get go.We follow a sex-robot from the conspicuously named GENOM corporation. Our heroic sexbot can mimic different female body types by changing her external appearance. One of her/its duties is to collect ‘sex memories’ by basically being a promiscuous little droid. From there, the vritual reality kicks in as these stored memories are sold as I.K.U. chips.

The film’s (eventually) NSFW trailer defines I.K.U. chips thus:

“A device with which you decode ecstasy data from the server, by pugging into a wearable computer. The ecstasy data is made up of mosaic visual audio data. It directly sends signals to the brain bringing sexual excitement without physical friction.”

These sex-memory chips are sold in vending machines across the country in vending machines – which has to be better than using them to sell used panties – so buyers can re-live these pre-fab encounters. As (bad) luck would have it, a nefarious rival is out to steal said experiences for their own means and so the weirdness begins.

With its psychedelic visuals, topsy-turvy story and general disregard for the laws of… well, anything… I.K.U. is certainly one of a kind. It features a pink spiderweb festooned with dildos and some kind of orgy featuring blow up dolls and headless mannequin things and… ahh the whole thing is pretty crazy, really.

Overall, I.K.U. is a move without limits that shows the consequences – unintended or otherwise – of a virtual sex life without boundaries, and what havoc can really be wrought when the human mind crosses path with the synthetic one and all is available for perusal and arousal. Also it’s really weird and probably the most realistic indication of our future under VR sex. Viva revolution!

Sexual Matrix (2000) followed the over-dramatized, big booming voiceover, softcore path that so many of these VR sex-themed films seem to tread. Sexual Matrix doesn’t follow the megahype, death ray, super-sexed tradition of I.K.U.; instead managing to make VR fucking look pretty boring. Utilizing left-over and rejected sets from any number of sci-fi television series, Sexual Matrix leans heavily on the “mysterious professor with crazy machine falls into a web of suspicion pretty much of his own making also featuring impossibly hot women”. Which – on the face of it – doesn’t sound that bad. But what stops Sexual Matrix and others of its ilk being entertaining is precisely what made I.K.U. so fun: the boundless imagination of lack of impossibility.

Much like Virtual Girl, Sexual Matrix is locked up in a tight, repressed and ordered world where ‘professionals’ rule the roost. The Japanese vision seems to cut society into a million different pieces before trying to stick it back together again. The upper limit of fantasies in Sexual Matrix seem to be confined to ‘non-descript white girl with pigtails sucking on an ice lolly’. Yeah, great… like we haven’t seen that one before.

The best summation you can grant the use and history of VR sex in cinema is that it is patchy at best. Early attempts to try and pin down what excites people so much about the idea are hampered by timing and the lack of technology/graphics to actually do it justice. As we’ve seen, cultural mores also play a big part. American attempts (Virtual Girl, Sexual Matrix et al) suffer from objectification and putting the female form on a pedestal. In the case of Virtual Girl, aping Fatal Attraction was part of its downfall. Crazy Woman Obsessed With Boring Man For No Reason is as tired as it is lazy. VR promises no limits, no boundaries and no end to the madness… so why give the medium tightly-controlled borders? It makes zero sense.

We are now reaching a point where the technology finally matches the imagination. The next decade may see a wealth of movies and other mediums exploring these brand new worlds with reckless abandon, plunging in deep and not surfacing for air until they’re good and ready. For that, we should be grateful. The advances in home technology – Oculus, Gear VR – means that we may not even have to visit the cinema for some cyber-sexual kicks. Why do that when we can do that in our time… hell, our own space even.

Where VR sex has bitten sharply and keenly is in providing a deeper meaning. Lawnmower Man gave an insight into the power struggles that may present themselves in a VR sex dominated world, while Demolition Man subtly hinted at VR sex as both a tool and a consequence of social anxieties that give way to engineering. As with anything worth doing and discussing, there are wider implications. As much as we’d love to think that interactive VR sex would be a fuckfest Utopia, it would have to operate like any other society and civilization. As fun and unwieldy as the worlds proffered by I.K.U. seem to be, could we *really* live our lives like that every day? The essence of what makes us who we are may well disappear quickly than the synthesized flesh on our CGI bones. Hollywood and other film makers haven’t so much prepared us for that eventuality as merely notified us, like the ping on any messaging system. Like VR sex itself, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.



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