If you live in the Star Trek universe, and you want to fuck, you have many options. There’s always some alien babe or interstellar spirit you can fall in love with at first sight, unless you’d rather attempt an awkward affair with a coworker. If casual hookups are more your thing, you can try the holodeck and fuck a nonreal but completely lifelike person made of air and light. The holodecks in the various Star Trek shows are made for fucking, and for pretty much any other activity you can think of: fishing, dueling, pretending to be a cowboy, pretending to be James Bond, even pretending to be a noir detective to escape an especially persistent alien babe. Within the fictional world of Star Trek, the holodecks provide smaller fictional bubbles, where you can escape your coworkers and spend some time alone, or with a few select friends. It’s a voluntary alternate reality where you can be as weird, corny, and horny as you like.
Now, back to our own earthbound options. It may be unfair to hold today’s evolving vision of an immersive “metaverse” up against the technology depicted in an imaginary space utopia and ask: “Why isn’t this as good as that?” I think, however, that it’s appropriate to ask why our real-life imagination is so limited; why the alternate reality we’re trying to build in this world is so sterile, sexless, and unpleasant. If you look at the early versions of the metaverse, particularly the corporate meeting spaces offered by Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, you have to ask: “Why does this look like ass?”
A weird trick, since it’s also clear that in the metaverse nobody’s getting any ass, or even seeing anything ass-adjacent. The avatars in Meta’s Horizon Worlds are floating, legless torsos; so are the avatars in Mesh by Microsoft. Supposedly, the legs are missing because existing virtual reality hardware is only designed to capture the movements of the head (in the form of those ugly masks) and the hands (in the form of those ugly grips that look like toilet seats). To make legwork realistic in a VR setting, companies would need to develop some kind of additional and presumably also hideous haptics for the lower body. Zuckerberg does intend for Meta to have full-body avatars someday, at least according to the mocked-up animation in Meta’s keynote video released in October 2021. But there’s another reason besides inadequate technology that might make him wish to stick with floating heads and torsos: if metaverse avatars stop at the waist, you don’t have to worry about all those inconvenient genitalia.
Depicting real human beings in a virtual world means depicting all of them, including the naughty bits. This creates a problem if your virtual world is, unlike the holographic bubble environments of Star Trek, a mandatory part of the workplace. The metaverse is intended to replace the entirety of life, both work and leisure: Zuckerberg claims that we’ll soon be living full-time in his dream world, which looks a lot like an office park except flatter and faker. And when you’re at work, you have to play by HR’s rules. You can’t just lay your dick out on the table (unless you’re the boss, of course). But unless you can lay your dick on the table, at least at some point, then the metaverse isn’t a real alternate reality: it isn’t a fantasy, or an escape. It’s only a grinning, floating, candy-colored hell.
Dicks Will Out
Digital technology, like the holodeck, is made for sex. As soon as images became available online, naked bodies were everywhere. “The internet is for porn,” sing the puppets in the musical Avenue Q. In a recent piece for Vice titled “Zuckerberg’s Metaverse Is Screwed If It Doesn’t Allow Sex,” Samantha Cole explains the game developer term “TTP,” which means “Time to Penis”—that is, how long does it take for users to insert a dick in a game where it doesn’t belong. TTP is considered by game designers to be merely a when, not an if: if you build it, dicks will come. Virtual environments have always been especially fertile ground for the erotic imagination, allowing people to express what they often can’t express in real life, or to act out in ways that would be frowned on in physical space. The human erotic imagination is indefatigable, especially online, where the infamous “Rule 34” holds that anything you can imagine, no matter how sexless or banal, has already been turned into porn.
If you look at the early versions of the metaverse, particularly the corporate meeting spaces offered by Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, you have to ask: “Why does this look like ass?”
Zuckerberg, in his attempts to build a metaverse as sexless and banal as possible, appears to be trying to break Rule 34. His vision of the future has no sharp edges, no dark places, no erotic frisson. Supposedly, Meta is working on photorealistic faces, but for now, the avatars available in Meta’s environments are soft and Pixar-like, with big, childlike heads. They sit smiling at each other across a conference table, or they blast off into space on adorable rocket ships. Everything is nauseatingly cute and childlike, and yet it’s not meant for children. Nothing is truly funny or weird, or potentially dangerous in any respect. The sample animation Meta released suggests that it may be possible to someday customize yourself into a giant robot, if you like, but only a cute, funny robot, not a spiky, scary one. The robot sits in a conference room and does his work because he is an adult.
Even the explicitly escapist parts of Meta are free of anything that might be considered, well, explicit. An early ad for Meta’s product Horizon stars a blonde woman in a modern apartment, turning away from her husband to explore “another world.” But in that other world she’s a bobbing head and torso, meeting other bobbing heads and torsos in perfect, sexless friendliness, as they have G-rated adventures and learn to paint in bright primary colors. When she greets her male friends in the other world, her husband listening in real life also grunts out a greeting. There can be no implication of adultery because everyone in the metaverse looks like a floating react emoji, and besides, the woman may be playing in a virtual world, but her physical form can be easily monitored in reality. Horizon is a safe place, the ad suggests, to entrust your wife. She might be titillated by her new friendships, but she’ll never stray.
This is in direct and possibly deliberate contrast to previous versions of what might be called the metaverse, such as the massive multiplayer platform Second Life, whose reputation as a hotbed of vice and adultery caused a miniature moral panic in the late 2000s. How many marriages actually broke up because users met and fell in love within Second Life is difficult to determine, but there were at least a few, and they made headlines. An online game where adults can do more or less anything they want will invariably result in sex, sometimes undesirable or inappropriate sex, because sex is a part of adult life. To try to build a world without sex—where adulthood is merely a matter of conference rooms—takes considerable work.
Andrew Bosworth, Meta’s chief technology officer, has indicated the company’s intention to protect its users from all problematic content by implementing “almost Disney levels of safety.” Facebook, as Cole points out, has long been an anti-sex environment, banning sexual content by algorithmic fiat (which, as she notes, misses a lot of pedophiles and sweeps up a lot of innocents in their place). It’s also what makes Facebook so deadly boring for younger adults: the aging social media site is imbued with a false, sex-free wholesomeness, mixed in with bigoted aunts and QAnon posts. It’s hard not to wonder whether the lack of sex naturally leads to the aggression with which Facebook users panic about child molesters in pizza dungeons. Anything can be reimagined as a secret symbol of clandestine abuse and child grooming, except for the actual pedophilic content slipping through Facebook’s net. The monsters are already inside the house.
Sing the Body Sexless
It seems like when it comes to sex, pretty much anything is allowed in the Star Trek holodecks (although using holographic images of one’s coworkers without their consent is at least frowned upon). If healthy digital sex seems plausible in the utopian future, that may be because it is a utopian future, a fantasy within a fantasy. In reality, or at least in our current dystopia, virtual spaces have remained sexually dystopian.
Even with the most generous, sex-positive of intentions, regulating sex online is an extraordinarily difficult task. And the burgeoning metaverse has proved especially hard to control. Certain spaces have already been designed specifically for children, while others are meant for adults (or require parental consent for those under a certain age), but there’s constant slippage between the two. Children are technically not allowed into Horizon Worlds—despite its dreary sexlessness, the Zuckerberg product is actually meant for an eighteen-plus crowd. But, as Will Oremus found in a Washington Post investigation, it’s quite easy for kids to borrow their parents’ VR sets and log into their accounts. As a result, “very young kids appear to be among [Horizon’s] earliest adopters.” These kids run around Horizon Worlds being “foulmouthed and rude, gleefully ruining the experience for the grown-ups.” There are perfectly good reasons to separate adults’ and children’s spaces beside the presence or absence of sexual content: kids (no offense to any who may be reading this) can be really annoying.
It’s easy to see why children would enjoy Horizon Worlds: the internet may be for porn, but the metaverse (uncomfortably hosted in the same place) is, so far, for kids. Outside its conference rooms, Horizon Worlds lets you build and create most anything you like—just like Minecraft and Roblox, two already popular metaverse games for children. Fortnite, another hugely popular kids’ game, recently announced that they’re partnering with Lego “to build a fun place for kids to play in the metaverse!” The metaverse is in fact so associated with children that a recent CNBC article says that the coming challenge is “convincing you it’s not just for kids.” In light of this, Meta’s determined refusal to admit the erotic is even stranger: Why would you build what’s essentially a less interesting version of a children’s game, ban any “adult” content, and slap an eighteen-plus sticker on it?
One reason is to try to keep out the pedophiles. Where children’s games exist online, pedophiles follow. According to a BBC report, Roblox has seen an influx of sexual content in places called “condos”—enclosed areas built by users for sexual activity. The company claims that it tries to shut down these condos as soon as they crop up, but there’s really nothing to prevent them from existing in the first place or to stop children from wandering inside. VRChat, which is supposed to be for ages thirteen and older, often receives much younger visitors, who—according to yet another BBC report—are “allow[ed] into virtual strip clubs,” where “children mix freely with adults,” and avatars engage in “‘erotic role-play.’” VRChat is also home to an infamous volunteer police force composed of “loli” avatars—eroticized underage anime girls, a term that originally derives from Nabokov’s Lolita. These loli avatars are likely puppeted by adults.
No technology currently in existence can prevent children from pretending to be adults in order to get inside a grown-up’s game, or prevent adults from pretending to be children to get inside a kid’s game either. This is not a brand-new problem—Habbo, a reputedly safe online community where teens and young adults could hang out in a virtual hotel, lost multiple investors and corporate partners after a 2012 investigation revealed that their cute imaginary hotel rooms were absolutely filthy with pedophiles. Efforts to ban sexual content from children’s games don’t automatically protect children—pedophiles, after all, enjoy violating boundaries. And when it comes to games for adults, if no form of consensual sex is allowed, anywhere, will anybody except creeps want to play? Certainly there are asexual people who might welcome a sexless online environment, but their safe space is still likely to be invaded by those who are aroused by violating sexual rules and boundaries. Meta’s soft, childlike avatars and bright colors aren’t a turnoff for everyone—for pedophiles and “griefers” (i.e., internet jerks), they’re more like a red flag to a bull.
Even with the most generous, sex-positive of intentions, regulating sex online is an extraordinarily difficult task.
There’s also quite a bit of sexual activity or role-playing that may be legal and consensual but still could be uncomfortable or complicated in a publicly available metaverse. Second Life has been notorious for age play: the site doesn’t force adults to choose adult avatars but lets them embody children if they like. The 2010 documentary Life 2.0 follows one of these people, an adult man who has chosen to play as an eleven-year-old girl named Ayya Aabye. He claims that for some people, especially straight married men playing as gay boys, there’s a sexual element to the role-play, but for him, becoming an eleven-year-old girl wasn’t an erotic act. I know, I was skeptical too, but at the end of the documentary the man—who had finally quit playing as Ayya—said that pretending to be a young girl had helped him come to terms with the painful truth that he had been sexually abused as a child. He’s not the only Second Life user who, reportedly, has used a child avatar as a therapeutic tool: a study of adults playing as children in Second Life found that many of these adults “use child avatars because they want to be children,” often because childhood abuse or general unhappiness led them to “want a do-over.” Some of these people might also be into age play/adult baby kinks, which are common and harmless if engaged in by consenting adults. Of course, if a pedophile with an adult avatar were to have virtual sex with a consenting adult who was age-playing as a child . . . the ethics and legalities get murky quickly. It’s not easy to have clear rules around sex and exploration of kink in virtual settings, but what we do know for sure is that sex and kink will absolutely crop up in these places, no matter what Zuckerberg might intend.
You just can’t keep sex out of virtual worlds, whether the sex is kinky or vanilla or illegal or otherwise. Virtual worlds are where people go to express the inexpressible, to be who they aren’t or can’t be in public. Unlike holodecks, however, the metaverse is composed more or less entirely of real people; it comes with all the complications of reality plus the uninhibited qualities of non-physical spaces. The metaverse hasn’t just been inundated with inappropriate sexual content directed at children—it’s also hosted plenty of garden-variety harassment. A woman journalist who investigated Horizon Worlds for Bloomberg found that the scene was heavily male-dominated and that she attracted unwanted and often creepy attention simply by embodying a female avatar. A woman beta tester in Horizon was groped by a stranger, and Meta’s only response was to introduce a “Personal Boundary” feature that prevents avatars from coming within four feet of each other. This feature can be turned off, if desired, but Meta says that they will continue to provide a “small personal boundary to prevent unwanted interactions.” Avatars can still “high-five, fist-bump, and take selfies” but sex, presumably, is out. There must always be a sad social distance, a workplace-appropriate lack of touching. Of course, any boundary is unlikely to deter would-be sex-havers, consenting or otherwise. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, “Sex finds a way.”
Call Me by Your Real Name
Mark Zuckerberg might not want us to have sex in the metaverse, but he really does want us to “connect.” He uses that word over and over in his recent videos and interviews, including the keynote released as part of Meta’s day-long launch event last October, an event which was called, not coincidentally, “Connect 2021.” Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse, he says, is the concrete development of an idea he’s had since middle school, based on his long-standing desire for human beings “to feel present with the people we care about.” In a CBS interview with Gayle King, he further detailed this childhood dream. As King reports, “He told me that when he was in middle school . . . he’d leave his friends, they would go off, [and] he said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a world where we could still play together, but be in different places?’” This may sound sweet, but what Zuckerberg is trying to build is a child’s idea of utopia, a world without internal boundaries, where your friends can’t ever leave and go home, where they don’t have their own space, where everyone has to stay around and play in your world, designed by your rules. It’s not a fantasy of connection but a fantasy of control, where you never have to grow up or change, ever. And of course there’s no sex because as a child you’re pre-sexual for eternity.
When it comes to games for adults, if no form of consensual sex is allowed, anywhere, will anybody except creeps want to play?
Margaret Atwood has written about how every utopia is a dystopia for somebody; every heaven is someone’s hell. The Star Trek holodecks might, in fact, be a hell for the programmed holographic beings; certainly, Zuckerberg’s metaverse is a hell for us. We have to populate his Candyland universe, designing cutie-pie objects and feeling squeezed to death by the invisible shield around us, allowed to express happiness and team spirit but never sexual desire. If we want to be honest about our sexuality, to truly explore who we are in full, we will be banned from Zuckerberg’s paradise. Like Susan Pevensie in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, we will be shut out of heaven for being interested in sex rather than talking animals, for daring to grow up out of an innocent childhood imagination into an adult erotic one. We still get to be grown-ups in Meta’s metaverse, as long as we work—unless our work is sex work, apparently—and as long as we remain happy to tinker around inside Zuckerberg’s little world.
Ultimately, Zuckerberg’s vision fails, as most tech dreams do, because it’s a bait-and-switch, promising its users happiness and freedom while actually locking them in a tiny open-air prison. Facebook was never about large-scale, open-ended exploration—despite Zuckerberg’s insistence that his company was always about “connection,” it was, in fact, originally designed to rate hot college chicks. Facebook/Meta has been engaged in the commodification of women and the violation of sexual boundaries from the beginning. Over time, it’s grown into a worldwide panopticon that’s driven by a different category of connection: capturing users’ data and selling it to companies that want to know about us as consumers. Meta’s mission isn’t generative; it’s extractive. It isn’t interested in our happiness or our pleasure, only in our time, our labor, and our data.
Zuckerberg is presenting a false innocence, marketed by someone who isn’t honest about who he is and what he’s done to get there. Facebook, with great hypocrisy, has insisted for years on a “real name” policy—they’ve never wanted people to play at being something other than themselves. Cole says that a real-self metaverse would necessarily leave out “a major draw of online embodiment, for most people: the ability to be weird as hell online.” If you had to be your real self, your work-self, all the time, then life in the metaverse would mean the complete annihilation of the private sphere. There would only be work, and no play—and repressed monsters bursting out of the seams.
You might like your coworker Steve quite a bit—and never want to know that he enjoys being tied up and spanked by a human-sized sexy chipmunk. In fact, it would be a violation of your consent and your professional relationship to be forced to know this. But if you live and work in the same giant virtual bubble, all of the time, under strict Disney-esque security, that would mean that Steve would never be able to experience being tied up and spanked by a sexy chipmunk. This would be tragic. Steve has a right to explore his kinks in his private life, just as you have a right not to know about them. Anonymity, mystery, danger—these are inescapable elements of the erotic. “Sexy,” writes Jhumpa Lahiri in a short story about that exact word, “means loving someone you don’t know.” At work, you know the people around you, or at least you know as much about them as you’d like to. If everything about everyone’s personal lives is laid bare, then nothing will ever be sexy again. Zuckerberg, with his promise of eternal, safe-for-work play, is trying to get us to surrender our privacy, and not in a fun, kinky way either—except, maybe, for him.
We already have the ability to be present with people: it’s called being in the same room with them. But if Zuckerberg’s goal is less being present and more about forcing presence, then Meta’s true direction starts to become clear. “Isn’t that the ultimate promise of technology?” he says in the company’s rebranding video. “To be together with anyone, to be able to teleport anywhere, and to create and experience anything?” But when Zuckerberg says anything, you know he means “anything within the boundaries that we engineer for you.” You can create and experience anything that he wants, not anything that you want. If he doesn’t want you to experience sex in his little world, then you can’t. And why should he let you? Your pleasure isn’t the point. You’re not actually there to have a good time.
It’s frankly sad that Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse is nothing more than the dreamworld of a selfish Peter Pan with a god complex because a genuinely uninhibited virtual space—where people could actually feel free to look and act in ways that they never could around their families or coworkers—could be liberating for many. Certainly queer and trans people could benefit, especially those stuck in small conservative towns. A Fortune magazine exploration of the future of relationships interviewed a sex therapist who pointed out that neurodivergent people and the socially anxious could benefit from trying out human interaction in a virtual space before taking it to the physical world. But it could be that when it comes to an open, global metaverse, designed not around our happiness but on the extraction of our data, healthy sexual regulation will remain forever out of reach. The metaverse is dystopian and sexually dysfunctional because the real world where its users come from is dystopian and sexually dysfunctional. No amount of fantasy can fix a broken reality.
Zuckerberg insists that the metaverse doesn’t have to be a nightmare. “You don’t have to be in some kind of dystopian situation to be present with another person that you care about,” he said recently on a podcast. He’s partly right—his own vision might be definitionally dystopian, but there are still ways to create virtual spaces that don’t look like a dickless corporate campus. Second Life, for all of its many flaws and recorded abuses, was (and remains) a valuable escape for many people, a place where people can indeed live second lives, involving sex, dream houses, and anything else except being the same self you are in reality. Philip Rosedale, the founder of Second Life, stepped down from its parent company, Linden Lab, in 2013 but returned earlier this year as a strategic adviser. He’s offered a pointed critique of the current set of metaverse experiments, saying that “ad-driven, behavior-modification platforms” like Meta are doomed to fail in their attempts to create “a magical, single digital utopia for everyone.” Second Life succeeded because it was fun, and while people could make money there—as designers, developers, sex workers, and more—they didn’t have to go there to work. “Virtual worlds don’t need to be dystopias,” Rosedale said, agreeing in this one respect with Zuckerberg.
But there may also be hard limits to the depth of real human connection in the metaverse, and therefore limits to how much time people may be willing to spend in it. Second Life only cracked a million monthly users at the height of its notoriety in 2013, and its current active user base hovers around half a million. “It’s been difficult to grow virtual world usage above this million-or-so people,” Rosedale admitted in a recent interview. It could be that unless people are forced to join the metaverse as a workplace requirement, most of us will not rush to live in virtual spaces. Much of the time, human connection of any sort is better in person. And despite innovations in teledildonics (yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like), sex might still, strangely enough, remain more fun in person too. A future technological utopia might, like Star Trek, involve some use of virtual spaces, but virtual reality isn’t the only way to have fun, or the only way to fuck. A holodeck is a place you can enter and leave at will; Meta’s vision of the future is a world where you are forced to go, but never come.