The Science of Imagination

The blog that leaves nothing to the imagination.

Virtual Reality and Ethics: Is Phone Sex Cheating?

Imagination and Virtual Reality Make the Gray Areas of Rule-Breaking Even Grayer

A photo of a bride
Thy neighbor's wife. No coveting.
Wikimedia Commons

Let’s imagine that an overprotective parent won’t let her child ride on a roller coaster. The child then goes on to the web and watches videos featuring point-of-view movies of people riding on roller coasters.

Here’s an example of a video like this.

Did the child break the parent’s rule? The answer depends on whether the virtual experience had the same features of the real experience that was making the parent make the rule in the first place. If the parent were concerned with the physical safety of theme park rides, then the video might be seen as a legitimate substitute. If, however, the parent wants to keep the kid’s heart rate down for some reason, then perhaps the kid is breaking the rule.

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Similarly, for artificial sweeteners, they are okay if you’re avoiding sugar because of calories, and not so good if you’re trying to reduce your sweet tooth.

The motivation behind the rule is important. Rules are often blunt instruments, kept simple to make them memorable, or to make it easier to see when someone is breaking it, when the rationale for the rule might be more abstract.

Cheating

The rule against infidelity is a blunt instrument, and deviously complicated when you start unpacking the variety of scenarios in the gray areas. Each couple comes into a relationship with some vague idea of what infidelity is, and sometimes they have to have conversations to come to some agreement on the matter. These can be difficult conversations, because merely talking about cheating makes one think that somebody wants to do it: “May I comment with flirty things on my ex-boyfriends’ facebook photos?”

I’ve known people who have had increasingly flirtatious and ultimately sexual email correspondence with someone other than their committed partner (I’ll refer to such people as “someone other” from now on). Is that cheating?

There are some possible evolutionary roots for the jealousy brought on by cheating. The first is the danger of being cuckolded. That is, men in particular have a (genetic) motivation to make sure they don’t raise kids that are not theirs. The second is the danger of a loss of intimacy. Sexual relationships can be (or can be interpreted) as a sign of growing closer to someone other. Third is that it might bring on feelings of inferiority in the victim. Then there are cultural reasons. For example, a person might not personally feel jealousy or inferiority at infidelity, but might not want to be the victim of it because of how the relationship will be perceived by the community.

Although things like dirty emails and phone sex can be controversial for some couples, at least there is actually another person. Some people feel that watching pornography is cheating. This might seem baffling to some, because there isn’t an actual person engaging with the viewer. That is, the pornographic actors are not directly aware of when someone is watching. However, having your partner watching or reading pornography could bring on feelings of inferiority.

Virtual Reality and Imagination

In the future, there will be very realistic virtual sexual experiences. Someone who might not mind if their partner engages in phone sex or watches some pornography might start feeling differently when they are having virtual sex with someone they know in a full-body virtual reality rig, with super-realistic graphics, sound, and tactile sensations. Nobody’s going to get pregnant from virtual reality (VR), any more than they will from emailing, but at some point the whole experience will be so realistic that it will be almost exactly like having perfectly safe sex with someone other.

What does any of this have to do with imagination? I view imagination, particularly dreaming, to be the most engaging, immersive VR currently in existence. It’s not presenting one with graphics churned up by a computer, but the stimulation is not coming from the sensory world either.

When we dream, or engage in vivid imagination, our knowledge of the world and sensory memories work to stimulate the sensory areas of our brains—the same parts of our brains that are engaged when doing actual perception.

Indeed, some religions consider even thinking about doing something wrong as just as bad as actually engaging in that behavior. You may not “covet” somebody’s wife, according to some religions. However, it’s probably okay for a Jew to fantasize about eating a pork chop. Dreaming about eating a cheeseburger or some other delicious non-kosher meal probably gets a pass too (any Rabbis want to weigh in here?). Dreams, after all, are not deliberate. Well, not always.

Lucid Dreaming

Lucid dreaming is when one becomes aware that one is dreaming and thereby gains some about of control over the dream, usually in how they choose to behave. This is a rare, elusive state that I’ve only enjoyed a handful of times. Personally, I have been able to change other aspects of the virtual world of my dreams, over and above the actions I take in them. So if a person is lucid dreaming, and has virtual sex, is that cheating? May a lucid dreaming Jew eat a cheeseburger? My goal in this post is to pose the questions, not answer them.

Extreme Virtual Reality of the Future

It is possible that some day we will have computer-based virtual reality that interfaces directly with our brains, rather than having to go through our sensory organs as they do now. That is, there won’t be cameras in front of our eyes, there will be direct stimulation of the visual areas of our brains. There won’t be speakers in headphones, but direct stimulation of the auditory areas. Our motor functions might be read directly by the computer, and disallowed from reaching our muscles. This is exactly what is happening in the film The Matrix.

If a Jew eats a cheeseburger in the Matrix, is she still remaining kosher? What if she spends most of her waking hours there, eating whatever she wants, while her body is nourished through IV with kosher nutrients?

 And if sex in the Matrix is cheating, what about phone sex in the Matrix?

 "Honey, I was protected by two layers of virtual reality! Hey, come back!”

Jim Davies, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor and the Director of the Science Imagination Laboratory at Carleton University.

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