What happens when anyone can be made into a 3D sex avatar?
Last month, Vice published what I consider a troubling article about a group of hobbyists who create 3D avatars based on the likeness of ex-girlfriends and celebrities without their consent. Written by Samantha Cole and Emanuel Maiberg, the article was fittingly given the headline “‘They Can't Stop Us:' People Are Having Sex With 3D Avatars of Their Exes and Celebrities.”
To the surprise of many people on social media, the resulting doppelgangers are then used to fulfill the sexual fantasies of their creators in virtual reality. They can be shared freely or sold on marketplaces like Patreon.
For added realism, the 3D avatars can even support connected sex toys, allowing the VR headset wearer to also feel simulations of the sex acts as they unfold.
The feature raises pointed issues about your ability to own your sexual identity and the ethics of creating nonconsensual lookalikes.
Below are some of the key details that stood out regarding how the 3D graphics hobbyists create the nonconsensual imagery and how it harms its targets, who are almost exclusively women.
- Automated programs and creative tools that can create 3D replicas are increasingly becoming easier and cheaper to use such as Virt-a-Mate (VaM) and Foto2Vam
- The authors note that the 3D avatars look crude. Unlike with deepfake technology used to create nonconsensual pornography, there isn't the same risk of mistaking the 3D rendered doubles as the actual person whose likeness is being copied
- 3D models of celebrities are the most commonly shared in the VaM subreddit community
- As with deepfake pornography and abusive image generally, women are most often the targets of nonconsensually created 3D avatars
- Although visuals may be fake, experts say seeing one's likeness in nonconsensual adult content on the Internet can cause legitimate trauma, not unlike what is experienced after sexual assault
- Experts say there is little legal recourse to get images taken down, despite new laws coming into effect in some US States against deepfake and revenge pornography, The burden is on the person who objects to their likeness being used to hire an attorney and going through the legal process.
- Legal ethicist John Danaher called such digital images a type of revenge porn if they are created and shared without the person's consent
- The creator of VaM, Meshed VR, likened the VaM software to creative tools such as Blender or Photoshop, saying what users create with his software is mostly out of his control
The consensus seems to be that not much can be done to stop nonconsensual or revenge pornography. Of course, I don't disagree that it would be nearly impossible to regulate the whole Internet and to end the practice entirely.
But unlike as one Reddit user suggested in the article, I don't think the solution is for everyone to lock down their social media and hide their face from the world:
“Everyone jacks off to everyone, it's human nature, you can't stop it unless you just stay off grid and never go anywhere or show anywhere and nobody knows you even exist…It's our world and freedom, they can't stop us from jacking off, nobody can, they can merely choose extreme privacy,” that user said.
However, the trauma and other harms from having one's image used in a nonconsensual sexual manner are very real.
What do you think? Is there anything we can do to stop or at least curb the practice?
Image source: Meshed VR/Virt-a-Mate