From The Straits Times    |

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I am about to walk into a sexual wellness pop-up centre.

But while I might typically hustle my way into such spaces at breakneck speed to avoid the curious stares of passersby – Singapore, after all, is still a relatively conservative society – today, I’m strolling in.

See, I’m going to enter a first-of-its-kind sexual wellness space in the metaverse. The virtual centre is launched by the world’s largest sexual wellness company Lovehoney Group, which offers award-winning adult product brands such as Womanizer and We-Vibe.

The welcome lobby of the Lovehoney pop-up space in the metaverse, where visitors are able to shop. Credit: Lovehoney

The metaverse space by Lovehoney was hosted on Decentraland, a virtual reality browser-based platform powered by the Ethereum blockchain. The centre spans four floors with educational videos, an NFT art gallery, as well as a dance floor.

Before I cross into the pop-up space, I’m prompted to key in my date of birth – one must be 18 or older to enter. I’m greeted at the entrance by Betty the Bee, Lovehoney’s robot security avatar. Betty explains that if anyone makes me feel uncomfortable in the space, I have the option to report their inappropriate behaviour and block them. Pressing the “E” key will also move the person away to another random area of the space.

Instructions duly received, I enter the dome-like virtual space. The ground floor is a store featuring a number of the group’s best-selling sex toy products and lingerie on display. Clicking on any of the items will lead you directly to the brand’s website to purchase the product.

I head on up to the second floor and enter what is known as the “Lovehoney Group Lessons” area. Decked out with large sofas and armchairs, the cosy space – or as cosy as the metaverse can get – features educational videos from the brand’s global expert panel. I’m encouraged to “take out [my] notepad” and “watch the experts share their knowledge of sexual wellbeing topics”.

The second floor allows one to watch educational videos. Credit: Lovehoney

The third floor is an art gallery exhibition. Here, one can bid on an eclectic range of erotic artworks from popular and new NFT artists. Clicking on any of the artwork redirects me to its page on Opensea for bidding. An open rooftop club awaits on the uppermost floor, complete with a DJ. To the tune of upbeat tracks, my avatar is instantly busting a move on the dance floor. What’s unusual here is that you’re surrounded by floating pleasure products on display – this is the Juno collection, the brand’s range of music-activated vibrating toys that are “designed to buzz along to the beat”.

The top floor of the pop-up space is a dance floor. Credit: Lovehoney

Personally, the relative anonymity of the metaverse allows me to overcome any awkwardness or shyness that I’d typically feel at physical events tied to learning about sex. The virtual platform is also easily accessible to a broad audience across the globe, and the good thing is that I can explore the space at my own pace.

The downside, however, is that Lovehoney’s pop-up is unable to offer a fully immersive experience. As it does not require VR goggles, it results in the space being less engaging. “Exploring a pop-up like Lovehoney’s does sound like fun, especially knowing that I won’t be judged like how I might potentially be in real life,” says Hannah Yeo, a 35-year-old marketing manager, when asked if she’d be open to exploring similar experiences. “But I’d also be wary of feeding a digital addiction.”

While Lovehoney’s metaverse sexual wellness space was only open for two months in 2022 as it was designed to be a short term pop-up, the groundbreaking initiative is likely to spawn similar iterations that might arise in the near future.

The exterior of the virtual sexual wellness pop-up is made up of layered flower petals. Credit: Lovehoney

Into the metaverse

The metaverse seemed inescapable in 2022, and it shows no signs of slowing down in 2023. A research report by global consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that the metaverse could grow up to $6.76 trillion in value by 2030. Experts believe that we are just at the beginning of the metaverse revolution, and it will open up tremendous opportunities in this space, including the advancement of virtual reality technologies as an outlet for intimacy.

It also means new opportunities and avenues for sexual wellness brands, says Johanna Rief, head of sexual empowerment at Lovehoney Group. “In a world where ‘big tech’ is silencing sexual wellness brands with regulations on Instagram and Google becoming more stringent, it’s exciting for us to launch an experience like this as a pop-up space [in the metaverse],” she explains.

The virtual metaverse space helps sexual wellness companies to push the envelope, and encourage more open dialogues about often-taboo subjects via an immersive and engaging experience. “The metaverse allows us to immerse ourselves in digital content rather than feeling like a separate viewer,” says Bryony Cole, Lovehoney Group’s global sextech expert. “Plus, the combined anonymity and intimacy of this platform allows people to engage with this topic further, where they perhaps don’t feel comfortable in real life, allowing more people to be educated.”

But the cloak of anonymity within the metaverse might not always be a good thing, warns Eugene Law, technology lead and co-founder of the Academy of Relationship and Sex, a relationship and intimacy coaching company.

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“The metaverse offers a more interactive, enhanced way of consuming information and experiences that helps with learning and exploration. [But] whether it can truly provide a safe space is still very much debatable,” he notes. “Anonymity in the virtual space is actually a double-edged sword. While it does contribute to some degree of safe space for individuals who are shy and wish to explore, a fully anonymous environment might also be just a guise that it is safe when it’s not. Hence, community guidelines and rules are important to uphold the safety fabric in such a space, especially when it comes to sexual wellness.” Examples include escape keys where one can immediately remove themselves from the situation, and security avatars like Lovehoney’s Betty the Bee.

The pros and the cons

If sexual wellness experiences continue in the metaverse, will this lead to a decrease in physical intimacy? Academy of Relationship and Sex’s Eugene says: “The metaverse environment allows for new ways of interactions and communications, meaning that it would potentially have its own language that opens more dimensions of ‘intimacy’.” He highlights social media as an example, where users have created their own way of communication and expression through stickers, memes and reels. “The virtual space allows additional ways for connection and intimacy. Learning about sex in a safe and anonymous environment allows for confidence and intimacy in real life.”

The truth is that conversations about sex and sexual wellness in Asia still remain largely frowned upon, which in turn hinders sexual empowerment. The metaverse can play a huge role in destigmatising the topic, and there’s a lot of potential in the space waiting to be tapped on, highlights Eugene. For example, the Academy of Relationship and Sex is looking to build a sexual wellness academy in the metaverse.

“We hope that the academy can play a part in providing objective, accurate and holistic content when it come to sexual wellness, so that individuals can apply this knowledge in their lives. In the long term, this builds a community where individuals collaborate and contribute, are open to listen and share, and collectively create a space for everyone to partake in their own sexual wellness,” Eugene explains. “This is also very in line with the spirit of Web3 and decentralisation, where we gather wisdom from the masses.”

Ultimately, the metaverse is part of the broader sextech venture that helps enhance sexuality and sexual wellness awareness. “I see sextech as an incredibly powerful way to use technology to not only help us find our voices, but change the culture of shame and silence around our bodies,” says Lovehoney’s Bryony. “Technology like the metaverse offers us a huge opportunity to improve upon this accessibility and representation of diverse members of society in the context of wellness.”

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Are there any lawas that currently protect women from harassment online?

Simran Toor, lawyer and CEO of non-profit organisation SG Her Empowerment (SHE), which focuses on dealing with issues such as online sexual harms, weighs in:

“The Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) provides protection against both online and realworld harassment acts. POHA makes it a criminal offence to commit cyber stalking or doxxing, or engage in acts that harass, alarm or distresses a victim.

Victims experiencing such acts can consider commencing criminal proceedings against the perpetrator (eg by filing a magistrate’s complaint), commencing a civil action against the perpetrator for damages, or seeking protection orders to prevent the perpetrator from continuing their behaviour.”

Protect yourself online

Tips from SG Her Empowerment’s Simran Toor:

  1. If you are facing harmful behaviour online, lodge a report to the platform using the available in-platform reporting function, so that the issue can be looked into quickly.
  2. When making such a report, it is important to provide background details, context, and even (where appropriate) screenshots evidencing the harmful behaviour. This allows the platform’s reporting centre to have sufficient information to process the report. It will also help with any followup reports or recourse you may wish to undertake. Plus, it means you have easily accessible proof if the perpetrator goes on to delete their account or if you decide to block the perpetrator.
  3. Understandably, such experiences can cause emotional and mental turmoil that can be long-lasting It can also be daunting to figure out what your legal recourse is, or what next steps can be taken against the perpetrator. SG Her Empowerment is setting up Singapore’s first one-stop support centre for victims/ survivors of online harms to seek information, as well as provide counselling support, and pro bono legal assistance to understand their legal rights. The centre will launch in late January 2023.