How sex tech could threaten the world's oldest profession

The adult industry's embrace of virtual reality and Internet-connected toys mean porn is getting more and more lifelike. Will there be room for the real thing?

Cassie, a sex worker at Sheri's Ranch--a legal brothel in Pahrump, Nevada--isn't worried about virtual reality goggles replacing her job just yet.

Max Taves/CNET

For the three guys looking to score at a dark sports bar about an hour outside Las Vegas, it's a buyer's market.

There's a stripper pole, a pool table and three TVs mounted above the bar. One is playing "Law & Order." The other two display a slideshow of women flashing come-hither looks. "Paloma here through January 25," reads one frame, followed by "Cassie here through January 24."

The three men miss the advertising, though. They're focused on a dozen women in skin-tight clothes and high heels.

This is the scene at Sheri's Ranch, a legal brothel in Pahrump, Nevada, a town of 40,000 at the base of jagged peaks near the California border. I'm here on a Friday afternoon after spending a week in and around Las Vegas, learning how technology is changing our sex lives.

Based on what I've seen, this much is clear: The world's oldest profession is under attack from the newest.

Jeremy Lemur, a skinny, bald man who's been the spokesman for Sheri's for three years, said hype and increasing investment in virtual reality began to worry him late last year. VR displays video through screens that strap to your face and create lifelike scenes -- think video games, political debates and, yes, porn -- to put you in the center of the action.

"What if they could duplicate sex via the Internet?" says Lemur, who's seated on a couch with a leopard-print throw in the Safari room, one of the Ranch's five "VIP" bungalows. They sport themes like King Arthur's Court, Arabian Nights, Ancient Rome and the 1960s, the latter enlivening a popular bungalow that was occupied during my visit.

If simulated sex becomes too realistic, Lemur wonders whether VR might just drive Sheri's, which has been around for about three decades, out of business. "This is serious," he tells me.

One thing's for sure: VR is having its moment. Tech giants from Facebook, Google and Sony to phone makers like Samsung and HTC are investing billions in a field they say has the potential to change the way we interact with computers, entertainment and especially each other.

The adult entertainment industry has been a first adopter of new technology for years and is credited with helping to boost sales of DVDs and mobile devices in their early days, and even to have stimulated the rise of the Internet itself. Now that $3 billion industry is looking at VR. Porn studios are experimenting with films designed to put viewers in the middle of the action. Entrepreneurs are creating Internet-connected sex toys designed to simulate the feel of another person's touch, even if you're alone.

These technologies are already changing our sex lives. Cam operators -- that is, online strip clubs where women or men perform via webcam -- are using VR, video conferencing tech and remote-controlled sex toys to make customers thousands of miles away feel the thrill of what they see on the screen.

Sheri's Ranch has taken notice of the changes shaking the porn industry and is worried they could be bad for business. The Ranch, owned by a retired Chicago homicide detective Chuck Lee (there is no Sheri), rotates up to 100 sex workers from around the world every three months. Dena, the madam, says there's a wait list for the "ladies" who want to work there. All prices are negotiated separately by the "courtesans," the term the Ranch uses to describe its sex workers.

Demand for sex might be a constant, but how people go about getting it done has changed. These days, they're not paying for it like they used to. In 1948, 69 percent of American men reported having at least one experience with a prostitute, according to a study by The Kinsey Institute. By the 1990s, that fell to as little as 15 percent.

Why are fewer people paying for sex? Some blame technology.

Even before the recent advances in VR porn and Internet-connected sex toys, the easy availability of online porn in the 1990s and 2000s helped dampen demand for prostitution. After all, watching porn is safer and cheaper than paying for sex.

It's also far more popular: A recent University of Texas study found that 46 percent of men and 16 percent of women between 18 and 39 years old watch porn every week.

Travel to Nevada, where prostitution has been legal in many counties since 1971, and you'll quickly see that the glory days of bordellos have passed. More than half of the legal brothels shut down in the past two decades, leaving the tally at 17 today.

Still, Dena, the madam at Sheri's Ranch, says business is so strong that last year was its best in the decade she's worked there. She wouldn't give me numbers but she isn't worried her customers will choose goggles over the real thing, "at least for right now."

Allissa, one of the two dozen prostitutes working the Ranch, also says she isn't concerned that connected toys or VR porn will challenge her job security.

Tech, she reminds me, is subject to glitches.

"What if the power goes out?"

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