Karen Phillips

"Virtual reality pornography could very well be the future of sexually explict media", notes Woman and Child Abuse MA student Karen Phillips, whose interests in the intersection of technology and violence against women and girls (VAWG) led her to centre her research on how VR is reshaping pornography’s fantasy/reality debates. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your background/previous career, and what brought you to London Met in particular?

I have been a jewellery designer for most of my life, working and living in Hong Kong, Indonesia and New York. I moved back to the UK 20 years ago with two small children and set up my own jewellery business. I developed a concept called Regeneration, taking heirloom jewellery and refashioning it into modern pieces. Part of this process involved creating a book with the original stories of the jewellery and the family members who owned it. This process was very cathartic for clients, and I loved hearing the personal stories they shared with me. This made me realise I wanted to change my focus and work more directly with people.

In 2018, I began to volunteer at Refuge, the domestic violence charity, as a helpline volunteer, talking directly to survivors. I love this work and still work there today. This was life-changing for me, this work is so important. Knowing that you can have a positive effect on someone’s life and support and help them on their journey is deeply rewarding. I heard about the Woman and Child Abuse MA from other employees who were taking the course and spoke very highly of their experience, and I decided I wanted to permanently change my career focus and take a new path.

What made you want to study in London?

When in the UK I have always lived in London. I was brought up here and I love it. I am a city girl.

What's your favourite part of the course so far and why? 

This course is incredible for so many reasons. Women’s lived experiences are often touched by sexism, safety issues, misogyny and other gender-related experiences. To connect the various manifestations of these issues and study the theoretical arguments and the political and societal responses to harm against women and girls is fascinating.

Talk us through a key project or research piece from your course, and what you hope the impact will be.

My key project has been my dissertation. The title is ‘The difference is that they haven't only observed, they've actually practiced it’: How virtual reality is reshaping pornography’s fantasy/reality debates.

The saturation of pornography is so prolific globally and has an ever-increasing influence over our views of gender, sexuality, and sexual practice. The forms and functions of pornography have expanded. Print, audio-visual, cam rooms and now virtual reality technology all offer unique ways to experience sexually explicit media. Pornography is no longer only a form of sexual entertainment; it is being used in other ways, including a method of sex education and sexual health education, for some it an offers an entrepreneurial business model, and for others it can be used as a form of abuse. These varied functions have profound implications for the lived experience of women and girls.

Immersive technology has introduced new ways of experiencing sexually explicit media that blur the boundaries of fantasy and reality. Virtual reality technology is a powerful medium currently used for behaviour-changing therapy and various forms of training. It can be used both positively and negatively. There are no current regulations around what types of VR content can be produced and no known information on any long-term outcomes of media usage. Virtual reality pornography could very well be the future of sexually explict media, predicted to be 35% of the virtual/augmented reality sector, and 50% of the total pornography industry revenue by 2030.

However the dominant fantasy/reality framework that has outlined discourse around pornography has shaped our laws and policies, and what we consider to be harmful is out of date and not fit to accommodate discussions surrounding immersive media, including virtual reality, AI and haptic technology. Furthermore, our ability to discuss the nuances of pornographic media in public forums is uncomfortable and often avoided, creating a ‘porn silence’. It is essential we break this porn silence and a more open and constructive method of discussion is enabled.

I hope the impact of my work will be to find new ways to open public discussion around the varying implications of living with sexually explicit media in our society, enabling constructive ways to future-proof against potential harm and find a framework of thinking that can move us into the future.

What's been most challenging about being a student?

Returning to academia as a 50-year-old. I had not written an essay for over 30 years when I applied, and it was terrifying to reapply myself in this way.

How have you found the professors / teachers?

The tutors on this course are very inspiring women, they teach in a very supportive and accessible way, which builds confidence. The teaching has been excellent, collaborative and inclusive. It has taught me to develop key critical skills. Most importantly, it has given me the space to develop my own voice. This course is both challenging and achievable.

What drives you?

I have children in their early twenties, and seeing my daughter and her friends navigate the same problematic issues in their teenage years as we did 40 years ago made me realise many of the underlying sexist factors haven't changed. I am driven to contribute to effect change for the future.

What are you most proud of in your life so far?

My children.

What's your plan when you graduate, and how do you think London Met will help you succeed in this?

This course has created a firm foundation and understanding of feminist and VAWG (violence against women and girls) issues. It has connected me with many areas of the sector. It has given me the personal confidence to move forward. I plan to apply for a PhD and continue my academic studies. I am hoping I can write and publish in the future, and continue to contribute to the VAWG sector.

Find out more about the Woman and Child Abuse MA or research at London Met, including the University's Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit.

Karen Phillips pictured smiling outside Holloway Road campus

"Our ability to discuss the nuances of pornographic media in public forums is uncomfortable and often avoided, creating a ‘porn silence’. It is essential we break this porn silence and a more open and constructive method of discussion is enabled."