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This article was published on October 6, 2012

How technology is changing the way we have sex

How technology is changing the way we have sex
Mic Wright
Story by

Mic Wright

Reporter, TNW

Mic Wright is a journalist specialising in technology, music and popular culture. He lives in Dublin. He is on Twitter at @brokenbottleboy. Mic Wright is a journalist specialising in technology, music and popular culture. He lives in Dublin. He is on Twitter at @brokenbottleboy.

Engineers have three years left to deliver the hoverboard promised to us by Back To The Future II. It’s not looking good though the self-lacing Nike dunks are on track. In the area of sex tech though, we’re already on track to surpass the orgasmatron – the machine for giving instant orgasms – from Woody Allen’s 1973 flick Sleeper well before the 2173 deadline.

Technology is already having a major effect on sex lives the world over and there’s far more to be explored than simply burbling about sexting or women reading 50 Shades Of Grey on their Kindles undetected by the other commuters on their train. From web communities to hardware – pun obviously intended – our sexual culture is evolving and being altered by technology.

Matt Curry, head of e-commerce at Lovehoney or, as he describes himself in his Twitter profile, “Chief Whip & Sexual Tastemaker”, has great insight into the public’s sexual tastes – he sees what they spend their cash on. He reveals that Lovehoney’s latest gadget makes catering to its customers’ whims much easier:

“With sex toys, having instant access via Skype to overseas manufacturing is great. We’ve taken that one step further though: we’re now printing out prototypes sent by sex toy designers in Europe and China with our office 3D printer. It really helps with speed of development. Previously we had to wait for prototypes – even non-functional models – to be shipped via air or even sea. Now we can get an idea of shape and size very quickly.”

It’s not just the ability to quickly see designs that’s helped by the 3D printer. It also means Lovehoney can be far more experimental. Curry says: “We can definitely experiment with more unusual designs now before we expend the time and money required to knock out functional versions.”

His list of favorite sex toys, published on Lovehoney’s blog, gives a good sense of how online purchases make it easier for us to buy what we really want rather than one we’re comfortable to be seen buying. BASIC Sex Toys’s Slimline Butt Buddy is the third most popular sex toy on the site. Curry says: “I try to convince people that the British public are much more into sticking things up their bottoms than they let on and this is brilliant proof of that.”

He goes on: “Working in this industry has taught me that everyone is into something other people would think weird. There’s also a lot more choice now. Ten years ago, you would never have been able to get access to specialist kit like Pipedream Extreme [makers of realistic vaginas, dicks, anuses and mouths], medical fetish equipment or electro items from your local sex shop.”

The ‘Amazon’ shopping experience, our expectation of easy ordering and delivery, has made it normal to buy things off the web and, of course, that means sex toys and related products. Curry brightly notes; “On Lovehoney, you can even read user reviews of a speculum, if that’s what you’re into. 5 stars, I might add!” Amusingly, a search on Amazon itself for vibrators, brings up a selection of “pelvic floor exercisers” and “personal massagers”, code words used by mainstream companies in place of more direct words like vibrator and dildo.

The future of vibrators may be in “teledildonics” — remotely controlled sex toys — but Curry warns that the technology is somewhat slums at this point. He highlights items like the Mojowijo – an add-on for turning your Wiimote into a sex toy – and the Fleshlight VStroker but does not recommend them as they are “not great products”. Better options may be on the way though. Curry reveals:

“There are some advances on the way. I’ve seen various mockups and prototypes of toys that work with iPads and other video chat apps to provide a better long-distance experience. There’s even a semi-satirical mockup of an iPad Fleshlight doing the rounds on the Internet.”

iOS devices have been put to work in the pursuit of pleasure by former Apple employee, Suki Dunham, whose company OhMiBod makes a whole range of music-activated vibrators. The devices buzz to the rhythm of the tunes you choose and the company recently launched an iPhone app that allows users to remotely control connected vibrators and created their own unique vibration patterns. The company’s devices were featured in the Grammy Awards goodie bags in 2010.

At the more extreme of innovation, researchers from the University of Electro Communications in Tokyo developed a machine – dubbed the Kiss Translation Device – that aims to connect couples French kiss over long-distances. The machine links two rotating straw-like tongues to computers. Noburhiro Takahashi, a member of the team developing the device, told DigInfo TV that the team is working on other elements of kissing like taste, breath and tongue moistness. Thankfully bad breath isn’t one of the factors being studied.

Scientists are also turning their attentions to other orifices. While the Fleshlight is the most famous or infamous artificial vagina, the ungainly RealTouch pushes things even further. The device, designed by a former NASA engineer, has two bands running inside with a reservoir releasing lube. It plugs in using USB and its motion is synced to specially selected porn movies to theoretically mimic the experience of fucking the performers. Quite how erotic that can possibly feel is debatable.

For those who want more than a hole, there is an arms, legs and other body part race between makers of highly detailed dolls. The most prominent brand at the high end is Real Doll, which featured prominently in the Oscar-nominated Lars And The Real Girl, a Playboy shoot by Helmut Newton, and RyanMurphy’s Nip/Tuck among many other TV shows. Less pleasingly for the doll makers, Merlin Mann and John Roderick dubbed the anatomically correct creations “dead rubber girls” in an episode of the Roderick On The Line podcast.

RealDoll’s most prominent rival is the more robotic Roxxxy from True Companion, marketed as a sex robot can that can hold conversation. Each Roxxy model has three inputs (read: orifices) and a programmed personality which allows her to be sleepy, garrulous or “in the mood”. Other “girlfriend profiles” are offered with highly descriptive names: Wild Wendy, Frigid Farrah, S&M Susan, Mature Martha and Young Yoko.

RealDoll has been producing realistic sex dolls since 1996 and while it did offer robotic featured such as remote-controlled hip actuators and computer controlled speech feedback for a time, it has opted to focus on the “realism” of its products. RealDoll’s creator Matt McMullen says of his rivals at True Companion:

“What they’re trying to do really is completely different than what we’ve been doing. We’ve always aspired to make our dolls look and feel as real as possible, hence the name Real Doll, not so much like “hey, we’re going to build a robot.” Not that that’s an area we haven’t explored…it’s just something that I’ve never really been comfortable releasing as a product mostly because of the aesthetics that have to sacrificed when you start putting gears in a doll…it’s hard to keep the doll as beautiful as I would demand it to look.”

The team behind True Companion has been working on their concept for a high-tech sex doll since 1993. Douglas Hines, a former employee of Bell Labs – a crucible of technology that helped produce radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, Unix, C and C++ – created a rudimentary sex robot called Trudy.

True Companion’s official company history explains their goal: “The sex industry was effective at creating very expensive and somewhat realistic dolls but many people were telling us it was like their dolls were ‘catatonic’, like they were injured and unable to speak and interact. They wanted to have their dolls become interactive and be their friends. We solved this problem…”

Speaking to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’s magazine, Spectrum, Hines talked about his sex doll like any inventor dealing with practical problems: “Roxxxy has three inputs and motors where it counts. There’s a lot of heat buildup, so we installed a convection system. [There are] other motors to simulate heartbeat and responsive gestures.”

Like a lot of more traditional consumer technology, Roxxxy hooks up to the web to grab firmware updates that add new behavior based on interactions between owner and robot. Hines employed a voiceover artist to record her vocals as well as noises like snoring and orgasmic yelps. The robot’s knowledge database is pre-populated with phrases based on the buyer’s answers to a 400-question preference questionnaire.

Meanwhile, RealDoll has taken another step forward in its quest for realism by striking a licensing deal with porn studio Wicked to produce representations of its stars. To someone not used to the culture of the realistic sex doll market, the features list of the new product might be a little disturbing:

“…new articulated spine, which allows for completely realistic and natural torso positioning and range of motion…the new removable deep throat mouth insert, which features a canal which goes down the throat of the doll versus straight back into the head, for up to 7” of penetration…full head design without magnets or velcro…a numbered certificate of authenticity signed by the actress…”

While many RealDoll fans are very taken with the latex version of women of Wicked, others are disappointed by the specs and option packages available. Despite the very different products under discussion, RealDoll forums don’t differ all that much from those discussing mobile phones or cars. Here’s an example of one user’s view of the Wicked RealDoll range:

“I really like the Wicked Real Doll body out of them all – specifically the body on the Electra doll. I just don’t like the face. Unfortunately, when I tried to find the options available, there are none. Is it possible to switch out a head on this body if you pay extra? I could live without any special skin tone but I can’t handle the face on the doll…to me [it] looks a bit agitated…I really would like that body but not a doll that looks like it wants to kick my ass. Sorry for being blunt. What would it cost to order a different head?”

Jessica Drake, a writer, performer and producer for Wicked, has also been immortalized as a RealDoll. She described the process to

“It’s a really scientific process. My body and my face was scanned by a computer from head to toe, all the way round. The doll is an exact replica of me, right down to the lifelines on my palms…my hands and feet were molded separately for even more details like my nails and veins. My doll has the same dimples in her lower back that I have…my ‘lady parts’ were molded to be exactly the same as the real thing. That meant another visit to RealDoll, where their specialists poured a special mixture around my bits as I was on a table in a rather compromising position. It was cold but it warmed up rather quickly. My nipples were done in the same way.”

Drake is very positive about the response she has received from fans who have purchased her in doll form: “I’m really flattered…[it’s] giving me the ability to fulfill the fantasies of even more people…that someone would enjoy me so much that they’d take me home and make me theirs is quite the turn on. I’ve already gotten a few emails from people telling me how much they enjoy me!”

It’s unsurprising that customers are so demanding. The standard RealDoll, female or male, costs $5999 before you choose any of the optional extras (which include pubic hair and the option of extra faces). A rather matter-of-fact note at the bottom of the order form states: “Your female doll comes dressed in stylish seasonal lingerie with high heeled shoes. She will also come with a bottle of perfume and a cleaning kit.” The male doll ships in boxers and, curiously, a tank top.

While modern materials and the freedom provided by the web have made a more profitable business of developing and selling sex dolls, they are by no means a new concept. As far back as the 16th century the dame de voyage, a makeshift sex doll made of cloth, was used by French and Spanish sailors on long, lonely voyages. Iwan Bloch in The Sexual Life of Our Time discussed commercialized sex dolls in 1908:

“[There are] clever mechanics who, from rubber and other plastic materials, prepare entire male or female bodies which subserve fornicatory purposes. More especially are the genital organs represented in a manner true to nature…such artificial human beings are actually offered for sale in the catalogue of certain manufacturers of “Parisian rubber articles.”

By 1955, dolls were being openly advertised with Max Weissbrodt promoting Bild Lilli in Germany, a model based on a cartoon character popularized by the Bild Zeitung newspaper. However, unlike the direct and serious copy that promotes the RealDoll today, poor Lilli was marketed as a joke for “men who perhaps could not afford the real thing” and advertised in pamphlets distributed in red light districts.

It was another technological leap forward that kicked the sex doll industry into the 20th century as vinyl, latex and silicone became more commonly available and allowed more realism. The great joy of the web for the sexual adventurer is that there is no longer a need to seek out a catalogue packed with “Parisian rubber articles” as the internet is history’s greatest repository of the niche and naughty.

Matt Curry says of the web’s more niche hangouts: “I see so many niches. Online communities are giving people the opportunity to discuss and explore aspects of their sexuality. If you realized you had a sexual attachment to cuddly toys, you’d once have felt repressed but now you have access to, say, the Teddy Babe section of the UK Love Doll forums.” I checked. That’s definitely a thing. Once again Rule 34 – the hypothesis that pornography or sexually related material exists online for any conceivable subject – is proved right.

Curry makes a strong over-arching point about how the web has renewed and revitalized sexual culture: “Anonymity has really allowed people to be much more open online. Yes, you get exhibitionists and fantasists but the majority are people just looking for an outlet and some advice.”

For young people, there seems to be, despite media reports to the contrary, a lot to be celebrated about the interaction of technology and our sex lives. “The Use of Technology in Relationships”, a report published by the University of Plymouth earlier this year in association with the UK Safer Internet Centre found that 88% of 16 – 24 year-olds strongly agree that technology has had a positive impact on their relationship.

Over half of respondents said online activities formed a regular part of interaction in their relationship (60%) and were an important part of forming new relationships (52%). However, almost half of those surveyed agreed that online interaction could damage “offline” relationships.

The interaction between online and offline relationships is blurring though. Whether they are out-and-out hookup apps like Grindr and its straight equivalent Blendr or presenting themselves as a “social experiment” when users are clearly getting sexual like Badoo, so many apps are places for getting sex. Craigslist has always been a hot bed of no-strings attached action but location-awareness has given the quest for anonymous sex a new lease of life.

Grindr has over 4 million users in 192 countries. That’s a sexual revolution by anyone’s arithmetic. Cottaging meets coding. Mutual masturbation meets monetization strategies. But not everyone believes that’s a good thing. The problem with Grindr and, in fact, all web and mobile hook up strategies was brilliantly summed up by journalist and theorist Mark Simpson:

“Now, call me old-fashioned but what is the point of sex to a single homosexualist if it doesn’t get you out of the bloody house? On the hottest night of the year? Gays – all of them, every last one of them, especially those in relationships – are ‘logged on’ with lob ons, looking for someone who will ‘travel’ while they ‘accom’.

If Joe Orton had his time again his diaries would have been just printouts of thousands of Gaydar profiles and alarming digicam photos. “I, for my part, look back on my pre-internet days of compulsive cruising…in the driving sleet and rain as a golden age of warmth, romance and human contact…the evil of internet cruising – and the reason it will become irresistibly, devastatingly mainstream – is precisely its efficiency…but efficiency is precisely what sex is not about.”

That is the crux of where technology’s role in the future of sex gets problematic. The human experience that is most tied to the idea of intimacy can be enhanced by technology but it can also allow us to dive into the most solipsistic behavior possible, fulfilling our own most selfish needs without the need to think of anything else. In June 2006, Henrik Christensen of the European Robotics Research Network told The Sunday Times he believed “people [were] going to be having sex with robots within five years.” True Companion’s customers already are but how long before the robotic side of the sex industry becomes mainstream?

Wherever there is a new technology, be it VHS, BluRay or 3D, the sex industry is quick to adopt it. Days after Google announced its Glass AR eyewear would be available to developers, Quentin Boyer of major porn producers Pink Visual was claiming his company would be the first to develop porn for it. He says, matter-of-factly: “The style of porn known as ‘point of view’ has been a popular type of content for a while now. Obviously a device that allows you to shoot high quality video in a truly hands-free fashion will make shooting porn that much easier.” Good work Google, you’ve just brought us the future of dirty movies.

Whether it is allowing us to indulge our kinks, however mild – 50 Shades of Grey on Kindle – or extreme – discussing $6000 latex girls, or facilitating real life contact, technology has an increasing role in modern sexuality. The defining question of the next 10 years is likely to be whether it’s used more to maintain intimacy with partners over great distances and enhance relationships or create insular worlds where we can please ourselves. Oh, and when that orgasmatron is going to get off the drawing board.

Image Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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