THE FUTURE OF SEX
The week of February 8th, 2014

One man’s quest to biohack his body for better sex

By EJ Dickson

This article contains sexually explicit content.

Since the dawn of time—or at the very least, since the early days of Cosmopolitan—we’ve been preoccupied with the question of whether we’re good in bed. There’s no shortage of surgical or pharmaceutical options available to make us harder, better, faster, and stronger. More recently, we’ve even started using sex-tracking apps, so we can record every thrust and whimper between the sheets.

But all of these hacks we employ to improve our sex lives have the disadvantage of being relatively impermanent. No matter how many pills we pop, sex toys we buy, or Tantra workshops we take, there’s no way for us to permanently hack our own bodies to become the sleek, ultra-libidinous pleasure machines some of us so desperately want to be.

Rich Lee, a 32-year-old salesman from St. George, Utah, thinks he’s found the solution to this problem. He calls it the Lovetron9000, and it’s an implant embedded underneath the male pubic bone that causes the penis to vibrate. His goal, he told me during a phone conversation a few weeks ago, is to “turn your boyfriend into a vibrator.”

While the prototype hasn’t quite been perfected, the Lovetron9000 is essentially a small motor embedded in a layer of pubic fat. Like a standard vibrator, it will feature multiple pulses and rhythms to cycle through, and there will also be a textured version of the device available, with bumps and ridges specifically “for her pleasure.”

The prospect might, at the very least, sound unappealing or just plain uncomfortable, but Lee doesn’t quite see it that way. He thinks his device is theoretically no different than breast implants or using the Hitachi Magic Wand during an unsatisfying sexual encounter: They’re all just tools we employ to bolster our enjoyment.

“People use toys in bed. They’re into BDSM,” Lee reasoned. “I don’t see how this will be any different. I see it as an enhancement.”

Behind the biohacking movement

Lee looks like someone who would embrace a DIY biopunk aesthetic. With his bald head and Rasputin-length black beard, he’s a dead ringer for a less hirsute version of System of a Down singer Serj Tankian. By day he’s a cardboard salesman, but in his off-hours, Lee is a member of a tight-knit community of biohackers who dream up concepts for implants as seemingly far-fetched as the Lovetron9000 on a regular basis.

While biohacking is a fairly vague and general term, it can be loosely defined as the process by which people attempt to augment or improve the biological systems of the human body. Lee belongs to a subset of biohackers called “grinders,” or “do-it-yourself cyborgs that are updating their bodies with hardware without waiting for corporate development cycles or authorities that say it’s OK,” as Amal Graafstra, a grinder who implanted a radio-frequency identification (RFID) microchip in his hand, put it in a 2013 TED talk on the subject.

To a certain extent, the aims of the grinder community overlap with those of the BM, or body modification, community: They both share the goal of using your body as a canvas, to often extreme or invasive effect. But unlike a body modification, the Lovetron9000 is, at least theoretically, intended for utilitarian, rather than aesthetic, purposes.

Lee has been interested in biohacking since 2008, when he encountered visions of technology transforming the future while flipping through old magazines that he inherited from his grandmother.

“I was reading their tech articles, and it’s all the same stuff I’m reading now. Like, ‘In the year 1999, you’re gonna be vacationing on the moon, people are gonna have jet packs, and it’s gonna be like The Jetsons,’” he recalled. “But honestly, no one’s working on bionics or other things I’m interested in. So I thought, ‘I’m just gonna make these things myself.’” And he did.

Such surgically invasive hacks might sound extreme, but they are par for the course in the grinding community.

Lee has a magnet implanted in his finger that he claims gives him the ability to feel magnetic fields. In 2013, he made headlines when he surgically implanted sound-transmitting magnets into his ears after a doctor told him that he would soon lose his eyesight. The magnets were intended to help compensate for his loss of vision by allowing him to use echolocation, similar to how a bat “sees” objects in the dark.

“I thought maybe if I had an implanted hearing device using clicks and things like that, then I wouldn’t disturb others nearby,” Lee explained. “I was trying to be proactive about my upcoming situation.” (Ultimately, Lee did not end up losing his eyesight, though he says he is currently legally blind in one eye.)

Such surgically invasive hacks might sound extreme, but they are par for the course in the grinding community, where hackers take “an almost masochistic approach to the human body as a test bed for new technologies,” as Future of Sex writer Hugo Gray wrote in a profile of Lee.

If you surf forums like Biohack.me, you’ll see plenty of threads where posters enthusiastically exchange ideas about implanting haptic tattoos or RFID microtags that can open doors. There’s even one about the possibility of inserting a microchip to induce chemical castration, which would function in much the same way as a birth control implant.

Lee sees the Lovetron9000 as one small step toward a future where everyone will have implants of some kind, where we’ll all be at least part hardware. If the wearables market can explode, he reasons, so will the implant market.

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The Lovetron9000

While the Lovetron9000 is an extreme example, there’s some precedent for people like Lee hacking their own bodies to improve their sex lives. At the implant end of the spectrum, penile implants, which help men with erectile dysfunction and consist of two surgically implanted inflatable cylinders and a pump in the scrotum, have been around for decades. And on the biological side, last year the biotech startup Cambrian Genomics announced it was developing Sweet Peach, a vaginal probiotic supplement that would use DNA-printing technology to enhance vaginal health.

“We think it’s a fundamental human right to not only know your code and the code of the things that live on you but also to write your own code and personalize it,” Sweet Peach cofounder Austen Heinz said, in many ways echoing the biohacker ethos.

Lee also says there are others in the grinder community who are at work on similar, albeit less controversial, projects, such as substances that reduce recovery times between orgasm—or even eliminate them altogether.

Needless to say, not everyone in the scientific community approves of this aggressively DIY approach to human sexuality. Cory Tobin, a graduate student in biology at the California Institute of Technology and a member of the group LA Biohackers, is particularly skeptical. “There are a few folks on the fringes that do occasionally work on this stuff [i.e. sex biohacking],” he told me via email. “Most of that falls into one of two categories: 1) Simple implants that have been hacked together and don’t provide much improvement over the status quo, and 2) Hyped-up bullshit coming from people who don’t know the first thing about biology, or science for that matter.”

Lee sees the Lovetron9000 as one small step toward a future where everyone will have implants of some kind, where we’ll all be at least part hardware.

While Tobin sees the Sweet Peach founders as falling into the latter category, Lee falls into the former. “If implanting magnets (rather than gluing them to your fingertips) counts as biohacking, then I suppose implanting a vibrating cock ring counts as biohacking too,” Tobin said.

Some, however, are less averse to the idea. “The sex-tech industry tends to go one of two ways: One way is away from human sex and intimacy, and the other moves toward human sex and intimacy,” said Sunny Allen, a biohacker and cocreator of the smart, sensor-equipped Hum vibrator. “So this idea of hacking the penis so it’s more like a vibrator kinda moves into that second direction. It uses sex tech to provide a more intimate experience between two people.”

When I asked Allen if she’d ever be interested in having sex with someone with a vibrating penis, she laughed.

“I’d try it once,” she said. “Maybe a few times and experiment a little bit. … [Lee] is pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a human and what it means to be a transhuman. That’s scary to people. But it doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to investigate.”

• • •

Lee started toying with the idea for the Lovetron9000 back in 2011.

“I’m going to implant a vibrating subdermal implant just above my meat straw,” he wrote on a description of the project on a biohacker community thread. One user simply replied, “it sounds crazy dangerous,” and raised the possibility of Lee’s body rejecting the device.

Lee, who has tested the device externally but says he hasn’t perfected it to the point where it can be surgically implanted, says he has controlled for the possibility of this happening by covering the device in a bioproof coating of silicone to protect the internal components from mixing with any bodily fluids. He still acknowledges there’s a possibility it could do severe harm to his body.

“Worst case scenario, it rots off my penis and then I have to get a prosthetic penis and God help me then,” he said. “That’s a real risk.”

“I mean, that’s a pretty bad worst-case scenario,” I responded, but Lee didn’t seem fazed.

While he acknowledges that implanting a vibrating device like the Lovetron9000 might be possible, Dr. Anthony Youn, a Michigan-based plastic surgeon, identifies two major possible risks associated with such a surgery: infection, which can cause “major scarring and deformity,” and rejection from the body.

“The body will only allow very few types of foreign substances into it without outright rejecting it (such as silicone or titanium),” he explained. “If this device is made out of a substance that causes the body to react, the body will literally push it out, causing major scarring and deformity, once again.”

The fact that a device like the Lovetron9000 doesn’t have FDA approval also makes Dr. Youn wary, to say the least. “Some implanted devices can work very well and last very long (such as a pacemaker), but these are exhaustingly studied prior to actually implanting it into a person,” he said. “Anything less than that is likely going to be a HUGE mistake.”

If Lee ends up implanting the Lovetron9000 and his utopian vision of cyborg sex pans out, it’s not just men who will benefit. Lee says he is also considering developing an analog device for women that would basically consist of a piece of metal on both sides of the labia straddling the clitoris. When the implant’s turned on, it would make these pieces of metal magnetic and the pieces would attract each other, gently squeezing the clitoris. Then the magnets would attract and release rapidly to create a rapid vibrational effect.

[Lee] is pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a human and what it means to be a transhuman. That’s scary to people.

Will women actually be interested in such a surgically implanted device? It’s doubtful, but it’s no less likely than men wanting to essentially turn their bodies into whirring robot vibrators.

When I asked Lee if he thinks there will ever be a widespread market for a device like the Lovetron9000, he seemed confident. “It’ll be a definite enhancement in intercourse,” he said without hesitation. “I can envision a scene in a bar where some guy says that he has one, and there’s a bunch of women with him, and he turns it on. It’s gonna be a conversation piece.” He says he’s already gotten inquiries from members of the body modification community, as well as from those in the gay community.

Lee has no interest in seeking a patent for the Lovetron9000. In accordance with the biohacker ethos, he wants it to be widely available as a piece of open-source technology. While he sees it as initially being a niche product, he thinks interest will rapidly grow in the mainstream world. “As soon as I implant it and prove that it’s safe for the public, I think I’m gonna get a wide variety of inquiries,” he said. “And not just from body mod enthusiasts, but from geeks and cyborg lovers too.”

Don’t expect to see anything like the Lovetron9000 on the shelves of your local adult novelty store anytime soon. The device has already broken down several times, and it’s unsurprisingly difficult for biohackers like Lee to obtain funding, particularly because biohacking exists in something of a “legal gray area,” as Lee was quick to concede. (According to one BBC piece, the FBI in particular is highly distrustful of biohackers, with an agent telling a reporter he attends DIY biohacking workshops “to separate between the white and the black hats,” or those who use the technology for good versus those who use it for evil.)

There are, however, others outside the biohacking community in the adult market who are at work on similar, albeit less invasive, projects. A pill called Sugar Cum, for instance, allegedly makes semen taste like Jamba Juice, alleviating a common concern among men that their partners hate the taste of their ejaculate. And there’s no shortage of high-tech, performance-enhancing sex gadgets on the market, from wearable finger vibrators like Jimmyjane’s HelloTouch to Robocop-like gloves that send up to 45,000 vibrations per minute through your fingers. There are even detachable genital piercings that vibrate, producing essentially the same effect as the Lovetron9000.

Allen, for her part, has a medical-grade silicone-encased magnet implanted in her ring finger. Like Lee, she says it gives her the ability to feel magnetic fields around her. “You could feasibly hook it up to somebody’s heartbeat and actually feel your partner’s heartbeat on your finger, and know that they’re getting more excited because you can feel their heart pound,” she said. “That would be beautiful.”

Given how much money consumers pump into the sex toy industry (as much as $15 billion, according to one estimate) and recent polls suggesting that 25 percent of millennials would wear wearables in bed if they thought it would enhance their sexual experience, it’s clear that the line between sex and technology is becoming increasingly blurred—and that it’s in danger of disappearing altogether.

We might not end up as sexual cyborgs, but Lee says it’s inevitable that technological innovation will start making its way to your bedroom.

“This sounds bizarre, because [the Lovetron9000 is] a strange implant product, but there are a lot of implants that are gonna be coming out for consumers, and the wearable market is gonna be transitioning into the implant market,” he said.

“I absolutely see this as the future.”

Photo via Rich Lee | Remix by Jason Reed