The week of October 5, 2014

Remote sex toys are the future of long-distance pleasure

By Molly McHugh

Technology is the root of a great many arguments, but perhaps none so vitriolic as whether it’s bringing us closer or tearing us apart. While constant texting, liking, swiping, and tweeting might keep us actively engaged, general opinion says it’s causing us to disengage from the “the moment.” And the worst moment you could be disengaged from? The moment. The big one. Specifically, sex.

Sex, as popular culture at least suggests, is the ultimate connection two people can experience. We’re told it should not only be physical but mental, emotional, and even spiritual. So is bringing an app, or an app-controlled toy, into the bed the same as inviting a stranger? Or worse, is it cutting humans out of the equation altogether?

Teledildonics, or remote-controlled electronic sex toys, have surged in popularity recently. While vibrators and other sex toys have been gradually seeping into mainstream pop culture (see the Sex and the City episode devoted to the joys of the Rabbit), increasingly, people are handing over control to their partners—and doing so via the Internet.

So what exactly inspired us to go from shoving our vibrators (and whatever else) into the depths of our bedside tables to passing them off to someone else?

A coming of age

“Teledildonics has been around for a really long time,” says Suki Dunham, whose company, OhMiBod, specializes in Wi-Fi-enabled apps that allow users to control their partner’s personal massager. “The difference is that the products that were out there were historically very niche and more complicated; they weren’t at all user-friendly. People are becoming familiar with teledildonics because they’ve entered a realm where they’re easy to use and people are seeing the regular, everyday benefits of using them.

“For instance, if you’re a military couple, with a husband or a wife abroad, you now have this ability to stay connected to one another remotely, and people can relate to that.”

“I don’t see human beings wanting to part with human touch. Ever.” —Suki Dunham

Before the wave of products like OhMiBod’s Bluemotion remote toy, the general public perception of teledildonics was that they were, plainly speaking, robot sex contraptions best suited for lonely Second Life gamers. They focused solely on orgasm, without any personal touch, either literal or figurative.

“Our idea has always been to enhance relationships that already exist or create new ones. It was never a replacement of human interaction,” says Dunham, whose products, like those of contemporary Lovense, were inspired by her own long-distance relationship. “I don’t see human beings wanting to part with human touch. Ever.”

Modern foreplay

Teledildonics don’t only owe their rise in popularity to user-friendly toys and our increasing comfort with long-distance relationships. Intimacy itself has changed as a result of the Internet.

“In the past four to five years, the world quickly transitioned into a time when sexting, having ‘Skype sex,’ and using sex toys [became] considered more normal than not doing it,” notes Eddy Olivares, the chief marketing officer of Lovense, a his-and-hers sex toy duo (a sleeve and a vibrator, to be specific).

“Sexting is essentially modern foreplay. Skype sex happens because two people, who already feel connected, are trying to fulfill their sexual needs with someone they cannot touch … Our toys take the experience further, with a user experience that is natural to them—using smartphones to sync the toy.

“We make it possible to be touched be someone else who is not physically there,” he continues. “Who wouldn’t want to experience that with someone they love?”

Dunham seconds the idea that our new concepts about intimacy are influencing the acceptance of teledildonics. “I’m 46 years old, so when I was growing up, my first intimate experience could have been holding hands at a movie when I was 12, or kissing behind a theater curtain,” she says. “Now young people connect and have intimate moments digitally. I’m a parent of two teenagers, and the idea of intimacy is changing, and while that might make people feel uncomfortable, it’s just true.”

“Sexting is essentially modern foreplay.” —Eddy Olivares

If there’s anything that can give a new technology legs, it’s #teens. You know, the ones who grew up with a Wi-Fi connection at home and a smartphone in their pockets.

“For most people who we have engaged with under 30, it’s a very intuitive step for them to bring technology into the bedroom,” says FriXion cofounder Seth, who elected not to share his last name. FriXion is a hardware-less technology company that wants to create a platform that allows teledildonics to interact with each other.

“These users already live much of their social and romantic lives through technology anyway, whether it’s texting, video chat, Snapchat, or other social tools that keep them connected with their partners,” he says. “For them, the demand for physical contact through a screen is very real, and they are relieved to know solutions exist and are unashamed in their desire to use them!”

A sweeter side to cybersex

There’s also a tamer side of teledildonics found in a new crop of messaging apps specifically built for couples or partners, like Avocado, You&Me, and Couple. They include such features as the “thumbkiss” (where you press your thumb to the screen and send it to a partner) and the ability to send your heartbeat to someone (also a feature of the new Apple Watch). Some of these apps include haptic feedback, where your phone will vibrate or pulse against you so you physically feel your partner touching you.

Interestingly, while these apps were primarily designed with long-distance couples in mind, that’s not necessarily how they’re being used. Chris Wetherell, Avocado’s CEO and founder, explains that while “LDRs” are a significant part of its user base, they’re not the main demographic. Instead, it’s your average couple who uses the app just to feel close when the mood strikes.

Technology isn’t only being used to get us off—it’s also being used to make us smitten.

“Our most-used feature is obviously messaging, but there are some interesting surprises, like the Hugs and Kisses features,” says Wetherell. A hug sent through Avocado requires the sender to hold the phone to his or her chest, and the sender will actually feel a vibration, as if the user were actually pressing another person to him or herself.

“We’ve sent many millions of those,” he says. “So we’ve grouped them into what I call ‘propinquity’ features.”

He explains that propinquity, or being close to someone or something through proximity, has been studied and shown that, just by putting two people in an enclosed space, they can feel connected to one another.

“This is something we lose through distance, and so we try to recreate that.”

Connecting those who can’t

One of the main critiques of teledildonics is that they are ushering in the age of postmodern sex, one in which we are controlled electronically by buttons and remotes, where love and other emotional stimulants are irrelevant. Technology isn’t only being used to get us off—it’s also being used to make us smitten.

Of course, Dunham mentions there is a very valid use of teledildonics that relates to circumventing these emotions and challenges. For those suffering from certain disorders (like borderline or narcissistic personality disorder and Asperger syndrome) that make things like touch and other physical intimacies difficult or even impossible, teledildonics could potentially offer something a person can’t. Virtual social networks have long been utilized by people who struggle with physical and emotional intimacy; why shouldn’t we take the next logical step?

“Over time sex will become less and less primary, and it will take more than physical contact to justify a relationship.”

“Many people with problems in social interaction (such as Asperger’s) benefit from the new, mobile forms of telecommunication such as texting and WhatsApp” says Alex Legret, the creative director of KIIROO, an upcoming teledildonics company. “Teledildonics offer the chance to enhance social interaction by creating another way for humans to interact together, with touch, in a sexual manner.”

KIIROO originally found support on Indiegogo, and when it fell short of meeting its goal, was able to accrue investors who wanted to fund the project. Legret explains that KIIROO’s products, like most other teledildonics, give users full access to sex without necessitating being close to a person: You can lick, rub, stroke, insert at will, urges that are there for all of us but difficult to respond to for many who can’t cope with the immediacy of someone else being so close to them.

“For people of a nervous disposition, this technology is also a massive advantage because it creates a sense of security, in an environment of their choice that they feel comfortable in, and allows them to retreat with no strings attached should the situation not feel right to them,” Legret explains. “Moreover, it can offer a new opportunity for people who struggle to act normally with others face-to-face. Online relationships are a preference for some people after all.”

Postmodern sex

As our technology brings us closer together around the world, it’s only natural teledildonics will further cement themselves in the market. So where to from here?

For one, more male-targeting products. Right now, the reason for the plethora of female-focused devices is obvious. To be frank, most women need more help getting off and require more stimulation. Even still, more technology is being developed that will aid teledildonics, especially for men, such as smart and interactive fabrics for future toys.

Hurdles still exist for this market—primarily, untangling the thick, red rope tied around patents regarding interacting with a human being via electronics, an issue that specifically affects U.S.-based companies. And there are real “philosophical challenges on the horizon,” Seth warns. FriXion, in particular, is interested in moving beyond the dual remote-controlled sex toy space and experimenting with the more dystopian side of futuristic sex—one that will challenge many consumers’ ethics. Seth’s pitch sounds like something out of William Gibson sci-fi novel:

“A program can interface with these teledildonics devices exactly the same as a human, and we’re having some very interesting results teaching computers to interact physically and erotically with humans. We are working with Utherverse [a platform for ‘connecting virtual worlds’] to allow users to engage with each other using these tools in shared virtual spaces, avatar to avatar, and when we’ll know when we get it right when you don’t know if the avatar you’re hooking up with is engaged by a real person or just a bot. Combine FriXion haptics with virtual and augmented reality hardware and the groundwork is there for a real-as-life holodeck experience that rivals what’s possible in meatspace.”

It’s admittedly a tough pill to swallow: If we keep following this path, will postmodern sex and its “humanlessness” descend? David Levy, an artificial intelligence expert who wrote Love and Sex With Robots, thinks it will, but he says that our fear of what an age of postmodern sex looks like may not be justified.

“The commercial potential is enormous, limited only by the imagination of developers,” he says via email. “But I certainly don’t see a future where human-human sex becomes obsolete or unpopular. Masturbation has been around for rather a long time, but it hasn’t exactly had a negative effect on people’s desire to have sex with other people. The same is very largely true of vibrators, and will be true of teledildonics and other electronic sex aids.

“I have always believed, and I am still convinced, that the most important use of sex robots will be for the millions of people who, for one reason or another, are unable to find partners for satisfactory sex relationships. For such people the question is not whether it is better to have sex with a robot or sex with a human being, but whether it is better to have sex with a robot or no sex at all. In the case of teledildonics I see the products as increasing the sexual possibilities between humans, not decreasing the desire for human-human sexual contact. Being able to have a form of sex with a partner who is not in the same room or building or city as oneself is surely a big positive, but it doesn’t by any means suggest that you won’t want to have ‘traditional’ sex with that partner when the two of you are together.”

He has a point: It’s not as if having sex has ever made us want to stop holding hands or sharing other intimate moments with our partners. Seth, however, brings up something else we’ll have to consider: vying with bots for affection.

“Personally I am excited to see relationships be challenged by this advancing ‘competition’ from technology,” he says. “Over time sex will become less and less primary, and it will take more than physical contact to justify a relationship, thereby putting pressure on humans to step up what they have to offer each other emotionally and intellectually. People will be less likely to settle.”

To be clear, FriXion is an outlier in the field. Its vision for the future of sex is far removed from the long-distance compatibility sought by OhMiBod and Lovense. But each company in the developing teledildonics market is pushing toward the same underlying goals: to innovate and to change how users interact with one another. While each of the companies I spoke with declined to provide hard sales figures, they’re encouraged by their progress thus far.

Seth put it best: “There’s a big opportunity to do for teledildonics what Apple did for smartphones in shaping an experience that is compelling, accessible, and affordable.”
Illustration via Fibonacci/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 3.0) and photo via Dustin Askins/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Rob Price