Sex and Technology How Technological Innovation Pushes the Boundaries of Human Sexuality and Vice Versa

By maymay | Have comments?
Copyright © 2007 by maymay | Presented on August 25th 2007, published online on September 1st 2007
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Technology's fundamental purpose is to make what we do better and we do a lot with sex! How are technological advances pushing the cultural and physical boundaries of how we have sex, and who (or what) we have sex with? From fucking machines to cybersex and BDSM-geared software to teledildonics and even chemical aphrodisiacs, the technophile's playground is getting bigger every day. Even better, there are more people to play with, and more ways to try things out, learn and explore. In this presentation and facilitated discussion, join Maymay for a whirlwind tour of what sex and sexual self-expression in the information age is turning out to be, where it came from, and where it might be going. Oh, and don't forget that I'm totally blogging this.

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Introduction What's the point of this presentation?

I'm a technophile; I love technology. I love technology because its fundamental purpose is to make what we do better. Better means more efficient, more enjoyable, more productive, more expressive, more of whatever it is you want to focus on. A lot of people, myself included, focus a lot of our energy on sex, so it makes sense that a huge amount of effort has gone into applying technology to sex and sexual expression. And, because so many people have sex in so many different ways, the results of applying technological advances to sexual expression has as many forms as there are people doing it.

While many things about the way we have sex physically have obviously been changed by advances in technology, advances in technology have also been the catalyst for cultural sexual revolutions in dramatic as well as subtle ways. Birth control fundamentally changed the physical risks involved in intercourse. The Internet has forever altered how subcultures, like all of ours, can communicate with one another and has largely destroyed limitations imposed by geographic isolation. And even open-source software is finding its way from enterprise software applications into sex toys for computer-aided play of all stripes and colors. (I'll explain a bit more about that a little later on.)

So in this presentation, since sex and its intersection with technology is so huge a topic, I want to do only a few main things. First, I want to share with you why I think technology is so fucking hot, and give you a sense of why (and in lots of cases how) anyone would get off on this stuff in the first place. Second, I want to expose you to some things you may not have otherwise heard about, such as teledildonics (the integration of telepresence and sex), and some completely outrageous and often very funny, and very sexy sex toys. Finally, I want to get you thinking about how technology has played a role in all of your sex lives, what kind of impact it has in your sexual development and awareness, and to begin to become conscious of its effects on you as a person, and as a member of a sexuality community.

Physical Sensations Through Physical Materials Imitating nature and then taking it further

Throughout history, people have been making use of the things around them for the purposes of getting off in ever more creative ways. To the best of my (admittedly hasty) research ability, this dates all the way back to the beginning of ancient Greece and quite probably well before then when people constructed dildos out of stone, wood, and leather. Back in those days, they used olive oil as a personal lubricant. (Kind of makes me wonder what that would feel like, actually, but part of me wants to do a price comparison between that and AstroGlide before I buy a jug of olive oil for that purpose.)

Today, there are still dildos (and butt-plugs) made out of stone and the like, but we also have synthetic materials like rubber, silicon, and even something called "CyberSkin" ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberskin )--a synthetic material that behaves like flesh--as well as materials like glass and stainless steel ( http://njoy.com/ ). These different materials are interesting because they have very different properties, such as their flexibility, thermal conductivity, and of course their texture. Obviously each material has its own appeal, but my point is that not so long ago, we didn't actually have all these amazing options for what to make our sex toys out of.

CyberSkin is a great example of this since it is typically thought of as one of the most lifelike synthetic materials available today, and is touted as having its roots in NASA aerospace technology. The push for ever more realistic materials, for emulating live sexual organs, is something that a lot of people seem to have mixed feelings about. However, like pornography, which I'll touch on quite a bit (no pun intended), the trend is here to stay and as technology advances, people will be able to construct more engaging, more realistic sex toys.

Another element of why I think technology is so awesome is because, in addition to emulating real life, technology can do things that you just don't see in the natural world. In fact, current technologies are arguably more successful in that arena than they are in their attempts to replicate natural sensations. The best example here is the vibrator.

Originally a medical tool of the late Victorian era intended to "cure" women of supposed "hysteria" caused by a lack of orgasms (go figure), vibrators were instantly recognized as a means of providing previously unimaginable amounts of physical stimulation to the female sex organs. Such stimulation often resulted in obviously explosive orgasmic pleasure. Today, vibrators are still used in therapy for an-orgasmic women in order to help provide constant, rhythmic, predictable stimulation to help ease them along the orgasmic response cycle.

Just picture it: you've never felt anything sexual other than the touch of your own hands or your partner's. All of a sudden, here is this thing that never gets tired, never slows down, and which you can have complete and utter control over via dials, switches, or remote control, and that is more physically intense than anything you can possibly imagine. (Some of us have this kind of control over our human partners, but that's a different presentation entirely.) I mean, do you remember the first time you used a vibrator and what it felt like?

As an aside, when I was a teenager I had a number of female friends with whom I communicated over AOL Instant Messenger and other online chat mechanisms. One girl I knew told me she had never experienced an orgasm, but really wanted to. After some gentle probing questions, I suggested that perhaps she try making use of her vibrating toothbrush by placing the flat side (not the bristles, though that could be fun in other contexts) against her clitoris. Needless to say, when she related the experience back to me she said it was by far the most intense sensation she had ever felt and couldn't believe that something could feel that way.

Today's ultimate sex toys are so elaborate that they are called fucking machines. Just like vibrators, these devices are built in all shapes, sizes, and have all kinds of functionality from penetrating thrusts to vibration to temperature controls. On the cusp between vibrator and fucking machines are these two famous devices: the Sybian and the Jetaime. Intended for women, they claim to be the most powerful vibrators in the world, combining vaginal, labial, and clitoral stimulation in one go. Supposedly, previously an-orgasmic women or women who have never experienced multiple orgasms will do so when they use these devices. But the point I'm trying to make isn't about the number of orgasms you can have, it's that technology can allow us to create sensations that we would be hard-pressed to replicate in any other way, and that it can make things you didn't think possible a reality.

Better Sex Through Biochemistry Kinky possibilities using chemicals

So far I've talked a lot about mechanical devices, but with advancements in biochemistry sciences, certain chemical toys are also appearing on the market. It's become much more commonplace to see things like "arousal gels" and "warming lubes" on pharmacy shelves. Viagra, of course, is the most often talked about chemical and medical advance in years. However, the search for substances with a Viagra-like effect is not new. People have been refining chemical substances for the purpose of bettering their sex lives for thousands of years. These substances are called aphrodisiacs, of course, and they range from foods such as oysters and garlic to strange items like rhino horns that are supposed to imbue the possessor with sexual potency and desire.

Even with Viagra today, I dare say these kinds of substances are still in their infancy, because they are being developed all the time. About two years ago one promising substance called PT-141--an aphrodisiac in the form of a nasal spray--was discussed in a New York Magazine article ( http://nymag.com/lifestyle/sex/annual/2005/15061/ ). I quote:

The full range of possible risks and side effects has yet to be determined, but already this much is known: Putting that inhaler up your nose and popping off a dose of PT-141 results, in most cases, in a stirring in the loins in as few as fifteen minutes. Women, according to one set of results, feel ¿genital warmth, tingling and throbbing,¿ not to mention ¿a strong desire to have sex.¿ Among men, who¿ve been tested with the drug more extensively, the data set is, shall we say, richer:

¿With PT-141, you feel good, not only sexually aroused,¿ reported anonymous patient 007, a participant in a Phase 2 trial, ¿you feel younger and more energetic.¿ Said another patient: ¿It helped the libido. So you have the urge and the desire. . . . You get this humming feeling; you¿re ready to take your pants off and go.¿ And another: ¿Twice me and my wife had sex twice in one night. I came in [to work] and I just raved about it: ¿Jesus, guys . . . 58 years old and you don¿t do that.¿ ¿ Tales of pharmaceutically induced sexual prowess among 58-year-olds are common enough in the age of the Little Blue Pill, but they don¿t typically involve quite so urgent a repertoire of humming, throbbing, tingling, and double-dipping.

Of course, substances like PT-141 and Viagra are intended to be used as medications to treat sexual dysfunction, but if there's one thing the incessant march of technology has shown us it is that advancements as profound as this have applications far beyond those that were intended. Case in point, when I first heard about this PT-141 substance, my first thought was: "Wow, how incredibly cool would it be if my Mistress could give me a dose of that and then lock me up in a chastity belt to let me stew. And I'm already pretty horny most of the time." So even though treating sexual dysfunction is a wonderful use for biochemistry, using the ideas and capabilities it provides for other, perhaps kinkier means is not an improbability.

So as you can imagine, perhaps the ancient Greek woman, upon looking at her stone dildo, wished it would move like a real penis and quite some time later vibrators and fucking machines were invented. Some of the seemingly science-fiction-esque ideas that a lot of us have in our fantasies today may, at one point in a hopefully not-too-distant future, be realities.

The Information Age and the Ubiquitous Nature of Sexual Discussion Let's talk about sex—everywhere

In many ways, the advancement of telecommunications technologies, most notably the Internet, has also ignited a renaissance of exploration, discussion, and self-discovery across the globe. Nowhere is this more profound than in marginalized subcultures, especially sexual or genderqueer ones, such as BDSM and the butch/femme lesbian communities. (I could name a dozen more, but I think my point is made.)

This cultural branch of the effects of technology on our sex lives is incredibly underrepresented and yet earth-shatteringly powerful. Its effects have to do with how technology has changed our society, the very fundamental aspects of how we live, work and spend our time--and what kinds of things spending our time on are deemed okay.

A definition: Culture briefly means knowledge, customs, and arts of a group of people. It's about defining the criteria we use for valuing human activity. Culture, along with cultural ideals, change drastically over time. In the last 50 years in America alone, radically different cultural tropes have gripped the mainstream. Carried with these changes, and indeed as a part of them, subcultures like yours and mine have changed in response and added their own definitions of value from their communal knowledge.

In the Information Age of today powered by the infrastructure that is the Internet, two key factors have been responsible for enabling subcultures to form large, disperse networks of cultural renaissance:

  1. The first factor is anonymity. Being anonymous (or anonymous enough anyway) emboldens people to say what they truly feel. Without fear of repercussions, they can freely express what they really want, such as their fantasies. In fact, anonymity is a prerequisite for free speech. In any instance where cultural noncompliance is greeted with negative consequences, such as violence or social derision, those who don't conform seek alternate means of expression, even--and in many cases especially--if these means are anonymous.
  2. The second factor is community. Communication begets community. Within a community, it's easier for people to find someone else with their kink or particular interest. Geographically-based communities are small, whereas the global community on the Internet is large. No matter what you like or who you are, "you are not alone" (anymore), and there is strength of all sorts in these numbers.

In fact, a friend told me a fascinating anecdote of her sociological research sourced from the Leather Archives' oral history on Tony DeBlase, who was--among other notable things--the creator of the leather pride flag. Deblase speaks about how he was traveling and found that people were doing kink totally differently in different places, but not sharing their knowledge. He started teaching in an attempt to cross-polinate ideas from one community to another. (You can get a transcript of the interview on the leather archives website.) This underlines the point that while kink happened before the Internet, education was limited and there was no resource sharing across geographical communities.

All of this has made it appear to have grown the numbers of kinks and kinky people out there. In fact, however, I assert that more people are finding other people who support them, and are therefore becoming comfortable with being vocal about their own kinks, even if only online. Many people, myself included, have used forms of cyber-sex such as webcams or just plain text chats to experiment with various sexual activities in a physically zero-risk environment. Even though this is "only online," the emotional investments can be huge and offer a proving ground for budding sexual exploration. These kinds of things are happening in all sorts of communities:

Driven by the increasingly common place remote communications such as those over email, instant messaging, and web site forms have in our lives, people are learning new paradigms for social interaction in the physical world. In many cases, I think examining how these new forms of communication can improve one's communication skills in general is also important, as many people are beginning to re-learn basic concepts this way. That is to say that the Internet is breeding a new generation of differently socialized people than we've ever had on planet Earth before.

Namely, these different methods of communication are:

I'm 23 today; I formally learned about BDSM 13 years ago, at the age of 10, from exactly these sorts of online sources. While controversial, kids are learning about sexuality at an increasingly younger age, and more information is increasingly available to them. Of course, not all this information is accurate or helpful. Much of it is misinformation and it is largely still up to people's own motivations and skills to try and discern what is fact and what is fiction. Moving forward, as more and more diverse viewpoints become ever-more accessible, people will begin to become accustomed to the notion that they must search for what works for them. With more visible diversity, it becomes easier to accept the differences in others.

For me and an increasing number of people from my generation, self-discovery has evolved into self-advocacy. By reducing the barriers to entry to such capabilities such as world-wide publishing, broadcasting, and informed research, people are quickly building their own niche networks with their own cultures. Don't like what you see online? Put up something else!

The Internet is a safer place for youngsters and children than you think

But How Can We Keep Our Children SAFE?


Commercially, in response to all of this, huge numbers of sex-based industries and e-commerce web sites have sprung up. Everything from traditional sex toy shops to so-called "bizarre" pornography are now available at the click of a mouse. At ExtremeRestraints.com you can buy your very own fucking machine. At ZooSkool.com, you can download bestiality porn. All in the comfort of your own living room. Socially, even if the companies you purchase from have your credit card number and billing address, you are still effectively anonymous to the people you're not out to. In other words, just like the VHS cassette, which made it possible to view pornography in the comfort of your living room for the first time, the Internet is increasing people's comfort levels and exposure to issues of sex.

Another notable intersection between sex and technology is that sexual desires and practices are very often the driving forces behind technological advancement. History is repeating itself today with the video format wars between Blu-Ray DVDs and HD-DVDs just as it did years ago with Beta-Max and VHS tapes. Sex--and more specifically the porn industry--commercializes new and useful technologies.