E-sex toys are novel, but can they touch the real thing?
Years ago, I was a crash test dummy for sex toys. I'd field-test and review pleasure gadgets for books and zines. One of these toys was an Accu-Jack, a male masturbation device similar to Austin Powers' Swedish penis pump. I was sent a tarted-up pneumatic version and gave it the thumbs down it deserved—it sounded like a jackhammer and could suck the rivets out of the space shuttle. After that, I didn't see an Accu-Jack outside of the occasional campy porn flick, but I knew this classic gizmo was out there somewhere. Imagine my surprise when I found it reincarnated as a cutting-edge cybersex device.
This new rendering, with the charming moniker RoboSuck, is more Buck Rogers than Austin Powers—a battery-powered rubber air bladder nestled inside a sleek Lucite tube. The biggest difference, though, is that now you can share it with others by jacking it into the World Wide Web. You're not just having a private fantasy, you're having real cybersex. As in virtual presence. As in the-sex-toy-is-pumping-but-no-one-is-touching-it.
The technology is ingenious. A small window, the RoboSuck controller, pops up on your monitor. Your cyberpartner has a similar window open. By moving the mouse, your partner sends a signal to the window on your screen. A sensor on the RoboSuck that suction-cups to your monitor reads the data in the control window. Voila! The digital jack-off.
Known as cyberdildonics, this naughty new contender for killer online app comes to us courtesy of SafeSexPlus.com, a Web site that boasts the slogan the internet never felt so good. Part carny hustle and part genuine technosocial breakthrough, this site peddles an arsenal of Web-modified sex toys: vibrating rubber mouths and vaginas, anal toys, fantastically shaped vibrators. Developed by techies at Web-Power, the parent company that also operates adult Web sites, the gadgets cost about the same as those found in big-city sex shops. Combined with a $25 converter that reads the stroke data off your screen, they enable you to have real-time sex with anyone on the planet who also downloads the free software.
"Who would have thought that the computer mouse would become the most powerful sex toy ever invented?" asks Dominic Sardone, SafeSexPlus' senior vice president of marketing. Actually, lots of people. According to Howard Rheingold's 1991 book, Virtual Reality, the word dildonics goes back to 1974, when Ted Nelson, the inventor of hypertext, used it to describe a "device capable of converting sound into tactile sensations."
The hype, however, didn't begin until the early '90s, when virtual reality was going to Change Everything. Like every other shiny new technobauble, VR promised us mind-blowing sex. Sci-fi sex. But not even the ambitious folks at SafeSexPlus have cracked that barrier. Even when supplemented with those golf-ball cameras that allow lovers to watch each other, the RoboSuck experience is Bronze Age crude. There is something ghostly, even ridiculous, about today's cyberdildonic sex--a clumsy little machine, simple and repetitive, untouched by human hands.
It's 100 percent safe. You'll never catch a sexually transmitted disease, proclaims SafeSexPlus. But this is not an enterprise run on safe-sex altruism. It's like a strip-club tout: Once you show interest—in this case, through software and gear—they'll try to lure you into their lair. Which is where the iFriends Network comes in.
Sold as a kind of cyberspace Plato's Retreat where randy technoids lurk, iFriends is more of an electronic flea market where, at last count, 15,000 Webcam-equipped entrepreneurs/ exhibitionists attempt to sell virtual sex. You can chat online and review still images for free, but anything more--including a cyberdildonics session—costs money, usually around two bucks a minute. What makes iFriends different from other sex sites and chat rooms is that here you can get the real thing. Not only can you talk online to nude partners and watch them via streaming video, you also can ask them to get you off, from anywhere in the world. The global network has registered almost 2 million visitors.
That's significant, because cybersex today is more about looking than about feeling. Unlike the fetishism of the window peeper or the trench coat flasher, in cybersex the space between partners is a huge part of the turn-on. Cyberdildos add touch to the mix, but the appeal remains the same. And remember, this is just version 1.0. The challenge is to answer a simple question posed by technophilosophers Arthur and Marilouise Kroker: "What is the fate of the tongue in virtual reality?" A genuine technological sexuality would have to replicate all the senses—taste and smell, sight and touch—aroused by real sex.
As sex technology gets more sophisticated, so do the questions it raises. If a married man gets a RoboSuck job from a Russian iFriend, is it adultery? If someone with a gender-neutral name and no video face "touches" you, is it a gay encounter? Does it matter? Old notions of fidelity and gender may not even have a place in a cultural free-fire zone where sex is disease- and pregnancy-free, and almost entirely devoid of real-world consequences. Just as the birth control pill changed the course of sexual politics, cyberdildonics has the potential to be revolutionary.
Teledildonics: the Future of Sex;
www.teledildonics.com New developments, products, virtual sex site links.
Sex Education Web Circle:
www.sexuality.org/wc/ The Society for Human Sexuality site includes guides, reviews, and resources.
The Women's Guide to Sex on the Web by Cathy Winks and Anne Semans (Harper Edge, 1999).
From Shift (Nov. 1999). Subscriptions: $17.97/yr. (9 issues) from Box 3000; Station Brm. B., Toronto, ON M7Y7A2.