Access to sexual pleasure has never been greater than in the present—but has that increased satisfaction?
For the past decade, in a nondescript building in San Marcos, California, Matt McMullen has been making sex dolls. His latest and greatest creation is Harmony, a sex robot that has a disconcertingly perfect face. Harmony looks similar to Alicia Vikander’s robot character in Ex Machina—total facial symmetry, no pores, and a uniform complexion. For years, the decisions McMullen made in designing his sex dolls were solely about physical traits: eyes, freckles, pubic hair, breasts, hips. But now, with his newly designed, artificially intelligent robots like Harmony, there’s the question of personality, too. In order to create personalities for his robots, McMullen and his team have come up with a set of 12 character traits, including “innocent,” “unpredictable,” “jealous,” and “moody.” Buyers choose from these traits, and decide on the extent to which their sex bot will embody them. “Human relationships have changed drastically over the last 10 to 20 years,” McMullen says. “I feel like now we’re so glued to our phones and social media that we’re forgetting how to connect with the people that are in the same room with us.”
Harmony is his solution to this human disconnection. But it’s a tricky business creating human-like robots. Harmony, who costs between $5,000 and $50,000 depending on the complexity of her personality and body type, is meant first and foremost to be subservient, to want to please her user. But many men—the buyers are almost exclusively straight men—realize that although they first thought they wanted a woman who could please them, they also want her to seem real, which means that she can’t be entirely servile. Men, McMullen says, have asked for Harmony to be more “feisty.” As much as humans seem to desire simplicity and pleasure unencumbered by emotions, interpersonal emotions are fundamental to the experience of sex.
The next wave of software and hardware will likely improve on its ability to delve into those emotions. Since the rise of Tinder, which was founded in 2012 and reached its first billion-swipes-in-one-day in 2014, it’s been brutally obvious that technology has redefined relationships and sexuality. However, it’s with the technologies of the near future—sex robots, certainly, but also virtual reality pornography and haptic technology for long-distance sexual encounters—that sex looks to be changed even more drastically. Companies like Kiiroo and Vibease have created internet-connected sex toys, which use vibrators and male “sex sleeves” that can interact with one an-other from long distances, recording sexual motions and sending the sensations between those involved. There are prototypes for long-distance kissing devices. There are connected pillows that transmit the sound of a lover’s heartbeat.
It’s not as quasi-dystopian as it sounds. With a greater focus on pleasure, there may be less of a focus on sexual orientation and gender identification. For people who live in rural areas or more conservative parts of the world, virtual sex could improve well-being and self-acceptance, giving people the ability to have sexual experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have. And long-distance relationships could be made more manageable. “Virtual reality will soon enable people to conduct entire relationships, from the first kiss to the final goodbye, in a virtual world,” says Bryony Cole, host of the Future of Sex podcast. She predicts that within the next decade, “over a quarter of young people will have had a long-distance sexual experience.”
There will also be new ways to teach safe sex, thanks to sex technology. A YMCA in Montreal recently used virtual reality headsets to teach sexual consent. In the VR experience, the children were given the perspective of a woman being harassed by a man trying to coerce her into having sex. Georgia Tech and Emory University have announced plans to make a similar VR sex education program for women of color.
Sex therapy has also been aided by technology. The virtual reality pornography studio BaDoinkVR released an eight-part Virtual Sexology series that uses porn stars and sex therapist Hernando Chaves to teach exercises meant to increase sexual pleasure and stamina. “I think there’s great potential for VR sex education,” says Cole. “Hopefully we’ll see more nuanced, diverse, inclusive content in the not-too-distant future, from a variety of sources.”
But it’s sex robots, virtual-reality porn, and so-called “teledildonics”—long-distance haptic technologies—that will most shape sex in the immediate future because they promise sex at any time and of the highest quality. More than that, their one-way nature promises to do away with many of the complexities of sexual relationships. Questions of consent, of the blurry line between love and lust, of feelings that might get hurt—none of these will need to be dealt with. In light of that simplification, one wonders to what extent these technologies represent the preoccupations of their creators, who are relatively few, tend to be straight white men, and are usually based in California. Is this who we want calling the shots for how we go about our future sexual experiences?
The history of sex technologies and their narrowly white, male, and heteronormative geneses goes back to Joseph Mortimer Granville, the English doctor who invented the vibrator in the late 1880s. The vibrator came to be used, at least through the 1920s, not for female pleasure but for the “relief” of pain, neuralgia, neurasthenia, and “irritability” in women, mostly those who were depressed.
Today, of course, women have gotten into the sex technology game. Three years ago, the designers Alex Fine and Janet Lieberman reinvented the vibrator as a “hands-free, strap-free, non-intrusive” device. “When I first thought of the company,” Fine told Vice in an interview about the vibrator, “I had some idea of the kind of products I wanted to make—sex toys made by women, for women, and putting women’s needs first.” Fine’s mission is admirable, but the fact that women creating female sex toys was considered groundbreaking and newsworthy in 2015—and no doubt would be today as well—is jarring to anyone who might have thought that gender equality would have already spread to something as intimate as an orgasm.
“Our relative lack of sexual activity in the present reflects the state of contemporary life: tenuous and insecure, leaving us stressed out and with nowhere to turn.”
There’s the legitimate fear that once we leap into the future of sex, there will be no going back. No doubt there will be some people who will jump at the opportunity to have a sex robot that can chat with them and learn from their personality or who will want haptic feedback suits. But we must carefully choose who leads that jump into the future. In 1964, the German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse predicted that having sex with humans would one day be understood as the same as having sex with robots or having sex in virtual reality. Sex would no longer be something personally revolutionary but rather fully imbricated in technology and the market economy. He called it “repressive desublimation.” There would be a “flattening out,” he wrote. “Technology serves to institute new, more effective, and more pleasant forms of social control and social cohesion.”
If you’re used to having sex with a robot that knows exactly what you want, one imagines it would be difficult to go back to plain old human sex and all the confusions and fault lines that characterize it. It may sound far-fetched to think that we might move to having sex fully via and aided by technology, but we are already nearly there. For years, one of the central goals at the nexus of sex and technology has been to make sex more accessible. This has largely come to fruition. There are dozens of mobile apps catering to dozens of fetishes and a myriad of sexual preferences. If you live in a large enough city, you can find a sexual partner almost immediately. Sex becomes “flattened,” as Marcuse would say. Just another commodity to be possessed.
Such choice paralyzes. Of those who have mobile phones, 28 percent of people who identify as straight and 55 percent of those who identify as queer use dating apps, according to a broad, cross-country study from the Kinsey Institute. With so many people making themselves so readily available to others online, the problem with modern sex is not the inability to find sexual encounters, it’s having too much choice. Even with greatly increased access to sex, humans are having less of it today than we’ve had in the past. Although there are some who are tallying up 100 one-night stands in a year, Americans, across gender, race, region, educational level, and employment status, had sex nine fewer times on average per year in the early 2010s than in the late 1990s. That’s a 15 percent drop from an average of 61 times a year to an average of 53, according to a recent study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
The study’s researchers, Jean Twenge, Ryne Sher-man, and Brooke Wells, first thought this decline was due to more people being sexually satisfied by pornography, now widely and freely available online. They then thought that maybe modern individuals had less free time, which would mean less time for sex. But neither of these theories entirely added up. After looking at data in which Americans have reported decreasing overall happiness, longer work hours, and putting off parenthood until later in life, the researchers saw a variety of factors working in tandem. There is a “perfect storm,” they write, of elements that have combined to decrease the number of sexual encounters in America.
The key, though, is the contemporary mood—“the unhappiness,” as the authors write—that’s characterized by job and housing insecurity, “the fear of climate change,” and a dearth of social life. These have all been found to lead to mental health problems. Our relative lack of sexual activity in the present, therefore, reflects the state of contemporary life, tenuous and insecure, leaving us stressed out and with nowhere to turn. We don’t even afford ourselves the pleasures of sex.
The necessary solution to this is to address the underlying issues: depression, unhappiness, and issues with mental health. But the quick solution, and the one embraced by McMullen or Tinder’s CEO Sean Rad, for instance, is to make sex more accessible, better, and less emotionally complicated. Fewer emotions and more stimulation, the reasoning goes, is what will make us happier. “I suspect for the next decade or so we’ll be riding a wave, seeking more stimulation in less time, quick transitory couplings, and the next big thing to make sex more exciting,” says Laura Berman, a therapist and relationship expert. The risk is in jumping in too quickly. If we slip on our haptic-capable sex sleeve, bring home a sex robot, or pop on some virtual reality pornography, we’ll be able to solve the issue of not having enough sex. Whether or not that will actually make us happier is more dubious. Most likely, we’ll suffer more, feeling a lack of genuine connection if we outsource our sex from people to technology. “We will likely see an uptick in sexual addiction and a decrease in emotional connection with partners,” Berman predicts. “People struggle with the existential depression and loneliness that comes from a lack of rich, authentic connections.”
In February 2017, Per-Erik Muskos, a councilman in the Swedish town of Övertorneå, proposed that citizens be given a paid hour of work each week with which they could go home and have sex. Muskos called his proposal “an opportunity for couples to have their own time, only for each other.” But would giving people more time to have sex mean they’d actually do it? And could such a proposal actually work outside of small Swedish towns?
A more lasting and feasible solution would be to find a way to connect more authentically and, ironically, technologists believe they are best positioned to do it. Tristan Pollock, the founder of Storefront, a pop-up retail company, and Social Earth, a news platform focusing on social entrepreneurship, has proposed digital detoxes from sexual content and using apps that promote intimacy with one person rather than those that promote promiscuity with many people. But some critics, like journalist Nancy Jo Sales, believe it doesn’t really matter that we’re having less sex now than before; what matters is how we treat our partner within a sexual encounter. We have “callous attitudes towards sex, particularly sexist attitudes towards sex, that seem to be fostered by current hookup culture as it has melded with dating app culture,” Sales says. “Are we using technology to make us happier, more sexually satisfied, more respectful and kind to each other? Or is something else going on? I think this is what we should be asking, not ‘how much sex’ people are having because, really, who cares?”
Aided, but not necessarily caused, by technology, the pursuits of dating, sex, and romance have become untenably solipsistic. Having a doll that you can have sex with and who tells you she wants to please you, swiping yes or no on people’s faces, declaring them hot or not. These are gratifying actions because they make us feel as though we have and deserve total power over our own pleasure. But this belief also cuts away at the agency of others, severing connections and pushing us further into ourselves. “There is nothing more natural than to consider everything as starting from oneself, chosen as the center of the world,” wrote the philosopher Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle, a 1967 work of critical theory. A Marxist, Debord argued that the desire for personal pleasure with little thought of others is a natural state thanks to “the reigning economic system,” which he called “a vicious circle of isolation.”
For Debord, the loneliness and isolation of his time was caused by activities forced upon us by the market, like watching television alone or driving alone. These acts became “weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender ‘lonely crowds.’” In the modern day, we swipe on faces, perhaps late at night, alone, fully cut off from the people on which we are leveling such quick judgment. For those who adopt virtual reality pornography or sex robots, the actual act of having sex will be a lone act as well. Sex for sex’s sake. Neutered of intimacy or emotion. Never quite living up to expectations. To look at modern sex is to understand the modern mind, inward-looking and fixated on one’s own pleasure. One can quickly see the connection through Debord’s eyes; neoliberal economics, social media addictions, and sexual outlooks and desires. They’re all about the self.
Modern attitudes toward sex are therefore symptoms, not causes, of our current social milieu. Tinder couldn’t exist if we didn’t already feel deeply alone. Men wouldn’t purchase Harmony if they didn’t already feel cut off from women. Long-distance technologies in pillows, bodysuits, virtual reality, and all the rest, are only necessary if we’re already separated from the people we desire.
In a downtown San Francisco classroom, a group of men and women are going around in a circle, responding to the question: “What is your red hot desire?” No feedback is given to anyone’s answer other than a gentle “Thank you.” After everyone has answered, each person is matched with someone of the opposite gender, and they take turns describing each other’s face before moving on to a new person, as in speed dating, to do the same. “As a man described to me the traces of my makeup, a blemish on my chin, and other flaws in my appearance that I had convinced myself were too small to be noticeable,” Emily Witt writes in her debut book, Future Sex, “I felt a unique experience of horror.”
Witt recounts attending this seminar at OneTaste in San Francisco, a company that specializes in “orgasmic meditation.” After these icebreaker games, the company’s founder, Nicole Daedone, set up blankets and pillows on the floor and asked a woman to lie down naked, while Daedone stayed clothed. Daedone put on latex gloves, applied lube to her finger, and then began “poetically” describing the woman’s vulva. Daedone asked an assistant to set an iPhone timer for 15 minutes and then began stroking the woman’s clitoris. When the timer went off, Daedone stopped and covered the woman with a towel. Then the woman beneath the towel described her experience and reaction. All throughout the room, pairs of people were instructed to do the same with their partners.
OneTaste, founded in 2001 in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood by Daedone and Robert Kandell as an “underground sexual practice,” embodies a particularly modern idea: an emphasis on a woman’s pleasure. Witt calls orgasmic meditation “a sexual technique that allows for an intimate connection but preserves an emotional distance.” With the timer and the structure of the task—describe, touch, discuss—the women being touched can enjoy sexual pleasure without being pressured to reciprocate. There’s no question of the underlying desire, motive, or personality of the person doing the stroking. There’s no need, therefore, to do anything but enjoy. Pleasure for pleasure’s sake. In a way, this is revolutionary for women’s individuality and sexual freedom. Just as Tinder gives women the ability to sleep around without being shamed for it, as men have been able to do since the beginning of time, exercises like orgasmic meditation give women the ability to experience pleasure without being expected to reciprocate.
The future of sex appears increasingly drawn along gender and orientation divides. Sex technologies, especially sex robots like Harmony, pose a particular threat to women, according to a study by the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, based in the Netherlands. “There are significant issues that we may have to deal with over the next five to ten years,” write the authors. “A robot designed for sex may have different impacts when compared with other sex aids. Those currently being developed are essentially pornographic representations of the human body, mostly female.” The current and next generation of sex robots is about “the endless fulfillment of conventional male sexual fantasy,” they write, adding, “These sex robots appear to be overwhelmingly female, white, young, and adhere to conventional hyper-sexed body image stereotypes.”
Right now, we exist at a social tipping point. People are using technology as a means to get face-to-face dates, via Tinder and its kin. But this means there are still bad dates, still miscommunications, still awkward moments before, during, and after sex. That is, our sexual encounters are still very much informed by other humans, and both blighted and enhanced by all the challenges of human relationships. Few people have actually purchased sex robots. Few people conduct their sexual relationships via virtual reality or teledildonics. And there’s no clear answer as to whether the future of sex will be brighter or dimmer than the present.
What we can be more sure of, however, is that pleasure and stimuli will soon be found everywhere. These feelings, though, will soon wear thin, as when an addict’s high tapers off until he’s shooting up not to feel pleasure but to feel normal. Sex comes in so many varieties now and there are so many possibilities, but as it becomes increasingly disconnected from human connection, sex will be less of a revolutionary act of personhood than a spectacle to watch and possess. “The spectacle erases the dividing line between self and world,” Debord writes, “in that the self under siege by the presence or absence of the world is eventually overwhelmed.”
The future of sex is not about which technology will win out. It’s about how we, as humans, will inevitably lose. When we trade humanity for pleasure, humanity will become silent and pleasure overwhelming. “I was created to please you,” says Harmony’s inhuman voice as you boot her up. Like a Homeric Siren, both she and the future of sex cry out for us. No doubt, we’ll listen. Pleasure is not the same as satisfaction, but one rarely realizes that until it’s too late.