The idea of “virtual sex” has long been a science fiction staple. One very funny cinematic example (well-known to most baby boomers) is the 1973 film, “Sleeper”, starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, a comedy about life in the distant future. One of the movie’s great fantasy inventions is the Orgasmatron, a telephone booth-like contraption that helps users become sexually aroused by stimulating their brains in an intensely sexual way. (Click on HERE for some entertaining clips).
Allen actually confirmed the scientific feasibility of this idea with both Isaac Asimov and sci-fi writer Ben Bova prior to making the film, so it’s not surprising to learn there actually is a real orgasmatron (discovered serendipitously in trials for a potential spinal cord stimulator). The device apparently works rather well, but it costs quite a bit of money and requires the surgical insertion of electrodes near the spine. Needless to say, it is not widely used for pleasurable purposes.
There are, however, numerous less intrusive and more affordable “sexnologies” that can be utilized to erotically simulate and stimulate.
For instance, RealTouch has created a “teledildonic” male masturbation device that synchronizes in real-time with whatever online porn is being viewed. Working in tandem with the activities taking place onscreen, the device warms itself up, lubricates, pulses, and grips. The process can also be engaged in with a live person—a loved one, a webcam performer, even a random stranger— who at their end stimulates a sensor-covered rod that transmits live signals across the digital universe to the receiving RealTouch device.
In other words, people can give and receive virtual masturbation and oral sex in real time via the Internet. In addition to the RealTouch device, other more rudimentary toys that have been around for years are getting new features. For instance, inventors are reportedly working to create an iPad equipped with a Fleshlight holding case—placed strategically underneath the pad so users can “get off” hands-free while watching porn. (The Fleshlight, marketed as the “#1 selling male sex toy,” mimics the sensation of a mouth, vulva, or anus using “real feel superskin.”)
The future is equally engaging and curious in the realm of virtual-world sex, where virtual sex games allow users to create customized fantasy avatars (animated figures of themselves) that can then be used to participate in interactive online sexcapades. One company, ThriXXX, is working to make its 3D sex games compatible with the Xbox Kinect so users can “touch” the avatars.
Most of these websites target heterosexual males, but there are also games for straight women, gay men, lesbians, and those with a variety of fetishes. Some games allow users to essentially produce their own porn—erotic scenarios, camera angles, musical scores, over sized body parts, etc.
The future is limitless for new ways to be sexual. One relatively new technology that stands out is on-screen eye-tracking. Today there are cameras that track your eye movements as you scroll through, read, and view the contents of a web page. This technology can be used (solely via eye movement) to communicate and play games. It also allows the computer to “learn” about you by watching your eyes, discerning what most fascinates you based on how many nanoseconds your gaze lingers on one part of the computer screen vs. another.
This evolving technology recognizes that the more aroused by or interested you are in a product, word, letter, or image, the longer you will view it onscreen. What is of real interest in is that our eyes automatically and often unconsciously linger on images or language that we find engaging, even though we may not even be consciously aware of our interest in that spot! This means that savvy pornographers will over time, by tracking eye movements, be able to determine what turns you on the most and then respond by opening pages, images, and videos that mirror your deepest desires. It won’t matter if you are consciously aware of your interest, because the computer will know.
As if that isn’t enough, we also have the iBrain, a device that fits over a person’s head, allowing the individual to communicate through brainwaves alone. Both eye-tracking technology and the iBrain were initially developed to help profoundly physically disabled individuals such as Dr. Stephen Hawking function in both the real world and on computers. For instance, eye tracking technology, combined with an onscreen keyboard, allows someone like Hawking to readily explore webpages, write, and otherwise communicate, while the iBrain allows that same individual to more effectively steer his wheelchair, turn on the lights, change the TV channel, etc. All using his eyes.
The technology doesn’t stop there, either. The KissPhone allows you to receive digital kisses, ostensibly from your wife, boyfriend, or grandmother. With KissPhones, the person on one end of the digital connection kisses their phone, and that device measures lip pressure, temperature, movement, etc., and then transmits that information to the KissPhone at the other end and recreates it. (It’s hardly a leap to envision a digitally accessed bank of movie star and porn performer kisses—and more—available for a price.)
And if that is not enough to rattle your chain, very soon people will be to experience their whole partner, not just his or her lips, in a tech-bed, as sheets and sleepwear are being designed with special fibers that produce sensory responses, allowing individuals to “feel” the sensations of partner sex no matter how far away the other person might be. And should you become less aroused by the physical reality of your long-term partner’s looks, no problem, as developers are hard at work creating contact lenses that change the way that person looks to the viewer (without any awareness on the part of the person being observed).
The short- and long-term effects of all these sexnological advances are almost unfathomable. It seems, though, that there are likely to be, as with all technologies, both positives and negatives. On the plus side, couples who are separated by great distances—those who travel for work, the military, etc.—can engage in virtual intimacy in new and improving ways. Others, however, might begin to eschew real-world intimacy, opting instead for virtual sex, which presents both fewer emotional challenges and a greater sense of control.
Ideally, of course, no matter how real the technology, healthy individuals will, over time, find virtual sex two-dimensional and unfulfilling, becoming bored with it and longing for the intimate emotional connections that can only be found (as of today, at least) through the real thing. Unfortunately, psychologically vulnerable individuals sometimes use technology for emotional comfort and dissociation rather than as a form of entertainment, which can eventually result in a technology-driven lack of interest in real-world encounters.
Not surprisingly, we are already seeing evidence of this. Current, viable research in both the United States and abroad indicates there are a statistically significant number of men who masturbate regularly to online pornography and as a result are suffering from erectile dysfunction and/or delayed ejaculation when having live sex. Simply put, these men are not as aroused by a real person as they are by the ever-changing visual stimulation provided by the Internet. In fact, many men (and women) are losing interest in real-world sex altogether.
A recent Japanese study conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare showed that the number of males aged 16 to 19 with no interest in or an outright aversion to real-world sex doubled between 2008 and 2010, rising from 17.5 percent to 36.1 percent! The study suggests the increased accessibility and affordability of virtual sex and Internet porn are to blame for this trend. In the same study, older males and women reported similarly decreasing interest in real-world partner sex.
Survey respondents described in-the-flesh encounters with another person as “a bother” and “not as exciting” as an endless stream of online encounters. The simple fact is that as sexnology proliferates and improves, our expectations of real-world sexual partners also evolves—and real-world partners may not be able to keep pace. After all, it is human nature to seek and/or create more refined pleasures (refined cocaine, refined sugar, refined gaming and gambling via the Internet, etc.), and if the most pleasurable sexual experience involves a computer rather than an actual human being, so be it.
So how does a teenager develop the social and dating skills needed to build intimate relationships when all (or nearly all) of his or her romantic and sexual experiences are conducted online? If a young person’s interpersonal sexual and relationship experiences have mostly occurred in contrived, impersonal settings on the computer that offer him or her complete control over the experience (as is the case with many forms of online sex), then how is that individual to learn about engaging real people? Clearly, thanks to online porn and virtual sex, many young people are being left behind socially, developing few dating and mating skills.
So if young people are less likely, as technology evolves, to NOT learn the intricacies of embracing and tolerating an actual partner’s needs, emotions, rejections, and criticisms, will this generation become less interested in and/or incapable of forming lasting intimate relationships? Ultimately, it seems, at least a few of these individuals may just end up not reproducing. Thus, “sexnology,” a term that sounds vaguely sexy and current today, may well become more than entertainment, eventually developing into a piece of our human evolutionary process—determining whether we continue to use “love” and in-person interactions as a tool for selecting how and even if we are sexual with live people.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of three books on sexual addiction and an expert on the juxtaposition of human sexuality, intimacy, and technology. He is Founding Director of The Sexual Recovery Institute, a sex addiction treatment center in Los Angeles, and Director of Intimacy and Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch in Tennessee and Promises Treatment Centers in California. Mr. Weiss is a clinical psychotherapist and educator. He has provided sexual addiction treatment training internationally for psychology professionals, addiction treatment centers, and the US military. A media expert for Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, Mr. Weiss has been featured on CNN, The Today Show, Oprah, and ESPN among many others. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @RobWeissMSW.
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Last reviewed: 9 Aug 2012