THE BLOG

Sex + Technology = Sexnology

03/05/2013 06:21 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2013
  • Robert Weiss Senior Vice President of Clinical Development, Elements Behavioral Health

A More Perfect Union?

Today's wedding announcement: sex and technology have merged. And folks, I'm not seeing a divorce on the horizon. The simple fact is that ever since the Internet arrived, our sexual and romantic lives have become more and more digitized, with "sexnology" offering opportunities for connection, dissociation, and everything in between. And the sexnological universe, much like the "real world" universe, is constantly expanding. The recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas provides a prime example of this phenomenon. Though none of the new technologies debuted at CES are specifically intended for sexual purposes, with a little bit of creativity quite a few of them can and will be adapted for use by the ever-resourceful sexnology industry. If you don't think this sort of co-opting happens, consider the advent of still photography -- within a nanosecond of its development, the sexnology industry created pornographic pictures. In similar fashion, stag films followed closely on the heels of moving pictures, etc.

Gifts From Geeks

As usual, televisions and monitors dominated this year's CES, with significant advances in 3D technology and ultra-high-definition video (offering four times the clarity of traditional HD). We also saw the advent of curved and/or flexible screens, along with Microsoft's "IllumiRoom," designed to evoke a "more immersive" experience for gamers by extending visuals beyond the boundaries of the existing screen and into the surrounding area. (In other words, if it's snowing in your video game, it will be "snowing" in your living room, too.) Sony showed off a similar technology with "Move" in 2011. Both companies expect to unveil their next-generation consoles before the end of 2013, so these Holodeck-like experiences are likely to be available to the general public sooner rather than later. The sexually oriented uses for these technologies are obvious. After all, the more "lifelike" porn, webcam imagery, virtual sex, and online sex games are, the more enticing they become.

The most interesting technology previewed at CES -- from my perspective, anyway -- is the new wave of brain-reader devices. For instance, Interaxon is launching a low-priced (under $200) brainwave sensing headband called "Muse." For now, it measures your brainwaves in real-time, sending information about them to your smartphone or tablet so you can see how well your brain is performing. It also translates your brainwaves into instructions, allowing you to interact hands-free with content on your iOS or Android device. In time, people will be able to control any and all electronic devices solely by thought. For instance, a quadriplegic could use mechanical legs controlled by information sent from the headband to walk again! Sexually, of course, the possibilities are endless. With a headband and a willing partner, those separated by distance because of work or school (or sheer laziness) will be able to merely think about stimulating their special someone and, viola, using any number of teledildonic devices, those thoughts become action.

If you think this isn't happening in the near future, think again. Consider the Fleshlight, an already popular device that mimics the sensation of a mouth, vulva, or anus using "real-feel superskin." For now, the Fleshlight is controlled by the man's own hand wrapped around the device, but soon it will be programmed to react to his partner's thoughts. And a woman could be similarly stimulated by any number of vibrators or inserted devices. Brainwave technology could further be used to "teach" computers what sort of pornographic imagery turns you on the most. By tracking the activity in your brain's "pleasure center" (the nucleus accumbens), the headband could register your level of interest (or disinterest) and send messages to the computer to open certain webpages and videos, and even to access online "partners" that fulfill your deepest desires. Before long, having conscious knowledge of what turns you on the most will actually be irrelevant because the headband and computer will simply take you there.

Nothing New Under the Sun

It's possible that sexnology is new to you, but that doesn't mean it's new to everyone. In fact, the idea of "virtual sex" has been around for quite a long while -- even before the Internet -- appearing regularly in science fiction books and movies. One very funny cinematic example that is well-known to most baby boomers occurs in the 1973 film Sleeper, a screwball comedy about life in the distant future. Among the film's great fantasy inventions is the Orgasmatron, a telephone booth-like contraption that stimulates user's brains in an intensely sexual way. (View clips here.) Not surprisingly, there is actually a real world version of the orgasmatron, discovered by accident during medical trials for a spinal cord stimulator. Apparently the device is effective, but it requires the surgical insertion of electrodes near the spine so it is not overly popular.

A number of less intrusive devices, however, are in widespread use. 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. Other devices can be used to pleasure a woman in similar fashion.

There are also a wide variety of virtual sex games accessible from any computer, smartphone, or pad. In these adult-oriented games, participants create customized fantasy avatars (animated figures of themselves) and then use those avatars to participate in interactive online sexcapades. At least one company is working to make its 3D sex games compatible with the Xbox Kinect so users can "touch" the avatars. As of now, most virtual sex games target heterosexual males, but there are also games for gay men, straight women, lesbians, and the fetish community. Some games allow users to essentially produce their own porn -- erotic scenarios, camera angles, musical scores, oversized body parts, you name it. Whatever turns you on, you can make it happen.

Amazingly, it won't be long before "virtual sex" moves into the real world. Already there are robots programmed to wash your hair, serve tea, and mow your lawn. How much longer before Rosie, the talking, emoting robotic maid from The Jetsons, is built for real? And what happens when Rosie's manufacturer decides she needs to look like a life-sized Barbie doll, complete with pliable breasts and vagina? And if Rosie the Robot who looks like Barbie and has a real-feel superskin vagina is personality-programmed to act as if she adores you, then what? Do robot girlfriends sound OK to you? What about robot wives?

Scientist David Levy, an internationally recognized expert on artificial intelligence and president of the International Computer Games Association, predicts that by 2050 technology will have progressed to the point where "humans will fall in love with robots, humans will marry robots, and humans will have sex with robots, all as (what will be regarded as) 'normal' extensions of our feelings of love and sexual desire for other humans." And Levy is hardly alone in thinking humans can and will interact on a very real emotional level with robots. Already we see that troubled children will often respond to "therapeutic contact" with a robot. In fact, Japanese researchers have shown that well-programmed robots can improve a child's mood and get antisocial children to interact more with other children and their caregivers. So is falling in love with a sexually and emotionally attractive robot really so farfetched?

What Does This All Mean?

With the incredible recent advances in digital technology, the line between fantasy and reality has become somewhat blurry. We now live in a world where fake is the "new real," even when we're dealing with sex and romance. In this new digital universe, a relationship with someone we've never met in person (who may not even exist in the real world) can be just as powerful and fulfilling as a traditional in-the-flesh interaction, and just as painful when it ends. Young people in particular seem to readily accept and even embrace the artifice with which we are now constantly bombarded. They simply view it as another part of reality. And while older generations might take offense at this same pretense, and at the same time worry that their children and grandchildren are unable to distinguish between what's real and what isn't, their perceptions and fears are very much of their generation. The simple fact is perceptions and fears -- in other words, reality -- change as time passes and new technologies are introduced. What one generation decries as "fake" and unworthy, another generation accepts and even adores, thanks to advancements in tech. So even though many older people might feel as if sexnology provides nothing more than a quick trip to hell in a hand-basket, a lot of younger people may well disagree.

The simple fact is sexnology is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Rather, it is evolution in action. Those who learn how to effectively use sexnology (and other new technologies) in healthy ways will flourish, finding romantic partners, forming couples, and reproducing. Conversely, people who struggle with sexnology or use it in unhealthy ways will find coupling up and reproducing more difficult. So it seems like the rising tide of sexnology will be good for some, and bad for others. As is always the case with tech-driven evolution, individuals who readily and effectively adapt to the "new world" will succeed, and those who don't, won't.

Sourcing for David Levy quotations: David Levy, Love and Sex With Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007)

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 and Director of Intimacy and Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch and Promises Treatment Centers. 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, The Oprah Winfrey Network, and ESPN among many others. Rob can also be found on Twitter at @RobWeissMSW.