The Tech-Sex Cocktail
Throughout my professional career, the majority of my writing and clinical work has focused on the intersection of digital technology with human intimacy and sexuality. I first became interested in this topic related to my specialized therapy practice, started in the early 1990s and dedicated solely to the diagnosis and treatment of sexual addiction and related disorders. When I started with this work, the Internet was in its nascent stage and most of my clients entered treatment reporting problems with real-world activities like phone sex (the kind of phone you plugged into the wall), pornography (magazines and VHS videos), and casual/extramarital sex (adult movie theaters, bathhouses and sex clubs, serial affairs, prostitutes/escorts/sensual massages, etc.). By 1998, however, those behaviors were looking pretty old-fashioned, and most of my clients were struggling with Internet-driven sexuality -- things like AOL chatrooms, online porn and Craigslist sex ads.
It didn't take long for me to realize the Internet was facilitating and escalating the problem of sexual addiction for many people, as, by nature, the digital world increases both the affordability and the relatively anonymous accessibility of highly sexually stimulating (and therefore potentially addictive) imagery and experiences. I became so interested in this topic that in 1998 I co-authored a book with Dr. Jennifer Schneider, Cybersex Exposed, the first public-facing text addressing the intersection of online activity and problem sexuality. That work, now painfully outdated (and out of print), will soon be replaced by a new and up-to-date look at technology and compulsive sexuality, Always Turned On: Facing Sex Addiction in the Digital Age, scheduled for release in January.
In the last decade and a half, as digital technology has progressed (escalating the incidence of sexual addiction right along with it), it would have been very easy and perhaps even logical for me to continue looking at only the negative aspects of the Internet and related technologies. For instance: The earlier you look at porn, the more likely you are to become a sex addict; the more hookup apps there are and the more assessable potential sex partners are, the easier it is to get hooked on casual sexual encounters; etc. But the simple reality is digital technology, even though it brings a definite downside to some individuals, is not always problematic. In fact, most of the time, for most people, digital technology delivers far more good than bad. This is a point that Dr. Schneider and I make repeatedly in our recently-published book, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. Nowadays I actually encourage recovering sex addicts to continue with their use of digital devices -- eliminating, filtering and blocking out their previously problematic activities, but otherwise relying on them for work, information gathering, and social connections, and also to support their recovery (as nearly every addiction-recovery support group, 12-step or otherwise, offers digitally delivered information and webcam-enabled meetings in addition to its regular face-to-face support). For some recovering sex addicts, this "healthy use of technology" can include digital dating and/or digital (yet still emotionally intimate) sexual connection with a committed partner -- described below.
Look Ma, No Hands!
A few weeks ago the manufacturers of the Fleshlight, a flashlight shaped device offering male genitalia a silicone-slippery physical experience akin to that of a mouth or vagina, announced the release of a companion product, the Fleshlight Launchpad. Essentially, the Launchpad is an iPad case with a built-in Fleshlight holster underneath. Using this rig and a pair of webcam-enabled digital devices, long-distance lovers can simulate a live sexual experience. For a demonstration, check out this short (and pretty hilarious) promotional video posted on YouTube. Despite the clip's old-school porn video caliber acting, you get the idea: If you're in a committed or even a casual relationship and you're separated from your partner (thanks to work, school, or whatever), you can still enjoy a semblance of sexual intimacy. Frankly, that's pretty cool.
And while most users of the Fleshlight and Launchpad will likely use them to engage with pornography or strangers rather than a significant other, the technology is nonetheless available to distance-compromised couples, as are a whole lot of other digitally driven relationship enhancers. For starters, any number of smartphone apps can turn a digital connection into an intimate encounter. The most recent is Vibease, a "massager" designed to pleasure women that can now be controlled, via smartphone app, by the woman's partner. Other digitally driven sex toys function in similar ways, including products offered by JeJoue, Highjoy, Mojowijo and LovePalz. So it appears my grandmother's favorite saying, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder," may need a bit of reworking.
There's Emotional Connection, Too!
Developing and maintaining an emotionally intimate connection is not all about sex. Spouses and long-term partners understand this, and many distance-challenged couples have been using texts, webcams, and other forms of digital technology to feel emotionally connected for quite some time. For example, I travel a lot for business, and when I'm away my spouse and I chat regularly via text, Skype, and similar technologies. We also enjoy playing online games together, meaning I can win at Scrabble no matter how many thousands of miles away we are. And yes, I fully understand that this is not quite the same as genuine face-to-face interaction, but it sure beats me saying, "Hey, I'm off to New York, London, and Frankfurt, and I'll see you when I get back next month."
Until now, long-distance couples have had to go to one part of their iPhones or iPads to text, another to email, another to jointly schedule activities, another to webcam, etc., but a recently released smartphone app, Couple, is designed to facilitate this process, letting users simply hit a single button for all of the above. I haven't seen this app up-close yet, so I'm not sure how well it works, but I'm eager to find out. And I fully expect a parade of similar emotional-connection apps in the near future. After all, intimacy and relationships are big business, and app designers are well aware of this fact. Simply put, the desire to connect and remain connected is a natural part of the human condition.
Frankly, the list of ways in which digital technology can be utilized to heighten healthy, emotionally intimate connections is nearly endless, with new devices and apps being added almost daily. So do I think people should unquestionably bring these technologies into their relationships? Not necessarily, as developing and maintaining intimate connection occurs primarily through shared values, beliefs, and experiences, rather than through the purchase and use of apps and devices that may or may not enhance a couple's sex life. But I'm certainly not going to judge those who do choose to travel this newly evolving road. And I may mention the Couple app to my spouse as a potential "try this out" relationship experience.
So, despite years of working with sex addicts, I profess no judgment about digital sexnologies as long as they are not being used compulsively, secretively, or in ways that cause harm to the user or those close to the user. Yes, these devices and apps can certainly be misused and abused, as can any highly pleasurable substance or experience, leading to negative life consequences for some people. But that doesn't mean these devices are made to intentionally lead people down a path of isolation and disconnection. Instead, they are designed for and can absolutely be used to develop, maintain, and even to enrich healthy, life-affirming, interpersonal connections.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch outside Nashville, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he is the author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.