Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/02/14/techno_toys/

A decade of techno-sex: Look how far we've come

Ten years of turn-ons - is society tuned in?

By Jane Fae Ozimek

Posted in Science, 14th February 2010 10:02 GMT

(Some of the links in this story may be NSFW.)

If the last decade has seen major changes to legal and social attitudes towards sex and sexuality, a question that will have commentators engaged for some time to come is what role has been played in such change by technology.

Does technology lead the way, encouraging and enabling behaviours that would have had a previous generation blushing? Or does it merely follow on, reflecting trends that are already deeply embedded in society?

As we reported previously, the past ten years have been a mixed bag when it comes to legislation in the sexual arena. In the UK, the government has obsessed over the right to say no – and paid rather less attention to the right of an individual to say yes.

Nannying is definitely the order of the day – unless you have some "unnatural" predilection for being treated like a naughty schoolboy, in which case stop it this instant, young man.

Richard Longhurst of online sex toy purveyor Lovehoney is highly upbeat about what has been happening to the market, arguing that it is beginning to show "dangerous signs of maturity".

Durex has transformed itself from boring contraceptive manufacturer into a sex lifestyle brand. Ann Summers has gone from 12 stores in 1997 to 120 today. Longhurt's own organisation has gone from a standing start to shipping more than a thousand orders a day.

In other words, sex and sexual gismology is now mainstream as never before. Of course, when it comes to the mainstream, a great deal of everyday product is now manufactured in China.

However, the West – and Japan – continue to make waves when it comes to innovation. One notable feature of the adult trade is the appearance of "inventors" – often, men in their middle age, with degrees in engineering and a burning desire to resolve some issue of erotic ergonomics. Hence the "sqweel", a new and frankly scary multi-tongued rotatory device and the we-vibe, which allegedly sets up "an erotic carrier wave" between clit and g-spot.

While women are now increasingly regular visitors to sex shops as purchasers of sexual gadgetry, men have benefited greatly from developments through the decade which, in turn, reflect a new approach to male eroticism. At base, most sex toys are about masturbation. A decade ago, the majority of male sex toys appeared to be designed as though such a purpose was quite incidental, with the primary focus being the creation of inflatable female shapes that fooled no one.

For those who really do like the idea of simulating sex with a partner who lies there and does nothing, it is now possible to up the erotic ante (and the price) by investing in some form of Realdoll. Even there, the technology is moving on apace, with German company First Androids announcing, late last year, the creation of a realistic sex android that has a pulse and appears to breathe.

Earlier this year, it was the turn of American inventor Douglas Hines, of True Companion, to introduce to the world Roxxxy, billed as the first sex doll with artificial intelligence. A pulse vs intelligence? It is reported that the manufacturers of the German doll have already received four million advance orders at just over £2,000 apiece.

For those unable to afford the four or even five-figure ticket for such items, it is now possible to purchase an anatomically correct blow-up sheep for a fraction of the price.

Are you lonesome tonight? Not with this handy bit of kit...

Nonetheless, what has changed in the male end of the market is a major shift toward toys that are purely functional. To that end, the Fleshlight and the Tenga system – as vibrators always have been - are "pure" masturbation systems, without the excuse of even pretending the presence of a partner. Ditto the monkeyspanker, with its curious resemblance to a table tennis bat with a hole in the middle.

On the female side of the fence, there are new textiles and new colours – particularly dayglo. Pyrex has made its entrance as the basis for a new and arty line in dildos, with the advantage that the object can be left in the fridge – not the freezer! – for a couple of hours before any bedtime action. The emphasis on what sex toys are for has changed little although – with all that emphasis on ergonomics – each year seems to bring a new and even more far out shape to the bedroom. Nonetheless, according to Lovehoney, the Rabbit remains a favourite "must-buy" for women.

Other techie trends include the appearance of "fucking machines" – which look highly dangerous and are still more likely to be found in a certain sort of porn than in bedrooms up and down the country. That has begun to change with the advent of the Sybian – a snip at just over £1,000 – and no doubt the next decade will see further advances in this area.

Electro-stimulation is also on the up, both through the rediscovery of Victorian cupping devices, and entirely new systems such as the e-stim.

What then of the internet? While some would claim that it merely follows and reflects existing trends, there is a strong argument to suggest it has been at least in part instrumental in this latest sexual revolution.

From the early days of Usenet and IRC, through to sites and channels dedicated to particular kinks, the internet has worked to bring together people with previously rarefied interests and to encourage them. That is the accusation often levelled at the internet by the pro-censorship lobby – and is a particularly damning argument when it comes to issues such as paedophilia.

However, the reality is that prior to the internet, many sexual "interests" remained sufficiently unusual that practitioners could spend most of a lifetime without ever encountering anyone who shared the same kink. The effort required to go out and find even one like-minded individual was too much for most.

By contrast, the internet now plays host to sites that cover almost every kink imaginable, providing space for individuals to discuss with other like-minded people. At the more mainstream end of things, topics such as bdsm now boast sites such as informed consent in the UK which claims almost 150,000 members. In parallel with such sites, the BDSM scene has proliferated a network of munches, clubs and events that now provide real world back-up to what was originally stimulated into action online.

Swinging, too, is an area that has seen its popularity soar over the decade. Likewise "dogging", polyamory and all manner of fetishes. It would be too simplistic to "blame" such growth on the internet, but it has played a major part.

What's next, and whether or not it should be stopped

Is that a bad thing? The argument here is very circular. If you see a particular activity as inherently wrong, harmful or immoral, then the effect of the internet does appear in part to be the normalisation of that activity – and therefore the role of the internet is by definition negative. If, however, you have few problems with the activity itself, then any boost it may receive through the internet is going to be a good thing.

As we look ahead into the next decade, we are left to predict two further developments, and one related issue.

Let’s start with the issue. Over the last decade, the internet has spawned a series of MMORPGs – multi-player role playing games – of which virtual worlds such as Second Life are a leading example. These have quickly been taken on by those who wish to recreate their favourite fantasies online, adopting new shapes and bodies, and acting out fantasies with other (presumably) adult players.

A major issue has been the way that they enable individuals to act out wholly non-consensual and illegal fantasies, including scenes with children or animals. On the one hand, defendants of these games point out that "they are only games" and there is a world of difference between role-playing a scene and doing it in real life.

On the other, critics have worried that acting out a fantasy is just one step away from committing it – and therefore individuals should be prevented from doing so and, in some cases, punished if they try to. This debate – the boundary between real and fantasy – is likely to continue and if anything to be exacerbated by two further technological developments.

The first is that of teledildonics: the ability to use telecomms technology to spur remote – usually vibratory devices – into action. It has been possible for a few years now to set off vibrators remotely via mobile telephone technology. The last year or so has seen similar developments arising through the internet – particularly through MMORPG’s – that ensure that when an individual "feels" something in game, they will also get to feel it wherever they are sat.

It is at this point that we move from the known and familiar to the sci-fi and faintly scary. As the tele- part of teledildonics becomes firmly established, so the range of what may be controlled remotely via the net becomes ever greater. Nerve implants, body suits, and systems that mimic far more subtle interaction and contact are now emerging from the labs, bringing the prospect of genuine "cyber sex" ever closer.

It may be that we are now at a turning point: if the past decade has been about technology more closely mimicking what people want to feel, and the internet facilitating real world communication, the next may see at least a partial reversal of that. In future, you will be able to have the sex you want with whoever you want without ever stirring from your keyboard.

Bad news, perhaps, for those celebrating St Valentine’s day – but possibly not such bad news for the more techie-minded. ®