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Human Computer Interaction: Digitally Enhanced Sex & Body Exploration

Human Computer Interaction: Digitally Enhanced Sex & Body Exploration

**A number of the links in this post are NSFW**


Over the next few months, I will be taking a look at various digital devices designed for both enhancing sexual pleasure and engaging in body exploration. These categories will not always overlap, especially when it comes to the intention with which a device is marketed. However, looking at technologies that range from sex toys to virtual reality programs, and the “purely sexual” to the more pedagogical, will help inform our ideas of how digital devices posses the possibility of being both pleasurable and productive. In addition to talking about the objects themselves, they will be discussed alongside their evolution, historical/cultural context, marketing strategies, and, last but certainly not least, their impact on users' conception of bodies in the digital age.


This series of blogs was inspired by a convergence of recent media hype on several topics. Most recently perhaps, interest was focused around the “Glance” App forthcoming for Google Glass, which will be the subject of a later post. This story coincided with the release of Spike Jonze's 2013 film Her, chronicling the relationship between a sentient operating system and her human user. The NYTimes picked up on this trend too. Both of these media stories arrive in the context of an already rich discussion of human computer interaction (HCI) which has burgeoned with the increase of touchscreen and motion-sensing technologies.


One buzzword stuck to digital technology is a variation on the theme of connectivity and networking. Digital devices link us not only to other digital devices, but to the humans using them too. Within the market for digitally enhanced sex toys, the same trends emerge – connect a toy to a new source of power or use a toy to connect to a partner, connected to their toy.



Before we look at human-to-human networking, it's useful to outline some of the digitally enabled devices which use external manipulation from a digital source to stimulate the user. Rather than a “direct” or dynamic interaction between two humans, the user interacts with a device that is receiving preprogrammed commands from another digital source. Perhaps the most basic of these devices are music-responsive vibrators. Vibrators including those from OhMiBod are based off of this type of interaction, where the device is (wired, or now more frequently, wirelessly) connected to a music player or computer. The intensity of the vibrations responds to the rhythms in the song. Users can customize their experience “hands free” by choosing different types of songs or creating playlists. While there is no reason why these vibrators can't be used with partners, the novelty of their digital form revolves around the source of stimulation from an outside digital device, rendering them essential still human-to-computer interactions. OhMiBod does offer some interesting networking potential, where users can share their favorite playlists with others, sharing, to a certain degree, their sexual encounters on a larger platform. They are also currently developing a wireless app to control a bluetooth enabled vibrator.



On the next level of human-computer interaction, the RealTouch, designed specifically for male users, is a device reminiscent of a Fleshlight but with a hookup for digital enhancement. The RealTouch device plugs into a computer and responds to videos, for purchase through RealTouch, which have been preprogrammed to stimulate the device. Like the drive for more and more immersive video games, the RealTouch claims to provide a “synchronized interactive experience that takes you beyond sight and sound and puts you in the middle of the action.” Perhaps because the interaction is limited to the preprogrammed videos, RealTouch has just discontinued this line in favor of the RealTouch Interactive. The interactive version of the product allows users to connect live with “models” online to experience “true internet sex.” These models use the corresponding “JoyStick” to pass stimulation back and forth to the RealTouch device. However, it seems impossible to purchase a JoyStick unless one becomes a “model.” The RealTouch Interactive is marketed solely to men, and the Joystick is unavailable for female use except the models who cater to the clientele. While the sex toy market is known for being directed towards female users, the RealTouch, marketed specifically for men, is an exception perhaps because of its close ties to the internet porn industry, which tends to cater to a male audience. Interestingly, while the RealTouch came with the option to purchase “straight” or “gay” porn with the device (admittedly, the store was the only section of the site which mentioned homosexual sex at all), all of the “models” pictured and eluded to on the RealTouch Interactive sight are female. Without the option to explicitly purchase “gay” videos, the audience for the interactive version becomes more selective.



While the RealTouch Interactive is novel in its use of networking for enhancement of sexual pleasure, there are several issues that are inevitably raised. The interactive device can be used only with models who are hired meant to serve the needs of the RealTouch device users. In addition to connecting users on this essentially unequal playing field, the marketing of the device is such that it reinforces traditional gender stereotypes of the male seeker and female pleaser, not to mention its elision of homosexual lifestyles almost entirely. This also raises the question of the line between prostitution and “live” pornography or “internet sex.” While the economic compensation is not inherently an issue, it is rather the standard which is upheld with a model whose interaction is at the demand of the consumer. The fact that the device cannot be used by partners was a very deliberate choice. While there are several similar devices that are designed and marketed be used by couples in long distance relationships, the RealTouch Interactive does not provide this opportunity for mutual interaction where both users are seeking sexual pleasure. I do not intend to privilege monogamous relationships, but rather to point out that the device is not intended for mutual sexual encounters of any type, whether for long distance relationships or one time “chat roulette” type experiences.


While the RealTouch is interesting for a variety of reasons, the marketing and intended usage of the product fails to break the mold of traditional gender and sexual stereotypes. Troubles seem to arise because so much emphasis is placed on creating an "authentic" or "true" expierence of sex "IRL" (and maintaining the industry as it has existed), rather than exploring ways in which these types of technologies can change the way we interact both with our computers and with each other. However, we will use the devices outlined here as a starting point for further engagement with HCI on a sexual and body aware level. It is certainly not impossible to imagine utilizing digital technologies to promote novel, productive, and even pedagogical types of sexual interactions and methods of body exploration.


1 comment


This was such an interesting analysis. I was particularly intrigued by RealTouch, so I visited their website, and something that stuck out to me was the emphasis on how 'real' the experience would be - the words 'real' and 'live' seem like key components of how this product is being marketed, which is why I was interested that the people on the other end of the device were called 'models.' When I think of a car model, for example, I think of a usually female person who is attached to the product decoratively, to humanize and sexualize it, but is not being purchased with the product because her presence is not actually part of what would be purchased/the experience of it. Nobody purchasing a car actually expects to interact with the model, which is why I was interested by the choice to use that word here -- it seems to shatter the illustion they're trying to build. 'Models' are usually used to showcase a product, to present it to consumers and entice them to purchase it rather than enhacing the experience of the product itself after purchase.

The aesthetics of the product are also telling - the RealTouch device for men (or, more accurately, people with penises) looks like some kind of bizarre cleaning device or tissue holder. The 'Joystick' on the other end is similarly sterile and sleek. Why is there a trend towards minimal sex toys, towards sex toys that, in their whiteness, evoke cleanliness? Is this an attempt to keep the boundaries between the digital and the material (the 'fleshy' world) clear? Is it related to internalized shame about sex being dirty? Do we get off on the fact that these products evoke the 'modern' and 'futuristic'? Do we desire to become cyborgs, or would we prefer to believe that digitally enhanced/facilitated sexual experiences are just as 'real' as any other?