In my last post, I talked about interesting digital technologies that have, in the recent past, been harnessed for sex toys and enhancing sexual pleasure. The majority of the devices which were discussed fell into the category of what I will call, for lack of a more succinct term, “humans using digital tools.” This label can be contrasted to something along the lines of “humans using digital tools to connect with other humans.” The difference lies in what the devices allow us to do. With objects like the RealTouch or music-responsive vibrators, users manipulate the sex toys (or are manipulated by them) in a relatively similar fashion to more traditional electronic or plain old “static” toys. While they may be “digital,” the environment surrounding the use of the devices, as well as the intention of that use, remains unchanged.
We can't discuss the “digital age” without the appearance of rhetorics of connection and social networking, total access and global villages. As much as I want to shy away from many of these terms and the sweeping generalizations they imply, “connection” is a major component of contemporary technologies, and devices for sexual exploration are certainly not exempt. This post will look at a collection of sex toys which capitalize on networking technologies, creating devices that facilitate encounters between people. These types of devices don't just implicitly network bodies (in that our “real life” bodies are attached to our “virtual” ones), they explicitly network bodies.
While similar in design to the RealTouch Interactive, the LovePalz devices are marketed towards a different set of users, at least according to their tagline: “connecting lovers.” LovePalz is intended for use by couples in long distance relationships. Rather than a single purchasable device, there is one designed for female anatomy and one for male. Partners connect via video chat software and the devices communicate information back and forth via bluetooth and the internet. What one partner does with their device, the other feels. With this type of back and forth between partners who have a mutual interest in sexual pleasure, LovePalz provides a more equal footing to the interaction, rather than the female “models” that RealTouch employs. I am curious though, what level of legitimacy is added to the product by this different, more “safe,” marketing technique? Additionally, from the standpoint of sexual orientation, the interactions alluded to on the LovePalz website are still assumed to be heterosexual, even for the simple fact of convenience, showing both types of the device. Even the colors on the device correspond to gender norms (pink and purple for female, blue and black for male) and the colors indicate that the devices are designed essentially for heterosexual sex – the woman should use the pink device, the man should use the blue device. Not only does this assume there would be no swapping between devices and gender, there is no information provided about what kind of stimulus would be passed back and forth between two devices of the same type. However, hidden away in their “features” section, we do see the a header “Diversity” followed by “One designed for men and one designed for women. The devices can be used in every conceivable combination.” Admittedly this is very noncommittal phrasing.
Another interesting device, currently being pitched on indiegogo is the Kiiroo which claims to be “The first social platform with an intimate touch.” Kiiroo's use differs from that of LovePalz in that it is the next step in the extension of social networking. From Facebook to Tinder to Grinder, Kiiroo says it ups the game by adding “a tactile substance to social media” and allows “members the world over the chance to actually touch their partners online.” While it is somewhat unclear how the social network and the device function together (other than one facilitating the connection for the other to be used), the Kiiroo seems like a mesh of the RealTouch (find someone remote and connect) and the LovePalz (seek mutual pleasure). While it has a less advanced marketing campaign due to its infancy, Kiiroo appears to be the least heteronormative of the connected devices so far. In their introductory video they mention “female to male, male to male, and female to multiple male devices,” and imply that there are boundless other possibilities. Kiiroo is the first device that, at least in any obvious manner, implied a connection that was not one-to-one. Video and interactions could be streamed from one user to multiple others, though it's not clear how the reverse would operate. Kiiroo's pitch video also makes an interesting claim. The begin with the proliferation of digital technologies and expressing the belief that the more connect we become, the more we lose our human connection. Then, they move to pose their product as the solution. Now, you can physically connect, returning the human element to our connectivity. I'm not sure how much I believe this pitch, and it's also not clear to me if they believe it either.
My main takeaway is as follows: with all of the various devices we have looked at, where the boundary can be drawn between experiencing the device itself and experiencing a person through the device – and to what degree it matters for different types of encounters (relationships, hookups, etc)? How does the difference affect our perceptions of our partners?
We also need to consider the design of these devices. The majority have a modern, sleek, aesthetic. They have polished surfaces, brushed aluminum finishes, clean edges, and smooth curves. Even the smartphones, with which many of them interface, have a similar design. Kiiroo is labeled as “designer intimacy hardware” and LovePalz says it provides “modern and stylish intimacy... [the] designs echo minimalist sensibilities, adding a touch of aesthetics to your lifestyle.” These devices make little attempt to appear familiar in a “human” or “animal” bodied sense. The designs embrace the technological nature of the devices rather than using visuals that we perceive as body-like. The users are also expected to accept the polished, modern aesthetic within their sexual habits, within an otherwise intensely human interaction.
I can't help but think about the absolute contrast – perhaps Cronenberg's “pods” in the film eXistenZ, which appear as fleshy, skin-covered organs, grown out of animal tissue. While they are figured as living game consoles in the film, there is an undeniably erotic overtone to the way in which the pods are touched by and inserted into human bodies. The Cronenberg pods are the ultimate natural-flesh-devices. What does it mean that our digitally-enhanced sex toys have a high-tech visual profile? How comfortable are we with more human forms in our sex toys? In our digital sex toys? What is our perception of sex with a remote partner when facilitated through a decidedly non-human interface vs. one that describes a body?