The COVID-19 lockdown forced us to become sex tech dependent. How will this affect us? – Screen Shot
Deep Dives Level Up Newsletters Saved Articles Challenges


The COVID-19 lockdown forced us to become sex tech dependent. How will this affect us?

By Rebecca Rhys-Evans

As a generation obsessed with labels—either creating new ones or avoiding them wholeheartedly—there’s one category of sexuality that has appeared to be flourishing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Behold, the ‘digisexual’. If you were thinking quarantine meant no sex for single people, you would be wrong. While good old fashioned human-to-human physical intercourse might have been put on hold for many, quarantine has just shown the creative ways we’re willing to come up with just to get it on. But what exactly is a digisexual?

Broadly speaking, anyone who uses technology in a ‘sexual purpose’—from sexting to erotic video calls—is a digisexual. Gen Zers and millennials are the two generations most guilty of going online looking for porn and other erotic options as we basically used the internet to learn most of what we know about sex while growing up.

MSN, AIM, Chatroulette, Hot or Not and even Tinder are all nostalgic parts of our adolescence. It’s no surprise then, given our current internet addiction, that in the past 3 months, when our world got limited to only our homes and local supermarkets, that there has been a significant surge in views and active members on Pornhub, as well as soaring sales in sex toys, devices and dolls.

Part of this virtual enlightenment is the rising popularity of video call apps such as Zoom and Houseparty. Though many of us are zooming for our WFH situation, there’s a selection of opportunists out there using these features after hours for events like Club Quarantine, the queer online dance party.

The virtual club night became popular at the end of March when quarantine was about as fresh as our desire to bake banana and sourdough bread. Taking place every evening at 9 p.m. EST until midnight, and 6 p.m. on Saturdays to be more inclusive to the European party-goers, Club Q (as fans call it) garners up to 1000 young queers a night, attending either solo or as a couple.

The online party is host to the usual gay club activities; drinking, dancing, flirting, just instead of bumping and grinding on the DJ booth you’re doing it against your laptop. After only a few weeks, the event had it all: celebrity appearances such as Robyn, a DJ set from Charli XCX, and a pledge for an after-party, which mostly consisted of a myriad of dog collars, harnesses and a self-serving orgy. 

And sex from afar doesn’t end there. While many industries may be benefitting from the pandemic—case in point, sales in tea, flour and the DIY tie-dying trend—interest in teledildonics, which is an articulate way of saying ‘sex toys controlled by Bluetooth’ is also on the up. Especially popular among couples forced into long-distance relationships, these silicone devices can be switched on by whoever you give access via your smartphone and can be paired for simultaneous pleasure. Reportedly, the amount of app-controlled vibrators and butt plugs sold in Italy, Spain and France increased by 124 per cent, 300 per cent and 94 per cent respectively from original projections in March alone.

In 2020, our CVs read ‘digital native’ and our dating profiles suggest digisexual. And as fun as online flirting may be, could our internet-dependence cause us intimacy issues? As I found out, teledildonics, virtual orgies and porn are just a beginner’s game in the digisex world.

While yes, the vague definition of digisexuality covers those using tech as an aid to sexual pleasure, there’s also another strain to the definition: those who identify as sexually attracted to and aroused by technology. This is mostly seen with sexualised robots as seen in fictionalised stories such as Blade Runner, Her and Westworld. What if these representations were no longer just characters of sci-fi, but instead real-life robots?

I always try to keep an open mind. “Some people like to have sex with dolls, so what?” I thought. But advancements in technology have also drastically progressed in the sex tech sector. We’ve left sex dolls behind and replaced them with dishwasher safe lubricating vaginas.

The Harmony 3.0 sexbot by Realbotix, as well as other more affordable dolls on the market, come fitted with Bluetooth speakers, which many users are connecting to the artificial intelligence app Replika. By doing this, dolls can answer with fast and thoughtful responses advancing them into fully-fledged robots that can evoke semi-sentient experiences.

But how is this problematic? Where other AI apps like Alexa, Siri and Google will tell you the weather forecast or schedule an appointment, Replika can’t do any of this. Instead, it seeks to be a companion; sharing favourite memes and discussing previous loves, failures and desires. Replika wants to be your friend and acts as emotional support. 

But surely when a person’s very real emotions are involved, when it comes to sharing more than memes but private knowledge about your mental wellbeing, shouldn’t our sounding board be a breathing human with personal experience, or better yet, professional expertise?

Reflecting on the fact that this is merely the beginning of AI technological advances, I fear for where we’ll be with our online dependencies in the years to come. Questions regarding the role of the state when AI is supposedly as good as trained psychologists, not to mention the potential for a decreasing population seem more pertinent than ever.

Look at what a pandemic-induced lockdown did to us—the sex stats simply don’t lie. In just the realms of digisexuality, the negative effects of depicting something too close to reality have already been seen with many becoming addicted to virtual reality porn. For some, simulated sex with unrealistically beautiful partners has become just too good to be bothered to go out there and find a real human being. When digisex becomes more than a Bluetooth butt plug or a video orgy, will intimacy be revisited too?

Virtual Mate, the virtual sex tech that could change the dating game from January 2020

The sex tech industry is booming, and with it come many positive as well as negative aspects. While some people are receiving these new changes with open arms, others keep a guarded approach to them. Why? Well, because some of these technologies might alter the way we have real relationships, and how we interact with potential partners. This is the case of Virtual Mate, a virtual partner aimed at heterosexual male users (for now at least) that comes with a high tech fleshlight. Could this be the future of intimacy or has sex tech gone too far?

Described by some as “the sex tech industry’s most ambitious project,” Virtual Mate is the first virtual intimacy system that combines realistic adult gameplay with an advanced, sensor-based masturbation sleeve—also known as a fleshlight. The virtual girlfriend comes with an adult game, where users can put themselves in any kind of situation they want. Pick the story mode if you want a drawn-out love affair in a picturesque hotel in Paris. If you’re in a hurry, just select the mode for a quickie.

The Core is the main element of Virtual Mate. It is a wireless, Bluetooth-enabled masturbator that includes real-time motion tracking, and a sensitive internal sensor to give ‘feedback’ to the Virtual Mate video game. The game comes with a main model called Shelia, a white, busty woman, ready for any kind of sex. She comes with a database of animations, facial expressions, and responses to every type of thrust.

The Virtual Mate can be used on a smartphone, a tablet, a computer and with a VR headset. Once the player turns on the Core, slides it over his erection, the realistic 3D model responds. Because the animations are based on the player’s movement and ways of having sexual relationships, each experience is supposed to be different for everyone.

Screen Shot spoke to Jeff Dillon, the CEO of Virtual Mate, about what this sex tech innovation means for the future of relationships, and what’s next on the company’s agenda. “Our goal is to create an experience so real it will be hard to tell what is real and what isn’t. This starts with a mental connection to the Virtual Mate character and the more personal we can make it, the better the mental connection,” Dillon shared. In his mind, anyone owning a Virtual Mate will soon be able to create their own perfect sexual fantasy—something that sounds both exciting and somehow worrying.

On its Twitter account, the company is currently running a contest where users can vote for who they’d like to see Virtual Mate create as its new avatars—from Kim Kardashian to pornstars. When asked about whether he ever worries about how Virtual Mate could influence the way we behave in real life relationships, Dillon admits that he simply doesn’t. Sharing where the idea came from in the first place, he says that “One of the reasons we came up with this concept was because my wife had a difficult pregnancy and post-birth, so it impacted our sex life. Because the Virtual Mate character is not a real person, my wife doesn’t feel like it is cheating, and she isn’t threatened by a digital character.”

Although Dillon makes a fair point—after all a virtual ‘girlfriend’ is not real—the sense of attachment that could develop over time between a user and the virtual partner could still cause some to become jealous. It could even affect a user’s ability to connect with real potential partners. Dillon explains that he wants to “fill a void where traditional relationships break down,” because “traditional relationships are not for everyone.” In other words, Virtual Mate would be there for users as an alternative relationship and sexual release. And isn’t that what makes this technology so strange, the idea that your partner might not need you that much for the intimate aspects of your relationship?

No one has the answer to that question just yet, as only time will tell. In the meantime, Virtual Mate is already working on expanding its reach to more users. “We are already in research and development for a product for women, which will be a haptic silicone dildo that will simulate the male erection and get harder the more aroused the Virtual Mate character gets. The silicone dildo will also be able to thrust in and out while changing speeds and motion,” Dillon explained. The company is also exploring lesbian and gay options, for the Core as well as the available virtual partners.

The possibilities for this new technology and the many concepts that could derive from it are endless. Dillon said that he and his company “are getting in front of this market, and intend to lead the way in virtual product capabilities.” The future of intimacy is here, and it’s as mind-blowing and scary as it sounds.