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

By Rebecca Rhys-Evans

Jun 18, 2020

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Sex tech

Jun 18, 2020

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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?