THE RO­BOTS ARE COM­ING

Women's Health (UK) - - CYBER SEX - words GEMMA ASKHAM il­lus­tra­tion MDI DIG­I­TAL

Be­lieve tabloid head­lines and sex ro­bots – all perky breasts, pil­lowy lips and spread-ea­gled legs – could soon be claim­ing your side of the bed. But away from the sil­i­cone slap and tickle, a new fe­male sex-tech col­lec­tive is qui­etly cre­at­ing cy­ber de­vices that put real women first. WH logs in to the main­frame of your plea­sure

Quinn stares ahead, lips parted, her per­fectly sym­met­ri­cal springy breasts nes­tled like stress balls in a sheer bra. Be­low her, Car­men, an olive-skinned red­head, is bent into doggy po­si­tion and seems to have mis­placed her un­der­wear. Nearby, a brunette called Laila is wear­ing a mod­est yel­low dress, one hand edg­ing to­wards her in­ner thigh. It’s the kind of photo gallery In­sta­gram would shut down in a se­cond – were th­ese women real. But, like Bar­bies gone rogue in Ann Sum­mers, this is the on­line store of sex doll man­u­fac­turer Real­doll – a sil­i­cone-limbed valley, and the only place where ‘women’ out­num­ber­ing men is do­ing noth­ing for equal­ity.

By 2045, it’s pre­dicted that one in 10 of us glob­ally will have had sex with a ro­bot. To­day, much of this car­nal tech con­sists of ter­ri­fy­ingly life­like but life­less dolls such as Quinn. Ba­sic bitches, they are not. An en­try level Real­doll will set you back £3,000 – add on an AI head that con­nects to a chat-bot app on your phone, al­low­ing it to move its mouth and hold a con­ver­sa­tion with you (yes, re­ally), and you’ll be look­ing at £6,000, min­i­mum, for what’s known as a Real­dollx. While boy-bots do ex­ist – Real­doll’s three dudes, Nick, Nate and Michael, of­fer quite the vari­ance in pe­nis style: limp or erect? Small or XL? A bush? (Al­paca fleece, if you’re in­ter­ested) – they’ll set you back even more. In May, Henry, a pro­to­type Real­dollx was un­veiled – along with his £7,600 price tag.

The ac­tual me­chan­ics of said dolls can seem as clunky as a dubbed film. ‘Th­ese ro­bots can’t walk or move their legs. Some can blink or move their lips, or have sen­sors that change fa­cial ex­pres­sion in re­ac­tion to touch,’ says roboti­cist Dr Julie Car­pen­ter, re­search fel­low at Cal­i­for­nia Polytech­nic State Univer­sity ( jg­car­pen­ter.com). ‘But nat­u­ral lan­guage and life­like bod­ily scents and flu­ids are years down the road.’ Con­sid­er­ing talk of flu­ids re­ally only whets the ap­petites of men, and the fact that male ro­bots de­mand a higher price, it’s hardly sur­pris­ing that cou­ples and women ac­count for only 10% of Real­doll’s cus­tomers.

Where the peo­ple pre­pared to splash the cash spend, product de­vel­op­ers will fol­low – it’s why the sex-tech in­dus­try, sexbots in par­tic­u­lar, is still male-fo­cused. Jenna Owsianik, editor of Fu­ture of Sex (fu­ture­of­sex.net), which re­ports on emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies af­fect­ing sex­u­al­ity, ex­plains: ‘Dis­cus­sions about male de­sire are nor­malised; erec­tile dys­func­tion treat­ments (eg, Vi­a­gra) are main­stream and ac­cept­able, and cul­tural norms steer women to­wards pleas­ing men. But this doesn’t mean that women aren’t in­ter­ested in sex­ual ro­bot­ics.’ Take vi­bra­tors: In­di­ana Univer­sity found that 53% of women reg­u­larly use a vi­bra­tor, a quar­ter hav­ing done so in the last month, with the use of such tech linked to in­creased de­sire, bet­ter or­gasms and im­proved body im­age (plus, reg­u­lar buzzers are more likely to look at their gen­i­tals and book smear tests).

For Dr Car­pen­ter, ig­nor­ing this goes be­yond a sim­ple buz­zkill. ‘With vi­bra­tors, women have proven they have enor­mous pur­chas­ing power. So to as­sume that women, het­ero­sex­ual or oth­er­wise, wouldn’t want a sex ro­bot or sim­i­lar toy is a mis­take,’ she warns. ‘I think th­ese mar­ket­ing and de­sign as­sump­tions will be chal­lenged by the mar­ket very quickly.’ Now, that is a good vibe.

Me­gabytes vs bits

Cu­ri­ous, Owsianik be­gan ask­ing fe­male friends and the women she in­ter­viewed at work what, the­o­ret­i­cally, they would like in a sex ro­bot. ‘Re­sponses were for ma­chines that look noth­ing like the main­stream ones be­ing mar­keted to men. In fact, they’d of­ten show pref­er­ence for a bot that didn’t look hu­man at all,’ she shares. And call off the al­paca shear­ing – the last place many women wanted bi­o­log­i­cal re­al­ism was down be­low. It’s not just ve­g­ans who no longer rate a juicy sausage as their plea­sure de­fault. ‘Most women achieve or­gasm through cli­toral stim­u­la­tion, not pen­e­tra­tion, so we sim­ply don’t need an en­tire body at­tached in or­der to get what we want,’ con­firms psy­cho­sex­ual ther­a­pist Kate Moyle (kate­moyle.co.uk).

Ro­bot­ics with im­proved clit­er­acy is more our kind of IOS up­grade. ‘We’re see­ing a trend to­wards non-phal­lic toys that don’t fall back on the tired stereo­type that women need The Pe­nis,’ sec­onds Owsianik. But that’s not the end of the story – be­cause sim­ply ac­knowl­edg­ing the cli­toris’s ex­is­tence doesn’t guar­an­tee a shud­der­ingly happy end­ing. Owsianik her­self strug­gled to reach or­gasm both through part­nered sex and us­ing vi­bra­tors. ‘I tried so many. They all made me numb,’ she con­fesses. A chat with Polly Ro­driguez, co-founder of Women of Sex Tech (womenof­sex­tech.com) – a com­mu­nity of en­gi­neers, ed­u­ca­tors and creators in the US – lead to Ro­driguez send­ing her a dis­rup­tive new vi­bra­tor last year, called a Wo­man­izer (from £59, wo­man­izer.com/uk). Imag­ine a show­er­head with a small suc­tion cup where the wa­ter holes would be. Fit the ‘sucker’ around your cli­toris and an air com­pres­sion pump cre­ates suc­tion without any of the di­rect con­tact that can numb. ‘I reached or­gasm in what felt like un­der a minute,’ en­thuses Owsianik. ‘It’s the clos­est sim­u­la­tion of oral sex I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced. Maybe it seems silly to say that a sex toy changed my life, but it fi­nally hit home that there wasn’t any­thing wrong with my body or my sex­u­al­ity. Prod­ucts just hadn’t been cre­ated that fo­cused on the di­ver­sity of women’s plea­sure.’

For starters

It’s not just the me­chan­ics of or­gasm that’s sud­denly get­ting en­gi­neers hot un­der their lab-coat col­lars – it’s the jour­ney there. ‘As a ther­a­pist, so much of what I do is try­ing to get peo­ple to re­lax more by mov­ing away from be­ing goal-ori­en­tated and chasing an or­gasm,’ says Moyle. ‘Wear­ables are now fol­low­ing suit, be­cause fore­play has a ma­jor role to play in sex­ual de­sire, arousal and sat­is­fac­tion.’ One young pioneer is Wan Tseng, an in­dus­trial de­signer who made in­no­va­tive fore­play wear­ables for her 2016 grad­u­a­tion project at Lon­don’s Royal Col­lege of Art. Items in­cluded a set of five sil­i­cone pads de­signed to stick to the skin for

‘To as­sume that women wouldn’t want a sex ro­bot is a mis­take’

use any­where on the body, with mini mo­tors that recre­ate the feel­ing of be­ing touched – from a tickle to a light graze. She also cre­ated neck­laces that re­lease per­fume or hot and cold air, the lat­ter de­signed to mimic a part­ner’s breath on your neck. ‘Dur­ing fo­cus groups, women said they needed fore­play – that the in­ti­mate in­ter­ac­tion be­fore sex is what turns them on,’ says Tseng. ‘Women are qui­etly call­ing for a sen­sual revo­lu­tion, not sim­ply acts of sex.’ This win­ter, her first com­mer­cial line, SENS by Wisp, will launch, turn­ing her de­sign con­cepts into me­chan­i­cal gold and sil­ver jewellery (wisp.me.uk, @Sen­s_uk on In­sta­gram).

Mean­while, in Los An­ge­les, neu­ro­sci­en­tist Dr Ni­cole Prause, founder of a biotech com­pany called Liberos (liberoscen­ter.com), is work­ing on a brain stim­u­la­tion de­vice for women with low de­sire – a men­tal Vi­a­gra, if you will. ‘It’s based on a dis­cov­ery that a unique process in the brain was en­hanc­ing en­gage­ment with pos­i­tive im­ages,’ she says. ‘Sex­ual im­ages are the ar­che­typal “pleas­ant im­age”, so we rea­soned it would very likely help women strug­gling with low sex drive.’ In lay­man’s terms? She’s ba­si­cally say­ing that it’s re­cently been dis­cov­ered that stim­u­lat­ing the brain in a spe­cific way can ac­tu­ally re­pro­gramme your mind to pay more at­ten­tion to pos­i­tive im­ages. Tak­ing this into ac­count, it’s thought that the same tech­nol­ogy could be used to help women with a low sex drive pay more at­ten­tion to their sex­ual thoughts – in­stead of sim­ply not reg­is­ter­ing them. You wear a head­set with elec­trodes (un­likely to fea­ture in Givenchy’s lat­est col­lec­tion, granted) that uses a weak elec­tri­cal cur­rent (called di­rect cur­rent stim­u­la­tion, or DCS) to target your brain’s ven­tro­me­dial pre­frontal cor­tex. Re­lax, there won’t be a quiz later. In de­pres­sion, this part of the brain is like the black dog – lur­ing your at­ten­tion away from happy thoughts to­wards ev­ery­thing un­pleas­ant. Dur­ing DCS, the (very mild) cur­rent re­de­ploys this neg­a­tiv­ity bias, es­sen­tially flip­ping your at­ten­tion down a hap­pier one-way street. In sex terms? ‘The end ef­fect could be greater en­gage­ment with pleas­ant sex­ual cues,’ ex­plains Dr Prause. She’s cur­rently await­ing the green light to start sex-spe­cific re­search, with pub­lish­able data a year away. If suc­cess­ful, the head­set could be­come an at-home treat­ment de­vice, like a vi­bra­tor – but for brain fore­play. ‘Twenty min­utes of brain stim­u­la­tion would in­crease your sen­si­tiv­ity to sex­ual stim­u­la­tion for about an hour af­ter­wards,’ she ex­plains. ‘So, if you beat your part­ner home from work one day, you might put this on to in­crease the chances that you’ll feel mo­ti­vated when she or he ap­pears.’ Dr Prause pre­dicts an RRP of around £300.

Your player or mine?

You can’t re­ally men­tion head­sets without bring­ing up 3D sex games and vir­tual re­al­ity. As with fem­bots, there are count­less click­bait head­lines sug­gest­ing women will soon be side­lined as men ogle oc­u­lar or­gies. ‘There’s still a long way to go to cre­ate seam­less, af­ford­able VR ex­pe­ri­ences,’ says Owsianik. ‘But there’s a lot to be gained from im­mer­sive forms of sex tech, like com­puter games. I re­ally en­joy what vir­tual sex worlds can of­fer me in terms of ex­plor­ing my sex­ual fan­tasies.’ Se­cond Life is the most pop­u­lar mul­ti­player vir­tual world, and isn’t ac­tu­ally de­signed for sex – though when you cre­ate your avatar (which can look like your­self, or not) you can buy add-ons, such as gen­i­tals. Red Light Cen­ter and 3Dx­chat are sim­i­lar to Se­cond Life, but were cre­ated for sex. You can have vir­tual sex with other play­ers’ avatars (thou­sands of peo­ple will be play­ing at any one time, us­ing their avatars to in­vite oth­ers into sex ses­sions, where you can get naked by click­ing var­i­ous body parts) and

use sex toys, known as teledil­don­ics, that trans­fer sen­sa­tions via the in­ter­net from the on-screen scenes to your groin. In the fu­ture, long-dis­tance cou­ples could use sim­i­lar tech; it could even be in­cor­po­rated, via touch in­ter­faces, into dat­ing apps.

Back at the games con­sole, Su­per Mario and the Princess might blush, but Owsianik be­lieves there’s huge po­ten­tial be­yond het­ero­sex­ual male us­age, the power of which shouldn’t be un­der­es­ti­mated. ‘I’d like to see more vir­tual sex worlds for women and non-bi­nary peo­ple who haven’t felt free to ex­plore what they like or dis­like sex­u­ally,’ she says. ‘Here, ex­per­i­men­ta­tion can be en­joyed in a safe en­vi­ron­ment, which then em­pow­ers peo­ple to say no to acts they might oth­er­wise feel pres­sured into.’

Talk­ing dirty

Moyle also be­lieves that new ‘vir­tual guide’ mod­els of sex ed­u­ca­tion – us­ing web­sites, apps and, in the fore­see­able fu­ture, VR – will in­crease women’s sex­ual con­fi­dence in places where a bat­tery falls flat. ‘It’s about help­ing women learn what they like in bed, how to ex­press those likes, and feel­ing bet­ter pre­pared for in­tro­duc­ing oth­ers into their sex­ual lives,’ she sums up.

In June, Mother­lode – a US dig­i­tal art lab run by three women, Carol Civre, Leah Roh and Isa Ghaf­fari – launched the first part of a VR sex-ed pro­gram called Pil­low Talk. The se­ries ex­plores top­ics that tra­di­tion­ally don’t fea­ture on school cur­ricu­lums, such as gen­der iden­tity. It kicked off with Lube River, a VR ex­pe­ri­ence held in a New York sex shop, in which women donned an Ocu­lus Rift VR head­set, then set off down a uni­corn-in­spired river, where they could col­lect, touch and play with sex toys along the way. All within the con­fines of their own eye­balls, of course.

Here in the UK, a new fe­male-founded app called Leika is work­ing on what for some women is the sim­plest yet hard­est sex­ual chal­lenge of all – how to talk sex.

The creators hope to en­gi­neer an in­ter­ac­tive safe space where women can prac­tise ver­bal­is­ing what brings them plea­sure in the bed­room – po­ten­tially with feed­back.

In fact, ‘There is al­most more fo­cus now on fe­male-led prod­ucts than those for men,’ sug­gests Moyle. Be­cause, for women, sex isn’t sim­ply a choice be­tween shaved crotch or al­paca bush. We want tech­nol­ogy that ed­u­cates us, rather than dumb­ing sex down to clunky chat-bot chat. We want apps that em­power, rather than a doll that needs recharg­ing af­ter a few hours. The sex tech of the tabloid head­lines may well be cre­at­ing a fu­ture sans women. But that’s OK, be­cause we’re ex­tremely busy build­ing our own.

Got lube?

Mind blown

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