THE ROBOTS ARE COMING
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.’
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.’
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.