What is the line between augmenting human connection with technology, and replacing it altogether? What does it mean for sex as we’ve always known it — eye contact, skin, sweat — if there’s a digital third wheel in the mix?
If you ask Suki and Brian Dunham, the married founders of the sex toy company OhMiBod, involving technology in our sex lives can be a glorious game-changer for anyone — the single, the newly smitten, the monogamous, the polyamorous, the long-distance lovebirds. Which is why these sorts of apps and gadgets are increasingly mainstream, Suki Dunham said, and no longer just for experimental adventurers.
So OhMiBod’s sex toys aren’t just sex toys, she said, but another part of a healthy lifestyle: “Just like eating well and exercising, a healthy sex life and having orgasms should be part of that overall picture.”
After all, our devices follow us into our private moments anyway — how many couples have lain beside each other in bed with their eyes glued to their Instagram and Twitter feeds? (We’ll pause, so you can raise your hands.)
Brian Dunham refers to this phenomenon using social psychologist Sherry Turkle’s term, “alone together,” and it’s the reason the Dunhams unveiled OhMiBod’s newest product, “The Art of Science and Love,” or “TASL,” at the Consumer Electronics Show this month. The two-part TASL platform includes a fairly standard sex toy and an app that connects to the toy; one person uses the toy on their body, and a partner can control it from the same room or from thousands of miles away.
“We looked at what was happening in our culture today, and what we see is this kind of digital divide, almost like an intimacy chasm,” Brian Dunham said. And if we’re not going to put our phones down, “we should at least put them to good use.”
Remote-controlled sex toys aren’t new. But what makes TASL different is its promise of heightened human connection — using technology to bridge the same emotional distance technology can create. By linking a vibrator to an app that can be controlled from far, can track your Kegel muscle exercises and can send banal intimacy-encouraging calendar reminders (Cuddle with your boyfriend! Get a babysitter for the kids! Send a sexy text message!), the program aims to normalize the role of technology in all aspects of one’s sex life.
Imagine what this could do for long-distance relationships, Brian Dunham added. “Think about that Marine soldier overseas, wanting to somehow intimately connect with his partner or his wife, and that’s super, super important,” he said.
There will soon be other perks, too, said Laura Berman, an author and relationship expert who has studied the future of sex and technology. In the coming decades, she said, there will be fewer sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies. (“Virtual sex is the ultimate safe sex!”) She predicts that we’ll have stimulating bodysuits that could dramatically enhance the sex lives of people with disabilities. “There’s that rudimentary technology even now,” she noted. And for those with fringe fetishes, she said, there will be sex robots that are up for anything.
“What we used to think of as phone sex will now be virtual sex, literally, and not just simulated virtual sex but active, interactive virtual sex,” she said. Like an X-rated version of “Star Trek’s” holodeck.
But the news isn’t all good. Berman also cautioned against what she calls “the shadow side” of high-tech sex. “There are going to be people who almost prefer technology to the messiness of real emotions, the complications of a relationship,” she said. “And those people might actually become more isolated.”
For a reminder of what that looks like, just add Spike Jonze’s visionary film “Her” to your Netflix queue. The futuristic love story, charting the ill-fated relationship between a man and a “Siri”-like entity, doesn’t reveal the year in which it takes place — but “it’s not far away,” Berman said ruefully.
There’s also plenty we can’t predict. Like how future generations, the true “digital natives,” might redefine the role of technology in sexuality. Most adults still remember life before iPhones, Bluetooth and Skype; for most of us, our first intimate encounter was probably a rogue smooch behind the middle school, or an awkward grope in a dark movie theater.
That’s not how it works for kids these days. Brian and Suki Dunham have two teen children, so they hear all about the love lives of high schoolers whose first intimate moments “were through SnapChat or a naughty text message,” Brian Dunham said. “That’s a massive paradigm shift in terms of how humanity experiences intimacy for the first time.”
That shift is probably incomprehensible to his parents’ generation, he said, and even some of his 40-something peers might feel unsettled. But Brian Dunham’s mind is open.
“Different isn’t necessarily wrong,” he said. “People were scared of TV, too, that it was rotting everyone’s minds, that it was the end of the human race. But we learned to work with it, and I feel pretty strongly that that’s the same way we should feel about sex and technology.”
So maybe it’s worth remembering that the people of yesteryear might have been just as disturbed by “The Bachelor” as we are by the idea of robot sex. (“The Robot Bachelor,” anyone?)
Brian and Suki Dunham are convinced that no matter how technology supplements human contact, it will never be a true substitute — and Berman agreed.
“In the end, nothing really is going to replace that soul-to-soul connection, that human connection of sex,” she said. “I don’t think that’s going to go away. I don’t think we’re at risk of totally losing that.”