Episode 4: Sex in the Age of Pandemic: Sex Tech

In part 2 of our miniseries on sex in an era of a global plague, we look at how technology intersects with sex. When you’re social distancing, how does new technology change human connection? Can it help with long-distance relationships when you can’t travel to see your lover?

Episode transcript below.

Franklin: Hello! And welcome to Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m one of your hosts and part-time mad scientist, Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I have a background in human sexuality and relationship communication, I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, solopoly, demisexual, East Asian Brit, fully armed and ready with a cup of tea and a touch of genteel snark!

As you’ve probably guessed, this is the second part of our ‘Sex in the time of pandemic’ mini series: Sextech! Or to give it the fancier name: teledildonics.

Franklin: In this episode, we’re going to talk about something near and dear to my heart: the combination of sex and technology.

I love sex tech. I’ve always loved sex tech. I invented one of the world’s first internet controlled sex toys back in the late 1990s, a remote-controlled vibrator you could connect to your computer through the headphone jack, that used sounds to send commands to the controller.

Joreth: I still have one of those from you! It might even still work, I’m not sure, I haven’t used it in years!

Franklin: Since then I’ve connected a vibrator to a compact EEG to create a sex toy you can learn to operate by thinking about it. I’ve also built a wearable vibrator connected to ultrasonic distance sensors that will start the vibrator running when anything approaches within about four feet of you, and runs faster the closer things get–the idea behind this being you could wear a blindfold and learn to navigate just by sexual stimulation. 

Joreth: Didn’t they make, like, a belt that vibrates towards North that teaches the wearer to become sensitive to North even without the belt or something? I always wanted to try that! Franklin, you could really use something like that!

Franklin: I really could. My sense of direction sucks. I’ve also built a myoelectric-controlled sex toy, and I hold a patent on a strapon equipped with touch sensors and a signal generator so that the wearer can feel touch on the dildo.

Joreth: And I am SO anxious to try this out and see if I’m one of the people who is able to feel this! It works on the brain much the way any prosthetic works – and there’s some really fascinating studies on this! The too-long-didn’t-read tl;dr is that your brain has sort of a model of “you” in it – a 3 dimensional wireframe so to speak of your body and where you are in space. It’s called the Body Schema. Once someone wears a prosthetic for enough time, the brain learns to incorporate that prosthetic into its model, so it knows the space that the prosthetic takes up, even if it’s just a regular old, non-sensory prosthetic, but especially if the prosthetic interacts with the body in some way. 

It’s like the reverse of the phantom limb pain thing, or where you think your phone is vibrating on your hip when you’re not even wearing it. Instead of your brain thinking something is still there when it’s no longer there, your brain now starts to think that this new thing is a part of you even though it didn’t used to be. 

Eunice: Ooh, that brings up some fascinating possibilities… 

Franklin: Most definitely. Hence the Bionic Dildo project!

Joreth: We can even learn to control prosthetics that have no human analog and that the individual *never* had to begin with, like a prehensile tail! Neuroplasticity is amazing!

The really fascinating part of that research, for me, was when I learned that, in partner dancers – people who dance with a partner regularly or for a long time – their brains learn to incorporate the space that *their partner* takes up, so when it does its calculations for moving on the dance floor, it accommodates how and where the partner will be. They call this “interpersonal joint body schema”. This is the basis for my own workshop on using partner dance exercises for improving relationship communication (shameless self-plug).

Eunice: Oh that’s fascinating – I wonder if that’s why you can dance with your eyes closed with some people and have no trouble at all figuring out what they’re indicating, or where they’ll be?

Joreth: Yeah, it’s complicated but more or less! So, yeah, the strapon equipped with sensors basically manipulates the brain’s plasticity into re-mapping its model of “you” – your “body schema” – to incorporate this dildo as part of yourself so the wearer feels what’s happening to it as if it was a legitimate part of the body, right Franklin?

Franklin: Yep!

Eunice: I really want to be second on that list of beta testers, by the way!

Franklin: The age of COVID has opened up more interest in ways to use technology, and particularly internet-enabled technology, to reach out and touch someone without spreading the plague. Back when I was growing up, everyone thought the future would be flying cars. Turns out it’s a globe-spanning instant telecommunication network that lets you give the gift of orgasm to people all across the world. I love living in the future!

Eunice: So there’s an interesting study, Less Sex, but More Sexual Diversity: Changes in Sexual Behavior during the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic which we’ll be breaking down in more detail in our part three of this mini-series – and oh my, you have no idea how much we have to say about it – and it includes this quote:

“While media reports suggest that the rise of SexTech is ubiquitous, it is likely that some people’s sex lives are changing more than others. For example, people living alone may be more likely to use SexTech due to limited opportunities for in-person contact. In addition, feeling more sexual desire, loneliness, and stress could potentially prompt more sexual adaptations to fulfill psychological needs or relieve negative mood states.”

“As coronavirus-related restrictions became more widespread, the popular media began reporting on putative shifts in sexual behavior, pointing to a rise in online pornography searches, sex toy sales, dating app downloads, and erotic posts on social media. This pattern, consistent with the overall integration of the internet and digital platforms into people’s sexual lives, suggests that when opportunities for the pursuit of in-person, partnered sex are limited, online and solo activities may be used to fill the void.”

Um, you think?

Franklin: Hello, Captain Obvious!

Joreth: Hmm, let’s throw in national rules that say you’re not allowed to see anyone and the existential threat of dying … I wonder what might happen?

Franklin: With the level of tech we have now, I think the COVID rules are a lot more bearable than they were when I started with sex tech. When I designed that first Internet-controlled sex toy, the Internet wasn’t really ready for that technology back then–the thing I designed was so primitive, you hooked it to the sound card on your computer and it played sounds to a DTMF decoder to control the device–so it didn’t really succeed. The Internet today is a lot more mature, so of course it’s been used to make all kinds of sex toys that are coming in really handy during this age of Great Global Plague. The internet facilitates connection of all sorts, and when you’re not allowed to see people in person, well, technology to the rescue, right? In fact, the company MysteryVibe, which makes all sorts of cool high-tech sex toys, had a 250% increase in sales thanks to lockdown.

Eunice: Cue a world where ‘virus’ now has at least three different meanings when it comes to thinking about safer sex. Do security checks on your Internet Of Things sex toys, folks! I mean, you should do security checks on all your Internet Of Things items anyway. Just cos your genitals are involved, doesn’t make it more vital. It just feels that way.

Franklin: We live in a miraculous age of vast world-spanning computer networks and miraculous sex technology, where you can buy a toy for $40 that your lover halfway across the world can use with you…but the first thing you have to do when you get it home is a security audit.

Joreth: You mean like the chastity cage dude should have done?

Franklin: Chastity cage dude is the poster child for what happens if you don’t audit your sex toy software.

Joreth: So, for those who haven’t heard about this, some poor guy was either wearing or just owned an internet-based remote controlled chastity cage, which is a metal frame that goes around a penis, in his case, that prevents the wearer from getting an erection and/or doing anything about their arousal. So he has this thing for his penis that won’t let him get a hardon, and he gets a message saying his cage is locked and it won’t be unlocked unless he ponies up a shit ton of bitcoin, because of course a sex toy hacker wants bitcoin.

Eunice: I nearly died laughing when I heard, but still, oh man, poor guy. That’s all anyone is ever going to remember him for.

Franklin: The source code for the software that hacks Internet-controlled chastity cages is up on Github.

Eunice: Cos of course it is. Welcome to the internet age.

Joreth: Hey, didn’t y’all have your own personal experience with some security issues with a sex toy?

Eunice: Oh yeah, we decided to get a toy so that I could, um, do interesting vibratory things to Franklin from all the way across the pond at 4am, as you do. I mean, 4am Franklin’s time, of course, I need my sleep! And then we tested it out when I happened to be wearing my Bluetooth headphones and…

Franklin: Yep. A security audit showed that it announced itself in Bluetooth promiscuous mode—yes, that’s actually what it’s called—so it would pair with anything. It also transmitted information unencrypted over Bluetooth. Folks, if you’re designing Bluetooth sex toys at home, remember, start with security. Like my mom always told me, she said, “Franklin, encrypt everything and never trust any user-supplied data. You can’t bolt security on after the fact.”

Eunice: Why exactly were you talking to your mother about your remote control vibrators? Actually, you know what, don’t tell me. Never tell me. So that was the last time we used that toy! Apparently they’ve patched that security hole now though, after Franklin had a conversation with the manufacturers, but I’m not trying that one again…

Joreth: Wow. Whodathunk you’d need to be concerned about internet hijacking when you’re just trying to have an orgasm?

Franklin: *raises hand*

Joreth: I mean who among normal people?

Franklin: Like anyone involved in this conversation is a normal person.

Eunice: Wait, do we even know any normal people? Aside from our parents, some of them, but again, let’s not go there kthnxbye.

Joreth: Oh, my dear mother and naively buying us Menage a Trois wine for our wedding reception. But yeah, point conceded.

Franklin: That does bring up a point: We think about tech sex and Internet sex as risk-free, but it really isn’t. You won’t get pregnant or get an STI, but you can get trapped in your chastity cage. Or have your toy try to access other devices via bluetooth which can be hijacked by others. Or have explicit images leaked. A lot of folks exchange naughty pics (according to a study in Australia, more than 37% of people interviewed have exchanged nude or sexually explicit photos or videos with a lover), and having those images leaked is a real risk. In fact, apparently it has a legal name now: ‘image-based sexual abuse.’

Joreth: That sounds like it could be a whole topic on its own! Hey, if any listeners really want us to do a deeper dive on digital sex abuse, let us know and we’ll add it to the list of upcoming episode topics!

Eunice: So to drag us back to the topic at hand: let’s talk a little bit about the history of sex and technology. I mean, using the latest technology to get your rocks off isn’t anything new. There are some remarkably filthy letters out there in historical collections – check out James Joyce’s letters to his wife Nora, if you don’t believe me. People have been writing that stuff for as long as writing existed.

Joreth: You’re right. Sex from a distance is nothing new, this is just a new way to do something humans have always done.

Eunice: So let’s go allll the way back. Paleolithic people, like modern people, wanted to get their rocks off, and guess what! Turns out some types of rock makes for really good dildos! I mean, not all types – as that infamous tumblr post mentions, “Malachite is a poisonous mineral. Please do not fuck the malachite stalactite”. 

Franklin: And of course, there were all sorts of materials used for dildos – bone, ivory, wood, you name it, they used it. Later societies explored a wider range of materials for sex toys. According to the book In Bed With The Ancient Greeks: Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Greece, by Paul Chrystal, the ancient Greeks baked loaves of bread to use as dildos, and lubricated them with olive oil. 

Joreth: Ewww! I mean, I don’t want to yuck anyone’s food-based yum, but as someone with a vagina, I have to cringe at the idea of an oil-covered, dildo-shaped breadstick for penetration.

Eunice: Yeasty things! In places where yeast is definitely not welcome! Nooo, bad, nope, nuh uh!

Joreth: Yeasty, covered in oil so that it sticks! AND CRUMBLES! AND MOLDS! NO! Folks! Don’t put yeasty, oily, crumbly things in your lower orifices! Especially your vaginas!

Franklin: The history of sex tech is filled with dubious ideas.

Eunice: Presumably they figured that they wouldn’t know until they tried…?

Joreth: I have some limitations to how far I’m willing to experiment. The health of my vagina is one of them.

Franklin: When they switched to making dildos out of stuffed leather, that was at last a bit more body-safe. Then in 1869, an enterprising inventor named George Taylor had invented a steam-powered vibrator called the Manipulator, which had rather poor ergonomics: the business end was built into a table, with the steam engine that drove it in a different room. Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville invented the first electrically-powered vibrator very shortly after.

Joreth: Contrary to popular myth, vibrators weren’t originally invented to treat female hysteria by inducing orgasms. This myth, like the idea the human brain only uses 10% of its capacity, refuses to die. I mean, I repeated that myth myself up until basically researching for this episode – the hysteria myth, not the 10% of your brain myth – I never fell for that clearly ridiculous claim. There’s an excellent article, and research paper, by Hallie Lieberman who is a sex historian, who details not only why this is a narrative and not true history, but also why it’s a harmful myth to perpetuate.

Eunice: It’s just such a compelling myth, though. Even though it makes no sense when you start to think about it just the tiniest bit deeper.

Franklin: There’s an interesting thing about human psychology here: we tend to believe things that have good narrative value. We are a storytelling species, so a good story is believed over evidence or plausibility. And honestly, it’s seriously implausible to think a bunch of doctors were giving a bunch of women orgasms but neither of them knew what was going on.

Joreth: Being unlikely that so many people couldn’t see the implausibility of the narrative doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. This narrative draws on the underlying belief that women don’t understand their own sexuality, that we’re ignorant, passive, and easily duped and therefore we shouldn’t control our own sexuality, and that men are so completely unaware of female pleasure that the entire medical industry basically pimped itself out as gigolos without even realizing it. There’s something in that narrative for everyone and their agendas!

But the truth is that the vibrator was invented by a doctor to treat pain, spinal disease, and, of all things, deafness (don’t even get me started on the use of hokum quackery originally dreamed up to cure deafness and later turned into multi-billion dollar pseudo-medical industries that have nothing to do with deafness!). When the vibrator began being sold as a snake oil cure-all, more or less, it was for everyone – men, women, and children, to treat everything from wrinkles to tuberculosis. It was women who covertly figured out the sexual use for it.

Eunice: To be fair, historically the medical establishment really wasn’t that interested in the anatomy of the clit. However, women have been, for a long long time, and you bet many of them knew exactly what an orgasm felt like! You know what, we should talk about orgasms and such in another episode. But in the meantime, let’s jump our history forward to…modern times. Electronics! The internet! Smartphones!

Franklin: This is the Renaissance age of sex tech. Back when I tried to make Symphony, the market wasn’t really ready for internet controlled sex toys. USB wasn’t a thing, and there were no standard interfaces in common between Macs and PCs, which is why the device I developed was controlled through sound.

The advent of USB, Bluetooth, and the rise of the smartphone changed all that. Suddenly wireless chips were cheap as well, and everyone carried powerful internet-connected pocket computers that could also talk to other devices. So what happened next had a certain inevitability to it. Where the tech infrastructure exists, sex is never far behind.

Eunice: Isn’t that why VHS won out over Betamax? Because they were filming porn on VHS? 

Joreth: Yes, and they show this in the movie Boogie Nights – a cult classic really, if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. VHS was a much lower quality of recording, but so much cheaper and also held more footage – up to 3 hours compared to Betamax’s 60 minutes, so the porn industry jumped on it. They could film in far more locations, with much lower expense, and more of their viewers could afford to buy a player and the tapes. The idea of watching porn in your own home, versus a public theater, is really appealing. 

So when Sony, who made Betamax, decided to not allow their product to be used by the porn industry, that basically signed its death warrant. By the end of the 1970s, more than HALF of all VHS sales in the US were for erotic films even though a VCR cost $800 *in 1970s dollars*. 

Eunice: Holy crap, that’s a lot of money! Isn’t that like five and a half grand these days?

Joreth: The internet says $800 in 1978 is the equivalent of $3,218.40. In 1975 it was roughly $3,900. Don’t worry about Sony for losing out on Betamax, though; they made up for it by backing Blu-Ray 30 years later.

As a former film student and someone who works in the film and television and video industries, let’s just say I still harbor some resentment over losing that particular consumer war. But the porn industry has really been a huge driver in a lot of vanilla tech, actually. The drive for better and better sex entertainment has led to better video game graphics, better online video streaming, better online credit card processing, and even to the jumps we’ve taken in VR technology (that’s Virtual Reality – wearing those goggles that makes you see and feel like you’re in a virtual space). 

The next big step for VR is combining it with sex robots! 

Eunice: Wow, imagine if *that* tech had been designed in time for the pandemic. I bet being solopoly could have been really different if we could have robotic sex dolls that looked like our lovers and were controlled via virtual reality. Sex with your partners over the internet whilst still maintaining proper social distancing! Across oceans even! Or, if you’re me, more massages and cuddles. All the cuddles! Huh, I wonder how that would have changed OnlyFans.

Joreth: Just one step closer to the future predicted in Demolition Man! But we’ll be talking about sex robots specifically in an upcoming episode.

Porn drove the film industry from its inception, with the first known porn film being dated to 1896. Netflix wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for the porn industry and their advances in e-commerce and bandwidth allocation.

Franklin: When I toured the Kink dot com Armory building, the only thing they wouldn’t let me see was their server room. Kink put a lot of work into developing their server infrastructure. It’s both their secret sauce and the heart of their business, so they don’t let outsiders in. 

Eunice: And sex probably helped pushed video conferencing technology to its current levels, I’ll bet, what with camming. Which we are, no doubt, all grateful for during this time of lockdown. It certainly wasn’t the Fortune 500 companies with their business meetings driving it! The very first desktop video conferencing platform with both visual and audio capacity was released in 1995, and by 1996 we get the very first solo camming site, JennyCam. And OnlyFans has, of course, gotten massive in these days of pandemic, even without the sex robots.

Franklin: Apparently those Fortune 500 companies know as little about security as the tiny sex toy companies. Microsoft got caught bungling Skype security last year when it made recordings of people’s Skype sessions available internally with no security or safeguards. Imagine the potential for abuse if an employee saw a celebrity getting jiggy with it on Skype, or if your jealous ex worked for Microsoft.

Man, you know, between poor IoT security, revenge porn, and huge megacorps eavesdropping on your video chat, maybe remote sex isn’t as safe as I thought.

Joreth: I mean, sex in general isn’t as safe as people think, but there are simple, if rarely used, safeguards that can reduce the risk potential. As we discussed in the last episode, kissing is a high risk activity, but nobody ever thinks of it like that, until now that we have a virus that can kill us for it. Wearing masks and distancing are simple and ridiculously effective tools, and look how we, as a culture, couldn’t even be arsed to maintain those simple safety protocols!

Eunice: Let’s be honest, if you’re not famous enough for people to sell your sex tapes and you, like us, have no shame…that takes out a bunch of the risks already.

Franklin: You can’t be blackmailed if you don’t care whether people find out.

Joreth: My celebrity partner told me a story on our first date about being blackmailed once, and he laughed because he had no problem with whatever it was being made public so he immediately went to the FBI, who tried to talk him out of pursuing it because they couldn’t keep it from getting out if he did, and he was like “I don’t care if it gets out, this fucker is breaking the law! Go get him and nail his ass to the wall!” 

Eunice: I guess the other alternative is the suggestion from that Shaggy song: “It wasn’t me”? That doesn’t seem very practical though.

Joreth: Like every politician now claiming his Twitter account was hacked? It’s true that the lack of shame removes a lot of risk, but we are still left open for identity theft and data hacking, like with your bluetooth vibrator.

Eunice: That’s definitely a good point – and of course, this also assumes you’re not in a place where you can be severely punished, maybe even killed, for this sort of stuff coming out. We’re lucky enough to live in fairly liberal Western urban spaces, so that’s where we’re coming from, but context matters, as always.

Franklin: But aside from that, it’s a great time to be alive.

Eunice: In some places.

Joreth: For some people.

Eunice: Assuming you don’t get your data or identity stolen. Or end up on Reddit. Everything ends up on Reddit.

Joreth: But, y’know, other than that!

Franklin: I realized about a year ago I’ve officially reached the point in my life where I’m more likely to buy a sex toy to tear it apart and use the gubbins for some other home-brew sex toy than I am to buy a sex toy and just use it. So there’s that.

Eunice: That is so very you.

Joreth: I mean, most of my gadgets and gizmos are also for the purpose of disemboweling and repurposing, but that’s for costuming stuff, not sex toys!

Franklin: I do see high potential for machine learning and sex. It might be interesting, for example, to train a vibrator on what gets them off, then push a button and get a custom-tailored experience. This is something someone is currently working on, apparently, a sensor-equipped vibrator that learns what gets you going.

Of course, like most of the current cutting-edge sex tech, this seems the sort of thing that works better on folks with internal genitalia than external.

Eunice: I’d be up for testing that…

Joreth: Ditto! As someone who has sex exclusively with people with external genitalia, and the associated cultural programming that seems to go along with it, I have a feeling it might be easier to train a toy how to reliably get me off than a person!

Franklin: Machine learning isn’t good at general-purpose abstract reasoning, but in its limited domains, it’s a lot better than the human sort. Computers already play chess and go far better than a person who’s done a lifetime of study, so why wouldn’t they be better at getting people off?

Joreth: Plus a vibrator can, y’know, vibrate and do things that the human body can’t do anyway.

Franklin: I have high hopes for advanced biomedical nanotech, though… But seriously, the idea of using machine learning to figure out how to give you an efficient orgasm is fascinating. I’d love to see data from large-scale trials. My suspicion is that no two people would be exactly the same, but we might see clusters of people with similar responses and similar triggers to orgasm. I’m picturing a scatter graph with a lot of clumps and relatively few points outside those clumps.

Joreth:  Oooh, scatter graphs!  Cuz I’m a nerd.

I did an experiment a while back to try to do the opposite. I wanted to make a vibrator guaranteed to get you aroused but not get you off, by connecting the vibrator to an EEG and a small computer that would figure out from your brain activity when you were about to come and shut the vibrator off, then turn it on again when you cooled down. I got a bunch of friends together, put them under an EEG, and had them give themselves orgasms whilst I recorded their brainwaves. It didn’t work, because it turns out the structures in the brain that mediate arousal and orgasm are too deeply buried to pick up with a surface electrode, but that was the plan, because I’m evil.

Joreth: Hey, I remember that! I was one of your test subjects! In fact, I think I helped you obtain the EEG!

Eunice: You know, I wonder if there might be a good alternative for people with external genitalia, where you measure the blood flow into the penis…because that’s probably way easier than measuring brain activity… Franklin, you have external genitalia, I have an idea for you! 

Franklin: You have many ideas for me, some of them pretty uncomfortable. But I do have to admit, that would be a fascinating experiment. Anyone got a color Doppler ultrasound machine I can borrow?

Joreth: SquiggleCon 3?

Eunice: Done! Franklin, get working. So to drag it back to the actual point of this episode: where do we think remote sex tech is going in the future? This isn’t going to go away after the pandemic, we’re all just getting steadily more connected, with lovers scattered all over the world. Whether it’s because we connected over the internet in the first place, or because people move away sometimes. So, what do we think all this stuff going to look like in, say, 3 years? 5 years? 10 years? 

Joreth: Well, I see incremental advances over stuff that we can do now – remote controlled-at-a-distance toys, video sex, hopefully some decent and easily accessible VR. There was also some talk about combining those realistic sex dolls with some remote-controlled robotics so you can have basically sex with a robotic surrogate with your lover – each of you controlling the other’s sex doll from across distance. Now THAT could be interesting! I’ve always wanted to watch a partner have sex with a Real Doll that looked just like me.

Eunice: I feel like this would be really…odd for someone with anxiety and perfectionist tendencies… Score out of ten?

Joreth: That’s probably true.

Franklin: My partner Zaiah has long said she would love to watch me have sex with a realistic doll. It sounds vaguely uncomfortable to me, treating an inanimate thing like a lover. I’m a little glad they’re so expensive, so that fantasy is unlikely to be realized.

Eunice: Ah, mass manufacture, makes everything more attainable. Even when that might not be your idea of a great evening. Give it time!

Joreth: Yep, they’re getting cheaper. Kind of the opposite of an objectification fetish. I think I have a new long-term financial goal to strive for. Maybe I’ll team up with Zaiah on this one.

Eunice: Do we need to crowdfund this?

Franklin: Aaaaaaaagh! The uncanny valley is fucking creepy! And I’m going to safeword that crowdfunding.

Joreth: We’re about to make you have sex with a mass killing, ovipositor alien, but the uncanny valley is where you draw the line? OK.

Eunice: For now, anyway.

Franklin: Sex tech. Making life better since the late neolithic.

Eunice: Well, it’s making life better for your partners, right?

Franklin: You are all terrible people. 

Eunice: Hah, why thank you!

Joreth: But back to the point (we are so good at derailing!), I think we may be on the verge of some really interesting things that we might not even be able to predict, sort of a mini sexual singularity. Obligatory Demolition Man reference here.

Eunice: So, quick fire last question: snapshot prediction of sex tech in the next decade, go.

Franklin: I see great things for sex tech in the next 5-10 years. A bunch of companies are making tiny, Internet-capable, easy to program microcontrollers—I have a bunch of them on my workbench. 3D printers make it easy to print molds for casting silicone. I see an explosion both of mass-produced sex tech and underground maker-community sex tech, and I really think it’s going to take off over the next ten years. We’re going to start seeing people doing really really cool stuff with sensors and microcontrollers and embedded systems and hand-poured silicone.

Joreth: I’m hoping this brings not only new tech, but a new acceptance of tech and the internet and of alternative relationship structures. I’m old enough to remember the days when it was embarrassing to tell people you met your partner “online” and people would come up with elaborate backstories for how they met to tell their family. Thanks to the pandemic keeping *everyone* apart, I’d really like to see more widespread acceptance of long distance relationships, of alternative ways of meeting, and of being more open about using tech as a part of one’s sexual expression.

Eunice: So the experience of the last year has certainly had an impact on the sex lives of a whole bunch of people, and my prediction is that a lot of that sex tech is going to be about increasing connection, or at least the illusion of it. If you look at the whole thing with OnlyFans, it’s clear that the reason that took off is because it was all about the interactivity. You can watch all the porn you like, but what people pay for is connection, and for their favourite performers to notice them as individuals. When you merge that desire for connection with realistic sex robots, and remote control over VR….I bet you’re going to get a whole new genre of porn.

Franklin: That I probably won’t watch because I rarely watch porn.

Eunice: But the whole point is that you’d be involved! Right?

Franklin: So to wrap up: If you’re looking at sex toys right now, here’s issues that might come up, that we’d like to see people pay more attention to:

  1. Materials. You need to be choosing body-safe materials like medical grade silicone. Check the packaging—beware silicone “blends” or things with a strong smell when you open the package, they might contain volatile solvents. And don’t use silicone lubes with silicone toys.
  2. Security. Most people won’t know enough about infosec, or have the right gear, to be able to do a proper security audit on their new bluetooth remote vibrator. Look for reviews that suggest the manufacturer is good with security, or not.
  3. Acceptance. Lots and lots and lots of people are using more and more sex tech, especially with enforced isolation such as during a pandemic, and it’s way past time we got over our collective fear and shaming of it.
  4. Usage. Using the proper toys and tools for their intended, or at least not actively unsafe, use. Use waterproof toys for the shower or bath, items with flared bases for anal play, etc etc. I mean, pervertibles are a thing. We’re not suggesting…alternative uses for objects are verboten, just make sure they’re *safe* uses for those objects. Cos nurses will laugh at you if you come into A&E with something stuck where it shouldn’t be. If you’re polite, they’ll even wait until you’re out of sight first.

Franklin: So that’s what we’ve got. How about you guys? Send ideas, comments, ways you connect during a pandemic, or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. And if you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice. You can also visit www.skepticalpervert.com, where you can check out the show notes for links to the transcript and the studies we’re drawing from. And don’t forget to become a patron of the show by joining our patreon, which is linked on the website. The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted and produced by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper, edited by Joreth Innkeeper, and the website and show notes are maintained by Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: And remember to have lots of kinky VR robot sex!

Franklin: The uncanny valley makes me sad.

Eunice: And you’ll make kinky VR sex mistress sad if you don’t play. You don’t want to make her sad, do you? Mwahaha.

Episode 3: Sex in the Age of a Pandemic

So you may have noticed there’s a global plague happening right now. In the first part of a series on sex in the time of a pandemic, we look at how the age of COVID can affect people’s sex lives.

Transcript below:

Franklin: Welcome to Skeptical Perverts, a podcast where we talk about two of our favorite things – sex and reason! These don’t normally go together, especially in our society that’s hostile to sex (and, frankly, to logic and reason and science as well), so we want to do something about that. I’m your host and part-time mad scientist, Franklin Veaux.

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I have a background in human sexuality and relationship communication, I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, solopoly greysexual, bringing the East Asian British viewpoint and a touch of the genteel snark!

Franklin: We’ve been in the grip of a global pandemic for a year, and man, it’s been rough on a lot of people’s sex lives. So this is going to be a multi-parter on ‘Sex in the time of pandemic’. Starting us off today we’re going to talk about the mechanics of keeping yourself safe from COVID-19 whilst doing the naked mambo.

So, what does sex look like in an age of social distancing?

Joreth:  HAHAHA what sex?  I literally have not had sex since the first lockdown last March.  

Eunice: I think I vaguely remember what sex looks like.

Joreth:  On the one hand, having the low libido that is normally so problematic for my relationships because my partners get all upset that I’m not spontaneously aroused and initiating sex, has made the fact that I can’t have sex with anyone much, much easier.

On the other hand, I had finally gotten a couple of local-ish partners and was working on a couple more, and every single one of those got back-burnered thanks to this fucking pandemic and the country’s fucking response to it.

Eunice: In terms of different relationship styles, solo poly people are especially hard hit, I reckon. I mean, I might be biased, being solopoly myself, but having partners and knowing you still can’t actually see them in-person sucks. It’s practically taunting at that point. And no, nesting together would not make things better, assuming I even wanted to pick only one, because then I have to deal with the increased stress from having a partner around all the time! I don’t want romantic partners around all the time, that’s why I’m solo poly in the first place!

Joreth:  Yeah, not only do I live physically alone, but almost all of my partners are long distance, so I couldn’t even couple-up with any of them temporarily even if I wanted to, which I don’t.  I was prohibited from traveling at all, and if I wanted to violate the travel bans under the excuse that we’re quarantining together, it would have been a life-uprooting *move* across the country … during a pandemic.  

It’s one thing if you live in the same city and decide to temporarily nest up together, because your house or apartment or whatever is still there and you can leave most of your things behind and take your necessaries and then just visit your house when you need to.  But if you try to move in with a long-distance partner “temporarily”, that’s not a temporary move, that’s a real move.  

And it would be a very foolish decision to decide to move in with someone for a minimum of a year (as it turns out) when you previously only spent the occasional weekend together.

Eunice: I’ll be honest, I could handle maybe a week living with my partners, and then there’s gonna be a murder. Justifiable homicide, in my mind, but they’re still very messy so let’s avoid that. It’s hell on the soft furnishings, doncha know.

Franklin: Even those of us who have live-in lovers have suffered. I think it’s easy to forget it’s not just physical risk and social distancing that clobbers sex, but stress too. COVID has hit a lot of people, even people in traditional live-together monogamous relationships, very hard indeed. It’s difficult to feel sexy when you’re worried about money or family or losing your job.

There’s a study that talks about the impact stress has on sex. The tl;dr:

Research has shown that stressors and experienced stress are negatively correlated with sexual activity (i.e., behavior and satisfaction) within couples.

So stress makes people have less sex and enjoy the sex they have less, which is kind of fucked up because sex is a great stress reliever.

And of course this is a bad time to be single. It’s almost impossible to go on dates right now, and shelter in place guidelines make meeting people in traditional dating venues almost impossible.

Eunice: I’ll be honest, I’ve gotten more propositions than ever since lockdown started. Or maybe that might more accurately be described as noticed more propositions. Turns out being flirt-blind doesn’t matter quite so much when you have to be really blunt in text to be understood anyway! In terms of sex itself, though, what’s some of the official advice we’ve seen about how to safely do the horizontal tango in these desperate times?

Joreth:  Really, I haven’t seen much out there, officially, that wasn’t already standard safety advice, which is very frustrating.  I spend a lot of time yelling at my monogamous social circles who seem confused as to how to have safer sex, that poly people already have those guidelines in place.  Not that we’re all that great at *following* that advice, to be honest.

Eunice: True, consensually non-monogamous people are often already pretty au fait with sexual health advice, which has helped for sure. Open communication, frequent testing, and use of appropriate protection. What’s so hard to understand?

Franklin: We’ve looked at the official recommendations from health care providers, and for the most part, they’re about what you’d expect. Unsurprisingly, they’re largely focused on monogamous people’s sex, and their advice to folks who are single is largely absent. 

There are a few surprises in there, though, like when the CDC and the British Columbia Center for Disease Control suggesting gloryholes as a way to have sex in the age of plague.

Joreth: Yes, they literally suggested glory holes, not even paraphrasing.  Here’s the exact quote on British Columbia’s Centre for Disease Control’s website, from the second to last bullet point on their list of Steps To Protect Yourself During Sex:

“Use barriers, like walls (e.g., glory holes), that allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact.”

Eunice: My jaw is literally on the floor right now. And not even in the appropriate way to take advantage of this advice. What? This came from actual, official governmental recommendations?  

Franklin: It would be interesting to learn that glory holes became all but extinct because of the HIV pandemic, then came back because of the COVID pandemic.

Joreth:  There’s this article on Slate here, which is not anything remotely like a peer reviewed study, so take this with a grain of salt, but that talks about a resurgence in glory holes as a business because of the pandemic.  According to Slate, people are using Grindr (naturally) and other unnamed “online directories” to find places that offer literally a hole in a wall for a penis to penetrate someone on the other side of the wall with no contact.

One man has been operating a glory hole business for apparently 20 years and says that his business has seen an “uptick” thanks to the recommendations from BC’s CDC and the New York City paper recommending glory holes.  He also says that he’s been talking with other people on Twitter who have installed glory holes because of the pandemic, so he thinks it’s definitely growing.

Eunice: Other than our return to the, heh, glory days of the 70s, a lot of the advice earlier in the pandemic really reminded me of the abstinence-only sex ed programs, and we have numerous studies talking about how successful those were on preventing sexual activity. Which is to say, not at all. 

Franklin: Yes. Human beings are sexually motivated, which means useful advice needs to account for that. “Just don’t” isn’t useful advice. Useful advice is about harm reduction, not moralizing or shaming.

Eunice: Fortunately, they seem to be doing a bit better in some of the examples we found! I really liked the San Francisco Department of Public Health guidance that they put out in September 2020. They have a nice little scale, for one thing, that goes from lower risk to higher risk activities without stigmatising or making assumptions about your relationship styles. And it mentions some things that I haven’t really seen in the other documents, like, quote:

People are not positive or negative. Tests are. We know from other pandemics that it is important not to stigmatize people who are infected, or who test positive.” 

Stigmatising people doesn’t help, and might just make it more likely they’ll hide symptoms. Admittedly, that’s not as likely with this pandemic as it was historically with others. So anyway, the activities they listed, in order of lower risk to higher risk are:

  • Virtual sex, masturbation, sex talk, porn while alone or with someone in your household  

Franklin: This one seems like a gimme to me. The only kind of virus you can even possibly transmit this way is the computer kind. A lot of folks worry, of course, about their pictures being spread out of their control, and that is a real risk, so some folks might not want to do this online. I do think that probably happens less often than a lot of folks think, though. A lot of people exchange sexy photos with each other! Maybe we should talk about this in a future episode.

Eunice: Yeah, watch this space! This next one is also obvious

  • Sex with household members only, indoors or out  

Although I do like that they mention outdoor sex! It seems like a lot of the advice assumes that you’ll always have your sex indoors, maybe in a nice comfy bed, since you’re living together anyway, which isn’t necessarily going to be the case for everyone. Getting caught for public indecency – or at least the risk of it – is one way to spice up your sex life, I guess! 

Joreth:  I like these next couple of bullet points because it doesn’t assume monogamy, or even cohabitation, unlike most of the other advice I’ve heard.  

  • Sex with a small, stable group of partners outdoors, or indoors with windows open and increased ventilation, touched surfaces and shared objects are wiped down  
  • Sex with a small stable group of partners indoors with little or no ventilation, all shared objects and shared touched surfaces are wiped down  

These are both very similar except for minor differences, mostly having to do with ventilation.  So let’s talk about that.  There are a billion other podcasts and articles and websites elaborating on what we know of the novel Coronavirus known as COVID-19, but basically it’s a respiratory infection that is passed via water droplets that we spit all over people when we talk, sneeze, and just breathe.

The important part here, much like with “toxins”, is that dose matters.  How concentrated your exposure is directly affects your risk level of getting a high enough viral load that your body can’t fight off, leading to you getting sick.

This is why outdoors is being recommended for any socializing that people absolutely must engage in – all the germy breath we keep breathing at people gets diluted with the massive amounts of air just generally outside hanging around the planet, so even if someone walks through a cloud of your lung vapor that you just expelled outdoors, it could get spread out so thin that the viral load isn’t high enough to “stick” in your body.

So, while you’re having sex, if you do it like it’s the First of May every day, you decrease your transmission risk.  But if you’re indoors in a closed room with all that heavy breathing in each other’s faces, you’re basically drowning in each other’s germs.  

Honestly, as someone with a chronic respiratory health issue, people’s willingness to casually kiss and get in each other’s face socially has always disturbed me more than high numbers of sexual partners.  Barriers make activities like penetration a lot less life-threatening than, say, strangers invading my personal space and talking at me.

I might be an introvert.

Eunice: God knows I’m an introvert. And honestly, kissing in a respiratory pandemic is high risk, but then it always has been! We’ve just never treated it that way. And they pretty explicitly mention it in this last, highest risk, point too:

  • Sex with more people, less distance, more time indoors with small and/or poorly ventilated spaces, close sharing of breath, lips, mouth, eyes, unprotected anal play, and all objects shared without wiping down

Franklin: This seems like it ought to be filed under “Should Be Obvious” to me. You’re concentrating virus-laden droplets in a small space and then locking lips with a bunch of other folks. I mean, c’mon, you’re almost trying to spread coronavirus!

Eunice: I’m bewildered that ‘unprotected anal play’ and ‘objects shared without wiping down’ even need to be included there. Like, who does that?

Franklin: Clearly, someone must be. Okay, if you’re listening to this podcast: Wipe down your sex toys before you hand them off to the next person if you aren’t fluid-bonded.

Joreth:  I mean, warning labels exist because someone did that shit first, right?  Also, even if you are fluid-bonded, you should be wiping off your sex toys before handing them to the next person, particularly if the next person is going to be inserting that toy into their vagina.  Vaginas are notoriously finicky and will get yeast infections at the slightest provocation.  Also, change your condoms between partners.

Eunice: I feel like saying “that doesn’t need to be said!” but thinking about people, it probably does. Condoms are single use only, folks. I’m pretty sure they come with an instructional leaflet that mentions that. Although it reminds me of those packets of nuts with the warning label “may contain nuts”. I mean, I certainly hope so, since I just bought a packet of nuts!

Franklin: Or shirts with the warning label “remove shirt before ironing.”

Joreth:  OK, look, I tried to build a dance bubble using, basically, fluid-bonding guidelines.  Like, we all agree not to dance with anyone other than us, right?  So this worked for a while, and then my dance partner announced that he got cast in a play.  A live play that was going to be performed live for a live audience right in the middle of the pandemic.  

And that they won’t be wearing masks on stage.  Because I guess you can’t act with masks on?  So I pointed out the danger there of being on stage and acting in close contact with people without masks, and he says that they all wear their masks the whole time in rehearsal except for the part where they’re on stage.

Uh, dude, damage is done.  You just spent an hour projecting into someone else’s face.  That mask while you’re sitting in the seats on a break isn’t doing anyone any good anymore.  And guess what?  Half that cast ended up getting COVID.  Someone’s grandfather got it, passed it to them, who promptly infected the cast.

So, yeah, I don’t have a dance bubble anymore.  My point is that, yes, we apparently do have to tell people shit like “close sharing of breath” is high fucking risk during a respiratory pandemic.

Eunice: Did you see that image of the number of people who would get infected if you had a choir singing together? It’s not just the people directly around the infected person because guess what, air circulates and you’re puffing and blowing away up there! According to the CDC, there was a case of a choir in Skagit County, Washington, where one member had Covid-19. 87% of the group caught it! And most of them were probably not even facing each other directly, the way you might during a play!

Franklin: So what do you do if you’re at home, especially if you’re single, and you haven’t gone out or had sex in a year? I kinda feel the existing advice is largely “stay abstinent” and that’s not helpful. What do you do?

Eunice: Become asexual? I mean, it feels like that was my solution. ‘Solution’ may be too strong a word there, admittedly. In all seriousness, though…

Joreth:  Yeah, I wish I had better advice, because all my partners were higher risk than I was comfortable with, like being a teacher in a state that opened up schools last Fall or too long distance and would require air travel to see, so I basically chose to be celibate all year.  But being on the ace spectrum, I *could* do that.  Although I think that even I am finding a limit to that about now.

Eunice: My biggest issue isn’t the lack of sex, it’s the lack of touch. Touch starvation is a real problem and I’m really missing cuddles.

Joreth:  It totally is a thing!  Right before the pandemic, I had been suffering from massive touch starvation because of how my previous relationship a couple of years ago ended, and I was posting about it.  A friend who was suffering similarly propositioned me for a relationship I had never considered before – a cuddle partner.  We negotiated it just like a regular romantic-sexual relationship, but with cuddling being our goal.  And now, thanks to the pandemic, I can’t even get that much.  But that’s also why I tried making a dance bubble – because I get some amount of intimate touch from partner dancing, but that also fell apart with other people’s unsafe socialization practices.

Eunice: Yeah, I went from doing partnered dancing and hosting meetups multiple times a week in 2019 to not being in the same physical space as anyone for most of 2020. So what to do?

Joreth:  One solution is cuddle pillows!  One of my partners and I, in the Before Times, used to exchange pillows when we visited each other – we’d sleep with the other person’s pillow during the visit, and then when we went back home, we’d take our respective pillows home that now smelled like the other person and we could cuddle … or, er, whatever, the pillow.

Eunice: And you can do the same thing with just wearing a t-shirt to bed for a while, and then posting them to each other. Put that t-shirt over a pillow you already own, and boom, your pillow now smells of your partner.

Franklin: Part of my solution has been writing far-future, post-scarcity erotic science fiction novels with Eunice. My sex life hasn’t been so great since COVID, but I’ve never been so creatively productive in my entire life. So maybe sublimation is a solution for some people?

Joreth:  Maybe if anything good can come out of this, the pandemic can teach us to reexamine some of our unspoken assumptions about what our relationships can or should look like?  Like, maybe Lucy and Desi from I Love Lucy weren’t completely prudish for having separate beds? I kinda think that practice ought to be making a comeback.  I mean, share bed space when you want to, but does it have to be a default?  And maybe some times ought to be deliberately slept apart.  And designing our living space to accommodate that should be a little more common.

Eunice: I’ve been quite disappointed with the way that a lot of the polyamorous communities have gone rather mono-normative in response to this pandemic, even if I understand why. You’d think if anyone, it would be the communities that already have a wide diversity of relationship styles that would lead the way on how to think about and make space for safely interacting outside of nuclear households?

Franklin: I mean, it kinda makes sense, if the norm you grew up with is monogamy and you’re faced with a situation where you think meeting other people is inherently dangerous.

Still, there has to be a better way. If you don’t want to say “revert back to monogamy,” how do you have sex and keep it reasonably safe from the plague? Besides “gloryholes,” I mean. Not that I’m knocking gloryholes, but they’re not everyone’s hole in the wall, if you take my drift.

Eunice: So if we’re not saying “everyone should just use gloryholes”, what are we suggesting?

Franklin: One possibility is quarantining with more than one person, though that’s not available to everyone. Not all non-monogamous people are independently wealthy, after all! Of course, there’s always text sex and online cam sex, which is fun even though it doesn’t really give you that physical connection. Done creatively, it’s a blast, though it isn’t a substitute for human contact. And something that can be a lot of fun is reading erotica together…or hey, writing erotica together.

Eunice: Well, not everyone is us, but I can definitely confirm it can be great fun. 10 out of 10, would cause massive sexual frustration and wet dreams for a partner again! 

Franklin: That’s because you’re terrible. Also, 10/10, can confirm.

Eunice: Well, thank you. Also phone apps to control remote sex toys, say by waking your lover up at 4am with a vibrator, are a thing. Which we’ll be talking more about in a future episode!

Joreth:  I am a big fan of the remote controlled vibrator!  I feel that it brings a sense of togetherness from a distance.

Eunice: Just, um, don’t forget to replace the batteries in the remote as well, if that’s important. You know, not that I’ve accidentally been sat in a Parisian restaurant going “Well where are we going to get Double A batteries at 9.30 at night in Paris??” or anything.

Joreth:  LOL, yeah, my last partner that controlled my vibe ended up killing his phone while he was out and no chance to charge it, because he controlled it through his phone.  And in one of my RC vibes, when the remote loses connection, the vibe just resets itself to STEADY ON and if you’re in a restaurant, it can be … inconvenient to reach down and turn it off manually.  Fresh batteries!

Franklin: You heard it here, folks. Practice safe tech sex.

Eunice: Anyway, here’s a list of the basics from the Mayo Clinic, most of which are probably already obvious to you or we’ve already mentioned earlier in the episode:

  • Minimize the number of sexual partners you have.
  • Avoid sex partners who have symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Avoid kissing.
  • Avoid sexual behaviors that have a risk of fecal-oral transmission or that involve semen or urine.
  • Use condoms and dental dams during oral and anal sex.
  • Wear a mask during sexual activity.
  • Wash your hands and shower before and after sexual activity.
  • Wash sex toys before and after using them.
  • Use soap or alcohol wipes to clean the area where you have sexual activity.

Joreth: And here is our list of extra ideas for the fun stuff, to add onto that!

  1. Have sex doggie style with cohabiting partners. Or whatever position keeps your faces away from each other. Reverse cowgirl?
  2. Modify a “fluid bond” group into a “covid bond” group – a small number of partners who agree to a similar level of approved self-quarantining and only have sex with those people.
  3. Have sex outdoors. Fresh air is good for you!
  4. Date virtually for now. Have you tried having family porn nights? Polyfamily, obviously, not biofamily.
  5. Masturbation! Especially if you’re watching each other at the time.
  6. Especially if you’re putting each other on a strict wank schedule.
  7. Cuddle pillows! 
  8. Remote control sex toys.

Joreth:  Try not to fall into mononormative defaults by coupling up with few or no barriers and leaving your other partners to face the pandemic alone simply because they happened to be the partners you didn’t meet first and sign a mortgage with.

Franklin: So that’s what we’ve got. How about you guys? Send ideas, comments, ways you connect during a pandemic, or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. And if you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or your podcatcher of choice.  You can also visit www.skepticalpervert.com, where you can check out the show notes for links to the transcript and the studies we’re drawing from.  And don’t forget to become a patron of the show by joining our patreon, which is linked on the website.  The Skeptical Pervert is copyrighted and produced by Franklin Veaux, Eunice Hung, and Joreth Innkeeper, edited by Joreth Innkeeper, and the website and show notes are maintained by Franklin Veaux.

Eunice:  And remember, have safer pandemic sex!  Try not to breathe!

Franklin: Remember, we all have two minutes to live, but every time you breathe the clock is reset.