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.

The Skeptical Pervert Episode 2: Aphrodisiacs

Aphrodisiacs! What are they? Are they real? Is there, in fact, something you can take to make you horny? In this episode, we explore aphrodisiacs, the mythology around them, the scientific evidence (spoiler: every food or supplement that’s been tested in double-blind studies has failed), and the new class of melanocortin-agonist aphrodisiac drugs.

In this episode, we discuss aphrodisiacs and our own experience with bremelanotide, the first aphrodisiac to pass double-blind clinical trials. Transcript below.

Franklin: Hello! Welcome to Skeptical Perverts, a podcast where we talk about 2 of our favorite things – logic and sex! These two things 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’ve spent a number of years in several different schools studying a bunch of different subjects, one of which was human sexuality and relationships. 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, grey-ace cis woman and polyam community organiser, bringing the East Asian British viewpoint and a touch of genteel bewilderment!

Franklin: Before we get started, you should know this podcast is probably not safe for work, unless you have a really interesting job. You should probably also be over 18 to listen. We talk frankly about human sexuality from an evidence-based perspective. In this, our first episode, we’re going to turn a skeptical eye to…aphrodisiacs!

Eunice: So firstly, what exactly is an aphrodisiac? 

Franklin:  An aphrodisiac, named unsurprisingly for the Greek goddess Aphrodite, is anything a person can take to cause sexual arousal. People have been looking for the perfect aphrodisiac for a long time. Lots of superstitions have grown up around things to make people horny, from powdered rhinoceros horn to oysters to squashed bugs. Often, if it looked like genitals, the ancients figured it worked on genitals. But until recently, none of them have worked.

Joreth: Years ago, Penn & Teller did an episode on their show Bullshit! on aphrodisiacs that I highly recommend, and they covered a lot that we’re going to mention here. One of the reasons why we want to start with aphrodisiacs, though, is because all 3 of us have personal, first-hand experience with them that we wanted to share. However, this leads us to the first thing that we need to, as the title of our podcast says – be skeptical of! 

Eunice: Wait, how exactly are we defining ‘skeptical’, here?

Joreth: Well, the word “skeptic” comes from the Greek word “skeptikoi” meaning “seekers” or “inquirers”. It’s not about doubting or debunking anything, it’s more of a toolkit or a way of looking at the world. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are cynical, it doesn’t mean that you’re a doubter, it means that you are open to inquiry and that you inquire rationally about all of the things that you’re talking about.

Eunice: Absolutely, and I want to make it clear that this is why we look for scientific studies. It’s not that personal experience means nothing, but the plural of anecdote is not data – evidence isn’t only a bunch of first hand experiences. Not even ours! You really need good, solid studies with a decent methodology and lots of subjects – preferably double blind studies, they’re the gold standard, right?

Joreth: Yes! The whole reason the three of us decided to try the aphrodisiacs that we did is because there is scientific data behind them, but, because we *do* have first-hand experience with one of them, we can bring that experience into this episode to share with the listeners! If we had only our experiences alone, that would not be good enough to reach our conclusions. Anecdotes are not data, but they can be good for *illustrating* the data.

Franklin: So first, a little history. From the dawn of time until about 1962, every aphrodisiac ever invented by humanity…didn’t work, except as placebo. Of all the various potions and pills people invented to make themselves horny, all of them, without exception, failed double blind tests.

Eunice: And before we go any further, a double blind study is one where neither the participants nor the researcher knows who gets the placebo and who gets the real deal. 

Joreth: Yep! If a test subject in a study knows what they’re getting, that knowledge can influence the outcome. It’s not quite “mind over matter”, it’s more like “I want to be a good research participant, so I’ll massage my responses to what the researcher wants to hear” – and that’s mostly subconscious, not deliberate. So then, if the researcher knows what the recipient is getting, they could accidentally taint the results by giving away clues that let the recipient know what they’re getting. Then, the only way to get untainted responses is for nobody to know who gets what and then just see what happens without anyone’s subconsciousness influencing their reporting of the subjective results.

Eunice: So we mentioned placebos before – does anyone want to give a quick overview of how placebos and the placebo effect works?

Joreth: There are some pretty big misconceptions about what the placebo effect is. Most people think it’s a kind of form of “mind over matter”, meaning that if you think a medicine will work, then it will actually fix you. But that’s not what the placebo effect does. The placebo effect is “the psychological manipulation of subjective experiences on non-specific symptoms”. So, put simply, it means that nothing about the body actually changes – if you broke your leg, the leg is still broken. You just don’t mind the pain quite so much.

Franklin: Y’know, I hear morphine does that too. Although morphine actually works. For some people, anyway – apparently I’m weird and it didn’t work for me. When I burned my foot, it just made me violently sick.

Joreth: Yeah, it’s usually a little more effective than that for most people. So a placebo is a subjective experience, but the objective problem is still objectively a problem. In a 2001 meta analysis of clinical trials with placebo groups and no treatment groups, they found no evidence for a placebo effect on objectively measured outcome, and a possible small benefit in studies with continuous subjective outcomes like pain. In a 2004 and 2007 follow up analysis, they found similar results plus increased evidence of bias in smaller trials that calls into question the apparent placebo effect on subjective outcomes.

[insert P&T clip re: placebo effect of aphrodisiacs]?

Eunice: So when it comes to aphrodisiacs, the placebo effect means that just because you subjectively think you’re getting aroused by, say, ingesting ground up tiger penises (can I say, eww, and also those tigers could make way better use of those penises, just saying), it doesn’t mean that you will actually become aroused by any physiological metric, right?

Joreth: Correct.  You’re *thinking* about sex and thinking about getting aroused (which is why you snorted dried animal schlong in the first place, or whatever), so you start getting aroused because you’re thinking about sex and getting aroused, but the powdered cat dong isn’t what’s doing it for you.

Eunice: So anyway, back to Franklin’s quickfire history of aphrodisiacs, before we get sidetracked again. We are super good at this keeping on track thing, aren’t we? 

Franklin: Well, people have been looking for aphrodisiacs for a long time. Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote that people ate lizard skins as aphrodisiacs in ancient Rome and Greece. There are a lot of foods that are supposedly aphrodisiacs – raw oysters, for instance, which are actually kind of disgusting, 

Eunice: Hey, I dispute that! Citation needed.

Franklin: Strawberries, chocolate, figs, garlic of all things (I can’t imagine, y’know, being turned on and then having garlic breath, but, whatever), 

Eunice: Have you seen the amount of garlic I eat? It’s never stopped you.

Joreth: So I’ve definitely heard of the oysters, strawberries and chocolate. I’ve also heard of green M&Ms, and ground up insects from South America, y’know, like Spanish Fly?

Eunice: Wasn’t that an irritation thing? And that caused inflammation and swelling on the way out of the body, which led to erections? Doesn’t sound pleasant but maybe peeing blood in the emergency room is your idea of romance, which, no judgement.

Franklin: The pangolin, a type of anteater, is being hunted to extinction for traditional Chinese aphrodisiacs, which are made from pangolin fetuses–I swear I am not making this up. And rhinoceros horn is considered to be a magic aphrodisiac and a cure-all by a lot of people, and it’s one of the reasons why black rhinoceros, rhinoceri? black rhinoceros are ending up extinct!

Joreth: A lot of people who know me *now* might not believe this, but I’m actually just a tree-hugging California hippie at heart. When I learned how many of my alternative supplements I was taking were actually directly causing the extinction of wild animals and destroying the natural ecology of Asia, Africa, and South America, I was pretty pissed off!  And they didn’t even work! I hate being suckered.

Eunice: Yup. But then, humans have a looong history of being suckered, so you’re not alone. So, what about non-food aphrodisiacs?

Franklin: Well, there’s a common aphrodisiac that’s the pheromone perfume which is made from pig saliva – you see this shit all over the internet. Pheromones are hormones that influence behaviour outside the body, so yes, they are actually real things. A lot of animals, mostly insects, use pheromones for everything from scent trails to mating, and so there are some folks that think that anything that works on bees and rabbits must work on people too. It’s not totally clear to me why we think that pig pheromones would work on humans. I haven’t heard of very many cases of pig farmers, I don’t know, being driven mad by lust for barnyard animals or something, but I suppose people have all kinds of kinks.

Eunice: Well, there’s a reason that human flesh was called ‘long pig’. We have a lot of physiological similarities, after all. We taste pretty similar to pork (apparently). We could even do transplants on humans with organs taken from pigs, if we wanted.

Franklin: So Penn & Teller actually did a really really clever experiment a few years back where they wanted to evaluate whether or not pig pheromone cologne actually caused heightened sexual response in humans and it was really well set up. They used a couple of identical twins and one of them was given a pheromone spray and one of them wasn’t.

Joreth: I love this episode. Now, I don’t always agree with Penn & Teller, but what I do love about them and their show, is that they’re just a couple of guys who ask questions. That’s pretty much the definition of skepticism. They don’t rule things out automatically, they ask if it’s true, and they form their opinions based on the evidence. 

And that’s another trait of skepticism – when the evidence comes in, you accept it. You don’t keep asking questions for the sake of being contrary or to keep pushing until you can prove the conclusion you want to be true. The whole “I’m just asking questions to settle issues with scientific consensus” is not skepticism, it’s denialism.

Eunice: Yeah, we’ve been seeing a lot of that recently.

Joreth: Anyway, in episode 6 of season 1, Sex Sex Sex, Penn and Teller get to aphrodisiacs about 17 and a half minutes into it, starting with food [insert P&T clip]. 

So this is a great example of Confirmation Bias. Even though she says that she doesn’t believe they existed, she used her own observations in a way that does not eliminate personal bias to form her conclusions. Eye witness anecdotes are notoriously awful for accurately evaluating reality.

Eunice: And we’re no different! We’re using our experiences as personal examples to illustrate the things we see in the research, not suggesting that our experiences are more accurate than the studies that are out there, even if we had different results than the subjects of those studies did. There could be a thousand things we’re missing, due to confirmation bias like Joreth mentioned before, or other confounding factors. 

Joreth: Yeah, so right after that bit, about 20 minutes into the episode, we see the pheromone test. [insert P&T clip about the twins test] 

Franklin: And there it is, Mr. Confounding Factor!

Joreth: So apparently it’s a good thing to get sloppy seconds?

Franklin: Well, your kink is OK, I’m down with that.

Joreth: I’m betting that the women in the test were just primed because of the first dude, so the second dude seemed to get hotter now that they were all bothered by the first dude. The pheromone cologne had nothing to do with it. 

Franklin: And yet this stuff still sells like crazy. I see it all over the internet from like $8 a bottle up to hundreds of dollars a bottle! And what’s really interesting about that is there is this MIT researcher named Dan Ariely and he actually did an experiment that showed that more expensive placebos had a bigger purported effect than cheap placebos. So I wonder if that means that hundred dollar pig drool brings more ladies to the yard than $8 pig drool does?

Joreth: Hey, pig drool is natural, so natural things are good right? That’s how the Appeal to Nature Fallacy says it works anyway – give up all processed and man-made stuff and stick to organic and “natural” foods?

Franklin: Of course, arsenic, cocaine, and botulism are also natural, on the other hand computers, sanitation, eye glasses, and ibuprofen are all artificial and guess which ones I would rather be exposed to? There are people, speaking of cocaine, who do think that cocaine is an aphrodisiac?  Same for amphetamines, alcohol, and those things can actually have an effect on your sexual performance, of course, cocaine and amphetamines are both stimulants so they jack up your nervous system until it’s about ready to fall out of your body, and alcohol can reduce inhibition, but they’re technically not aphrodisiacs.

Eunice: So, are there actually any real aphrodisiacs?

Franklin: Well, moving closer to present day, 1962 was a good-news, bad-news year. The good news: scientists finally discovered an aphrodisiac that worked. The bad news: it only worked in rats. The aphrodisiac, α-Melanocyte-stimulating hormone, or α-MSH, works on melanocortin receptors in the body and brain. α-MSH was originally investigated as a sunless tanning agent. The idea was to stimulate the process in the body that causes the skin to darken when it’s exposed to ultraviolet light. When given to rats, it had the unexpected side effect of making them horny.

Joreth: Ooh, I wouldn’t mind a good sunless tanning agent! I am a California girl, after all! I do like my tan, but I don’t so much like skin cancer!

Franklin: Right? The marketing possibilities are endless. Anyway, fast forward to 2005, when a researcher named Mac Hadley injected himself with a peptide similar to α-MSH and ended up with an eight-hour erection.

Eunice: Can I just say, 8 hours sounds super uncomfortable, and I don’t even have external genitalia. 

Franklin: Right? Development of melanocortin-receptor drugs for sunless tanning met with mediocre success, but in 2006, a small pharmaceutical company called Palatin Technologies started exploring the idea of α-MSH-like drugs as aphrodisiacs. They developed a drug called PT-141, or bremelanotide, which became the world’s first aphrodisiac to pass double-blind studies in humans. 

Joreth: Yeah, it started out as a nasal spray, which is kind of a weird idea if you think about it: “here, put this up your nose, it’ll get you hot!” 

Eunice: Let’s be honest, it wouldn’t be the weirdest thing people have tried…

Franklin: In 2007, the FDA shut down clinical trials, officially because they were worried about PT-141 increasing blood pressure, anecdotally because the Bush White House didn’t like the idea of an aphrodisiac drug.

Eunice: Eh, Republicans. They’re so repressed. And I’m saying that as a Brit, with a political ruling class who practically wank over Maggie Thatcher every night.

Franklin: As a result, weirdly, bremelanotide is the first true aphrodisiac to be discovered, but not the first to be approved. Flibanserin, sold under the brand name Addyi, is a serotonin agonist approved to treat hypoactive sexual disorder in 2015, albeit with a long list of warnings and drug interaction precautions and two failed previous attempts at approval in 2010 and 2013. It has not been a market success, as it works on only about 10% of people who take it.

Eunice: So what’s the difference between the two? I assume they work in different ways? 

Franklin: Bremelanotide and flibanserin work in completely different ways. Flibanserin is a serotonin agonist; biochemically, it works much the way hallucinogens like psilocybin and LSD, some antipsychotics, and some antidepressants work, just on different receptors in the brain. 

Bremelanotide, on the other hand, is a melanocortin receptor agonist. It stimulates expression of melanin, the pigment in skin that causes tanning, but weirdly also seems to stimulate dopamine in the medial preoptic area, which is involved in the sexual behaviour of a number of animals, though the exact mechanism by which this happens isn’t well understood.

Joreth: Yeah, so in 2014, Palatin Technologies started new clinical trials for bremelanotide, only this time with an injectable version, and it got approved to treat “female hyposexuality disorder” just a couple of years ago in 2019!

Eunice: Or more formally known as either Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder in women or Sexual Aversion Disorder. Can you hear me grinding my teeth right now?

Joreth: Yeeeaaaahhhh…. So let’s talk about this for a minute. Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, or HSDD is where someone has no libido, basically, and Sexual Aversion Disorder is where someone has an active distaste for sex and sexual activity. Both are listed as a *pathology* by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, or NCBI and the National Institutes of Health – which more or less means that if you have no libido or a dislike for sex, then there is something *wrong* with you and you are broken. Rather than, y’know, lack of desire merely being part of the vast diversity that is the human sexual experience.

Eunice: I swear, if I keep gritting my teeth this way, I’m gonna need to go back to the dentist. Anyway, for anyone out there who is experiencing this situation in their own life: firstly, this is not an issue that makes you broken. Or weird. Or unable to be loved or in relationships or any of that…rubbish. And secondly, it doesn’t only affect women, or even only people with vulvas. 

Franklin: Plus have you noticed that women are considered pathological if they’re too horny or not horny enough?

Eunice: Welcome to the female experience of society?

Joreth: To be fair, the International Society for Sexual Medicine actually says the words “Hypoactive sexual desire disorder is a troublesome condition in which women lose interest in sex.” and “HSDD is chronic and causes great distress for both women and their partners. A woman may not know why she’s lost her sex drive. Her partner might become frustrated and worry about the fate of the relationship”. It’s important to note that “distress” is considered an important criteria for a “disorder” diagnosis. If someone is not distressed by something, then even if they have that thing, it’s generally not diagnosed as a disorder. 

Eunice: Yeah, but distress is such a socially determined thing, right? Cos ‘I’m distressed because society tells me I’m broken for not wanting sex’ isn’t treated any differently from ‘I’m really frustrated because I love connecting with my partners through intimate sexual activity and I’m not getting any’.

Joreth: Exactly. Notice that “her partner might become frustrated…” is part of the description. Although I am someone who cares about my partners’ happiness and satisfaction, my partner being frustrated about my libido has always been a much bigger problem for me than my lack of libido was itself. According to the diagnosis, if I’m distressed over my partners being frustrated with my lack of desire, then that makes it pathological.  MY pathology, MY disorder. 

I think it might be better to treat it as a social issue that my partners can get so upset at MY lack of sex drive, that their upset interferes with or inhibits my life to such a degree that doctors are willing to pathologize my stress at my partners being upset about what’s going on with MY body.

If my partners in the past had put less pressure on the success of our relationship resting on my willingness to have sex, then my lack of libido at various times wouldn’t have bothered me much at all. 

Franklin: And what’s weird about that is Palatin Technologies originally sought FDA approval for bremelanotide for men, since it gives you an erection in addition to making you horny. They wanted to market it as a competitor for Viagra. But the FDA approved it as a drug to treat low libido in women

Eunice: Huh…now I’m wondering how they would approach a situation where someone has only lost the taste for PIV (or penis in vagina) sex, but they’re otherwise up for other types of sex. Cos I gotta say, as a bisexual woman….I have so many other options. In other words, dudes: up your game! With other people, I mean. I’m kinda ok with taking a moratorium on new cishet guys for a bit. Oh! I’m wondering if there’s another episode in that. Maybe like, 3 episodes.

Franklin: Going back to aphrodisiacs, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention that Viagra is not an aphrodisiac. A lot of folks don’t really understand the difference between aphrodisiacs and anti-ED drugs. Bremelanotide is not like Viagra. Viagra doesn’t make you horny.

Viagra works on the walls of blood vessels. It was originally intended to be an antianginal drug, not a penis pill. It interferes with an enzyme in the body that regulates muscle tone in the walls of blood vessels, which reduces blood pressure and also, as it turns out, allows blood to flow into the penis more easily, causing an erection. But it isn’t, and never was intended to be, a libido-enhancing pill.

Eunice: So Franklin, what actually happened when you took PT-141, and how was that different to when you tried Viagra?

Franklin: Now, PT-141 doesn’t work for everyone – only about 25% of users in clinical trials reported a noticeable effect on libido – but Bremelanotide, as it turns out, works really well on me. I tried some bremelanotide from a custom peptide supply house as a nasal spray first, which didn’t do anything at all. Then I tried it as an injectable, and man, it worked like gangbusters.

At first, I didn’t think it’d work. Half an hour after I took it, nothing. An hour after I took it, nada. I was like, oh well, guess I’m not one of the folks it works on. And then, wham! It started with my face and hands feeling hot. Then I got a monster hard-on out of nowhere. And then it hit like a truck. We’re not talking ordinary garden-variety sexual arousal here, we’re talking horniness that would make a bishop kick a hole in a cinder-block wall. There was nothing subtle about it. In fact, the far-future science fiction erotic novels I’ve written with Eunice, starting with The Brazen Altar, have a drug called the Blessing of Fire that is a powerful aphrodisiac, and the descriptions of what it feels like in the novel comes from my experience with bremelanotide.

Viagra, on the other hand, gives me a hardon that doesn’t go away, and decreases my refractory period, but it doesn’t get me hot.

Joreth: Eunice, you took it too, didn’t you? What happened to you?

Eunice: Before I go into any detail, I should caveat that I took what we later found out was a super low dose. About a 5th of the normal dose, in fact. Via nasal spray too, which like Franklin found, is typically less likely to be successful. And what I experienced was…drumroll please…absolutely nothing. I’m still rather annoyed by that, it would have been really interesting for me to experience an arousal that didn’t take me, like, an hour to crank into life for the first time in rather a lot of years. But yeah, nothing happened. Absolute zilch. And that sucked. What about you, Joreth?

Joreth: I consider myself on the asexual spectrum. I have what’s called a Responsive Libido, which we’ll cover more in-depth in another episode. But the short explanation is that my body doesn’t generally feel sexual arousal spontaneously. Usually sexual stuff has to start happening and then my brain goes “oh, that’s right, we like this! OK body, fire up the engines!” It has taken me most of my adult life to figure all the peculiarities of how my libido works and how to make it work for me.

So when Franklin told me there was this drug currently in Phase 3 clinical trials that I could obtain that seemed to jump-start arousal, I was pretty excited at the idea of having deliberate control over my libido. My body rests in an “off” state by default, and then it takes me forever to get ramped up. If I could take a drug, say, when I know I’m having a date with my partner who I enjoy connecting with through sexual activity, and that drug could make me aroused in time for the sexyfuntimes? Hell yeah, I wanted to try it!

Eunice: Yeah, as someone who has also been functionally grey-asexual for…oh, a bunch of years (and 2020 has definitely not helped with that), I was really excited by the possibility of being able to control when my body felt arousal, and with whom. I’m not distressed by not having sex. I’m distressed by not having control over when my body wants sex. Or, well, doesn’t want, to be more accurate.

Joreth: Yeah, unlike the descriptions of pathological sex disorders, I’m not distressed by not being interested in sex. I’m distressed at not being able to *choose* when I have a physiological response to sex, and I’d like the option to be able to “switch it on” at will.

Eunice: It’s a matter of agency, right? Getting to control your bodily responses, the way that people with penises can control their erections with Viagra – and don’t think we didn’t notice how much sooner Viagra was commercially available than anything for women!

Joreth: Yep, women’s arousal and excitement is pathological in part because our partners are distressed by it, but our arousal is also not really *necessary* for sex, whereas, apparently, a hard penis is, so that’s the drug we got first. End sarcasm.

Eunice: I gotta say, I get a feeling that for certain types of people, the lack of female arousal during sex was a feature, not a bug…

Joreth: That’s probably also true. It’s an interesting dichotomy to live under – if we don’t feel arousal, it’s distressing for our partners, but if we do feel arousal, especially if we don’t have a socially sanctioned partner, that’s also a problem.

Franklin: Of course, for some of us, when we do feel aroused we are distressed by our partners, often vigorously and for extended periods of time. I won’t mention any names… *ahem* Eunice *ahem* Joreth *ahem*.

Eunice: ‘Distressed’ is a very strange way of saying ‘screaming in pleasure’.

Franklin: Sure. Pleasure. We’ll go with that.

Joreth: So, having control over my own libido as a way of taking some control over my agency is important to me. I determined the lowest dose and highest dose from the various studies and embarked on a “scientific experiment” of my own. First I tried the nasal spray at the lowest dose and not only did I feel no arousal, I felt a prohibitive amount of pain from the spray – I have never been able to tolerate nasal sprays.

So I immediately switched to the subcutaneous injections at the lowest dose, and no response. I continued to up the dose in regular increments, with no response, until I reached the highest tested dose, when I finally got a reaction! It made me so violently ill for 24 hours that I couldn’t even ooze off the couch and crawl into the bathroom to vomit and I had to set a pot on the floor next to me so I could vomit off the side of the couch.

Eunice: Bloody hell, that sounds awful!

Joreth: Yeah, it was as bad as the worst flu or cramps I’ve ever had (and I have endometriosis – which is another episode we should do sometime), but it both started and ended as if someone threw a switch – bam! I was sick and then nearly exactly 24 hours and I was suddenly immediately better. I did, however, get an awesome tan on the days that I took the too-low doses! I’m thinking I may get some more and work on my tan deliberately!

Eunice: Well I guess that’s….something? Doesn’t sound worth the vomiting, I’ll be honest.

Joreth: True, I’ll have to stick to the lower doses. I didn’t get a tan on the day I was sick, but mainly because I didn’t see daylight for an entire day. It’s interesting how it affects different people in different ways.

Franklin:  The FDA report on the clinical trials does suggest that nausea is more common if you take more than 8 doses in a single month, but that severe nausea often goes away over time if you keep using it. And some anecdotal reports suggest that regular use may lead people who initially don’t have a response to eventually start responding with consistent doses.

Joreth: After all of this, I’m quite disappointed that it didn’t work for me. I was really looking forward to having some control over my libido. But, since I’m already interested in going back on the drug at the lower doses for its tanning properties, maybe I’ll see what happens if I use it consistently at a lower dose?

Eunice: Yeah, same – disappointed, but since I got a super low dose before, I’d be up for trying again, over a longer period of time, and seeing if I can ramp up the effects to ‘ooh look something’s happening’ rather than ‘hey is this thing even on?’.

Joreth:  But perhaps after the pandemic gets under control so that maybe we might actually have some partners around to use this thing with?  Y’know, in case it works?

Franklin: So, after looking at the studies and trying it ourselves, here are some questions we are left with…

  • PT-141 is only modestly effective, working in about 25% of people to create arousal in FDA double-blind studies (though it works on about 80% of men as an ED drug). Addyi works in about 10% of people who try it. Are there possible aphrodisiacs that are more effective?
  • What’s the difference between people who respond to PT-141 and people who don’t?
  • Will effective aphrodisiacs lead to people generally pathologizing asexuality? Will people feel pressured to take them to keep their relationships?
  • Could aphrodisiacs become date rape drugs?

So if you happen to have come across studies we missed that answer any of these questions, we’d love to hear from you! Send links to studies, feedback, comments 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.

Joreth: Thanks for hanging out with us for Episode 1 of The Skeptical Pervert! We’ll be back next month with episode 2: sex vs kink. 

Eunice: Remember to be perverted with your skepticism, not skeptical about your perverts! 

Franklin: I don’t even know what that means!

The Skeptical Pervert Episode 1: Intro

Good day, and welcome to our show, eh? In this episode, we introduce the Skeptical Pervert podcast. Who are we, and what is this all about? What do we mean when we say we take a rational approach to human sexuality?

In this episode, meet your hosts Franklin, Joreth, and Eunice, and find out a little bit about what we’re trying to do! Transcript below.

Franklin: Hello! Welcome to the new Skeptical Perverts podcast! I’m Franklin.

Joreth: Hi! I’m Joreth! 

Eunice: And I’m Eunice.

Joreth:  This podcast takes a look at human sexuality from a perspective of empiricism and rigorous skepticism.  More on that in a bit.

Franklin: First, let’s take a look back at the history of the Skeptical Pervert. Joreth and I thought up the idea in late 2009, as a vehicle for bringing some rigor to discussions about sex and sexuality. We’ve talked quite a lot about launching the podcast since then, but we’ve both been busy and life kept getting in the way.

In the grip of a globe-spanning pandemic, we found this idea rattling around in the Box of Many Things that is our shared ‘projects we’d like to do’ list, dusted it off, said “Ooh, you’re shiny!” and started work again. Especially considering we are living in a world where critical thinking is less and less common, and people are taking medical advice from Facebook memes written by Russian trolls and soccer moms rather than doctors—and calling that “skepticism.”

Eunice: And that’s when I accidentally wandered into this whole shebang and didn’t say no fast enough! So, what are some of the things you’re likely to hear us explore during the course of this podcast?

Joreth: Ooh, we have so much to talk about!  What are aphrodisiacs? What is “sex tech” and how is it used?  How do people have sex during a pandemic?  What, if any, are the differences between so-called “male” and “female” libidos?  Kink vs. sex?  Is porn harmful?  Sex offender registries. … the list just goes on and on!

Franklin:  Basically, we want to take a close look at myths, urban legends, “common sense”, and other ideas about sex and see if they’re true, and how we know that they’re true (or not true).  We take what’s sometimes derogatively called a “reality-based” approach to questions about sex and relationships and we wanted to share that approach with you, dear listener!

Eunice: Now, you might be wondering — what’s our backgrounds? Our experiences? Where are we coming from in all this? I know it can seem like every random person with a microphone is starting a podcast these days. 

Joreth:  Yeah, like, who are we to be talking about science and sex on a podcast?

Eunice: OK, as you’ve probably already guessed, this is an 18+ podcast, so warnings galore right here — we discuss some pretty adult topics from a rather personal point of view sometimes. We do not shy away from our own investigations when the occasion calls for it! 

Joreth:  Yep, we’re going to dive right in with frank and candid discussion of biology, chemistry, and personal experience.  And between the three of us, hoo boy do we have some experiences!  We use adult language, both in the sense of discussing sexual activities and body parts by their appropriate names and also using grown-up slang.  So, Franklin, let’s start with you.  Who the fuck are you and why are you talking about sex and science?

Franklin: Who am I? I’m a kinky, polyamorous, seasoned veteran pervert. That means I enjoy BDSM activities, like dominance and submission and letting my partners do things to me and such. I have multiple partners in multiple long-term relationships, all of whom know about each other and sometimes conspire with each other. 

Eunice: You’re welcome!

Franklin: Beyond that, I’m pretty typical—I’m a cisgender straight white man, which is treated as pretty much Standard Western Human version 1.0 in a lot of ways. I am comfortable in the sexual and gender identity I was assigned at birth, and with he/him pronouns. I’m interested in and sexually attracted to women, but not men, which I consider a bug rather than a feature. I can’t be attracted to men even as an abstract thought experiment. That means there’s a huge vast part of the human sexual experience I will never know. If someone invents a magic pill that can turn straight people bisexual, I’d take it in a heartbeat!

Joreth:  I’d totally be down for that!  The existence of straight women is the best evidence ever that orientation is innate, not a choice.

Eunice: I can confirm it’s just a way to get rejected by multiple genders?

Joreth:  Good point!

Franklin:  I’ve been a sex educator since the mid-1990s. I’ve had a rich and varied sex life—I lost my virginity in a threesome, which gave me a long-standing fondness for group sex.

I am a writer by trade. I’ve written fiction and nonfiction, both self-published and professionally published. In fact, Eunice and I are four books into writing a five-book series of far-future, post-scarcity science fiction theocratic erotica.

Eunice: Well, five books for now, but who knows how long it’ll be by the time we’re finished!

Franklin: I’m a dedicated mad scientist with a fondness for tentacles. I hold a patent on a sensor-equipped strap-on dildo that allows the wearer to feel when it’s touched. I design and make sex toys, mostly involving tentacles, sometimes involving the xenomorph facehugger from the Alien movie (thank you very much for THAT nightmare, Joreth!).

Joreth:  My pleasure!

Eunice: You know he loves it, he keeps coming back for more!

Joreth: Your logic is unassailable.  I very much look forward to creating a whole new category of nightmares for you next summer with that facehugger harness!

Franklin: You people are terrible. Ahem. Anyway…I thought doing a podcast on skepticism and perversion would unite two of my favorite things, science and sex! Eunice, who are you?

Eunice: Well, I’m a community organiser, project manager, trainee therapist, author, sex educator — I basically do a load of random bits and pieces, mostly because I’m really bad at saying no. 

Joreth:  Ah, the achilles heel of the community organizer!

Eunice: I’m also your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, grey-ace, demisexual, bisexual,  solo-polyamorous, cis woman and I’m the British East Asian part of our little trio. 

Now, I just threw a whole bunch of terms at you, so let’s go through them one by one, shall we? Firstly, I’m queer — well, I’m certainly not mainstream, and since I’m so many things it’s easier to just go for the most inclusive label I could find. Franklin already gave a little info on what kinky means for him, but for me it’s all about having a mindset of playfulness and openness and creativity whilst exploring sensually. Not necessarily sexually, mind.

Franklin: “Playfulness.” That’s one word for it! Other words might apply as well, like ‘fiendishness’ and occasionally even ‘terrifying.’

Eunice: Didn’t I say you have a type? You keep finding out that people you like are…”differently moral”. 

Joreth:  I need to put that on a t-shirt.

Eunice: Anyway, next up: grey-ace, demisexual, and bisexual, now here we get into some interesting terms! Grey-ace means I’m on the asexuality spectrum, although not fully asexual, and therefore I don’t really respond to sexual desire and arousal in the ways that society seems to expect me to. Demisexual means I need to have connected with a person emotionally and mentally before I can be sexually attracted to them — usually the thought of being attracted to them doesn’t even come up in my brain before then! — and bisexual means, for me, that I am attracted to people of most genders, although these days I lean towards fewer cishet men and more of everyone else thankyouverymuch. I’m aware it can mean something slightly different for various people, and some people would call me pansexual instead, but this is my label. 

Next on the list is solo-poly, which means that I have multiple consensual, loving relationships but I don’t want to financially, legally, or residentially entangle with any of my partners. Autonomy is very important to me.

Franklin: I’m starting to lean toward solo-poly myself, now that I think about it. When I first met both of you, you were both solo poly and I was much more entwined poly, but I think you might be dragging me over to your side!

Joreth:  We have cookies!  Er, well, I suppose “cupcakes” in my case, but, y’know…

Eunice: Mmmm, cookies….you’re making me hungry! So, cis just means that I identify with the gender that was assigned to me at birth, which was ‘female’. And finally, I’m British and East Asian, specifically Chinese. Both of those, of course, mean that I tend towards understatement. Phew, that was a lot! What about you, Joreth?

Joreth:  Well, I’m kind of a Renaissance man.  And since I also have an unusual gender identity, that phrase fits.  My identity is “tomboy”.  A tomboy is usually depicted in the United States as a person of the female persuasion with strong masculine tendencies.  She acts and dresses and even sometimes looks like a boy, but she doesn’t want to *be* one, she just thinks that girls should be treated like boys too if they want to be.  In popular culture like movies, she also tends to be sexually attracted to men.  That all feels like me.  To that effect, I use feminine pronouns like she/her but I use masculine titles like “sir” and “cameraman” (which is my actual job title) and “dude” and “master” and “you guys”.

Eunice: Also “badass who should be ruling the world”. But maybe that’s just my opinion.

Joreth:  I also strongly identify with feral cats.  I tend to see myself as a cranky black alley cat who wants food and attention, but only when I want it and the way that I want it.  So maybe I’m more of a Renaissance cat?

Franklin: Ah, that explains a few things! I never could resist a cat.

Eunice: We all know you’re a cat slave. Every cat you’ve ever come across knows you’re a cat slave. As in a slave to cats, not a slave who…is a cat?

Joreth:  Can you have a chaosbunny who is also a slave to cats? 

Eunice: Eh, he’s prey, they’re predators? 

Franklin: Hey now!

Joreth: As a Renaissance cat, I have a very diverse set of interests and skills.  As the saying goes, “jack of all trades, master of none”.  I majored in several different disciplines at various times during my academic career including sociology and human sexuality, and I also tend to deliberately take part-time side jobs in industries I have never worked in before just to learn something new.

I’m also kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, and feminist.  To me, kinky means that I explore sex with a curious attitude that blurs lines between sex and non-sex things.  I have a whole list of other labels that fit under the “kinky” umbrella, and we’ll get to know some of them as the show goes on in later episodes.  

I have multiple romantic partners simultaneously all with their full, enthusiastic, informed consent who also have other partners of their own while maintaining my independence within my relationships.  I have a whole blog post describing what “solo poly” means to me if you want more on that, but Eunice covered it pretty succinctly for me too. 

I consider myself on the asexuality spectrum because I have a somewhat complicated relationship with arousal and attraction that we’ll explore in an upcoming episode.  I am of mixed ethnicity that includes indigenous Mexican tribal ancestry, and through a long and complicated sociopolitical movement, the term “chicana” was reclaimed to describe my in-between-heritages state.  And I am feminist, which means that I believe in full equality among the genders is necessary but some genders are not treated equally yet, so I focus on lifting up those genders to the same level as the dominant classes.

Eunice: Ooh, yes – I hope it barely needs to be said, but we stan feminism on this podcast, and will not be taking questions at this time.

Joreth:  Yep, not up for debate.  I’m also a community organizer, public speaker, trainer of public speakers, video engineer, and dancer with a background in ballroom, Latin, swing, and Bollywood.  You see why I call myself a Renaissance cat?

Ugh, I am wordy.  Honestly, I can spend forever trying to explain who I am, so look me up online if you really want more.  Let’s move on.

Eunice: So, why are you both skeptics? Other than the whole state of humanity kinda needing more of that right now, I mean.

Franklin: I am a skeptic because I want to know how the world works. The default position when someone tells you something really ought to be “Oh really? Why should I believe you?” Skepticism is a way of looking at the world that starts with the idea you shouldn’t believe something simply because someone says it’s so. That’s not enough. If you believe things without any reason to think they’re true, your brain fills up with clutter and junk. Next thing you know, you’re believing that Satanic pedophiles are selling sex slaves from the basement of a pizza shop that doesn’t have a basement just because some anonymous guy on a troll board said so. That…isn’t a good way to understand how the world works.

Joreth:  Yep, as the slogan goes, skepticism is the intersection between science education and consumer protection.  Basically it means that it’s in all of our best interests to just question things so that we don’t buy into a bunch of hokum and nonsense that could harm us.  Skepticism isn’t about doubting.  It comes from the Greek word, Skeptikoi which means “seekers”.  A skeptic doesn’t say “naw, that’s not true”, a skeptic says “hold on a minute, IS that true?”  And then provisionally accepts the answer in light of the evidence.

Eunice: Sex and sexuality is one of those areas that tends to throw people’s brains into a morass of basic instinctive responses, childhood conditioning, and confused assumptions based on vague messages from the society around us. So, our aim is to apply that skeptical lense onto an area that so often doesn’t get explored properly, and hopefully digging out the gems of real information from the…sewage. That means that a lot of what we use as resources are scientific papers and the like. We know that there are still issues of replicability and publication bias and human error or prejudice, but so far this is the best we got. Some of this information may well turn out to be incorrect or incomplete later, with the benefit of new research, but hopefully it will be mostly accurate. And, of course, you shouldn’t take our word for it either! Look up our sources, read them for yourself – we’ll link all the papers, articles, and books we reference in our show notes. 

Franklin: You can find us at skepticalpervert.com.  send us ideas, comments, or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com.We hope you’ll tune in as we get this podcast rolling. We plan to look at a whole lot of aspects of sex through a skeptical lens, from aphrodisiacs to relationships in the time of pandemic (you know, because there’s a pandemic going on) to kink to Tantric sex. There’s a lot of fairy tales, weird myths, and disinformation about sex floating around out there, and a lot of hucksters willing to take people’s money on the back of it (spoiler, no pill will make your penis bigger). We want to cut through some of the rubbish.

Eunice: Future episodes will be a bit longer, but not a whole lot more. (I lie, you just won’t hear most of the rubbish.)

Franklin: 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 visit the site to check out the show notes for the transcript. And don’t forget to become a patron on 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…Why settle for a skeptic or a pervert when you can mash the two together!

Eunice: Would that be a skepvert? Or a pertic? Wow, those both sound dreadful!