Never mind sex, let's talk about teledildonics
On July 5, 2015, the Supreme Court of India became cooler than beards and skinny jeans when Chief Justice HL Dattu observed “the court cannot pass orders to stop adults from watching porn within the four walls of their room.” India rejoiced and given we’re in the top five of the most dedicated consumers of pornography according to data recently released by the website Pornhub.com, Chief Justice Dattu may well have acquired the status of a national hero for a wide demographic. This joy was short-lived, as it turned out, because the government banned more than 800 websites reportedly because they have pornographic content on July 31, 2015. Whether there is a constitutional basis that allows a government to deprive Indians of their access to pornography remains to be seen.
Considering our population – 1.252 billion in 2013 – and our lasting reputation as the “land of Kama Sutra”, it’s not surprising that we’re very, very interested in sex. In fact, the enthusiasm for all things erotic and many things that could be described as pornographic has been a long-standing feature of Indian culture. From antiquity till the present, we have worshipped vaginas and penises without any coyness. We rather adored our courtesans and their seductive ways until the colonial British drove their Puritanical conservatism into our ethos. Our ancient poetry, both religious and secular, is loaded with sexy times, much to the discomfort of the Right leaning.
In fact, it’s only in the modern era that Indian culture fallen behind in the sex game. Because while India campaigns for something as basic as being able to watch whatever they want to on the internet, the world of online sex has gone way beyond a 16:9 aspect ratio. In the era of digital natives, you don’t simply view sex; you get immersed in it. All thanks to your bits, the internet’s bytes and teledildonics.
In simple terms, teledildonics are electronic sex toys, but the technology that they’re using today is anything but simple. If there was a spectrum that had sex with a human on one end and sex with a robot on the other, teledildonics would be bang in the middle. There's a lot of innovation that's constantly happening in the business of sex. With devices like Oculus Rift, 3D pornography is a reality. There are toys like Bianca from Lars and the Real Girl. We may not be too far away from the romance that writer Charlie Brooker imagined in the episode titled "Be Right Back" in the second season of Black Mirror.
Teledildonics aren't quite as futuristic as sex with robots or operating systems and they do have a distinctly human element to them because they can — wait for it — communicate touch. Foremost in the arena of teledildonics is Kiiroo. The company's masturbators, using Bluetooth and other technological fanfare, claim to communicate the sensation of a person's touch even if two people have continents between them. Once your device is paired with your partner’s via Kiiroo's web platform, if you stroke your device, he'll feel it at his end (somewhat literally). The webcam is optional, but recommended.
Suddenly, sexting and Skype-sessions seem rather tame. Perhaps even inadequate.
Those who have used Kiiroo's products report that though using it is undeniably pleasurable, it’s very distinct from good, old fashioned and actual sex. Sex is still better, but what teledildonics offer isn’t a bad substitute if your love life is Distance is the third character in your menage a trois. Kiiroo needs partners to communicate – they must arouse one another, which has the added benefit of actually communicating what one likes, rather than hoping to telepathically communicate it to their lover – and you definitely get some sense of a one's handiwork.
For women, Kiiroo has the Pearl, which is nothing more than a dildo since it can transmit signals but can’t receive any. (Even in the world of sex toys, women remain disadvantaged. But ladies, Kiiroo promises that they’re working on correcting this imbalance.) However, if the Pearl is paired with an Onyx, then every touch on the Pearl is felt by the man using the Onyx. While this is a eureka moment for penises, for those without that appendage, there’s only such pleasure you’re going to get from giving a phallic object a hand job.
Kiiroo’s Onyx is what has perked up the sex-tech industry. It looks vaguely like a slim and small CPU. Open it up and there’s a hole, into which one is supposed to insert their penis. Get past the awkwardness of sticking your man parts in a box and you will feel the silicone rings in the Onyx grip and squeeze in a way that mimics the strokes your partner is lavishing upon the Pearl. The Onyx also has auto settings, but to use it as a fleshlight is to miss the point. It is, to quote Kiiroo, “a social sex toy”. There’s a platform where you can either meet other Kiiroo clients or hook up with your partner. Pick your partner, pair your devices, and you’re up and away. Users say the experience lies in a limbo between sex and masturbation. It’s deeply intimate because of the verbal foreplay and the way the Onyx receives and replicates the Pearl’s signals, but the touch is quite unmistakably not human. Teledildonics is creating a whole new kind of sexual activity – one that’s both impersonal and yet intensely personal.
In contemporary India, social sex toys like the Onyx and Pearl could have an enormous market. One of the major obstacles couples face is the lack of actual space to canoodle. There are numerous cases of young adults being harassed by police and security guards while on a date. If you live with your family, then it’s difficult to get privacy at home. Those who live alone have to deal with landlords, most of whom keep an eagle eye on visitors – especially if the tenant is a single woman – and staying overnight is usually impossible. Imagine a situation where all you need to is coordinate time with your partner and make sure you’re in a room with a decent internet connection and a door that locks.
Come to think of it, the greatest obstacle to teledildonic satisfaction in India may well be the state of our connectivity. To have your Onyx quit on you mid-session because your wi-fi has blipped or the Bluetooth has failed could be a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. In the teledildonic age, if the network drops on the way from the living room to the bedroom, and is strongest at the balcony that overlooks four multi-storeyed buildings, vaastu and feng shui may not be the only principles guiding interior design. Should a woman point to the couch as her “3G spot”, try not to blush.
But all that is a possible future. In the present, sex toys, social or otherwise, occupy an ambiguous space in the Indian legal framework. Selling, hiring, exhibiting, distributing or possessing an “obscene object” is a punishable offence, which is why those who do sell sex toys describe them as “adult lifestyle products” and sell them discreetly. Still, with nothing but word-of-mouth to show them the money, adult lifestyle products make up a Rs 1500-crore industry in India today. It helps that some sex toys are buzzing with tongue-in-cheek potential and that obscenity isn’t necessarily an easy claim to make in India. For instance, if one was faced with a shiva lingam and Hitachi’s Magic Wand, it’s tough to argue that the electrical device, which claims to be a massager that helps relieve tension (hashtag: #CanYouFeelMyHalo?), is obscene and the religious object that makes no bones about its phallic nature isn’t. From cucumbers to sofa cushions, any object has the potential to be obscene if an individual is inclined to see it that way. Ask any hormonal teenager.
We’ve traditionally looked down upon sex toys because they have an aura of solitary sleaze and desperation about them. Products like Kiiroo’s teledildonic devices could change all that because they’re meant to aid companionship. If you’re in a long-distance relationship or have to travel a lot for work, paired remote masturbators could be what keep your relationship going, in which case they really would be lifestyle products rather than toys.
Even at a social level, teledildonics could just be one of those rare things that both Indian conservatives and liberals, irrespective of age, get behind since it offers a sexual experience that’s intimate without being actually physical. Using the Onyx and Pearl, a couple can have intimate relations and simulate sex without the worry of pregnancy or STDs. Conservative anxieties about purity would be kept under the lid since there isn’t a real penis involved. Those contemplating arranged marriages could use teledildonics to get a sense of their sexual compatibility discreetly. Sure, it’s a simulation, but it still needs two people to arouse each other and in case of men, it still takes two to orgasm. It would also emphasise the importance of consent because to use teledildonics, there are multiple levels of consent on both parts. Both have to agree to pair their devices, to use the device as their partner is asking them to and to accept the touch that is being offered to them, for example. While forcing everyone to widen their notions of sexual activity, teledildonics may well help strength traditions and conventions. With physical release becoming more easily accessible to the curious and frustrated, perhaps the act of sex would come to be regarded as less casual and with less desperation? Maybe devices like Kiiroo are what will restore romance to the act of sex, rather than seeing it as a way of slaking lust or curiosity.
Who’d have thought remote mutual masturbators would be the stroke of luck that the conservatives need in the modern era?
As technology goes, what Kiiroo’s Onyx offers – and what Kiiroo hopes to be able to add to the Pearl experience – is radical and it is the inevitable, not-so-distant future. The awkwardness that we feel about robotic devices is unlikely to slow down the rise of teledildonics.Most of our social exchanges happen online today, regardless of where we are. Messaging, Snapchat, Facetime, online chats and voice notes are all examples of how the internet has subtly but distinctly changed how we communicate and the way relationships develop today. The way we open up and the way we deceive have both adapted to the technology that’s available to us. Considering the money that’s waiting to be made in the sex tech industry and the alienation that’s an unavoidable part of conventional social structures being dismantled, these devices are likely to become as much a part of our lives as the digital camera.
Perhaps the one thing that we didn't expect from the internet was touch. The connections that it has offered to us so far have all been distinctly intellectual because remoteness is a key trait of the internet. Adding touch the internet is radical. It'll change how we use the medium and teledildonics is the first brick in a new virtual reality in which touch can be transmitted and intimacy can be remote. It will also force us to rethink our understanding of concepts like fidelity and what the phrase 'sexual activity' encompasses. This will also lead to a new set of concerns, not the least of which is a whole new and inventive set of ways in which one's privacy can be violated.
If someone had a teledildonic, one-night stand, would it count as cheating if teledildonic sex isn’t really sex? If you can literally touch a person remotely, if they can hear you in their ear, do they need to know how you look? Do you expose more of yourself – physically and emotionally – with chats and a webcam than in a dark room? When sex turns to data, who owns that data and who has access to it? Without the tactile mess that comes with sex, does it feel different? If teledildonic sex becomes the standard way couples engage with one another, then will what we consider vanilla sex today be considered kinky?
Because let’s not forget, for all the technology and robotics that’s whirring in these devices, teledildonics is powered by an emotion, and a quintessentially human one at that: longing.
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