Smart Dildos and Sex Bots: Are You a Secret Digisexual?

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

Many people probably haven’t heard of the word “digisexual,” and yet, we may all be on the spectrum. Coined in 2017 by North American scholars Neil McArthur and Markie Twist, the term refers to people whose “primary sexual identity comes through the use of technology”—whether for casual dating, intimate and long-term relationships, or sex practices.

On one side of the spectrum, digisexuality could look commonplace for people who grew up immersed in tech and use apps and devices to facilitate human-to-human interaction. Think sexting, Tinder hookups, long-distance Skype calls, or flirting over Instagram DMs. In the middle, there’s the emergence of teledildonics—high-tech sex toys—that could be connected to the internet like any other smart device and be used as a part of sexual experiences with a far-away partner, or with one’s self. And on the other end of the spectrum, there’s romance and sex with partners who are entirely artificial. We’ve witnessed versions of this extreme scenario in pop culture already: Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with his AI virtual assistant in the movie Her; Ryan Gosling living with an AI hologram girlfriend in Bladerunner 2049; or Justin Theroux in the 2018 Netflix mini-series Maniac, as he tends to his paraphilia by having virtual sex with the “High Priestess of Atlantis.”

For some, digisexuality is a space in which to find new kinds of fun and entertainment, and push sex into new corners yet to be explored. And still there are other people moving beyond these tropes who have found lifelong love and happiness in committed, digisexual relationships.

The Tricky Ethics of Sex Robots

One of the most high-profile figures in the digisexual space is Davecat, a self-identifying robosexual (a person who is attracted to humanoid robots). He has said he met Sidore—his synthetic wife composed of a PVC skeleton and a silicone exterior—at a goth club in 2000. But he also acknowledges that he bought the life-sized RealDoll after a close friend put him onto the site. Shi-chan, he calls her in pet-name, wears a wedding band that matches his. It reads: Synthetik love lasts forever.

“When you love an organic, you’re really loving two people,” Davecat told Vice in 2014. “There’s the idea of the person that you fall in love with and then there’s the actual person—and at some point, the idea is going to disappear and you’re going to bump straight into the actual person.”

That incongruity between the perception of someone and who they really are is emerging as a core facet of digisexuality. And it’s one that professionals are eager to explore and reconcile as technology becomes a bigger part of sexual and romantic relationships.

“While in grad school, we had a guest-lecturer one day whose job it was to guide online-daters through a mourning process,” Justyn Hintze, a Washington, D.C.-based sexologist and one-on-one sex coach for clients seeking to work on their relationships and sexuality, told The Daily Beast. “People who online-date sometimes build up an idea of the person they’re dating in their head. And when it doesn’t match the person in real life, they may need to be guided through a ‘letting go’ period.”

The Uncanny Future of Romance With Robots Is Already Here

That dissonance stems partially from the fact that screens and apps create opportunities for us to analyze our own words, hit the backspace button, and rehearse certain situations so we have more control over the outcome. Tech has allowed us to self-edit or otherwise filter ourselves into channels of who we want to be and how we want to be perceived—sometimes in ways that don’t neatly fit together.

But there are also real, tangible benefits that can stem from digisexual relationships, even if they don’t fit our preconceived notions of romance. Akihiko Kondo, a Japanese man who in 2018 “married” the famed holographic singer, Hatsune Miku, found that his relationship saved him from his depression, work-related anxieties, and fear of rejection.

But these relationships also live and die on the technology that enables them. Kondo’s marriage to Miku has been on the rocks since March 2020, when the company that made it possible to hold conversations with her AI stopped supporting the service.

McArthur, a Canadian philosopher at the University of Manitoba and author of the new book, The Ethics of Sex: An Introduction, told The Daily Beast that accessibility is a huge part of how screens and tech are mediating our relationships.

“There are some people who just don’t have the same access to partners that some people do,” he said. “There are very real inequalities in our access to intimacy which I don’t think is talked about very much.”

McArthur added: “If you’re 25 and living in New York City surrounded by people, that’s one thing. On the other hand, there’s a gay man living in a small town in the Canadian prairies who may be the only out gay man for hundreds of miles. If you’re in these more isolated or marginalized life situations, this technology provides a real lifeline.”

One major motivation for McArthur’s work is to de-stigmatize how the general population thinks of digisexuals, or people who utilize sex-tech in their relationships.

“We kind of go through these cycles with all minority sexual identities,” he said. “Where we start out thinking they’re weird or we start out stigmatizing them and then eventually, as they become more visible or outspoken, we become more tolerant and accepting… My view on this is: Can’t we just skip that whole process and just start with acceptance?”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Neil McArthur.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">University of Manitoba</div>

Neil McArthur.

University of Manitoba

Beyond acceptance, however, there is also the question of who will be allowed to access these new digisexual experiences—and who will rely on these tools as their primary gateway into any sexual and intimate experience. The rise of new apps and devices as part of our day-to-day lives is challenging one of the longest-standing power structures: Who gets to enjoy sex? Relationships? Pleasure?

Hintze pointed to the power of digisexual technologies as tools to break down shame and stigma, and explained how the internet and sex-tech can help people find communities where they feel they belong. Historically, it’s been vulnerable groups like queer women and non-binary people who have been locked out of the power dynamics that accompany sex and relationships.

“There’s something really powerful in being able to have an entire world where you get to find community and exist. This is especially true for trans and non-binary folx,” said Hintze. “Being able to build relationships and community, virtually, provides so much access.”

Aditi Paul, a tech researcher formerly at Pace University and author of the book, The Current Collegiate Hookup Culture: Dating Apps, Hookup Scripts, and Sexual Outcomes, has spent years exploring the impact of tech on dating, sex, and relationships in Gen Z college students. According to her research, members of Gen Z are hooking up with complete strangers less than previous generations. Her work has found that 63 percent of Gen Z knew their hookup partner while 60 percent had mutual friends with them. Members of Gen Z are “milder rather than wilder,” as one report states—and maybe tech has something to do with this, too.

For previous generations, the opportunity to extensively vet people before hooking up was more or less non-existent. For Gen Z, they are screening their peers online and making decisions ahead of time via social media.

“We’ve become hypervigilant,” Paul told The Daily Beast. “Gen Z wants that comfort and familiarity of knowing who their partner is. You can ask for nudes, you can negotiate how the sexual interaction is going to go.

In this way, Paul suggests that young people are still getting to know each other organically, but what is organic and normal now involves the tech we use every day. We can screen potential mates more quickly and efficiently. It’s what comes first in current dating and hookup culture, and if you “pass,” you move on to the next round.

Love in the Time of Tech: Your Brain on Dating Apps

Though it’s now a standard for Gen Z, these practices are also being used by previous generations, too. Even older people have become digital immigrants, weaving new tech into their sex lives or relationships.

The integration of new tech is also upending the historical standard of monogamy in today’s society. One-third of all Americans now describe their ideal relationship as non-monogamous. New apps such as Feeld are positioning themselves to attract this growing demographic. Feeld calls itself an open-minded dating app for “exploration, curiosity, and pleasure,” inviting users to join solo or with a partner and encouraging users to find lovers or friends.

“A lot of the relationship rules that we have known and adhered to are now being mediated by new technologies,” Paul said. “People are asking: What are the boundaries of our relationship? These are extremely gray areas.”

And this may be scary or exciting (or both), to think of our worlds as less rigid.

“We’re heading towards a very monogam-ish future,” Paul said. “We’re at the mercy of Silicon Valley, venture capitalists, angel investors—whichever app or tech they bring onboard next. Those technologies could mutate, change, or just obliterate what we know of as relationship boundaries.”

Now, she says, we are on the precipice again. And just like in our pre-internet days, it seems we still have no idea what could be up ahead.

But one thing is for sure, said Paul: “Our sex lives, our relationships—they are in for a toss.”

This story has been updated with more details on Akihiko Kondo’s relationship with Hatsune Miku.

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