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Teledildonic Temptations: The Rise and Fall of Computer Sex

Sex talk continues to have political import. Sometimes we may have to talk dirty online to speak truth to power.

Mike Mosher

Issue #41, December 1998

We Thought They'd Never End

Julie is into love of the robot
Billy the android with stereo hips
Her daddy wants her to give him to NASA
She wants to give him a passionate kiss

Like the head mounts and power gloves then ubiquitous in advertising and media, the subject of computer sex evokes an early-'90s nostalgia. Ah yes, back in the days when we were all cyberpunks... Do you remember the future, one that now seems as quaint as the Jetsons? And in no small part, we were all jazzed at the thought of having cheerful sex together over our computers, an idea circulated with little understanding of the neurophysical details to be addressed other than one's own hots. Where there has been online progress in this direction over the course of this decade, the wish-fulfillment has proved other than loving, too often abuser-friendly and almost always accompanied less with gurgles and cries of delight than "Show me the money!"

handsnake Teledildonics is the accepted term for computer-networked sex acts. It was coined in the 1980s by Ted Nelson, who nearly two decades before envisioned and named the interactive modes of expression hypertext and hypermedia and hoped to see them fully realized in his Xanadu project. Howard Rheingold's Virtual Reality discussed both the spread of its provocative meme as well as the huge technical obstacles to be overcome in its development. Nearly a decade later, the speed and processing power required by sensors in responsive body gloves still don't exist.

Around 1991 teledildonics was a hot discussion topic upon the online service the WELL. To the discussion that Howard Rheingold chuckled was "the weird throw-away idea that will not die," I contributed two predictions. The first was that there would be sanitary public sexual arcade games, resulting in winning orgasms, by the year 2000. The second was that its game cartridges would move beyond mere depiction of celebrities (like the Elton John and Kiss pinball machines) and animals (earthly and alien) to allow the player to have sex with objects like "a Russian MIG fighter, a Ferrari Testarossa, and the dome of St. Peter's."

One of the first generation of sexual computer games, "Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking for Love," published by Sierra On-Line Inc. in 1988, featured the adventures of a nerd hoping to meet and date women. The game featured the ability to adjust the Filth Level to the user's liking. Around the same time a Macintosh-friendly Chicago cartoonist Mike Saenz — creator of a short-lived object-oriented comic book art and page assembly program ComicWorks — designed "MacPlaymate." This was a program by which the user used the mouse to control a virtual vibrator or disembodied hand that massaged an onscreen woman until she squealed in ecstasy. Intended to be a break from the work day, a single click could fill the screen with a fake spreadsheet to look like productive alienated office work. Saenz soon followed with "Virtual Valerie," generally the same cartoon of passive female complaisance but with color graphics delivered upon CD-ROM, which soon became the biggest-selling CD-ROM for the Macintosh. By 1993 the staid CD-ROM Conference, largely funded by Microsoft, was peppered with vendors of Adult Content, which were mostly predictable collections of nude photos of big-haired white women in their twenties sporting breast implants. The 1994 computer game from Pixis "Space Sirens, the Ultimate Cyber Sex Simulator" was touted by Electronic Games Magazine review "as close to genuine VR sex as current technology will allow." In the past year the secondary sex characteristics have been exaggeratedly modeled and rendered (buxom as boys like) on female computer game avatars Lara Croft of "Tomb Raiders," Mikiko Ebihara in "Dikatana," Red Lotus of "Deathtrap Dungeon" and Alison of "Space Bunnies Must Die."

The 1994 movie by Brett Leonard Lawnmower Man featured the most memorable representation of a virtual love scene. At first poetic and then predatory, the intensity of the act permanently destroyed the mind of the Lawnmower Man's female partner. Until that point in the film the woman in question, a suburban sexually aggressive connoisseur, was one of the most interesting characters in the film. Many viewers would have rather have seen her sensuality (and hence spirituality?) enhanced to the same astronomical degree by her virtual experience as that of the Lawnmower Man's. Sadly, this scene seems to have marked both the zenith — the focused and fully-realized money shot — and beginning of the end for inspired, utopian visions of cybersex.


Positioning Teledildonic Traditions

In the future love'll be different
Private parts are a thing of the past
No more "normal" orgasms
Electronic ones built to last

The roots of teledildonics traverse forms of stimulating sexual content delivered in text, visuals and video clip upon computers, of sexual communications by text or videophone via computers, of proposed tactile hookup between people via computers, and that of human-computer sex involving only one participant and a high-end sexual toy. What do we really talk about when we talk about sex with computers? The question addresses various aspects and minglings of art, literature, telephony and, ahem, tools. Yet ultimately it may be about exercises of power, of representation and relationships of a commercial kind.

Teledildonica continues traditions in the history of art, the arena between concept and daily life, whose aestheticization is often a fetishization. Hardware and voyeurism proceed as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia both used machine imagery as metaphors for sex acts from the 1920s through 1960s. In the 1930s Hans Bellmer (whose personal warmth drove his lover Unica Zurn to suicide) created a manipulable doll with a prominent vagina, which he photographed clad in silk stockings and high-heeled shoes. Fifty years later illustrator Hajime Sorayama filled the pages of Japanese magazines with sexy robots, breasts and hips airbrushed as gleaming chrome, while conversely Sara Stara performed a "Vulvic Ring Cycle" of neo-pagan rites with fleshy human celebrants clad only in microchips. Using ingenuity, Macromodel and PhotoShop, Mike Saenz produced illustrations in 1992 of a couple hooked up to devices allowing them congress at a distance for Lisa Palac's Future Sex magazine. Ostensibly about teledildonics, the short-lived magazine never again convincingly mated its sexual futurism and its glossy photography of the lubricious here and now.

Flush with excitement from the early talk of teledildonics, I proposed my own interactive art installation for a computer-human interface conference in 1992. "Gonadotosh's Gender" was to feature hypertexts of sexual and gender imagery and commentary contained in a figurative kiosk shaped like an agitated man and accessed via a touch screen monitor at the position of the figure's genitals. My proposal was not chosen, on grounds that it wasn't really doing anything groundbreaking with computing.

Computer sex has appeared in novels, especially science fiction, and a bibliography should be assembled. The 1950s science-fiction writer Philip Wylie wrote in The End of the Dream scenes of futuristic "Love-o-mats" where a customer's skin is sprayed with silver conducting material and then serviced by a machine-generated hologram. But what of the consensual collaborative erotic literary creation that's sometimes called "one-handed typing?" The implication is that the communicants are masturbating with the other hand, a ribbon of ASCII text dribbling across the cathode ray tube like a trail of bodily fluid. Pornographic literature, words weaving their erotic effect upon the reader, has appeared in every culture with written texts. The added value the computer screen brings to it is the immediacy of text written at that moment specifically for the reader (I'm talking to YOU, sweetheart! Now take it off...slowly...). Yet this may be a something which an intelligent program could also carry out, devoid of any real-time operator.

Nicholson Baker's Vox was a serious literary exploration of phone sex, so if cyberspace is "where you are when you're on the phone," is computer sex a variation on phone sex? In Spike Lee's 1996 movie Girl 6 an actress who finds employment in the phone sex industry suffers when she drops fixed boundaries between herself and customers. One could be as susceptible to mistake commercial fantasy for lived reality and relationships in cybericity. Lisa Palac's "Cyborgasm" CD used virtual audio, a spatially-effective and lifelike digitally-processed sound technology, to present its sexual scenarios. Yet its power was essentially verbal storytelling, an actor's skill. If online communicants, typing long exchanges about topics of concern, are truly a community (still a debatable proposition), what of its sexual component? Does it remain machine-mediated, analogous to phone sex? Or is it more likely to blossom in face-to-face meetings? At the Second Cyberspace Conference at the University of California in Santa Cruz in 1991, findings were presented on how from its beginning the Minitel, an online system distributed free by the French national telephone company, was often used to set up romantic assignations. Later on, as Minitel technology improved, the "pink" services of animated and photographic erotica were taxed more heavily than the rest of the communications.

Computer sex might mostly (as the name Teledildonics suggests) be technology-centered, the love of craftspeople for their shiny tools. The teledildonically-employed computer continues the tradition of sex toys like dildos, vibrators, multi-orificed love dolls, Acc-U-Jack penile suction pumps or other devices found in urban specialty shops and advertised in porn magazines. The ornate and coded history — as long as that of any electric home appliances — of electric vibrators for women is now recounted in Rachel Maines' The Technology of Orgasm. Yet perhaps — much as the George Bush generation painted female pin-ups upon the noses of their warplanes — the idea of sex with computers is sweetened with the familiarity with the tools of one's own work, to be able to say: I program, write or design on this machine...which also takes care of my inmate needs. A 1989 confidential in-house report on HyperCard use within Apple Computer found that many of its most accomplished users fit the "hacker" stereotype, male and in technical positions in the company, also "see their computer as 'companion' rather than 'tool." Might this odd negotiation with the enabler of one's alienated labors be a desperate ad-hoc attempt at their recapture?

Perhaps sex with computers is therefore in the tradition of lore of the shepherd having sex with his flock of sheep. I long thought this was just the stuff of 1970's National Lampoon cartoons by B. Kliban and S. Gross (and Robert Crumb's illustrations for Havelock Ellis' report of a boy who sodomized rabbits in Weirdo). Then a friend recounted on her visit to Wyoming watching a ranch hand, who thought he was unobserved, unconventionally mount a female horse.

Sex with robots has taken the form of subservient robotic Stepford Wives or the transformation of woman into robot in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and Donna Haraway has written on the cyborg state of modern woman. The breezy 1960s television sitcom My Living Doll — a bachelor given a sexy robot maid — was updated in the early 1990s as Mann and Machine, a cop with a female robot as his partner as police shows came to suffocatingly dominate prime time. Sex with computers may thus be infected with issues of power, subservience and service, where the system (hardware and software) is a prostitute with a single up-front purchase price, purposed for immediate sexual gratification and scratching that itch so a busy man can get on with other issues. Obviously this convenience can be a goal of harried engineers, either hobbled by their social skills and nerdiness or more concerned with maximizing the activity for which they're rewarded, productive work. Traditionally the computer has been seen as promoting a sort of monastic celibacy. A punning poster marketed to a specific computer language's programmers showed an irate woman in short skirt and high heels as if dressed for an anticipated date, scowling at her male companion whose attention is absorbed in the computer, captioned "Why Do You Think They Call It UNIX?".

What eighteenth-century experimenter first gazed upon a chess-playing or dancing automaton with desire? At the same time western urban fascination with the oriental institution of the harem began, a sexual pipe-dream offering relief during industrial era. Sex between robot and human may thus be rife with historical associations of sex with "the Other." The robot HAL in the movie 2001:A Space Odyssey spoke in the measured tones of a non-native speaker, to the Euro-American astronauts their robots appearing as inscrutable as nonwhites. 1930s pulp fiction sometimes gave robots the same imagery of sexual voracity that was attributed by the racist mainstream in America to Blacks, to Jews by the Nazis, and by many central Europeans to the Roma ("Gypsies") to this day. Yet heterosexuality itself may be seen as a sexual engagement with the Other in which there's possibility for understanding; like an attentive man a gentle robot apologizes post coitum to a satisfied Barbarella in Jean-Claude Foret's 1967 comic for movements that may have been "a bit mechanical."

Even in the two-dimensional picture plane of printout and screen, wherever technology and sexuality converge the ensuing representations primarily depict power relations. In 1986 a female art director at the College of San Mateo wondered which of the three male designers on her staff had sat nude and left a copy of himself on the office machine over the weekend, but I truly was not the culprit. The man in Osaka who faxed an enlarged photocopy of his penis to businesses run by women in 1987 anticipated by a year Los Angeles graphic designer April Grieman sending a life-sized nude self-portrait, scanned into and manipulated upon a Macintosh, to potential employers. The height or depth of technological voyeurism may have been when a pen sized endoscopic camera in a woman's vagina and a penis-mounted camera recorded sex acts for the 1994 BBC documentary The Human Animal: The Biology of Love.

Yet sexual representation can be exploitative, emblems of violence and power at their most cruel. A memorable image of the 1980s was the nude, feces-smeared and insult-inscribed body of fifteen-year-old Tawana Brawley in People magazine, months prior to the problematic trial of the men acquitted for her rape. Such prurient images conflating lust and abuse occasionally slipped into allegedly respectable weeklies, yet the process is sped up in cyberspace. During anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia last May, photos that appeared on some news organization's Web sites supposedly showing Chinese women being raped were later to be found to have their source on a porn site specializing in Asian schoolgirls. I would not mind living in a world with so little violence that all news photos of it needed to be faked, yet some photos offered for titillation on that sex site were of actual rape victims in East Timor. Real bodies are always thrown into, crushed in, each new machine.

lil circ

Sex Without Socialism

She puts a quarter in
And just stands there
And gets loved...
— —The Windbreakers, "Robot Love" (1976)

The August 1994 New Media magazine showed a pale, soft-focus photograph of a penile sheath joystick, created by the Japanese company Byakuya Shubo, to interface — or more appropriately, interphallus? — with the FM-Towns multimedia computer and presumably vibrate appropriately during the "Legend of the High School Girls" CD-ROM. Though outrages by Marilyn Manson are now urban legend, maybe the sexiest turn in man-machine interface this year is Pulse! magazine's recent report how Manson's band member Madonna Wayne Gacy sometimes tapes his penis to his keyboard.

Like the autistic boy Tommy in the rock opera who sang "see me, feel me, touch me, heal me," there is evidence of a yearning for blurring of boundaries between one-to-one intimacy and one-to-many community in our condom-clad age. Dr. Alvin Cooper of Stanford University posted a poll on internet-related sexuality and online compulsions on MSNBC's website in March 1998. Hoping to get a thousand valid responses in a few months, he got 10,000 in a few days. Now networked, via the internet, in unexpected closeness — or the illusion of it — increasingly we are pigeonholed by marketers. Rheingold himself even invested in a short-lived business trying to market the sort of freewheeling discussions that'd taken fire on the WELL, that interjected advertisements where it seemed appropriate.

A 1960s ideal was the hippies' polymorphous perversity depicted in the last panel of Osha Neumann's mural People's History of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California, all sexes and races dancing nude in the sun, celebrating the downfall of repression. In the 1970s, garbed in glam glitter, disco finery or Punk leathers, the dream still idealized plentiful partners. The initial articulations of cybersex, promoted by graying Californians with these ethics close to the heart, was one of a collective sensual romp, the mellow and forgiving orgy among friends old and new in the cyber-hot tub. Neither age, infirmity or ugliness would prevent anyone from logging on and getting off. There was a concomitant faith that the technology would soon catch up, computer-human interfaces with the subtlety of touch — caressing rather than typing — and involving more than the gazing eye.

Though in 1996 Time magazine absurdly maintained the Internet's content was "85% sexual," in spring 1998 the San Francisco Chronicle counted about 70,000 sex-related websites. Most are conventionalized representations from the stripping and photoporn world now digitized, or from prostitution. First Class Incorporated now provides nude photos online of the independent contractors of an outcall service that's been sending women and men to Las Vegas hotel rooms "to dance and strip" for fifteen years. Online sex in 1999 is mainly visual, sexy chat and real-time one-on-one peep shows and insufficient bits-per-second streaming video with choppy screens of your private dancer, two-way camera unnecessary, lap dances without the lap, all the while the meter running lucratively. This neighborhood of cyberspace has transformed, in the greater bait-and-switch game of online commodification, from what should have been an arena of democratic sharing of tactile pleasure free of social roles or restraints into an arena of commerce. Typical of the replication of existing social roles elsewhere, even Nighttown shares in the general repression of utopianism in cyberspace.

When its secret history is written, the 1990s will prove to be about redirecting media-stimulated bacchanalian sexual energy back into corporate work and sales. The juicy optimism and moment of futuristic contemplation of technologically-enhanced sexualities has been replaced by the celibate late-night crunch of people making money. Early 1997 the online trade journal Inter@ctive Week estimated the approximately 10,000 adult sites then online were generating about $1 billion in revenue per year, mostly through credit card transactions. Some large sites were bringing in more than $1 million per month. As sexual content was the eminently marketable application that drove the VCR and camcorder markets, it's proven a "killer app" — let's say "lover app," please — that has driven interactive Web video technology too. Sites like Kat's Virtual Dreams feature a live performer who displays herself in front of an internet camera while halfheartedly reading the viewer's typed requests on a nearby PC, the performer occasionally typing a monosyllabic personal response. In What Will Be (foreword by Bill Gates), Michael Dertouzos, the Director of the M.I.T. Laboratory for Computer Science, describes this service "which in the mid-1990s was around fifty dollars for a fifteen-minute session." Dertouzos goes on to discuss the future technology of "full-immersion sex suits" with mild revulsion but resignation at its eventual inevitability, as if predicting more cars on the road during his morning commute. And these days I wouldn't be surprised to learn the Vatican was considering my St. Peter's dome idea as a revenue source.

Perhaps the teledildonic temptation was flawed or fragile, based on a fetishization of techology and the daily structures that revolve around it. A lot of men and women think they don't want to leave work, to take time off to get off or to make love or some combination of the two. A computer distills all experience into work, by alienating us from the physical interaction as completely as the factory or office alienates us from products of our labors.

One lesson of capitalist deformation of alternative sexuality might be found in the story of the Kerista Commune. Founded in San Francisco in the early 1970s, it had an innovative sociosexual structure of "polyfidelity " within "Best Friend Identity Clusters," with an orderly schedule of who slept with whom. By the early 1980s its advertiser-supported newspapers Utopian Classroom and Rockheadwere ubiquitous around town. After discovering the ease of publishing upon a Macintosh, they decided to finance the commune with a computer-consulting business. The business grew, and was sold in the 1990s to a larger national franchise; simultaneously the commune and publishing project disintegrated. The relentless, pounding waves of capitalism dissolved their community until even the most ambitious alternative models become just a business after all.

From George Carlin's 1960s recitation of seven words the FCC wouldn't allow said on television or radio, through each peculiar quotation of "penis" and "pubic hair" during Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation hearings, to salubrious details Kevin Starr has provided the presidential impeachment hearings, sex talk continues to have political import. Sometimes we may have to talk dirty online to speak truth to power. If it was irrational to ever momentarily re-imagine an online communications medium developed by the Department of Defense as delivering liberating ecstasy, it was sadder for a tool for a wide range of human communication to have been so quickly redefined as the arena of commerce and obfuscation that supports it. Yet communication, the word, remains a primary weapon against technological abuses against the flesh. When I reasserted my WELL predictions about sex with famous commodities and symbols of power in the Banff Art Cenre's Virtual Conference on the Bioapparatus, my panel's respondent Robert McFadden aptly termed my vision "a nonstop miasma of consumption." To update my predictions I would say that the contemporary shapers of cyberspace would find the greatest pleasure not commingling online in shared sensual exploration, but like Uncle Scrooge McDuck, rolling in vaults of money.

As a young artist, Mike Mosher was warned corporate patrons wouldn't support artwork about SEX or POLITICS. As if there was anything else worth the effort to paint.

Copyright © 1998 by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.