This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
In 2013, it took Vibease under 24 hours to crowdfund the first ever smart vibrator, a Bluetooth-enabled device whose vibration patterns could be synced with an audio fantasy of the user's choice. The sex tech industry has continued to boom since, with brands like OhMiBod, Mystery Vibe and We-Vibe all using robotics and apps to enhance the user experience.
Initially, smart vibrators were focused on solo play for women, but in 2019 sex tech is quickly becoming more versatile – and more intimate: vibrators have better motors, and apps give you the ability to control the patterns of vibrations remotely. This has changed both the nature of camming – as sex workers can now charge clients to control their vibrators over the internet – and long-distance relationships, with geographically-challenged partners now able to discreetly fuck around with each other in public.
I was once in a long-distance relationship with someone I originally met online, and sex tech offered a form of connection that, for us, had previously been missing. The thought of them being able to control what was happening to me added an extra layer of excitement, so I ordered the We-Vibe Sync. With an inner arm for G-spot stimulation and an outer section for clitoral vibes, it's designed to be used either solo (controlled via Bluetooth or a button), for long distance play (with an app to connect a lover), or during sex. Aesthetically pleasing, it felt and looked like a great, albeit expensive (£160), bit of kit.
Our first attempt was decidedly lacklustre. Having to organise a time to set it up and then head straight into it led to a manufactured intimacy, which put a pressure on us finishing – a disappointing experience for us both. Compared with the usual phone call or instant messaging, which would naturally lead into a mutual masturbation scenario, it was all just too much effort. However, once we'd got to grips with the tech, my pleasure being entirely in his hands – despite the distance – added an element of closeness we’d not experienced before through online sex. The cost alone and our positive repeat performances kept us using it, but I was interested to see whether other couples had found the same issues with sex tech and how it compared to their usual activity in the bedroom.
Mia and Jake* have been in a long distance relationship for two years. "We use a range of toys, including ones where the control is in the hands of the other person," Mia tells me. "For him, there’s a level of being turned on by them being for my benefit. Video calls and photos alongside kind of ran its course and fizzled out, because it's a lot of effort and no way near as gratifying as the real thing. A lot of the time I’m not bothered [about using toys], because I’m having a nice time regardless."
Max* and his ex, together for three years and long-distance for the last six months of their relationship, often used a wide range of toys through video chats. "They added a physical feeling, at least for her, that I was there. And by combining that with our usual phone calls or video calls we were able to reach each other in a way we previously couldn’t. It made it way more intimate, and the orgasms were far more intense. Although we broke up, the long-distance sex wasn’t a part of it at all, and I was really close to buying a Fleshlight in the end because I was jealous of the energy of her orgasms and wanted to feel that for myself."
Ellie* and her partner, together for just over a year, are regular users of her toy box, however she's concerned that "if we start replacing most sexual contact with tech, we’ll lose all the other things we get from sexual contact that we need as human beings that isn't solely the physical sensation. That said, if I had to be away from my boyfriend for a significant period of time, I think both of us would really enjoy something that could connect us differently."
This idea of connection seems to be sex tech's most positive aspect, but also its downfall. Are the current toys on the market actually good enough? Or is there something new on the horizon that might properly bridge the intimacy gap?
Keen to hear an industry perspective, I spoke with Carlos Cabada, a visual erotic artist and tech entrepreneur who runs the erotic art brand Eromatica. Having only created websites and video games for their friends, alongside other work, the sex tech market was by no means the obvious next step. The themes of their art, however, led them into a world of female desire and sexual empowerment. Add a chance online encounter with Bluetooth vibrators into the mix and the "Eromatica" remote app was born. The vibrator itself is similar to the We-Vibe in design, with a curved shape used primarily for clitoral stimulation, and an app to give your lover the ropes.
Eromatica’s brand message is to "democratise masturbation" by allowing it to be accessible and open to as many people as possible. Carlos first recognised the disparity between women’s pleasure and the availability of toys for long-distance relationships back in 2017. "If it wasn't a female sex toy, I wouldn't be doing any sex toy," they tell me over email. Carlos believes that the evolving nature of sex tech is nothing but positive for couples, and that this could help to increase intimacy between people separated by distance, or those just not able to spend much physical time together. "Every year we're getting closer to making it more intimate and more real," they add. "I can’t wait until VR goes mainstream. We’re literally going to feel like we’re in the same room as our partner, having sexual pleasure."
Virtual Reality is an interesting branch of the sex tech market. At the moment, the technology seems to be reserved for porn production companies mostly creating content for mainstream porn sites, as opposed to personalised videos to improve intimacy. VR takes the POV category to another level and, with your headset on, you can truly get into the story and action itself as a participant, rather than an observer. However, Bonny Hall, Lovehoney’s product director, tells me that VR headsets have yet to take off in the UK. So much so that Lovehoney don’t actually have enough stats to demonstrate how few they sell.
"There’s definitely a trend [in other sex tech], such as remote controlled vibrators and underwear," she explains, "but I do feel there's still an edge of novelty about them and couples are perhaps using them more to add to date night or while in the room together, rather than when they are abroad or further apart."
At the moment, Lovehoney is focusing on proven successes, like their own brand pocket clitoral vibrator and bullet vibrator – both much smaller and simpler. However, this June will see a brief foray into tech with the release of their smart knicker vibrator, which, like the original Vibease design, is a small bean-shaped vibrator that you put inside your pants for clitoral stimulation. "For us, it was about affordability for our customers and making sure it was easily available for our global audience," says Bonny. "It’s a lot of money upfront to develop the technology in these toys, and we wanted to ensure that issues had been ironed out before we invested too."
The mainstream porn industry tells a similar story. Despite predictions that VR would become a billion-dollar business by 2025, Pornhub still only has around 2,000 videos in the VR category – insignificant compared to its over 7 million clips in total. Its most watched VR video has taken two years to amass 6 million views, whereas the current most watched video of all other categories has reached 8 million views and was uploaded a week ago. Clearly, the numbers indicate that people aren’t searching for it. Basic VR headsets are affordable and available online, but it seems consumers aren't looking to add a VR element to their regular porn consumption.
Pornhub's stats show that men are 160 percent more likely to watch VR porn, and so most traditional porn is being made to satisfy this, eliminating anyone whose viewing habits don't centre entirely on women on their knees. But with the technology of Vibease being made to go alongside erotic fiction that's predominantly for women, the assumption that women don't want to be immersed in a sexual experience just doesn't add up. Rather, throughout the sex tech market, women's voices seem to be minimised.
Lora Dicarlo’s robotic vibrator was stripped of an award and disqualified from entering this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, despite a sex doll for men having been allowed to exhibit in 2018. As recently as 2015, the founders of "Women of Sex Tech" struggled to even open bank accounts related to their sexual entrepreneurship. Vibease itself was banned from Kickstarter before using Indiegogo to get its crowdfunding off the ground. Kickstarter have relaxed their rules now, but while the technology itself has come a long way, it seems its scope for women’s pleasure has not.
Sex tech is expensive to buy and create with, which has led to the business being monopolised by larger brands and companies which serve mainstream porn to mainstream audiences. VR has yet to find its way to more niche markets, such as the personalised videos that Carlos looks forward to. As with all tech, costs eventually lower, which should mean better access for more independent branches of the industry – but the timeline is still young.
As far as relationships go, sex tech updating our everyday toys with more efficient motors and improved designs can only be a good thing – but it doesn’t take away from the fact they are, ultimately, toys. Long distance relationships by nature tend to be more serious, and as long as people's requests aren’t being answered by the sex tech market there’s still plenty of room for improvement. For true sexual democracy, perhaps app-controlled Fleshlights could give more couples the option to have a truly two-way experience and not just put pressure on female participants to have a clitoral orgasm. The nature of an intimate moment can be so quickly ruined, so apps need to also have exceptionally reliable technology so as not to burst the orgasm bubble – something Mia* explained happening on multiple occasions.
With costs lowering and reliability increasing, sex tech may indeed hit the heights it was originally predicted to. Until then, it seems most couples are happy to stick to that old trusty device: the mobile phone.
*Names have been changed for privacy.