Photo credit: elvisripley

Sex in the Valley of the Screens

A few weeks ago, a friend and I were having an argument concerning the virtues of video chat when it comes to relationships and our devices. It went something like this:

“I like it,” I said, matter-of-factly. “It’s a great way to keep in touch with family I’d otherwise never see. I don’t do enough of it.”

She groaned. “Yeah, but there’s just something…off about it. Like, it’s just a head floating in a box, completely robbed of context except for patches of wall or table. It makes me uncomfortable.”

I frowned, though her response gave me pause. The idea that we’re somehow thrown into this uncanny valley when chatting with the talking heads in our phones clashed violently with the reassuringly Jetsonian ideas of future speak I’d up until then harbored. Video chat is great for sharing ideas or catching up with friends kept apart by states and continents. Was it really so discomfiting? Or was she onto something?

“I mean,” she continued, “there’s a reason why I don’t show you my tits over FaceTime.”

Ah. Right. That’s a little trickier. Talking is one thing. Sex via video chat these days is another thing entirely.

Screen as Extension

The point I struggled to make at the time was that our technology’s ability to share moments is incredibly powerful. We delight in what we see, and the immediacy with which we can share those things with the world is incredible. Naturally, sex gets caught up in the mix because we derive pleasure from the visual. Just blame Freud. Regarding our innate scopophilia, Laura Mulvey writes:

“There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at. Originally, in his Three Essays on Sexuality, Freud isolated scopophilia as one of the component instincts of sexuality which exist as drives quite independently of the erotogenic zones.”

Thus, pornography. Chat models. And, more recently, sexy video chat from your phone or tablet. If you’re into that kind of thing. It has to be, at least in McLuhanian terms, the “coolest” form of mediation — it demands interaction between the people involved while forcing them to affect a kind of imaginary intimacy based on mutual desire. Or at least the desire to fuck.

Screen as Barrier

Except that the intimacy is imagined, and our screens betray us by making it increasingly apparent. Soon, imagination won’t be enough.

As our technology grows more advanced and we grow cleverer in our usage of it, the gulf dividing our bodies (read: our junk) will become a bigger obstacle to overcome. Before, it was enough to cybersex, and we might have contented ourselves with simply saying “I want you right now.” However, with the proliferation of platforms like Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts, all waiting for acceptable cell signal or Wi-Fi, digital sex can mean showcasing the body in all its glory at almost anytime. Restricted, of course, to our 5- to 10-inch screens and bereft of the kind of context we’re used to seeing in our bedrooms and in the porn we store on our hard drives. Should it, then, be any wonder that our smartphones are now larger than the average penis?

That’s only the beginning. While our interfaces extend our sight (however imperfectly), what about the rest of our senses? (Yes, even smell.) All of a sudden, Moore’s Law is obliged to heed our sex drives. All told, we’re as spoiled by the promise of our tech as much as we’re limited by it.

That’s probably the impetus behind apps like Couple, which encourages couples to touch their screens to “touch” each other. That’s certainly the reason for teledildonics. But I can understand why the notion of our making love to robots or silicone homunculi by 2050 would seem like the wrong way to go.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll be having sex in the cloud by then.