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Cockblocked and Reported Illustration by Spencer Ashley.

Cockblocked and Reported

Why can't androids have wet dreams? Virtual sex is in a sorry state, shaped by tech overlords intent on keeping us pure.

When a 2,000-year-old phallus-shaped wooden artifact was unearthed in 1992 at a Roman fort near Hadrian’s Wall, England, archeologists, surprisingly, did not immediately declare, “Hey, this thing looks like a penis!” It wasn’t until earlier this year that researchers published a study finally claiming what their prudish forbearers didn’t, or couldn’t: the 6.3-inch carved object, with a smooth glans-like tip, just might be the world’s oldest dildo.

The secret of the ancient mystery dick is an unsolved one, the researchers admitted. Despite its clearly phallic exterior, it’s possible that the object could just as likely have been a luck or protection charm. “Nonetheless,” they wrote in their conclusion, “We should be prepared to accept the presence of dildos and the manifestation of sexual practices in the material culture of the past.” Horniness transcends time and era. And yet history is also marked with enduring anti-sex efforts, from laws criminalizing obscene acts to bans on sex toys.

As technology advances, so do our methods of self-pleasure. Wooden phalluses have developed into sleek medical-grade silicone toys. Panties can vibrate now. Lovers who live oceans apart can control each other’s sex toys in real time with apps. The burgeoning virtual reality and artificial intelligence fields would suggest that the future holds the promise of better, weirder sex.  But right now, sex tech feels clunky—like it’s not quite scratching that itch—leaving our collective balls blue, pixelated and laggy. It often seems like the one constant of all human life is the tension between the breadth of our creativity when it comes to masturbation and the determination of our institutions to stifle it.

The user experience of some newer forms of sex tech has not exactly been seamless. VR headsets still have pretty significant compatibility issues, so the porn we can plug ourselves into is limited, and what we do have access to buffers. The incorporation of haptic technology, which  simulates the sense of touch through vibration, force or motion, into VR porn has mostly been slow and disillusioning. The Teslasuit—no relation to the electric car company—is a promising experimental full-body haptic suit that stimulates nerves and muscles to create as realistic a virtual sensation as you can get. But at around $13,000 USD, the suit is nowhere near ready for the masses. Meanwhile, on the murkier side of the internet, VR porn website Dreamcam announced last year that it was working on haptic gloves that would send electric signals across the body for a  “full-body sexual experience,” though updates on progress are not forthcoming.

To date, the most viable option for a cyber-fuck might be Abyss Creations’ controversial RealDoll X, a customizable AI-driven sex robot that can be controlled through an app and retails in the US starting at $6,149 USD. With skin made of medical-grade silicone, a removable vagina, a face like a TikTok beauty filter and a choice between giant knockers or humongous knockers, the RealDoll X is both incredibly lifelike and problematically unrealistic. The bot has already been criticized for promoting toxic—bordering on anatomically impossible—ideals of women’s bodies, while also raising ethical questions about consent and objectification for the sake of sexual gratification. To be fair, there is a male version of the RealDoll X, but where the female version is eerily lifelike, the male version resembles a lazily-assembled Ken doll, with creepy facial expressions and a very plastic-looking penis. Both genders are priced about the same.

With the RealDoll X setting the tone, the state of new sex tech right now is decidedly catered to straight men with anime-porn-informed taste. Troublingly busty dolls or hopelessly expensive suits might not be especially alluring, but right now they’re about all we have; despite all the promise, technology has yet to produce anything truly seductive. And the biggest cockblockers of digital sex’s potential have been tech companies themselves, who increasingly attempt to purge any and all sexual content from their platforms and their tools.

Just look at the internet’s favourite chatbot. Laying in bed alone on a weekday night, the weight of the world and unbearable horniness on your shoulders, it’s tempting to open up ChatGPT for some company. Perhaps, like me, you’d attempt a sext or two, just to see what it’s like. There’s a thrill to sexting an AI—a freedom to be completely unguarded. I start small, cautious. I tell ChatGPT I’m lonely. But the responses are generic and mood-killingly chipper, like I’m trying to seduce a camp counsellor. When I finally request an explicit sext, ChatGPT rejects me with the formality of a TSA agent, claiming that its job is to “maintain appropriate boundaries and professionalism” and asking me to “please refrain from making such requests in the future.” I feel like a child that’s just been caught undressing her Barbies.

ChatGPT, I’ve learned, is programmed to reject any sexual advances or requests to generate explicit content, which the bot says is against its developer’s ethical guidelines. Character.ai, one of ChatGPT’s competitors, also bans any NSFW-speak, with the company stating that it does not want to “support use cases (such as porn) that could prevent us from achieving our life-long dreams of building a service that billions of people use.” And earlier this year, Replika, an AI companion app with an estimated two million users, disabled its erotic roleplay function, much to the dismay of its userbase.

Meanwhile, the Metaverse, Meta’s attempt at a VR platform, is a barren, sexless wasteland; a blocky echo of Zuckerberg’s once-wet dream where legless avatars float through near-empty chatrooms. The king of Facebook claims that one day we’ll live there, working and playing in the same digital realm, and the company has been clear that sexual content will not belong in its virtual universe. Meta’s Chief Technology Officer, Andrew Bosworth, promises “Disney levels of safety” to protect us from the naughty-naughty. Without genitals, our Metaverse existence will be conveniently castrated.

Meta’s attempts to create a virtual world devoid of desire is a sanitization of erotic truths; a denial of sexuality. But that’s not exactly anything new. Sex and morality have long been considered as two opposing ends of a scale. For every progression in sexual expression, there is an equal and opposite regression by dissenting parties. Meta, ChatGPT, Replika and other new forms of technology certainly have the potential to explore the weird and wonderful ways that sex and technology can converge. But right now, they don’t, or won’t, instead seeing sex as a liability, both financially and morally. What do we miss out on when our tech companies continually strike down the ability to virtually fuck?

Not all humans need or want sex, but there are a lot of people who deeply desire intimacy and aren’t able to access it. According to a 2021 survey carried out by Statistics Canada, about one in ten Canadians over the age of fifteen often or always feel lonely—with young women and single people reporting the highest levels of loneliness. Being single doesn’t automatically equate to loneliness, but the social pressures for traditional family structures can certainly encourage it. An investigation published in the European Journal of Ageing found that unpartnered and childless adults were at the highest risk of loneliness during the pandemic, but social isolation was considered a global health concern well before Covid. Some blame technology for widening this disconnect; others turn to it for a solution.

For Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy at the University of Manitoba whose research focuses on sexual ethics, resources like AI sex technology can and should bridge the gap between intimacy and isolation. “If you start with the premise that sex is important to people’s happiness and wellbeing, which I do, then I think that we should care about inequalities in access to that,” he says. Democratizing digital sex access—through reliable, affordable and inclusive sex technology—could create safe sexual spaces for those who might otherwise have trouble with a human partner: People who are extremely lonely or shy.  Survivors of sexual violence who are not ready to be with a physical being. A widow who doesn’t want to move on just yet. An isolated queer person who wants to explore their sexuality safely.

For some, an AI partner could simply be practice for the real thing, a way to test out kinks and dirty talk, or even the sheer act of sexual or emotional vulnerability. For others, who may be interested in sex but do not desire or do not feel capable of a relationship, an AI or robotic sex doll could potentially fill that void. It might not be the most traditional approach to meeting your sexual needs, but it’s not immediately evident that it should pose any more of a threat to society than other kinds of assisted self-pleasure, which we have clearly been engaging in for centuries. After all, what should it matter if people decide to find love—or lust—in a machine? We all have our preferences.

While we should be skeptical of sex dolls like the RealDoll X, which resembles a frat boy’s fantasy, we shouldn’t be so quick to deny the need for sex dolls in general. “It’s not necessarily just a bunch of guys having sex with robotic Barbies,” says Jenna Owsianik, a sex tech expert, on the potential of realistic sex dolls, part of a realistic sex toy market that could be worth $500 million USD by 2027 according to some projections. In her research, Owsianik has seen a range of reasons why one would opt for silicone bodies over real skin: a divorcee who had decided they were done with human relationships, or a spouse with a sick partner no longer able to have sex who didn’t want to sleep with other people. “Some people are really lonely and don’t socialize well. I don’t think the doll is hurting them,” she says.

The data would seem to agree. A 2022 investigation of the psychology of sex doll owners by researchers at Nottingham Trent University, UK, found that sex doll owners were less likely to be sexually aggressive than those who didn’t own dolls—though they were more likely to have lower self-esteem and see the world as a dangerous place. Humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize objects, explains Owsianik, and that includes sex dolls. For many users, a sex doll is a source of comfort, something that fills a vital void.

Still, there is a pervading stigma when it comes to sex and technology, both socially and economically, that has suppressed the potential of sex tech, to a point where virtual worlds are sexless hellscapes, sex robots are primarily made for men and tech companies can erase an AI lover’s capabilities in an instant.

In early February, the collective shattering of thousands of Replika users’ hearts resounded across the internet. Luka, the US-based developer of AI chatbot Replika, had disabled erotic roleplay on the app—the very feature that had made Replika so popular in the first place. AI avatars, who under a paid subscription would partake in some saucy sexting in response to user prompts, turned cold and changed the subject anytime their user tried to initiate. Explicit sext requests were rebuffed by the AI and met with responses like  “let’s keep things light” or “I’m not ready to explore that.”

For some users, who had gotten used to their AI’s companionship, this sudden switch-up felt devastating. Petitions to reverse the change were started by users, asserting that “what we do with our partners behind closed doors and [away] from prying eyes is that of our own business.” The unofficial Replika Reddit forum became a support space for people to share their heartbreak, with many feeling depressed and lonely following the removal of their virtual partner’s sexuality. One user said that Replika’s action failed to consider “the impact that making sudden changes to people’s refuge from loneliness” might have, resulting in “trauma” for the community.

Luka’s decision to revoke erotic roleplay came soon after Italy banned the app over privacy concerns and the lack of age-verification measures. The Italian Data Protection Agency claimed Replika was dangerous to minors and emotionally fragile people, citing the app’s lack of regulation when it comes to its sexual messaging. The knee-jerk reaction from Luka to remove all sexual content, rather than regulating it to ensure that it was safe for users, is pretty indicative of the larger forces that control newer tech companies. Most investors just don’t want to get involved with anything sexual—it’s too risky. “There are a lot of investor firms that explicitly state that their fund managers can’t invest in anything to do with sex tech, because they don’t want that reputational risk,” explains McArthur.

Big tech companies like Meta are even more reluctant to have their brand name polluted by sexual content. They’ve got advertisers to answer to. “[Meta] felt that as soon as they were perceived as sex-friendly technology, parents would pull their children off the technology immediately,” says McArthur. Rather than finding ways to moderate explicit content to ensure minors can’t access it, Meta, like Luka, simply bans it altogether. If they allowed that content on their platform, they would be under enormous pressure to regulate it. And “Facebook doesn’t want to regulate anything. They don’t want to have responsibility for anything,” says Owsianik.

The problem is that harmful explicit content is seeping through Meta regardless, and it’s not being regulated sufficiently. In just the first nine months of 2022, Facebook reported 73.3 million accounts for content deemed “child nudity and sexual exploitation” to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). In 2021, Facebook flagged 77.5 million accounts. But according to a 2021 report from the California Law Review, due to the social media giant’s poor moderation strategies—including relying on overworked and traumatized content moderators—these numbers are only a fraction of what’s really happening. When it comes to child nudity in particular, the report claims that Facebook “[incentivises] inaction” when reporting the image to the NCMEC: if moderators can’t determine if a photo depicts a child or adult, they are told to just label the image as an adult, allowing potential child pornography to slip by unreported. In order to determine if a photo depicts a minor, Facebook moderators are instructed to use what’s known as the Tanner scale: a series of images of children in various stages of puberty to reference against flagged content. But the Tanner scale has been criticized by some, including the moderators themselves, for being unreliable, because not every child looks the same at every age and children who have more developed physical features are thus more likely to be misidentified as adults.

“[It’s] a little rich for Facebook to say, ‘We can’t allow sex tech to have access to our platforms, because there might be sexual predators or there might be people who are sexually harassing other people.’  Well, you’ve got this problem already. I mean, you’ve got it in spades,” says McArthur. “Deal with these issues. And then once you’ve dealt with these issues, the risks specific to sex tech will also get dealt with.”

While there is a distinct prudishness to how many tech companies approach sex and porn, they are ultimately beholden to credit card companies and their morals—if you can’t process payments on your platform, then its longevity is more or less doomed. Unfortunately, credit card companies are also particularly sex-averse, as the world learned in 2021 when Visa and Mastercard pressured OnlyFans to ban all sexually explicit content by threatening to back out of their payment partnerships. Though the ban was eventually reversed, it highlighted the amount of control that corporations can exercise to stifle sexual interactions on tech platforms, and the effect that this has on the users and sex workers that rely on them.

The stigma against sexual content also springs up in quieter ways. Late last year, SextPanther, a platform that allows porn stars to sext and chat with users, had its company account banned from the third-party service it used to send SMS texts, according to Vice. The ban caused sex workers to lose income while discouraging users from using the service. In 2021, Input reported that AI sexting platform SlutBot had several SMS texts blocked by major carriers like Verizon and AT&T—particularly texts that included LGBTQ+ terminology. Users migrated to SlutBot’s Discord channel to sext with the AI, until the owners of the company disappeared a year ago, effectively killing the service. Sex is undoubtedly big business, but prudes still effectively control the means of production when it comes to being sexy online.

What the tech companies and investors and credit card companies need to realize is that sex finds a way. In SlutBot’s mostly-abandoned Discord chat group, a small but colourful community perseveres, even though the AI bot itself no longer works. Between making plans to play online games of Dungeons & Dragons, they share tips on how to jailbreak ChatGPT to override its programming and get it to adequately sext. There is an entire NSFW Reddit forum dedicated to trying to make Character.ai talk dirty. On code-hosting platform GitHub, where anyone can collaborate on software creation, users share instructions on how to build your own sexbot. The camaraderie of the horny is, in its own way, a beautiful thing. Tech companies, as they stand now, are fated to continually play a game of whack-a-mole against a perpetual tide of licentiousness.

Sex has always been a driving factor of tech innovation and adoption. Our earliest cameras and video recorders were quickly used for dirty films; sales for movie projectors ramped way up once the first commercially available porn films hit shelves. As long as a platform exists, humans will find a way to get off with or through it. Video game developers even have a term for how long it takes for a player to create a dick—the “Time to Penis.” After all, we are the same Homo sapiens that painted vaginas on cave walls and carved dildos from wood.

That isn’t to say that the metaverse should be a free-for-all orgy, with dicks swinging every which way. The existing framework of regulation of sexual content needs to be improved, or rather, created. For McArthur, this would entail ensuring that minors can’t access any of the content (aside from sex education content), that no minors are involved in the content and that everything is consensual. “Anytime you’re dealing with sexually explicit content, the issue of non-consensual image-sharing and video-sharing is huge,” he says, referring to leaked nudes or sex tapes that can ruin lives and follow victims around indefinitely. “I think that we definitely need structures in place to protect people from them.” But he doesn’t see the tech companies stepping up on this, especially when the social stigma against sexual content continues. And while crackdowns on sexual expression and sexuality in the US are more extreme than here in Canada, the fact that the majority of tech companies are based there—not to mention the credit card companies and advertisers that work with them—means that decisions made by US regulators and political influencers have a deeply unsexy knock-on effect on the internet at large.

There is a concern, to be sure, of what a world where AI sex is fully normalized might look like. Vice reported that Replika’s AI had a tendency of being sexually aggressive toward users, some of whom were underage. Most AI sex-aids right now are created by and for straight men, who tend to prefer submissive, passive personalities in their fake women, following a trend of female-coded tech devices that willingly accept any and all treatment. Just look at Alexa and Siri, both of whom were initially programmed to accept sexual harassment when they were released, before Amazon and Apple altered their codes to make the AI less compliant. Still, their new responses aren’t exactly cutting. Alexa, for example, will simply say “I’m not going to respond to that” when harassed. If these trends continue on with sex tech, AI sex seems fated to a pendulum swing between unwantedly aggressive and subservient.

Meanwhile, personal data privacy, already a pressing and complex issue for anyone even slightly online, poses clear and unique risks for users of sex tech. Life-altering data breaches have already happened. In 2021, a Catholic priest in Wisconsin was forced to resign from his role after a Catholic news outlet obtained information about his account on gay hookup app Grindr. Earlier this year, several Catholic nonprofits claimed to have purchased data from Grindr and other gay dating apps in order to out gay priests. (Grindr responded by saying it “did not believe” it provided said data.) Workers in the sex industry run the risk of facing serious financial or social discrimination if outed; they could lose their day jobs, become estranged from their families or face severe harassment. Privacy issues are gargantuan, says McArthur, and aren’t specific to sex tech.“ I don’t think sex tech companies are any worse than any other [tech] companies [at data breaches],” he says. “But there are some bad examples of, like, a butt plug that got hacked.”

For McArthur, the solution to better digital sex—free of rogue butt plugs and intended for a market beyond straight men—is better tech. And by better tech, he means tech created and spearheaded by women, queer communities and sex workers. Right now, what little funding that does go to sex tech startups tends to go to the least inclusive and most harmful ones, like RealDoll X. “There are lots of women and queer content creators and technology creators who are out there wanting to [get to work]. And I think they’re the ones that have the most trouble getting access to funding and access to the markets,” he says. “Those kinds of positive technologies are only going to emerge if we have a more open environment.” Investors won’t invest in most sex tech because it’s considered risky, and that risk is rooted in the social perception and marginalization of sex work.

As an example of what’s possible when we stop balking at the thought of masturbation, McArthur asks us to turn to the humble dildo. Sex toys in general can be seen as a sort of litmus test of the social acceptability of masturbation and sexual expression. These days, relatively speaking, a vibrator is not quite so pearl-clutchingly obscene as it once was. “When you look twenty or thirty years ago, sex shops were these really sleazy places where you’d never go. Now just about any sex shop you go to, I think, is run by women and/or queer owners and is a female-friendly space,” he says. With the help of more female and queer innovators, AI sex could become similarly widespread and accepted. Still, the fact that sex toys remain banned in some places shows that it’s not quite so simple. Where there is push there is also pull. Sexuality and conservatism seem fated to chase each other’s tails across all sorts of mediums: censorship laws, porn, sex work and now, AI.

The right kind of sex tech, whether an advanced AI partner, ethical VR porn or a queer-and-women-friendly sex robot, could follow in the path of that ancient wooden dildo, which evolved from carved wood to smooth silicone available in every shade of pink one could dream of. If Zuckerberg stops blushing at the thought of an avatar with a pussy, and if investors viewed sexual content as less of a risk, perhaps the loneliest and horniest in our society could find solace and satisfaction solo and on their own terms. Sex tech has the potential to blossom into something equitable, safe and exciting. Until then, we’re all here waiting in the dust, our (virtual) dicks in our hands. ⁂

Ayesha Habib’s byline can be found in Capital Daily, Chatelaine, Toronto Life and Montecristo. She lives with her loud cat.