Is The World Ready For Sex 3.0?

We can now have sexual relations without making contact with other humans. But do the 3D helmets, connected devices and animated dolls represent a real sexual revolution, or are they just sophisticated toys?

Is The World Ready For Sex 3.0?
Cécile Deffontaines

PARIS â€" With the helmet on I have the vague impression I look like a member of Daft Punk, that I've turned into a humanoid robot. I hum “Get Lucky” to myself because I am indeed lucky: I’m at Marc Dorcel's, the king of “French-style” pornography, in a discreet area of the 15th arrondissement in Paris.

I came to test “immersive porn” via the Oculus Rift. Better than 3D, this helmet projects you into a parallel universe, as if you were inside the screen. Here I am, lying down, languid on a bed, completely naked. I’m not reserved, I’m comfortable with it. I gaze at my two breasts, radiant and surprisingly white, and my milky arms and thighs. My right areola has a metal piercing, my mons pubis is as smooth as a dune. I’ve exchanged bodies and it belongs to a porn star. I’m finally a sex beast.

I barely have time to understand what’s going on when a stud with a shaved head comes closer with his six-pack and his bulging penis. He’s not really my type, so I take a look around the room, just to know what kind of situation I've ended up in. I turn my head to the left, it’s all dark: it’s outside the frame of the camera. This man, from whom I didn’t ask anything, grabs my hips with dexterity. Stunned, I don't say anything. The scenes unfold in a flash. The man is done. And my new body seems content.

I remove the helmet and put it down politely. I finally smile to the person who received me, Ghislain Faribealt, the kind vice-president of Dorcel’s media sector, with his neatly adjusted tie. I mumble something like: “It’s true, you almost think you’re there.” My cheeks are as rosy as the woman’s buttocks.

The cybersex revolution

Here I am, in the heart of the matter. Fully involved in my mission. Verifying that what they say is true: sex 3.0 is happening. This sentence by the author Yann Moix, seen in a women’s magazine, comes to my mind: “Reality will interest us less and less. Who will want to trouble themselves with a human being who smells bad and wants to eat at restaurants? We will screw sublime digital avatars that will provide us the craziest sensations thanks to sensors.”

I also think about Her, the Spike Jonze film that came out in 2013 and in which Joaquin Phoenix fell head over heels for the voice (Scarlett Johansson) of his artificially intelligent computer. The character eventually “goes out” with the synthetic voice, then gets dumped.

That was fiction. But what about in real life? We can now have sexual relations without touching other humans. With no hands. I’m not talking about the sexual robots announced for 2050, with their synthetic skin as soft as silk, never tired of their work, never scared of your pajamas. No, I mean connected sex, hidden in a corner of your computer, on the shelves of every sex shop.

In Japan, where real boys experience real love stories with virtual “young girls" they “meet” on their Nintendo consoles, one fourth of 30-year-old men have never really had sex! And in France? Such figures seem non-existent, but I soon realized, thanks to my stunning immersion into the world of cyber-sexuality, that the revolution is underway.

Inside the "Sexodrome"

The 3D helmet prototype I tested, the Oculus Rift, costs about 300 euros ($330), and the general use product will be available for purchase in about six months from now. Yes, a connected touch future lies ahead, as I was able to confirm with a little visit to the Parisian sanctuary of sex.

In Pigalle, the erotic area of the French capital, I went to the “Sexodrome.” The shop, with its 3,000 square meters of stalls, claims to be the “world’s largest love store,” a promise of pleasure within easy reach. There are pink, yellow, purple dildos, all the rainbow colors. A market worth 22 billion euros per year.

On display, whole collections of astounding and very efficient objects that allow remote sex. The vibrating egg Lelo, activated with a remote control with a 12-meter range, can be slid into areas decency prevents me from mentioning. For him, it’s more fun than a remote-controlled car. Another option is the We-Vibe, which can be triggered from “a few meters to 10,000 kilometers away” and has a smartphone app.

There’s also this kit for couples, heterosexual or gay, designed to give each other mutual pleasure in case of geographical separation. The female sex toy looks like a classic white dildo and is sweetly named “Pearl.” The male toy, which has the more manly name of "Onyx," is more like a dark scabbard in which he can put his precious sword.

“With this device, I can have the sensation of inserting myself into your vagina,” the vendor explains. I wasn’t expecting such details. He goes on. “The couple will be able to have remote sexual relations, while seeing each other through a webcam,” the salesman explains.

Testing the market

The manufacturer’s promotional video makes the undeniable marketing argument that the kit offers “safe sex” â€" with no STD risks! No mix of fluids. No danger. Not yet ready to risk my health despite my passion for journalism, I find aficionados of such technologies who already tested these devices.

With his blond curls and pale eyes, my “tester” is anything but a freak. His name is Stephen des Aulnois. He's 31 and is the founder of “Le Tag Parfait,” a website that explores porn culture. "I came after 10 minutes. But it sounded a bit like a fax machine," he tells me matter-of-factly.

His virtual sex partner, Ariane, found the experience to be less satisfying. “When I touched my dildo, it was as if I was masturbating Stephen, who could feel it well," the young woman, 28, explains. "But the opposite wasn’t true: his had no effect on mine. The girl has to do everything. And from the point Stephen had his orgasm, it was over for me.” Ah, the desynchronization problem.

There is an existential question to be addressed here as well. Seeing as Ariane isn’t single, is having a sexual relation through a computer screen cheating? “I’m more under the impression that I had sex with a machine than with Stephen," she says. "Weird.”

Venus and Aphrodite

Gadget or real sexual revolution? Etienne Armand Amato, a researcher at the Observatory of Digital Worlds in Human and Social Sciences, clearly leans towards the second option.

This cyber-sex world expert is currently studying “Chaturbate,” an online platform where young women expose themselves. It’s a sort of peep-show 2.0 where young madams, the “camgirls,” are paid in virtual money, “tokens.” Any cheeky girl can open an account. Like this 26-year-old bank clerk from Lille, in Northern France, who explains calmly that she performs “two or three times a week, because it’s exciting and pays for holidays.”

Most of these camgirls are now equipped with a connected sex toy. “It’s a very recent trend," Etienne Armand Amato explains. "The principle is for the viewers to make the sex toy vibrate every time they pay. Look.” Without a moment’s hesitation, he gets his smartphone out and shows me a very young blond girl wriggling about exuberantly. “Between 1,500 and 3,000 people take control of her body. She becomes a sort of erotic divinity. It’s very troubling.”

Both Venus and Aphrodite. A sex goddess, as inaccessible as possessed. It’s now possible to come remotely, through the combined action of thousands of people, all over the world! Sex is no longer concealed in an intimacy nook, it can be global.

Still not sure what to make of all this, I turn to Bernard Andrieu, a philosopher, body specialist and author of La Peur de l’orgasme (Fear of the Orgasm). He doesn’t look worried at all. “Technologies have always been diverted towards sexual means," he explains. "People started taking pictures of themselves. On Skype, they masturbate in front of their boyfriend or girlfriend. The 15- to 30-year-olds, who are often immersed in video games and are used to having feelings by these means, will, of course, be fond of this immersive porn.”

“We’re heading towards polysexuality, where people will create a sexuality themselves that is not only vertical, with their husband or wife, but also horizontal: mobile, ephemeral," he adds. "Every person can now give themselves over to strangers, no longer control their own body. And it’s a safe abandon!

Sexuality by proxy

And what about the human aspect, in all this? Connected sex “doesn’t replace real sex. It lets you discover a new sensual repertoire,” artist Yann Minh, a sex cyber-explorer, reassures me. It is a bit, if I understand correctly, like how radio never replaced written press, or how television didn't replace radio.

Yann, for instance, lives together with his wife. But, in a room of his Parisian apartment, he also has a NooScaphe, a sort of ship designed to travel through the world of Internet. The device consists of several powerful computers, a “haptic” mouse (which allows users to “bump” into virtual objects, feel smooth or rugged surfaces), a comfortable armchair and… sex toys.

With this kit, the man can virtually “sleep” with other people online. Yann spent a lot of time on Second Life, a virtual world launched in 2003. In my memory, it was a sort of recreated city where everyone could come to play their own roles, political, professional, etc. I almost forgot that sex also plays into it. In fact, says Yann, most visitors come only for that now. People whose sex lives are quite average in real life.

In the small sunny room, we log in. The artist is represented as a weird avatar: blue, with a cat’s muzzle, rabbit ears and deer antlers. The beast enters a donjon and runs into the web of a large spider, for a quick mating. While the spider screws its partner, Yann tells me: “Many people on Second Life dare things they wouldn’t in real life. Sadomasochism is very widespread there.”

In some cases, people experience their sexuality here by proxy. Yann spoke with one woman who suffered from multiple sclerosis and was dying on a healthcare bed. "That’s how she lived her sexuality," he says. "I discovered that, even when physical returns are weak, if the stimuli the body receives are synchronous with the dramaturgy, emotions are even more intense.”

“Empathy is very strong despite the virtual aspect," he adds. "I was very moved, one day, when another avatar took me in its arms.”

Silent affection

Frédéric, too, is very moved when he seizes Yurika or Lilica by the hips. Sitting on the couch of his apartment near Lyon, these two brunettes with thin Asian faces are perfect, with their translucent skin and manicured nails. Yurika and Lilica are silicone dolls. The 37-year-old man is polite, quite good-looking and works in logistics. He seems, at first glance, like a socially integrated person who is nice enough to be with real woman.

But he was once too disappointed by an ex, who drove him nuts. His soft heart just couldn't take it. Yurika and Lilica provide him silent affection with no conflict. Their skin has the resistance of a real body. “On a sexual level, I prefer Yurika. She’s cheekier," Frédéric says. "But Lilica is my favorite. I’ve had her longer. But they’re not as good as real women because they don’t take initiatives.”

That, it turns out, will soon change. "Within five years, they’ll be able to breathe thanks to a pneumatic system, follow someone with their eyes thanks to a motion detector and even moan,” says Jean-Philippe Carry, one of the creator's of Frédéric's dolls. Carry is confounder of the company Doll Story, which he started in Lyon with a Japanese associate.

Until then, every evening, Frédéric hugs these bodies that are as pretty as they are inert. Sometimes the loving trio just hang out and watch movies. It’s true that, over time, the man's desire for the dolls has waned. A common tragedy in every married life.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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