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The Brave New World Of High-Tech Sex Toys

From long-distance pleasuring to hands-on stimulators, the 21st century adult toys market offers plenty of exciting options. Just don't get hacked.

Working on an AI-powered sex doll in Barcelona
Working on an AI-powered sex doll in Barcelona
Penélope Canonico and Hernán Mármol

BUENOS AIRES — The choice of sex toys seems boundless these days, and Christian Milosevic, for one, isn't surprised.

"Sexuality is part of our biological health," explains the owner of a sex shop on the corner of Malabia and Corrientes streets, in Buenos Aires. "The toys bring new possibilities, sensations and can even be therapeutic."

There are the classic items, of course. The vibrators and dildos, lubricant gels with cooling or heating effects, lingerie, vacuum pumps and penis rings, all of which are still favorites in Argentina, including among millennials, and even seem to be growing in popularity, according to the online sales platform Mercado Libre. Purchases were up 124% last October compared to same month the previous year.

But the market also has a soft spot for innovation, including items that incorporate digital technology. There are even devices — like the many different Satisfyer brand genital stimulators — that can be recharged in a USB port.

"The goal is to live your sex life to the fullest, without prejudices," says Milosevic, who has more than 16 years experience in the trade. "I think the few taboos still left today have to do with ignorance."

Milosevic says he is trained to advise customers before selling a product. Paola Kulliok, a sexologist who leads guided tours of sex shops, agrees that the trick is for customers to really consider their specific needs and desires.

"It's not about buying something flashy," she says. "Maybe what I need is something that doesn't make noise, so I don't wake up my children, or that vibrates at different speeds and allows me to play with my partner at a distance."

The emphasis with some of the new products is on function rather than size.

Kulliok says that as a guide, he job is to make people feel that "it's natural" to use toys. "I show specific games and indicate the safety rules."

Experts say that while digital toys aren't replacing traditional products made in Argentina, they are helping boost overall consumption. Right now, remote-controlled items are trending: items that can be operated with a smartphone, using Bluetooth technology. Apps for such products can cost anywhere between 70 and 200 euros, and the purchase price includes downloading.

"Your partner stimulates you from somewhere else. It doesn't matter how far," says Kulliok. "He controls the vibration. He can be in Punta del Este and pleasure you in Buenos Aires. But if you're just starting in this world, I'd recommend first using other types of articles," she adds.

Psychiatrist and sexologist Walter Ghedin says that as alternatives to the traditional vibrator or dildo, the emphasis with some of the new products is on function rather than size. They can appeal specifically, he says, "to women who are after a particular level of pleasure." Men, on the hand, "prefer synthetic vaginas or being penetrated by more phallic objects," the expert adds.

Ghedin says cyber-sex, where couples each do his or her thing in front of their individual screens, is also spreading.

Buyers beware

But while there can certainly be benefits to such devices, there is also a potential danger: hacking. That's particularly true of items in the world of the Internet of Things (IoT) that use the Bluetooth low energy protocol.

"In any phase, a cybercriminal could intervene or interrupt the process to steal data or take control of the device," says Denise Giusto Bilic, an IT specialist. She says the devices "are constantly publishing information that can have serious consequences in the hands of criminals. Data range from the form and duration of use to measuring temperature."

They can also permit transfer of pictures that will never be deleted, as with the Lovense Max 2 male masturbator. And while these do not divulge metada (data about data), the images enter the Google photo application, which a cybercriminal can access.

How can a hacker directly enter such devices? Online security specialistsfromESET say anyone could find the accessories by scanning the web, and that many of the toys — an infamous example being the female We-Vibe 4 Plus from Canada — offer no information on protection of user data.

The new vibrators and masturbators are constantly seeking connections, and stop when they find one. If the user puts his or her cellphone on standby, the connection is freed and a Bluetooth scanner can detect if there is a device looking to be connected. Through the Bluetooth website, it can divert the user's connection away from the sex device. Viruses can allow an intruder to control these toys at a distance, or steal private or sensitive information from the user, which might lead to ransom demands to be paid by cryptocurrency.

At the 2016 Las Vegas Def Con Hacking Conference, a pair of independent hackers from New Zealand known as "GoldFisk" and "Users' revealed there was no security in the communications between the We-Vibe 4 Plus vibrator and its application, and that the vibrator can thus be seized and activated remotely. That led to a customer class action against the Canadian manufacturers that resulted in payment of damages totaling U.S. $4 million.

The firm changed its privacy policy as a result, and began using token devices like those used by bank customers. This allowed one-time connections per use that protected against brute-forcing.

Toys as liberators

In addition to her sex-shop tours, Paola Kulliok also gives no-holds-barred sex talks on cruises. And one of the things she discusses is how ashamed and fearful people are when it comes to sexuality.

Sex toys are bridging the gap between cultural patterns and sexual freedom.

María Marta Castro Martín, a sex education teacher who says she obtains an evolving picture of sexual mores from private patients or pupils, agrees. Members of a Whatsapp group she coordinates admitted it was not easy to walk into a sex shop. One member, O, wrote: "The problem is how other people look at you." But Castro Martín also finds that women are a bit more adventurous in such circumstances.

"Women have taken over their own sexuality, and pleasure and preferences," says Christian Milosevic. "And the market has accompanied them in this change."

Castro Martín notes that in some small towns in Argentina where there are no sex shops, people organize "tuppersex" gatherings (where items are sold). "We're still very binary in these, with girls on one side and boys on the other," she says.

Walter Ghedin says sex toys are bridging the gap between "cultural patterns and sexual freedom" and help free couples from certain sex patterns. The first vibrators, he says, would reproduce the organs of porn actors within the "stereotype of the active man who dominates the passive woman." That vision gave way to new ways of seeing the encounter.

"While we still have sexual products that reproduce the patriarchal vision, the new objects are focused on obtaining and giving pleasure," he says.

Today, there are sex shops for women alone, and sex objects are not necessarily phallic. As Castro Martín says: "Each person must do what they feel like doing." Sex toys are another means, in that sense, of freely expressing sexuality, without submission to the socio-cultural norms.

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