LOVEGAME 5: PART 2
THE TRUE LANGUAGE OF SEX
While it is true that great sex is of the mind as well as the body, and the way the brain works leads to imagination filling in details, even the strongest advocate of SL sex has to admit that such encounters cannot achieve the sensual heights of great physical sex between couples. The reason why not is because the true language of sex is touch and a great many things get lost in translation when we substitute words and images for tactile sensations. Lovemaking is the language of cuddles, kisses, caresses and tender touches. The Internet is a technology of information distribution and, as such, is poorly equipped for this, the most sensual form of communication we know of.
The importance of physical contact is recognized by anyone who has been sceptical about virtual sex on the grounds that there is no real touching (you can touch yourself but not the other person). Many studies have shown that this is the number one reason why people question the value of purely virtual sexual relationships. We should bare in mind that sex is not all there is to an intimate relationship and that other aspects are just as real whether they manifest in RL or SL. But still, for many people the ability to hold and be held by their beloved is a vital part of a healthy relationship.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TOUCH
Actually, touch is vital, period. In embryology there is a general law stating that the earlier a function develops, the more fundamental it is likely to be. In every species we have studied, be it animal, bird, or human, the earliest sensory system to become functional is touch, and we have good reason to suppose it was the earliest sense to evolve. In fact, if you think about it, touch is apparent in every sense we have. Photons strike the retina and we see; air molecules vibrate the tiny bones of the ear and we hear; pressure is applied to the skin and we feel. According to Ashley Montague (author of ‘Touching: The Human Importance of Skin’), “perhaps next to the brain, the skin is the most important of all our organ systems…the skin, in common with the nervous system arises from the outermost of the three embryonic cell layers [and it] may be regarded as an exposed portion of the nervous system… As the most ancient and largest organ of the body, the skin enables the organism to learn about its environment”.
Our language reflects the importance of the sense of touch via the many references we make to tactile sensations. ‘Keep in touch’ we say to departing friends. ‘He is out of touch with reality’, ‘she rubbed me up the wrong way’, ‘I have the feminine touch’, ‘you have a warm personality’. A Hungarian physician called Rene Spritz discovered alarmingly high rates of infant mortality (75% death rate) among orphaned babies, despite regular feeding and reasonable hygiene. What these poor wretches lacked was the one thing babies crave above everything else: To be held. Spritz went on to study the importance of physical contact and determined that, in animals and particularly in primates, the physical presence of another body is vital for healthy mental and physical development. The psychiatrist Thomas Lewis was so right when he said, “in some important ways, people cannot be stable on their own- not should or shouldn’t but can’t be”.
HAPTICS AND TELEDILDONICS
Back in part 2 I expressed an opinion that a sex doll with a synthetic skin that looks and feels real and has the ability to perform sex acts but which was, after all, only a doll with no mind and no personality would make a far inferior partner compared to “the full spectrum of emotional connections and meeting of minds… as projected through an avatar”. But, what if the doll was the avatar, a telepresent robot body operated by one’s beloved? If such a thing ever emerged, it would no doubt evolve from haptic devices and the field of teledildonics, a label that refers to sex toys that can be remote controlled over the Internet.
The purpose of a haptic device was best described by Gabriel Robles-De-La-Torre as “doing for the sense of touch what computer graphics does for vision”. It is a device that applies forces, vibrations and motions to the user, thereby providing tactile feedback. Haptics predates virtual reality by decades (it was first used to provide sensory cues as to when an airplane was about to stall) but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the two were seen as natural bedfellows almost from the start. The person who is credited with coining the term ‘virtual reality’ (Howard Rheingold) described the following scenario in his book, ‘Virtual Reality: Exploring The Brave New Technologies of Artificial Experience and Interactive Worlds from Cyberspace to Teledildonics’:
“Embedded in the inner surface of the suit [are] a mesh of tiny tactile detectors coupled to vibrators of varying degrees of hardness, hundreds of them per square inch, that can transmit a realistic sense of tactile presence… You can run your hand over your partner’s clavicle, and 6000 miles away, an array of affectors are triggered, in just the right sequence at just the right frequency, to convey the touch exactly the way you wish it to be conveyed”.
We do have many haptic devices, some of which are explicitly designed for sexual activities, but I don’t think we have anything as effective as the suit Rheingold imagined. His imaginary haptic technology could perfectly reproduce the exact feel of another person’s touch, right down to their breath upon your skin. People can and have been brought to orgasm via toys controlled remotely over an Internet link, but I would imagine that does not feel like intimate contact with a warm human body, more like being pleasured by a sex toy remotely controlled over an Internet link.
The good news is that haptics technology is useful in a wide range of situations and most, if not all, of these uses would be improved if tactile sense was more realistically conveyed. Examples include:
Prosthetic limbs and robotics. Engineers have been developing synthetic skin and sensors. The advantage of a completely natural-looking and feeling artificial limb which fully reproduces the tactile feedback of a biological limb, should be obvious. Robots designed to work alongside humans (particularly if they are assisting in care) also require a delicate sense of touch.
Surgery. Remote surgery or telesurgery refers to the ability to perform an operation on a patient who is in another location to the surgeon. This is achieved through a combination of robotics and high-speed telecommunications. The delicate manipulations involved in surgical procedures relies greatly on tactile sensations, such as how much pressure can be safely applied. It would also be useful to have a physiologically-accurate virtual model of a human body coupled with haptics technology that fully reproduces how it feels, so that trainee surgeons may practice their art.
Internet shopping. In an article written for the ‘Stanford Report’, Jessica Ruvinsky wrote about the advantages of actually being able to feel the texture of clothes.
These are just a few of the many scenarios in which haptics technology and a realistic sense of touch would be a tremendous advantage. It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that R+D will push haptics in the same direction as computer graphics, which went from crude approximations to the convincingly natural-looking visuals employed in movies and, increasingly, in computer games. And, although none of the examples cited involved sex, it is almost always the case that any report on advances in haptics for any purpose whatsoever will include the jokey remark, “the sex industry is bound to find uses for this!”.
But, even if we ever do arrive at haptics as effective as that bodysuit Rheingold imagined, one that can generate totally convincing tactile sensations, would there still be a psychological barrier? In other words, no matter how realistic a simulated sense of touch feels, would people still regard it as being pleasured by a machine remote controlled over the Internet? The telephone suggests this will not be the case. It often goes unrealized that when, say, your mother calls you, it is not really her voice that you hear. Instead, it is an artificial sound that repeats what your mother said. But, because the artificial sound reproduces how your mother sounds, your mind jumps to the simplest conclusion, which is ‘mum is talking to me’. If other senses were receiving similarly high-quality information, such that you could see your lover beside you, and feel his or her body cuddled up next to yours, I have little doubt that your mind would conclude that you are in intimate company with this person.
TOUCH AND CULTURE
Using telepresent sex you are simultaneously together and apart; a couple and two isolated individuals. This could be advantageous if these two contradictory situations serve to rid us of certain attitudes towards sex. One way to expose flaws in a culture is to examine another where things are done differently. Ours is an individualistic society, where cultural norms are designed to emphasise a distinction of the self from others, all the better for being raised in a society that favours competition and mobility. But there are other cultures where survival depends greatly on mutual economic dependence- sharing what you have with others. In such societies we find greater cooperation between people as well as a great deal of tactile contact.
Consider the traditional clothing of the Netsilik Eskimo and the bond it creates between mother and infant. The Netsilik wears a fur parker known as an ‘Attigi’. The infant is placed in the back of the attigi, assuming a sitting posture with its legs around Mother’s waist. A slash is worn around the outside of the attigi, serving as a sling to support the infant. Apart from a tiny nappy made from caribou skins, the infant is naked and spends the majority of its days in close physical contact with its mother’s body.
A baby is most comfortable when experiencing conditions that reproduce those of the womb. The one place in the external world that gets closest to such conditions is a mother’s embrace where baby is enfolded in her arms at her bosom. You can see this need in mammals and especially primates: Infant monkeys and apes are all but inseperable from their mothers. The clothing of the Netsilik serves this primary need. The attigi keeps mother and baby in close physical contact and it is via skin to skin communication that the mother is alerted to her child’s needs, which are satisfied immediately. Netsilik infants seldom cry.
Western babies cry a lot. In our culture, clothing serves an altogether different purpose. Far from being a convenient way to bind a child to its mother, clothes for us serve to separate mother and child. It is typical for both mother and child to be clad in their own garments during feeding, such that the only contact the infant has is with the breast and maybe some hand -stroking. Actually, given that bottlefeeding is the rule in America, a baby in this culture receives the absolute bare minimum of reciprocal tactile stimulation. When not being fed, the Western infant spends most of its waking hours and all of its sleeping hours separate from others.
In Netsilik culture there is much physical contact not only between mother and child but all members of the tribe. It is usual for Eskimos to sleep in the nude in close bodily contact with one another, and a man will customarily lend his wife to another male visitor. This arrangement is not a sexual one but rather a practical way of dealing with the harsh environment. Shared bodily warmth keeps out the cold. Still, by practicing such close co-dependence the Eskimos nurture a personality that makes them very likable people, according to those explorers who have spent time with them.
One such encounter was recorded by Vihjalmur Stefansson in 1913:
“Our welcome was as warm and friendly as it could possibly be… Little children jumped up so as to be able to touch our shoulders and men and women stroked and handled us in a very friendly way”.
Another highly tactile tribe are the !Kung bushman of Botswana in Southwest Africa. Dr. Patricia Draper noted how they lived in bands of 30 people and that they really like being close together. Whether resting or working, they prefer to be in physical contact with each other, arms brushing, leaning against one another. Here, too, infants are seldom separate from mother and, as Dr. M.J Konner wrote, “when not in the sling they are passed hand to hand around a fire for similar interactions with one child or adult after another. They are kissed on their faces, bellies, genitals, sung to, bounced…even addressed at length in conventional tones long before they can understand words”. As was the case with the Eskimos, we should not interpret this behaviour as sexual. It is more of a physical demonstration of platonic love between fellow tribe members upon whose loyalty and cooperation the individual depends utterly. Nevertheless, one has to suppose that being raised in a culture where physical affection is so freely given and openly displayed nurtures better lovers than one where individuals have relatively sparse physical contact and more time spent with electronic gadgets than people.
Also, what I found remarkable is that no part of an infant’s body is considered forbidden by the !Kung. In marked contrast to this attitude, few people in the West would deem it acceptable to touch, kiss or play with a child’s genitals and would very likely discourage an infant from touching itself there. In behaving thus, we are taught to separate our pelvic regions from the rest of our bodies; to regard our genitalia largely as no-go areas. This cultural taboo against sexual self-exploration has never succeeded in eradicating what is a natural urge to explore one’s own sensuality, but many people have suffered guilt, shame, and even despair for giving in to such urges. And, as Gloria Brame observed, “adults who… believe genitals are dirty make a lot of excuses to rationalise what are irrational feelings… and have a lot of rules about sex that they make their partners obey [such as] the types of sexual intimacy they ‘should’ indulge in”.
WHAT WE REALLY WANT
There is some experimental evidence to show that, deep down, we would all rather be a tactile people free to touch and caress others, regardless of what cultural constraints may inhibit such behaviour. One such experiment was conducted at the department of psychology at Swathmore College. It was found that when persons were introduced into a pitch black room in which there were half a dozen strangers whom they knew they would never meet again, more than 90% of participants deliberately touched one another, compared to the near total lack of touching among subjects in a lighted room. It is as though we very much want to be close to each other, but usually social norms make it hard to express such feelings and so we tend to keep our distance. Nearly all of the methods we use to classify and draw distinctions between people- skin color, gender, social status- depend greatly on visual cues. Dr August Coppola said, “the culprit here is sight, which dictates most of our values and dominates every aspect of our society… We will happily relate to strangers by touch when we cannot see them, but the moment we do we become ‘appropriately distant’”.
Would this innate desire to touch and be touched come to the fore if we could really act on such impulses via the cloak of pseudonymous avatars? Separated from one another in physical space yet intimately close in teledildonic cyberspace, would we let go of culturally-induced distance and freely explore one another’s erotic identities? One problem with this scenario is that visual cues are (or can be) very much a part of online worlds. It could be that, when we transport ourselves from our solitary real spaces to the communal space of a sim, the parts of the brain controlling our social behaviour are activated and we remain ‘appropriately distant’. Indeed, there is some evidence that this is what happens. It has been found, for instance, that people will position their avatars to mimic the relative position people adopt in conversation. Also, to have another avatar enter the personal space of one’s own avatar is, for many, an unwelcome invasion.
On the other hand, as most studies of behaviour in online worlds have found, the opportunity to throw away inhibitions and engage in sexual activity is taken up by many. Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson (writing in their book, ‘Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution’) “were amazed by the amount of sexual activity that our students reported. The frequency was startlingly high, close to one quarter of all activities”. Tom Boellstorf (in ‘Coming Of Age In Second Life’) commented, “SL offer(s) the opportunity to experiment with sexual practices and relationships. This could be include sex work, forms of group sex… Many large builds, even entire islands, were dedicated to sexual themes”.
Wagner James Au cautions against viewing SL as an overtly sexualised place, noticing how “it is narrowly true that one-quarter of the most popular sites in SL have sexual activity as a primary selling point (but) SL pornography is at best a secondary market dependent on a much larger multivariate economy”. Of course, he is right to point out that the overtly sexual activities are really only a small part of what people generally get up to in SL, but nevertheless it remains the case that many experiment with such things as gender, sexual orientation, and all manner of kinky practices catered for at themed islands.
According to Julia Brame, “today, there is wide consensus among all sexologists that a realistic model of sexuality is nuanced and diverse, full of overlaps and gray areas. Masculine and feminine are not absolutely divided as previously believed. Gender is fluid and variable. The boundaries between gay, bi and straight are blurrier than previously thought… sexual appetites and preferences are as random and particularized as our food appetites”. If and when virtual sex can fully reproduce the tactile pleasures of physical intimacy, and if that is combined with a level of control that fosters a feeling of safety, more and more people may do the most sexually-balanced thing, which is to be least confined by assumptions of what they should like, and instead discover what they do like through a variety of experiences and self-exploration.
In doing so, we would be on our way to becoming more sexually intelligent than we are today, reversing the damage caused by millennia of Christian doctrine that made a sin of sensual pleasures and the asserted that anything other than vaginal sex within marriage for the purpose of reproduction is a perversion. But, of course, sex is not all there is to a loving relationship. How can other aspects of love be augmented and enhanced?