Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/17/2006 9:10:18 AM ET 2006-08-17T13:10:18

Call it lack of imagination, but my fantasy of sex in the future is almost entirely based on Anne Francis wearing a metallic mini-dress in the movie "Forbidden Planet."

Others are not so constrained. As recent news reports indicate, we’re at that 1939-World’s-Fair moment in which there’s just enough new technology out there to spark some creative thinking about the shape of boinking to come.

When visionaries like Natasha Vita-More, an artist, futurist and transhumanist, look through mental telescopes, they talk about “neuromacrosensing” and millions of nanobots coursing “throughout the body communicating with different cells, sending signals to the brain so the whole body acts as a sensory communications system.”

That ought to make sex feel pretty good, but you’ll have to wait. Such things are a long way off. But other changes are coming much sooner. A few have already arrived. 

Earlier this month, Palatin Technologies announced that a trial of its new drug for post-menopausal female sexual dysfunction succeeded in rejuvenating desire in women who had little of it. The drug, a so-called melanocortin agonist, acts through the central nervous system.

Other companies have tried to gain approval for sex-stimulating drugs, mainly testosterone, but have failed so far. Still, whether this new one ultimately proves successful, its development indicates that the age of pharmaceutically enhanced sex is almost upon us. (Available impotence drugs like Viagra do not really enhance sex, they just make it possible.)

“One thing we will see is increasing awareness of and control over the neurochemical basis of lust and desire,” says James Hughes, a futurist philosopher and author at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., who has written extensively about the future of sex.

As I wrote in an earlier Sexploration column about the science of love, researchers are beginning to understand how human emotions like bonding and love are influenced by the body’s chemicals. Drugs to increase levels of these will eventually be created. Synthetic oxytocin, the chemical thought to help create human bonding, already exists.

This raises the possibility that marriage doldrums could be treated with something more effective than a new Ferrari or fling with the UPS guy.    

Love in cyberspace
Other recent news reports have examined the virtual world of Second Life.com, an online community that has grown to about 371,000 people since it began in 2003. Second Life is not only about sex — you can buy and sell property and do pretty much whatever you can do in real life — but sex and sexually-related media are a big part of the site.

“You can go in and take on a different identity, construct your own avatar — man, woman, shape, whatever,” says Vita-More. “A number of people go there for sex.”

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There are limitations, of course. “You do not have, at this stage, ‘penisthetics’ or tactile stimulations,” she says.

Bummer. 

In his 1991 book "Virtual Reality," new media guru Howard Rheingold speculated on virtual reality sex and suggested a way to solve this lack of sensation, using a term first coined by computer networking pioneer Ted Nelson: teledildonics.

By using computers to control sex toys over long distances, VR sex could seem quite real indeed. Now, 15 years after Rheingold’s book, a few companies say teledildonics have finally arrived.

Web-based outfits like Sinulate.com and HighJoy.com enable users to engage in sex play when they connect a vibrator to a computer that receives electronic instructions submitted by somebody sitting at another computer. The user interfaces, which resemble airplane cockpit controls or stereo sound leveling dials, change the speed and direction of a vibrator hooked up to the receiver’s computer.

One promoter at a recent sex toy trade show told me this was the perfect solution for GIs deployed in Iraq who had lonely wives or girlfriends at home.

Hughes, for one, looks forward to the day when VR, teledildonics and other technologies combine. “Fifteen, 20 years from now, relationships online are going to be increasingly realistic,” he argues.

A future of VR sex could have some advantages. No STDs, no worry the fellow furry fetishist you meet at a convention will turn out to be the guy who works the counter at Dunkin’ Donuts, and men could finally have sex with virtual women who look like the wide-eyed characters in manga comics. 

So, he says, “body-to-body sex is probably going to become less common. People will increasingly turn to mediated experiences.”

Not so fast, says Violet Blue, a sex blogger, porn reviewer, author ("The Adventurous Couples’ Guide to Sex Toys") and self-described geek who demonstrated teledildonics last year at New York’s Museum of Sex.

“It’s a yawn,” she says. “It’s boring.” She cites technical, and even legal limitations (related to patents) for the sorry state of teledildonics, but more than that, sex with a partner who is not actually in the same room just isn’t all that much fun.

For example, Blue says, “it’s really easy to fake that you are enjoying yourself.” Just what men need — high-tech phoney orgasms.

There is also a practical consideration: “We are not physically engineered to have sex in an office chair. So there are always going to be some constraints to penetration and thrusting… Until we can solve the workaround for office chairs, having sex in front of the computer is kind of hokey.”

No danger? What's the fun in that?
OK, so suppose the technical issues are overcome. Suppose ubiquitous broadband and new 3D media enable an extremely realistic experience? Will mediated sex become a preference over sex the way we’ve had it for 4 million years?

Probably not. Like porn and sex toys now, new technologies may become part of our a la carte menus, an occasional indulgence for the sake of variety. But mediated sex carries no danger.

One of the reasons sex is exciting is that no matter how good we are at it, we’re never really sure of the outcome. A computer avatar doesn’t have to worry about belly fat. A teledildo doesn’t have to wonder if his erection will slump. More importantly, we won’t be asking ourselves if what’s happening means anything at all and how we feel about the answer to that question.  

“People want to feel each other,” Blue explains. “A lot of the sexual interactions we have are most intense and meaningful when we use all the sensory information we get. It is impossible to reproduce that in any other type of realm rather than touching somebody’s skin, seeing them react instantly to what you are doing. There will always be that fourth wall whenever we try to do it any other way than two bodies coming together.”

Brian Alexander, a California-based freelance writer and contributing editor for Glamour magazine, is working on a new book about sex for Harmony, an imprint of Crown Publishing.

Sexploration appears every other Thursday.

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