Adult Themes: Digital sex just isn't 'sexy'

The attic room is sparsely furnished, with just a bed, a side table and a bookcase made from cheap plywood, shelves sagging from overuse. It's sufficiently cold in here that clouds of vapor peel from my lips, but the location, at least, offers the privacy I need. After balancing my laptop on some books, with the webcam strategically pointed above waist-height, I slide my trousers down and pull out the ominous, black cylinder from a bag. It's a Kiiroo Onyx, a $249 teledildonic device that, the company promises, will enable me to have sex with my significant other (or anyone else) through the internet.

The Onyx itself is sturdier than you would imagine, standing 9.5 inches tall by about 3.5 inches wide. At one end, a thin plastic cap pops off to reveal a rubber compartment, the inside of which holds a Fleshlight-branded sleeve covered in small dimples. The sleeve is held in place with a glossy red, plastic clip that pops off to reveal the micro-USB charging port. Beyond which, lies a series of motor-driven concentric rings that expand and contract in a manner that's designed to simulate the movements of a sexual partner. There's one button on the Onyx, which powers it on and off, as well as initiates a series of pre-programmed movements for some solo fun. Finally, a glossy black, plastic touchpanel runs halfway along one of the sides, which stands in contrast to the rest of the matte shell. When you run your finger up and down it, the series of rings beneath draw around and away from you in time with your motions. Stripped of context, it looks slightly sinister; a long, thin robot with gnashing teeth waiting for you to place your trust (and your manhood) within it.

The companion to this device is the Kiiroo Pearl ($149), a white vibrating dildo that can be used by the other half of this connected sex pas de deux. Sensors inside the Pearl read the movement around its surface and then transmit that sensory information over the internet to the Onyx. So, for instance, if you were to run your hand up and down the Pearl, that sensation would be replicated by the Onyx to the best of the technology's ability. Kiiroo's brand of internet sex, however, only works one way: the Pearl user does all the work; the Onyx user receives all the pleasure.

I say "user" rather than "man" or "woman" because the company stresses that it isn't just catering to heterosexuals. In fact, the technology can be used with Onyx/Onyx combinations as well. In that instance, when the two devices are paired, the glossy black touchpanel is converted to a remote control for the other Onyx. If you were looking for a real-world parallel, it would be an act of mutual masturbation between two men. By comparison, the only pairings that the technology doesn't allow for are Pearl/Pearl, since these devices can only sense and transmit stimulus; they can't receive or simulate it. For what it's worth, the company has already pledged to remedy this issue in the future, although I'm not sure if there would be much appeal.

Check your privilege

You see, the Pearl's ability to just sense and transmit sexual stimulus makes it a one-sided experience. It's something that my significant other takes issue with, since she's not getting any enjoyment from our internet lovemaking. There's no way for the Onyx user to reciprocate, which makes the sex mostly passive. Then there's the design of the Pearl itself. Female pleasure devices, essentially, fall into one of two camps: clitoral stimulators that vibrate while sitting outside the body, or dildos that replicate the act of penetration. The Pearl, however, is a smooth, vibrating dildo that can do both jobs, but only really one at a time. As such, it's hard not to see the current version of the Pearl as an extension of a purely male-focused pleasure device. Hell, we could even call it a connected sex toy for sexists.

Even the company's advertising features an anonymous, faceless woman.

It's a position independent webcam performer Bouncy Britney, who agreed to talk to me about her experiences with Kiiroo, disagrees with. Britney said she hadn't used the device for her own pleasure, and that she "just used [her] hands and mouth" when operating it for paying customers. Britney's also not convinced the Pearl is a bad female pleasure device, either. "Coming from someone who has a large collection of toys, I have no complaints of the Pearl," she says, noting the intensity of the Pearl's vibrator. In fact, Britney believes that Kiiroo's likely to become the go-to product for webcam performers; something she needs after the decline of teledildonic pioneer RealTouch Interactive, her former employer.

You don't need to be a professional cam performer like Britney to use Kiiroo's tech. Setup at home is quick and easy: Connect the devices to a computer via Bluetooth; install a few firmware upgrades; exchange alphanumeric codes; and you're good to go. My other half sent me the code via a text message, which I then entered to begin our "chat." Soon enough, as the conversation between us grew more adult in tone, it became time for me to assume the position and physically embrace the Onyx.

After a while, it became clear I wasn't getting aroused at all despite this device furiously grinding itself around my member.

In order for the Onyx to successfully convey pleasure, its opening has been designed to be a tight fit. That means you'll be using a generous amount of lubrication just to comfortably insert yourself into the unit, followed by a hard push that saw the hard plastic edge jab into my pelvis. Once ensconced in the Onyx, all I had to do was sit back and let my other half, and the device, do all of the work for me. Or, at least, that was the plan.

We began our Kiiroo experiment with her stroking the outside of the Pearl, which caused the machinery within the Onyx to spring into life. The sensation was similar to a massage, with the gears gently kneading my flesh for a relaxing and slightly pleasant experience. It was nice, but it wasn't particularly stimulating. In fact, after a while, it became clear that I wasn't getting any more aroused at all, despite this device furiously grinding itself around my member. So, we switched gears and decided to try simulating penetration, hoping that the increased feedback would kick the evening into life. The results, however, were the same: a pleasant, yet disappointing, non-sexual massage.

The Kiiroo Onyx

Blue balls

As the evening progressed, I was sent into a tailspin of self-doubt, worrying if I was doing it wrong, or worse -- if I was somehow inadequate to the task. I emailed the company the following day to ask if I had indeed been using it wrong, and if I should have taken to actively "fucking" the machine as if it was a Fleshlight. The official response was a "no." Turns out, I'd been using the Onyx correctly and yes, users are meant to sit back and let the gizmo do the work for them.

But there's a problem with this, which is that sex with the Onyx isn't all that sexy. In fact, "sex" with the Onyx is like listening to music while underwater. You're aware that something's happening, but all you get is a murky echo and a sense of frustration that quickly spirals into boredom. After that, there's very little reason to continue.

It was a surprise to realize just how primitive Kiiroo's technology is, and also how underwhelming the "connected sex" experience could be. Part of that disillusion, however, stems from a quirk of my own biology that I'd never paid much attention to until I started researching this piece. You see, when I was a child, I was circumcised for medical reasons. At that point, I joined the ranks of the many American men who were living without foreskins.

It was a surprise to realize how primitive Kiiroo's technology is, and how underwhelming "connected sex" could be.

Before I'd messed around with this device, life without a foreskin hadn't presented much of an issue, because I had no idea what I was missing. In my post-coital Kiiroo failure, I'd discovered that circumcised men can suffer from an acute reduction in sensation and an increased risk of pain during intercourse. Although, the extent of these effects is contentious and differs depending on the studies that you read. To put it bluntly: My ability to fully enjoy teledildonic sex was surgically removed more than two decades ago. And if I'm anything like the other millions of adult, circumcised men, then I can't imagine too many being enthralled by these devices.

But beyond my biological handicap, the real problem with Kiiroo's connected sex toys is more general: There's no sex to be had here. Sex is, of course, the most personal thing anyone can do, so I can't definitively say my experience here will echo that of your own, and I'm sure plenty who've tried it will disagree. However, if this is the pinnacle of contemporary connected-sex technology, then I'm quite comfortable sticking with my right hand.

[Images: Kiiroo (product shots)]