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Sexuality in Conversation

Like a Sex Machine: Digisexuals Are Shifting the Way We Think About Tech

When D.B., a 39-year-old health sciences professional in Washington State, was a teenager growing up in the South, it became clear that her desires conflicted with her culture's expectations for women’s sexuality. She fantasized about voyeurism, domination, submission and having many partners. These proclivities seemed so taboo, the mere fantasy of enacting them with other people felt too unrealistic to entertain. Thus began a lifelong habit of fantasizing about sex with programmable male and female androids. “In my fantasies, I could have the AIs hidden in my closet so that I could have my desires met without the judgement of others knowing,” she says.

Now a married woman, D.B. has sex with her husband a few times a month, but she has needs he can’t fulfill. Since he doesn’t share her sex drive or affinity for power play, they’ve considered polyamory, but it seems like too much work for them both. So, D.B. relies on her vibrator, porn and trusty AI fantasies. (She’d like to get a fucking machine, but she’s afraid that if she bought a full-fledged sexbot, the reality wouldn’t live up to her fantasies.)

For years, D.B.’s sexuality made her feel alone. Then last year, her friend Markie Twist, a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Stout’s Human Development and Family Studies Department, published a paper in Sexual and Relationship Therapy describing a new group of people dubbed “digisexuals”—“people whose primary sexual identity comes through the use of technology.” D.B. immediately saw herself in it. She now identifies as digisexual, which to her means “satisfied with a sexual life that is primarily enjoyed by fantasy and selective automative devices.”

Twist and her coauthor Neil McArthur, associate professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, wrote the paper to predict the rise of this new identity, not to recount something that had already happened. As a sex therapist, Twist had worked with people who fit the description of digisexuals, but she and McArthur coined the term themselves. After the paper’s publication, however, they began hearing from digisexuals like D.B. who were already out there and felt relieved to see their sexual preferences validated. Because our culture pathologizes the use of technology for sexual gratification, digisexuals often wonder if something must be wrong with their relationships, says Twist. But their behavior may simply reflect their sexual preferences.

“We’re talking about an orientation,” says Twist. “Since they were little, they dreamed of sex with robots.” While Twist and McArthur don’t place digisexuality in the same category as LGBTQ identities, they liken it to kink or polyamory, which fall on a scale from a sexual interest to a central part of someone’s identity.

I have an amazing life partner, [but] it is unrealistic to expect one person to fulfil all of my needs. I meet my needs with technology.

Twist has found that digisexuals disproportionately belong to marginalized groups, with many feeling excluded from human relationships. Like D.B., they appreciate that technology won’t judge them. You may not expect that based on the sexbot industry, which is primarily geared toward straight men. But most sex toy users are women, Twist and McArthur point out, and they believe other technologies like sex robots and virtual reality sex will evolve to accommodate women as the size of the female market becomes evident.

In fact, most of us already practice some form of “first-wave digisexuality,” which includes porn, sex toys, dating apps, and other technological sex aids, according to the paper. “Second-wave digisexualities” like VR sex and sex robots are different in that they’re so immersive, they could replace sex with humans (though that doesn’t mean they will), McArthur explains.

Before these technologies have even entered the mainstream, people are panicking about them. McArthur views the reactions to his own paper as evidence of this, with people tweeting things like “Men, more feminine than ever before, are becoming uninterested in the responsibility of a healthy heterosexual relationship” and commenting on Reddit, “This is what happens when we lose touch with other humans, live too long in a virtual world, and inevitably get lonely.” Digisexuality frightens people so much, the identity became stigmatized before it even existed.

While Twist and McArthur acknowledge that excessive attachment to sexual technologies can become a problem, they believe people are exaggerating the risks simply because sex is involved. People are already too attached to their phones, Twist points out, but few are advocating that we stop developing smartphones because of that.

Instead, their main concern is that technology could reinforce the social inequalities that digisexuals are using it to escape from. But like any new invention, the impact of sex tech will depend on how we use it. The fact that most sex robots to date are passive females, for example, shouldn’t create an expectation for women to behave like them. It should increase awareness of gender norms and motivate us to change them. And the fact that people with kinks can find acceptance from AI shouldn’t halt the work of getting people to accept them. It should provide a model for how we all treat one another.

For D.B., technology isn’t a replacement for a relationship—it’s what’s allowed hers to survive. “I have an amazing life partner, [but] it is unrealistic to expect one person to fulfil all of my needs,” she explains. “I meet my needs with technology with the consent of my partner and without jeopardy to our relationship and our family. I would like people to recognize [digisexuality] as an alternative for those of us who don’t want the risk of falling for another person outside of our primary relationship—but also don’t want to put our sexual needs on the backburner.“

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