"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
In 1992, Future Sex magazine envisioned the sexual machinery of the new millennium: the CSex G-Unit, a kind of bodysuit made of sex toys including enormous electronic “simskin dildos” and stimulation helmets. These cyberdildonics suits would let lovers get it on from across the globe, according to the avant-garde publication. You would simply strap yourself into one of these form-fitting love machines and log on to the Internet, and your partner could remotely control sensations that would bring you to a mind-blowing virtual climax. No condoms required.
The story was meant in jest, but it wasn’t the first time the world had been introduced to the concept of cyberdildonics. Man has long been fascinated by the idea of machine-controlled sex, from the early medical vibrators of the Victorians (designed to bring a woman to orgasm without a man’s fingers) to the virtual reality sex featured in contemporary cyberpunk sci-fi. Progress in sex, as people have envisioned it over the years, seems to equal a vibrating sex toy and a network-enabled remote control.
Fast forward to 2000. Several companies have taken the Future Sex vision to heart. On the Web you can now find sites like Digital Sexsations and SafeSexPlus, which promise the first-ever cyberdildonics kits. These two companies are hawking Internet-controlled sex toys: You purchase one of a number of specially enhanced sex toys and a device that attaches them to your computer, then boot up the included software, log on to the Net and presto! It’s “Real Cybersex!” One well-known porn company, Vivid Entertainment, is even building the first-ever full-body cybersex suit — although the company did not return my phone calls asking to see it. The other two companies were thrilled to send the latest in cyberdildonics.
The boxes they arrived in were discreet: innocuous brown-and-white cardboard packages, sent anonymously and with no hint of the contents. No one would know that hidden under layers of Styrofoam peanuts and shrink-wrap were plastic vaginas and enormous purple vibrators shaped like dolphins. They are just like you’d find in any back-alley smut shop, but with an exception — each toy is enhanced with a little white wire snaking out of the back, culminating in a plug.
The idea is that my partner and I will sit down at computers across the city from each other, log on, and manipulate various sex toys that will bring us to eye-popping orgasms. The reality is quite different. Although our carefully coordinated cybersex never quite happens, I still manage to learn a bit about the feasibility of true cyberdildonics — and even more about the current state of the virtual sex industry.
Here, for your edification, are seven things you should know about cyberdildonics:
1. The sex industry isn’t investing in fancy technology.
The SafeSexPlus kit — designed by WebPower, a company whose multitudinous holdings include the cybersex network Internet Friends — consists of a small beige plastic box, shoddily glued together, with suction cups on the back, two light sensors and a port for your sex toy. Boot up the included software, and it will open a Web browser with an image of a square, half white and half gray; affix the plastic box over this square using the suction cups. The idea is quite simple — using a mouse to control the colors of that square, you will control the speed and actions of your partner’s sex toy.
Who would have thought that the future of sex was a tacky little piece of plastic suction-cupped to your computer monitor?
I test out two of these little plastic boxes — the first one was broken — and eventually do, to my great surprise, get this makeshift-looking device to work. I turn on the “autopilot mode” and the colors on the little square fade in from black to white, and sure enough, the imitation pearls wiggle in my vibrator (the “Lotus Collection Pearl Driver,” from International Supercocks) and the dolphin-shaped clitoris tickler whirs, fast then slow and then in circles, according to the colors on the screen. Then the suction cups on the plastic box slip and it falls off the monitor. I affix it again. It slowly slides down the screen.
Suction cups are not, I dare say, a high-tech or reliable way to ensure an orgasm.
2. One person may not be enough for four simultaneous sex toys.
The kit from Digital Sexsations is a step up from that of SafeSexPlus — not only is the software and hardware a bit more advanced, consisting of a “black box” that plugs into the serial port of your computer and a rather elegant chat client, but the whole shebang is even branded with a discreet green-and-black logo.
Digital Sexsations also offers something that SafeSexPlus can’t beat: four device ports. You can plug four different sex toys into your black box — say, Le Bullette vibrator and a Mega Clit Saucer, a Nipple Exciter and a Pleasure Dome vibrating anal plug — and each one can be individually controlled by your partner. The Digital Sexsations chat window lets you create hot keywords that, when typed into the chat window, will bring one of these four devices to life at different levels of intensity. “I kiss your butt,” for example, will cause that anal vibrator to go wild, while “I touch your breast” will spring the Nipple Exciter into action. (Besides the rather limited keyword option, you can also control the toys manually while writing sweet nothings.) Just imagine it: You can have four simultaneous sex toys buzzing across your body!
Or can you? The physics of it are dubious: Try holding a vibrator against your crotch and an anal toy to your behind, while balancing a Nipple Exciter on your breast and typing steamy pillow talk to your invisible partner, and manipulating their sex toys to boot. Trust me, it’s impossible. Only Shiva himself could manage this little feat.
3. It’s easier for gals.
In that early issue of Future Sex magazine, the editors envisioned the cybersex suit of the future as being built from a “woven fabric of sensors — a membrane that simulates human skin — that can be worn over human genitals and used to digitize and record sensual and sexual touching.” Contemporary, sleek and sensitive, the cybersex suit would be tailored to your body’s needs and would use the most modern technology to send gentle signals to your erogenous zones.
Meet the 2000 version of the cyberdildonics suit: The Vibro-Realistic Vagina and the Nipple Exciter. The Vibro-Realistic Vagina, according to the box’s promises, is a “lifesize, totally lifelike replica of a woman’s vagina.” This is wishful thinking. What it really is is a floppy chunk of soft, flesh-colored plastic, complete with a gaping pink-lipped hole in the middle and, as a crowning touch, some creepy curls of imitation pubic hair. This sex toy is so hideous that I can’t imagine that any self-respecting man would actually put his penis inside it; my partner took one look, shook his head and burst out laughing. His first response, as I recall, was “You want me to get in that?”
There’s also the RoboSuck, a plastic vacuum-action cylinder. (“Always ready and always willing, RoboSuck brings modern technology and master craftsmanship to combine man’s age-old and never-ending quest for powerful suction.”) I’ve yet to meet the man whose idea of good sex is sticking his penis in a vacuum cleaner, but perhaps he exists.
On a similar note, there’s also the Nipple Exciter, a kind of vacuum pump for your breast — a giant red rubber bulb on the end of a plastic suction-cup that fits over your nipple. Your partner’s virtual commands will cause the thing to suck hard or slow, pulsing rather obscenely as it sucks your soft flesh into its plastic maw. This, contrary to what the box might tell you, is not a pleasant sensation.
Then there’s the Vibro Mr. Jack (think the Vibro-Realistic Vagina, but as a
On the whole, women are more suited for cyberdildonics, since the available array of dildos and strap-on vibrators are already familiar and useful toys for many modern gals. For men, unfortunately, there’s a dearth of electronic toys that are as effective or as sensitive as the palm of your own hand.
4. Cyberdildonics is not for couples.
When you are already having the real, flesh-and-blood variety of sex several times a week, there’s not much incentive to try the virtual kind. Just try sitting down with your husband (or wife or boyfriend or lover) and suggesting that you buy cyberdildonics kits so that you can make love online. It takes a rare sort of couple to make this happen. To start off, you both have to be PC people (no Mac versions available), and you should probably have them at home (I dare you to try this at work), which means, of course, that you shouldn’t live together. It’s hard enough to make the time to get together with your sweetheart; do you want to waste the hours getting together virtually?
That said, I have a friend whose boyfriend lives across the country, who perked up with interest when she heard about the product. Alas, she’s a Mac person, and her rather modest boyfriend doesn’t seem the type to play with plastic genitalia. But who knows what she hasn’t told me?
SafeSexPlus seems to have the target demographic down: Cyberdildonics is for those computer-loving singles who have long been having cybersex anyway, using sticky fingers and their own toys to get off with invisible partners, and who now want to add a remote-control to the action. Over at the Internet Friends Network, you are encouraged to find another cyberdildonics-owning stranger, open up a private chat room and get to it (if you own a Webcam, you can even include video feeds). Or, you can watch an “exhibitor” — basically, the Net equivalent of an interactive porn star, who charges a fee to have cyberdildonic-enhanced chat with admirers who are watching her from remote desktops.
This, then, is just the next step up from the HotNHorny chat room at AOL. Of course, those chat rooms are very popular; perhaps SafeSexPlus will be, too.
5. Alien sex is frightening.
Besides having sex with your sweetheart online or tracking down a stranger through a matchmaking service, you can also just do it solo. SafeSexPlus offers an “autopilot mode” which will randomly vary the intensity of your toy’s action. Digital Sexsations partners offer erotic stories online (aka “Buzz Books”) that will control your sex toys: As you’re reading the story, click on a word and it will send signals to your vibrator. The phrase “back and forth she rolled it,” for example, induced steady, gentle vibrations from Le Bullette; “sucks it deeply” creates harder pulsing vibrations and “shoved it as deep into her as it would go” caused my little green plastic dynamo to shake so hard that I could barely hold it.
But the available stories are a quirky lot that won’t necessarily titillate everyone. “Spiraling Desire,” one of several Digital Sexsations-enhanced stories from DigitalErotica.net, features a woman being raped by an alien: “Ohmygod, she thought as he ripped off the robe and exposed his mottled skin, his enormous, bloated braincase shelved above beady eyes shrouded in black membrane. But as usual her eyes drifted to where they always wanted to go — she never did have the power to circumvent her ‘free’ will — and she saw what she always searched for, that being a cock, of course.”
Is this erotica, or horror?
6. Customer support is going to be a problem.
Somehow, it takes the excitement out of cybersex when you call the customer support number of, say, SafeSexPlus, after tussling for an hour with your software, in order to figure out why the personalized IP address that is supposed to let your partner remotely control your toy isn’t working, and the customer support person doesn’t call back until two days later. (She left a perky voice mail message offering only the comment that “It should work, just try it again!” Gosh, thanks but I’m no longer in the mood.)
7. Cybersex isn’t very sexy.
Something about the tangle of wires and devices and serial ports and ugly vibrating toys takes all the romance out of cyberdildonics, which, perhaps, is why I couldn’t motivate my Mac-centric partner to run out and borrow a PC so that we could try it out. The world of remote-controlled cybersex is not sexy, sensitive or titillating in any way. It’s smutty, plastic, mechanical and rather tacky. It actually feels a bit desperate, much along the lines of anonymous sex with someone named 36DDwantsU in a chat room or trashy online pics of pneumatic blondes with legs a-spread or even a dog-eared copy of Barely Legal magazine — they can send off vaguely trashy vibes that get you off but they don’t compare to the real thing.
Currently cyberdildonics is merely machine-enhanced masturbation, much like traditional cybersex. You will still be holding your own vibrator in one hand and typing with the other, the only difference being that the person on the other end can control whether your toy whirs softly or if it will shimmy out of control. (And, as some will tell you, even this may not even be an impovement: When it comes to hypersensitive genitalia, it is often far more effective to control your own electronics than to let someone else try to figure it out.) Cyberdildonics is still far more like having sex with an electronic device than with a human.
But these products are merely version 1.0. The odds are good that the sex industry, always so inventive with new ways to turn people on, will keep trying to build better cybersex products. Will we ever see a suit that plugs in to the network and delivers gentle stimulation to all our erogenous zones, accurately simulating the sensation of wet tongues and soft fingers, of skin against skin? A cyberdildonics kit that includes goggles to let you see and hear your lover in full 3D glory? Will some future technologist invent a machine as gentle as lips?
Perhaps the technology will advance to a level in which cybersex is as satisfying as the real thing; if it does, it will bring up new questions concerning the nature of sex itself. Could the human touch be exchanged for machine interfaces? If so, it could be the end of romance: Cyberdildonics is, ultimately, more about control of another human being — the sexual equivalent of a radio-controlled hot rod — than sensuality. Artificial distance and blunt remote controls forbid the meeting of eyes, subtle unspoken communications and the nuance of imagination. Yes, you may still be having “sex,” but you’ll be missing these, the greatest sex organs of all.
Tricia Baldwin is the pseudonym of a modest writer.More Tricia Baldwin.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)