On a recent muggy Monday, I was sitting at my desk in Brooklyn pondering an odd request from Amir Vatan, a man I'd never met before. He wanted to know if I would rotate his shaft.
Looking out from my computer screen was the fully clothed Vatan, a goateed 30-year-old lazily rocking back and forth in an office chair in California. He was cradling the phone to his ear and holding a pink and purple dildo at eye level.
"Can you do it?" he asked.
The shaft in his hand started gyrating according to the movement of my mouse over a control panel on my screen.
"Yes!" he said.
Encouraged, I then made the dildo's pronglike "clit tickler" (shaped like bunny ears) pulsate. Then I wiggled the head again.
A moment of odd pride enveloped me. How many women can say they've been a dick?
Vatan and I had arranged this weirdly intimate encounter so he could demonstrate the kinky technological offerings from HighJoy.com, his 4-month-old dating site. Unlike other matchmaking sites, High Joy provides forums where singles (or married folk, as the case may be) can chat with each other live, as well as see their partners and hear their partners (if they have an Internet camera and microphone). And if they've purchased one of the male or female versions of the Doc Johnson HighJoy-enabled sex toys, partners can also rotate each other's shafts.
Since Howard Rheingold discussed the field of "teledildonics" in his 1991 book "Virtual Reality" and hypothesized we'd all have "portable telediddlers" by 2020, a plethora of mostly unreliable, clunky Internet sex toys have entered the market. The sensor-packed full-body "Cyber Sex Suit" became a flaccid venture in 2000, when the company couldn't assure the Federal Trade Commission that the suit wouldn't cause heart attacks. Soon afterwards, a sex toy that could be operated by brightening and dimming a computer screen got bland reviews.
The one major success has been the Sinulator, a wireless adaptor that can transform almost any sex toy into one that can be used over the Internet. The Sinulator is user friendly -- it's operated through the Sinulate site, therefore requiring no downloads -- and, aside from the initial cost of the adaptor ($119.95 including two free vibrating bullets that can be inserted into many toys), it's free to use. Sinulators started out being mostly used by companies that train cameras on live "webcam girls"; site visitors are charged extra to manipulate a girl's -- or sometimes guy's -- dildo over the Internet.
HighJoy, however, represents a real shift in teledildonics: It's reaching beyond the realm of late-night porn surfers to a much wider audience. There's not a porn-site ad to be seen on its pages. The site and toys are instead being marketed to a heretofore overlooked population: people who want to have sex with other people in the hopes of possibly founding or furthering a relationship.
It's a consumer group that's apparently jonesing for Internet-enabled sex toys. According to the Sinulator's makers, 75 percent of the devices are now sold to individuals wanting to use them with lovers or Internet friends. The company says that many customers are men who claim they operate their wives' sex toys from their desks at work.
But do American singles really want to have sex with potential mates in front of a computer? We've gotten pretty comfortable with the idea of falling in love at a virtual distance -- sussing out every little detail about a person before meeting them -- so perhaps test-driving people's bed skills before doing it in the flesh isn't such a reach. Could nothaving online sex with a potential date be considered bizarre one day?
"It's a way to practice your skills, especially for people who are trying to better understand their sexuality," Vatan says. "What's more, it's very safe sex. It's as safe as it comes."
HighJoy, which costs $7.95 a month to join, seems to be gambling that overlapping a socially acceptable technological relationship-building tool (online dating) with one that feels a little more on the dirty side will lend a veneer of OK-ness to the latter. So far, the evidence suggests that it's going to take more time for online daters to jump on the teledildonics bandwagon. Although more than 10,000 members currently use the site, far fewer HighJoy-enabled sex toys have been purchased. A quick search of the site reveals 30 profiles of men with toys and about half as many women. But that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of eager test-drivers out there -- you don't need to own a toy in order to tweak someone else's.
After my tutorial from Vatan, I decided to boldly jump into the HighJoy chat forum.
A speedy go-through of the profiles shows a wide variety of people, from swinging middle-aged couples (who blurred out their faces in their photos) to normal-looking women in their 30s sitting at desks, to men proudly baring stiff body parts. Some admitted to being virgins. Others wore crotchless chaps. Each profile has a "back door" -- an optional page where people can describe their sexual tastes: positions, toys, fantasies, etc.
Aside from height and age, my profile had no photo or information in it. All it said was that I was a HighJoy-enabled female. I guess that said a lot, however, because within 24 hours I was bombarded with e-mails from men whose screen names contained words like "stud" and "rock hard." They were all eager to schedule "dates" to help me test my toy.
Before answering, I had to figure out if having virtual sex with a virtual stranger was really something I could do -- even though I'd already told my editor it was. Truth be told, my initial response to teledildonics was unbridled smirking.
An unscientific survey of my female friends confirmed my suspicion that, like most porn, anonymous online mutual masturbation is probably more of a guy thing. Yet I had respect for the online dating pioneers who were using HighJoy to meet and hook up.
Take Greg, 31, an L.A. poet who joined HighJoy after a recent breakup.
"I was looking for something a little different. I felt like I'd already done the whole normal dating-site thing. You chat, you get coffee, you find out they don't look like their photo. It got old. So I went on Google and found HighJoy," he says. "The video, the audio, the sex toys -- it had all the normal dating-site stuff, but then it had those extras and that really intrigued me."
In the last four months, Greg says he's had sex with five women he met on HighJoy. However, none were completely random encounters -- each conquest was preceded by a day, if not weeks, of "getting to know you" conversations, either in private chat forums or over a computer videophone. He even wrote erotic poetry for one of them.
"It's like being at a bar," he says. "You feed off some stuff in their profiles, or you talk about their photos. Then you talk about how you like having sex. I'll usually explain how to use the toy, since I'm kind of a veteran now."
Once Greg has seduced a partner, he sets a scene. "I put on music. I'll dim the lights and put flowers in a spot she can see. I want to create something nice for her," he says. "I want her to feel like it's sexy, not dirty. This isn't pornography to me at all. It's kinky and erotic, but it's also clean and good and safe."
Dani, a 28-year-old restaurant manager started using HighJoy because she says she likes sex but doesn't want to sleep around. She also doesn't like how most dating sites facilitate meeting only those people close by. "Living in L.A., it's really hard to meet people and date -- there are too many metrosexuals."
So, through HighJoy, she found a man named David who lives in Spain; they first started communicating when he contacted her complimenting her photo. She responded because his profile showed he had similar music interests (Neil Young, Coldplay, Beatles, Rolling Stones). After three weeks of talking through the HighJoy chat console, they started to use their cameras and toys to have sex. "You can't just go out and have sex with anyone these days, but with this you kind of can," she says. "Real sex is a different kind of intimacy [than this], but this helps get the ball rolling."
Recently, David has been talking about coming to visit her, but Dani says if he doesn't, that's OK-- what they have has gone beyond a normal online courtship, but it's fallen short of an actual relationship.
"I feel closer to David than I do to anyone else I've chatted with, because I've let him be intimate with me," she says. "I've never felt this close to any of the people I've [talked to on other dating] sites ... If he were here, I'd date him, but at the same time, if I never hear from him again, I won't be heartbroken."
My curiosity was piqued after talking to Dani and Greg. Maybe I could have a torrid little online fling, if only so I could tell my grandchildren that I was one of the first ones to have Internet sex. I suddenly was picturing myself as some bold, futuristic sex babe -- I'd be Jane Fonda in the killer sex machine in "Barbarella," or Diane Keaton going into the Orgasmatron in "Sleeper"...
I told all this to a friend with whom I'd been joking about writing this article. I'd been e-mailing him links to weird products I was stumbling upon (like this or this, and he'd instant-message me stuff like "Honey, I love it when you hit Ctrl+Tab!" But when I said that I was actually thinking of doing it, the jokes stopped. "You've swum too deep and I can no longer follow," he said.
I was deep indeed. Was I crazy to even be considering doing this? I decided to consult New York sex and relationship expert Regena Thomashauer, aka "Mama Gena."
"Anything that gets people to relate to their sensuality is a step forward," she told me. "It's possible that people using these devices are people that would be too reticent to have one-on-one contact in person, and for them this is an improvement over having no sensual life at all."
I wouldn't say I don't have any sensual life at all, but I have been single for a few months, and somehow during the course of researching this article, I had begun to find something alluring about the naughtiness involved in a virtual tryst. It was excitingly risky without any of the dangers of bringing a 3D stranger into my bedroom.
As I gamely scrolled through the profiles trying to pick a partner, I found that an amazing number of men were into "anal beads" and "double dildos" -- things I might be able to deal with in the context of a relationship, but upfront it was too much information.
Then I got a message from a 24-year-old in Florida whose profile seemed innocent enough -- he said he was a college grad who likes Jennifer Garner types, and fantasizes about sex on planes. He had no photo, which meant I could mentally summon up Hugh Jackman. Neither of us had audio or cameras, so we just started to type back and forth to each other.
Floridian Hugh was shy, and our conversation was haltingly awkward. He told me he worked in insurance and I told him I had my toy plugged in. He politely asked me if he could try moving my dildo in a "non-sexual way just to experiment." The vibrating ears moved furiously, and I told him of his progress on my end. "Awesome," he wrote. Within a half hour we were having an awkward instant-message version of phone sex. I could've done without his frequent use of "LOL." I also could have used more courting (not to mention foreplay), but I was on deadline, dammit.
To my astonishment, there was something weirdly sweet about the whole thing. Unlike porn, this made me the recipient of all the attention. It was kind of touching that someone -- even a stranger -- wanted to pleasure a real me in lieu of getting off on Jenna Jameson. At the same time, I didn't feel as physically and emotionally exposed as I would be having sex with a man I'd just met if he were actually in my bed.
The physical awkwardness of typing and touching myself was a problem -- kind of like trying to eat an ice cream cone while washing dishes. Yet it was more intimate than phone sex, since Hugh had control over what I was feeling.
Problem was, he was no pro. I had to tell him I was distracted by his constantly asking if I preferred the shaft going to the left or right and to just move the thing himself. Eventually, he started to get the hang of it. I think we were both a little amazed by the whole thing --"Wow! We're really doing this!" he wrote -- but just as we really started to get going...
The vibrator stopped working. The bunny ears refused to move. Hoping it wasn't the batteries -- I didn't have any others! -- I unplugged the whole thing from the computer. This made the screen freeze and I had to restart.
When I logged back on five minutes later, my cyber Lothario was gone, and echoing in my ears were the words of my grandfather banging the vertical hold knob of his pre-cable television so many years ago: "One day, they'll make a better version of this that actually works," he'd say, "and it'll be great."