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a robot hand holding a human hand, surrounded by hearts

The digital world is changing sexuality as we know it. // Ilustration: Kaitlin O'Toole, UM

Harper’s: Ghosting the Machine

April 25, 2022 — 

The research and insights of Neil McArthur, director of the centre for professional and applied ethics, is the cover story of May’s Harper’s Magazine.

As a section of the article notes:

[Markie] Twist and McArthur are a somewhat unlikely pair. Twist is a sexuality educator, sexologist, relationship therapist, and professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I first heard her speak when she gave the keynote at the Sixth International Congress on Love & Sex with Robots, a virtual conference that was co-sponsored by a masturbation device called the Handy (“up to six hundred strokes a minute”) that is porn-syncable, with the proper coding skills. McArthur is a philosophy professor (his first book was on Hume) at the University of Manitoba who specializes in sexual ethics.

Twist and McArthur describe two waves of digisexuality. The first one crashed over us decades ago and consists of all the ways technology is used to mediate sexual connections between or among people: chat groups, live cams, social media, dating apps, various virtual worlds where people interact through avatars, as well as remote-controlled sex devices. Some of these technologies were developed specifically for erotic purposes, but many, like Skype and Zoom, were not.

Second-wave digisexuality, according to Twist and McArthur, is more about immersion. It may include human-to-human interaction, but much of what occurs will not. The twin beacons of this revolution are currently sex robots and virtual reality. Sex robots get most of the attention, for reasons that are perhaps obvious, including their prominence in science fiction and what you might call their conceptual palpability. The robots themselves, however, are still at an early stage of development, and moving along quite slowly. The difference between what exists at the moment and, say, a brothel denizen on Westworld is the difference between an ox cart and a Tesla. Even the uncanny valley seems like quite a hike away.

Virtual reality, on the other hand, has made serious strides….


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