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What it means for sex and privacy when your dildo connects to the WiFi

Teledildonics might help out cam girls and long distance partners, but can it ever replace real sex?

For anyone who grew up with the internet, the concept of cybersex is far from foreign. All you needed was a screen, a jarring dial-up tone, and a willing participant. Take that idea, add sex toys, and you get teledildonics: a fancy word for wirelessly synced sex toys that communicate with each other through the internet to create a telepresent experience. For the uninitiated, this means using tech that makes you feel like an absent person is really there – kind of like virtual reality.

The toys use everything from apps, computer interfaces, and sensors like the touchscreen on your iPhone to send and receive signals that replicate vibrations, contractions, and strokes, simulating a sexual encounter. Hallie Lieberman, sex historian and author of Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, tells Dazed how teledildonic toys work.

In a “heterosexual example”, she explains, “each partner has an internet-enabled toy, and as the woman is changing the patterns of the vibrator, the corresponding toy – usually a vibrating Fleshlight-style sleeve – will mimic the vibrations. Some devices work differently, in that when she’s thrusting it inside of herself, the sleeve will squeeze in tandem. Or he will set certain vibration patterns, or move the toy up and down on his penis, and the vibrator will respond in turn.

“Queer example: Each partner has an internet-enabled toy and as the woman is changing the patterns of the vibrator, the corresponding toy – usually an identical toy –  will mimic the vibrations from her vibrator. For gay/bi male couples it works similarly, with two Fleshlight-style devices mimicking the others’ movement.”

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It might sound like something out of Blade Runner 2049, a dystopian sci-fi dream where physical intimacy is made obsolete, but sex experts believe teledildonics could not only preserve, but enhance intimacy in a highly virtual world. “The toys can be used to improve long-distance relationships”, says Lieberman. “For people without partners or people who want variety, they can have a somewhat realistic virtual sexual experience that would possibly be more fulfilling than simply masturbating with porn.”

Although teledildonics is still a fairly niche technology, Lieberman says sex workers and cam girls have already started to embrace these toys to offer a more intimate experience with their clients. Unlike VR porn, which only makes the experience more realistic, teledildonics can add humanity to porn consumption, making both the physical and emotional connection even stronger. “Because teledildonics allows you to connect with a sex toy across a distance, (it) can be a useful tool for bringing people together”, say Alex Fine, co-founder and CEO of Dame Products.

More importantly, they have the advantage of accessibility and anonymity. By potentially recreating sex with someone who you’ll never be in the same room with, let alone inside of, the technology can be a safe sexual space for anyone unable to get off.

“Anybody who wants sexual variety or wants to try out a new sexual experience that they are curious about, or maybe afraid to try with another person could benefit from teledildonics”, says Lieberman. “Also, people who are exploring attraction to different genders might benefit from it, because it might be less risky to explore through technology than with another person.” Because there is no actual physical contact with another human being, teledildonics also removes all risk of STIs or unwanted pregnancies, which is definitely a bonus. The technology also has the amazing potential to benefit those with physical disabilities, but only if sextech companies start to design toys with handicapped people’s needs in mind, Lieberman points out.

“Like any form of technology, if not used in a way that enhances intimacy, with really open and honest communication, they can end up actually distracting us from intimacy” – Alex Fine, Dame Products CEO

As with any type of technology, unsurprisingly, one of the biggest downsides is that the toys can be hacked. Last year, Canadian sex toy manufacturer We-Vibe violated user privacy by collecting data from their app-operated toys, and had to pay customers up to £7,000 in a lawsuit. Although the We-Vibe toys weren’t teledildonics in that they communicate with each other, they were connected to apps like most teledildonics toys are. Aside from unlawful data mining, hackers could potentially “communicate” with your toy. “If devices aren't secure, someone you aren't intending to could take over control, which is a form of non-consensual sexual activity”, says Fine.

Sex toys are typically marketed to women, but teledildonics seems to be heavily male-oriented, due to its popularity among male porn consumers. If teledildonic toy use becomes more mainstream for hetero-cis men, could it also potentially make them comfortable with toys in a couple setting? Lieberman explains that historically, any time men have been able to control sex toys, they been more comfortable with them. “In the 1960s, strap-on dildos for impotent men to wear were more socially acceptable and less likely to be considered illegal in the US than dildos for masturbation.

“A woman masturbating with a vibrator without a man present is more palatable if the man is controlling her vibrator with his dick. Any time sex toys are used to promote monogamous hetero-cis coupledom, they will be embraced more widely by society, and less threatening to men.”

Fine is slightly more skeptical, and says the introduction of teledildonics isn’t a guarantee that men will stop seeing sex toys as the competition. “Yes, in some ways, using a tool during solo masturbation or during teledildonic play can make it easier to use a tool during coitus, but it is also possible that hetero-cis men will compartmentalise toys as tools to use to replace themselves when they are not there, rather than becoming comfortable with using tools during sex.”

As it stands now, teledildonics is still fairly niche. The idea first hit the market in the 90s, but the technology was basic, the toys were expensive, and most of all, people didn’t want them. Nowadays it’s different, and with our quasi-pathological smartphone use and increasingly sex-positive views on pleasure, it makes sense to merge the two. Frankly it was just a matter of time – but is it the inevitable future of intimacy?

“Like any form of technology, if not used in a way that enhances intimacy, with really open and honest communication, they can end up actually distracting us from intimacy. Over-complicated technology – especially that which is based on distance rather than closeness – has a risk of being isolating”, says Fine.

Teledildonics might have the potential to augment a solo sexual experience and carve out a space for intimacy in a highly digital world, but as social creatures, we will always seek out human contact. Lieberman is confident technology will never replace IRL sex. “We’re social creatures”, she says, “and we will always enjoy having sex in person with each other.”