From teledildonics to interactive porn: the future of sex in a digital age

Can you have sex with a computer? And would you want to? Sam Leith explores a brave new world of infinite possibilities

When 35-year-old Jane first signed up to the dating website she has used for about a year, she says it was "quite overwhelming". "I was inundated with winks, and messages, people trying to chat with me live online, all sorts. Some will send you detailed pictures of their penis, basically. What the hell? You've got a penis. Congratulations."

In due course, Jane found ways of negotiating the sexual barrage, and went on to meet 20 or more men; about three-quarters of those have turned into some sort of romantic or physical relationship. "They've all been mini-relationships. I've never had a one-night stand."

Online dating is not an unusual story, but Jane has been married for seven years. The site she uses is Ashley Madison, one of a growing number that caters to men and women seeking extra-marital affairs. Deeply unhappy in her marriage to a husband who "shows no interest in me sexually", she says Ashley Madison turned her life round. "I don't take antidepressants any more. And I can sleep properly. Mentally and physically, it has changed things. I'm getting on better with my husband."

She never thought of herself as a potential adulterer. "My dad cheated on my mum years ago, and I didn't speak to him for years after that. I was horrified. I thought it was the most immoral thing. But now I'm doing it, I'm seeing it from a different angle." While surface social mores haven't changed much in recent years – politicians still play on family values, and Ashley Madison is still banned from advertising on British television – in the private spaces of the web, things are moving fast.

Ashley Madison is the brainchild of 43-year-old former sports lawyer Noel Biderman. What he calls his "lightbulb moment" involved the confluence of two things: the discovery that up to 30% of people on internet dating sites were not single, and what he describes as "a lot of professional contact with infidelity". He worked with an NBA basketball player who had been sold to Milan, and who panicked when his wife announced a visit to Italy. "He said: 'My Italian wife isn't going to like it.' Oh my goodness!"

Biderman wears his self-styled monicker, "king of infidelity", as a badge of pride; behind his desk is a plaque proclaiming, "Life is short – have an affair". A married father of two, he claims not to follow his own advice. So does his wife, and that's germane. "Where we planted our flag was around female infidelity," he explains. "We believed that the internet was going to foster a whole new era in that regard." The site is organised like a ladies' night in a town-centre disco: women can join free, men need to pay to register. This spring it passed the 25 million member mark.

"If you and I were charting the history of female infidelity, we know that environment is a pretty massive factor. When did women first start having a multitude of affairs? It's when they entered the workplace. They now have interesting people to meet, they now have financial freedom so they aren't as concerned about relationships breaking down. They have business travel. So technology is really the second opportunity – whether it's a past lover on Facebook, or a future lover online, what you have is a way to satiate appetite which you didn't have. Technology has dramatically affected how we are approaching sex and intimacy."

But when you talk to the people who are using these sites, it becomes clear that this is something more complicated than no-strings nookie. "Almost an element of the relationship is that you're counselling each other," Jane says. "It is like a really random marriage guidance session, and then the next minute you're having sex. Most of the men I've met have just been incredibly lonely. One guy, I think we've slept together maybe twice in six months. But we meet frequently for meals, drinks, snogging in the car. He really misses being hugged, being kissed – those basics."

Jane's experience, says Biderman, is not uncommon: "What we were dealing with was an intimacy void – if you like, a passion void. And that brings together two things. It's not just sex: sex is a component of it. It's also understanding, like-mindedness, attention – all these things that are absent in their current relationships. People aren't running a husband and six lovers. I think they're trying to do the domestic situation, and one lover. And then after a point that need is filled, almost like filling up a car with petrol. It carries them forward, sometimes six more months, sometimes six years, sometimes they'll never need it again."

Ashley Madison and sites like it represent only one small aspect of the transformation the digital age is making to our sexual behaviour. Apocryphally, men think about sex every 15 seconds. Now, if they forget to, they can be reminded. A friend was interviewing the novelist Bret Easton Ellis on stage when Ellis's pocket beeped in a way he recognised. "You're on Grindr, while I'm interviewing you?" my friend said. He was not wrong. New hook-up apps and sites are born, embraced, rejected and superseded with a speed that recalls watching time-lapse photographs of wheat growing.

Grindr (and its heterosexual analogue Blendr, whose name also equates sex with kitchen equipment) are old news. Bang With Friends, selling itself as a fear-free way of finding Facebook fuckbuddies (only friends who have both confided to the app that they would sleep with the other get the nod) is a yellowing clipping. Even their bastard offspring, Tinder, is starting to look a bit 2013.

Can the awkwardness of modern dating be escaped by moving one step further into the virtual? Not sex with someone you know, or sex with someone you don't know – but sex with someone you will never know? A site called Red Light Center has anything up to two million users. It's a massive multiplayer online reality (an MMO), like Second Life or World Of Warcraft, only with blaring hair-rock and a 1990s Vegas vibe. It is pretty crude on first examination, but is clearly working for the many people who have signed up for an online presence here.

Red Light Center works on a freemium model: you can wander around for free, chatting to other users, or dancing in the nightclub (not advised). But if you want to be able to get your kit off and your freak on you need to pay for VIP membership. It also has an internal economy with its own currency, "Rays", which have a (pretty stable) real-world exchange value. Real and virtual goods and services are for sale. There's a Camgirl Alley, where you can steer your avatar for interactive pornography. You can buy clothes, shoes and imaginary property. And if you can't persuade another player to sleep with you, there are others who will have avatar sex with you for Rays.

"There are professional working girls and some of them make quite a good living," says Brian Shuster, CEO of the Red Light Center's parent company Utherverse. "Even if you're only charging two or three dollars a time for virtual sex, that can quite quickly add up." These working girls pay rent to Utherverse for a place in the virtual bordello.

The site also hosts around 100 virtual weddings a month. "There's a justice of the peace, wedding planners, DJs, afterparties and so on," says Shuster. "These are third-party entrepreneurs. We have people that make $60,000-70,000 a year doing wedding dress design, DJ services or wedding planning services online."

Just like in the real world, you generally need to chat people up first. "A new user shows up and says: 'I want sex.' And the community will explain to this user that this is not appropriate behaviour here: we have our own set of standards and social mores, and if you don't adhere to those you're going to get ignored by everybody."

Are all these technological advances creating something authentically new, or simply let existing impulses flourish? The distinction may not be as clear as all that. Consider infidelity. For most people, having a partner use pornography in private probably wouldn't constitute infidelity. But where would you draw the line on interactive pornography? Is phone sex with a prerecorded chatline pornography, but phone sex with another person infidelity? If a virtual sex game – such as Thrixxx's 3D Sex Villa, where your avatar is going to have sex with a bot – isn't a problem, is the same true of something like Red Light Center, in which your avatar is having sex with an avatar controlled by another human being?

Then there's cybersex with someone who can bring you to orgasm by remote control: does that count as cheating? The remote-sex technologies sometimes called "teledildonics" are, in early crude forms, already with us. With names like Mojowijo, Lovepalz and RealTouch, these range from force-feedback vibrators plugged into your Nintendo, to self-lubricating artificial vaginas that – in sync with counterpart units on the other side of the world – will rub and squeeze to climax any penis you might be brave enough to put into them. Durex even briefly promoted his 'n' hers vibrating pants, or "funderwear", that could be controlled with a smartphone.

"We really are on the cusp of being able to have virtual sex that is damn close to the real thing," says Indiana University's Bryant Paul. And if anyone's in a position to know, it's him. Professor Paul teaches in the telecommunications department but his specialism is sex, media and new technology. "I go to parties and people are like, 'You're the porn professor!'" he laughs. "Everyone wants to talk to you. But in the final analysis you're studying something that goes right back to the beginning of the species, prior to the species. If you look at it in terms of understanding how we use media and technology to do something that we've always tried to do – get relationships, find mates – that's really very interesting. We are stone-age brains in the information age. Media sex is fast food for the stone-age brain."

Professor Paul has been married since 2001 and has daughters of eight and two. "People ask my wife: he's studying pornography – how do you deal with that? The way we always put it is: we like to eat. It's a job. I don't think people would look at my sex life or my media habits and think, wow, he consumes a lot of pornography. We would all be foolish to think that, while watching it clinically, you won't see things that are arousing – but it's possible to dissociate those things."

On the case in hand, he says: "If you look at interactive sex technology, there's a triple-A engine: affordability, accessibility and anonymity. Add to that that it augments what's possible: you can get more pleasure, more vibration, more thrust. A person who has a five inch penis can operate a 10 inch teledildonic device and see what that does to a person as they operate it. So that augmentation issue is very important: it offers the opportunity to improve, to augment the type of sex that people are having." He adds: "I've yet to meet a person that can vibrate at 120hz. And there's something to be said for that, you know? That the technology is potentially able to offer a level of pleasure that is higher than the real thing. That's going to have real ramifications for what people expect."

Serious work is being done on these augmentations. "The big condom companies are all getting into the vibration market," Paul says. "They're trying to find out the frequencies for optimal sexual response. I'm not at liberty to discuss the actual frequencies. [He is a consultant with Trojan on these experiments.] But, yes: there are frequencies that are more pleasurable than others. And it's not just about frequencies – it's about force amplitude. It matters about the size of the weight in the vibrator.

"What's cool is that we're figuring this stuff out. And these companies are now working, too, on the perfect substitute for skin. They're hiring researchers to say: how can we now make more perfect fake genitals? We're getting to a state where the science of sexual pleasure – synthetic sexual pleasure – is really taking off."

This sort of development, Paul points out, could have significant implications down the line for the way in which sex work is considered. "If you've got a woman or a man and you can go online and pay them to have sex with you over the internet, the spread of disease, and other harms, are gone. So how do you regulate that? Do you regulate that? Is there a need to?"

There are those who think we will one day be having sex not only through technology, but with technology itself. David Levy, author of Love And Sex With Robots, thinks that effectively functioning robots – crudely put, sexbots with sufficient artificial intelligence to manage pillow-talk and a fag afterwards – will be available within the next 30 or 40 years.

He thinks it unlikely that sex with robots will supplant the real thing, but says: "The simulation of something is very rarely quite as good as the something itself. I see the advantage of sexually empowered robots as being principally for those who find it difficult to make satisfactory sexual relations with other humans.

"To get to the stage where some people employ these products as their principal sexual partner or even only sexual partner – that will take longer. But as more and more people do it, the stigma will be reduced. To some extent it will be like the stigma that once attached to being gay. Until we got to the point in time where most people in society regard it as being a perfectly natural form of sexuality, the stigma attached was huge."

Could these robots change our sexual behaviour? "I think sexually empowered robots that are programmed with a lot of technique will be able to serve as teachers to those who want to and need to learn – and to help cure a lot of psychosexual problems, such as performance anxiety."

I ask Levy, a married man, what his wife would think if someone invented a sex robot and – out of academic interest – he wanted to sleep with it. "I don't think she would have a problem from the infidelity point of view," he says. "I do think she would think I was off my trolley."

For all the technology's utopian promises – that we can be in total control, that we can banish fear and shame, that we can reinvent ourselves as whoever we want to be – the real world and the online world continue to touch each other in complicated ways. Noel Biderman talks of the "digital lipstick" – "not lipstick on your collar, it's a text or a voice message" – that betrays the online cheater. The relationship therapist Andrew G Marshall described to me "an epidemic". "What the technology is selling people is an illusion: that it's possible to have a relationship online that doesn't touch your real world. I can't tell you how often I have people fighting in my room because someone's logged on to a dating site just to see what it is, and their partner has found them."

Sometimes those relationships can be healing and fulfilling. Sometimes they can be destructive and isolating. But the hope that new technology will open the door to a world of cost-free, shame-free polymorphous fulfilment is a hope that seems, day by day, to retreat beyond our grasp. Sex dwells in what the poet John Berryman called "the sweet switch of the body" – yet the virtual playgrounds of cyberspace transpose, dislocate and re-imagine our bodies for us. To be sexually intimate is to be properly known – and yet one of the most powerful drivers of online sexual activity is the promise of anonymity. The word that came up again and again, while I talked to people about a deeper, better connectedness, was "loneliness" • © Guardian News and Media 2014