"Reach out and touch someone." If you're over 40, that phrase probably summons memories of the legendary Bell System commercials from the late ‘70s, inviting folks to call up distant friends and "just say hi." Touch was the watchword of the iconic ad campaign, promising that the sound of a loved one's voice was almost as good as physical contact. Decades on, the adult novelty industry may be on the brink of bringing us the technology to make that promise come true.
In 1975 — before the phone companies began to suggest that a long-distance call was akin to actual touch — computer pioneer Ted Nelson coined the term "teledildonics" to describe the possibility of people having remote sex (or mutual masturbation) using a data link. From the 1980s on, ever-more sophisticated technology has sought to bring a physical component to cybersex, but without much success in generating mass appeal. The nomenclature doesn't help: teledildonics sounds like something invented in mom's basement by boys in tinfoil hats. It's a term largely devoid of genuine erotic potential.
One company, Charlotte-based Real Touch Interactive, claims to be on the way to revolutionizing long-distance relationships with a device that can enable two people to feel each other over the internet. Well, not quite two people yet. Real Touch's device — which retails for $199 — was built for use by professional webcam models. Male customers buy the device (which looks like a traditional masturbation cylinder) and the software package. The other end of the system, as it were, is a wired phallus that Real Touch offers for free to webcam models. The company then directs its customers to their "camgirl" network, through which men can book private cybersex sessions. The male and female versions of the devices are synched; whatever the model does to her dildo on camera, the client feels in real time.
Madyson, a Real Touch model, told me in a phone interview that the device has revolutionized her webcam work. While traditional camming involves putting on shows for viewers who often pay little or nothing, men are willing to pay much more for a Real Touch session. Madyson's packages start at $50 for a quick "start me up" encounter, with the cost of a 30-minute session rising to $219. (The models keep most of the money.) For adult performers struggling to generate revenue in the era of a free porn glut, Real Touch holds out the promise of stable, lucrative, and safe sex work in a volatile industry.
As wonderful as it is that Real Touch helps adult entertainers make a better living, there's no mistaking the obvious reality that the "touching" is really unidirectional. The customer can "feel" Madyson caressing his penis — but there's no equivalent way for him to touch her. For a sex worker, that makes good sense, allowing her to stay in absolute control of the interaction. But what about the applicability of Real Touch to non-commercial sexual relationships in which reciprocity would be essential?
"We're working on it," says Real Touch product manager Scott Rinaldo in an interview. Truly reciprocal, interactive technology for same-sex or opposite sex couples would be much more complex, he explains, but Real Touch is in the process of developing such systems. Part of the problem, as both Rinaldo and Madyson make clear, is that such technology would require a major shift in how both women and men view cybersex. "Women like to be able to set the speed on their own vibrators," Madyson says; "the idea of allowing a guy who isn't even in the room with you to control what's happening to your body is, um, a little overwhelming." Rinaldo agrees, suggesting that there might be a "bit more of a learning curve" for men than for women when it comes to figuring out how to use a future complementary Real Touch system.
Rinaldo envisions the next generation of Real Touch systems as indispensable tools for military morale. "Soldiers deployed in Afghanistan can still have sex with their significant others back home in a way that will feel real." The possibilities are indeed endless: business travelers might pack their Real Touch kits as automatically as they do their toothbrushes. Long-distance relationships might become much more bearable. In the near future, high school sweethearts heading off to college, might each gift the other with half of a Real Touch kit, complete with embarrassing pet names for the devices. Ma Bell had nothing on this.
When I spoke to him for this story, Rinaldo offered me a complimentary Real Touch of my own. I declined politely, both because using it would involve stepping way outside of the boundaries of my marriage and because, the more I thought about it, the more I found myself troubled by the name itself. It's not that I don't like the company's business model, which seems to empower cam models while providing customers with a heightened sensory experience. It's not an objection to masturbation using well-crafted high-tech devices. My hang-up is, perhaps, as much on the company's name as anything else. Authentic sexual touch surely involves more than caressing the penis; calling it "real touch" seems to diminish the power of the erotic in the same way that using the word "friend" for my 4648 Facebook contacts seems to cheapen the meaning of that word.
Each year brings new inventions that make long-distance intimacy easier. The planes that carry us to visit each other don't fly any faster than they did 40 years ago — and air travel itself is less comfortable than ever. All the more reason, perhaps, to find new and better ways to find and maintain relationships online. If and when Real Touch makes the jump from a novelty device used by professional webcammers to a useful tool for keeping long-distance passion alive, it may quickly become indispensable. And the phone company's old enticement to use a plastic device to "reach out and touch someone" will be relevant once more.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.