Sexbots vs Carebots

Aviva Rutkin, writing for New Scientist wrote a piece last week prodding at the moral panic around sexbots and arguing that there is a substantial disparity between titillating reporting on sexbots and their actual manufacture, sale and future use. I really appreciate that she ends up connecting the viability of home robots with the moral and material valuations of different kinds of labor.

To get there, she takes us on a journey that begins with the dazzling appeal of reporting on sexbots. Not only are sex robots “recession proof” as objects – or so says sexbot maker Douglas Hines – but the headlines sexbots (and their moralistic condemnation) can garner are no doubt providing endless thrills for analytics-obsessed journalists.

Yet notwithstanding the dazzling appeal of reporting on sexbots, sex is not likely to be the only kind of home robot. Care robots are coming onto the market, albeit their emergence is rather slow, and their designs are embarrassingly somewhere between cuddly and uncanny.

But public opinion is not falling in step. People are still unsure about (or downright uncomfortable with) outsourcing care for the elderly and children to machinery. And how interesting that is, or perhaps it’s just absurd, given that this kind of work is some of the least respected and lowest paying work.

Read below.

Why granny’s only robot will be a sex robot

Not Like Us is Aviva Rutkin’s monthly column exploring the minds of intelligent machines – and how we live with them

A robot bear to care for you


Douglas Hines started out with what sounded like a nice idea.

In the early 2000s, the former Bell Labs engineer was busy caring for his elderly father and building his own technology business. That’s when he first came up with the idea for a companion robot: a machine that could look after his dad and keep him in touch with the outside world via webcam.

Hines started working on a prototype, but ran into trouble finding financial and legal support for the project. So he gave up, and instead turned his attentions to Roxxxy, a life-size sexbot dressed in filmy black lingerie (“always turned on and ready to talk or play!”). That gambit was far more successful. As Hines deadpanned in an interview with IEEE Spectrum in 2010, adult entertainment is “recession-proof”.

Hines’s story is a good allegory for the wider landscape of care robots: five years later, sexbots, though not yet exactly flying off shelves, have stoked enough cultural interest to inflame a widely covered campaign to ban them. Meanwhile, care robots for the elderly remain stuck in sociocultural purgatory. They’re the flying skateboards of the service industry: always predicted, always trotted out as an example of the future, perpetually just out of reach. It’s time to admit that the problem with this vision isn’t the technology. It’s us.

On the surface, the fates of sexbots and carebots should not be so divergent. Both are mechanised stand-ins for roles that are typically undervalued and ill-treated in society, with neither ethically straightforward to replace. Neither will work without a robot that can move around on its own and do some heavy lifting. Both would work even better with some level of social or emotional intelligence built in, to better respond to human needs.

Where are all the robots?

It’s especially curious that the carebot revolution has not taken place, in light of how direly we need it to. In the UK, the number of citizens over the age of 65 is expected to surge by 12 per cent by 2020; and the number of over-85s by 18 per cent. Reports have identified care for the elderly as one of the fastest-growing roles in healthcare.

It’s certainly not a lack of robots that’s causing the hold-up. A bevy of recent prototypes includes Toyota Research Labs’ Robear to lift people out of bed, wheelie bot Zenbo, which can call for help in an emergency, and the seal pup Paro, which takes on the emotional labour of fuzzy companionship. In a demo video for Robot-Era, a project recently piloted in Italy and Sweden, “friendly machines” pick up groceries and mail, relay video calls, take out the rubbish, provide reminders about medication, and take their owners’ arms as they stroll down the street.

But how well will these sell? Not very, if you believe surveys. It seems that people don’t like the idea of carebots looking after their vulnerable relatives. Of more than 25,000 people questioned in a 2012 survey of attitudes in the European Union, 60 per cent thought robots that care for children, the elderly and the disabled should be banned outright; and 86 per cent said they would be uncomfortable with one caring for their children or parents (though many more were OK with the idea of a robotic assistant and even a surgeon).

In a separate poll of people in the US, 65 per cent of respondents across all ages agreed that it would be a “change for the worse” if robots became the primary caregivers for the sick and elderly.

Why the squeamishness? We generally look forward to robots doing the chores for us, from answering emails to picking apples to defusing bombs, tirelessly, cheerfully, with uniform precision. (The word “robot”, in fact, is derived from the Czech word for forced labour.) It’s quite all right for a machine to carry out such demands, from the trivial to the tawdry.

On the surface, carebots look like mechanised butlers, too. However, in difficult moments they flip the script – asking us to relinquish control, human connection and our fantasies about ourselves.

Complex dilemmas

Every day, carebots will run into hundreds of small moral dilemmas: their owner decides not to take today’s prescribed medication; she keeps leaving the stove on, or wandering out of the house and down a street heaving with traffic; or he commits a crime in full view of a watchful mechanical eye, as in the film Robot and Frank, in which an ageing thief recruits his carebot as an accomplice.

What mistakes will be acceptable, and which will be grounds for a recall? Will there be limits to a bot’s responsibilities? Or will their charges have to submit to their power?

In the paper “Granny and the Robots”, Amanda Sharkey and Noel Sharkey at the University of Sheffield, UK, point out another drawback to life with a robo-caretaker: it’s lonely. Putting a carebot in place of a human might deprive many of one of their few opportunities for regular social contact. Such isolation is linked to poorer health outcomes, such as a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. It could also make people feel plain dehumanised – ripped of their dignity, a vulnerable object to be lifted, fed or prompted at intervals.

“If the human rights of the elderly are to be respected as much as the rights of other members of society, it is important to ensure that robots introduced into elder care do actually benefit the elderly themselves, and are not just designed to reduce the care burden on the rest of society,” write Sharkey and Sharkey.

Or, as one person put it recently in The Guardian, being left with a carebot is just “another way of dying even more miserably”.

There’s another reason that carebots might not sit comfortably with us: they don’t jive with our flattering visions of ourselves. Looking after another human being is hard work. It’s physically and emotionally taxing, occasionally messy, and can be boring and thankless. It’s also among our lowest-paid jobs. There’s an expectation that this work is a kind of calling, performed out of love or a sense of service by a friend or family member, or at least a compassionate and conscientious worker.

The reality is a harsh departure from that ideal. In elderly care homes in the US, people are more likely than in the wider community to be subjected to emotional and physical abuse or neglect  – one in 10, according to some reports.

Carebot dystopia

No one looks forward to a carebot dystopia, in which machines exercise dubious moral power over people. But the alternative, too, can be discomfiting: robots turning out to actually be preferable to human aides. It doesn’t reflect too well on us if our future seniors opt to live in a non-human ghetto, with whatever glitches and lack of contact, over the prospect of abuse by bitter and angry staff.

“We need to think of automation as a political question,” said Lucy Suchman at Lancaster University, UK, speaking at a White House workshop on artificial intelligence in New York City on 7 July. “What grounds are there to believe that a robot can engage in the work of care?” Work like this is difficult for a machine to master because of its nature: heterogeneous, open-ended, and often reliant on the ability to interact with others.

Rather than jump to robotic substitutes, we could think of other ways to sate society’s growing need for workers who care for the elderly, such as revaluing the work involved. “The fact that you get paid a huge amount of money to write code and you get paid nothing to take care of people’s children is not a reflection of the relative skills,” said Suchman, “but rather a reflection of the valuation that we make of those jobs within a particular political economy.”

We should ask whether there are really not enough people to do those jobs, or whether it’s just that those roles have been devalued, she added.

The problem closely parallels the idea of using robots for childcare. New parents are expected to extol the joys of parenthood and gloss over the drudgery, even though the experience is a proven drag on personal happiness. Tireless devotion is considered a virtue, one that the vast majority of us cannot attain; leaving a child with just a human nanny carries an undeserved social stigma of neglect, even though for many it’s the only practical solution.

What would the neighbours say if they heard that little Jimmy was left with a machine while mum went out for a well-deserved drink? It may not be fair, but it’s not unimaginable. That’s a tough norm for a shiny new robot to break down.

Leaving a loved one in the care of a machine will look tantamount to admitting that we have other things we’d rather do – that all humans have things they’d rather do. Like, maybe, spend time with our new sexbot.

So while sex robots already have enough of a built-in audience that people are fighting over whether we’ll marry them or ban them, the future for care robots is looking a lot murkier. Unlike with sex robots, we don’t know what we want from them.


311 Calls Complaining About Loud Sex

This is a fun piece from DNA info by James Fanelli. Thanks for making me chuckle out loud.


Between October and December, residents there registered six 311 complaints against a couple for being full-throated and frisky in the early morning.

“Neighbors are having very loud sex with the windows open that can be heard throughout the whole bldg. [sic],” one person said in a 311 complaint submitted at 4:40 a.m. on Nov. 14.

That complainant told DNAinfo New York that the couple first got busy and loud in October.

“I’m not sure what they were doing, but the woman was moaning and screaming, ‘Oh yeah, oh, do it to me,” said the complainant, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of angering the landlord.

Read the whole thing here.

In Case Anyone Was Wondering: Fifty Shades is Spreading Dangerous Misinformation

Oh, Fifty Shades of Grey. There you are, in my line of vision, on billboards, asking, “Curious?”


Well: in this piece, Pornmaker Jacky St. James sets the record straight. I read it in Crave Online.

I’m glad she wrote this because I have been talking a lot with people who are unfamiliar with BDSM for whom this film is the first introduction. And I’ve been trying to say something to this effect. Now I have a real expert who puts it well. Here – refer your curious friends here.

Award-winning pornographer Jacky St. James explains what’s wrong about the movie’s depiction of BDSM and recommends better films about the topic.

February 13th, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey Dakota Johnson

Jacky St. James is an award-winning pornographic filmmaker whose films include Power and ControlOur Father and The Temptation of Eve. Her 2013 film The Submission of Emma Marx won the AVN Awards for Best BDSM Release and Best Actress (Penny Pax). The sequel, The Submission of Emma Marx 2: Boundaries, arrives on February 16, 2015 from New Sensations.

I’m a female pornographer and know a lot about BDSM because of the research I did while writing my pornographic response to Fifty Shades of Grey entitled, The Submission of Emma Marx. I’ve spoken to people within the BDSM community and read countless articles and books on the lifestyle. Don’t be fooled by the floggers and restraints used in Fifty Shades of Grey, there’s nothing healthy or accurate about the film’s portrayal of BDSM.

BDSM is an exploration of trust at its very core. It’s a relationship born from a mutual willingness to explore physical and psychological boundaries within an emotionally safe environment. Where both the dominant and the submissive are willing participants who recognize the benefits of adhering to their roles for the purpose of their own sexual growth. This was expertly done in Secretary, where the lead characters don’t subscribe to conventional standards of normal and whose self-discovery through their BDSM relationship serves to elevate, not diminish, their own quest for self-acceptance. It is not, as depicted in Fifty Shades, a manipulation of one person into a lifestyle that doesn’t resonate with them.

Fifty Shades of Grey Jamie Dornan Dakota Johnson

Check Out: Porn Star Jessica Drake on ‘Fifty Shades’ & BDSM for Beginners

On the surface level the film follows the formulaic pattern of most traditional romance stories, where you have the wilted flower (Steele) who falls for the mysterious bad boy with a tortured past (Grey). But where the formula quickly derails is with the film’s use of “BDSM” to set up a power dynamic between the lead characters, by a writer who clearly has no education or understanding about BDSM.

Trust is critical to the safety of a healthy BDSM relationship and Grey’s actions throughout the entire film do little to build upon this. He is obsessive in his pursuit of Steele, even after his repeated warnings that she should “stay away from him.” He shows up to places he is uninvited, grows agitated when she is unwilling to contractually commit to their arrangement, and even freaks out when he discovers she has plans to visit her mother in Georgia (only a horror if that mother was Joan Crawford). For a man who says he “exhibits control in all things,” Grey certainly shows quite a lack of it throughout. This isn’t exactly the hallmark of a true dominant.

Fifty Shades of Grey Jamie Dornan

Emotionally fragile Steele is resistant to the lifestyle, so Grey responds with textbook manipulation tactics. He bestows upon her lavish gifts – a new car, a laptop, a rare and original copy of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’ubervilles (a book that romanticizes the same kind of abuse witnessed in FiftyShades, and which James’ story parallels frequently). Manipulation and emotional volatility are incredibly dangerous behaviors in BDSM relationships because trust, desire, and consent are core factors in the emotional and physical safety of that world. There is a great deal of vulnerability in relinquishing control, in having your arms and legs restrained, being blindfolded, engaging in psychological role play; this is why trust, desire, and consent are critical.

Steele claims to trust Grey (okay, so she has really poor judgment). She does, albeit half-heartedly, consent to the relationship, not through a signed contract but through her own involvement. But her desire for the lifestyle is absent. Her only desire is to be close to him, conventionally. She continually asks Grey why it has to be this way. She wants movies, flowers, dates. And when she asks him what she would get out of being his submissive his answer is quite simple. “Me.” The grand prize for entering a dangerous relationship with a volatile man who has no understanding of BDSM is… him? And that answer is good enough because he knows that is ultimately what she wants.

BDSM Fifty Shades of Grey Jamie Dornan Chest

At its core, BDSM is not the ownership or “gain” of anyone regardless of the parameters established in a dominant/submissive interaction. BDSM can open profound psycho-sexual doors, where pain is pleasure, and control and power alone are arousing. Where submitting can be liberating. But for Steele, this isn’t an exploration of her sexuality, it’s a pathetic attempt to win the affection of a man who has done nothing but disrespect every one of her boundaries. Steele isn’t a sub, she’s a woman suffering from Stockholm Syndrome at the hands of a man who continually abuses her.

I fear for people who look to Fifty Shades as a guideline for BDSM, because it isn’t one. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Fifty Shades plays like a telenovela with no depth or substance in which “BDSM” is defined by coercion, manipulation, and fear.

As someone who feels a great sense of responsibility in presenting sexuality in both a healthy and positive light, I’d like to recommend a few films that offer accurate portrayals of the power and control dynamics within healthy BDSM relationships. Relationships that are not only consensual, but are also incredibly sensual.


Secretary (2002)

Maggie Gyllenhaal Secretary Mr Grey James Spader

Easily the best depiction of a true BDSM relationship without any of the fancy equipment and bondage parlours. Delving more into the psychological aspects of dominant/submissive role play, we find two people who overcome their own inner turmoil as a direct result of their BDSM relationship. It is one of the best and most original love stories to come out of Hollywood.

9 ½ Weeks (1986)

Nine and a Half Weeks

A film involving a woman’s explosive affair with a mysterious stranger that depicts consent, sexual curiosity, and eroticism at its finest. Despite the fact that female protagonist has an insatiable need to know and understand the man she’s with, she’s also fully aware of the emotional ramifications that come with not knowing.

The Story of O (1975)

The Story of O

This is probably one of the more polarizing BDSM stories, but nonetheless is an excellent representation of extreme submission by a woman fully willing and aware of her choices. It is a descent into madness, but one well worth watching if “mommy porn” ain’t your thing.

The Submission of Emma Marx (2013)

The Submission of Emma Marx Penny Pax
Photo Credit: New Sensations

For something a little more pornographic, The Submission of Emma Marx from New Sensations. The film centers around a woman’s struggle accepting that she doesn’t fit into society’s views of “sexual normalcy” and the inner peace she finds from a budding BDSM relationship. It is BDSM for beginners, with hardcore sex, desire, consent, and trust.

Follow Jacky St. James on Twitter at @JackyStJames and find out more about the filmmaker and her films at (NSFW).

Repost: “I Made Out With a Robot Mouth So I Could Kiss My Girlfriend Through the Internet”

Cool, Motherboard.

Here’s what I’m reading. I always go in for this stuff. NEW TECH/SEX/FUTURE.

Written by



February 13, 2015 // 10:30 AM EST

Long-distance relationships are tough. Bridging the gap just with texts, calls and Skype sessions doesn’t really work; for me, touching the other party is still quite essential for a relationship to pan out. Good news is, one inventor is relentlessly trying to build a machine for online kissing.

Professor Adrian Cheok is a pervasive computing teacher at City University London. I first met him i​n 2013, when I was single and he was working on various devices to transmit smell, taste, and touch through the internet. Among them, there was already a rudimental prototype of a long-distance kissing gadget.

Things have changed since then: the online-kissing prototype has developed into a usable—if not definitive—device, and Cheok has christened it “Kissinger” (not out of love for Machiavellian politicians, it turns out, but as a blend between “kiss” and “messenger”). As for me, I got a girlfriend, Lucy. For us—a British student and a Roman expat—the spectre of having to deal with distance, at a certain point, is omnipresent. That’s why I brought her out to Cheok’s laboratory to see what he had in store.

The Kissinger is a pink plastic-and-silicone rectangle with a hammer-shaped peg in the middle and a slot on the upper side to insert your smartphone.

“You have to plug in your mobile phone to see your partner in the screen while you kiss the machine,“ Cheok explained. “The device has pressure sensors, so the pressure is transmitted through the internet. Using two of them produces bidirectional kissing sensations.” It’s not the final version yet, Cheok warned me: Silicone lips and more sensors and moving parts are in the pipeline to add further realism to the experience. Lamentably, there are no plans to create digital saliva right now.

After the technical explanation, Lucy and I grabbed two sterilised devices. The first complication was that the two Kissingers weren’t properly connected. One of Cheok’s assistants had to work on his computer to send the devices some typical kissing sensations — but it wasn’t actually a bidirectional. Then I started smooching the thing, licking the hammer-like protuberance which I supposed to be a simulacrum of a tongue.

“That’s actually the lips,” Cheok informed me with a gentle tone, while his collaborators roared in amusement. Once we established the anatomical basics, we rebooted the kissing operations.

“It was like a more intense MSN Messenger buzz … Or, like, kissing a vibrator.”

There was definitely something new about the experience, but it was psychological. The fact that Lucy and I were looking at each other over videocall (granted, we were actually like three meters apart), waiting to kiss each other was refreshing. Suddenly, distance looked like a defeatable enemy—if only partially. As for the actual kissing, there’s still room for improvement.​

The sensation was one of mild vibration, which intermittently resembled the spasms of a 1930s-style dry kiss. Also, what appeared on the phone screen was not really what one would see during a kiss. “All I see is your forehead,” Lucy shouted at some point. I opened my eyes, and shouted back: “Me too.” On the plus side, the Kissinger’s material didn’t feel too fake to the touch: It wasn’t like kissing real skin, but it wasn’t like rubbing your mouth on a plastic bucket either.

Lucy was quite unimpressed. “It was like a more intense MSN Messenger buzz,” she said after we left Cheok’s lab. “Or, like, kissing a vibrator. I can see this develop into an interactive dildo at some point.” (Not too far-fetched an idea, given Cheok’s ​interest in the field of robotic ​love and sex, including teledildonics.)

All in all, kisses are still best given in person. But with time, objects like the Kissinger (or teledildos, for that matter) might eventually catch up with old-style biological snuggling. Then, only then, long-distance relationships might look less scary. Maybe.

This story is part of Motherboard’s Sex Ed Week, a series of sex-focused science and technology stories. Check out more stories here:

NYT on Cashing in on ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Tis the Valentine’s season!

Watch out for this Valentine’s day. Sex and BDSM and new toys to facilitate these things are in the air! I enjoy that the New York Times covered this, and that they found a creative euphemism for cock rings.

Even Target, one of the nation’s largest retailers, recently began selling an official “Fifty Shades of Grey” “vibrating love ring,” an item intended for wear by men, but not on the finger.

But that the NYT were able to report on BDSM is somewhat extraordinary, surely a testament to how much Fifty Shades of Grey has changed mainstream American tastes. This is a brave new world. Who knows what will even happen after February 14…

Read the full original article here.

Sex Toy Shops Prepare for Tie-Ins to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’


Labels for bath oil from Botanica Labs, one of many product tie-ins to “Fifty Shades of Grey.”CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times

When toys are made for movies, they are usually intended for children.

But with the Valentine’s Day weekend premiere of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” many of the tie-ins to the film are for adults only.

The sex toy industry is banking on the hope that the Universal Pictures film will generate soaring sales, much the way the blockbuster erotic novel of the same name created thousands of new customers from the female readers who passed the book around their suburban culs-de-sac.

In anticipation of such keen interest, mainstream retailers are stocking up on the pleasure industry’s blindfolds, whips, handcuffs and masks. Manufacturers have designed new packaging and products to fit the kinky tone and theme of the film, which is based on E. L. James’s story about a naïve young woman’s introduction to games of sexual bondage.

Even Target, one of the nation’s largest retailers, recently began selling an official “Fifty Shades of Grey” “vibrating love ring,” an item intended for wear by men, but not on the finger.

Anastasia Steele, played by Dakota Johnson, and Christian Grey, played by Jamie Dornan.CreditUniversal Pictures and Focus Features

“It is the biggest moment for our industry in popular culture pretty much ever,” said Claire Cavanah, a co-founder of Babeland, an adult novelty retailer. “We’re all sort of preparing for what could be another wave of toys.”

Ms. James’s sexually charged trilogy — two followed “Fifty Shades of Grey” — became a cultural phenomenon, and turned Ms. James into something of a legend.

She sold the publishing rights to Vintage Books, a division of Random House, and soon reached even more readers who may never have normally read erotic fiction.

Last year, Vintage Books announced that it had sold 100 million copies of the series. Ms. James, a middle-aged British mother and former television producer, was credited with introducing the concept of BDSM (standing for, loosely: bondage/discipline, domination/submission, sadism/masochism) into the mainstream vernacular.

She also ignited a huge bidding war in Hollywood. Executives vied for a chance to pitch Ms. James and her literary agent, Valerie Hoskins, on how best to tell the story of Anastasia Steele, a virginal 21-year-old student who becomes the submissive sexual partner to Christian Grey, a successful 27-year-old businessman.

Universal Studios and Focus Features eventually won, and agreed to pay $5 million for the rights to make the film.

The studio wanted to capitalize on the same readers — and others — who sent sales of adult products skyrocketing after “Fifty Shades of Grey” had its debut as an e-book in 2011. Suddenly, retailers had trouble keeping once-obscure products in stock. The novel spurred a 7.5 percent jump in sales of sex-themed products, including toys, videos and books, in 2013, according to a report from the research firm IBISWorld.

“We were kind of taken by surprise when the book came out,” Ms. Cavanah said. “But we’re much more prepared for the movie.”

The movie will not be as graphic as the book. Neal Slateford, a co-founder of Lovehoney, the only company that has the rights to make the official “Fifty Shades of Grey” adult products sold in Target and elsewhere, does not expect certain toys used in the book’s steamiest scenes to appear in the movie.

At the Babeland store in SoHo, merchandise playing to the movie “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The novels were huge hits and likewise introduced new customers to sex toys.CreditDevin Yalkin for The New York Times

In an interview, Mr. Slateford said that his brand would not be featured in the film either, although some of the tamer products themselves could be.

“I think that the movie will reignite sales of the book, which could boost sales,” he said.

Adult-toy experts say it’s difficult to provide an accurate estimate of sales or specific items inspired by the book. But they do point to a few things.

The novel includes one particularly graphic scene involving Ben Wa Balls, also known as Kegel balls, an item that retailers had for years largely promoted as a sexual health product for women, especially after giving birth.

Sales of the balls immediately spiked. The large sex product manufacturerCalifornia Exotic Novelties, which used to sell 80,000 to 90,000 each year, sold one million in the six months after the book’s debut, according to its president and chief executive, Susan Colvin.

“There was a worldwide shortage of pleasure balls, literally,” said Mr. Slateford, the co-founder of Lovehoney. “Knowing that those aren’t going to be in the movie, I wouldn’t expect to be selling a huge amount of those.”

The sex toy industry is largely private, and not just culturally. Financial data is difficult to find because so few companies are publicly held.

Some experts, like Sara Ramirez, the associate publisher for retailing for the adult entertainment trade publication XBIZ, agree that Americans buy somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion worth of pleasure products annually. A more conservative estimate from IBISWorld pegged that number at $610 million in 2013 and projected it to grow to $792 million by 2018.

Since only Lovehoney can officially use the “Fifty Shades of Grey” name, others have been forced to get creative. Pipedream Products, which makes sex toys and novelties, redesigned some of its packaging with a gray-and-black color scheme from the movie.

More merchandise at Babeland. Credit Devin Yalkin for The New York Times

California Exotic Novelties broadened its line of “Scandal” restraints when the movie’s trailer came out in July.

And Jimmyjane, known for its vibrators, is taking its first foray into “soft goods” with a new set of fetish kits inspired by the film that include items like blindfolds and silk ties.

“I would say that every single person has jumped on the bandwagon in terms of making toys around ‘Fifty Shades,’ ” Ms. Ramirez, the XBIZ publisher, said.

Babeland has added 20 new items in anticipation of the movie’s release on Feb. 13. Lovehoney’s “Grey”-themed vibrator is among the best sellers. California Exotic Novelties ordered 10 times its normal amount of inventory for the six months surrounding the film.

Lovehoney products even made their way into Target in December, where its line of “Fifty Shades of Grey” candles, lubricant and blindfolds upset some parents a few weeks ago at a store where some items were stocked right next to Captain America toothbrushes.

But while these companies do not want to miss an opportunity to capitalize on the film, they don’t want to overestimate demand, either.

Babeland still has some items left over from when it rushed to increase supplies in 2012. The company has been a bit more conservative this time around, and says that the items tied to the movie represent about 5 percent of all new products.

“My personal opinion is that there’s going to be a sharp spike and then it’s going to tail off rather quickly,” said Nick Orlandino, the chief executive of Pipedream Products.

There are cultural concerns, too. The book may have drawn a niche erotic practice into the spotlight, but some critics also saw a male protagonist who pressured his lover in a way BDSM enthusiasts say is antithetical to what should be a consensual relationship.

Those misconceptions, some say, could also extend to sex toys. And manufacturers don’t want customers with unrealistic expectations to be disappointed with their products.

“A lot of the ways they describe the toys and the products in the book, E.L. James didn’t get quite right,” Ms. Colvin said. “Using kegel balls is not too much fun, it’s actually hard work to do it right.”

Inside Adultdex, the cyberporn convention that time forgot by Adi Robertson

I’m gearing up to attend some adult expos this month. There are a lot of them!

Back when I had a foot in the design world, I remember hearing about how AVN’s Adult Entertainment Expo (AEE) always happened at the same time as the Consumer Electronic Show. They changed that a few years back and so that’s not the case anymore.

This piece, by Adi Roberston delves into some of the history of the relationship between consumer electronics and the adult market. What’s interesting is that the coupling and split of CES and AEE is a kind of techno-porn history repeating. Before CES and AEE were Cyberdex and Adultdex, which divorced back in the late 1990’s.

Robertson writes about the paradox that is taboo material  considered “obscene.” Despite its clear financial profits, the Comdex organizers rejected Adultdex, refusing to admit that the obscenity of pornography kept them afloat.

“So in 1995, Adultdex officially arrived in Las Vegas. It still drew an audience from Comdex, which was nearing its zenith with almost 200,000 (mostly male) attendees, but the two had a prickly relationship. After the first year, a Comdex spokesperson admitted the organizers had lost $500,000 in booth rental revenue by banishing porn but made clear that they didn’t care: “Their stuff is obscene and we don’t need them.” For the next several years, though, visitors flocked to what was described variously as “seamy Comdex rejects” and the “recess” to Comdex’s classroom.”

Read the original post here, or see below.

Inside Adultdex, the cyberporn convention that time forgot

Remembering the days of cyber lust, sexy software, and “seedy ROMs”

Adultdex Robsertson

I found out about Las Vegas’ defunct erotic CD-ROM convention because I was wondering if there had ever been a murder at CES.

As far as I know, there hasn’t – at least, that’s what a Google search tells me. But in my fruitless search, I caught a piece about the death of Comdex, a massive consumer electronics tradeshow that rivaled CES until it shut down in 2003. And alongside it, there was another name: Adultdex.

Until a few years ago – the year before my first visit, in fact – CES infamously coincided with the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, an event that hosts some 25,000 exhibitors, industry professionals, and porn fans every year. Originally part of CES, it officially split in 1999 and has become a journalistic mainstay in its own right, partly because sex sells and partly because it’s fascinating to see it sold at what is arguably the least sexy type of event on Earth. But it turns out CES wasn’t the first tech convention to spawn a porn show.

Adultdex and the AVN Expo had strikingly similar origin stories. They were born a few years apart, out of warring mainstream conventions that had grown uncomfortable with their increasingly visible dirty side. Porn companies, AVN founder Paul Fishbein said in 2012, had been drawn to CES since the ‘80s, when they helped boost the popularity of VCRs. But the show exiled them to the basement of the Sands Expo Center, where essayist David Foster Wallace said they were treated like “the crazy relative in the family,” and by 1998, they were ready to split.


Adultdex didn’t take nearly that long to part ways with Comdex. Where the AVN Expo emerged at the end of the century, in the middle of the dot-com bubble, Adultdex was a product of something older: the CD-ROM. Adult CD-ROMs (or, if you wrote newspaper headlines, “seedy ROMs” – this was an era where you could call a film about cybersex a*.DOCumentary with a totally straight face) emerged in the early ‘90s, their high-production interactive erotica feeding a burgeoning fascination with virtual sex. While the games industry was swooning over Myst or The 7th Guest and exploring the wonder and horror of full-motion video, other people were putting that technology towards something quite different.

NERDS WERE ILL-EQUIPPED TO PROCESS FARE LIKE LA STRIPPERS: BIKES & BABES & ROCK ‘N’ ROLLIn 1993, the The New York Times remarked that a half-dozen companies had set up bustling X-rated CD-ROM booths in a Comdex annex normally filled with sound cards and disc drives. Nerds were, apparently, ill-equipped to process fare like LA Strippers: Bikes & Babes & Rock ‘n’ Roll: “the displays caused traffic jams in the aisles as the predominantly male computer crowd stopped to gawk,” the Times wrote. “Many customers waved fists of cash.”

On one end of the CD-ROM spectrum were entrepreneurs like Rebecca “Lee” Noga, whose company sold tens of thousands of discs – adult and all-ages – by trawling online bulletin boards for shareware and pictures to resell at exorbitant prices. (She reportedly considered the material “in the public domain” until Playboy, Disney, and Time Warner all sued for copyright infringement.) On the other end were moguls like Bob Guccione – who bankrolled bothPenthouse and the visionary science fiction magazineOmni – and upstarts like New Machine Publishing, a group of 20-somethings who abandoned dreams of making educational games about rainforests to pursue the more lucrative path of ambitious choose-your-own-adventure smut. In the early- to mid-’90s, you could buy a “Penthouse Guide to Cybersex” and shell out $130 for the “Penthouse Interactive Virtual Photo Shoot,” which one reviewer described as an incredibly stressful photography simulator featuring an angry virtual Guccione. The adult disc industry was big enough to support two apparently short-lived magazines, Hustler Hard Drive and Interactive Quarterly.

Comdex, however, wanted no part of it. When more porn companies showed up the next year, other exhibitors (including Microsoft and Intel) complained, and the organizers kicked them out – CNet describes Comdex literally pulling the plug on adult entertainers’ booths, turning off the electricity when they refused to leave.

IF THERE’S ONE CONSTANT IN PORN SHOW NEWS COVERAGE, IT’S THE OMNIPRESENCE OF CREEPY MEN WITH CAMERASSo in 1995, Adultdex officially arrived in Las Vegas. It still drew an audience from Comdex, which was nearing its zenith with almost 200,000 (mostly male) attendees, but the two had a prickly relationship. After the first year, a Comdex spokesperson admittedthe organizers had lost $500,000 in booth rental revenue by banishing porn but made clear that they didn’t care: “Their stuff is obscene and we don’t need them.” For the next several years, though, visitors flocked to what was described variously as “seamy Comdex rejects” and the “recess” to Comdex’s classroom. Attendees carefully flipped over their Comdex name badges and paid an extra $20, fleeing the likes of Intel and IBM in order to buy discount videos and snap pictures of themselves with porn stars in crop tops, against a decidedly non-erotic backdrop of black drapes and beige CRTs.


CD-ROMs were old hat within a couple of years, and Adultdex quickly began navigating the move to DVDs and online porn, especially after the Supreme Court struck down rules governing internet indecency in 1997. Exhibitors showed up with videoconferencing tools, web hosting services, and a “$100,000 turnkey cyberporn system,” talking up the success stories of online stars with seven-figure incomes. Reporters went from writing about sweaty nerds grabbing at shiny discs to sweaty nerds looking for the women from their favorite websites; if there’s one constant in porn show news coverage, it’s the omnipresence of creepy men with cameras.

As with the AVN Expo, mainstream writers often seemed bemused by Adultdex – comedian Dave Barry paid an early visit, sardonically hailing a future where “this fast-growing billion-dollar industry will undoubtedly come up with newer and better ways to help losers whack off.” But the Las Vegas sex industry loved Comdex, and Adultdex was an integral element. When vice cops raided the show in 1997, issuing citations to performers for flashing their breasts, organizer Fay Sharp declared it a victory. “It’s giving us the kind of publicity we could never buy,” she told Billboard. “It’s showing adult interactive is very much in the mainstream.” Around its peak, one estimate pegged attendance at between 20,000 and 30,000 people a year.

At the start of the 21st century, though, the future wasn’t so bright. The radical promise of dot-com riches had collapsed. The internet had revolutionized all kinds of media, including pornography, but not in a way that promised bigger profits. And the September 11th attacks cut the legs out from under Comdex, Adultdex, and the rest of the tech world. Comdex attendance dropped by nearly half between 2000 and 2002, and in 2004,its organizers decided there was no longer enough demand for a show. Adultdex was already gone. It had been canceled the previous year, after convention space proved hard to find and overseas attendees were reluctant to travel.


Technically, Adultdex wasn’t totally dead yet. Its organizers had split off a webmaster-specific event called the Cybernet Expo, which in turn morphed into the now-defunct “YNOT Summit.” But I failed to track down anyone who’d actually worked on the show. “The main owners of Adultdex are long out of the adult industry,” YNOT’s Jay Kopita told me. The company took over the Cybernet Expo in 2008 and changed the name, but discontinued it three years ago “due to market demands (or lack thereof.)” At this point, it’s probably safe to call it down for the count.

Adultdex was far from the only place to find smut in Las Vegas. It wasn’t even the only smutty tech show in Las Vegas. But looking back, it’s fascinating how neatly it bookends a certain period in computing culture, where home computers became high-powered entertainment machines and the web was going to make everyone rich. And it’s all the more interesting because unlike hypertext art or mainstream CD-ROM games, porn is disposable, consumed on the sly – the further back you go, the harder it is to find these products that were supposed to revolutionize the way people (or, at least, men) saw sex.

Today, New Machine’s CD-ROM magnum opus Dream Machine exists as a single (NSFW) trailer on YouTube. You can buy a few of the interactive films that were deemed too hot for Comdex on eBay, as long as you’ve got a 3DO to play them. A used copy ofPenthouse Virtual Interactive Photo Shoot, Volume 5 is selling on Amazon.

It still costs $130.

Photo: Associated Press