Updated: January 30, 2023
Would you spend $339 on an interactive male masturbator/vibrator set that would allow you to simulate sex with your partner from hundreds of miles away? Unless you were an upwardly mobile pleasure enthusiast in a long-distance relationship, or an aspiring Elon Musk type, a few months ago your answer to this question would likely have been “eh.”
Yet thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced couples from all over the world to socially distance from each other, that answer is gradually changing, according to sex toy brands in the emerging field of teledildonics, a term used to describe high-tech, interactive, internet-connected sex toys. “I have seen a BIG uptick in conversations about the topic,” says Kyle Machulis, who runs buttplug.io, an open-source software project enabling people to connect their sex toys.
As couples are becoming long-distance by necessity, the teledildonics market has rapidly grown. “We see no other explanation for the increase in sales other than the coronavirus,” says Denny Alexander, the head of communications for WeVibe, a sex toy company that sells app-enabled products. This is especially true in countries that have been subject to stringent lockdown measures: in the month of March alone, sex toy revenue in Italy, Spain, and France have outpaced projected goals by 124%, 300%, and 94% respectively.
The teledildonics brand Kiiroo also says that it has seen a substantial uptick in sales over the past two months, which it attributes to “people wanting to stay connected to each other or content during the social distancing measures,” says Ashton Egner, spokesperson for the Dutch sex toy brand. KIIROO’s products include the Pearl 2, a vibrator that connects to the Onyx 2, a male masturbator, to create the experience of two-way interactive sex.
The rise in teledildonics sales represents something of a dramatic shift in the sex toy market in general. Although so-called “smart sex toys” have attracted an increasing amount of press coverage in recent years, “it’s always been the trend that’s always about to happen for at least 20 years,” says Lux Alptraum, a journalist and sex tech expert.
Even as the pleasure market has started to acquire some semblance of mainstream respectability, with prime spots on drugstore shelves and dedicated booths at CES, for various reasons, such as price (many toys cost upwards of $200) and technological hurdles, teledildonics has never quite caught on in mainstream culture. While they are popular for use among, say, adult models on cam sites, it’s hard to imagine high-tech sex toys being plugged on a Kardashian’s lifestyle site, the same way a more straightforward vibrator or other type of pleasure product would.
“The use cases are really, really limited,” says Alptraum. “It’s one thing to be like, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be cool to have this tech so I could have this remote experience with a long-distance partner?’ But most people are not in long-distance relationships and even if you are, does it really make sense to spend a hundred-plus dollars on the product just so you can engage in this?”
Of course, with social distancing guidelines in full swing, COVID-19 has effectively turned some couples into long-distance couples, regardless of whether they’re located far away or not. And while most businesses have suffered tremendously as a result of the economic shutdown, remote sex toy purveyors have benefited a great deal from this period of forced isolation. (It’s worth noting that sex toy manufacturers in general have also gotten a bump across the board, regardless of whether they sell Bluetooth- or WiFi-enabled toys or not.)
Manufacturers are certainly aware that this is an opportunity for long-distance sex toys to prove themselves. “Now, more than ever, people are actually experiencing what it means to not have contact with anyone at all, so they turn to tools that will help…facilitate touch and/or human interaction,” says Egner.
While quarantine has altered the fabric of our daily interactions for the time being, the question remains whether the field of teledildonics will continue to enjoy a bump after it ends. Though there’s no hard end date in sight for quarantining measures in the United States at least (projections range anywhere from another month to another year), it’s unclear whether teledildonics will continue to enjoy such a bump when people’s first option of IRL contact becomes available.
“People have this fantasy of logging on to Tinder and having a Tinder date where you’re engaging in this,” says Alptraum. “But it’s like, ‘Well, there’s just a lot of logistic hurdles and it’s not the same as in-person sex. It’s a different experience.”