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#HotForBots: Sex, the non-human and digitally mediated spaces of intimate encounter.


In 2015, a hacker collective calling itself 'The Insight Team' enacted an organized data breach of Ashley Madison, (1) a commercial website catering to users seeking discrete sexual encounters and extramarital affairs. Analysis of data going back to 2010 revealed a startling dearth of active female profiles on the site (2) (Newitz, 2015a, 2015b). Ashley Madison worked to conceal this stark gender disparity by fabricating the elaborate facade of a sexual playground teeming with an endless supply of available women seeking liaisons with its disproportionately male user base, an illusion perpetuated by synthetically populating the site with a standing reserve of more than 70,000 fembots (3) that animated either employee- or software-generated female profiles, or profiles abandoned by actual female users ('Angel profiles'; Newitz, 2015b, 2015c). This artifice effectively convinced male users to 'convert' into paying customers who purchased credits to interact with what was in actuality a synthetic fembot army.

The substance of messages sent by 'engager' bots to initiate contact was terse and crudely unsophisticated, designed with the primary purpose of extracting money from male users by provoking them to respond. (4) In addition to these automated messages, fembot profiles also demonstrated suspicious behaviour, such as signing in at the exact same time everyday and staying actively online throughout the day, including on holidays such as Christmas (Newitz, 2015b, 2015c). While some male users quickly caught onto the fact that they were interacting with fembots rather than with real women, (5) 80 percent of first-time purchases on the site consisted of credits bought by men to interact with these engager bots (Newitz, 2015b). On average, men who interacted with fembot profiles paid to either read messages from or send messages to 18-20 algorithmic partners (Newitz, 2015c). On the basis of this behaviour, it is reasonable to assume that some of these male users were unperturbed by the unsophistication of engager bots and were willing to accept the tenuous specter created by Ashley Madison to sustain the fantasy of heterosexual human encounter for at least a short while. Further, though users may have suspected that they were being misled by artificial female profiles initiating contact, they evidently found these non-human interactions compelling enough to pursue them, whether as potential sexual partners or for other reasons.

Beyond challenging normative assumptions about (in)fidelity in long-term heterosexual relationships, (6) the Ashley Madison data breach highlights the complexities and ambivalences of desire in the context of digitally mediated spaces of intimate encounter in which human-algorithmic relations converge to affect sexuality, sexual practices, and sexual intimacy. Richardson (2016) has recently foregrounded intimacy as a framework for engaging the digital in geography, focussing on emergent forms of digital labour. Building on Pain and Staeheli's (2014) theorization of intimacy as a set of spatial relations, or encounters, that '[stretch] from proximate to distant' (345), we invert Richardson's formulation to advance 'the digital' as a framework for understanding the reconfiguring spatialities of intimacy. (7) This is important given that we live in a present pervaded by digital materialities, aesthetics, logics, and discourses that underwrite and intensify the 'entanglement and indivisibility of proximate and distant spaces' (Pain and Staeheli, 2014: 346). We argue that these entanglements are inherent characteristics of digital mediations of sex, sexuality and intimacy, constituted by and generative of new spatial relations and sexual practices. The digital extends intimacy and sexual practices across a continuum of spatialities spanning from the immediately proximate to the non-proximate. These digitally mediated spatialities are inseparable from, and are actively assembled by, variegated intimate interactions and subjectivities that range from the human to the (more) non-human. In extending the spatialities of encounter, the digital effects new possibilities for, and forms of, sex, sexuality and intimacy.

In this paper, we attend to the ways in which the digital has produced a multiplication of discourses and practices of intimacy, sex and sexuality. We contend that these recent digitally mediated proliferations accompany distinctly spatial transformations bound up with the experiential folding of the distant into the proximate across a spectrum of intimate encounters with and between human subjects as well as non-human objects. We empirically evidence our arguments by developing a heuristic framework against which we conceptually 'place' examples of digital incitements to sexual discourse and practices at points of intersection along continuums of the more-to-less proximate and more-to-less human. This heuristic positioning of our selective empirical instances captures the explicitly spatial transformations implicated by the digital mediation of sex and sexuality. We argue that these effects are twofold. First, the digital extends the spaces of sex/sexuality beyond the immediately proximate, simultaneously expanding the potential for non-human object choice in intimate encounters. Second, the digital intensifies the experiential fidelity of intimate encounters (for some) by folding the remote into the spatially immediate, such that non-proximate intimate relations with human subjects as well as non-human objects may feel more proximate.

In prefiguring this diversification of object choice beyond the exclusively human in the context of the expanding spatialities of intimate encounters, we take seriously Rose's (2016) entreaty to engage with digital materialities as cultural objects that mediate the (re)production of places, spaces and landscapes. Simultaneously, we contribute to the framing of both digital geographies, to which we bring a consideration of the sensuous and sexual, heretofore absent from work that largely prioritizes technologies and digital productions over their affects (e.g. Zook, 2003), and the geographies of encounter, to which we bring a unique engagement with the digital-material as intimate, addressing Wilson's (2016) recent call for a more substantive attention to the sensuous and more-than-human in geographic scholarship on encounters.

Encounter, intimacy, sextuality, digitality

The increased visibility of non-human object choice in intimate relations--as well as the digital mediation of practices of sex and sexuality--have been more substantively engaged outside of geographical scholarship, most notably within queer theory (e.g. Halberstam, 2008; McGlotten, 2014). Yet the spatial effects of these explicitly digital mediations of sexual intimacy are under-accounted for in both queer theory and geographical scholarship. Similarly, while geographers have attended to the ways in which spatial encounters with the human and the more-than-human material other are inherently intimate, we have yet to seriously turn to the sensuous and sexual as registers for inquiry and conceptual development in work on the geographies of encounter and the more recent field of digital geographies. Here, we address these lacunae by building on existing literatures on the spaces of encounter and intimacy to identify the uniquely spatial registers of digitally mediated sexual practices and intimate encounters.

Certainly, the conceptualization of sex and sexualities as spatial relations has been robustly theorized in geography (see Hubbard, 2002 for a review). The more recent recognition of spaces and spatialities as now pervasively digitally and technologically mediated is likewise a now well-established arena of geographical inquiry (e.g. Kitchin and Dodge, 2011; Leszczynski, 2015). However, scholars across a range of disciplines have not as of yet substantially engaged with the intensifying intersections of intimacy, sex, and the digital, particularly as they relate to the digital non-human other. Similarly, digital geographies scholarship has heretofore not extensively taken up the subjects and objects of intimacy, sex, and sexualities (though see Cockayne and Richardson, forthcoming; Nash and Gorman-Murray, 2016). Using 'spaces of encounter' as a framework through which to draw connections between intimacy, digitality and queer theorizations of sex and sexuality in a distinctly spatial register, we identify how the proliferation of software and digital systems has altered the spatialities of intimate encounters, opening up possibilities for intimate relations with the non-human in geographies produced through the digital mediation of sexualities and spaces.

Spaces of encounter

Geographers have extensively attended to the (re)production of social difference through explicitly spatial practices of quotidian exclusion and inclusion, segregation, the heteronormativity of 'public space', and the gendered spatial divisions of the household and workplace (e.g. see Gilmore, 2002; Nagel, 2002; Oswin, 2010; Ruddick, 1996). More recently, this scholarship has been articulated within the conceptual framework of the 'spaces of encounter', which emphasizes the myriad and complex spatialities of everyday contacts and interactions with the Other in the spaces and practices of everyday life (Valentine, 2008; Wilson, 2016). Save for Leitner's (2012: 829) examination of the 'predicaments' of the sudden diversification of rural communities along axes of race, class and religion, much work that examines the role of shared space in fostering contact with difference gives precedence to cities and urban centres as privileged sites of encounter in which subjects are spatially 'thrown together' (Massey, 2005), confronted by and forced to come into contact with 'the Other' (Ahmed, 2000; Amin, 2002; Askins and Pain, 2011; Hubbard, 2002; Laurier and Philo, 2006a, 2006b; Valentine, 2008).

As per Wilson (2016: 2), 'encounter' designates a 'specific genre of contact' characterized by a meeting with opposites. Work on the geographies of encounter has informed a nuanced understanding of intimacy and social relations as shaped by coming into contact with difference (Ahmed, 2004), such that encounter is necessarily 'bound up with distinct spatialities' that fold the distant into the proximate, 'stretching beyond the [immediacy] of face-to-face contact' (Leitner, 2012: 832; Wilson, 2016). While much of this literature deals with racial, ethnic and class difference, to date, geographies of sex and sexualities have not been framed or approached by way of 'spaces of encounter'. A rare exception is Hubbard's (2002) empirical examination of an urban red light district as a space of encounter with 'dissident' sexualities, which force subjects to continuously negotiate (sexual) boundaries between Self and Other. For Hubbard (2002), spaces of encounter inform a nuanced understanding of how an individual 'comes to recognize itself as a sexual subject as it interacts with the real world' (366). Such encounters are not, however, necessarily affirmative (of sexual subjectivity); they may indeed be negative, as is bound up in instances of sexual racism (Ruez, 2016). But importantly, these encounters may occur across a range of spatialities, from those of the home to those of an urban red light district. The spaces of encounter, then, are better conceptualized not as zones of inevitable conflict-ridden confrontations with difference, but rather as the 'strangely familiar spaces [of everyday life] where concepts and practices routinely collide and where individuals are obliged to negotiate the boundaries of Self and Other' (Hubbard, 2002: 371).

Although spaces of encounter scholarship have often privileged the human as the object/subject of interaction, the encountered other need not necessarily be human (see Wilson, 2016). For example, in reporting on their study of interethnic encounters amongst children in a participatory art project in the North East of the England, Askins and Pain (2011) assert that the material spatialities of encounter are inherently messy, with non-human materialities--in their case, art objects themselves--very much part of the process of social contact. We extend scholarship on the geographies of encounter by not only paying attention to the 'epistemological deployment of [non-human materialities] within arenas of social interaction' (Askins and Pain, 2011: 804, emphasis added), but also by attending to how non-human materialities--specifically digital productions--are themselves constitutive of the spaces of intimate encounter. While she does not explicitly address the spatialities of encounter, Nast (forthcoming) foregrounds the non-human in her exploration of the complexities of male desire for sex dolls, situating these human/non-human entanglements in the context of declining fertility rates, financial crises and changing intimate political economies of care, masculinity and maternity in Japan's post-1990 economic downturn. Nast's analysis is relevant to our framing in its emphasis on the polyvalency of desire and the ambivalence of object choice, and the ways in which it raises questions about the capacities of non-, not-only- or not-necessarily human (including digital) objects to generate new (and reify existing) forms of intimacy, attachment and socio-sexual relation (see also Knafo, 2015).

In our analysis that follows, we prefigure digital non-human materialities in addressing the call for a geography of the spaces of encounter beyond the immediately proximate (Amin, 2002; Hubbard, 2002; Leitner, 2012; Valentine, 2008), and beyond the exclusively human (Wilson, 2016). We demonstrate that 'the digital' is a critical material relation that extends the spatialities of intimate (sexual) encounters along a continuum of spatialities ranging from the more proximate to the non-proximate as well as the possibilities of sexual encounter with the non-human, while simultaneously progressively intensifying the subjective sense of the intimacy of these encounters.


Intimacy is itself a promiscuous concept. Perhaps most immediately, intimacy indicates the social regulation and management of romance, love and sex (Thein, 2005; Valentine, 2008). For example, Povinelli (2006) describes the concept of the normative 'intimate event' as a way to understand how procreative sex and 'authentic' loving relations are caught up within projects of liberal recognition. Intimacy in this sense represents a framework for conceptualizing these often-normative forms of social entanglement, in which affinity may describe an individual's ambivalent attachment to systems that may in themselves be violent or destructive (Berlant, 2011). The regulation of intimacy has also been acknowledged as a locus of state violence and as a colonial project (Legg, 2010; Stoler, 2006). Here intimacy describes the degrees to which the state intervenes in the lives of, or abandons, particular subjects (Lowe, 2015; Pain, 2015; Peterson, 2016). Whether characterizing sex and love, or conceptualized more broadly as a potentially colonial and violent relation, in these readings, intimacy concerns a biopolitical regime of carnality, an 'uneven distribution of the flesh' in the management of bodies and dispositions (Foucault, 2008; Oswin and Olund, 2010; Povinelli, 2006: 8; Stoler, 2006).

Across these diverse deployments of intimacy, there is a common intellectual concern with questions of affect, embodiment and difference, and of how particular bodies become privileged or abandoned by capital, politics or the state (Berlant, 1998). Yet intimacy is also an inherently spatial concept, not in the sense of implicating any particular 'scale of analysis', but rather as a material socio-spatial relation (Price, 2013; Valentine, 2008). Pain and Staeheli (2014) advance intimacy as consisting of three mutually constitutive, simultaneously intersecting relations: spatial relations between the proximate and distant; modes of interaction across spatial scales; and social practices of connecting the local and global, proximate and distant. As a description of connection and closeness beyond immediate proximity that does not privilege certain entities (e.g. individuals, institutions, or governments) over others, intimacy describes relations that stretch from the home and across borders, destabilizing spatial hierarchies (Pain and Staeheli, 2014; see also Marston et al., 2005). For Mountz and Hyndman (2006: 447), a globalizing view of intimacy implicates precisely the interface between both what is here and what is not here, emphasizing the 'subtleties of interconnectedness to everyday intimacies in other times and places'. Intimacy as a spatial concept accordingly means paying attention to how '"closeness" does not necessarily map onto "nearness"' (Harker and Martin, 2012: 770) and how 'distance does not...bring intimacy to an end' (Valentine, 2008: 2103). Thus intimacy is a way to examine the embodied experience of connection and relation to institutions, bodies, non-human others, and oneself in ways that do not implicate the positivity or negativity of these connections in advance, and in which these intimate and ambivalent structures of feeling exceed analytical or empirical claims of spatial boundedness.

Insofar as intimacy describes the complex spatial ambiguities of feeling without necessary proximity, it is well placed to describe digital systems (Richardson, 2016), serving as a framework for meaningfully attuning to what possibilities for intimate encounters 'feel like'. Indeed encounter necessarily implicates the sensory (and sensuous) experience of that encounter--what Wilson (2016: 8) describes as 'a mood, a sense, or a feeling'. Experiences of encounters are, of course, also the experiences of the spaces and geographies of those encounters, which are now increasingly pervasively digitally mediated in seamlessly quotidian ways. 'Code/spaces'--spaces constitutively dependent on the functioning of software systems (Kitchin and Dodge, 2011)--are often spaces in which felt closeness and geographical nearness are confounded (Wilson, 2015). Smartphones and 'hook-up apps' (8) solicit the potential for everyday spaces (such as the office) to become sites of sexual contact and arousal. Internet connectivity in the home provides opportunities for promiscuity without necessarily troubling the fidelity of heteronormativity by extending intimate connection beyond the human and immediately proximate (Cockayne and Richardson, forthcoming). The proliferation of screens may at once facilitate estrangement, distraction and felt distance between those who are physically close, though it may also produce focal points around which connection, domestic activity and routines become fixed (Ash, 2015; Valentine, 2006). In the now-everyday scene in which space and subjectivity are mediated by the digital (Leszczynski, 2015), intimacy pervades through screens that we keep in our pockets, physically and persistently closer than friends and lovers, that invite the human touch and demand information about our personal details. Simultaneously, intimate digital systems underwrite the modern biopolitics of global security (Adey, 2006; Amoore, 2006; Dowler et al., 2014; Martin, 2010), and algorithmic processes re/produce the racialization and gendering of subjects (Cheney-Lippold, 2011).

While sex is just one modality of the digital's impact on the changing spatial distributions of intimacy, we argue that it is particularly important insofar as it remains a key aspect of the normative project for (procreative) liberal governance and subject formation. Queer theory in particular has worked to resist and destabilize sexual and intimate normativity and serves as an effective entry point for contending with the proliferation of non-human object choice in digitally augmented sexual practices in the context of new mediations that participate to facilitate modern sex, sexuality and sexual intimacies.

Queer theory and the digital non-human other

Seeking critical frameworks for understanding sex, queer theorists have taken up Foucault's (1978) argument that modern societies were characterized by their incitement to discourse on the topics of sex and sexuality, rather than by sexual repression. Foucault viewed sexuality as a regulatory technology that designates the conditions under which sex can be conducted and spoken about, leading researchers to critically examine these conditions, their function, and the opening-up (or restriction) of sexual practices that they dynamically allow or deny. Rubin's (1984) critical position of 'benign sexual variation' suggests that epistemological inquiry into sexual practice should regard sex non-hierarchically. That is, one (sub-)culture's organization of sexual practice within the sex/gender system cannot be viewed as necessarily better or worse than any other's. More recently, Dean (2009: 5) has advanced an approach to studying sex that is 'promiscuous about promiscuity', which means being necessarily explorative and inquisitive, and eschewing recourse to judgement, especially when some kinds of sex (e.g. between men of ambiguous serostatus) may appear destructive to oneself or others.

Drawing on the revelations of the Ashley Madison data breach, digital systems further complicate the conviction that object choice has a necessarily human direction, opening the possibility of sexual relations with non-human others. Here, being promiscuous about promiscuity means taking sexual relations propagated in digital spaces and with non-humans seriously (Payne, 2014), and not dismissing them as 'less real' or 'less intimate' than humamhuman sex. Sex is always mediated--be it by language, social norms, contraception, etc.--but the form of the medium is significant. In this paper, we ask specifically what difference the digital makes to contemporary practices of sex, sexuality and intimate encounters. In Dean's (2009) terms, there is no such thing as 'unlimited intimacy'. Intimacy is defined precisely by its limitations--its mediations, screens, interfaces--that are never wholly absent, and which exact a diverse multiplication and incitement of sexual practices and discourses. Digital materialities, logics and aesthetics force us to critically re-evaluate what sex, encounter and intimacy are and what objects/subjects they function alongside, especially given that intimate and sexual object choice are mediated in different ways by and through the digital.

Dean (2009) offers an important psychoanalytic contribution to theories of sex by suggesting a polyvalent understanding of object choice. He posits sexualization as predicated and dependent upon the fetish, in which the latter is a prerequisite for sexual attraction in general. Heterosexual reproductive sex, in which sexual aims and object choices are validated in alignment with procreative liberal projects, is just as much predicated on the fetish as supposed 'fetishistic' sex. The only difference in this former case is a predisposition towards a fetishization of the genitals of the opposite sex, fallaciously characterized as 'normal', rather than fetishistic. This framing is useful insofar as it suggests the fetish as a general and universal category (thus depathologizing other kinds of sex), and renders the human characteristic of that fetishized part or object choice ambiguous. Through Dean's work, we can see how sexual encounter with the non-, not specifically, or not-only human might be brought to bear on intimate encounter in a fetishization of digital objects, which captures just how little the human direction of object choice may actually matter to the unconscious. For example, Turing tests, which we discuss in the next section, do not consult the unconscious, only consciousness, which itself maintains a stubborn hubris for tests of value set on decidedly human standards.

Though queer theorists have been path-breaking with regard to their non-judgemental and critical approaches towards understanding sex and sexual practices, in these literatures, digitally mediated sexual encounter often ends up being conceptualized as 'less real' than both 'real' life and 'real' sex, itself a judgement that fails to establish criteria for this supposed priority of reality. For example, in his exploration of barebacking subcultures in San Francisco, Dean (2009) romanticizes both risk-taking and in-person encounter while dismissing hook-up apps and the procurement of sex online. In so doing, he fails to consider the vast range of new forms of intimate encounter afforded by digital connection (McGlotten, 2013), which are especially important given the very subjects and bodies excluded from the public spaces and encounters he valorizes. Digitally mediated sex involving entanglements of humans and non-human others not only has the potential to incite sexual practices and discourses, but also holds out the potential for subjects for whom participating in public space is too great a risk to partake in sexual encounter in different and emergent ways.

Spatialities and sexualities of digitally mediated intimate encounters


The new possibilities for sexual practice afforded by digital technologies are not fundamentally novel per se. Throughout history, humans have enrolled technologies--love letters, photography, mail-order catalogues, transportation for sex tourism, film, etc.--to pursue sexual fantasies, realize intimate relations, and find outlets for erotic expression (Barss, 2010). Accordingly, many popular histories argue that the search for sex has been a key driver in the adoption of innovation, ensuring that early stage technology--be it printing presses or pixels--enjoys a large enough demand to mature into more reliable and widely adopted forms (Barss, 2010; Lane, 2000). This triumphant narrative of sex as a killer app for technology, however, obscures digital technology's role in the development of new spatialities, subjects/objects, and practices of sex and sexual encounter. As we argue here, the digital extends both the scope of possible spatio-temporal configurations beyond the immediately proximate and the opportunities for non-human object choice in intimate encounters. Simultaneously, digital technologies intensify these encounters by heightening the experiential fidelity of mediated sex, sexuality and intimacy, such that sexual encounters with the non-human other (or with the distant human) may feel more proximate. These digitally mediated extensions and intensifications have multiplied the practices and incitements to discourse, with inherently spatial effects.

Digital spatialities

Of particular interest to this paper is the expansion of the spatialities across which sex and sexual practices become possible, and how the digital renders ambiguous distinctions between 'proximity and distance, connection and [spatial] disconnection... that constitute the experiences of sex (Richardson, 2016: 12). Building on Probyn, Valentine (2006: 386) argues that spatial distance '[frustrates]' desire, 'accentuat[ing] longing' in ways that are unresolved by the promises of internet connectivity, which she contends are belied by 'paradoxical geometries' that juxtapose individuals' desires to 'think globally' against their preferences to 'act locally'. In the context of our empirical focus on socio-spatial relations of sex and intimacy, we contend that digital technologies undermine these distinctions by experientially rendering the spatially distant proximate, effectively enfolding spatial and sexual connection and disconnection.

Certainly, non-proximate sexual practices have historical, non-digital antecedents. The torrid 12th century love affair between French historical figures Heloise and Abelard was conducted and sustained through the exchange of hundreds of love letters following their forced separation, after which they retreated into monastic and cloistered life (Mews, 2005). Fast-forwarding several centuries, the Comstock Laws of the late 19th century passed by the US Congress constituted a spatial strategy enacted to stymie the circulation of written and visual erotica by forbidding its distribution via the US postal system. More recently, the introduction of digital and information communications technologies (ICTs) have radically diversified the possibilities for and variety of sex beyond the immediately proximate and exclusively human. Beginning with text-based interactions of 1980s multiuser environments (or MUDs (9)) and phone sex (particularly with the advent of 1-900 numbers), the possibilities for non-proximate sexual encounters have rapidly expanded. This contemporary nexus of digitally mediated spatialities of sexual encounter now includes, but is not limited to, webcam interactions (on-demand pornographic performance and video sex, with multiple participants who may or may not be aware of each other logging in to online platforms from separate locations); virtual world encounters between human-controlled digital avatars (such as within Second Life or RedLightCenter); increasingly, opportunities for virtual reality sex afforded by VR headsets (users navigating and interacting in a shared synthetic immersive environment); and, remotely controlled sex toys (in which a sexual partner operates and controls a co-located device being used by an individual either in the same or a different location). Each of these intimate entanglements is contingent upon the digital as a critical factor that folds the non-proximate into the proximate (whereby non-proximity does not undermine the subjective fidelity of intimate/sexual experience), and which collapses senses of dis/connection across the spaces of sexual and intimate encounter.

Digital sex and sexualities

This extension of the spatialities of sex and intimacy beyond the immediately proximate is accompanied by a parallel digitally mediated diversification of objects and subjects of sex, sexual entanglement and intimate encounter. As detailed through technological antecedents profiled here, and in our earlier discussion of queer theory's refinements of understandings of sex and intimacy, people have long fetishized objects (and objectified human others). Software, however, makes it possible to simulate human activity--and thereby humanoid expressions of intimacy--in ways that extend intimate encounter beyond the sole preserve of the human, introducing non-human object choice into the spaces of sexual interaction, engagement and expression. The digital simulation of human activity is the basis of Alan Turing's 'imitation game' (Turing, 1950). Turing's original 'test' (now generalized as a 'Turing test') focused on the ability of a human interrogator to distinguish the gender of two subjects (A--a man, and B--a woman) via text based questioning. Turing's (1950: 433) original question--'What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game? Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when... the game is played between a man and a woman?'--has been striped of its concern with gender and simply requires an interrogator to distinguish actual human responses from those simulated by computer programs. The Turing test has influenced efforts to create software that sufficiently simulates human behaviour to pass the test, though the successes of these attempts are disputed (Ffumphrys, 2009).

While Turing's efforts continue in contemporary artificial intelligence (Al) research and bot development (see Bohannon, 2015; Warwick and Shah, 2015), attempts to simulate human empathy and emotional connection actually have their genesis in ELIZA, a computer program developed at MIT in the 1960s that simulated a psychotherapist. ELIZA interacted with human subjects by parroting back their statements in the form of questions consisting of keywords and stock phrases (e.g. 'I feel helpless', would elicit the response, 'why do you feel that way?'; Bohannon, 2015: 251). What is significant about ELIZA for the purposes of our discussion is not whether or not it was a convincing AI in the sense of a Turing test, but rather how it assembled humans and non-humans in software-scripted loops of digitally mediated emotional exchange. These relatively crude interactions between ELIZA and a human user constitute an origin point for the extension of digitally mediated emotional encounters beyond the human, serving as a catalyst for the continued extension (beyond the proximate, towards the non-human) and intensification (experiential sense of proximity and connection) of digitally mediated intimate encounters.

The application of simulated human interaction to sexual practice is evident relatively early on in the era of personal computing. For example Softporn Adventure, a text-based game in which a player's goal was to meet and seduce a series of female avatars, was released in 1981. This was soon followed by strip poker games (circa 1983), in which users played against computer simulated opponents who delivered stock phrase banter and were represented by 8bit static graphics with progressively less clothing and computer-rendered nudity. These early erotic simulations were not intended to convince the human player of their synthetic humanity. As with ELIZA, whether or not human subjects are 'fooled' by a computer is not the primary interest of this paper. Rather, the point is that the affordance of interactivity enabled by digital software has broadened the spectrum of subjects and objects encountered and engaged with in sexual and erotic practices. Starting with these early text and 8bit graphic-based experiences, the possibilities for digitally mediated sex have expanded since the early 2000s to include interactive 3D video games such as Virtually Jenna, (10) sex toys that sense movement and adjust haptic and visual feedback, as well as life-sized silicone sex dolls that are coalescing with advances in robotics. With the progressive extension of subjects and object choices of sex across these latter examples--3D computer sex games, sex toys with feedback and robotic sex dolls--there is a parallel intensification of the subjective experience of connection and proximity across an expanded array of possible spatial configurations.

Contours of digitally mediated intimate encounter

Figure 1 represents our effort to heuristically explore the contours of the newly digitally mediated spatialities of intimate encounter and subjects/objects of sex and sexuality. The vertical axis represents a continuum of proximity within these digital spaces of encounter. While there are aspects of this axis that roughly correspond to physical closeness and co-location of subjects/objects, the key differentiation is the sense of proximity--the degree to which there is an experiential collapse of spatial dis/connection--rather than any Euclidian measure of it. Higher bandwidth media with more fidelity such as video or virtual reality are equated with a stronger experiential perception of proximity than text or static images (8bit or otherwise). The second axis is organized around the subject/object choice of sexual encounter, expressed as a continuum from less to more mediated, which maps (albeit imperfectly) onto the ambiguous boundary between more and less human. This horizontal spectrum ranges from direct, physical human interactions, through to more mediated human interactions with combinations of human and non-human, and ultimately progresses to engagements between fully algorithmic partners beyond the purview of human intervention. Using these two continuums as our guide, we place a non-exhaustive series of examples of sexual practice ranging from immediately proximate person-to-person (P2P) sex at the lower bound of the more proximate and less mediated axes, and Bot2Bot sexual interactions devoid of human presence at the higher bounds (more non-human, less proximate).

With this heuristic, we are particularly interested in highlighting significant points of intersection at which we can identify novel entanglements of human subjects and non-human objects in sexual encounters. Also of interest are the digital mediations of the spatialities of these encounters that not only make these encounters possible, but also underwrite the subjective fidelity of these experiences by negotiating the ambivalences of non/proximity and dis/connection. For the purposes of our discussion, we distil and organize our examples around:

(i) pervasively digitally mediated, non-proximate spaces of encounter involving more nonhuman object choice (corresponding to the far upper right corner of Figure 1);

(ii) encounters between human subjects and non-human objects ranging across more-and-less proximate spatial configurations (arcing roughly through the middle of Figure 1); and

(iii) spatially proximate encounters characterized by more mediated and more non-human entanglements (the lower right quadrant of Figure 1).

This demarcation is neither inviolable nor exhaustive, again representing our effort to create an initial overview of the expanding dimensions of sexual practices and spatialities underwritten by digital technologies. Our discussion emphasizes (i) through (iii) above as these are the most demonstrative of the digitally mediated extensions and intensifications of sexual practices beyond the proximately human.

Non-proximate, more non-human. Beginning with entanglements antipodal to normative human sex engaged in by human subjects physically co-located in the same space, the current apogee of such encounters is perhaps Bot2Bot sex executed independent of human intervention between algorithms that are scripted without a sense of or requirement for physical proximity. Indeed, the Ashley Madison database had evidence of 69 occasions of engager bots messaging other bots--autonomous algorithmic (non-human) sexual encounter within server space (Newitz, 2015c). The internet has (in)famously made pornography instantly available, (11) enabling non-proximate encounters that normatively involve the digital encoding of sexual acts and their transmission as images and video online. While the majority of this material features human subjects either engaging with other human subjects and/or sex toys, subsets of pornography emphasize the non-human. For example, Hentai--Japanese erotic manga (static images) and anime (video)--eschews photorealism in favour of animation techniques that allow for exaggerated body parts and features. Likewise, individuals interested in interactions that are impossible (or extremely unlikely) in the physical world--being sexually dominated by a giant, coupling with a unicorn, or having sex with a famous porn star--may likewise pursue these fantasies via the visual and interactive flexibility afforded by digitally generated and encoded content and ICT infrastructures for its transmission as data. Green screen film techniques, the ready availability of photo-editing software, gaming engines, and virtual reality offer the means of interacting with giant women or cyborgs, and first-person computer games involving interactions in which digitally pliable, positionable virtual representations (avatars) of pornstarts have existed for more than a decade.

In addition to opportunities for online fantasy fulfilment, digital encounters also include exchanges in which the human user is unaware that their partner is a software program simulating human behaviour--in other words, conditions of Turing Test failure. While this paper opens with the example Ashley Madison fembots misleading (at least initially) human users seeking sexual encounters with other human subjects, this is not a unique case. Humphrys (2009) documents his own experience building an ELIZA-like bot engaging unaware humans via a combination of profanity and prurient comments in the late 1980s. A similar chatbot named Jenny 18 created by Jake Kaufman in 2001 simulated an 18-year-old woman aggressively seeking online sex, resulting in a large number of successful interactions in which human users seemingly did not realize the synthetic nature of the bot. These examples demonstrate that humans have been experientially engaging with chatbots as human beings for decades. As Humphrys (2009: 252) argues '[f]or anyone who takes the Turing Test seriously, passing the "orgasm" Turing Test (i.e. the computer brings the human to orgasm) is surely an accomplishment worth noting'.

At the same time, unawareness of or disregard for the synthetic nature of AI under conditions of Turing test failure is not a universal experience of digitally mediated sexual encounters. Nor is passing a Turing test sufficient for engendering or sustaining the simulacra of intimacy in emotional encounters with the non-human. The digital may intensify the experience of intimacy, proximity and closeness for some, but it does so unevenly. Mori (1970 [2005]) famously proposed the notion of the 'uncanny valley' as a metaphorical chasm that would need to be vaulted by AI for it to convince of us of its synthetic humanity. For Mori (1970 [2005]), this will be achieved when humanoid robots cease to elicit perturbed emotional responses (unease, disgust) in people. 'Uncanny valley' thus simultaneously describes an affect as well as a point of diminishing returns in AI development at which design of more human-like affordances may actually undermine rather than heighten the fidelity of intimacy in sexual encounter with the humanoid (but not human) other. The ability of humanity to engineer its way beyond the uncanny valley remains hotly debated by developers, engineers and futurists, but for the time being it remains acknowledged that we have not yet crossed this divide (see Azarian, 2016; Eveleth, 2016; Levy, 2007).

More-or-less proximate, more-and-less human. Shifting to the interstitial spatialities and subjects/objects of intimate encounter that arc through the centre of Figure 1, we place online bride scams combining automated emails or chats (necessary to elicit a single human response from thousands of attempts) which ultimately transition to a human building rapport with a respondee. Here, a sense of proximity and interactivity is extremely important as the human scammer must establish a strong romantic affinity with the victim in order to use the lure of physically meeting in-person to extract monetary funds. Similar to though even less sophisticated than the Ashley Madison fembots are geographically targeted advertisements disguised as live chats or video from locally based potential partners that pop up on pornographic and other erotica websites, often comprised of inane text such as 'Hi, I see you're online in Waterloo too. Wanna chat?". This type of message is driven by the simplest of algorithms and does not facilitate interaction with other humans beyond the solicitation of clicks ('clickbait'). Responding nevertheless represents a type of spatially distanciated, highly mediated, less human sexual practice. Other examples that further complicate simplistic human versus more non-human/proximate versus distant distinctions include online dating apps such as Grindr or Tinder, in which individuals are offered access to an array of potential intimate partners via software platforms with locational affordances that allow users to query possible matches within set distances (more or less proximate search radii). While most users review potential partners themselves--swiping right or left--others use scripts to augment their agency by automating their input to select all potential partners in order to maximize their matches and opportunities for sex. More sophisticated algorithmic-driven approaches to sexual partner selection rely upon artificial intelligence and facial recognition models to select matches and craft customizable introductory messages, such as the personal matchmaker AI Bernie. (12)

More proximate, more non-human. Our final grouping focuses on more immediately proximate spaces of intimate encounter marked by non-human object choice. Instances that can be engaged within this framing include life-sized, humanoid silicon sex toys for emotional and sexual interaction (see Nast, forthcoming). While these have existed for some time, current efforts are underway to make them more interactive via conversation and sexual activity (i.e. sex robots). Some of the component parts for robotic interaction--at least those simulating genitalia--already exist as sex toys with interactive feedback (such as the Vstroker or the Hum vibrator), optimized for solitary use via responsive software that adapts to a user's actions. Other sex toys (such as those from the manufacturer Lelo) can be incorporated as part of sex between human partners by giving remote control of an electronic sex toy to the non-stimulated partner, who may operate the device from a nearby location. However, the operation of this device could also occur at a distance, displacing this particular practice along less proximate reaches of the continuum. Indeed, the marketing material for Lelo's SenseMotion technology notes that it is similar to video game consoles and mobile apps, suggesting a further blurring of the difference between human subjects and algorithmic objects in digitally mediated spaces of intimate encounter. Other remote sex toy technology--such as the OhMiBod BlueMotion vibrator--allows for the device to be controlled over the internet, greatly extending the opportunities for P2P non-proximate sex with algorithmic objects.

We do not advance the placement of various instances at points of intersection along the two conceptual axes in Figure 1 as definitive statements about the nature of the human/nonhuman entanglements and spatial configurations of our inquiry into digital mediations of intimacy, sex and sexuality. The relative location of any one instance is fluid, and we encourage readers to critically engage with our placements, as well as contemplate where new practices might fit. Thinking beyond the focus of this paper, there are certainly other important axes--gender, embodiment, differential ability, etc.--that would build out and enrich a more nuanced, and complex, multi-dimensional conceptualization.


In this paper, we advance an empirical analysis of contemporary examples of digitally mediated sex and sexuality to argue that the digital has opened up, and continues to broaden, the scope of possible intimate encounters beyond exclusively human object choice in new ways. We argue that these digital transformations are bound up with identifiably spatial effects. These transformations consist of (i) the extension of the spatialities and materialities of intimate encounters beyond the immediately proximate and immediately human, and (ii) an intensification of the subjective experiential fidelity of these encounters, whereby intimate engagement with the non-proximate, non-human may feel less distant. Our identification of these effects is underwritten by and contributes to the conceptual framing of the 'spaces of encounter'. As a framework, this allows us to effectively bring together approaches to intimacy, digitality and sexuality, not as separate strands of theorization, but as materialities and relations co-articulated in a distinctly spatial register where human subjects and digitally mediated non-humans meet is practices of sex, eroticism, pleasure and fantasy.

We have distilled particular moments of intersection at which the more-and-less human meet across more-and-less connected spaces of intimate encounter by placing real-world examples along continuums of spatial proximity and sexual object choice. These continuums are represented as axes of a heuristic schema (Figure 1) that captures these distinctly spatial and material extensions and intensifications that resonate through the selected instances we have profiled, including the fembots of Ashley Madison with which we opened this paper. Whether to solicit scenes (and/or entertain the fantasy) of infidelity with 'real' women, or pursue sexual interaction with fembots to satisfy expressions of eroticism, ownership or control, these Ashley Madison fembot encounters extend intimacy beyond the immediately proximate and beyond exclusively human object choice while simultaneously intensifying the subjective experience of intimate encounters with the digital non-human other.

In addition to helping distill configurations of spaces, practices and subject/object choices of sex given conditions of pervasive digital mediation, our heuristic also provokes further interrogations of the recasting of sex, sexuality and intimacy by the digital. For example, how might progressively evolving digital technologies challenge accepted social necessities of proximity in a future-present of the 'networked individualist' wherein people are 'alone together', yet do not embody 'socially necessary labor time nor normative intimacy [...] between all persons in a world abandoned by capital, by public interest, and by any notion of world building' (Berlant, 2016: 412; Rainie and Wellman, 2012; Turkle, 2012)? Might digital systems reinforce existing divisions and tend towards a disenchantment with the world and with one another, in which the inconvenience of relation is replaced with more efficient and mechanistic interactions with digital others? Or may they offer hopeful affects (Anderson, 2006) bound up in possibilities for new forms of relation, intimacy and being-together, sexually or otherwise, in ways that belie techno-dystopian narratives of austerity, triage, and abandonment that privilege only those subjectivities and lives supported by dominant forms of normative (neo)liberalism, infrastructure, and fantasy? How do these presences and relations, particularly when they occur in the absence of human intervention (Bot2Bot sex), perturb the (normative) regulation of sexuality?

We have not sought to provide definitive answers to these questions, but have rather identified the digital as a register in which the unfolding of mediated redistributions of sex and sexual practices is materializing. 'The digital' ambivalently offers the potential for a spatial enfolding of closeness and distance, of relating to oneself and others, both human and non-human. These ambivalences permeate the variegated ways in which digitally mediated sex troubles the hegemony of procreative and monogamous heteronormativity latent in the modern discourse of sexuality, while in some important senses leaving it still intact. The apparent absence of any need for entities online to pass a Turing test is perhaps indicative of a diminution of social investment in legitimacy predicated on humanist ideals, human subjectivity, notions of the 'authentic' self, or 'real' contact, whatever such terms were originally intended to designate. It is precisely for these reasons that the empirical heuristic we present defies clear classification along the lines of human and non-human, closeness and distance, and offline and online, to name only a few crude dualisms that have typically characterized regimes and discourses of digitality (Graham, 2013), as well as normative sex and intimacy (Sedgwick, 1990).

That people increasingly appear to invest sexually in non-human digital systems, algorithms and objects--and aim to satisfy their sexual needs alongside a densely mediated web of software systems--points to the extent to which human or biological object choices fail to determine the direction of desire or the orientation of sexual encounter. The consequences of as-yet unfolding technologies of course remain outstanding, as these technologies are always-already still forthcoming. As Newitz (2015c, n.p.) makes tangible for us,
the Ashley Madison con may have played on some of our most ancient
desires, but it also gives us a window on what's to come. What you see
on social media isn't always what it seems. Your friends may be bots,
and you could be sharing your most intimate fantasies with hundreds of
lines of PHP code.

For us, this implies neither digital Utopia nor dystopia, but rather cements the need for closer and continuing attunement to the difference that the digital makes to contemporary practices, subjectivities, object choices, and spatialities of sex and sexuality in the digitally mediated spaces of intimate encounter.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.



(2.) An estimated 5.5 of 37 million profiles were female (Newitz, 2015a, 2015b).

(3.) 'Fembots' is shorthand for female robots, consisting of algorithms identified as 'engagers' and 'hosts' in the database. Of 70,572 hosts identified, only 43 were male (<0.1 percent).

(4.) In order to both open and respond to fembot-generated messages, male users had to purchase Ashley Madison credits (Newitz, 2015c).

(5.) Ashley Madison was the subject of a 2012 investigation by the office of the California Attorney General following an official consumer complaint brought forward by a male user citing fraud resulting from paid interaction with digital (rather than human) female profiles (Newitz, 2015c).

(6.) The bots were overwhelmingly female bots designed and deployed to engage male users; gay, bisexual, and queer men looking for encounters exclusively with other men complained about persistent contact from female profiles, and no female bots contacted female users to initiate female-female sexual encounters (Newitz, 2015b). As such, the very premise and technological design of Ashley Madison, as well as the engineering of a fembot army, privileges and reproduces norms of heterosexual monogamy in Western society.

(7.) In making reference to 'the digital', we adopt Ash et al.'s (2016) conceptualization of'the digital' as artifacts (devices), aesthetics, logics and discourses concomitant with, but irreducible to, advances in computing and computation since the 1960s.

(8.) Software applications for soliciting brief, noncommittal sexual encounters.

(9.) MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) represent some of the earliest multi-player and virtual world environments. Primarily text-based, users would enter MUDs to play adventure games that could include interaction with other players, including text-based sexual encounters.

(10.) 'Jenna' refers to Jenna Jameson, an iconic porn star of the 1990s and 2000s.

(11.) An estimated 4 percent of websites host pornographic content, and approximately 14 percent of internet searches are for erotic content (Ward, 2013).




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Daniel Cockayne is an assistant professor of Economic Geography in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo. He works on early-stage 'startup' firms, entrepreneurial subjectivity, and equity finance, and that he approaches through the lenses of political economy, post-structuralist, and feminist theory.

Agnieszka Leszczynski is a critical human geographer and trained spatial data scientist, and holds a Lectureship in GIScience at the University of Auckland. Her work integrates GIScience, critical theory and social and economic geographies, with current research looking at the intersections of geolocation and the platform economy.

Matthew Zook is a professor of Information and Economic Geography at the University of Kentucky. His interest centres on the impact of technology and innovation on human geography and the ways big data and social media both help shape daily geographies and can be used to research a range of urban and economic questions. He served as a Fulbright scholar at Tartu University (Estonia) in 2013-2014, the state geographer for the Commonwealth of Kentucky (2015) and was a visiting scholar at the School of Environment at the University of Auckland when this article was written.

Daniel Cockayne

University of Waterloo, Canada

Agnieszka Leszczynski

University of Auckland, New Zealand

Matthew Zook

University of Kentucky, USA

Corresponding author:

Agnieszka Leszczynski, School of Environment, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand.


DOI: 10.1177/0263775817709018
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Author:Cockayne, Daniel; Leszczynski, Agnieszka; Zook, Matthew
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Date:Dec 1, 2017
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