Imagine standing at touching distance from a stranger. Imagine pressing your palm against theirs. You do not ask them where they have been or when they have most recently washed their hands — you simply state your name and say, “Nice to meet you.”
The first piece in the Intimacies section of the Design for Different Futures exhibition at the Walker Art Center, which explores real and imagined designs and concepts, is a handshake. A “risk evaluation flow chart” on the floor encouraged me to think carefully about the action I was about to take. Eventually I stood in front of a plexiglass barrier through which I could see my father’s face. We could shake hands through a hole without breathing on each other.
In a dark room just beyond the barrier, screens tell a four-part story about Grindr, a location-based networking and dating application for gay, bi, trans, and queer people [“Intimate Strangers” by Andrés Jaque].
The museum’s subject matter underscores the concept of vulnerability, an integral part of discussions about sex. Talking about intimate topics on the internet makes us vulnerable to strangers. I should know. When I chronicled my own journey through grief, I committed an act of trust by telling my innermost stories, and readers responded in kind.
In the same way, Grindr creates a platform for people to be vulnerable with each other. One of the exhibit components tells the story of two refugees from Syria. Both are gay men who faced challenges on their journeys to Europe. Through Grindr, they accessed resources by connecting with other gay men in refugee camps. Using the app was a risk, but in their case it built community.
The pandemic has forced many human interactions from real life to online. In our digitized world, it makes sense that we move sex online, too.
Outside of the side room in the museum are display cases. In one, a jumble of technology hangs from the wall. It takes a second look to notice the curves of a pair of dildos.
The “Onyx2 and Pearl2 Couples Set” by designer Kiiroo are two pieces of a set, one a dildo vibrator and the other a fleshlight-style sheath. Using Bluetooth the devices send and receive movements and gestures, increasing possibilities “for internet-enabled sexual interactions between physically distant partners.” Even before COVID-19, I can think of times such an item would have been worth the investment.
Additional adult toys with adaptability to different genitalia are displayed below a headset and phone [“POC + Headset for Neurodildo” by EMOTIV]. Neurodildos create sexual experiences for people who are limited in their mobility. A headband reads brain waves to control a vibrator. Through technology we can become sex cyborgs. Which, honestly, sounds like fun. Knowing about Zoom mishaps, I wonder, “What is the vibrator equivalent of being stuck on mute?”
Intimacy, in the context of this exhibit, ranges from a handshake to community-building via a hookup app, to a mental hand job. The displays encouraged me to ask questions I would be asking regardless of this pandemic, but more relevant as we avoid skin- to-skin contact and promote social distancing. Do I trust this new person enough to actually touch them? Enough to send a naked picture? Enough to tell them where I am?
Can the trust we build through talking about sex form a relationship deep enough to bridge the isolation?