TELL ME, DO YOU INTEND TO FUCK IT?
Jay Owens on why we call the iPhone sexy.
People still call the iPhone ‘sexy’. Not only tech dudes or horny teenagers but ordinary people. In tweets and reviews, Reddit posts and YouTube videos, thousands make this absurd statement every year. The iPhone’s colours are sexy, the quality of its camera is sexy and so is the speed of its battery charging. Quality is sexy. Being a newer, more recent model is sexy.
This shouldn’t be happening. The iPhone is a six-inch hunk of precision-engineered glass, aluminium and rare earth metals: it’s not a person, or a body. In 2011, journalist Mat Honan wrote a vigorous polemic on Gizmodo against calling gadgets ‘sexy’ at all. ‘Tell me, do you intend to fuck it?’ It’s lazy writing, he argues: ‘those writing it almost never mean it. When a writer unleashes “sexy”, more often than not what is meant is “desirable.”’
But the fans don’t agree. Apple launched the iPhone 12 in autumn 2020 to rapturous feedback on Twitter that it is ‘sexy af’. And everyone seems to know what they mean.
So I want to take this statement seriously. What might the intensity and eroticism of this desire for an inanimate device reveal about us, and what we want from technology?
An enormous part of contemporary erotic life passes through the smartphone. It can feel as though it’s impossible to get a date without being on dating apps; we have agreed, it would seem, that this is the proper theatre for desire to be explored. Physical gestures of flirtation – the smiles and eyebrow raises; the coy turns of the head; the way two people will mirror each other’s body language – are instead performed on our phones. We caress our screens, scrolling, flicking, pausing, or fingers dancing with animation, when conversation is going well.
Critic Huw Lemmey described smartphones to me in an email as ‘sexual prostheses… Suddenly a world of flirtation, sex chat and arranging hookups [has] been enabled in all sorts of places,’ he says. ‘For so many people a phone is not just for communication but maybe an interactive masturbatory aid; you take to bed your vibrator and the guy you matched with on Tinder, who [you] might never meet but has good sex chat.’
If a relationship does form, the smartphone continues to be central. Sexting, once the source of so much moral panic around young people, is slowly becoming recognised as a normal part of sexual behaviour and identity formation. Technology can enhance pleasure: many will be familiar with the delicious jolt of receiving nudes on encrypted messaging app Signal, the shock of an unexpected erotic energy that can be set to vanish as suddenly as it arrives. FaceTime and WhatsApp have probably kept more long-distance relationships alive during the past year than any other technologies.
Is there a kind of contagion, a symbolic slippage in which the libidinal energy channelled through the iPhone means that the device comes to acquire some sexy qualities itself?
Given the incessant use of ‘sexy’ in online discussion about the iPhone, and mindful of Rule 34 of the internet – ‘If it exists, there is porn of it’ – I had assumed some explicitly sexual relationship to the technology would exist. Yet Pornhub did not oblige, and I browsed kink social network FetLife in vain. Discussion on the Apple forum among groups ‘Riggers and Ropesluts’ and ‘Poly and Kinky’ was disappointingly prosaic: ‘iPhone 6 Settings help needed’; or ‘How can I make my iPhone XS Max talk to my Apple Watch’? Eight people listed ‘Being whipped by an iPhone’ as an interest; seven were ‘curious’ about ‘Being more important than a damn iPhone.’ That was about it. I asked a couple of techno-fetishists of my acquaintance if I was missing anything, but they agreed: iPhones don’t seem to be a direct turn-on.
This was unexpected – because phones are such deeply tactile things. I pick up my iPhone X forty-five times a day, Apple Screen Time informs me: no wonder irreverent UK tech site The Register has christened phones ‘fondle slabs’. Our phones are not simply media devices or transparent conduits for the vast amount and variety of information that passes through them; instead, they have a tactile fascination as objects in themselves.
How can we understand this desire for an inanimate device? Perhaps the iPhone is, as Paris Hilton once memorably described herself, ‘sexy but not sexual’: rich with sexual association and allusion, but always at a remove. It teases the promise of sex but cannot deliver: there is a level of human, embodied sensuality where it falls short.
We might first try to understand the iPhone’s sexiness through the commercial magic of the brand: that marketing sleight of hand in which commodities come to be invested with human values.
Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at New York University Stern School of Business, would surely agree the iPhone is sexy. According to his 2017 book The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, Apple’s defining brand value is luxury, and luxury comes down to sex: ‘It combines our instinctive need to transcend the human condition and feel closer to divine perfection, with our desire to be more attractive to potential mates.’ Historically, luxury was expressed in the soaring vaulted ceilings and dazzling stained glass of a cathedral; now, luxury is in a piece of technology so perfect that it seems human hands cannot possibly have created it. Luxury is the market equivalent of feathers on a bird. It’s irrational and sexual, and it easily overwhelms the killjoy, rational signals of the brain. ‘I just had to have it,’ said one fan, reacting to the ostentatiously perfect surface of the gloss black iPhone 7. ‘Is there something wrong with me?’ asked another.
No. And as Apple’s marketing material demonstrates, this is no accident. iPhone adverts are strange: they make the phone a body. They borrow a visual language less from sci-fi or action movies than from erotica. Devices are shot in extreme close-up, almost always dimly lit. A beam of light traces across a surface so smooth that it occupies a space somewhere between highly touched-up video and pure digital render. The light traces the edges of the device, and slowly circles its curves. It’s a kind of striptease, a game of concealment and partial reveal, an art house movie sequence, sunlight filtering through the slats of a blind and playing across a woman’s naked body.
It’s curious to want to call an advert ‘objectifying’, because of course it is: its function is to promote an object. Yet this nonetheless feels like the right word, not only in reference to the object of the ad’s intentions, but the kind of gaze that is filming it. The camera, the eye, is fixated on the phone’s ‘thing-ness’: not what it can do, but its physical, material presence in itself. In order to make the iPhone a luxury good – to justify its higher selling price and maintain Apple’s 38% margins – it needs to assert craftsmanship and provenance. And so the adverts go on and on, far more than you might think the ordinary consumer cares, about the materials and manufacture of the device. The iPhone 7 advert had detail shots of an Apple logo being laser-etched in glass; the camera housing being drilled out from the aluminium body; plus seventy seconds on ‘a whole new process to achieve a high gloss black finish’. The webpage for the iPhone 12 Pro shows liquids splashing across the device in luxurious slow motion. The gloss is, as ever, unreal. These are the aesthetics of latex, of fetish-wear. One starts to wonder if it might be deliberate.
According to Hannes Hacke, co-curator of the 2018 exhibition Erotik der Dinge [The Eroticism of Things] at Berlin’s Museum of Things, two of the ways in which objects can have an erotic quality are ‘through shape and materiality’. The items Hacke and colleagues presented at the exhibition ranged from vibrators to used sneakers, a glass chandelier, even an aubergine. Often the objects ‘resemble[d] the bodily form or more precisely genitals, breasts, penises, vulvas, buttocks,’ Hacke says, ‘Not [the] depiction of a body part, but more the resemblance.’
The curators asked if ‘a sharp object could be an erotic object – or a square object or something that is not round, or that does not have a smooth texture?’ It seemed that the answer was generally no: curves were essential. And indeed curves have distinguished the Apple brand for decades, from the colourful jelly forms of the 1998 iMac desktop computer to the ‘consistent edge radius and border size’ of the iPhone X that its Reddit fans so admired. These aluminium and glass contours may be a considerable distance from the organic forms of the human body, but nonetheless there’s shared DNA: Apple is, somehow, more organic than other tech brands. This most abstract of bodily resemblances is part of where its sexiness originates.
The exhibition included a Sensing Materials Lab, where visitors were asked to squeeze and fondle a series of materials and map them from non-sexy to sexy. Rankings varied enormously from one person to the next, but one group of materials were consistently among the sexiest: ‘rubber, silicone and wet materials like gels’, confirms design researcher Lilo Viehweg who co-created the lab, ‘like, somehow, skin or body-related materials.’
Yet an actual body-mimicking iPhone is disgusting – as designer/technologist Marc Teyssier found with his Skin On interface. Because ‘human skin is the best interface for interaction’, he and the Bristol Interaction Group created artificial skin as a new gestural control interface that could be interacted with through pinching, prodding and tickling. But this digital epidermis – a greyish Caucasian colour in tone, skin-textured, with the odd hair – falls right into that uncanny valley between artificial and real, and as such reads as far more disgusting than desirable. Nonetheless, smartphones remain intensely skin-like on a metaphorical level: we stroke, and they are minutely responsive. Our fingertips enjoy the ultra-smoothness of their Gorilla Glass screens, velvety like a youthful cheek. Silicone cases add a body-equivalent degree of friction.
‘From the classical (and even the cybernetic) viewpoint, technology is an extension of the body,’ the philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote in 1976.
Baudrillard was discussing JG Ballard’s Crash (1973), a book the author described as the first ‘pornographic novel about technology’. A group of alienated former car crash victims cruise the motorways and flyovers of suburban northwest London, seeking to re-enact celebrity motor accidents in order to experience ‘a new sexuality, born from a perverse technology’. The book is a blur of monotonous mechanical imagery and equally objectified bodies, sexuality distilled down to figures and resemblances, forms and angles. Characters consider the possibilities of making love to a car exhaust, an ashtray, ‘the angle between two walls’. The idea that something as abstract as the iPhone body’s geometry might be ‘sexy’ is a concept entirely of this world.
Crash is the Freudian death drive – a compulsion to repeat – made crudely literal. Driving kills thousands every year, the consequences of error could not be more real, and yet people slow down to gawp at car crashes as though watching an action movie on screen. Risk is a thrill. Ballard’s defamiliarisation is asking us only to see what it is that we do. What if the iPhone’s sexiness lies in the imminent possibility of disaster it contains? Perfection’s allure lies in its fragility: smoothness is only sexy because we know how easily it could be smashed.
An account of the iPhone’s materiality must not gloss over the violence of its origins. Perfection is built from minerals mined in conflict zones by sometimes underage or indentured labour, the waste rock polluting waterways and sickening local communities. The geopolitics of the twenty-first century is being shaped by this demand for rare earth metals, as mineral deposits are found and fought over on new Arctic frontiers. Aluminium cases are polished to smoothness in factories full of dust, irritating workers’ lungs and risking explosion. Once in users’ hands, ever-larger screens make ever-greater energy demands, each map search, Instagram scroll or email download pulling data from cloud servers around the planet, kept cool by humming air conditioning units. Data centres use two percent of the world’s total electricity generation. Come the end of their lives, only one percent of smartphones will be recycled, generating further inequalities and health hazards. The rest sit, inanimate, in cupboards and drawers, until they’re binned.
The iPhone’s sexiness is created through violence and destruction. It is reliant on its wastefulness. And this is a pillar of Apple’s brand strategy.
One of the ways the iPhone remains materially perfect – and therefore a luxury good – is through Apple’s repair restrictions. Go to a non-authorised repair shop and your warranty is void. But staying within the Apple system is vastly expensive (a screen repair on the largest phones costs £316.44), leading people to decide it’s easier to get a new gadget rather than to fix it. The Right to Repair movement is fighting for change, but Apple spends millions lobbying against it, and also resists through the phone’s design: the iPhone 12 is programmed so that, if third-party technicians swap out a broken camera or battery, the entire device is disabled. Rapid obsolescence is built in. This is obscene.
Scott Galloway may have described luxury as a closeness to perfection that brings us closer to God, but the vision of the sacred here is surely closer to notorious philosopher of the perverse, Georges Bataille. For Bataille, luxury operates, according to his 1949 book of the same name, as the ‘accursed share’, an excess of energy that ‘must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.’ This excess is, he believed, inherent to both eroticism and economy, in fact, to life itself: it is integral to the condition of living on a planet powered by an endlessly exploding sun.
‘All is inverted,’says Baudrillard, as if in agreement. ‘Here it is the Accident’ – in Ballard’s work, a car crash; for us, the shattered phone screen – ‘which gives life its very form; it is the Accident, the irrational, which is the sex of life.’
Where can we possibly go from here?
Some may wish to argue against all this capitalist obscenity, to argue instead for virtue. Might we imagine the ‘good phone’, second-hand and ten years old, repaired and upgraded? Perhaps it’s even more ethical if the phone’s user experience isn’t smooth and isn’t very enjoyable. Some say they desire a device that discourages them from using it, and incentivises them to disconnect. But this is the masochism of the saints. It may do it for some but I fear it lacks mass appeal.
Instead, perhaps we might be liberated from this techno-perversion by the progression of technology itself.
The ability of the iPhone to sense is now what makes it sexy, philosopher Timothy Secret told me:
While the iPhone was always sexy as a black mirror, a smooth monolith on its exclusive pedestal, what’s interesting to me is that it’s now developed a kind of intimacy that it didn’t have before that emerges particularly with FaceID and Raise to Wake. I look at it, it looks at me, there is this slight microsecond of lag as it works to recognise me in which I feel some anxiety, and then it opens up by mere eye contact to tell me personal notifications that it wouldn’t tell anyone else, and I feel the satisfaction of being recognised, trusted by it, flooding in.
Through this interaction, the iPhone becomes sexy in the way of ‘a therapist who you’ve disclosed everything to, who you fantasise knows you better than yourself,’ Secret continued. ‘Ultimately it’s not that you desire the phone but that you fantasise the phone desires you.’ As Siri’s predictive capacities increase, there is the prospect that the phone is no longer a sex object but something more, ‘our deepest confidant, our best friend.’
Perhaps desire will eventually be numbed, as in the marital bed, by closeness and familiarity. Perhaps this material eroticism of technology is but an immature, youthful stage of our relationship with these machines. Eroticism demands difference, sex therapists such as Esther Perel tell us: ‘It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected.’ It requires distance, a ‘space between the self and the other’. When predictive technologies appear to read our minds and know our wishes before we do, that distance is gone. They become our best friends. They will become, eventually, our selves.
Images: Stéphanie Saadé, Digiprints, 2018–2020