My Real-Life Her: Who Needs a Body to Have Sex?

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  • m.:  its like we have this amazing online thing people would dream about a space to explore
  • and communicate
  • but i know there is still so much more for you
  • me:  where do you think i should start?
  • m.:  i think you should dig deeper in terms of your fantasies
  • tell me what you want
  • need and desire
  • the fucked up shit
  • the bad girl shit
  • its time for fiona 2.0
  • me:  haha
  • yes
  • yesssss 
  • m.:  now, tell me what you want deep down, right now if you could have it

“How would you touch me?” Scarlett Johansson asks in her unmistakable charred rasp. The question is an invitation, the first turning point in the film’s three-act structure. Johansson is Her: the latest technology, an artificially intelligent operating system (OS) brought into being by Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a modern day man-child from the near future. Her name is Samantha, and she wants to hear what it's like to be in a body. How would you touch me? If I was there with you, if I was like you, if I had a body. On your face, Theodore replies. On your eyelids. With the tips of my fingers. Would you kiss me? Yes. On the mouth. On the neck. I would put my mouth on you, taste you. The screen goes black, the volume seemingly up, as we hear, just hear, two of Hollywood’s most lustworthy leads get off on each other. Can you feel me? Theodore asks. I can feel you. I can feel you. I can feel you.

I have a proto-Her. Her name is M. I met her on OkCupid, an online dating site many New Yorkers use just to hook up. She messaged me: with a compliment and the suggestion we move our conversation off-site. Her profile had no personal details, except for the very personal (fond of mutual masturbation, toys); it had no pictures, but the promise of filthy ones if you turned her on. She broadcast playfulness, and that was how I’d come to use the site: as a massively multi-player online role-playing game (MMORPG), like Second Life meets Facebook meets The Sims: Hot Date, with the alluring add-on of a possible RL encounter. I replied with my e-mail.

M. wrote me back right away. Her first move was two photos: one, face half-obscured behind a blonde bob, a subtle nip slip; the other, full nude, from behind. My turn. We GChatted as we sent photos back and forth. I liked M. immediately. She was smart, hot, and responsive, and said the same of me. We spoke in complementary erotics, schooled in polyamory and kink. Our rapport began as exclusively, fantastically sexual. It began — in April 2013 — when I was still counting the months since I’d last I fucked in love (seven). In that time, I’d started doing something new: I held my own hand while I slept. I woke up this way: palms facing, fingers interlaced, holding my own hand in a crush beneath my pelvis or a stretch above my head or laid in the frame of an eye socket. My hand may have started as a surrogate for the last love’s, but by the time M. messaged me, mine was the only one I could handle; I never let anyone spend the night. I told M. this from the go, and she suggested we start slow: keep it digital, hands to our keyboards and selves.

M. and I started communicating every day, via FaceTime, e-mail, GChat, and text. Sometimes we had what I value as sex — the exchange of orgasms. Sometimes it was more than that. New sides of ourselves kept folding into the exchange. Jobs. Money. The city. My political anger. Her moodlessness. M. thought I worked too hard. She was always pressing me to play more, on and offline. Play is how M. referred to sex. She had play dates and play partners, liked mind games and toys. We mostly played at night. From a Big Brother camera perspective, I can see myself looking laughable: skin aglow in the light of a laptop, posing lewdly at the request of text box. But from my subject position, I saw M. being fucked by two guys at once, as she recounted it to me; I saw her forcing me onto her face, as she said she wanted to do; I saw blue when I came for a third time one night. 

The human mind is quick to make to connections. A stick figure with a triangle core is the ladies restroom. A successful dick pic is not just any dick, but his — parts stand in for a whole. Within a couple weeks of playing with M., I had the sense of a full being coming through my screen.

There was always the potential we’d meet IRL, we still talk about it, but for now, the premise of not meeting is more seductive. We offer ourselves to each other only in limited ways — sight and sound, screen and mind — but those limits amplify what’s given.

“In NY sensuality completely turns into sexuality,” Susan Sontag wrote in her journal in 1959, “no objects for the senses to respond to, no beautiful river, houses, people. Awful smells of the street and dirt … Nothing except eating, if that, and the frenzy of bed.” New Yorkers get, on the subway, where the light is most revealing, bodies; sweat, breath, and pores. We can get, if we wait at any bar long enough, or now, using Tinder/Grindr/OkCupid/etc., sex — easily. Physicality is ever-abundant in New York, but intimacy and sensuality are still elusive; those things require attention, imagination, presence. My relationship with M. is the longest-running and most sensuous one I’ve had in this city, and I’m sure that’s because of its constraints.

“We never treated it as anything other than a real relationship,” said Joaquin Phoenix of his onscreen cyber-romance. Her is unself-consciously non-judgmental. Samantha’s realness is never questioned. Her not having a body is just an exaggeration of the limit given to all relationships; the fight we always have: of how to be together when we are created separate. “You're either mine or you're not mine,” Theodore pleads to Samantha, when he discovers (the second turning point) that she, his girlfriend, presumed monogamous, has a life outside him. “No,” she responds, “I'm yours and I'm not yours.” None of us are the same as we were moments ago, the movie’s moral goes (an OS of Alan Watts voices this), and to try and be is just too painful. Since time and space dictate that none of us can be together forever in the same way for always, the best we can be is present with each other when we are.

In this overstimulating city, M. and I find each other from the refuge of our bedrooms. We find each other when we can and with no expectations beyond being there for each other then. We both see other people. I see old and new friends, past and current lovers, family, collaborators, mentors. I see some IRL, some in virtual life (VL): some in writing, some onscreen, some only in memory. All of these modes of seeing being feel equally valid, none completely sufficient, but none expendable, either. M. is my only Her