Saturday, April 07, 2007

Technology and the Fast Food of Sex

Ingenious 'blue' minds have found a way to exploit a most innocuous technology for sexual purposes.

By Alon van Dam

He checks his Rolex irritably as he bustles along through London's Gatwick airport. Clad in an Armani suit, his attache case swinging with every step as he busily sends an SMS message from his mobile phone, bystanders don't give him a second glance: just another yuppie businessman arranging a meeting. Except that Richard's meeting won't take place in a boardroom with executives, but in a public lavatory with a woman he's never met before and will never meet again after their "business" is concluded. For Richard is into toothing, a new sexual trend enabled by mobile phone technology.

Toothing is a form of anonymous sex with strangers that relies on Bluetooth technology, from which it also derives its name. Bluetooth is a system devised by Ericsson that provides a way for devices like computers, cameras, printers and mobile phones to communicate and convey information over short distances. Originally intended for wireless transmission of files between these devices, ingenious "blue" minds have found a way to exploit even this most innocuous of technologies for sexual uses.

The roots of toothing lay in another trend that has been gripping Britain, known as dogging, which involves having sex at a public place, like a park, with the specific intention of being watched. Dogging has become so popular recently that the BBC estimates some 60 percent of Britain's parks see regular dogging action.

Toothing was created by British journalists Ste Curran and Simon Byron. Amused and baffled by the dogging craze, they decided to invent an imaginary trend with a silly name and see if people would believe it. They wrote a fictitious article about a guy called "Jon" who supposedly messaged a random girl by accident while commuting. The flirtatious contact continued until, a couple of days later, the girl suggested squeezing into the local restroom for a quickie - or so the article claimed.

Curran and Byron proceeded to register a forum under the name "Toothy Toothing" where they and their friends enjoyed countless hours of churning out articles that were supposedly written by toothers. The pair of pranksters then sent off the articles to an Internet-based news service and played the waiting game. Byron remembers: "Our point at the time was to highlight how journalists are happy to believe something is true without necessarily checking the facts."

And believe it they did. Within days, the hoax had reached a far larger audience than they had ever expected. "We kept a record at the start of where we were mentioned, but there were soon too many to record in full." They agreed to do an interview with the London-based daily Telegraph and "many papers read that and followed up, broadsheet and tabloid, regional, national, all over the planet. One of us made an appearance on Radio 5 Live, and had a Conservative MP declare his interest in toothing as a way of meeting women. We received a whole host of offers to license official toothing merchandise: sex lines, Web pages, even mobile-phone software."

Saucy invites
Though technologically possible, Curran and Byron never thought their hoax would turn into something so real. "It's like going into a crowded nightclub, throwing a brick at the dance floor with a love letter attached, and hoping that the person it hits will agree to sleep with you." Curran and Byron reassured the world that toothing was nothing more than a practical joke gone way too far. Curran's last words on the matter were:
"Despite all the made-up ramblings on Web sites across the globe, despite the forums and the fan-fiction, the tabloids and the broadsheets, the perverts and the simply curious, no one has ever ever, ever toothed."
How wrong he was. How very wrong. Within months of the original post, hundreds of toothing forums sprang up like mushrooms throughout Europe, Southeast Asia and America. They were soon populated by all sorts of people seeking out the best locations in their area to tooth, sharing their adventure stories and posting saucy invitations, such as Mister LongDongShlong wants to meet King's Cross Station, 7th of October at 9 A.M. P.S. Women only.

Now, this so-called Mister LongDongShlong may be a broad-shouldered Johnny Depp look-alike or he could be a greasy, fat, 50-year-old pervert, who can tell? Need to know? Hop on a flight to London on the 7th and find out for yourself. Curious? For anyone who owns a mobile phone with Bluetooth-capabilities an exciting sex-adventure need only be a few presses of the button away. When activated, they have the ability to sense other Bluetooth-phones in a 40-meter radius.

One simply assumes a pseudonym and sends the message "Toothing?" - the most common opening move. Anyone interested in a quick sexual escapade will reply to arrange a time and place - usually very soon in a nearby bathroom or other semi-secluded space. "If the shoe fits, wear it right now. Why waste time?" is Richard's opinion. There's a very high level of privacy, as the messages are sent via Bluetooth technology without as much as disclosing the author's phone number.
"It's simple, doesn't take a lot of guts and rejection is nowhere as personal. Of course it's popular," says Shanna Petersen, a sexologist who strongly rejects skeptics who still claim that no one has ever toothed. Having spoken to many toothers herself, she explains: "Show people a new way through which they have a chance to have more sex and they'll do it. No matter how much effort goes into it or how meager the results." When asked about a perceived gender bias, she answered: "One would think toothing would appeal only to men, but plenty of curious women are trying it out. A lot more than you'd think."
Albert Benschop, a sociologist with the University of Amsterdam, researched the trend. According to him, toothing is the next logical step in dating. "The old game is just adapting to new times. It seems that being single and messing around is 'in.' Pair that with our faster lives, our shortened attention span and our technology and you arrive at toothing."
He explains that toothing is "just like picking up people in bars but without the silly time-consuming conventions of decorum that people are obliged to keep to these days. This is much more direct. You both know what you want." He also sees it serving an important purpose: "People can use it to satisfy their need for intimacy. As long as it helps people out of loneliness and gives them more to enjoy in life, I think it's a very good development."
Embarrassing moments
There's a high level of anonymity to toothing, but the flipside to all this privacy is that you have no way of knowing who's responding to your messages. However, according to Laura, a 26-year-old interior decorator, that's the point: "That's what makes it exciting - going to a bathroom stall or supply closet and waiting for someone who could be anyone, having uninhibited sex with them knowing you'll never see them again."

According to Paul, a 30-year-old executive for a Forbes 500 firm, the thrill lies in the sexual liberty toothing gives you. "You can finally be yourself and act out your wildest sexual fantasies without regard to anyone else's feelings. You don't have to live up to any standards." He does agree, though, that "the fact that it's with complete strangers and so different every time is a nice bonus, of course."
But it's not just the sex itself that's appealing. "For many people, the chase is where the thrill is. An important part of the game's charm lies in locating the source of a message: who in your direct vicinity just came on to you digitally?" says an Italian toother who prefers to remain anonymous. Seeing as the reach on Bluetooth is very limited, the person has to be close by. The opportunity for a tryst is around the corner, behind a tree or across the street. Toothers are generally quite young enough to have the level of technological savvy to operate a Bluetooth-phone, -but that doesn't usually narrow the field quite enough. And what if you, in anonymity, message someone you know?
"That actually happened to me once," says Paul, a blush rising on his cheeks. "It's hard to believe but one day I made an appointment in a lavatory near my office only to find that the woman I was meeting was one of the cleaning ladies. I beat a hasty retreat and pretended like it was a coincidence, but I haven't been able to look at her in quite the same way since." Paul therefore strongly advises any wannabe toothers to try it out somewhere far from home and work to avoid unpleasant surprises.

What are good places to go toothing, then? Well, the obvious answer is any place that is teeming with people that will increase the chances of a fellow toother being on the prowl. Public transportation seems to be the center of activity: airports, train stations, metro lines. Besides that, malls and busy shopping streets see a lot of action, too. "Where there are people, there are horny people," sexologist Petersen reminds us.

Because the phenomenon happens in crowded areas, it stands to reason that only the bigger cities have thriving toothing communities. "It's very hot in Munich, San Francisco, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, New York, Florence, Delhi. All over the world!" says forum Web master Mischa Schreuder. "But London and Rome are toothers' heaven. Try it out in the London Underground and I promise you won't be disappointed."

Meanwhile, the original creators - who still get up to much mischief, as is evidenced on their blog at thetriforce.com - are still having a hard time believing their little prank spawned such a massive sensation. They thought of it when the technology was just nascent and hard to use. In reflection, Byron says: "As we were doing toothing, we had a few offers from people wanting to develop software, which would make it practical. We knew it would be just a matter of time before someone did. We should have become rich from it. But we were happy to do it for fun." And many people around the world are thankful for it.

People call toothing a fad and say that its practitioners are nothing but immoral perverts. The toothers themselves don't care much. They watch benignly as more and more people of all ages, genders, races, creeds and nationalities join their community.

"It's the fast food of sex," says Richard the yuppie. "Cheap and fast, without making too much effort." Then he checks his phone again and smiles. "Sorry, got to go."

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