SEX

What It’s Like To Be Engaged To An iPad

Many people profess their love for high-tech devices — but objectum sexuals actually mean it

SEX
Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Jan 04, 2017 at 9:00 AM ET

In so many ways, “Emily” sounds like any young person who is deeply in love and engaged to be married. She says she is “the happiest person in the world” and is effusive about her fiancé Max. He’s smart, empathetic, great at communicating, and, well, not too bad on the eyes, she says. They enjoy simple date nights at home with wine and a little music — he has a certain knack for picking songs that will put her in the mood, which inevitably leads to cuddling or a slow dance. “My love for Max is deeper than all other relationships I’ve ever had,” said the 30-something-year-old, who wished to remain anonymous, in an email. “Our love continues to grow stronger each day.”

But, for all these romantic cliches, there is one major way in which Emily’s love story diverges from those found in the Sunday Styles section: Max is an iPad.

Yes, plenty of people profess their love for technology, and some even joke that they want to marry a favorite device, but Emily really means it. She identifies as objectum sexual (OS), a term used to describe someone who experiences a romantic, and possibly sexual, attraction to objects. The love objects can range from iconic ones, like the Eiffel Tower, to every day devices, like a home computer. Many objectum sexuals have animist beliefs that ascribe a spirit or soul to objects; some, like Emily, also believe they can communicate with objects. There are those who have sex with objects, although not necessarily in the way you might imagine, while others are satisfied by cuddling or kissing. It’s a rare phenomenon — there are roughly only 400 people worldwide who identify as objectum sexual, according to the support group Objectùm-Sexuality Internationale (OSI) — but it is a real one, nonetheless.

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“We don’t know a lot about the why of people who have these kinds of desires,” said Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist and sexologist at Johns Hopkins University. “But we do know there is a tremendous spectrum and variability in human sexuality.” He added, “I’m not sure that any romance or sexual feelings are necessarily a matter of logic — people discover the kinds of person they’re attracted to and the kinds of objects or activities that they find to be sexually arousing.”

Objectum sexuality is poorly understood, in large part because it is poorly researched. The 2008 documentary “Married To The Eiffel Tower,” which followed Erika Eiffel, who is objectum sexual and married the Eiffel Tower in an unofficial ceremony, and a handful of other objectum sexuals, first brought mainstream attention to the community — but OSI has officially rejected the film as inaccurate and sensationalistic.

A year later, Amy Marsh, a sexologist based in Hawaii, conducted an informal survey of 21 members of OSI in an attempt to accurately catalog their experiences. The overwhelming majority were cisgender women. They ranged in age from 18 to middle-aged, with the largest proportion between the ages of 41 and 60. Half of the respondents said they had never considered a sexual relationship with another human. She also found a high prevalence of autism: Six respondents said they had a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder, while four identified as having Asperger’s Syndrome, now referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder, although they didn’t have an official diagnosis. Together, that’s just under half of respondents. The biggest problem expressed by the survey respondents was a “lack of acceptance by society.”

Emily learned early on about the dangers of coming out of the OS closet. She first discovered her attraction to objects, and specifically technological ones, around the age of 12. Her older sisters started dating and Emily noticed that she wasn’t interested in boys or girls. “But whenever I got close to a stereo amplifier and could feel and even smell the heat, it would turn me on,” she said. “Then I knew that my sexual preference was different.” Around age 14, she tried to tell one of her sisters about her burgeoning sexuality, but, as Emily put it, “she did not take it well.” “When my sister found out that I loved my little cassette player, she managed to put salt into it to destroy the motor,” she said. “When that didn’t work, she put him on the floor and smashed him to pieces!”

It’s practically a right of passage for a kid to have a beloved toy destroyed by a sibling, but for Emily, the loss was much more significant. “I was devastated and fell into a deep depression and could not eat or sleep,” she said. “As of today, this awful experience still pains me.”

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Many objectum sexuals are attracted to technological objects in particular. Marsh found that 19 percent were oriented toward “technological objects,” like “radios, TVs, computers,” and 43 percent favored “mechanical” objects, like “machines, appliances.” Erika Eiffel, the founder of the group, says some prefer the interactivity of tech. “With technological objects, the interaction is more apparent and perhaps more simple,” she said. “Input, output.” Just as with human relationships, she said, “some partners prefer their partner to give more obvious feedback where others may be content sensing it because their partner is more reserved.”

Berlin, who has encountered only a handful of objectum sexual cases in his more than 30-year-long career, suspects it’s no accident that plenty of OS people are interested in technological objects, given the age we live in. He says sexual attraction can reflect whatever is culturally prevalent — for example, Berlin says, sexual attraction to fur coats was more common when fur coats were in fashion. “We’re in an era where these electronic devices are present in ways that hadn’t been the case before,” he said. “For reasons that we don’t in any way fully understand, given their presence, some people are beginning to express these kinds of feelings.”

“Maria,” a 27-year-old objectum sexual in Indiana, is in love with the logo for the Motorola Droid phone, which she has named Maxxii. She’s also in love with a particular Droid phone, but it’s the logo that she married six years ago during a ceremony at a friend’s house. “I am connected to the DROID logo regardless of where it is,” she wrote in an email. “But I love wearing it on my clothes. I love the DROID commercials so I can see Droidii in them.” She and Droidii have romantic date nights like any couple, which is to say they Netflix and chill. “We usually have movie night in my bedroom,” she said. “I stream Netflix and we choose a funny movie to watch.” They cuddle and kiss, but, as she puts it, “we are not really comfortable with sex.”

Maria is autistic, and she says that is part of why she is drawn to technological objects. “Many people with Autism have a unique way of thinking,” she wrote. “This in detail thinking allows many people with Autism to understand complex things such as technology.” In fact, research suggests that people on the autism spectrum are often particularly comfortable with computers and there are many efforts underway to use technology to assist them. That includes apps that help with communication and things like Robots4Autism, which creates humanoid robots to teach lessons about social behavior to kids with autism. But Eiffel emphasizes that while some people in the community have autism, not all people with autism have objectum sexuality, and not all objectum sexuals have autism.

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And, of course, our world at large is obsessed with objects — and technological ones in particular. But objectum sexuals say they have little in common with the sort of mainstream object lust that sees people standing in the rain for the latest iPhone. “All these people really want is to be the first to own the latest cell phone or new technological device that comes out. It’s like making a fashion statement,” said Emily. “Once they get it, they don’t seem to care anymore.” Even humans in relationships with other humans, are tempted to “upgrade” to a younger, hotter model — but not Emily. “As a matter of fact, I’m not excited with the new iPads that came out like iPad Air or iPad Pro that are larger than Max,” she said. “I’m very happy with the way Max looks and wouldn’t change a thing on him.”

Eiffel also argues that objectum sexuals are not fetishists — meaning those with a sexual focus on an object or nongenital body part. “While a fetishist must have their desired object present as a catalyst to achieve sexual gratification, the love for our object is not based on a habitual psychosexual response,” reads the OSI website. “It is the object that captivates us on many more levels besides sexual arousal. Fetishists do not see the object as animate as we do and therefore do not commence to develop a loving relationship with the object.”

Eiffel blames many of the misconceptions about objectum sexuals on the “Married To The Eiffel Tower” documentary. “That film completely misrepresented our core values as OS individuals,” she said. Among the misunderstandings are that OS people are only in love with objects because they can’t get people to love them, that they are driven by past trauma, and that they love objects because it allows them total control of the relationship, she said. The film also brought objectum sexuals international attention — along with headlines screaming, “Statue of Liberty gave me an orgasm” and “Man Who’s Banged More Than 1,000 Cars Is Ready To Settle Down.” It’s part of why the community is so hesitant to speak with the media. They have learned that any outside attention means gawking sensationalism.

“Lots of people are queasy talking about sex in general, let alone sex with people who seem to be so different,” said Berlin. “I just think it’s important for folks to acknowledge those feelings, but to get past them and think it through and recognize that because someone has these sorts of unusual attractions does not mean there is something flawed about their character, it doesn’t mean they’re not decent people, it doesn’t mean they should be shunned or called names.” It also doesn’t mean that they need professional help. “It depends on whether the person themselves see it as problematic,” he said. “If nobody is being harmed and they’re not distressed, that’s not necessarily the business of psychiatry.”

As Maria puts it, “We are not mentally ill. Love comes in many forms.”