Securing Sexuality is the podcast and conference promoting sex positive, science based, and secure interpersonal relationships. We give people tips for safer sex in a digital age. We help sextech innovators and toy designers produce safer products. And we educate mental health and medical professionals on these topics so they can better advise their clients. Securing Sexuality provides sex therapists with continuing education (CEs) for AASECT, SSTAR, and SASH around cyber sexuality and social media, and more.
Links from this week’s episode:
In today’s digital age, the intersection of intimacy and information security is an increasingly important topic. As technology continues to evolve, so too does the way we interact with one another and share personal information. With this in mind, it is essential to explore how different activities can affect our relationships and our security.
One such activity that has been gaining attention lately is pinball – specifically, its relationship to sex. Pinball has long been a popular game among people of all ages. It has a unique combination of skill and luck that makes it both challenging and exciting for players. In recent years, however, pinball has taken on a new meaning as it relates to sex.
Many people have begun using pinball as a way to explore their sexuality in a safe environment without fear of judgment or repercussions from others. This type of exploration can be incredibly beneficial for those who are looking to learn more about themselves or their partner(s). At its core, pinball is about risk-taking and reward – two key elements when it comes to exploring intimacy in any form.
Players must take risks by aiming their shots carefully while also being aware of potential consequences if they miss their target or hit something they weren’t expecting. This same concept applies when exploring sexual boundaries with someone else; you must be willing to take risks while also being aware that there may be consequences if things don’t go as planned or expected.
In addition to risk-taking and reward, playing pinball can also help foster communication between partners by providing an opportunity for them to discuss what they like/dislike about certain shots or strategies used during the game itself. This type of dialogue can then be applied outside the game when discussing sexual boundaries with one another; partners can use the same language from the game (e.g., “I liked how you took that shot”) in order to express what they do/don’t like without feeling embarrassed or judged by one another for doing so.
Finally, playing pinball together can help build trust between partners by allowing them both time away from other distractions (e.g., phones) where they are solely focused on each other and the game itself – something which is often difficult in today’s world where we are constantly bombarded with notifications from various sources throughout the day/night..
By taking this time away together, couples are able to build trust through shared experiences which will ultimately lead them closer together both physically and emotionally over time – something which is essential for any healthy relationship regardless of whether sex is involved or not! All in all, exploring intimacy through pinball provides many benefits for those looking to learn more about themselves or their partner(s).
Not only does it provide an opportunity for risk-taking and reward but also encourages communication between partners while helping build trust over time – all key components when it comes to fostering healthy relationships regardless of whether sex is involved or not!
Sex and Pinball
Intimacy and Information Security
Waylon Jennings Pinball Machine
Jenna Ray's Essay on Pinball and Identity
Stephen Kahn's Paper on Social Context of Pinball
Combining Sex and Pinball
Gamergate Threats to Women
Safe Space for Vulnerable Gamers
Pinballs as Metaphor for Sexuality
Hello and welcome to Securing Sexuality, the podcast where we discuss the intersection of intimacy and information security. I'm Wolf Goerlich. I'm Stefani Goerlich. She is a sex therapist and today we're going to discuss what safe sex looks like in a digital age. Today we're talking about some of the classic sex machines. There's an old story.
If you are into country music, if you're into the Nashville sound, there's an old story about Waylon Jennings. And Waylon Jennings would play his shows and he'd hop into his car and he'd rush back as fast as he could to Nashville to his home to play his favorite pinball machine. So there we were. That was about a year ago or so.
There we were in Nashville with some friends and what better way to have like a couple's date than to play some friendly pinball, right?
I mean that's what you do. So fast forward and this week we are in Seattle and we go to the Seattle Pinball Museum. We thought we'd do a straightforward story about the history of pinball machines because you guys know I love random technology like mailboxes and pinball machines.
And we, you know, obviously we're going to work in relationships in some way, but it turns out this is not so straightforward. But we'll get into that in a minute.
Yeah, it's definitely not as straightforward as we thought. Like show me a study of how kids in the 1960s used to date around playing ball machines. So show me that.
So we did some Googling.
We did some reading and the first thing that jumped out at me was like everyone has their analogy for pinball, right?
Everyone's got like their way of looking at it.
You want to hear mine?
I think pinball is a lot like dating. You don't actually win and you just play to keep playing as long as you can. And there's lots of lights and lots of sound and lots of excitement. But at the end of the day, you don't control much. And at the end of the day, you know, maybe get one or two more balls and that's it. You're done.
It's good, no?
It is good. And it's funny you say that because I was reading an essay by this amazing writer, Jenna Ray, who was talking about how they connect pinball to their identity as a queer person, to their their experiences with dating. And they their words kind of mirror your your analogy.
They said, you know, there's no universal standard for what constitutes a pinball machine. There just isn't the lower left of any pinball machine. There are rules, but these aren't rules in the sense that they tell you what you have to do. These are options for participating in a narrative. I love the way that they put that options for participating in a narrative.
And you know, if you want to do this to get this extra ball, you'll do these things. Here's what you hit. Here's the order you do it in. But every machine is different. There's no what is pinball. There's no unifying theory of pinball game design. You listen to the machine and you anticipate the needs of the machine. And pinball is actually very sensual. There's a lot of nudging.
There's a lot of moving around. There's a lot of working out a narrative and collaborating with the machine, says Jeterray.
And all of that sounds so much like what you're talking about when it comes to relationships, right?
There's no winning or losing at relationships. You have to figure out kind of the narrative of your partner and the story that you guys create together and respond to that. I like that a lot.
Oh, yes. That's good. That's good.
The partner side of it is interesting, though, right?
Because originally, it was kind of dangerous for women to be around pinball, is what I'm understanding. Originally, like if I was to see you from across the room, the girl at the pinball machine, that would tell me something about the kind of girl you are.
It would tell you I was not the kind of girl that you would take home to meet your parents because pinball machines such as they were, the original, you know, Bagatelle machines, were in bars and saloons. And proper ladies, frankly, proper gentlemen, did not hang out in bars and saloons.
And so pinball had a reputation as being deviant, as being a form of gambling, as being something that was not done by polite, upstanding members of society.
In fact, pinball was banned from the 40s up until 1976. And actually, the state of Tennessee didn't let minors play pinball without an adult chaperone until 2000, which blows my mind. But there's this long sort of cultural history of pinball as a signal of sort of the outlaw or the bad guy or the loose woman, which is fascinating because that's not at all how we think about it today.
Yeah, that's the first thing that surprised me, especially hanging out at the pinball museum. It seems kind of wholesome. There's a lot of couples around. When we were in Nashville, that was a very nice time. And there's lots of lots of couples, lots of people having a good time.
And today, if I think of I see a pinball game in a movie, it's, oh, look, that seems very wholesome. But when I go back and look at the history of pinball in movies, right on par with what you're saying in terms of it being culturally dangerous.
Like, Ameri Graffiti has a pinball machines in the beginning, right?
And it shows, oh, these are these are shorthanded.
Edit, edit, edit. These are edgy people who are willing to risk anything just to have a few minutes of fun they don't play by the rules. There's a movie called Bad Influence with James Spader that starts off with pinballs showing that the character is in the wrong neighborhood. Lots of different slices. The movie The Crow used pinball machines, although they ended up getting smashed, which was kind of sad.
Right up to I think the penultimate in my mind was a movie in 1988, which was The Accused, which actually showed a woman getting sexually assaulted on a pinball machine. As if to say, you know, she asked for it because she was playing pinball.
It's having a pinball machine in film and having a pinball machine in real life does not have the same resonance today as it did in the 50s, 60s, 70s and the early 80s. And you know, somebody that pays attention to how sexuality is portrayed and represented in pop culture, that to me is so fascinating because The Accused, when it came out, was a brutal movie.
I mean, it was very highly regarded of the actors. I want to say there were some awards involved. It's a very famous film.
And in 88, that pinball scene really was a signal to the audience that the sexual assault survivor was in a place where she should not be. And the men that were around her were not trustworthy men. It was a social shorthand that I think anybody watching that movie in 2022 would not pick up on at all.
If anything, I think sort of the intensity and the awfulness of that scene would be recontextualized by how innocent and wholesome we think of pinball today. Now the pinball machines in The Accused would not be sort of red flags for the characters. They would be a juxtaposition between wholesomeness and horror that would read very differently to us now.
And that to me is a fascinating sort of statement on how technology, how symbology evolves over time and how context is so time specific. When I'm teaching about BDSM and kink, I often describe kink as anything that's non-normative for its place and time. And people often get a little bit confused about that time question. But I think pinball is a great exemplifier of that.
That what was a clear red flag sign of outlaw status and degeneracy in 1988 would not be read at all the same way in 2022. Time and place is such an influencer of so many different things that we think about, that we feel, the emotions we feel, the excitement, the titillation we might feel.
I was reading this paper, Stephen Kahn is the author, it says from 1981, on the social context of pinball, the making of a setting and its etiquette. And there's a couple things that jumped out at me, but to your point about your definition of kink, the line in this paper is as follows. This is Stephen Kahn again, 1981. Pinball proves that one person's revolution can lay the basis for another person's past time.
So we got those sexy, sexy machines, baby. One person's revolution is another person's past time. I hate to bring everything back to BDSM and kink, but I mean, it's what I do. It's the water I swim in professionally. And there's this idea in psychology that BDSM is considered a form of serious leisure.
And I like this idea that for some people, the way they explore sensation, the way they form their relationships is a revolutionary act. They're making a statement about who they are and the world and society they want to build by how they form their relationships. And for other people, it's just a good time. It's a form of recreation.
And both options, both perspectives are valid, but recognizing that people have different perspectives on pinball, on sex, on relationships is a really key part of forming healthy relationships and moving through the world effectively. And that's the revolution. If I said revolution, what I meant to say was revulsion.
So there's also that edge side, which is sometimes if things seem a little bit risky, if there is a heightened level of stimulation, if you think you're in the bad neighborhood, that itself can color and add some excitement, I can imagine.
Oh, for sure. The thrill of things in many contexts for a lot of people is a part of the appeal of any sexual act, whether it's making out in the back room of a bar and hoping you don't get caught, or whether it's something perhaps more intense than that. There is that visceral sensation of othering ourselves that can be very sexy at times.
Yeah, so maybe we lost that. Maybe we lost that in the 80s when pinball was suddenly legal. After 1976, it was legal. I find it very fascinating that the game of pinball was illegal even before it was invented because flippers were added and everything in the 40s. The whole history of the legality of it is fascinating.
Okay, so it becomes legal. It becomes something that's more integrated into our society. It becomes something that's more fun for a date night. I want to tease on the sensory side of things though. When we watched that documentary, there was a lot of exploration of that. We watched a documentary on pinball, which was...
How would you define that?
How would you describe that?
Adorable. It was definitely a clean-cut, sanitized history of pinball. It was made by a lot of industry folks to talk about the evolution of the machines themselves and less about the cultural history of pinball. I'll throw a link to that in the show notes. There are other documentaries out there. It was cool to see how the people who make and manufacture the machines describe them.
One of the executives I interviewed was Richard Sharp. I loved his statement.
He said, the whole idea of pinball is sensory reward. We have a lot of different video games now. For a long time, pinball was the game. This predates Atari. This predates electricity. But the idea of pinball as a sensory reward was a really powerful statement for me, especially when we think about it in the context of society and interaction with other people.
Pinball generally is not a game you play by yourself at home alone.
Yeah, I love the sensory rewards. I love the bumpers. I love the spinning targets. I love the lights. I love the games that surprise you. This is going to be a cliche for anyone who knows me because I like sci-fi. One of my favorites is the old school Terminator game.
You think you lost the ball and then suddenly for whatever reason saves it and spins it around and you're like, oh, I'm back in the game. You're back playing and knocking things over and Arnold Schwarzenegger is talking to you. That is a sensory reward indeed.
Question for you though, with modern relationships, does that sensory reward still connect to sexiness?
Is there still a through line there or is it like, well, it used to be really edgy and that was exciting and now it's more of this wholesome thing we do on a Saturday afternoon?
I mean, how literally do you want me to answer that question because in doing research for this episode, I found a pinball players forum and somebody had asked the question about combining sex and pinball. And it was fascinating to me because 20% of the respondents said, oh yeah, I've done that before. 15% said that they do that with some frequency.
So you got like 35% of the respondents that are like, yeah, sex and pinball go together. And even among those who weren't actively having sex on or around their pinball machines, another full third, 32% of the respondents said they hadn't, but that it sounded like a good idea.
So I mean, if we want to be really literal about it, sex and pinball, if you ask those who love the game enough to hang out on pinball forums, absolutely go hand in hand. All right. So I don't even know where to go with that because you think about strip poker, sure, but no one ever talks about strip pinball.
I think probably one of the reasons why no one ever talks about strip pinball is almost every machine is labeled with for amusement only. And even at the Seattle Pinball Museum, there's a sign that says, you know, don't gamble, don't bet on the games. So you know, no strip pinball perhaps.
Well, I mean, the other complicating factor is what do you do if you get a free ball or if you get a multi-ball game, right?
Are you now supposed to throw a shirt back on?
Do you have to add three scarves and a mitten if you get a multi-ball?
So I mean, it becomes the math becomes a little bit more complicated when you're playing pinball for sure.
Yeah, the sign reads, please do not place anything on the games. Thank you. And I guess that includes adding clothes as well as removing clothes. I think it is interesting the connection between pinball and gambling and other illicit activities. And in the 40s and 50s, they genuinely thought that school kids and young people would spend all of their money on pinball. They would starve spending their lunch money on pinball.
And during the Great Depression, people could, you know, have five, 10 minutes of fun for a penny. And so it was one of the few industries that survived the Great Depression because it was seen as a form of gambling. I love this podcast called Cocaine and Rhinestones. Tyler Mahan Coe is the son of David Allen Coe. And if you love like old school country like I do, it's fascinating.
But he did an episode that touched ever so briefly on pinball. And he said that modern pinball was illegal before it existed.
And again, I tie threads between this and sex and relationships. And I think about how many people that sentence would resonate with in terms of how they see themselves and their identities and how they move through the world. Like there are so many clients that I've worked with that would feel like my identity was illegal before I even existed or before I even knew it was what it was.
And so there's this like unifying thread of pinball as this thing that kind of exists outside of space and time that kind of doesn't fit in no matter when it is. It's deviant gambling hedonism in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. And it's saccharine sweet wholesome in the 2000, 2020s. There's never a time when pinball is just like kind of cool. And I know a lot of people that feel like that too.
And I wonder if that's part of the appeal of pinball is that it is the quintessential bonding activity for outsiders.
Yeah, but who doesn't like to be outsiders, right?
It's interesting you say like pinball is never cool. It's now saccharine sweet before it was edgy.
But isn't there something to being a little bit of an outsider?
Is there something about being an outsider that makes a community?
I remember when hacking was early on and you had to be like, hacking is not a crime. And we're trying to explain what we're doing. And in that moment in time, that being an outsider brought people together, at least within that community.
I mean, that's what we saw in the vintage gaming world where the gangsters, the motorcycle gangs, the gamblers, the social, I don't want to say deviance in a negative way, but you know, the folks with loose morals, they found their outsider status together around pinball.
But the essential nature of, you know, is it cool to be outside?
I mean, the in-group will always say, we're hackers, nobody understands us, and we're cool because we're iconoclasts, in the same way that the motorcycle gang will say we're bikers and nobody understands us and we're cool because we're iconoclasts. But when I say, you know, the outsider, when I say that pinball is never cool, the people that gather around pinball form their own communities.
The people that gather around these kinds of games or these gaming spaces form their own relationships.
And sure, within the context of those communities and relationships, yeah, obviously people find each other cool. But the broader community, society as a whole, has across time tended to point at the people who gather around pinball in whatever context that might take across time and look at them as outside the norm, as not cool.
One of the things I think is interesting is in that shift from being dangerous to being saccharine sweet, in that shift from where we were in 1981 to where we are today in 2022, in that shift, there's also been, you know, a rise in multiple different types of people who like to game, right?
There's back to that paper I was mentioning in the 1981 study was like, oh yeah, there's almost no women. I think it was one in every 10 people was a woman playing pinball.
And yet, some of the things I was coming across when I was doing my research was saying that in a way, pinball has created a safer space for women gamers.
Because there's no comments section, there's no chat, there's no internet connection. There is no way that some random stranger is going to start accosting you.
At least if you see the random stranger, you can see he's coming up to you, right?
There's more time and there's less people around. That kind of intrigued me because in the early days, one of the things around the internet we'd say is well, being online is safer.
Because they're at home and they don't know who you are. You could be anybody and there's a distance there.
Of course, whenever it becomes online and that distance becomes something that anyone can traverse, what constitutes being a safe space also tends to flip. So I really thought it was intriguing that it started off as this dangerous space and now cannot be seen as being sort of like a safe space. That's a great example of that insider-outsider sort of tension that I was talking about a minute earlier.
When we have this community of 50s biker outlaws gathering in the Nashville saloon around the pinball machines, that's not going to be a welcoming space for women. If we fast forward to the 70s and the early 80s and the heydays of the video game arcade, those were also seen as really heavily male-dominated areas.
The insiders, the male players, the bikers, the teenage boys hanging out at the arcade were not necessarily welcoming and inclusive of women. But then we look at modern video gaming like you were just mentioning with, you know, there's no comment section, there's no chat, there's no live stream.
And we think about things like Gamergate and we think about the ways in which women have been not just verbally assaulted but physically and emotionally attacked, swatted even, because of video games.
And all of a sudden this idea of this pleasurable sensory experience that happens in a dating environment like the pinball arcades we went to in Nashville, in a museum setting like in Seattle, all of a sudden there are places where people who might otherwise feel vulnerable in gaming can go and feel safe and feel included.
And all of a sudden who's an insider and who's an outsider and where those groups gather have flipped. And it is fascinating to watch them play out.
It is, it absolutely is.
And I think too it reflects some of the other conversations we've had in this podcast, right?
Trying to understand where is the danger, what is the threat model, how do we respond to that is challenging and is ever-changing as we've got different contexts, different spaces and different technologies.
So it's curious to me, one of the things that I told you when we were moving through the generations of pinball, and it turns out seems like you're kind of a 90s early aughts pinball aficionado and in my sweet spots the mid 80s.
What I kept coming back to as a sex therapist is how we have these fundamental things, right?
We have usually two buttons, a box with a glass on top of it, two flippers and a ball. There's variation, sure. Sometimes there's more or less of one or the other. But within just those sort of key basic tools, there's this infinite variety of gameplay and infinite variety of targets and moving pieces and ramps and holes and all sorts of things.
And it made me think a lot about my clients because I get so many inquiries from people who want to come to therapy because they effectively want to be better lovers.
They want the Konami code to their partner's body, right?
If you just do like up up down down left right left right, show orgasm and you're a phenomenal lover and everybody's happy.
But pinball kind of emphasizes for me how that's not the case because most bodies have a similar variety of parts, right?
They have their version of flippers and buttons and balls and what have you. But every single person that you connect with on a physical level has their own goals, their own targets, their own ways to achieve the flashing lights and bells and whistles and the things that aren't going to work for them.
And so like for me, it might be a little bit trite, but I loved pinball as a metaphor for sexuality and this idea that you can't just tell somebody, oh yeah, in order to play pinball, you know, you you pull back the shaft and release the ball and then you push the buttons and then you're playing pinball. Just push the buttons and hit the ball. It's not an adequate explanation for pinball.
And just touch him there and stroke her there and if you do this three times magic will happen. It's not an effective explanation for sex that you have to approach each partner in the same way you approach each pinball machine and you have to not just understand the mechanics of the playing field, but also the specific goals and objectives for each individual encounter.
And as somebody that loves the sensory experience of pinball and as somebody who teaches a lot about the sensory experience of sex and intimacy, that really hit me really hard.
And I loved the idea of the pinball games as you and I moved from game to game to game and these slight little variations of these differences in rules or differences in ramp placement and how that could be a takeaway for how we approach touching and connecting to our partners as well.
So as we move into takeaways, that would be one of yours, right?
There's no recipe, no script.
Yeah, just because your partner now has the same buttons and flippers as the last three partners you are with doesn't mean you can play the game the same way with them.
You have to learn the landscape for each individual relationship and taking the time to do that, taking the time to figure out what makes this person light up as opposed to the last one or the next one is really key, not only to being a good lover, but also being a good partner. I like that. That's very sweet. From a security perspective, my takeaway would be the threats of responding to change.
You need to be careful not to get wrapped up in the stereotypes because, you know, at one point in time, oh, man, these machines are really scary. Look at what we've seen in the movies. Realistically, they're just fine. I strongly suspect that a lot of this was overblown as things are often overblown in movies.
So the threats need to be based on reality, need to be based on what's personally happening for you. And they need to be reassessed over time because what is dangerous today is wholesome tomorrow.
And from an attack surface perspective, in other words, like what is likely to happen in this scenario and how many different ways could something bad happen?
Basically, being in person is now much safer than being online in many ways, at least psychologically, at least psychologically.
Again, no chat, no comments, no trolls. So being aware of the fact that there is a stereotype, a persona, a storyline, which in reality probably isn't reflective of what's really going to happen is point A when you're doing your threat miles, your personal threat miles for your security.
And point B is looking at what differences in different places, different spaces online and in person mean to you personally is really the key to securing sexuality, either securing your game of pinball or securing your date.
And what it means to you personally is so important, right?
We talked a lot about how the perception of pinball as a community, as an activity, as a risk factor has evolved over time. And I think it's important that we be mindful of the fact that time and space contextualize everything. And we need to not judge people for what they enjoy, for what they participate in. If somebody likes pinball, that doesn't give anybody the right to reenact the accused.
If somebody likes sex, that doesn't give somebody the right to be mistreated. We want to let people have space to like what they like without fear or judgment and to recognize that it doesn't need to be your thing.
It's totally cool if you are not a pinball person, but the pinball people of the world have every right to a safe place to explore whatever it is that they enjoy about that sensory experience. Absolutely. And on that note, I think we're at an end of this game, game over.
We may have to go find a couple more quarters, but thank you so much for tuning in to Securing Sexuality, your source of information. You need to protect yourself and your relationships. From the bedroom to the cloud, we're here to help you navigate safe sex in a digital age. Be sure to check out our website, Securing Sexuality, for links to more information about all of the pinball topics we've discussed here today.
And of course, information about our upcoming 2023 live conference. And join us again for more conversations about the intersection of sexuality and technology. Have a great week.