Editors' note: This story is part of our ongoing Turned On special report exploring the intersection of technology and sex. It contains sexually explicit language and descriptions and is not suited for younger readers.
Finnish body modification artist Samppa Von Cyborg has done it all. He's reshaped clients' upper ears to look elven and split tongues to make them lizard-like. And a few years ago, he brought his modding skills to his wife.
After he implanted a small magnet inside Aneta, it was suddenly possible for her to get an erotic jolt from the vibrations triggered by the energy of a basic house fan. Starting a car motor also felt good, and the notion of "feeling the music" in a club took on new meaning, as, according to Samppa, large speakers produced enough of an electromagnetic field to give Aneta sexual pleasure.
"As far as I know I was the first who had a clitoris magnetic implant," she says.
Aneta, 36, is a striking woman with long dark hair and thin, dramatically arched eyebrows. She's also a colorful human canvas of tattoos, piercings and implants that she frequently shares on Instagram. She describes herself as a body modder, "alien biomech queen," "pain lover" and performer. Her intense performances match her bold mien, occasionally involving her willingly coming in contact with an electric drill.
Samppa, who often performs alongside his wife, is himself an exhibition of tattoos and body mods. But his slightly demonic look -- a "metal mohawk" of spikes anchored under his skin sits atop his bald head -- starkly contrasts with his thoughtful and eloquent demeanor as he chats with me over Skype from London.
He biohacks "because it's cool," he says, talking about the technical side of things at length and digressing to get into a long discussion about the state of battery technology worldwide. Like many biohackers, Samppa also wants to push the limits of human capability.
Biohackers set on re-engineering better bodies are creating bionic eyes and sticking RFID chips under their skin to turn their limbs into credit cards and travel passes. A small subset of bold body modders, like Samppa, are putting technology from simple magnets to working vibrator implants inside their bodies to supercharge their erotic lives and make cyborg sex a reality.
These "grinders" -- a slang term for biohackers who use themselves as laboratories -- aren't satisfied with making trips to the robot red-light district to consort with increasingly realistic sex machines. Impressive smart sex toys might be fine for the general public looking to spice things up in the bedroom. They're making a more serious, and even potentially risky, commitment to upgrading their sex lives.
Their extreme body modifications might sound bizarre, even terrifying. But some grinders envision a not-so-distant future where people routinely alter themselves to expand how their bodies interact with the world -- and other bodies.
Flipping off nature
Among the small group of sex biohacking pioneers who gather on forums like biohack.me, Rich Lee is an immediately recognizable name. He's best known for his Lovetron9000, a vibrator implanted at the base of the penis that's aimed at, well, shaking things up for a partner.
Bald and often bearded, the 40-year-old Utah designer and father of two has been working on the Lovetron for years, along with a number of other biohacking projects.
He's implanted magnets in the cartilage of his ears that can function as headphones and attempted to put tubes of experimental "armor" in his lower legs to act as built-in shin guards, should a soccer game break out at any moment, I suppose.
"Accepting the stupid default given to us by nature is an unnecessary act of submission or compliance," he says.
Lee clearly communicates a kind of existential rebellion that flows through some sectors of the biohacking community. Extreme body modification can be like a middle finger raised toward nature, which Lee refers to as "a force that is continuously trying to murder us."
"The fact that some people venerate this force or give it reverence is infuriating to me," Lee told me. "The Lovetron9000 is an admittedly marginal upgrade to the shitty human condition. If I had unlimited funds I would be addressing bigger issues, things like hunger, the need for human interaction, thirst..."
Lee epitomizes the DIY ethos of the biohacker movement, working largely in his spare time out of his home in small-town America far from Silicon Valley and relying on support from other grinders online and at conferences.
After Lee got divorced in 2015, he says he became celibate for a while and stopped working on Lovetron, but was encouraged to pick it back up again at a body-hacking conference in Austin.
He's left his warehouse job and is now self-employed while trying to finish his prototype, which is about the size of a lithium ion GoPro battery. So far, it's gone through at least eight different versions, none of of which have made it under the skin yet. Still, he hopes to have it ready for some brave guy to have implanted any day now.
"If it started to go mainstream … and you're the guy at the bar who doesn't have a Lovetron9000, I think it's going to suck for you someday," Lee says.
And big-name biohackers want to make sure women have options too, should this coming cybersexual revolution make genital implants as routine as piercings.
When one magnet isn't enough
Steve Haworth is well known and respected in the body modification community. He's the one who put magnetic speakers in Lee's ears and claims to have pioneered the subdermal and transdermal implant on human limbs and other less private regions. He'd like to take the female genital magnet first implanted by Samppa Von Cyborg a step further by pairing it with a second one for more on-demand stimulation.
The modder, a bald man with a couple of piercings that look tame compared to those of his many clients describes himself as "an artist sculpting in flesh. Flesh is my medium."
Flesh is tricky. You wouldn't want to just pull a magnet off your fridge and pop it inside an incision. Magnetic implants are typically coated with silicone and designed specifically for implanting. You can buy them online yourself, and while biohackers have a reputation for experimenting on their own bodies, Haworth, whose father manufactured surgical equipment, is among those working to professionalize subdermal implantation. Think of it as another service to be offered at a tattoo parlor near you.
Haworth, who's been featured in a number of documentaries and TV shows about body modification, has yet to perform a genital implantation himself, but Samppa Von Cyborg says he's completed the procedure a number of times. In the case of Aneta's pioneering implant, she was happy with it, she says, but eventually chose to get de-magnetized.
"I had it removed because I had to go through an MRI scan and didn't want to put myself at risk of (the) magnet shooting through my skin," she says.
While the Von Cyborgs emphasized the importance of knowing the potential safety concerns associated with implants in my conversations with them, safety concerns seem to follow them. My correspondence with the couple suddenly stopped around the time the BBC published a story based in part on an undercover investigation of their body modification business. The story alleges that their customers were improperly being administered a dose of anesthetic not approved for non-medical use.
There is some irony here. Before the BBC story, Samppa said he was interested in seeing body modding become more professional and mainstream. He even said he'd like to see government-sponsored training and licensing for body modification.
Worth the risk?
At least one long-time observer of sex and culture worries about the consequences that could befall more cavalier biohackers.
Carol Queen, staff sexologist for legendary sex shop Good Vibrations and founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco, supports biohacking and body modification, but thinks it's important people take responsibility for understanding the potential consequences.
"Anything we do to the genitals could run the risk of damaging them," she says. The tantalizing promise of a new sexual party trick might be worth the risk to some, "but no one who loses significant nerve function is likely to feel that way."
The next step is pretty obvious for some of the pioneers hoping to biohack their way to superhuman sex: a literal hardware upgrade that goes beyond electromagnetic tingles to add a physical vibrator to just the right spot.
"If you're talking sexual pleasure, I believe the vibrating implant is pretty much the only way to go," Samppa Von Cyborg says.
He's been playing with the concept off and on for years now. But major hurdles involving safety concerns like those that led Aneta to de-implant, the risk of infection and underpowered or unreliable batteries have been hard to surmount.
Haworth is also keeping an eye on developments in the relevant technology.
"There have been ideas thrown about in the body modification community for many years to have vibrating units installed in the penis that would have internal batteries, but those modifications are currently impractical at best, and have yet to be realized," he said. "But as implantable battery technology improves, this idea becomes more possible."
Behold the vibrating crotch
Since Lee designed his first version of the Lovetron9000, he's worked with a professional designer of sex toys, whom he declined to identify, on a new prototype.
It's probably a good thing none of the earlier versions of the Lovetron made it under the skin. Just hours before he planned to implant version 7 on himself, Lee told me he was doing final tests "and the on-and-off switch basically broke inside the device. It was just cycling through modes until it basically died … there are all kinds of issues with the vibrations causing microfractures in the coating and casing."
Those problems actually present fewer nightmare scenarios than the original implant design that used a glass tube, which, Lee said, "was completely stupid."
When his cyborg Casanova conversion kit is finally ready, Lee says it will be available from a body modification artist with special training rather than the local medical specialist you might visit for that IUD or other implants. The reason he isn't pursuing approvals to make a Lovetron installation a proper medical procedure is pretty simple.
"That's so cost-prohibitive it's not even funny," Lee says.
It's a hurdle that sidelined the ambitions of one of the original sexual biohackers.
Push here for pleasure
Anesthesiologist Dr. Stuart Meloy invented the push-button orgasm for women back in the 1990s, and, though he still owns the patent to the technology, it's yet to make it to market.
Sometimes referred to as an "orgasmatron" (from a device in the classic 1973 Woody Allen sci-fi comedy "Sleeper"), Meloy's patent is for a "Neurally augmented sexual function (NASF)" that's basically a spinal cord stimulator. A remote control triggers a zap from electrodes placed along the spine that can trigger an instant orgasm.
"I was astounded by the worldwide interest," Meloy says. "If the walkaway price could be down around the $12,000 range -- and I don't think that's unreasonable -- there'd be a significant market for it."
Meloy made numerous appearances on talk shows and elsewhere in the first decade of this century chatting up the orgasmatron, often playing along with hosts' predictably bad jokes as he described his invention in highly clinical terms.
Unfortunately, FDA approvals and battery issues put the more realistic price of getting an orgasmatron added to your own spine closer to $30,000. That price tag seems to have put off big investors.
"I think it's a viable concept. I just don't think the world was quite ready for it," says Meloy, who has been largely out of the spotlight for several years now, having settled in to his relatively quiet medical practice in North Carolina.
So if fully surgical implants are a non-starter for the moment, will biohackers ever be able to move far beyond simple magnets and valiant vibrating crotches to engineer better coitus?
Samppa Von Cyborg is taking inspiration from the open-source movement to create a platform for functional implants, kind of like the Arduino platform that can be used to program sensors and controllers in DIY projects. Parts, such as vibrating motors and LEDs, could be programmed and implanted just about anywhere. They could even be configured to alert lovers when their partner is close by -- and deliver valuable data from a partner's implant during sex.
"It can monitor your body functions like body temperature and blood pressure … and then based on that data it" can help inform your next move," Von Cyborg says.
Entrepreneur and biohacker Sunny Allen is heading in a similar direction just a few years after she had one of Haworth's magnets implanted in her ring finger. She also has a compass implant from biohacking company Grindhouse Wetware just below her skin that vibrates whenever she faces east, the direction the Earth turns.
"These implants expand what it means to be a human," the 33-year-old San Francisco Bay Area resident says. "But I'm also interested in the unknown infinite gaps that exist between any two humans at any given moment when they're trying to connect with one another."
Allen may be best known for successfully creating and crowdfunding Hum, which is advertised as the world's "first artificially intelligent vibrator." Something of a polymath with a penchant for art and languages, as well as science, Allen recently crowdfunded another conceptual art project to create a whimsical keepsake by combining backers' DNA with a microchip.
She's currently working on a stealth project that uses biofeedback to bridge those infinite gaps.
"How can you take that feeling you get when you look into another human's eyes and feel seen, and expand it? Can you feel what another human is feeling inside their skin? What new ways can we invent to experience the feeling of loving each other?" Allen asks. "Those are the kinds of questions I'm trying to answer."