Sex and tech

I couldn’t help but wonder, how has sex affected tech? Is this useful for our sexuality?

In a year of unprecedented time indoors, limits of where we can go, travel/eat/socialise etc., this has inevitably limited our abilities to interact (and maybe even have sexual activity) with partners, strangers, or the old ‘friends of friends’. In the face of these limitations, technology has supplemented our lives in ways many of us wouldn’t have thought possible. 

Where a virus restricts our movements (something those born pre-80s HIV epidemic will remember), we now have to reorient the way we have sex: now being coined ‘sexual distancing’ (Sexpression, 2020).  In times where we are recommended to have sex with a new partner with condoms (hopefully not a newsflash to you all), masks and if you’re having PIV sex, ‘doggy’, technology not only supplements sex, but enables or even creates it.

We can see this from the wapping increase of lockdown sex toy purchases (40% more than usual (Mellor, 2020)), the rise of the Zoom date, Tinder (30% increase for under 30s – love in the time of corona am I right) and Hinge downloads and record pornography consumption (some countries like India experienced a 95% spike in usage). In the absence of spending time together, we seek new ways to engage with and enact desire; my favourite lockdown story HAS to be someone being gifted £300+ of sex toys to keep themselves entertained at home. It truly is a wild time to be alive.

Sex tech is now valued as a $30 billion dollar industry. Some interest in this region, a la Karley Sciortino’s Slutever series, focus on some of the more generally ‘outrageous’ aspects of sex tech, such as AI technology in robots, VR porn and odd machinery fetishes, to name a few. Strictly speaking, sex tech refers to any form of technology that is associated with sexuality. Under this umbrella is anything from sex toys to robots, apps to wellness websites and resources. Technology has long been considered the aspect of humanity that began to separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom; it is no surprise our ingenuity has been used to further our social (and sexual) lives. 

Much of sex tech has been around for millennia. The oldest of which is the sex toy, originating 30,000 years ago. As some of you might already know, Venus of Willendorf (a voluptuous female statue smashed in fertility festivals) was on the scene saucing stuff up 28,000 years ago (she is counted as the birth of pornographic material). So pretty much as long as we have been rapidly advancing and revolutionising, be it manufacturing, farming/hunting with tools, or creating material culture intended to bring us sexual pleasure, we humans are certainly adaptive to our needs. 

Arguably, following the birth of the internet, the creation of the smartphone, and the keen-ness of developers globally to create apps for any human need possible, sex tech has proliferated from material to virtual culture. Now, we can date online, have sexual activity through online spaces (sexting/pornographers/camming/OnlyFans/internet connected vibrators etc.), track our fertility, sexual fantasies and MORE! You could literally have some form of sex life from the comfort of your own home, without even physically meeting a new partner.

Certainly, sex tech can be considered useful, and indeed is used frequently. But how do young people of the world use it? 

Poll conducted on Instagram on 09/09/2020

Although data certainly exists to represent app usage, sexting, pornography etc., there is not a significant amount of data on how the sex tech industry as a whole impacts us.

Your thoughts: has it made your life better/worse etc.:

  • Met my boyfriend through Tinder and it’s our four year anniversary next week!
  • Hinge has revolutionised dating! And long distance made so much easier by sex tech
  • I’ve had more sex thanks to the apps than off the apps…. not always better but more
  • Better better BETTER 
  • Period tracker has been very helpful
  • I think it sometimes makes real sex dissapointing as it can’t always live up to it
  • It serves a purpose. Dry spell, if you can’t get out much, kids etc.!
  • Mainstream porn has kinda ruined sexuality for me
  • I would say better, it def opened a lot of perspectives and got me to learn about myself and others!

The proliferation and infusion of technology with our lives undoubtedly has side effects that have very real implications for our mental and even sexual health. Given that such technology exists, it might serve to replace human interaction, or at the least raise our anxieties about anything from sexual performance, body image, or a heightened awareness of just how big the dating pool, and incidentally how little fish there might be out there. Spending more time online can lead to an increased engagement with behaviours that can develop into unhealthy habits for some (frequent social media and screen time generally leads to higher levels of anxiety).

Insidious sides of technology do exist – how might some of this serve to perpetuate issues that are already clear in current sexual lives and sexuality concerning: the consent of individuals? The unrealistic and largely unethical production of mainstream porn? An increasing price gap where poorer consumers are priced out (as ingenious as sex toys are, many aren’t cheap)? Celebrities crashing OnlyFans and limiting income streams for sex workers?

These concerns are valid, although I’m positive the sexual health and education communities are rightly quick to highlight and unpick the alarming nature of some forms of sex tech. 

Alas, sex tech does have its problems with sexism and unfair standards of sexuality: many women have had to fight for female sex toys cum robotics to be allowed in a ‘turn’ against ‘morality’ amongst an industry deep in VR porn (placing a user as the male in the scene) (Ramani, 2020). Along with lots of things that are centred around sex, it can be harder for the female dominated industry to maintain/obtain investment. 

Sex tech should be treated as a supplement, an addition to pre-existing desires and relationships. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to engage with it – although as sex is one of humans favourite activities (surpassed only by drinking coffee apparently), we will continue to see sex tech grow.

Ultimately having the tools available to explore sexuality (many vulva owners have never had an earth-shattering orgasm until their first vibrator), kinks, fetishes and desires through safe online spaces is an educational and empowering opportunity. The fact that we can enhance our sexual knowledge through technology means that our real life experiences can be richer and more personalised. 

For BDSM and LGBTQ+ communities, and those of you following sexual health and the city, many of our connections are created online. The online space is often one that favours marginalised communities, or at the least can serve to redistribute power and amplify voices. This is very Donna Haraway-esque: where the lines between real and virtual spaces become blurred, perhaps allowing women (and others!) to subvert some of the embodied restrictions of gender that impact sexuality.

The question for the future really is: will real-life sex, sexuality and bodily needs continue to shape tech, or will tech begin to shape and dictate us?

Resources 

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.vogue.com/article/the-zoom-date-single-life-during-a-pandemic/amp 

Photo credit: Thanks to Randall Bruder for sharing their work on Unsplash.

References 

Mellor, M. (2020). Coronavirus has created a sex toy boom. A baby boom may not follow. Sex Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/coronavirus-pandemic-sex-toys 14/09/2020)

Ramani, M. (2020). The Science of Sex Tech. Dame Magazine Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.damemagazine.com/2020/02/17/the-science-of-sex-tech/amp/ 14/09/2020)

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