Are we keeping Sex Tech human?
The Sexual Technology (sex tech) industry is currently worth $30bn a year with an annual accelerating rate of 30 per cent, according to reports from Forbes. That’s a lot of sex tech. But as our world becomes more focused on Internet of Things (IoT) and less on human interaction, can we make the assumption that sex tech will be a wedge in how we meet, interact, experience pleasure and maintain relationships?
Let’s start with pleasure. Self-pleasure, that is. With the sex toy industry experiencing a continued boom due to destigmatisation and a determination to feel pleasure regardless of genital make-up, the global market is set to increase in revenue by almost $10bn. This is where we are used to hearing about sex tech. In this instance, we are talking about people taking control of their own desires and exploring their unique needs and wants.
Leaders and entrepreneurs in the sex positivity industry today talk about the importance of getting to know your body and reaching climax yourself, before exploring and explaining what it is that you need from a partner. This is further evidenced in findings from the ‘father’ of sexual revolution, Alfred Kinsey, whose research showed that women who had not had an orgasm or enjoyed masturbation were much less likely to reach the big ‘O’ with a partner.
It takes two
So let’s talk about sexual partners. In a more recent academic study looking at ‘The Role of Masturbation in Marital and Sexual Satisfaction: A Comparative Study of Female Masturbators and Nonmasturbators’ an outcome indicated that ‘masturbators had significantly more orgasms, greater sexual desire, higher self esteem, and greater marital and sexual satisfaction, and required less time to sexual arousal.’ In this case, sex toys become a tool to not fill a lonely night but to enhance and improve sexual relations with a partner.
How someone reaches orgasm has become a business, and sex tech is answering this human need. This is where the sex tech industry has come into its own by being able to ignite new exploration as you expand on your own sexual desires with someone and help to understand their desires.
The business of pleasure
Sex tech has answered such needs and enhanced experiences not only for atypical humans but also for people who may not have been able to experience arousal due to an impairment, condition or from cultural constraints. It opens up a whole world of pleasure based on our basic human need and in that example, creates stronger human experiences.
Remote controlled vibrators, or toys that are activated over wifi, over Bluetooth, or by music allow people to have new and explorative situations, for a much wider audience than traditional toys such as dildos may have provided. There is definitely a human need and even a requirement for this technological advance.
In these cases, we’re talking about ‘Teledildonics,’ which offer the chance to bring people together. From long distance relationships to reaching an orgasm in a way that could be physically challenging or in the throes of passion, technology can enhance these experiences in many ways. For this, I and many others thank it for the service.
A line in the sand
With clear benefits to both our personal and partnered experiences, it’s clear to see why the industry is in such a boom. As with all technological advances, however, we must consider how sex tech can be used against these very human and personal needs. When does technology cross the line? It’s the ever poignant question around artificial intelligence, sparking fears that robots might take over the world.
It’s important to ask this question, as forms of virtuality in sex are already emerging.
One example is Japan’s virtual girlfriends, the dating ‘sim’ created for Nintendo’s LovePlus users. Released in 2009, it has been a space for modern Japanese men who are more inclined to form genuine emotions and feelings for something that exists in a virtual world.
One quote from an interview with Time magazine in 2015 highlights the vulnerability and need for human interaction we all have. It shows how – for some – virtual relationships are replacing intimacy, and that this need not necessarily be sexual but also can reflect a deeper, emotional level. In the interview, someone who has maintained a 5 year long virtual relationship states “Well, you know all I want is someone to say good morning to in the morning and someone to say goodnight to at night.” This demonstrates real human needs which technology is providing an answer for.
The human touch
Can we make the assumption, however, that by introducing virtual answers to our desires, we are removing our basic instincts to have sex and reproduce? Does this remove our humanity?
There is absolutely a place for sex tech, for Virtual Reality porn, for cam girls and for Teledildonics, but how do we know where the line is?
The darker side of Teledildonics is demonstrated by a combination of VR and sex dolls. In this case, a paying customer receives both a VR headset and either a male sex toy, flashlight or sex doll that can imitate the feeling of real sex whilst the customer views the ‘cam girl’ through VR. Although this is technically a human to human experience, unlike a virtual girlfriend which provides more emotional connections, it still removes the touch and the feeling that we crave as social, feeling creatures.
As these forms of AI and VR become more attainable, and more accessible, we can’t let the sex tech industry fall beneath the radar. It has been proven and is encouraged by the NHS that sex and intimacy improves our mental and physical health due to the endorphins released and the way that our body reacts to human contact. Even just embracing someone special can lower blood pressure. With this in mind, we need to consider how removing this human to human interaction can impact not just sexual culture but more importantly, our own physical health.
How we regulate this industry falls more to ethical accountability than to legality. We should be allowed to explore our sexuality in whatever way we feel suits us but these businesses should not take advantage of our sexual discoveries.
As we have seen, there are extreme consequences to culture, health and wellbeing globally. The decisions we make in designing, funding and using sexual technology will define our future in an internet of things world and how we belong as humans designed to have sex.
Alex is speaking at this year’s Ada’s List Conference in London on 9th November 2019.
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