Women are starting to understand themselves and their bodies a lot more, thanks in part to the internet.
Today, emerging opportunities in “sexual technology” are already making dating and hook-up apps look like yesterday’s news. While sex tech may sound like a niche industry, it’s already valued at more than $30 billion. Last year, Bryony Cole launched the Future of Sex podcast to explore how sex tech is affecting intimacy, connection and relationships.
Below, Cole discusses ethical issues and the role of women’s sexuality in the coming sexual technology revolution. For more on the future of women, download our 2016 trend report Women, Next.
Can you give a brief background on how The Future of Sex podcast started, and why?
I was researching the future of nightlife when I stumbled upon this word: sextech. What does the future of nightlife look like if you incorporate technology like VR? What struck me was that there were these guys who were creating [VR sex] in their garage, like out of a sci-fi movie, with the intention that they’ll never have to leave their couch again. You can just put on a VR headset and immediately be in a hot tub with three supermodels, and truly feel like you’re there.
At the time I thought, “What’s going to happen when that’s mainstream?” How will we navigate relationships? How will we navigate infidelity? So I decided to do a new project, “The Future of Sex.” I interviewed futurists like Ross Dawson about this combination of sexuality and technology, beyond just VR porn. There’s a whole umbrella of sexuality from health to pleasure to education, where some of the most interesting applications are.
Looking at all the different technologies that fall under this futuristic umbrella, whether that’s AI, VR, sex toys or remote connection—or even things like Skype—I thought, “Wow, I’ve uncovered quite a large map. Why isn’t anyone else talking about the ethics behind what we’re creating and the products that we’re investing in?” Because this is going to impact us all. If we think relationships are hard now, let’s try navigating them in five years when we have all this new technology that we have to grapple with.
Are brands beginning to grapple with the ethical questions around some of these issues?
The pattern has been to create the technology now and figure it out later. I think people are now starting to ask questions about how we navigate technology and relationships. But who’s going to be the governing body? When we think about the Wild West that technology is, it’s so easy to create it ourselves and get initial concepts up and running. Who’s the person that says, “No, I’m sorry, this sex robot isn’t right. But this one is.” It’s such a complex, complicated industry.
The flip side is companies like Facebook or PayPal that are making it really hard to even get a sex tech business up and running. There are some cultures where those businesses are considered totally illegitimate, whether it’s vibrator companies or sex toy subscription boxes. Anything focused on female pleasure or menstruation quite often gets banned from Facebook. So there’s definitely attention there around who is creating the rules, who’s asking the ethical questions, and who is answering them, which is the crux of the podcast.
On your site, you write that “technology is forming its own middle space in sexuality.” Can you explain what that means?
If you think about the act of sex, we have at one end of the spectrum physical sex with someone else. At the other end of the spectrum is solo acts. In between this, what’s emerging is a range of various interactive sexual experiences that technology has facilitated. Originally we had the screen, but now we have added components. The interactive video, or teledildonics, for example. The long-distance sex toys that are controlled over Bluetooth connection, and you pass that control to someone else.
We’ve never had that interactivity before when we’re by ourselves, because someone always stays behind the screen. Suddenly we’re moving towards this space at the other end of the spectrum, where we are having an interaction with someone else. Immersive VR is another example of that. If you are interacting with someone and they’re controlling parts of your pleasure, what’s happening? Are we blurring the lines between ourselves and others? That is where technology comes into that middle space, and that space is really up for negotiation. Is this cheating? Is this actually a relationship if it’s just in a virtual world? All of that will come out of this middle space.
Does something like Tinder fit into that space?
What we are seeing now is the dating apps connected to vibrators or teledildonics. That, to me, is a middle space, and I think we will see a lot more of it. People are no more than just a screen away. If you look at sites like Cam Soda, they’re using things like teledildonics to create a really intimate show that now you feel. It’s like that other sense beyond sex. You are actually feeling that person, even though they’re not in the room with you. It’s so intimate. An intimate experience is usually reserved for a partner or lover, but now you can have it with anyone.
An area of focus for you is bringing more women into the realm of sex tech. Why is the sex tech industry at large shifting to be more female-focused?
It’s a mark of the culture we are in. Women are starting to understand themselves and their bodies a lot more, thanks in part to the internet, which has become a safe space to talk about these things. It’s enabled women to go out and say “Hey, I can create this.” Cindy Gallop [of MakeLoveNotPorn] has been a pioneer in breaking down those boundaries. Creating a language around femtech and “vagina-nomics” really helped to make this a bigger focus.
You see that as well in the unapologetic tone of marketing towards health and pioneering brands like Thinx and Clue, the fertility app. Just taking the shame out of female menstruation and sexuality has really changed the focus. This extended to sex tech brands, and now you see brands like Unbound Box or Dame Products, who take a very feminist approach in their content and their approach to marketing.
Underneath all of that is this great stuff around how this has actually changed the technology. From the way it looks, where if you set it on a coffee table it looks amazing, or the Crave necklaces where you’re wearing a vibrator on your neck but somehow that’s acceptable because it looks funky and cool, to the actual thoughtful design process and consulting a lot of women before making this.
Perhaps it’s more about having permission to explore theses things. And there are more women who are more vocal, there’s more Cindy Gallops and Esther Perels. There’s the younger [Unbound Box founder] Polly Rodriguez, and [Dame Products founders] Janet Lieberman and Alex Fine coming up the ranks the more acceptable it becomes. And then the language that you guys are putting together also really helps.
How do you do you square the new movement of sex tech and untabooing women’s sexuality with a strong US tradition of not wanting to discuss these topics?
What’s interesting that’s happening at the moment is that a lot of European companies are asking me to come and speak about sex tech, much more that the US. I think the US is still very shy about it, and so these events that I hold are very intimate spaces where people can feel safe. The Women of Sex Tech has been such an incredible community to be a part of because it really is about supporting one another. It doesn’t matter if you have what we consider a competitive product in the market, because the category itself has to move forward and become more acceptable before any of the products can move.
Do you have any favorite examples of sex tech that are out right now?
One of my favorite stories surprises me most and challenges my views about sexuality and technology, and I love that. I spoke to the founders behind the dolls: Matt McMullen of Real Dolls and Douglas Hines of TrueCompanion. They really changed my mind about the concept of dolls and who buys them. My perception was, like many people, “These are creepy, weird things to exist.” But for many people that have been through sexual trauma, a companion doll can be truly healing. I’ve heard about people who suffer from cerebral palsy making requests because they really miss being with someone, to people that have been through severe sexual trauma and can’t relate to another human. And of course the aging population, and realizing that this sort of technology can potentially enhance their lives. We’re seeing it already outside of sex tech with Paro, the seal in nursing homes that can treat Alzheimer’s and provide that sort of comfort for people.
I think also people will be using sex dolls for sex, and there will be creepy sort of stuff out there. But that’s not up to the technology; that’s up to us. Understanding that there are other populations that truly need this and that it enhances their life in a really positive way is eye-opening.
Does technology fundamentally change the way sex operates? Or does it bring out natural or underlying dynamics?
I think it brings out the underlying dynamics. Thinking back to the guy I spoke to that wants to develop the VR app, these three women in a hot tub. That’s companionship, and people want an efficient way to be intimate. But the technology without the thought is often about making intimacy more efficient, which you literally can’t do. I don’t think that it’s the fault of technology, but of course it will bring out all these different facets of ourselves. We can’t escape that, or the capacity to improve our lives, and the lives of our partners.