Teching Sex Up a Notch
Rule 34 of the internet: If it exists or can be imagined, there is porn of it 1. The spectrum of human kink is incredibly vast, and, with the old adage that ‘sex sells’, it stands to reason that new technologies could have much to gain from tapping into this. In fact, the Sextech market is currently estimated at $30 billion per year – with industry leaders claiming it could be much higher if investor stigma did not prevent them from supporting such innovations 2. And that stigma extends to the general public too. The Sun’s coverage of Sextech has been profoundly negative, with headlines such as; “Brit women risk being REPLACED for sex by robots if MPs don’t act, campaigners warn”, and; “Robotic dildo sparks chaos as organisers BAN ‘immoral’ sex toy after it won
If you think Sextech is all robots and fancy vibrators, then think again (though I will get to that later). In 2017, America’s first Sex Hackathon was held in New York: a day-long event designed to bring together sex experts, entrepreneurs, coders, designers, and others, giving them the opportunity to collaborate and develop novel sexual technology 3.
The winners, Spinucation, pitched a sex education toy and app to help parents converse with their children about the potentially awkward topic. The game design is based on ‘spin the bottle’ (hence the name: spin + education), which picks participants to answer sex-related questions and facilitate a dialogue between players. A stroke of brilliance is that it uses AI to bring up current news stories about sex 4. This means that families can have an open discussion about topical issues that children may otherwise hear about in the school playground.
Other teams came up with similarly constructive ideas, such as helping to improve sexual relationships between couples and a sex education tool which makes use of virtual reality. The output from this event illustrates the reach Sextech can have; it is not just about maximising pleasure, but it can also play a role in promoting healthy sexual behaviours and, beyond this, it may even help to protect sex workers.
Protecting Sex Workers
Whatever your views are of sex work, it is a reality for many. 11% of men surveyed by the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (or Natsal) report that they have paid for sex at least once in their lifetime 5. While legalising this line of work may remain a controversial topic, it is fair to say that many people would support measures to make things safer for the people working in this industry. The Netflix Documentary, ‘Escorts’, follows two female sex workers living in London. Instead of relying on a pimp for setting up their appointments, they use an app, Adultwork, to connect to clients. The app has an Uber-like functionality in that clients are rated and verified, making things safer for the women. Similarly, the Australian app, Rendevu, asks clients for credit card information and ID to verify them. It then tracks appointments in real-time and erases everything afterwards to maintain privacy while also ensuring safety 6. In these instances, the sex workers are given autonomy; they have more freedom to choose when they work, which clients they take on, and they do not have to give up a large proportion of their earnings to an exploitative middle-man.
However, recent legislative changes in the US may be putting a stop to this and, inadvertently, putting sex workers in danger. In early 2018, the “fight online sex trafficking act” and the “stop enabling sex traffickers act” (or FOSTA-SESTA) was passed in order to prevent websites from being used as platforms for sex trafficking. While this is crucially important to help protect victims, it may not be an effective way of stopping sex traffickers, who are likely to find other means of operating through underground networks. It may also push sex workers back into hazardous territory. Without internet advertising, they may be more likely to turn to street work, which is notoriously dangerous as clients cannot be vetted, or they may come to rely on pimps. Research has found that whenever online advertising for escorting was added to a new US city via Craigslist, female homicide rates reduced by an average of 17% – and note, this rate does not only apply to sex workers – knock-on effects mean that the overall rate of femicide is reduced
7(original study can be found here
8). FOSTA-SESTA, while well-intentioned, risks undoing this.
This is not the only tech development changing the sex work industry. In Barcelona, Europe’s first Robot Brothel has opened up. And, as you may imagine, this brings with it a new realm of ethical quandary. Should robo-prostitution be legal in countries where human-prostitution is not? If your partner slept with a sexbot in a brothel, would you feel they had betrayed your trust? Or is it impossible for a non-sentient object to become a genuine paramour?
Sexbot vs Biowife
Some of these ethical questions arise from the brand new territory we find ourselves in. People eye this with suspicion – it’s seen as dysfunctional for a person to idealise sex with what is essentially a passive object. For its part, the brothel, ‘Lumidolls’, does not encourage dangerous sexual behaviours. None of the dolls
This all comes at a time when unhealthy sexual attitudes are blossoming on the internet: with alt-right groups railing against mainstream feminism and reddit forums rejecting women – or as they call them, ‘biowives’ – in favour of dolls. In another example of ‘why we can’t have nice things’, it’s interesting to note that the incel (or involuntary celibate) movement began with one woman looking to create a ‘self-help’ group for people who were unlucky in love. It has since morphed into a toxic group who share their resentment toward women and who celebrate acts of violence
10. Are dolls an extension of the apparent rise in these dangerous attitudes, or do we need to dig down into sexual psychology and look at the societal reasons that these groups exist? Sexbots are maybe not a result of this, but rather a new way to explore sexuality that has been caught in the crossfire.
The Orgasm Gap
Some sexbot champions argue that they are no different to vibrators11. I’d hazard that the reason vibrators are seen as more acceptable is that they do not aim to replace sexual partners – indeed, many are intended for couples to use together. And most do not aim to look life-like – they are often brightly coloured, and even varieties that are phallic in nature could rarely be mistaken for a disembodied penis. Vibrators have an important role beyond this: in closing the orgasm gap.
Sextech is largely a female-led endeavour. This isn’t surprising when you consider that vibrators largely function to stimulate its user to orgasm, and women having heterosexual sex only reach orgasm 63% of the time (vs. 85% for men) 12.
Despite this, there is still stigma to overcome. The Sun headline I highlighted earlier made reference to the Consumer Electrical Show (CES) this year, which was criticised after its decision to ban an award-winning sex-gadget, claiming it was ‘obscene’ and would not fit into the show. While this may not quite have ‘sparked chaos’ as The Sun asserted, it did open up a debate about gender bias by the show-runners, as a sex-robot and a VR porn room had showcased the year previously, suggesting that sex toys are only obscene if they target female audiences
The Sextech Future
We still have a way to go before Sextech can be entirely destigmatized. Investors have previously written sex off entirely, lumping it in with gambling and drugs as a taboo to be avoided. This has gradually started to shift. Sextech can bring about important conversations about sex, improve safety, and encourage sexual equity. There are huge positives that can come from this and new ethical challenges that need to be navigated; though I’d argue that the debate evolving around the introduction of sexbots ties into deeper issues that we, as a society, need to explore, regardless of the tech. While it may take time before Sextech shakes its seedy status from society at large, I’ve personally matured to a place where I can use an electric toothbrush again without fear of retribution. Though I did make sure not to do any of the research for this article on a university computer. One step at a time, eh?
This article was specialist edited by Katrina Wesencraft and copy-edited by Sonya Frazier.
- Check out this short documentary to hear more about Lumidolls and Sergei Santos https://video.vice.com/en_uk/video/vice-europes-first-sex-doll-brothel/5a14155f177dd46fc1240669
- This episode of the podcast Reply All gives a brief history of the Incel movement https://www.gimletmedia.com/reply-all/120-invcel#episode-player