From vibrators to sex bots, technology can be a force of sexual liberation, or a tool used to strengthen existing norms and taboos. How might it change what happens behind closed bedroom doors?
February 5, 2024
Why are we here? The simple, biological, and somewhat provocative answer to the ultimate existential question is sex. Something mostly done behind closed doors and drawn curtains. Sex – which occupies so much of public and private imagination, but which we somehow cannot figure out how to properly discuss.
How we have (or don’t have) sex is deeply linked to social and cultural values and norms. The frequency, number of partners, and significance of sex likewise differ across both time periods as well as geographical and cultural borders. Although people have always challenged the boundaries surrounding sex and sexuality, norms and taboos still significantly influence how most of us practice, perceive, and experience sex and intimacy.
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As throughout all human history, technological developments are playing their part in changing this social and cultural reality. The modern sex tech industry, which took its first steps with the emergence of feminist and queer sex shops in the 1970s and 1980s, is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years. A report by the market research firm Grand View Research estimates that the total global sex tech market will become a $100bn market by 2030, driven by the sustained push toward greater convenience, personalisation, and interactivity of sex toys, remote sex interfaces, and sexual wellness platforms. The growing integration of technology in the realm of human sexuality confronts us with the question of what is acceptable both within human-to-human, human-to-robot, and solo sex.
Take the widespread idea that once AI companions and other similar intimacy innovations become sophisticated enough, they could eventually come to replace part of our emotional relationships with other people. Or the notion that we might one day choose to have sex with hyper-advanced sex bots rather than with a human partner. Imaginations of technology encroaching further and further on the most intimate parts of human life are widespread.
Jenna Owsianik, a Canadian sex tech expert and publisher of the adult sex education publication, Sex for Every Body, is not expecting sex technology to cause fundamental changes to human intimacy in the immediate future. But she does believe it will give rise to new questions around norms and taboo behaviour. Sex tech has the potential to allow individuals to learn more about themselves in a safe way, and to experiment and fulfil fantasies without feeling judged, she explains.
“People seek different things, and technology will probably be able to empower more people to learn about themselves and make access to these experiences more equitable,” Owsianik points out.
Technology’s ability to enable more equitable and safe environments for sexual experimentation is something that hasn’t yet gained significant traction in the public consciousness. Neither has the question of how the accessibility of such an environment often depends on a person’s geographical location, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, and many other factors. Instead, when addressing the impacts of emerging sex tech, public imagination tends to focus more on its potential to be a disruptive force in human relationships – sexual as well as emotional.
Media discourse tends to lean sci-fi, with Westworld-esque humanoid sex robots taking up a lot of space. While a future with realistic humanoid robots is certainly not unthinkable, it is not a future that currently seems on the horizon, not least because technological mimicry of human skin, muscles, and movement is currently far from being believably humanlike. And although sudden expansive strides – like we have seen with generative AI in recent years – are not out of the realm of possibility, as Owsianik states, it is likely not coming to fruition anytime soon, for reasons that go beyond the technical challenges associated with them. “You wouldn’t ever look at a sex robot and think that’s a real human. A part of the reason for that is that it is meant to be like a doll. There’s a kind of appeal in that for people,” she explains.
In leaning into the niche and stereotypically ‘futuristic’, media coverage purposely evokes a mixture of fascination and fear in audiences. This points to an interesting tension in how people perceive the possible disruption of social norms and taboos around sex and intimacy. Owsianik elaborates further: “It’s important to realise that social standards for sex, intimacy, and relationships are created. Some people can see technology as a frightening thing. It can be disruptive. However, what it disrupts is not an objective reality, but rather a perceived world.” In other words, just because Western society has attached normative and “natural” values to concepts like monogamy and the nuclear family does not mean that humans have always engaged in or seen that as socially desirable.
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When it comes to those of our sexual desires that go beyond the confounds of these norms, sex tech innovations could be potentially transformative, Owsianik explains. She lays out how some people are using technology to explore behaviour that might otherwise be considered taboo, in a way that allows them to stay within the bounds of monogamy: “Some couples, where one partner has a much higher sex drive than the other are making use of sex dolls, and robots have been brought into relationships where there was an interest in having a threesome, but where the couple was worried about rocking the relationship by bringing in new sex partners.”
This, Owsianik points out, can be a way for couples to simultaneously challenge taboos around human-doll, robot, or multi-partner sex while staying safely inside the normative boundaries of monogamy.
In this way, sex tech is not solely used to challenge taboos and norms. At times, it does the exact opposite, by giving people a way to explore new corners of their sexuality without stepping over certain socially perceived boundaries that exist to either avoid external disapproval or to uphold a certain self-image. It is not difficult to imagine that sex tech could eventually be used to live up to certain social pressures, like having your sexual debut before a specific age or having a certain amount or frequency of sex.
At the same time, Owsianik points out, developments in sex tech also hold the potential to address areas of our sexual life that we consider shameful: “There are innovations in sex tech that focus on premature ejaculation for example, where based on studies and consultations with therapists about how to improve the outcome of climax control, an app and accompanying stroker has been developed to take users through an ejaculatory control program,” she explains.
Technology, sex tech included, is never a value-neutral thing, but rather something that is harnessed by us to fit in with pre-existing social or cultural notions of normal or acceptable behaviour. Sex tech holds both the promise of freer sex, as well as sex free from judgement; but as with every other innovation, that advancement is being shaped by unavoidable biases of humans affected by certain norms.
How technological advancements will impact not only our sex lives and relationships, but also society at large, will largely depend on two things: where investment capital is coming from and what underlying assumptions go into the development of sex tech.
Although there are more female investors than ever before, it can be a challenge to equitable innovation that the venture capital domain is still overwhelmingly occupied by men. The overrepresentation of male investors has perpetuated a skewed distribution of capital, resulting in a bias in the types of projects that receive funding. “Investment firms frequently say they will not invest in sex related technology, and because of perceived reputational risks, certain things are just not being invested in. It’s less likely for sexual health or pleasure products for women, queer people, and minorities to get funding compared to mainstream male heterosexual needs,” Owsianik says.
A similar dynamic is also seen in mainstream porn, which is most often made by and for the male gaze and which features violence, degradation, and a glaring prioritisation of male pleasure – as well as being an industry that frequently exploits sex workers. This has been met by a movement for ethical pornography, born from the feminist movements of the 1970s and 80s, and which has recently grown in popularity. Ethical porn centres fair pay for performers as well as female pleasure, diversity, and consent.
The issues within the porn industry are representative of the bias that also runs through much of the current investment in sex and intimacy innovations. It could even be argued that lack of investment in sexual health, pleasure products, and diverse adult content reflects a broader societal immaturity around sex and a failure to take vital issues such as women’s reproductive health and sexual wellbeing seriously.
Will advancements in sex tech challenge norms and taboos around sex, sexuality, and intimacy and thereby lead to changes in how we practise and perceive sex, or will they more deeply entrench current norms around sexual behaviour? The answer to both is likely to be yes. Looking further ahead, there are broader structures around accessibility, investment, and decision-making power in future sex tech innovations that are restricting whose interests are being represented. Innovation is anything but objective – recognising and addressing this would go far towards ensuring that the positive sides of sex tech innovation come fully to fruition.
This is an article from FARSIGHT: Tomorrow’s Day Off