We built the internet, we got online porn. We invented haptic engines that can automatically convey a remote sense of touch, we got teledildonics.
Technological advances and the shifting of sexual boundaries are intertwined, and this is the world Bryony Cole tackles on her podcast, Future of Sex.
After a career in technology, including a stint at Microsoft, she was fascinated by the way digital platforms were entering the bedroom. “I made it my mission to uncover what the hell was going to happen to our intimate lives,” she laughed. And why not in audio-form?
Since October, she’s spoken to industry leaders including Stephanie Alys, the excellently-titled chief pleasure officer at toy company, Mystery Vibe, as well as Cindy Gallop, creator of the site Make Love Not Porn, which shares videos of real people having sex.
In Brisbane, Australia, to address the Myriad startup festival (her speech was unfortunately rained out by Cyclone Debbie), Cole argued there’s an enormous opportunity for women to take the lead in sex tech, and to move away from male-focused porn and cheaply manufactured intimate products.
“Finally, we’re talking about female sexual health and female pleasure where we’ve never really done it before,” she said. “We have examples of vibrators that match to erotic literature on your iPad, or we have vibrators that look like beautiful necklaces or pieces that could be in a gallery.
“There’s a real focus on beautiful high-end design, but also the emphasis on research and engineering that never really was going into things like sex toys before.”
Take Dame Products, which launched its Fin vibrator on Kickstarter in 2016. Founded by Alexandra Fine and Janet Lieberman, with backgrounds in sexual health and engineering respectively, the pair create small, elegant products with a focus on female pleasure.
Still, there’s work to be done. Virtual reality porn, Cole argued, is still mostly shot from the male angle. “There’s probably just a handful that exist from a female point of view. It’s not quite there yet,” she said.
Despite this gap in the market, Cole is particularly excited about the role VR can play in sex education. She pointed to BaDoink VR and one of its popular pieces of content, a program called Virtual Sexology. Developed with the help of marriage therapist Hernando Chaves, it’s intended to help users learn bedroom skills as well as relaxation and confidence.
“You see VR being used for education in science and history already, so it makes sense that it would move over to sex education,” Cole added. “It’s nothing to do with the porn category, but people are hungry for information.”
Despite the innovation and openness, Cole admitted some sex tech ideas remain partially taboo. There are plenty of questions to be asked about lab-grown genitals, for example, and while robot sex and sex dolls are themes explored by TV shows like Westworld, they’re not the distant fantasy the Hollywood treatment may present them as.
In a Mar. 29 podcast episode, Cole spoke to the creator of RealDoll, Matt McMullen, whose company offers customised companions with highly realistic genitalia.
McMullen said his team are working on adding artificial intelligence to the dolls, a development that could see the dolls, mostly cast as female, become quasi-intelligent beings built for sex.
“What we’re doing is developing an app that will allow a user to create a custom personality profile for an artificial intelligence,” he said on the show. “The AI can be connected to the robotic components we’re going to be introducing to the doll, including animated head, facial expressions, eye movement … face tracking, facial recognition.”
While the basis of the AI is “really rather genderless,” he admitted the introductory version will likely be female, as most of its dolls are sold as women.
If this makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. As sex tech develops, the industry will have to ask if sexism and racism, not mention invasive corporate practices, are being hardwired into the algorithms and robotics that govern our most intimate moments. After all, internet-connected vibrators have already been caught and fined for data-mining users.
That’s where Cole hopes the Future of Sex will come in — to help you make sense of these sexual frontiers. As the podcast says, “Real talk. No b*******. That’s the future of sex.”