Sex blankets. Contraception apps. Sex robots. Vibrators. These technologies and others like them have dominated the recent news cycle in many quarters. It seems that in 2018, we are experiencing a summer of sextech! But why?
In part, I think it is the breakdown of taboos. For a very long time, it was difficult to discuss sex honestly and openly, and there is undoubtedly still much work to be done in this regard. But a confluence of forces seems to have opened up new possibilities for exploring pleasure and desire. Part of this is the rise in better research on matters of sex, especially led by trailblazing female researchers. There is also the #MeToo movement, which has catalyzed publicly some of the worst aspects of our traditional, misogynistic sex culture, opening up space for new thinking and healing. Finally, we are simply allowing more people to be participants in public discourse around sex.
I think that sextech has emerged alongside these trends because, at its best, it is a crucial tool in facilitating the new more expansive and diverse intimacies our culture is seeking. To explore these ideas further, I turned to Bryony Cole, one of the experts I had previously interviewed while researching my new book, UNTRUE: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us Free.
Cole, a leading voice in the burgeoning sextech field, is the creator of Future of Sex, an acclaimed and very popular podcast on sex and technology. She is also a prolific speaker and activist in the sextech space. Our conversation, lightly edited, follows:
Something you've said is, "It's a beautiful thing to put tech on the end of sex because it gives us permission to talk about sex and normalize the conversation." Could you elaborate? What sorts of conversations about sex and sexuality have you seen sextech opening up?
The mainstream interest around sextech, I believe, is because when you put “tech” on the end of “sextech," you suddenly have permission to talk about sex. There is no other way to get sex on a global technology conference agendas! While of course, I talk about the future and technology, it is largely our desire (and simultaneous inability) to talk about sex that drives the whole conversation. So sextech has opened up fantastic conversations around health, education, assault reporting, and intimacy while exploring how emerging technology may help to solve some issues in these categories.
Simply put, it doesn’t feel as ‘scary’ to talk about sex when it is followed by tech.
Do you think sextech has a particular value for women? If so, what is it and how do you think we can best tap into its potential?
Sextech has been remarkable in opening up awareness, and increasing access to education, around women’s bodies and their sexual pleasure. A great example is OMGYes, an interactive sexual education platform. Prior to OMGYes’ study in 2016 on women’s sexual pleasure and how they bring themselves to orgasm, no study had been done on the specifics of women’s pleasure. The study took 2,000 women, ages 18 to 95, as well as the latest science on sexuality to reveal different techniques for masturbation and gave names to them. These were techniques that never had language around them before.
2017 was crowned the year of ‘vaginanomics,’ a mash-up of the words vagina and economics, by JWT Intelligence Agency because there had never been a time where more products catered towards vaginas were available, from kegel apps to wearables for painful sex to crystal dildos and natural salves promoting vaginal health, sextech for women runs the spectrum of sexuality, from pleasure to preventative health care.
What can the industry do to better involve women professionally—hiring them, promoting them to leadership, and publicizing their work?
Men can take action with women through listening, promoting, sharing a seat at the table, and ensuring there is equality and diversity on panels and public platforms...and of course paying women equitably.
The sextech industry is particularly brutal because of the hurdles you face that other entrepreneurs don’t. For instance, simple tasks that should be easy to start a business, from securing a payment platform to advertising on social media, are huge barriers largely due to morality clauses and outdated perceptions of what the sex(tech) industry is.
Because the hurdles are higher in the industry and women generally tend to underestimate themselves and keep out of positions of power, sextech needs the strength of women in numbers. Often the case is with lateral networks rather than finding a mentor.
I’ve been passionate about these sorts of alternative mentoring structures for a while now which is why I started hosting Future of Sex hackathons and events, creating a container of safe space for people that want to get into the industry.
Networks like the Women of Sex Tech are where I have found many close allies and collaborators. If you are interested in a career in sextech I strongly recommend you join Women of Sextech and research the Future of Sex accelerator program (and apply if it is for you!).
What are common blindspots or misconceptions you hear when people discuss sextech?
Sex tech will allow us to experience, express, and understand our sexuality in ways we never thought possible. The impact it has on our lives goes beyond the obvious; virtual reality porn, robots, and vibrators. These are the predominant headlines that appear when we talk about sextech, however, the category goes far beyond pleasure.
Sextech is defined as any technology designed to enhance sexuality.
Some major sources of innovation are happening in sex education with VR and chatbots. The assault reporting and #MeToo movement are being bolstered by technologies from simple reporting tools and social media. We need to be talking about all areas of sexuality when we talk about sextech — gender identity, crime and violence reporting, medicine, health, empowerment, the list goes on.
What's an area of sextech that's new or barely developed but that excites you about the future of the space?
Access to other groups to define the future of the industry is the most exciting development of the year. The sextech hackathons we run at Future of Sex empower minorities — groups that are largely seen as invisible when it comes to sex — whether that is people with disabilities, the aging population or women, to gain access to technology and mentorship so they may offer their own insights and build products that serve their own needs.
Our next hackathon is in New York August 24-26 and we are already seeing some challenges being put forth about using technology to help with long distance-relationships, pleasure for those with hearing difficulties, and how to re-think STI prevention and protection. Previous hackathons in Australia and Asia have produced voice-activated vibrators, telehealth platforms for exchange students, and foreplay wearables for remote couples.
I’m very excited to see how new entrepreneurs from less predictable backgrounds in technology can help define the future.
About Future of Sex
FutureOfSex.org is the sextech intelligence platform catalyzing trends through immersive events, exploratory labs, and innovative media.
Launched in 2016, Future of Sex is the leading authority in the modern sex-positive movement. We are pioneering:
Sex-positive thought leadership: analyzing and contextualizing trends, emerging technology, business models and innovation in human sexuality, sextech, and femtech.
Immersive events: we work across media formats - from live events to podcasts, webinars, and salons to whitepapers, articles, and reviews to shift the cultural conversation around sex
Hackathons and sextech accelerators: catalyzing the next generation of sextech entrepreneurs, our global hackathon program unearths the best new sextech business leaders, technologists, and designers and brings them to global markets through our sextech accelerator program
Exploratory labs: our sextech labs afford forward-thinking brands a safe space to experiment, develop world-class products, and create new markets.
About Bryony Cole
Bryony Cole is the world’s leading authority on sextech. Since launching the top-rated podcast, Future of Sex, Bryony has been on stages across the world, defining the direction of sextech for governments, technology, and entertainment companies. Her wide body of research and annual Future of Sex report are considered the lead in industry insights.
Bryony is an international speaker, published writer, and producer, who has been featured on shows like Viceland and Technopia, and articles in Wired, TechCrunch, The New York Times, Playboy, Mashable, Motherboard, ABC, Financial Review, Brides, Glamour, and many other global media.
Recent stage engagements include Founders Forum (UK) TEDx (Romania), Open Innovation Forum (Russia) and Tech Open Air (Germany) and Login Festival (Lithuania).