Can tech empower female sexuality?

// 23 December 2016

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Can tech empower female sexuality?

Technophobia is no longer the stuff of science fiction. There are very real discussions going on now that caution developments in AI and smart tech, and with them come safety and ethical concerns about the ubiquity of data. How are the banal details of our lives (Monday night’s groceries include a dry packet of pasta and parmesan cheese) being stored for a rainy day? Will this digital sketch of my movements one day threaten my ownership over my analogue, offline life? Will robots rise up and take my job?

Technology is also raising concerns in an industry we tend to leave out of these conversations: sex.

With the potential to revolutionise the way we experience, think about and identify with sex, developments in sex tech are certainly both parts astounding and terrifying.

For women, this conversation is particularly fraught. There already exists a myriad of patriarchal power structures that impact various experiences and narratives concerning sex — remember those Hollywood tropes that tell us that female sexual pleasure is completely and directly a factor of how “good” the man is? Plus those pesky archetypes that draw out ideas of women as sexually submissive and men as competitive and dominant.

Can sex tech change any of that or will it serve only to enforce these divisions?

Much sex tech has the obvious goal of enhancing sexual sensation. This develops and normalises a certain perception of what sex is.

For one, there’s the fear that hyper-real pleasure will eclipse that one imagines they can get from another person. Meet Piu: called the world’s most luxurious and sophisticated male vibrator, it offers its user a choice of 30 vibration patterns and comes with an app that you can sync to certain adult films so that the vibrations play in time with it.

This is a frightening new frontier for interactive cinema, especially when we consider how far away from real sex the experience is. Thirty vibration patterns on cue? There’s no sexual organ on earth capable of doing that. Can we safely say this experience won’t blur over into attitudes of entitlement and expectation when being intimate with a partner?

Roxxxy — yes, really — is a sex robot whose “body” has uniquely configured sensors that mimic a heartbeat and circulatory system. You can program her personality to let your innermost fantasies play out. For a mere £635, one can own a physical caricature of patriarchal sexual pleasure! Roxxxy represents perhaps the darkest corner of sex tech innovation: consider the possibility of enabling sexual violence to something that looks and feels just like a woman.

With more tools than ever that allow us to create and enact new types of fantasy, it’s not beyond reason that one could create and exist within a kind of sexual bubble based on artificial sensations.

Here, Robert Weiss, co-author of Closer Together, Further Apart, offers a word of caution:

As technology increases people’s ability to access intensely stimulating sexual imagery, therapists worldwide are witnessing an increase in the number of people walking into their offices seeking help with out-of-control sexual behavior

Using this technology to push boundaries threatens to dismiss the true and carnal nature of sex. If sex is no longer the ultimate human act — when we are at our most vulnerable and enacting the most intimate of our instincts — how do we identify with it?

Female sexuality is, and historically has been, very much a taboo. Masturbation is something dirty; there is still marked and widespread confusion surrounding female ejaculation. Women can see the by-the-minute humidity levels in a tiny town in northern Siberia at the touch of a button yet lack fundamental information about how their bodies work.

But it’s not all bad news. Promising work is being done to challenge traditional sexual and gender roles.

HappyPlayTime is a sex education gaming app that works to eliminate the stigma around female masturbation. JimmyJane’s fingertip vibrator focuses on clitoral sensation, which shouts loud and proud that there is much more to sex than penetration. Both work to liberate and celebrate female sexuality, giving women more control over the way they understand and express sexual pleasure. And there are many more initiatives like these out there.

These technologies are tackling stigma and shame by normalising the conversation. Just have a read of the reviews of OMGYes, an education website dedicated to female sexuality, to see what I mean.

Developments in sex tech bring a lot of concerns to the table but, crucially, are paving new ground for female sexuality. With education and attention given to topics previously swept under the rug comes confidence. And with the internet comes the ability to broadcast, rally and share resources.

There is still loads of work to do before women can enjoy the same degree of sexual privilege, safety and freedom as men. But, all things considered, sex tech offers the women’s movement plenty to be excited about.

Image from Pexels, used with Creative Commons Zero licence.

Image is a close-up of a woman’s smile. She has thick, wavy dark hair that spills slightly over her face.

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