For many of us, 2020 has been a year lived online. That includes our sex lives.
As stay-at-home orders followed the spread of COVID-19 around the globe, we turned to our devices. Work and play have been carried out over Zoom, while the sex work industry also went digital. Technology has reshaped every element of our lives, even the alone times. According to a new study released by sex toy company We-Vibe, 28 percent of the 1,000 participants that they asked about their robotic sexual preferences admitted being aroused by their Amazon Alexa.
It can seem like a shocking number, until you consider the context: Male respondents claimed that the smart speaker helped keep lockdown loneliness at bay, turning to the female voice for companionship and to create a sense of intimacy.
The intertwining of technology and sexuality is nothing new. Online pornography is estimated to be worth as much as $97 billion a year, and electric vibrators have been around since the 1800s, albeit in a much less sophisticated form than we are familiar with today. Dating apps are now by far the most popular way to meet a partner, and many sex workers now provide online services via webcam. The boundaries between technology and sexuality are blurring, and lockdown sparked a significant shift for some as real-life interaction was taken off the table.
“Most people have a need for intimate connection, and this doesn’t go away during a pandemic,” says Amanda Gesselman, an Associate Director of Research at the Kinsey Institute who focuses on how technology can facilitate meaningful connections. “I think that people are actually learning how to adapt technology to their needs, even though this is a situation that we’ve never really been in before… Technology is providing a safe route to getting our intimate needs fulfilled, and we’re seeing people ‘lean in’ to it.”
For most people, the use of technology for sexual gratification is more tied to apps such as Tinder or online pornography than their smart speaker. But being turned on by technology is nothing new. The idea of technosexuality—defined as being turned on by machinery —has long been hyperbolized in science-fiction and pornography. And as technology developers have increasingly pushed the boundaries of how sex tech interacts with our intimate experiences, the idea of technosexuality has moved from a niche concept to a more realistic prospect.
Companies creating sex robots have attracted much attention in recent years, with new designs that can even hold conversations hinting at a desire amongst consumers to have a more personal relationship with their robotic romantic partners.
Sex robots are an extreme example of technology harnessed for sexual gratification, and their price tag, ethical concerns and the taboos that surround them mean that they still cater to a relatively small consumer pool. Yet aspects of the sex tech industry look set to go much more mainstream. Sex toys incorporating artificial intelligence are now being developed, with designers exploring everything from voice-controlled vibrators to apps that track your orgasms and train your toy to provide a more personalized and optimized experience. Virtual reality porn is also increasing in popularity and profit, with an estimated 60 percent of the top virtual reality websites now porn sites.
With so many new ways to incorporate the latest technology into our sex lives, technosexuality is no longer the reserve of fetishists. In fact, technology has the potential to become an integral part of our intimate interactions.
“The stigmas around the use of technology for sex and relationships have really started to collapse,” explains Neil McArthur, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manitoba and editor of Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications. “I have speculated that we are starting to see the emergence of ‘digisexuals,’ people who see technology as essential to their sexual identity… Sex toys are becoming more sophisticated, better designed and generally more fun, and we are also seeing the emergence of immersive technologies such as virtual reality, teledildonics and sex robots.”
There are clear advantages to the introduction of technology to our sex lives. Access to safe sexual experiences in times of isolation can be a lifeline for some, or simply an exciting way to experiment with new gadgets for others. As research suggests that we are living through not just a public health crisis but a loneliness epidemic, the ability to interact with others and have intimate experiences using technology responds to a clear need. Yet the extent that technology should be part of our sexual identity is still hotly contested.
“On balance, these technologies are positive for people, and they’ve been crucial for many of us in the last six months,” says McArthur. “But there are concerns. We don’t want these technologies to increase people’s isolation, especially in the midst of the pandemic. There are also concerns about access. We’ve talked a lot about inequalities in access to education that have arisen during COVID, but we’ve talked less about inequalities in access to intimacy. The two spring from the same causes, and impact different demographic groups differently.”
For some experts, concerns about technology and sexuality are even more pronounced. Kathleen Richardson is a Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI. After becoming concerned about the effect that new technologies can have on human relations she founded the Campaign Against Sex Robots, which argues that the development of sex robots could reduce human empathy. She also worries that an overreliance on digital devices for social and sexual interaction could lead to the objectification of women, and exposure to extreme sexual behaviors.
“Sociologically speaking, younger people were already engaging in less face to face interaction, but now they are being pushed to connect with others exclusively online,” she says. “Allowing porn to stream directly to users or people striking up interactions online has significantly altered how sex and sexuality is mediated and practiced in society and has led to a proliferation of harmful sexual practices… sex and sexuality has always been mediated by social and cultural mores, however what has changed is the amount of external influences shaping sex and sexuality today.”
So could we eventually live in a world where online intimacy overtakes real-life love? Where sex robots are our closest companions, and all of our interactions are struck up from behind a screen? And if we did, would the reality be as bad as Richardson fears? According to Kate Devlin, a Lecturer in Social and Cultural Artificial Intelligence at King’s College London, worries that robots could consume our romantic lives are unnecessary.
“The headlines suggest that sex robots are inevitable and inescapable,” she says. “But the reality is that they are incredibly niche… there is a lot of fear that human-human relationships will somehow be replaced, but I don’t think that that’s likely. We humans are hardwired to seek out other humans.”
It seems that sex tech might be an inevitable merging of the digital world that we live in and a fundamental human desire. But for Devlin, that certainly doesn’t need to be a bad thing.
“Hopefully the future of sex technology will become increasingly customizable and personalized— something that suits us as individuals no matter our body type,” she says. “There are some great companies out there making accessible sex tech and breaking down taboos… And imagine a pandemic where we didn’t have the internet. I think that we’re really lucky… if people find solace and companionship in technology then who are we to judge?”