Why put the sex in sex tech?

Some people flocking into Kate Devlin‘s talk, Our Intimate Future with Machines, at re:publica 2019 might have been expecting the sensationalist narrative that is often pedalled by those looking for a fast headline. On the contrary however, the topics actually under the microscope was indeed sex tech, but much more than that. Intimacy. Inclusion. Future hopes. I caught up with Devlin after her talk to discuss all things sex toys, intimacy, and more.

Warda Imran

How could the abstraction of sex toys help LGBTQ+ or NB users?

Abstraction here means moving away from sex toys that look like genitalia. The Rampant Rabbit is a mainstream example of that, with a protruding double-tipped appendage that moves and rotates independently of the main body, but there are even more abstracted toys that will be discussed later on in the article.

I think…sex toys are gendered in that they tend to be described as male or female. The assumption was always: male = penis, female = vagina, but I think we’re starting to see a blurring of that now. We’re starting to see much more ambiguity around it and people realising that there’s more to it than that, so I’m optimistic.

There’s going to be things that you might specifically want for yourself, but the idea of accessibility is also really important. People at Hot Octopus are doing really cool stuff around accessibility and I think we’re moving towards that as well, that developers are now saying: we can deliver the basics, where can we actually make this better for everyone?

I think the more accessible we make it, the better.

Do dolls and robots always stick to traditional beauty standards for women?

Any sex doll…tends to be. They’ve got Selana; it’s a Latina doll, but it’s very exoticised. It was seen as the exotic Latin lover. They do have male sex dolls, which they say they sell 50% to women, 50% to gay men. They are building a male version called Henry – I don’t know if they know about the vacuum cleaner – but they have to tweak the AI, because the artificial intelligence conversation is gendered as well. So [the female doll] will say, I’ll put on a dress for you, so they think they have to tweak that for Henry. I’m like: why? Maybe Henry wants to wear a nice dress, because you know, why not?

There’s a couple of companies in China that are developing sex dolls and they are Asian sex dolls, so they reflect the demographic there.

All of these dolls are sort of the perfection, the prettiness, the delicacy, the thin waists, the big breasts. The body type is very stereotypical.

Okay, that’s what the demand is, and we see it reflected in things like porn – although I think porn is starting to change a bit. Some of the top porn searches in the last year have not been that kind of person at all, they’ve been very different body shapes.

What could be the future of sex tech along these lines?

A question was raised during the Q&A session of Devlin’s talk at rp19, about why sex tech is segregated in that way and divided away from ‘regular’ tech into its own division. What is stopping the advances made in sex tech from helping in other areas, and vice versa? With so many other areas of society opening up more open discussions around sex, such as in education and female health, perhaps it is time for the tech industry to follow suit.

I’m inclined to think that this particular route, the human-like sex robot is really limiting, but I suppose if it gets people to explore their sexuality. But I think there’s better ways of doing that. I think the ambiguous and the abstractive forms are definitely a good space for that.

It’s not about focusing on body parts, it’s about the whole experience and immersive experience and not just focusing on one particular act.

About the book…

Devlin’s Book, Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots, is out now.

It’s a dive in to the whole world of [sex tech]. It starts off looking at the history: where has it all come from? Where have sex toys come from? Where has this idea of the perfect companion come from? Then it looks at what’s really out there, and then legal, technical implications, and a bit about how do we feel attachment, how do we feel love, and what’s happening academically in the field. Then it dives into the hackathon, where might be go in the future.

Devlin founded the UK’s first sex tech hackathon, which brought creative technical minds together to see the potential for various different sex tech avenues in the future. Ideas arose here that furthered the idea of abstraction, including my personal favourite of a tech blanket, that could cover an individual and create the sensation of being touched in different areas through the blanket. The beauty of this particular creation is that it can be used on any body, even one with no mobility whatsoever, opening up possibilities of sensuality and intimacy for a wide range of people with different bodies and abilities.

What sparked your interest in this line of research?

I think sex is so fundamentally human and it’s so interesting. We’re not supposed to study from a pleasure perspective. If you’re studying it in academia, they want you to study it from psychological approaches, biological approaches, health. [Trudy Barber has] been working on cyber sex since the early days of VR. Her stuff is amazing but it isn’t getting taken seriously.

The more that AI develops, the more I was interested in how we can build systems that can incorporate all this. Then I flipped it all around and said, forget building the system, so [I went looking into what was already out there].

When I started writing, there were only a few people working on it. David Levy is kind of the father of all of this. In 2007, he published the book Love and Sex with Robots. But he published it from a really utopian, man’s perspective. It was very much: sex robots will solve everything, we’ll all be happy, I am a man who says that everyone will be happy when they have a sex robot. This will help men because they will have the perfect lover. This will help women because they won’t have to be bothered by men having sex with them. I met him and we talked about it. His book is really well-researched, but it’s completely not the perspective I took on it.

There were two bits that weren’t fun, one was looking into the pedophilia aspect, which was really grim. The other was looking at incels, because there’s lots of talk on incel forums about having sex robots because it’s a controllable women. Diving into those forums was really grim.

What surprised you most throughout the course of your research?

How completely niche it is. I had seen the headlines and the amount of fuss that was being made, I thought, there must be a large-scale thing, there must be major financial backing here, if there’s going to be an invasion from an army. And then just finding out that there really isn’t. There’s no major interest, people keep saying: the porn industry will love this. That’s just not true, because there’s nothing in it for porn. They rely on advertising. They don’t need to diversify into anything.

The other thing was finding out about the people who own sex dolls. I had this assumption that everyone has that it’s going to be this really lonely guy in a basement who doesn’t get out much, but instead I found this really amazing community who are very respectful of it, they cherish the dolls.

Rather than being isolated, they’ve formed a community amongst themselves.

They’ve made friends with each other and they meet up. Sometimes they go on holiday together, sometimes that’s with the dolls and sometimes that’s without the dolls, because that’s their space to be themselves. I was actually really heartened by that because far from technology isolating people, that’s the way they’ve come together. I think that’s really cool.

What’s next for you?

I want to broaden it out. I want to look at intimacy more generally. As I’ve gone along, more and more, I’m interested in better experience or different experiences in sex. I think people assume that very reductive, mononormative, heterosexual sort of thing. I think that there’s much more to it and it can be of much more benefit if we open it out and look at broader intimacy. And not even sexual intimacy but friendship, family, all sorts. There’s one angle, yes, where it’s sex, but also how do we connect with people? Can we do it in a tangible way? It’s great that we have so much to do now with video, and there’s been some attempts at doing sort of touch interfaces for long distance and haptic feedback, but it’s not very good. Maybe we can do something that makes you feel close to someone. I think there’s a lot of scope there.

There’s been lots of attempts to do that sort of thing but they always involved leads and wires. There’s been some nice examples. There was someone who prototyped a bracelet that would squeeze you to let you know that someone is thinking of you. I think that sort of thing where you’re reminded.

I can imagine if my daughter had lights on her ceiling and I was away, I could make the lights sort of twinkle for her, that kind of connection.

I’m kind of interested in researching, myth-busting I guess, because there’s so many stories about how the internet is destroying the fabric of society, and I want to say no, it’s not. It’s connecting us in better ways than we’ve ever had.

For me, the tech world is in need for a sexual revolution, as does most things. Technology can open up so many doors for minorities and disadvantaged groups in society, and everyone deserves good sex in their lives. Furthermore, breaking down the barriers between tech and sex tech also opens up far more avenues for other intimacy opportunities, just as Kate Devlin describes here. If we can find a way for a faraway parent to be able to hug their child, as well as help disabled individuals find pleasure, aren’t those both equally worthwhile causes? I for one am excited to see where Devlin, developers and other academics go with such topics in future.

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