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INTERVIEWS

how technology is dramatically changing sex and relationships

Speaking to Bryony Cole about how virtual reality and smart sex toys will revolutionise our lives and empower the next generation.

Briony Wright

Still from Ex-Machina

Bryony Cole spends a lot of time thinking about sex. Or, more specifically, talking about it. As host of the podcast Future of Sex she chats to sex entrepreneurs, industry experts, sex therapists and occasionally futurists with the aim to understand how we'll be doing it in the years ahead. Across her interviews she's smart and engaging, drawing her subjects into discussions about sexuality in an entirely open and disarming way. So far she's broached topics as disparate as the culture of dick pics, artificial-intelligence-enabled sex dolls and the rise of teledildonics — all while dissecting notions of shame and taboo that too often shade these conversations. 

Focussing on an industry predicted to be worth $20 billion by 2028, she tells us there is literally no end to the scope of her subject matter. With fourteen podcasts so far, Bryony is adamant that she's found her life's mission. And as attitudes towards sex continue to evolve rapidly alongside technology like dating apps, sex toys and and virtual reality, it's a timely cause. 

How did you come to host a podcast about sex?
I was employed to set up a think tank for Absolut vodka where I interviewed 100 people across the US about nightlife. The technologists I spoke to were in their garages experimenting with virtual reality and really far out stuff that is now on the market. I realised that no one was really talking about it and saw a real gap in the conversation. The impact of technology on our relationships and intimacy is already becoming evident, simply by virtue of us being in the bedroom with our iPhones and screens. What if we instead start designing this technology specifically for sex? It's actually so interesting.

What are you most excited about in terms of advancements in sex technology?
For me one of the biggest opportunities is in education. Virtual reality is called the 'empathy machine' and if applied to sex education it could be so transformative. Sex education still relies on the most archaic, irrelevant material and it hasn't been updated for decades. Findings from the 2015 La Trobe study, the most comprehensive study of sexual education in Australia revealed that 50 percent of kids think sex education is completely irrelevant. It rarely even takes into account same sex relationships. It's crazy. I think that when our attitudes catch up, the potential for VR, which is really engaging as well as immersive, could be amazing.

If kids were empowered with proper education everywhere, how great would that be?
Its usefulness wouldn't just be for kids either. There is a university in Georgia that's practicing consent with college-age women of colour too. The idea is that they use VR to go into a nightclub where they learn to say no and identify at-risk behaviour. Rather than just showing a scary slide of an STI to students, technology, including VR and augmented reality, will help people to navigate real life situations.

Along those lines, it seems like there are more women involved in the sex industry now than ever before.
The whole idea of female empowerment is so important and I'm meeting so many women who're founding their own sex tech companies. When I came to New York I met Cindy Gallop from Make Love Not Porn and dozens of other women all launching products around female sexual health and female sexual pleasure. For the longest time this has been dominated by men and characterised by cheap toys manufactured in China. Now women are getting behind these things which are designed for them - they're being designed from a female perspective and also for couples. Sex tech for couples and using it to keep people together is also really an untapped market.

What are some of the physical products that are being developed?
The craziest inventions are these suits which have inbuilt sensors where it actually feels like you're with another person. There are also teledildonics, which are remote controlled sex toys that a partner or porn star can control for you. There is this third space being created that hasn't existed before: of course there is physical sex, and there's looking at a screen but where we're heading is a place in between. Thanks to technology we'll be able to feel physical sensations controlled by someone on the internet. Along with this though are a lot of ethically-driven questions around things like what the future of relationships and potentially cheating looks like.

Of course, these are new frontiers and there are no rule books yet.
It's true. There is also speculation that we will be able to conduct entire relationships in VR without ever physically seeing the person. You could meet someone in a virtual world and go on a virtual date to the cinema. You'll actually be sitting on your couch with your headset on but virtually holding hands in a virtual world, experiencing your first kiss and eventually breaking up in virtual reality.

That's amazing.
Alternatively, there is a lot of work being done in terms of real dolls who have personalities and who will talk to you and remember things like your favourite foods. They will sense whether they're in or outside. In this way technology will change our idea of companionship. 

And how far in the future are we talking?
This technology is moving so fast - the rate of innovation is exponential, every month it doubles. Younger people are so fluid with technology and that will carry on to be the norm. It will get to a point in the not too distant future where there won't be celebrity sex scandals; it won't even be a thing because everyone will have a digital footprint and it will just become acceptable and normal. Right now we are in this tension between these two ages.

Who is funding all this innovation?
In many instances, it's porn leading innovation, that's where the money is. Beyond that there are still issues of perceived morality and real issues like the difficulty of reaching customers due to Facebook blocking ads and so on. We are still waiting for society's attitudes to change. That said, JWT Intelligence Agency reported that 2017 is the year of 'vaginaomics' as there have never been so many products on the market catered towards female sexual health and pleasure. This is such great news and a clear sign that there's definitely progress being made. 

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Text Briony Wright