Are smartphones really ruining our sex lives?

In a new ad, Durex says yes -- but the reality is much more complicated

Published March 17, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

      (<a href=''>becon</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(becon via iStock)

There's a Durex video making the rounds that promises to reveal the secret to using your smartphone to "make sex amazing." It opens with several couples seated in a fashionable warehouse, à la that one Dove ad, talking about their relationships to their smartphones. Their confessions are pretty predictable stuff: "I share my bed with Facebook."

Then enters Susie Lee, "tech entrepreneur." She wears fashionable glasses and works in an office with floor-to-ceiling glass walls, so you know she's legit. "In conjunction with Durex, my research team has been working on a development for smartphone that can change the way people use tech in the bedroom," she says, before rattling off some technical lingo. Three-axis gyroscope! Accelerometer! Meanwhile, images of brain scans and random code fill the screen. It is science, you guys.

"Suddenly, it dawned on us," Susie Lee continues. "The most powerful answer is always the simplest. It works on all operating systems and devices, and it's free."

Like a DMV clerk asking if you want your number to be called yet, she says, "Are you ready to see what it is on your phones that will give you an amazing sex life? Here it is. The 'off' button."

Ugh. Sigh. Groan. All the sounds.

Forgive me, it just seems "smartphones are ruining our sex lives" is the new "video games are destroying our kids." As I wrote in a piece last year, "I can’t take it anymore with these tech-destroying-love pieces. It’s 'killing romance'! It’s disconnecting us! Last year, there was that Atlantic cover story that suggested online dating was making it 'too easy to meet someone new,' that it raised 'the bar for a good relationship too high' and fundamentally threatened monogamous commitment. Just a few days later, the New York Times published a piece on how technology was destroying courtship." Never mind all the ways that tech helps our love lives -- from online dating to high-tech sex toys to eggplant emojis.

But I'm just a cranky sex writer who has seen one too many "Women prefer smartphones to sex" headlines. What would sex therapists have to say about this Durex campaign? Better still, what would the sex therapists of Silicon Valley have to say about smartphones in the bedroom?

Vanessa Marin, a San Francisco-based psychotherapist specializing in sex, says, "I see a lot of couples fighting about it -- all the time -- sort of accusing each other, 'Well I tried to initiate with you last night but you were looking at Facebook the whole time.' 'Well I tried to initiate with you last week and you told me you had these work emails to do.'" She has a lot of clients who lull themselves to sleep by playing around on their phones, "so there's no opportunity for sex," she says.

That said, she sees ways that smartphones actually help people's sex lives. "I talk to my clients a lot about trying to build anticipation for sex and you can definitely use your smartphone in that sense to send little messages, you know, 'I can't wait to see you tonight' or 'This is what I'm gonna do to you when I see you later.'"

Her solution for clients isn't just to press the off button, as the Durex ad suggests. "We come up with certain guidelines to follow around their cellphone usage. A big one is to say good morning to each other every morning -- kiss, say hello, ask how they slept last night, before you look at your phone," she says. "Try to prioritize having intimacy earlier in the evening rather than waiting until the end of the day, when you've gotten home from work and had a little bit of a chance to settle in, but before you start looking at Facebook or Twitter or Instagram."

Celeste Hirschman, a sex therapist and relationship coach, says, "I think smartphones are hurting intimacy in that people are not having sustained interpersonal and emotional connection with each other. They are always being interrupted by beeps and tweets and texts." But she, too, adds, "I think they are helpful with intimacy because sometimes people can say things over text that are harder to say in person, and you can also keep in touch with your partner more easily and send them sweet reminders of how you feel about them."

Unlike Marin, sex and intimacy coach Xanet Pailet says, "It's never come up in any of my sessions." Her concern is more how people use technology to avoid in-person communication. "People are having relationships on their phones, right? To the extent that we're not communicating with each other face-to-face, we are definitely losing an opportunity for real intimacy."

At the same time, Pailet points out that texting can add spice to relationships. It's all about balance. In general, she emphasizes that people should "spend more time in real connection and learning how to connect with people," she says. "Nobody teaches you how to have intimacy. Certainly nobody teaches you how to have sex."

Which brings me to another reason the Durex ad is so annoying and unhelpful. It chastises us for allowing technology to interfere with our love lives, while offering nothing in the way of real conversation about sex; the ad itself is an exercise in intimacy avoidance! It's such an American approach to improving sex -- we search for easy fixes, buying lingerie and reading up on hot new moves, while doing none of the real, scary work of building intimacy. What we're in need of isn't Luddite alarmism but rather honest communication with our partners about sex. Sure, turn off your phone -- but what comes next?

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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