There’s been a giant surge of interest lately in sex-focused technology, appropriately dubbed “sextech.” Virtual reality porn is officially buzzworthy, overtly sex-focused dating apps are ubiquitous, and Londoners can expect a new sex robot cafe soon. But another side of sextech — one that caters to real-life human sex and feminine pleasure — was the focus of a recent panel held at the New York co-working space, Knotel, recently. A mostly-female audience of approximately 75 people squeezed into a meeting room at Knotel’s Flatiron location to listen to three prominent entrepreneurs discuss the opportunities in sextech, and how women are transforming an industry that is estimated to be worth more than $30 billion.
But what are the implications of an exponentially increasing rate of innovation for one of humankind’s most fundamental needs?
Like most sectors of the tech industry, where disruption is the holy grail, sextech entrepreneurs aim to create ripples of change throughout a valuable market. But sextech is not your typical Silicon Valley subset. The nuanced industry is unique in that its “disruption” is actually dependent on overturning psychological constructs, centuries of cultural conditioning, and addictive behaviors.
Some experts believe that the way we currently think about, and approach, intimacy is largely affected by how the sex industry taps into these constructs.
Helmed by Cindy Gallop, founder & CEO of MakeLoveNotPorn; Polly Rodriguez, co-founder and CEO of Unbound; and Janet Lieberman, co-founder and CTO of Dame Products, the panelists at Knotel’s sextech discussion are hoping their ventures will be a positive force in this movement.
Gallop, a former advertising executive and influential voice for gender equality, champions the idea that women will lead the charge in crafting a breed of sextech that encourages human connection. Gallop says she’s hoping to raise $10 million for a sextech incubator that exclusively works with female founders, as well as to scale MakeLoveNotPorn.
“The most innovative and disruptive things in sextech today are coming from women. We’re finally owning our sexuality and finding ways to leverage it,” she says.
MakeLoveNotPorn is Gallop’s response to a male-centric porn industry by celebrating real-world sex through what she calls “social sex videos.” Gallop says she founded the user-generated sex video platform by accident. Through her experiences dating younger men, she realized that in the face of society's reluctance to be open about sex, porn often becomes the primary -- if not only -- source of sex education for younger generations.
“The problem is not porn, it’s that we don’t talk about sex,” she says.
And as feminine sexuality expert and author Pamela Madsen points out, women are especially confronted with taboos around sex and pleasure.
With Unbound, Rodriguez is hoping to remove some of that stigma by presenting women’s sexual lifestyle products in a similar light as beauty or fashion brands. Her company offers a subscription box for feminine sex products, as well as an online retail store and blog.
“We exist to make sex better for women,” Rodriguez says, who founded Unbound after a round of radiation and chemotherapy treatments resulted in early-onset menopause when she was 21 years old. Through that experience, she became acutely aware of the shame around female sexuality. Eventually, she realized that the awkward buying experience for female sex products is reflective of that societal shame.
By taking a high-fashion approach to selling Unbound products, Rodriguez says she’s “giving women permission” to buy these products.
Similarly, Lieberman co-founded Dame Products as a response to the low-quality, high-price gap for vibrators and female sex toys. “I never questioned why it was ok that I would spend $150 on a vibrator, and I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to use it,” she says.
Dame Products’ 2014 Indiegogo campaign for their flagship product, “Eva,” became the highest-grossing adult product campaign on any crowdfunding platform. And according to Lieberman, the company has shipped 38,000 units since their initial launch.
“Eva” is described as “the first hands-free, strap-free, non-intrusive couples' vibrator,” and is specifically designed for intimacy and connection.
“Sex toys can be useful tools in making things more equal, but most aren't designed with intimacy in mind. They put space between partners, reduce physical contact, and require active thought to use,” Lieberman says.
Virtual reality porn, perhaps the most publicized character in sextech, aims to make porn a more realistic experience. VR porn star and entrepreneur Ela Darling, who is also the head of VR porn company Cam4VR, says that VR porn is so realistic that it’s often called “the empathy machine.”
“You're in my home with me. You're not watching me on a casting couch on your laptop. People feel so immersed they've criticized my housekeeping,” she says.
But more realistic porn might just become a more realistic vice. According to some researchers, porn is more like crack than real sex. Studies also show that consistent porn use ultimately leads to the need for increased stimulation for the same amount of reward. So a more highly stimulating porn experience, like VR, could mean a deeper addiction.
Regardless of its psychological imprint, this side of sextech is at the forefront of mainstream media, which Gallop attributes to the Silicon Valley boy’s club.
“Just like the tech industry, tech media is male-dominated. So coverage of sextech tends to focus on the side that’s a lot easier to talk about — the hardware, the teledildonics, sextoys, sex robots, and VR porn,” Gallop says. “It’s a lot more uncomfortable to focus on the side that’s about people actually having sex with each other.”
Gallop, Rodriguez and Lieberman believe their brand of sextech counterbalances the potentially isolating world of hardcore porn and fancy sex toys, by instead encouraging human-to-human, or self-pleasure, intimacy.
Intimacy is a complicated subject, in itself, lacking an objective definition. However, there seems to be a common agreement that intimacy is connected with vulnerability.
Male sexuality expert, empowerment coach and certified sexoligist Destin Gerek describes intimacy as “that place of true connection,” “a dropping of masks” and a place of “being vulnerable.”
Rodriguez’s definition is similar. “Intimacy is synonymous with vulnerability,” she says. “To be vulnerable is to be honest with a partner, or with yourself, about who you are and how you feel.” Many of Unbound’s products are focused on a woman’s self pleasure, which she believes is the first step in the exploration of intimacy.
But perhaps intimacy doesn’t have to be fulfilled by physical touch. Darling says her VR porn performances are “20 percent sex, 80 percent therapy.” She adds that many of her fans are people who have physical disabilities, social awkwardness, extremely busy schedules or other barriers to real-life intimacy. “It offers them that fulfillment,” she says.
In Gerek’s line of work, teaching men how to be vulnerable is a crucial element for healthy sexuality. And with many of his clients coming to him as heavy porn users, he says that the current state of the industry is often a barrier. “Porn stimuli is not designed to help you be a great lover,” he says.
One male user of MakeLoveNotPorn, who approached Gallop in person, mirrors this statement: “Watching porn makes me want to jerk off; watching your videos makes me want to have sex,” he told her.
Many studies show the consequences of porn proliferation — a snowballing population of boys and men dealing with premature ejaculation and erectile disfunction.
Meanwhile, women might be more sexually liberated than ever before. And as more and more women shed the “slut shame” barriers and step into their sexual power, Gerek says many men are left behind, digging deeper into a hole of porn and isolated sex. “As things are shifting, they have no idea how to adapt to this shift,” he says.
Darling doesn’t think that’s the porn industry’s responsibility. “Entertainment is not responsible for education,” she says. “The change needs to come from the classroom. We need to talk about it candidly with young people.”
But, like Gallop, Gerek believes that the solution is not to get rid of the porn industry, but to evolve it.
“Observing other people in sexual experiences can be a very positive force. Where do we get to witness couples deeply in love with intense passion and deep intimacy experiencing total mind-body-spirit sexual union? Now that is an imprint we could all use,” he says.
Intimacy and deep connection ultimately seems to be the goal of MakeLoveNotPorn. And Lieberman says she wants her products to enhance intimacy with sex toys, rather than replace it.
“If you can really be alone with yourself or your partner, without inequalities, insecurities, old fights, or pieces of plastic riding shotgun, you can be a lot more deeply and authentically intimate,” Lieberman says.
But could sex robots, VR porn experiences and even traditional porn have the potential to deepen intimacy, rather than smother or isolate it?
Again, women may be the answer. In an op-ed for Fortune, adult filmmaker Erika Lust pledged to create VR porn that inspires real-life “pleasure and desire.” This is in stark contrast to the “mechanical sex made by men, for men,” she says in the article.
Gerek is also optimistic that the more techie side of sextech could be a positive influence with the right approach. “We have the capacity with erotic media or sex robots for them to be empowering technologies that can help us understand ourselves better and connect with one another better,” Gerek says.
For instance, sex robots could be programmed with a woman’s natural sexual desires and response to pleasure, which could actually help a partner learn how to engage with women. However, given the complex nature of female sexuality, programming a sex robot to reflect a real woman’s pleasure would likely result in a mechanical generalization.
Regardless of how, or by whom, they’re programmed, at least one futurist, Ian Pearson, predicts sex robots will start replacing human-to-human intercourse by 2050.
But, a sextech entrepreneur herself, Lieberman disagrees. Citing the success of Dame Products’ Indiegogo campaign for “Eva” despite more gadgety, censor-heavy competitors, Lieberman doesn’t think we’re in danger of a robotic sex apocalypse.
“Human touch is really important,” she says. “No one is trying to replace that. That’s human and universal and it’s not going away anytime soon.”