A year ago, while Bryony Cole was researching technological developments in entertainment, she stumbled across virtual reality sex, which essentially lets people interact through a screen as if they were in the same bedroom. The fact that people could have rich, varied sex lives without ever leaving their couches both fascinated and frightened her. How would that affect their real-life relationships? Was it considered cheating?
Those questions made her curious enough to start the Future of Sex podcast. In each episode, Cole investigates a new issue at the intersection of sexuality and technology, from the etiquette of dick pics to the ethics of sex robots. But to hear her tell it, the most significant changes she's seen in sex tech aren't about the mechanics of how we have sex, but how our attitudes are shfiting—particularly where gender is concerned.
Cole talked to Glamour about how technology is altering our relationships and ultimately our society, for better and for worse (but mostly, she believes, for the better).
Glamour: What are the most exciting sex tech inventions you've seen lately?
Bryony Cole: OMG Yes, a sex ed platform for women, which includes touchable videos that allow you to learn and practice 12 different techniques that lead women to orgasm. The touch screens are enabled with feedback technology that essentially tell you if you're doing it correctly or not. This sort of interactivity is far more engaging than any book or screen has been previously.
That interactivity extends to virtual reality. There’s a couple of interesting VR sex ed examples going on at the moment. One is from Emory University in partnership with Georgia Tech. The execution is still pretty basic at the moment, but what they’ve attempted to do is walk women through a nightclub and practice saying "no," practice consent in that environment, where you meet someone and it may feel awkward but you're not sure how to say "no." If you keep going through this environment, hopefully, when it gets to the stage of real life, you have the skills and knowledge to be able to say "I don't feel comfortable in this situation."
The other interesting application in VR for sex education is a program called Virtual Sexology II, designed by BaDoinkVR. There's a program for men and one for women, designed by sex therapists to enable you to become better lovers: for men to work through premature ejaculation by getting in contact with your body, and for women, getting in touch with your body and exploring different types of touch. You're touching yourself, but you're in this virtual, immersed environment having this safe place where you can still learn.
Glamour: That sounds like an opportunity we don't really get now, since a lot of people wouldn't feel comfortable masturbating in front of a sex therapist.
BC: Not in the therapy world, but in the coaching world, there’s people who do that. Kenneth Play, for example, travels the world and watches couples have sex and teaches them how to be better. [VR sex ed] is probably going be a lot cheaper than having someone stand in your room and a lot more comfortable than having someone watch you have sex. In real life, if there’s someone in your room, you can't deny that. With this, you can just take off the headset.
Glamour: What technologies would you like to see more of?
BC: The problem that’s going to make the most impact on our lives is helping people communicate. For a lot of tech, that’s not the case. We’re spending more time communicating via streams versus in person. I [would like to see] technology that can solve the problem of how we can communicate better to our children, our lovers, our friends, and other people. How do we increase our emotional and social intelligence? There’s definitely arguments against that, if we look at the proliferation of dating apps and the way we can swipe through 200 people on the toilet, and the idea that that’s made us view people as more disposable. If we look at young people and how they learn to communicate via Instagram and Snapchat, that's a different kind of interaction. True emotional intelligence and being able to read people and body language? That's a super power. Any technology that can enhance education around communication is going to improve our lives.
Glamour: Are there any other technologies you're concerned about?
BC: I’m more concerned about the way people will take it rather than the technology that's being invented. Dolls and robots are currently being used as companion dolls in the field of therapy, as sexual surrogates for healing people who have been through severe sexual trauma or have some disability so that they can’t have sex with another person. There’s totally the potential for these dolls to be used in other ways. There’s concern around the dolls you can make—child sex dolls entered the market in the U.K. That idea of how our brains are changing, and we’re becoming attached to objects and seeing them as something that can potentially replace us, is definitely concerning. They have a lot of protests about this. There’s nobody regulating the sex tech industry in terms of what’s being developed. The reason I started the podcast is to ask the ethical questions around "What are we designing?" and "How are we going to navigate love, sex, and dating in the future?"
Glamour: What are the biggest changes you've seen in sex tech since you started your podcast a year ago?
BC: The biggest marker for me was in the sex tech world. We saw sex tech companies like Unbound raising money, which has previously been a big problem because of reputational risk and morality causes. In 2017, JWT’s global intelligence report hailed 2017 as the year of "vagina-nomics." Vaginas and economics are coming together like never before. Body image and female sexual pleasure, which have previously remained on the fringes of discourse, are rapidly being embraced in mainstream media. And in turn, we are in a year where there are more women’s sex tech products on the market than ever before: period underwear, pee-proof underwear, tampon subscription services, vulvar skin cream.
The fact we can put an ad on a subway that simply says ["Underwear for women with periods,"]—(http://www.glamour.com/story/glamour-staffers-try-out-thinx-period-under...) unapologetic about a woman’s bodily functions—signifies society's attitudes are changing. The sex toy industry in particular has had to make a major shift from being a male-dominated industry that primarily used cheap, dodgy materials to one where many of the best brands are either founded by women or have women on their design teams, and they are using the latest advancements in technology.
Some of my favorite examples include Dame Products, co-founded by Janet Lieberman, an MIT graduate—often the first female engineer in the company she worked for—who created a vibrator company out of frustration with the lack of quality, high-end design. The Eva became the highest-funded adult product in the history of crowdfunding. It raised seven times its goal and is now sold globally. Stephanie Alys, co-founder of MysteryVibe, designed a six-motor vibrator that bends to any shape you like. User-focused design and deep research with their target market is a hallmark of this sex tech aimed at women.
Sex tech is not only changing the experience of sex for women. It's shifting views and opening up public conversation. It’s changing the language and giving us words to talk about these things that were previously in the dark.