In 2017, I was in Shanghai, and took the opportunity to swing by the Shanghai sex toy convention. It’s a little hard to quantify and I haven’t been to any of the US ones, but I suspect it’s probably the biggest in the world, hosted over two floors of Shanghai’s massive expo center. It was like stepping into the future of sex, and I didn’t entirely like what I saw.
On entering, I was met with row upon row of empty, lifeless eyes and artificial hair. Sex dolls, as far as the eye could see. And not the constantly-surprised-looking blow-up things we scoff at here, but increasingly realistic and intelligent models of all size, color, and body type. There’s no lack of diversity amongst sex dolls, that much has to be said in its favor: whatever taste and preference, you’ll only part with a couple of hundred dollars to realise it.
They’re increasingly smart too. One of them had a kind of Alexa-clone device built in. It only spoke Chinese, but I asked what the weather was, to which it responded accurately and then called me ‘baby’ (baobao in Chinese). I can’t imagine anything that better defines a vision for the future of sex than a Chinese-made, hyper-realistic, wifi-enabled sex doll with a flirty Alexa in its head.
I’m not a massive fan of these things if I’m honest. I’m more conventional in my sex toy thinking: I prefer simpler things that encourage intimacy, instead of replacing it. But I understand that people do like them, and who am I to judge anybody else’s masturbatory activities?
Besides, I don’t have the clout to stall the inexorable march of sexual automatons. But in Japan, where these things are far more popular, the government has had to step with measures to increase the nation’s birth rate because young men are happier with human-adjacent company and have become shy of ‘real’ human contact. Intelligent sex robots, then, are bad for your economy.
I’m no luddite though, and I’m aware that even the purist LELO brand has innovated some sexual innovations on a smaller, more intimate scale. SONA, for example, is the first sex toy to use sonic waves instead of traditional vibrations. That’s a big change. Our F1s is designed with app integration in mind. We’re no slouches on sex tech.
That all speaks to a tidal change in the sexual landscape. Social media, for instance, has normalized the discussion and acquisition of sex, and improved the way we use language in conversations about sexuality and gender. Hopefully, we’ll find a way to make less toxic than it is right now, but it’s progress of a kind.
We use our smartphones in just about every aspect of our lives, so it’s inevitable that they’ll dominate our sex lives too. At the moment, aside from Tinder and Grinder and the like, our phones have largely stayed out of our bedrooms – apart from sexy selfies and sexting. There’s hasn’t been a truly great sex toy app, for example, but it’s coming.
The Internet Of Everything is the future. This means everything you do will be interconnected. It’s already starting – most modern cars are wifi-enabled, for example, and you can buy a fridge that monitors your due dates and notifies you via an app that you log into via Facebook. If it works for fridges, it’s only a matter of time before it works for sex. Of course, you can already get gimmicky apps that do silly things like tracking the calories you burned during sex, or monitors your menstrual cycle to warn you when you might be extra horny. But they don’t have much longevity.
Our real lives and our digital lives are becoming increasingly blended, and all our data, representing all of our lives, are being more and more aggregated in the cloud. This is then being used to generate highly accurate and intelligent algorithms that can be used to predict our behaviour and gain a far deeper understanding of our daily lives. It’s mainly used by marketers and governments, but could easily be used to develop a sex toy that knows what you want before you know it yourself. Pornhub, perhaps the most sophisticated porn site, is already learning your sexual tastes and the autosuggested videos are generally well-catered to you. In marketing, what we used to called ‘demographics’ is now called ‘psychographics.’ Our marketing profiles now extend far beyond age and location. Now, Facebook knows your job, your politics, and why you recently bought that new table.
As a species, we have a remarkable ability to sexualize any new innovation. As soon as we could carve, we made dildos. As soon as we could paint, we made erotic frescoes. As soon as we could print, we produced bawdy erotica. As soon as we could film, we made porn. (The first arrest for obscenity came just two years after the invention of the camera.) As early as 1994, porn constituted 80% of internet traffic.
There’s something innate in us that’s hard to admit: that all technologies will be used for sex. Today, the term ‘sextech’ is fashionable – but in truth, we’ve been doing it for our entire history.