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From tech to touch, part two: Future of Sex founder Bryony Cole talks how Sextech is transforming human connection

You would think that developments in tech that greater enhance people’s experience of their own sexuality would be welcomed openly. And yet, the stigma surrounding sex is so ingrained in society that the growing industry of Sextech is working hard to find its footing in our sex-obsessed, yet typically sex-negative, culture. In part two of the Sextech series, Courtney Devereux has a chat to the world’s leading authority on Sextech and Future of Sex podcast founder and host, New York-based Bryony Cole, about the untapped area of tech that many founders are afraid to touch: Sextech.

Start part one of the Sextech series here. 

No other area of human existence is hedged around with so much shame, embarrassment, guilt and self-torment than sexuality. It is fundamentally important to us, and yet we are entirely conflicted we are about it.

However, this makes it rich territory for advances and breakthroughs using technology to disrupt and enhance our experience of sex.

In her podcast, Cole talks widely about the taboo that’s placed around sexuality. She says she understands the confusion for our society, which is obsessed with sex, but also is confusingly sex negative, especially for women.

“Now we have this giant taboo smoothie of historical repression, present obsession, plus your own internal psyche, and particular environmental factors, all whizzed up into one big glass of ‘what the fuck’,” Cole says.

Even in the past five years, Sextech has growth exponentially, but whether that is due to emerging technology or the way we’re talking more about sexuality culturally as a society is up for debate. In one of her podcasts, Overcoming Shame and Taboo, Cole mentions that historically, social stigma around anything to do with sex is decided by men.

“Innovation is exponential, and that has played a major part. If we look at the sex side of Sextech, culturally there is some big signals, like the Me Too movement. Women’s empowerment in the last handful of years has been really important at opening up a conversation about this that we just haven’t had access to.”

Cole says we’re moving to an area where sexuality is more normalised, as sex itself is rebranding to focus more on wellness, rather than just being looked at through an entertainment lens.

“Slowly, we’re opening up as a society to these conversations around our sexuality,” Cole says. “Family structures are changing, more and more momentum is growing around Pride and legalising gay marriage. These sort of things that are happening in society mean larger conversations about sex and has moved it out of this ‘creepy’ domain, where its only associated with things that are dirty or nasty, or we associate it with something like pornography.”

Sex Hackathon, Singapore 

Ignorance is not bliss

In my chat with Cole, education and its challenge of changing the stigma surrounding sex comes up several times. She says education plays a huge role in changing culture and changing the conversation.

“Unfortunately, education is still the least funded area,” Cole says. “I’ve traveled around the world talking about the future of sex, and everywhere I’ve gone, people have complained about sex education they’ve had. It’s a global issue and it could have a knock-on effect of people’s health, not just physically but also mentally and emotionally. Anguish comes from not having proper education.”

Cole presenting at the Emerge Sex Hackathon

Cole’s Sex Hackathons, for example, are a place where she uses her platform to bring together underrepresented groups and open the conversation surrounding Sextech and its uses. For Cole, proper education is the best place to start.

“What I’m seeing is that younger and younger people are reaching out. They have different issues surrounding technology. They are living in a world that is radically different to how things were 10 or 20 years ago. The way they use technology is quite seamless, real life conversations are often engrained with text chat and group conversations. New generations are using technology differently and they understand how technology is integrated into every part of their lives.”

She says younger generations are a lot more dexterous and have a deeper understanding of Sextech, they’re also more open sexually. But alongside this integration of Sextech into younger everyday lives comes the concern that proper connections will come second to our devices.

Always use protection

Sextech faces some of the same concerns of the tech industry, such as how much are we being tracked by our technology and how very personal data is stored.

“I think always with technology there is always going to be concerns about privacy, including data concerns around how we’re managing our own personal information and keeping ourselves safe. There is no answer to that yet, we haven’t come up with it,” Cole says.

The misconception about the industry that worries Cole the most is something that has been recognised as a growing problem for many years: separating the exaggeration of pornography to the reality of real sex.

“More importantly with Sextech, we have to be careful with how we’re portraying sex. I think there is a real danger there if we start to see porn as something that is sex rather than a movie. A concern is that young kids are watching and shaping their ideas around sex, and we aren’t providing an educational alternative. I worry we don’t have a counter point big enough to be able to show what real sex means, or what real sex is.”

Feeld, a polyamory dating app. 

Cole says AI and VR are leading misconceptions about Sextech because of the scaremongering from the media around the possible outcomes of it all.

“it’s so early days for AI and VR in the Sextech industry. I don’t see them shaking a large part other than the media conversation. Most commonly, I’m asked about robots or VR. Yet if we dig a little deeper into these worlds, they’re still very clunky and not streamlined, so we’re really only given a peak into what may be possible. Even with robotics, we’re still very far away from sex robots that can move independently, so there aren’t any true examples. Talking to a sex robot at the moment is like talking to Wikipedia.”

Yet she says any part of Sextech is an opportunity, and if done right with the right goals in mind, applications such as AI and VR can be hugely beneficial to the industry.

“With VR, the highly immersive side is still very budget looking, and what we’re seeing with VR is just the glimpse of potential in Sextech. Naturally, the companies that have the most money are the pornography companies, but they’re only filming their content in 180. That isn’t true virtual reality, it isn’t high sensory, it’s not captivating and its more novelty than anything.

“With VR, potential comes back mainly to improve education. Because it is an immersive environment, it can go into different levels and it is great for education. This could be a really unique way to go through and have a VR education experience for your own sexuality.”

The robots are coming

Cole works closely with both government groups and adult entertainment companies to make sure she is in the loop with everything that is coming into her sector.

“Across the whole industry, I’m probably one of the only people that have worked with government social service departments as well as with pornography companies to see how they’re innovating. I try to stay impartial because I want to understand where it’s going, and I want to be able to asses what’s happening. I think if we bury our heads in the sand about pornography or robotics or AI, these things start to get ahead in a way where we’ve lost control or lost understanding about what they do.”

Knowing Sextech from all angles means that Cole is in a prime position to assess what needs further researching and explaining. Again, what she circles back to is increasing education, especially as it relates to new technologies.

“Technology is a great connector, and there are so many platforms coming out these days that are helping to deliver a better education. But what strikes me after researching this for three years is the most vulnerable population is young women. They are people who are still coming out to society predominantly with terrible sex education based on a mix of anatomy lessons and absence-only education.”

Connection established

In her push for more education, Cole makes an important connection between technology and human connection, saying that delivering education in person is important, because that is where the biggest gap is.

“Education and these conversations are really the main place where it needs human intervention. We can build these amazing apps and have live video streaming and collect data around how women bring themselves to orgasm and deliver all kinds of tools. But we also must not forget the human element.”

For Cole, this human element is often missing, and Sextech among any other tech if used without a human element can create shallow experiences which can be hard to unlearn, especially as it comes to physical connections.

“Relationships now are all mediated through screens, and young people specifically are forgetting how to have face to face conversations. When it comes to intimacy, now its transforming into something that is incredibly scary for them, and then they have this whole tech world which they have to navigate along with a different type of connectivity.”

Of course, the Sextech industry does not come without its issues but transforming our connectivity, Cole says, must remain the main purpose of Sextech. 

“Technology has the ability to both isolate and connect us. And I think we need to understand and ask ourselves, why we’re using technology and what are we hoping to get out of it. We don’t ask these questions anymore, we are in love with our phones like a partner, we can’t leave or do anything without it.”

“That is the danger with technology,” she says. “At first, it’s better than nothing, and we see it as such a great tool. Say for example dating apps, now we can connect with people in a 3km radius, and that’s amazing. But it’s when technology becomes better than anything, when it’s used in place of face-to-face conversations. Or we prefer dating through a screen rather than in person, which is a real problem because then you get shallow connections and don’t learn to facilitate anything.”

Cole sees promise in Sextech, and has hope that with proper education and awareness, it will enhance our lives rather than rule them.

“If we use technology to facilitate a connection, or learn about something new, and then take that into the real world with other humans then it is doing a great job. But we must keep asking the question: to what end? What purpose does this have? Is it better than nothing or is it better than everything?”

Cole has said previously that, "It's a beautiful thing to put tech on the end of sex because it gives us permission to talk about sex and normalise the conversation."

The message Cole has been preaching is that Sextech will allow us to experience, express and understand our sexuality in ways we never thought possible.

Sextech is working to improve our connected lives, she says – but it can do so only if we allow it.

Up close and personal with Bryony Cole 

Being the world’s leading authority on Sextech is a role not many can claim. Here, Cole gives some further insight into her career as a mentor, speaker and producer of all things Sextech.

What are some of the most common misconception about your role?

I think people really don’t know what to say when I say I run a company called the Future Of Sex. They probably think it has something to do with that creepy or weird element of sex, or the sci-fi movies we see, where you’re plugged into the Matrix having sex with a robot. People don’t understand that so much of what I do is based around humans and being human and normalising the conversations around sex.

What is a typical day in the life of Sextech’s trusted authority?

There is never a typical day, ideally a lot of my day is spent talking to people and listening to people. So, talking stage at the conferences, or those kind of idea festivals. Then doing some interviews for my podcast, which means a lot of the day is taken up with research and then planning the next project like the hackathons and designing programs for parents for talking to their kids surrounding technology in sex.

Is there anything surprising about your role you wish people knew?

I don’t have a robot yet. I think for me nothing surprises me anymore, and that is my own surprise. After three years, and growing up with a conservative background, it’s hard to surprise me now!

Besides your own successful podcast, Future of Sex, what are your top podcasts?

Making Daily History – It’s got interviews with people that have made history in some way, including people that aren’t even alive now.
Super Soul Conversations with Opera – I am obsessed with Opera.
Two broke queens – a very Brooklyn centric podcast with two hilarious hosts.

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