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From tech to touch, part one: 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 one 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.

If you haven’t heard about Bryony Cole, you are robbing yourself of a deep-dive into understanding your own sexuality, the culture surrounding sex and the opportunity technology has to transform an age-old taboo.

I personally like to think I’m very open minded when it comes to sexuality, yet my knowledge of Sextech was limited to scaremongering articles on how sex-tech developments in VR and AI will lead us to becoming antisocial, sex-driven fiends who eat and masturbate ourselves into a coma. Not exactly the future The Jetsons predicted.

Since launching her top-rated podcast, Future of Sex, Cole has been on stages across the world defining the direction of Sextech for governments, technology and entertainment companies. Her wide body of research and annual Future of Sex report are considered the lead in industry insights. Her podcast episode topics range from dismantling the taboo around sex, bicuriosity for women, teledildonics, and yes, sex dolls and robotics.

Cole’s specialty is talking about the intersection of intimacy and technology in an approachable, non-scary manner. She acknowledges its growing importance in our society, but understands the taboo surrounding sex restricts movements in this space greatly. So, how do we talk openly about something that has been forbidden for most of our lives?

Cole says it starts with battling the misconceptions about what Sextech really is.

“With the Sextech industry, everyone just believes in VR porn: that everyone is going to be replaced with robots, and we’re never going to leave our couches again. That is the opposite mission of Sextech as industry, which is to enhance design and improve our sexual lives. I think that big misconception is that technology is going to take over our sex lives and we’re never going to be with humans again.”

Bryony Cole

Humans naturally err on the conservative side when it comes to sexuality. Our society’s reluctance to acknowledge sex as a fundamental part of our now deeply connected and complex lives only makes it harder to educate and easier to put regulations on.

That makes people like Cole so important: pioneers whose main goal is to understand and educate, creating a safer, more connected society.

“I discovered this industry and The Future of Sex about three years ago,” Cole says. “My strategic move was branding something that would help move sex out of the creepy, inaccessible mind frame, to something more palatable. By putting ‘future’ at the front or ‘tech’ at the end of it, its suddenly becomes something that removes it from the individual, so it doesn’t seem as scary to talk about.”

“It’s important, because that is a great way to start and change perceptions and open eyes. At the end of the day if you’re talking about Sextech, you are just talking about sexuality and being human.”

Cole works predominantly on getting conversations surrounding Sextech further accepted in the community and works to be present at tech conferences to further promote normalisation.

“We have this whole industry called Sextech which is used to increase intimacy, but we need to get the conversation onto more standard agendas,” she says. 

Size matters

While awareness of the Sextech industry is growing, it is still only growing slowly. In New Zealand specifically, Sextech is an untapped area for entrepreneurs, with very little headway being made by new companies. On a trip to New Zealand in 2016, MakeLoveNotPorn founder Cindy Gallop said there was a huge opportunity for New Zealand to build services that support sex-tech ventures.
"The first bank that says 'we will bank honest legal, decent sex-tech ventures’ will clean up," she told Stuff. 
Globally, according to Tristan Pollock, a partner at San Francisco tech accelerator 500 Startups, the Sextech industry – made up of sex apps, toys and services – is now a US$30 billion-dollar industry growing at 30 percent each year, which is faster than the drone industry.

Internationally, a lot of Sextech start-ups are founded and run by women who feel they’ve been underserved as a forgotten demographic when it comes to sexuality. Considering Credit Suisse Research Institute’s 2018 Global Wealth Report found women hold 40 percent of global wealth, tapping into this market could be a lucrative opportunity.

A panel of investors who’d invested in Sextech companies told Forbes the reasons they’d invested included believing in the growth opportunity for women-run sex companies, to believing it is as important to fund as healthcare.

“Sexuality is part of wellness,” angel investor Laura Behrens Wu said. “My investment in Sextech shouldn’t be viewed any differently than investments in other types of healthcare, like Headspace or Calm  — and that’s a huge, established market. Investors who insist on segmenting out one aspect of our bodies, just because it makes some people uncomfortable, may regret it in five years.”

RapeAxe

Cole says Sextech isn’t just about enhancing sexuality – it serves practical purposes, too. She gives the examples of O.School and OhNut as companies championing the kind of educational connectivity that she is advocating for.

“I think what’s interesting is places addressing the unsexy side of Sextech such as OhNut, which is a silicon buffer designed to help with painful sex, and RapeAxe, which is a female condom fitted with barbs used to prevent rape. These are the sort of innovations for me that are solving issues that we really don’t think about when we think about Sextech. That’s what we need more of.”

Five sextech start-ups changing the way we look at sexuality

Thinx Period Blanket: With four-layer technology to soak up fluids, the absorbent and stain-resistant blanket allows sex during menstruation to lessen mess.

Feeld: A dating app targeted towards polyamorous and open couples, offering pair accounts to connect as a couple.

O.School: An online school which provides judgment-free resources of both articles and instructional videos on all things, sex and sexuality.

Lioness Smart Vibrator: A vibrator which collects data about users' vaginal temperature and movements through an app, which keeps them informed about how their body works and what techniques work best for them personally. Think of it as an Apple Watch for your vagina.

Make Love Not Porn: Alleviating many of the misgivings about misogynistic sexual ideas and practices through its simple message of being pro-sex, pro-porn and pro-knowing the difference. MLNP invites couples and people to upload their own porn-trope free videos showcasing #realworldsex.

Inclusiveness for the invisible

Start-ups such as O.School and OhNut have a strong message that Sextech is not exclusive to one market. In fact, it’s an inclusive environment that is working tirelessly to make sure everyone with sexual needs is accounted for.

“I think it’s really important to include everyone, and for a long time, that hasn’t been the case,” Cole says. “But what we’re seeing is a changing in line with cultural conversations around identity and minority groups. For me personally, I think there is a huge opportunity for what I call the invisible population – people we don’t think are sexual – whether that’s older people or people with disabilities. These people are human, and they do still have sexual needs.”

Surprisingly, Cole says that one of the most unaccounted demographics in the Sextech industry is women. Action is often needed to counter sexist regulations, such as Viagra being legal to advertise while women’s libido enhancers are restricted from being advertised in the US.

“Look at the more rebellious feminist brands or an emerging sex toy brand, there definitely is that inclusive tone they’re striking,” Cole says. “Whereas the older brands are still stuck in the old tropes of having a huge black dildo for sale, rather than thinking about female and male and different bodies or how they design for transsexuals. That’s an emerging space which is really exciting.”

OhNut buffer

Unfortunately, no matter if ‘tech’ is tacked on the end, regulation is still a huge hindrance to Sextech. Anything related to an adult industry has regulations surrounding advertising, host website options and even restrictions on card payments. This is especially true for women-targeted products, which are twice as likely to be regulated than male targeted products.

“As much as it’s gathering momentum and we think it’s growing, it’s still not entirely an easy conversation to have,” Cole says. “So, we have these pioneers that are trying to pave the way, through things like getting approval for subway advertising about female health products or incorporating vibrators and lubricants as well as tampons into simple advertising conversations. We have a growing collective of groups just trying to get social media advertising acceptable."

“It isn’t past that social stigma yet – we’ve still got a lot of barriers.”

Keep an eye our for part two of this series, live on Idealog Thursday 8. 

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