Switching positions: This is what the future of intimacy, pleasure and wellness really looks like

sextech

Bryony Cole on the Pause Fest stage. Photo: Priscilla Pho.

Sextech is a growing market, and while it may once have been synonymous with seedy, the conversation has moved towards wellness, pleasure and enhancing connection. But still, according to Bryony Cole, founder and producer of the podcast Future of Sex, there could be a point where things go too far.

Speaking at Pause Fest in Melbourne last week, Cole noted that technology is well and truly intermingled with our lives now.

“But sex? Sex is really hard to talk about.”

Traditionally, the way sex is marketed is either clinical, focused on solving a sexual problem, or as something “dark and naughty”, relegated to the dark corners of the internet and seen as something sleazy.

“It’s really hard for us to talk about sexual pleasure, which makes it really hard to talk about opportunities in sextech,” Cole said.

But, having worked in this space for the past four years, Cole has seen it grow from a $20 billion industry to a $30 billion one.

“In five years’ time, as part of the sexual wellness market, it’s estimated to reach $123 billion,” she said.

At the same time, she’s seen a shift in the industry toward people taking it more seriously.

“Sexuality has gone from this whispered-about taboo to this fully-blown conversation we’re having today,” she noted.

Now, Cole is bringing the first sextech-focused hackathon to Melbourne. Next weekend, the founder is inviting people to come together to build solutions in the sextech space.

The program has run in Sydney, Singapore and New York already, and Cole will be particularly on the lookout for sextech focused on education, health and wellness, and disability inclusivity.

Historically, when people think of sextech, it’s robots, VR porn and vibrators that spring to mind.

But, tech relating to the self can be much more wholesome, Cole says. Think women’s sexual pleasure app OMGyes or even the startup creating lab-grown genitals for amputees.

Actually, it’s when sextech is applied to relationships when things get scary.

“There’s always this fear that technology is going to replace us.”

Cole pointed to tech like the ‘Kissinger’, which transmits the exact sense of a partner’s kiss, and toys allowing people to control each others’ toys remotely.

However, she also introduced Gatebox AI, a hologram girlfriend that gets your house ready for when you return, and also sends ‘I miss you’ texts while you’re out.

When the tech was released, it sold out within the first week, Cole said. Now, there have been about 3,700 human-hologram marriage certificates issued.

“It really struck me how lonely people are, and how much they crave connection,” Cole said.

“Is technology the thing to do the job for us?”

As it becomes more integrated into people’s everyday lives, “technology starts to behave more like a human … and humans are behaving more like technology”, she added.

“That really is something we have to question when we’re thinking about technology in the context of sexuality and intimacy,” she said.

“Because it’s such a difficult topic, it’s often hard to get to those questions.”

For Cole, no matter how good sextech gets, it’s not going to be able to replace human connection. And that’s not what technology is for, anyway. It’s there to enhance relationships, not replace them.

“That’s where we need to shift the lens.”

Between tech in the health and wellness and pleasure space, tech that’s helping solve social issues and combat sexual crime, and tech helping people to be intimate with each other, there are many, many applications for sextech.

“What does the best tech do?” she asked.

“The best tech enhances our lives, extends our capacity to experience. It allows us to take action.”

But, ultimately, the future of sex isn’t about technology.

“The future of sex has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with us,” she said.

“If we don’t get it right in normalising the conversation about sexuality, we won’t be anywhere.”

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