How Tech Will Change Sex and Intimacy, for Better and Worse
The answer depends on how we manage the risks and benefits of “sextech,” the wide range of new technologies that aim to enhance our experience of sex, says Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist and research fellow at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, who studies sexual behavior. Dr. Lehmiller is host of the “Sex and Psychology” podcast and author of “Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life,” which came out in 2018.
Sextech includes sex toys, wearable devices, virtual reality and robots. It has the ability to transform our lives and be a force for good, helping us explore our sexuality and boosting intimacy and connection with our partners. It also raises alarms about privacy and consent. Though some sextech is on the market now, it is very expensive, says Dr. Lehmiller, who expects it to become more widespread in the next 10-20 years.
The Future of Everything spoke with Dr. Lehmiller about next-generation sex toys, the evolution of touch and the potential risks of virtual sex.
Is the future of sex about technology?
Yes, just as most other areas of our lives, including work and relationships, are going virtual. And although this technology is being designed with financial gain in mind, it has the potential to benefit us. For example, we know that novelty is essential in both our sexual and romantic lives—research shows that the happiest couples are ones that try new things in and out of the bedroom. Human beings crave novelty, and it’s a bonding experience when you share something new with your partner.
Let’s talk about sex toys.
Some toys will be about intimacy, not just sex. Robots will be able to hold your hand or provide other comforting behaviors. Already, there are devices like the Kissenger, which allows you to send a long-distance kiss to your partner. You put your lips against an artificial mouth and kiss it and the property of that kiss gets transferred to your partner’s device. There’s a pillow that people are working on that will transmit your partner’s heartbeat to it. So if they’re sleeping in a different place, you can still be deeply connected to them because you can hear and feel their heartbeat.
There are remote-control toys now that provide a hands-free sexual experience—you can use them alone or your partner can control them from a distance. And the future gets even more interesting. There are doctors working to implant electrodes near the spinal cord to give you an orgasm at the touch of a button. This technology could help people with disabilities or who have trouble reaching climax. But the risk is that it becomes a crutch—rather than trying to cultivate fulfilling sexual experiences, people will go right for the climax.
Will our sex lives become more virtual?
The question will be how affordable the VR technology becomes. There’s going to be the ability to customize what you’re seeing, who your partner is, what activities take place. Your partner can be anyone, anywhere in the world—even an ex-partner or a deceased spouse. And you can represent yourself however you want. In my research on fantasies I see a lot of people fantasize about becoming a different person or changing their body.
You’ll also be able to try things in VR that you might be afraid to try in real life. This could allow people to explore their sexuality, share their fantasies with a partner or help a partner learn about them. There’s potential for the technology to reduce infidelity by allowing people to explore their fantasies or interact with others in VR without breaking the bonds of monogamy in the real world. Of course, all of this might change how we define “cheating,” and some people might not distinguish between virtual and real-life infidelity.
What are the drawbacks of VR sex?
One is how we navigate the issue of consent and whether it’s appropriate to bring anyone you want into your VR sex world. Do you need someone’s consent to have sex with them virtually? Another downside is we don’t know what the impact of engaging with a virtual fantasy is going to be. If someone engages in a virtual act that would be illegal in real life, will that escalate the fantasy and make them want to play it out in the real world?
I think the privacy issue is huge, too. Whatever you do in the virtual world, there will be some digital footprint. Who has access to that? What if your sex data gets hacked and revealed publicly?
We need to consider the long-term ramifications. One is if people start to prefer virtual sex to real sex, how does that impact fertility and the survival of our species? Another is how does it affect the quality of our relationships with other human beings—will it push us apart or decrease empathy?
Will we still touch each other in the future?
Yes. Touch is a vital human need—there’s nothing that really replicates it. Skin-on-skin contact releases oxytocin and has physiological effects that make us feel bonded to other people, comforted and soothed. Will being stroked by a robot release oxytocin? We don’t know. But assuming that robotic touch doesn’t cause the same changes throughout the body and brain, then that need for touch doesn’t go away.
Are we all going to have sex with robots?
We’re a ways out from having the versions you see in sci-fi movies. What they’re going for is robots with some form of artificial intelligence, that really respond to you. They’ll have built-in heaters that make them warm to the touch. When they touch you it will feel more like a human being. They’ll have a personality, and you will be able to customize it for your needs. They’ll respond to you and interact with you like they were a real person.
I don’t think sex robots are for everyone. But they might be an opportunity for people to have a sexual interaction if they are otherwise having difficulty having human interaction. They might help with loneliness.
The robots seem scary. What are your concerns?
One big question is: Who is creating these programs? Are they designing them to meet our needs or imposing their sexual attitudes and values on us?
But we’ll still have sex with another person, right?
I hope so. Hopefully we’ll use these things as a complement to our intimate lives rather than a substitute for them—as a way to explore our fantasies and add novelty but not replace human experience.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
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