the sex robots are coming

The sex robots are coming

And so are we

Gender neutral sex toys, banging apps and teledildonics – the sextech industry is buzzing. If there was ever a time to want more pleasure for every body, it’s now

Sex today

whether remote or not

is more accessible

than ever.

It’s no surprise that, thanks to the last few years of rigid lockdowns, social isolation and us losing any dating game we might have had, more and more tech is entering the bedroom.

The last few years have seen millions of us swiping right on dedicated hookup app apps like Tinder and Grindr, the no strings attached PURE and open-minded ex-threesome app Feeld. That’s because technology is taking the shame away from wanting hot, instant gratification. What was once considered vaguely embarrassing is now the norm.

Over the last couple of years, sex sales have spiked. Sextech e-commerce companies have had their hands full delivering connected products to people quarantined at home with more free time on their hands – whether alone, remote or craving more fun with others. And as sexual health technology also gains acceptance, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of X-rated soft–or hard–ware entering our private lives.

— sextech (noun)

technology designed to enhance, innovate and disrupt in every area of human sexuality and human sexual experience

Yes, yes, yes! We all know that sex sells. But did you know how much it sells? The global sex toy market is predicted to swell to US$54.6 billion by 2026 – a huge increase from US$35.1 billion in the year 2020. While the Asia Pacific region is expected to witness the fastest growth rate over the next few years, sex toys sales have recently doubled everywhere from Colombia to Denmark. Those sales are mostly online, owing to the stigma attached in buying products openly.

The millennials have a different view of sexual wellness in comparison with the baby boomers, leading to a gradual fading away of the stigma associated with masturbation. This is benefiting the market for sex toys. As more humans seek out sex dolls and mechanical companions, some find that sex robots can take the edge off the loneliness and social stress during the pandemic.

Lars and the Real Girl (2007) features a RealDoll

A shocking pre-pandemic report published by futurologist Dr Ian Pearson tried to convince us that the world will be full of androids by 2050, that most of us will be having sex with robots, and that virtual reality will overtake human-human sex. While VR porn has not become mainstream, the sex business is banging. Offerings are becoming more diverse thanks to the internet and virtual reality, digital platforms and hookup apps, artificial intelligence and advances in 3D printing. 

Here we go: just some of the futuristic things tickling your fancy and stimulating more than conversations around ethics.

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The joy of sexbots

Now featuring everything from built-in heaters and animatronics to artificial intelligence and sensors that react to your touch, life-sized sexbots are becoming more than simply sex dolls.

The Japanese have a word for the feeling of being in the presence of a human being – sonzaikan. But where does the sense of humanness come from? And can you convey those qualities with a robot?

The idea of connecting a person’s brain so intimately with a robot’s body seems straight out of science fiction, yet we are inching towards artificially intelligent companions. An android copy of a twenty-something Japanese woman, Geminoid-F is considered the “world’s sexiest robot”. With it Japanese animatronics firm Kokoro and roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro raise some deep questions about our creations and ourselves. Like all Dr. Frankensteins of literature.

Meanwhile, the Realbotix talking head, which can be added to the hyperrealistic Harmony, is essentially an AI chatbot trapped inside a life-size Barbie; RealDoll has a customisable “personality” with spacial awareness and facial recognition, and Illium Robotics aims to have created “the first real robotic cat girls”. Erm, meow?!

TrueCompanion’s Roxxxy even talks and responds to touch. Robert Hines is the founder of TrueCompanion. He says that Roxxxy also provides social interaction and engagement: “It’s customising technology as a supplement, not to replace a real partner.”

In Barcelona you can even savour the world’s first hyper-realistic sex doll brothel for 100 euros an hour. We can thank Japan for paving the way by opening up its first doll escort service back in 2004. And to top all this off, we now have cyber-brothels and virtual reality experiences for sex in the metaverse.

In 2020, British photographer Alastair Philip Wiper captured a rarely-observed side of the technological revolution, by showing what a sex robot looks like under its fake flesh.

With varying degrees of realism, responsiveness and functionality, these dolls open up Pandora’s box of psychology and science. Could things go a bit Westworld?

Open sauce

Sex toys might have been around for over 100 years, but the digital revolution in 3D printing has made them more affordable and adaptable.

Combining 3D printing, open source technology and a hacker mentality are feminist Catalan collective GynePunks. Their DIY biolab helps socially disadvantaged women and sex workers embrace the notion of a healthy sex life by creating an arsenal of gynaecological diagnosis tools.

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The “cyborg witches” of DIY gynecology

Meanwhile, The Sex Toy Collective offers free online blueprints to safely and privately print dildos at home with a 3D printer: “If you mold it, they will come.”

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Now to the world of ‘teledildonics’ and haptic technology, wireless technology which allows a person to stimulate their partner remotely with the application of wirelessly technology. Durex’s Fundawear is vibrating underwear that connects to a smartphone app for long-distance sexy times; Vibease is a Bluetooth controlled vibrator and app; OhMiBod comes with a headphone jack and pulses to a beat, and LovePalz is WiFi-enabled and equipped with sensors.

If you worry about your passwords being exposed online, it’s good to be aware of the potential risks associated with many internet-connected toys. Sextech companies’ data privacy practices are under scrutiny. The main culprit for the vulnerability issues of most connected toys seems to be the Bluetooth technology

Smart women make smart toys

In an industry traditionally dominated by men, thankfully more women are starting to make innovative sextech toys.

Liz Klinger and Anna Lee are the co-founders of Lioness, the first and only smart vibrator and app that uses AI to let you see and improve your orgasms. In 2020, they launched a research platform where users can participate in medical or scientific studies, as well as ask those questions we all have about sex. Both women grew up in conservative families. Their mission is to provide access to knowledge of your own sexual pleasure on your own terms and destigmatise the taboos around it. “Oh, and make a damn, great vibrator to top it off.” The site also provides no-nonsense Sex Guides and they hope to release a remote-control distance feature.

Meanwhile, Cara Delevingne is also on a mission to normalise self-pleasure and conversations around pleasure and sextech. In 2020 she joined a female-run technology company that empowers individuals to explore their sexuality. In December 2022, she candidly continued the conversation about our deepest desires in her BBC series, Planet Sex. In one episode, we see Cara visit art-science research laboratory BeAnotherLab (BAL) in their Barcelona studio. BAL creates immersive media-installations and new ways of storytelling to experiment with the perception of self and other. Cara tried – and loved – The Machine To Be Another, an Embodiment Virtual Reality System (EVR) which enables two people to swap bodies with each other in real-time. The video of their prototype Gender Swap has had a whooping 3.5 million views, and counting.

If you could see the world through the eyes of the other, would it make it a better place? This demonstrates how innovative interdisciplinary approaches can produce an exciting step in the greater understanding of individuals and society.

The future is non-binary

Over the last several years, sex tech and wellness companies have begun creating products that accommodate all bodies, gender identities and orientations.

Consumers are demanding representation at all levels, especially Gen Z and millennial consumers, who are less conservative and have become more educated on inclusion and self-representation. Contemporary sex toy designers are moving away from the traditional, penetration-focused models. Now people can explore without having to fit themselves into the traditional binary.

Gender-fluid artist Step Tranovich launched Cute Little Fuckers after being diagnosed with Lyme disease and losing hand mobility. Their line of gender-neutral creature-like sex toys have unique personalities, pronouns and names.

Meanwhile in Brooklyn, New York, Wild Flower’s Enby is a sleek, affordable genderless object that’s named after the acronym NB, short for non-binary.  It’s considered to be the first gender-neutral sex toy. The company invites you to “write your own sexual script”, avoiding the prescriptiveness of more familiar sex toy designs.

More gender neutral gems: Leading luxury pleasure brand LELO is an intimate self-care movement that transcends gender, race and age; the infinitely flexible Crescendo 2 is the world’s first smart vibrator that’s designed to mimic fingers (meanwhile, their new Sila Cruise stimulates thanks to sonic waves) and leading audio erotica app Dipsea offers an escape from hypersexual images that don’t necessarily reflect you. It’s created for women, by women.

Unlock your sensuality with Dipsea’s sexy audio stories, wellness sessions and dreamy sleep scenes

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Green sex

The world of sextech is beginning to focus on green alternatives – and things are getting even more weird and wonderful.

Condoms, sex toys and lubricants all contribute an estimated 222.9 million tonnes of waste annually in the UK alone. It’s about time that the industry headed towards an eco-friendlier future, adopting more environmentally friendly practices, from materials to packaging and disposal.

Years ago, iconic brand Womanizer launched a “world first” in the world of eco-friendly sex toys – the pleasure air toy. Now the company has decided to green up. Instead of using ABS (a harmful plastic), the product is made of Biolene – a bioplastic made from natural materials such as corn starch, making it both biodegradable and recyclable.

The perfect sex toy for the environmentally-minded | Image: WOW Tech

Mathilde Mackowski is the co-founder of Ohhcean, the first sex toy range in the world made with upcycled ocean-bound plastic. She explains that the product “combines pleasure with a sustainable approach” and that this is just the beginning. “We’re so thrilled to have started the first wave.”

From plastic waste to waves of pleasure

Which leads us onto… upcycled dildo shoes. Which are exactly what they sounds like. Los Angeles streetwear brand Rose in Good Faith has come together with novelty sex toy manufacturer Doc Johnson to create a pair of shoes using plastic recycled from from unused and damaged adult toys.

Plastic Soul

Founder David Teitelbaum told Dezeen that they wanted to start the conversation around sexual wellness and health, “while also making an incredible shoe that removed excess thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) that would have been thrown away or destroyed.” However, as the EVA foam used in its base is made from petroleum, the shoes don’t directly reduce plastic waste. But it’s a step towards removing taboos.

Mind the pleasure gap

‘Pleasure gap’ refers to the orgasm disparity between cisgender heterosexual men and cisgender heterosexual women. But it can also refer to marginalised groups’ experience of sex. As the ever-resourceful ‘sexnology’ industry enters the future, it is giving more pleasure for all bodies.

We are seeing an increase in popularity of sextech as assistive technology, providing accessibility to people with disabilities, suffering from terminal illness, older populations, and the transgender community.

Designers Hsin-Jou Huang, Szu-Ying Lai and Chia-Ning Hsu created the Ripple Suit to allow disabled people to masturbate.

Meanwhile, the Desire Luxury Strapless Strap-on has wireless remotes and lighter weights for people with limited hand strength or mobility; Lux Botics is developing Bed Botixs, a service robot that enables hands-free sex thanks to a robotic arm system; and The Vdom is the world’s first prosthetic penis. It is set to be a game-changer not only in the LBGTQ community but for penis owners with mobility issues or no mobility at all. 

Out of the loop

Although sextech can reduce loneliness in those who feel a void in their private lives, some are concerned that technology takes humans out of the loop of sex and relationships.

In San Francisco, the superbly named Arse Elektronika promotes sexual activism and tech literacy through an annual conference that questions the impact of sex on technological innovation and its adoption. In the past they have sparked debate on robots and sex work, the value of emotional labour to a chatbot and how to create toys for those with disabilities to sex ed games for kids or the ageing. Johannes Grenzfurthner, the Austrian artist and activist behind Arse, believes that it is sex itself that is behind the spread of high-speed broadband internet.

In 2015, Robot ethicists Dr Kathleen Richardson and Dr Erik Brilling set up The Campaign Against Sex Robots to raise questions about the effects of artificial intelligence and techno-fixes for social problems on real lives. They worry that humanoid robots add to the growing trend of greater isolation and lack of human contact. Kathleen stresses: “We’ve created a society where we think we can live alone and that it’s shameful to feel lonely.” Read the full paper here.

Ex Machina (2015) – will sex with robots be overtaking human sex by 2050?
Ex Machina (2015) – will sex with robots overtake human sex by 2050?

Today, Richardson and Brilling continue to create a new and alternative voice to highlight the dangers of producing sex robots and the ideas behind them and how their production will impact on the real lives of women and children and men.

Clearly a lot of people are reflecting on what the future of love, sex and relationships might look like, while others are doing very critical work in area of issues around technology and sex. This year will be the year we determine what role sexuality plays in the metaverse and web 3. In the not-too-distant future, we’ll enjoy more natural ways to plug into AR and VR.

As taboos decrease will some people buy sexbots instead of connecting with real people? Yes. They are coming. However, the answer is not to necessarily ban the bot, but to de-stigmatise loneliness and keep human feelings, values and responses at the top of our priority tree.

What’s so good about this?

Is the idea of more technology in your sex life a positive or negative thing? Do you think as people discover the joy of sexbots they will become a replacement for real-life interaction? Join the conversation and, most importantly, enjoy yourselves.

Meet the writer

Lisa Goldapple is the creative brain behind the world of TOPIA. The magazine’s Editor-in-chief has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. Today her desk faces the trippy side of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which might explain a few things. To understand how TOPIA came out of this rare brain, read ‘Mind Blown’. As she puts it: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”

Follow @lisagoldapple on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. (Open to freelance collaborations.)

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