For quite a while now, the “future of sex” has had a mascot: A sex robot, like Roxxxy TrueCompanion [NSFW]. Or maybe it’s a disembodied female voice, like in the Spike Jonze film Her, allowing an awkward man to have a virtual girlfriend. It could be the future of sex is just a mild upgrade of Lars and the Real Girl, where Ryan Gosling carries a doll around; or a Star Trek-like scenario where holographic paramours realize our every fantasy.
Whatever form it takes, the vision is clear: In the future, technology will cater to our every erotic whim–with or without help from human partners.
More serious futurists like David Levy have envisioned a more fleshed-out future for these female sex proxies, where robotic romantic partners are commonplace: Where human partners might struggle to figure out our needs and desires, robots will have the ability to monitor and analyze on the most microscopic level, enabling them to transform into our ideal partners. Others are predicting that virtual reality or teledildonics (a system in which Internet-enhanced sex toys enable lovers to stimulate each other remotely) allow us to have mindblowing sex with partners who are thousands of miles away. In many circles, these non-human lovers have become embedded as the cultural assumption of where sex is headed; serving as a sort of shorthand for the inevitable future of sex.
What is odd, however, is that the biggest proponents of this vision of future sex seem to be men–even though it is women, not men, who are the primary purchasers of sex toys, and thus the consumers most likely to literally take them home.
“After 37 years [in the sex toy business], women have always been our customer,” says Coyote Amrich, purchasing manager for San Francisco-based sex toy shop Good Vibrations. “That was the driving force of our business.”
For despite the hold popular predictions have on our collective imagination, they haven’t quite panned out in the marketplace. The remote sex device Real Touch [NSFW] ceased sales earlier this year, while sex doll companies like Real Doll and TrueCompanion remain niche concerns. An analysis of U.K. sex toy distributor LoveHoney’s sales data shows that, even as high-tech sex gadgets make their way onto the market, it’s still the century-old vibrator that holds consumer interest–18% of all purchases.
So what might the future of sex look like if it’s not a buxom robot-doll?
Instead of futuristic gadgets that remake the very notion of sex, Amrich predicts innovations that are more about improving on existing technology; making toys that are lighter, quieter, and stronger, as well as using better materials and with better battery life. Amrich also sees a future for toys that enhance the sex we’re already having, “creating ways for people to have enhanced intimacy and enhanced sensation.” As she sees it, there’s a great deal of potential in toys that allow us to up the ante and intensify sexual experiences we already enjoy. Where once a person may have given merely a blowjob, now we’ll have technology that’ll allow for an incredible blowjob.
But what sort of technology could allow for that sort of enhanced experience? Dr. Kristen Stubbs, a queer/pansexual roboticist who has a PhD from Carnegie Mellon and runs a crowdfunding startup for sexuality-focused technology, offered up one possibility. For Stubbs, the true future of sex toys lies in shifting the products from open-loop to closed-loop controllers. In layman’s terms, a device with open-loop control responds only to its on/off switch: You turn it on, it does its job (in the case of a sex toy, by vibrating), and that’s the end of the story. A closed-loop control, on the other hand, has sensors that provide the device with information about the outside world, allowing it to adapt its behavior as the situation requires.
In sex tech terms, closed-loop controllers could mean “a toy [that] could tell how aroused you are, or how close you are to orgasm.” For a single person, this might take the form of a vibrator that gets better every time you use it, learning how to pleasure you in the most efficient way possible. For products geared toward couples, this sort of technology could allow partners to get a deeper understanding of the things that really give their partner pleasure–and, potentially, enable the incredible, tech-enhanced blowjob that Amrich envisions.
Not that all women are down on the idea of sex robots. Annalee Newitz, the founding editor of sci-fi site io9, feels that robots have long been an object of sexual fascination, and will continue to be so for a number of people. But even Newitz sees this as a distant possibility, anticipating that within 10 to 20 years, we’ll have the “Google Glass of robot sex.” “Really clunky, barely usable, shitty interface, no apps,” she says. And even if robot sex fulfills its promise, Newitz acknowledges that it will likely remain a niche interest.
Like Amrich and Stubbs, she anticipates that most advances will predominantly serve to improve on, not replace, the existing pleasure products we enjoy. “A lot of technologies don’t really change that much. Like vibrators? They’re awesome. And we’ve had them now for over a century, because they’re awesome and they work.”
From that perspective, the future of sex toys looks more like the future of the rest of the consumer tech. If wearables truly take off, there’s no reason to think they won’t eventually influence the way we have sex. Newitz envisions a kind of “cyborg sex,” where the act is enhanced by small vibrators worn all over our bodies. Or, taking inspiration from video game controllers, perhaps sex toy manufacturers will begin incorporating EEG controllers into their products, allowing you to literally think your partner into an orgasmic frenzy.
A good general guideline for the future of sex tech? According to Newitz, it comes back to humans being a “tool-using animal.” “And so any time we have a tool, we’re going to use it for sex,” she says. Doubly so if that tool enhances sensation, or allows the body to explore experiences beyond its physical limits. The future might be tech-enabled, but, femmebot fantasies aside, not actually disembodied–if women have anything to do with it.