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The Big Turn On: Sex tech and its implications for business and culture – from teledildonics to virtual reality

Technology, sex and relationships have changed dramatically in recent years, with the intersection of the three ushering in a sprawling landscape of dating apps, cybersex technology and interactive porn, all of which could have revolutionary implications for business and culture, explains The Drum’s Natalie Mortimer, presenter of The Big Turn On documentary.

The idea of internet-enabled sex toys (aka teledildonics) and cybersex has been around since the early 90s, but with technological advancements and changing attitudes towards sex and social sharing, they are being thrust into the limelight. And when you consider that the porn industry is estimated to be worth $97bn globally, it’s no surprise that sex itself is having an impact on technology. Like the internet before it, the adult industry is embracing virtual reality early, with content on headsets from the likes of Oculus Rift and Google forecast to be worth $1bn by 2025.

The adult industry has also kept up with our mobile lifestyles, creating casual sex hook-up apps such as Tinder and Grindr, where today’s insatiable appetite for choice and the sharing of our social lives is being fed. “It’s really not uncommon for someone who is single to pull out their app and show it to a group of friends at a table,” says Olivia Solon, innovations editor at Bloomberg Business Europe. “Some of the apps and products are slowly chipping away at that cultural prudishness we have about sex and presenting it in a way that’s more accessible to a wider range of people. This is part of a broader cultural shift for people to be more accepting of more adventurous sexual practices, typified by the 50 Shades of Grey effect where we see high street retailers and supermarkets stocking things like bondage gear.”

Advertisers are always looking for platforms with large audiences, so it’s no surprise that earlier this year we saw ads appear on Tinder, with the likes of Bud Light and Fox flocking to get their products in front of the app’s 50 million users, who are estimated to check their accounts 11 times a day. It’s early days for advertisers in the space, but Cindy Gallop is confident for the future.

“Oh my god, there is money to be made out of socially acceptable sex,” says Gallop, founder of Make Love Not Porn, a platform that aims to redesign sex and champion real-life intimacy. “You potentially double, triple, quadruple your returns when you normalise people feeling publicly OK about buying into your business and services, advocating, sharing, and recommending. That’s the billion dollar future we are going after – that’s the power of socially acceptable, socially shareable sex.”

However, Gallop faces a problem. Most business infrastructure, such as email providers and payment services including Paypal and Amazon, won’t work with Make Love Not Porn due to strict ‘no adult content’ clauses in their small print. “That is true for every single sex tech venture and it’s an all pervasive problem people who don’t work in the sector don’t understand. There are so many opportunities but they will not be realised until the ‘no adult content’ clause comes out, and until investors are prepared to fund these type of ventures.”

Another inhibitor is the dark side of the sector, as evidenced when extramarital dating site Ashley Madison recently found itself in hot water following a data breach that saw details of 32 million users revealed online following a hack by a group identifying itself as the Impact Team.

Experts have also voiced concern that the rise of virtual interaction will have a negative effect on reallife relationships. “There is the possibility we could start seeking solace in digital characters and artificial intelligence, as seen in films like Her, and that could potentially mean we are moving away from human interaction,” adds Solon.

It’s a phenomenon already having worrying effects in tech-forward Japan, where a shrinking birth rate has been blamed on young men’s fascination with digital sex and virtual girlfriends. A survey in 2010 found 36 per cent of Japanese males aged 16 to 19 had no interest in sex – a figure that had doubled in the space of two years.

Blurred lines around infidelity are also an issue, with the growth of sex tech forcing us to re-negotiate social boundaries, according to web psychologist Nathalie Nahai. “The creation of teledildonics is going to raise a lot of questions about what fidelity actually means,” she says. “If you strap yourself up to something and you’re making out with someone on the other side of the world, does that still constitute cheating?”

Sex tech is an area of possibilities and challenges. Exciting business opportunities for advertisers and entrepreneurs are limited by timid investors and tight regulations. On a social level technologies are making sex of all kinds more available and challenging taboos in the process. So if these social and corporate barriers are relaxed, sex tech could bring a revolution to the bedroom and to the boardroom.

Watch The Big Turn On documentary below or visit The Drum's YouTube channel.

This article was first published in The Drum's 'Sex, Drugs and Rock'n'Roll' themed issue, published on 19 August.

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