The innovation of sex: From phallic 3D printing to intimate wearables, tech is pushing boundaries

Innovative insights, distilled weekly. Tom Ollerton and Alastair Cole offer up cut and paste knowledge from The Innovation Ramble, their weekly podcast which investigates the world of innovation one subject at a time.

The Innovation Ramble investigates the world of innovation one podcast at a time. Last week we discovered in the relationships episode that two Chinese twins were reunited after 20 years apart using facial recognition technology. But that was last week. This week we have a question for you.

Are you interested in sex?

An adult film is made in America every 30 minutes. This is a sobering thought if you believe a recent report that says 40 per cent of porn predicts violence towards women. If Pornhub gets the $3.4m investment it’s after, we’ll soon be watching Sexploration – a porn movie it wants to make in space.

Pornography has been around for more than 35,000 years and archaeologists have uncovered one prehistoric statuette with exaggerated sexual parts that had been carved from a mammoth tusk – meaning it may even pre-date religion. In the late 1800s the invention of flexible rubber allowed the innovation of condoms. These were an improvement on the Japanese using tortoise shells or the middle age practice of women wearing weasel testicles around their thighs and neck.

In 2009, clinical psychologists asked a thousand women from all over the world why they had sex. There were 237 different reasons...including "I wanted to give him an STD,” "I felt sorry for him", "To punish myself", and "I lost a bet." Clearly our sex lives are more complicated today than they’ve been in the past.

From VHS players and camcorders, to incognito browsing and teledildonic, sex has always been a crucial driver of technological innovation. According to historian David Morton prostitutes were early adopters of home answering machines in the 1950s. There are countless articles predicting that we’ll soon be having even more incredible sex, but that’s not the whole story.

Last year a survey by Durex found that 33 per cent of people felt that their digital lives were having a negative effect on the most intimate aspects of their relationships. A staggering 5 per cent of respondents admitted to using Facebook during intercourse. A survey conducted by the Center for Generational Kinetics and Wearables found that a quarter of millennials were willing to wear some sort of wearable technology during sex.

A company called Spreadsheets has taken this one step further by bringing the quantified self into sex. The smartphone app gives you a detailed breakdown of how many thrusts a minute you’re averaging, how long you last and how loud you and your partner get. You can also keep a record of the number of sexual encounters you’ve had, along with the date and time they took place. If you think this is unromantic and weird there are users in 162 countries that say you’re wrong.

Despite all manner of new sex-tech available on the shelves, it’s the centuries-old vibrator that still holds consumer interest accounting for 18 per cent of all purchases. Rumour suggests it was legendary seductress Cleopatra who created the first vibrator. Rather than being carved from wood or rock, hers consisted of a hollowed-out gourd filled with angry bees. If true, that would make Cleopatra a genuine innovator and serious risk-taker.

In addition to enhanced software, the physical form of sex toys is being influenced by the maker movement. For those who own a 3D printer, the site MakerLove offers all types of free sex toy designs for downloading. While some men have begun 3D-printing their penises, this practice has been denied to Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi who was indicted for 3D printing her vagina.

As these toys become more connected, we should be wary of having our most intimate moments interrupted. According to Joe Bursell of Pen Test partners, internet connected sex toys can be easily hacked, allowing people to intercept communications and take control of them.

According to sexualhealthinnovations.org, an “estimated one in five women are sexually assaulted during their college career, and many men are as well”. Callisto is an online service that allows victims to report sex crimes anonymously. Victims can later take it to the police but the system acts as a first step allowing the university to spot trends in the data that could prevent further attacks.

One area where sex tech is genuinely helping is support for those with sexual health issues. Dr Laura Berman (@DrLauraBerman) is assistant clinical professor of OBGYN & Psychiartry at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. She asserts that technology has provided a social support system to a huge population of people who are socially, emotionally or physically isolated. The people being helped are those who find it difficult to find a mate or those who find themselves unattractive to a mate or struggle with social issues, or disabilities.

Tom Ollerton is We Are Social's marketing and innovation director and Alastair Cole is chief innovation officer at Partners Andrews Aldridge / Engine Group. You can follow their innovation ramblings @innovramble and listen to the full sex and innovation episode on iTunes.

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