I’m all for something that builds confidence and makes life easier, but there’s more that meets the eye when it comes to the integration of technology into sexual life, with effects stretching beyond the moment the technology impacts you in a (preferably) isolated setting. Sexnology – the marriage of sex and technology (seen in teledildonics) – and the promise of sex in a virtual reality is reshaping social norms, and bringing a set of new values. Thanks to technology, if you don’t sleep with him after the first date, hey, he’s got his laptop, willing Tinder ladies, or a weird vibrating Fleshlight. Cheers science.
Substantivism – a technological theory – points us towards the impossibility of a technology existing in isolation, instead forming part of a constantly evolving network of interrelating technologies within its society. Sexnology, a shining example of substantivism, combines ideas and practical technologies to give you the best sexual experience science can offer. According to substantivism, the effects of this kind of technology ripple throughout and shape society with its continued development and use.
Building on substantivism and encouraging us to think about bigger questions is Kranzberg’s first law, asserting that “technical developments have environmental, social and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves”. This law tells us that while technology is not inherently good or bad, it is far from neutral. It is social, and its effects depend on the societal context in which it is used. Technology can morph our values, beliefs, and customs. So what do any of these abstract thoughts and theories have to do with us? As a society we are responsible for how we evolve, and how our society evolves with us. We should not take sexnologies at face value, nor brush its significance aside in an embarrassed British fluster. Instead, we must consider how these technologies will change our lives, and should have a say in how deeply they may impinge on our society.
Though we may think virtual sex is only for those who can’t get a lucky break, we need to be aware of the interconnectedness of sexnology and society, specifically the shift in social norms and expectations. Gary Dowsett boldly claims that “sex and technology are indivisible; there is no sex that is not a technology”. In short, as put by Matthew Brophy in ‘Porn – Philosophy for Everyone’, “easy accessibility to virtual pornography threatens to rip apart the social fabric that binds human beings together”. Mainstream technology is removing the need for real people altogether. Brophy enlightens us again: “virtual reality is the endpoint of pornography’s journey. By “virtual reality” I mean a computer-generated “dream,” qualitatively indistinguishable from the actual world”, (…) “though virtual reality technology is not yet sufficiently immersive or veridical, this virtual Promised Land will be reached, according to several estimates, in a few decades”.
The motivation in creating this virtual reality is summed up by Amy Flowers, through this slightly depressing extract about the phone sex industry: “the allure of a phone sex fantasy does not lie in the hope that the girl will come to life: in fact, it relies on the serenity of the caller’s knowledge that she will not. If she were to come to life, with her would come the ambiguity, danger, and difficulties of a real relationship. She is desirable only as long as she remains abstract. With reality she achieves imperfection”.
The combination of sexnologies and societal behaviours may be disastrous in that they facilitate the removal of human connection in the quest for easy breezy sexual encounters. Despite possible societal advantages to sexual openness (a ‘sexual enlightenment’) brought about by the integration of sex into mainstream modern technology, deeply damaging societal effects are very possible. The question is, how can we possibly predict the extent of such societal damage far enough in advance, and is the possibility of such damage enough to advocate technological controls and restrictions?
What springs to my mind with this debate is rape, and concerns surrounding consent. Boys will soon be growing up with technologies that enable virtual sexual freedom, and as a result consent may lose its relevance. When the urge hits, the technology – perhaps soon the virtual reality – will be there to comfort them. A virtual reality does not demand consent, so is the need for consent in this life becoming devalued or even lost in society’s ‘sexnological evolution’? Does virtual sex or sex with a robot count as cheating? Can robots even consent? Some may tut and wave the ‘oversensitive feminists’ aside, but sexnology is undoubtedly shifting our sexual culture. While women may benefit from sexnology in the short term, and perhaps even depend on it to do what their partners cannot, we may be losing out when it comes to the deeper long-term societal effects of advanced sexnology.
The real problem arises when we ask ourselves what we can do about it. We’ve already adapted to the sexualisation of technology – sexnology is locked in to our society to an extent – meaning that restricting a targeted sexual technology would disrupt other already established interconnected technologies, industries, even social behaviours. For exactly this reason it’s vital to be technologically precautious and attempt to predict, as accurately as possible, the influence emerging technologies will have on society before they lock in. In doing so, we facilitate restrictions or controls of such technologies in an uncomplicated manner. Lessons can be learned from the emergence and ability or inability to predict consequences of past technologies. For our purposes here, however, we look to the future.
The argument that sexnology may or may not negatively impact society and create questionable moral standards is ultimately a weak basis for the control of risky sexnology. Technology is constantly emerging and locking in to society at different rates and ranges. In effect, society is one big laboratory and we are all subject to the social experiment of sexnology. Even if it were possible to test the contained social effects of sexnology in an isolated laboratory, who would have the right to restrict these technologies? Strictly controlling sexnology is arguably the same as restricting the public’s ability to explore their sexuality. Surely, only we ourselves have control over our sexual behaviour. Technological determinists would smugly say technology’s lock in with sex was always inevitable, and all we can do is adapt to new technologies.
As ethical beings in a modern technocentric society, we must adapt to currently locked in sexnology, and educate the public about risks with regards to the loss of valuable human qualities, relationships, and morals. Although we must make our own decisions about how blindly to accept shiny new technology, we should take a critical approach, and encourage others to follow suit. Technology is constantly adapting out of our hands, and in our responsive adaption to emerging technology, it is our duty to cherish what it means to be human.
Or maybe we’d all be better off with robot boyfriends. These have been around for a while, ladies:
I am in no way telling you which side of the debate to take. If you finish reading this post feeling inspired to think further, and critical of these emerging technologies, I have succeeded.