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21st Century Sex: the shape of things to come

Are bits and bytes changing what we do with our bits and bobs?

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Reg Hardware Sex Week

In the 1980s, when the first HIV and AIDS awareness campaigns were launched, alongside the crashing tombstones, leaflets gave frank advice about the risks involved in digital intercourse. In those days, of course, that just meant pleasuring someone with your fingers. Concerns about computers and sex related to the possibility of low quality images and crude - in all senses of the word - animations being swapped on floppy discs or bulletin boards.

Technology has advanced considerably since then, becoming a much more pervasive part of people’s lives. It’s undoubtedly had an effect on people’s sex lives, too – but is it really changing them, or just making it easier to find like minds?

Orgasmatron - Sleeper

Future sex: Woody Allen experiences the orgasmatron in The Sleeper
Source: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

And as digital technology - robotics too - continues to evolve, how is it likely to alter this most fundamental aspect of our humanity during the rest of the 21st Century?

Coming together

At its most basic, technology has made it much easier for people to find those with similar interests. In 1990, when I started a UK-based gay email discussion list, there were a few sexuality based groups on Usenet, and some closed areas on services like Cix and CompuServe. It’s hard to imagine now in the days of civil partnerships and same-sex marriage how important people found those small communities back then.

Today, one of the biggest dating sites in the UK is Gaydar and there are other sites catering to just about every sexuality imaginable, from the Furry community through varying shades of BDSM, to adult babies and straightforward hook-up sites for singles and swingers. Then there are the escorts you’ll find on CraigsList and even Facebook, and online porn catering to just about every taste, legal or not.

It’s not just dating and mating, of course. Campaigns like It Gets Better show how the internet can be used to try and effect change in attitudes towards diversity in sexual preferences, too.

Durand Durand's pleasure machine from Barbarella

If music be the food of love: Durand Durand's pleasure machine teases Jane Fonda in Barbarella
Source: Paramount Home Entertainment

While sexual minorities might be the groups we most associate with technology in this context, as Sharif Mowlabocus, lecturer in Digital Media at the University of Sussex points out, the proliferation of content means that the average person, who a generation ago might have been exposed only to fairly ‘conventional’ sex, is likely now to be aware of a much wider range of activities, even if they choose not to take part.

Play time

Technology can certainly help us find partners, and show us new kinks, but does it change the way we actually have sex? We’re a long way from the simple pill that Jane Fonda took in Barbarella, but Durand Durand’s mechanised sex machine turns out not to be too outlandish.

Mechanical sex toys aren’t anything new – even the Victorians had vibrators – and arguably, new inventions have been changing the way we think about or have sex, from the earliest carved phalluses, through the contraceptive pill and Viagra, to the latest hi-tech sex toys.

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