Mashable’s series Algorithms explores the mysterious lines of code that increasingly control our lives — and our futures.
Ever since porn was credited as one of the most innovating forces behind early internet technology, we’ve become obsessed with the idea of tech enhancing our sex lives. We’re so horny for it that we’ve helped build a that’s expected to keep growing.
Sextech often sells people on the promise that algorithms can optimize users’ sexual experiences. But a vast majority of algorithms built explicitly for pleasure remain rudimentary at best and harmful at worst — including those used in s and .
That’s because a lot of sextech relies on a grossly reductive view of sexuality. Exhibit A: The all-male startup that claimed to invent an . Exhibit B: The fellatio machine which promises “the perfect blowjob” thanks to artificial intelligence fed porn video data.
Even the most advanced, well-intentioned sextech is held back by a lack of legitimate sex research, accurate data, and designer diversity. That’s on top of the biases built into algorithms, overstated tech capabilities, marketing gimmicks, and Silicon Valley capitalism.
“The pleasure product industry is one of the few industries that has been relatively untouched by modern technology,” said Liz Klinger, co-creator of the , which tracks and generates charts of your vaginal contractions during arousal. The biggest trends of VR and remote control smart toys, she pointed out, use tech that’s decades old. “Existing companies just don’t understand how software, data, AI, or other technology can introduce new experiences or appeal to new, different demographics.”
The failures to integrate algorithms into sexual exploration and expression go beyond an outdated adult toy industry and bleed into all corners of the internet. As it stands now, the binaries encoded in algorithms seem almost diametrically opposed to the complex spectrum of human sexuality.
But there are ways to change that.
The binaries encoded in algorithms can seem almost diametrically opposed to the complex spectrum of human sexuality.
“Technologists write algorithms that are interacting with these very complicated social systems with no consideration or background in their complexities. But there’s already a lot of information out there on how to approach gender and sex that you just have to incorporate into your algorithm,” said , the founder of , a social media sharing platform that uses machine learning to create a safe space for women and LGBTQ folks to express themselves sexually.
The algorithms policing sex on social media have such little nuance that they can’t even differentiate porn from sex ed, sexual health, or sex commentary. Sexism and homophobia are so entrenched in how platforms like Facebook and Instagram police sexuality that ads for women’s sex toys and HIV/AIDs prevention are banned while ads for condoms and erectile dysfunction pills are allowed. Those same biases plague algorithm-driven sextech devices, too, which often impose false and exclusionary ideals about what the “best” sex should feel like. Lack of scientific research and data around pleasure and sex, especially when it comes to people with vaginas, makes it almost impossible for sextech to deliver on its promises of sexual optimization.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Algorithms don’t need to default to constricting heteronormative male views on sexuality. Instead, a few companies are grounding their algorithms in more inclusive feminist approaches to sexuality in the hopes of countering these cultural biases.
But it takes investment to try something new, which the majority of the sex and tech industries have so far been unwilling to pony up.
WATCH: This is how algorithms work
“We’re seeing an increase in people using sextech to feel connected,” said , an activist for sex workers’ digital rights, vice president of , and a self-described thot leader. “But I always say, with sextech, we’re not teaching yoga or selling smoothies here. We’re dealing with something so intricate, so personal, so deeply rooted in all of us. We need to think carefully about the philosophies we’re putting into these algorithms and talk about their potential harms as much as their potential benefits.”
Once we start doing that, the sex-positive potential of algorithms are theoretically endless.
“There’s a lot that algorithms, software, and other technology can do to help improve pleasure and understanding of our own sexualities,” said Klinger. “For Lioness, some of the uses I’m seeing is utilizing real-world sex data to put different experiences of pleasure into context for our users.”
Perhaps the greatest potential for algorithms in the sexual wellness field might lie beyond just explorations of pleasure. According to Emily Sauer — the creator of the that allows couples to customize penetration depth to avoid pain — algorithms could help remove the societal shame of openly discussing our sexual difficulties.
“We turn to sextech to feel less alone,” said Sauer. “We want to know how we relate to everyone else through the tech, the data, because nobody’s talking about these taboo things that make us uncomfortable.”
The promise land of algorithmically-driven sexual exploration is like playing with fire, though. Algorithms are as capable of destroying healthy relationships to sex as nourishing them.
Fixing the algorithms that police sexuality
Time and time again, algorithms have been shown to perpetuate the implicit biases of human beings around gender and race. The most influential algorithms informing sexual expression in our modern world are no exception.
Leadership at social media companies like Facebook and Twitter tend to be mostly white, heterosexual, cis men. They’re also the ones who get to decide what their platforms — and the algorithms that monitor them — consider appropriate sexuality versus obscenity, or sexual exploitation versus sexual expression on the internet.
Unsurprisingly, those definitions of sexuality are revealing themselves to be very narrow and discriminatory.
Sex-blocking algorithms have been found to disproportionately censor marginalized groups, especially LGBTQ folks, sex workers,