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Sextech – the next sexual frontier or a gauge of society’s chronic loneliness?

We all enjoy sex but we don’t really talk about it – one reason that the topic of sextech is so emotionally charged. Artificial intelligence has boldly entered the global (and, more recently, the African) sex market, bringing with it a revolution in robotic sextech designed to provide sexual gratification that is eerily almost human.

Sextech is technology and technology-driven ventures that are designed to enhance, innovate and disrupt in every area of human sexuality and human sexual experience. So says former ad executive Cindy Gallop, the creator of Make Love, Not Porn. Like Cindy, many argue that changing the context in which sex is discussed and examined may go a long way in fixing such sexual ills as sex trafficking, sexual violence and intolerance of alternative sexualities.

Innovators and sextech entrepreneurs have used their personal experience to create apps and platforms that bridge information gaps and improve perceptions of traditionally taboo aspects of sex. Examples include Tina Gong, who made HappyPlayTime, a gaming app aimed at eliminating the stigma around female masturbation. Michael Topolovac and Ti Chang of Lovecrave wanted to change the way women experience sex toys. Kit Maloney of O’actually wanted access to adult entertainment more suited to female consumption. Dema Tio, finding himself in a long-distance relationship with his wife, created Vibease, which allows couples in long-distance relationships to maintain their sexual connection. As the joke goes, “If it exists, there is porn of it.” Now it is a case of, “If the tech exists, there is a sextech option.”
Robotic sextech – or sex dolls – is merely the next level in a pool of innovation that has been deepening for some time.

Is it a win for everyone?

The Doll Forum is an online community that is home to more than 18 000 members. It is an interesting source of information on doll owners – or ‘doll lovers’, as they prefer to be called. For this community, it is, apparently, less about sex and more about companionship. They prefer the dolls to people for reasons that range from social anxiety to simply feeling that the dolls are partners they can really rely on, according to Vice magazine.

A poll conducted on The Doll Forum showed that about 50% of dolls were bought for non-sexual reasons, with 7% of respondents saying the dolls were for cuddling and sleeping, and 11% admitting that they preferred dolls to humans.

Read: African governments, We Want Our Sex Toys!

Such sentiments on the need for sex dolls is echoed by Patrick Meyer, operations manager at LuvLand, the first adult store franchise to bring life-size JY Dolls to the South African market. Meyer says the advantages of sex dolls are substantial in certain sectors of the population. “For men who are disabled, for instance, it’s a way for them to have a sex life. The same applies to men who are more socially withdrawn and lacking in confidence – they seem to be the ones who are most drawn to sex dolls.”

“It’s like having someone to communicate with. Some people put them in their kitchens or lounges and have conversations with them,” Meyer added.

Manufacturers of Exdoll have similar ambitions to apply artificial intelligence to make dolls so life-like that they could cure loneliness among the country’s singletons and care for the elderly and handicapped.

In China there are 33,6 million more men than women in a population of 1,4 billion people. This constitutes a major social problem. Exdoll marketing director Wu Xingliang told Agence France Presse that his company’s products could solve these problems: “China has a shortage of women, and this is a factor in the demand [for the Exdoll], but they’re not just for sex.” Wu, whose customers include single young and older men, but married ones too, went on to say: “We are designing them so they can have meaningful conversations with you and help with chores around the house. They could eventually even work as medical assistants or receptionists.”

On the other hand, prominent Chinese feminist Xiao Meili thinks that some men still have outdated expectations and “sex housewife robots” might actually help women. “A lot of men have the same expectations of women: sex, housework, childbirth and filial piety. They do not think of women as individuals. If every nerd bought himself a sex doll, that would free a lot of women from these kind of men,” Xiao told AFP.

Is sextech all about advancement?

The world is made of layers – so many of them! So let’s examine the ways in which sextech could be problematic. After all, #MeToo is not just a rallying cry; it is a testament to rape culture in everyday situations for women everywhere.

How does this relate to sex dolls? Show-host James Young, a 27-year-old double amputee who has been fitted with robotic prosthetics, expressed it best after watching a demonstration. He said: “It’s a dumb machine, but [the sex] almost doesn’t feel consensual. She’s built for it, but she didn’t really ask for it. She does ask for it, but she’s programmed to ask for it. So did she ask for it? It’s very confusing.”

Women are already treated as sex objects – it is the main impetus for sexual ills. Sex dolls require no consent – could this spill over into Real Life? Here she is – a ‘perfect woman’, ready to do whatever, whenever and however the man wants it. He just needs to snap his fingers or drop his trousers. Sextech like Exdolls is a highly augmented fantasy and, if research is to be believed, augmented fantasies such as those depicted in porn change the way in which people view and interact in sexual situations. This ‘advancement’ could potentially set women back by many decades in the fight against sexual violence and rape culture.

Even when talking about it, experts cannot stop themselves from making degrading statements – like Sorika de Swardt, a social worker who specialises in mental health, addiction and complicated marriages. She said, “They look like us and talk like us. They even feel like a real woman – only better, because they always look perfect and they never age.” I’ll move right along and allow you to read between the lines on the issues arising from unrealistic body and beauty standards and how they have impacted on the mental and physical health of women everywhere.

Issues of ownership

This brings us to the issue of ownership – and it is a doozy, to be honest. AI enthusiasts are either saying, “It’s just a robot – why is everyone so uptight?” or they are talking about how life-like and authentic the experience is. If it is the former, then you have to own your Kink. Having a sex doll would be like having any other sex toy –- this is one of the aspects of Kink. Would this personal information be open to public scrutiny, considering the cost and scale of the purchase of a sex robot or doll? With a pretty hefty starting price of about R16 000, according to Luvland operations manager Patrick Meyer, and the build of a real women weighing about 60kg, this toy will not be easy to conceal, unlike a lipstick vibrator. But if it is the latter, then wouldn’t you have to equate the experience with owning a ‘person’? And not just any person – a ‘sex slave’… As I said, it’s a doozy.

Read: South Africa sex toy trade industry flourishing

Finally, and perhaps even more mind-bending, is the question of romance between man and machine. It is one thing to have an attachment to pocket pussy or a life-size dildo, because that attachment could be equated with the dependency we have on any other gadget or device. It’s quite another thing to have romantic feelings for a robot. In a BBC documentary, Sergi Santos, the maker of the sex robot Samantha, said: “They will fall in love with her. It’s happening already.” According to a report in the Sun newspaper, the designers of Samantha say that the plastic princess is already capturing men’s hearts. Samantha the amorous android is not only erotic but can also discuss philosophy and science and she has a great sense of humour – just like an actual companion. That could either be eerie or reassuring, depending on what end of the doll-loving spectrum you find yourself.

All in all

Sextech is not about porn or profanity; it is essentially a tool to foster human happiness in an area where technology can have a fundamental human impact. When people are more comfortable in their sexuality and can express it healthily and appropriately in their personal lives, then sexual stigma could be lifted and many sexual ills alleviated. And doesn’t that sound like a happier, less angry world to live in?

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