Nearly forty years ago American futurist writer Robert Anton Wilson penned an essay, The Future of Sex: Cybernetics, Bio-Feedback, Neurology and Plenty of Old Fashioned Dickie Dunkin' outlining his predictions for human sexuality in the coming generations. He extrapolated the shifting culture of 1975 — its drugs, technology, and changing gender roles – into a future of sex where sexuality becomes totally distinct from the act of procreation. He envisions a time when pharmaceuticals and laboratories replace the natural processes of arousal and pregnancy. His essay opens with the statement, "The patriarchal age is over. The monogamous age is over." This shift, he predicts, will totally transform our concept of sex. But how many of his predictions have been fulfilled (in one way or another)? How futuristic is our sex?
Wilson quoted Catholic theologian Michael F. Valente, chairman of theology at Seton Hall University: "Our future will be one wherein sex is linked to procreation even less than it is now. . . . And procreation itself will be virtually emancipated from sexual intercourse in a world of sperm banks, surrogate mothers, test-tube babies and the utter asexuality of cloning. . . . Homosexual acts, for instance, will be seen as merely one sexual possibility among several open to every person, so long as he or – she is not inhibited by contrary programming." This, one can assume, is the somber warning of a representative of a religion stringently opposed to contraception. We need to remember that it was not until the 60s and 70s that court battles in the United States were fought and won surrounding the rights of couples, and subsequently unmarried women, to possess and use contraceptives.
Due to scientific progress in the field of contraceptives, Wilson predicted that by the 1980s few women, in any, will become pregnant accidentally. While this prediction perhaps vastly overstated the efficiency of modern contraceptive methods, it's safe to say that fewer women experience unintended pregnancy today, especially in relation to how much sex they engage in. And, regardless of the actual rates of pregnancy resulting from sexual encounters, the underlying sentiment has, I believe, come to fruition. Despite the shortcomings of contraceptives, their existence has resulted in an important cultural shift in the understanding of sex.
There is no doubt that many people now see sex as divorced, in many ways, from procreation. There is the cultural idea that we may have sex recreationally (with people we would never want to raise children with), use contraceptives, and not fear too much an unintended pregnancy. It is exactly this view of sex that unsettles certain moral and religious conservatives in the U.S., and the current backlash against contraceptive coverage under our country's healthcare insurance is direct evidence that sex with “anyone, anytime, with no strings attached” is a threat to certain ways of thinking.
At the time of Wilson's essay, scientists had achieved preliminary success in the field of in vitro fertilization, the fertilization of a woman's egg outside of her body. The first “test tube baby,” Louise Brown, was born in 1978. The cause-and-effect relationship of sexual intercourse to procreation has been further upset. As Wilson writes, “If some women can have sex without pregnancy and other women can have pregnancy without sex—or if the same women can have either choice at different times-then the moral codes based on the axiom of sex equals pregnancy are as obsolete as witchcraft laws.”
Wilson predicts that future women will not only create embryos through IVF, but will remain divorced from the pregnancy and birth process altogether through the use of artificial wombs. He foresees a future where women will be able to avoid the discomfort and incapacitation of a nine-month-long pregnancy. On the subject of IVF, Wilson is more right than wrong. IVF is now a fairly common procedure for women wishing to have children that they are unable to conceive naturally. A woman may use her own eggs or, if her window of fertility has closed, she may use donated eggs then implanted into her own uterus.
While we have not yet created an artificial womb to gestate the embryos, it is certainly possible to hire a surrogate woman to carry your genetic child. Perhaps, to the 1975 mind, this is an even more peculiar solution. Scientific breakthroughs in IVF have extended the window of time a woman may create a child far beyond what was once physically possible. This, more than anything, has far-reaching ramifications on modern gender roles.
Wilson might have been a bit too hopeful in his predictions around psychoactive drugs intended to alter and enhance sex. But this was the 70s and lots of people were doing lots of drugs at the time. He predicted there would be drugs to foster and also to eliminate maternal instincts in women (not yet) and envisioned drugs that would specifically enhance orgasm and sexual experience. While we do have Viagra and similar drugs to treat male erectile dysfunction, big pharma has yet to create a miracle pill to greatly enhance arousal or orgasm. I'm sure they're working on it.
Vibrators and Sex Dolls
Wilson sees sex dolls (or artificial sexual partners) as the end result of the technologization of sexuality. While he doubtlessly projects that human-like androids will be the endpoint of this technological evolution of masturbatory pleasure, we're not quite there yet. As a culture, however, we have readily accepted mechanical intervention in our sex lives. Recent studies suggest that over fifty-percent of women have used a vibrator at some point in their sexual history. This percentage is greater than or equal to the percentage of adult women who are currently married in the U.S. This comparison is telling, not because women “choose” vibrators over marriage, but because the rise in women's ability to achieve sexual pleasure is concurrent with the shift of women's gender roles away from wives, homemakers, and mothers.
And the market for “Real Dolls,” those remarkably lifelike sex robots, has vastly increased in recent years. Although by no means common or socially acceptable, the rise in beautifully crafted and lifelike silicon sex dolls is driven by demand. Science fiction is filled with projections of future androids in sexual service to humans. In my own futurist predictions, I have no doubt that as soon as there is a humanoid robot with moderate human-like function, there will soon be a humanoid robot for people to have sex with.
What Wilson was ultimately arguing, I think, was that medical and technological progress necessarily changes the composition of a culture, and that such rapid advancement as human's were experiencing in the 70s (and which we still experience today) will necessarily change a society at such a rate that it might be unrecognizable in only twenty-five years. While much of what Wilson predicted has not materialized, at least not yet to the extent that he posited, the direction he presaged is, I think, salient.
His central tenet was that sex would be divorced from procreation in important ways, that is will become, in effect, a means of "pleasure communication." In the U.S., at least, this is largely becoming true. And with the wider acceptance of sex as pleasure comes the reduction in shame and secrecy around sex. When sex is not ultimately and completely linked to child creation, it is no longer necessary to have sex with only those whom you would want to raise children. Thus, sex outside of marriage has become far more common. And with the frontiers of IVF being pushed ever further, women no longer feel the pressure to marry and give birth to children in their early twenties. This necessarily changes gender roles greatly and does threaten the patriarchy, as Wilson noted, in important ways. And with genetic engineering of the human genome and human cloning a seeming inevitability, how futuristic is our sex going to get?
Follow Kelly Bourdet on Twitter: @kellybourdet.