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The Dangers of Data Mining Your Sex Life

An increasing number of apps and gadgets now claim to monitor and improve your sexual performance, all through the magic of technology. Should you start logging your shags?

by Gareth May
Apr 22 2016, 1:00pm

Photo by Aila Images via Stocksy

Down the years I've put my dick in many places.

Fake vaginas, real vaginas, large vibrating silicone asses, orifices of all shapes and sizes, and, I'm ashamed to say, on one occasion, a hollowed out sesame seed bloomer loaf. Yep, that was a very lonely summer.

So what if someone made a FitBit for the penis—would men put their penises in there too? Totally. In fact, one LA-based start-up is counting on any-hole-is-a-glory-hole enthusiasts to do exactly that.

The Lovely made headlines last year when its Indiegogo campaign went viral. A 'smart' sex toy that fits around the penis and tracks sexual activity—charting calories burned, speed in miles per hour, and intensity of intercourse by g-force—the Lovely feeds all this information back to a smartphone app, which in turn uses the data to give sexual advice—from sex positions to pacing—that pops up in a neat little text message. We're talking, "Hi Greg! You did great last time and it seems Ann really enjoys that '69.' Here are some suggestions for more oral stimulation..." This is a genuine example, by the way.

The Lovely is the sexual version of the FitBit or the Jawbone UP, or any other data-acquiring app that enables us to self-monitor our physical activity, sleep patterns, food consumption etc. in order to learn about our bodies' moods and movements and, in turn, better ourselves. As the California-based company Quantified Self Labs, arguably the leading institution of the eponymous movement, say on their website: Body-hacking—or lifelogging as it is otherwise known—is a simple case of "self knowledge through numbers."

The Lovely was due to roll out in June, though it failed to raise more than half of its $95,000 Indiegogo target. But thanks to outside investment, Lovely is still on track for mass production and founder Jakub Konik says it will hit shelves before the end of 2016.

Photo courtesy of Lovely

It will face stiff—sorry, couldn't resist—competition.

Spreadsheets is the self-proclaimed number one sex app in the world (iTunes does not provide data on the number of times an app has been downloaded). A smartphone app from Ardenturous Labs, it uses your phone's accelerometer and speakers to provide statistical feedback about the duration of intercourse, thrusts per minute (TPM), and decibel peak of orgasm. It's provided big data farming for the bedroom since 2013, using the above three metrics to keep a record of your average, peak and aggregate performance between the sheets for a period of months or even years.

I interviewed the app's co-inventor Danny Wax when the app went live. He told me that the quantified self movement was something that intrigued him and his co-creators and that the bedroom was the next logical step for the QS lifestyle. "Without awareness of what your partner wants, improvement will be obsolete," he said. "And using visual recognition for awareness [otherwise known as 'cognitive seeding'] leads onto improvement."

Wax was also keen to highlight the light-hearted nature of Spreadsheets and the Austin Powers-inspired, "Hey baby. Do I make you horny?" interface does make you snicker. The boast that it can be used anywhere, however—in the car, on the couch, on a trampoline, in a hammock—just makes you think of a bruised coccyx.

Potential lower back injuries aside, what are the pitfalls of quantifying our sex lives? Critics would say that the use of wearable and quantified tech in the bedroom gamifies sex, making it something to 'win' at or 'complete.' And Spreadsheets' 30 earnable 'achievements' ("Endurance Novice" for a 40 minute bonk or "F Cancer" for tolling up 21 sex sessions in a month) certainly underpin such claims, as does Wax's desire in the future for "an anonymous scoreboard that lets users strive for improvement or bragging rights."

Others might say that apps such as Spreadsheets don't account for foreplay (although the Lovely apparently does). And then there's the thrust per minute criteria. Since when did ploughing someone like a pneumatic drill make for good sex? Cue: "Come on babe, let's get you out on that patio, those paving stones need breaking up."

There's also the element of the binary selection on Spreadsheets, in particular. There are more options for type of mattress (in order to calibrate the accelerometer) than there are for gender, leaving a gaping hole when it comes to LGBTQ representation.

Tools to measure sexual satisfaction... can also taint the way we may regard sexual satisfaction or any other sex-related phenomena.

That said, in long term relationships I can see how Spreadsheets and the Lovely—specifically with the calendar function of the former—could help spruce up one's sex life, especially if it's fallen victim to the cohabition sin of "I'd rather watch Frasier than fuck." Knowing it was a month since you last had sex with a partner may well shock you into action.

But even if it does, what kind of sex are such data mining apps advocating? When Apple announced their iPhone sex tracker last year, sexual and relationship therapist Pamela Stephenson Connolly wrote in the Guardian: "Electronic monitoring of any activity can subtly change a person's behaviour and cognitive processes. That can be a positive thing—as, for example, in helping to reduce obesity by measuring the balance of exercise and food intake. But in the case of sexual monitoring, the scale and reward system would reflect the programmers' tastes, prejudices and beliefs about what constitutes 'healthy sexuality.'"

In other words, you could be taking sexual advice from someone with a completely different idea of what constitutes a good shag.

Read More: Why More Women Are Having Sex on Drugs

Dr Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist and author of Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment agrees. She tells me that although establishing metrics can be useful to set baselines and measure changes, metrics are human constructs and, as such, are inherently biased with human subjectivities. "Though having tools to measure sexual satisfaction is certainly useful in many ways, they can also taint the way we may regard sexual satisfaction or any other sex-related phenomena," she says.

Body monitoring, however, does have its place in the grander scheme of sexology, in particular when it comes to the slippery slope of fertility.

One such app is Clue, which enables women to monitor their monthly cycle by entering data regarding 'pain', 'mood', 'fluid', and 'sexual activity'. Clue then uses an algorithm to calculate and predict a woman's next period or PMS, catering for women who want to get pregnant, be prepared for their next period, or simply get a handle on their hormones.

Indeed, Broadly did a piece on fertility tracking apps last month with Tabi Jackson Gee concluding: "Risks aside, anything that helps us better understand family planning and the female body is, obviously, a good thing."

Amen to that—even if I'm not entirely sure what women stand to learn from anybody's thrusts per minute.

Tagged:
Feminisme
Technology
apps
quantified self
clue app
Spreadsheets sex app
The Lovely
sex tracking app
Broadly Sex