Towards the end of last century, at the beginning of this one, the future of sex was a number of things. It was the nation watching grainy footage of a couple of strangers struggling with one another under a duvet in the Big Brother house. Sex then was FHM’s High Street Honeys. It was the invention of the sexpert, that fake profession comprised of people who were experts in nothing but being able to say the word "clitoris" on TV without blushing. It was the word "erogenous".
The future of sex was watching Alex Zane scrabbling about for his rent money on Rude Tube. Online dating was still something to snigger about, something to goad single friends with. The words "soul" and "mates" were still separate, not yet conjoined: they still referred to a romantic ideal. They had yet to come together to become a way to meet your partner through a commercial enterprise of a national newspaper.
Porn was found in magazines, that were bought in shops. Back then, in that time so cutely termed "the noughties", the media was still widely concerned with the search for the G-Spot. Now, the world has located the G-Spot, and it's looking for something else. The future of sex probably starts with a Google search. Whether you’re looking for a quickie with a stranger or a place to buy a Justin Bieber sex doll, the internet is where you’ll find it. It’s all there, waiting. All the sex. Every person you ever desired but could never touch without fear of a restraining order. Chances are, if you go out tonight into the real world, sniffing about for a real person for real sex, you’ll only go home empty-handed. Not so with the internet.
For most people, sex + internet = porn. Oh, pornography. Where is it going? Cue much hand wringing. Economically speaking, the industry’s going the same way as the movies: down the swanny. There’s the pirating issue, sure, but it’s also quite literally fucked, because we’re all making sexy videos of ourselves for free. Uploading them to tube sites for the world to download and jerk off in silence to is, like anything potentially regrettable, incredibly easy. It’s all getting a bit pedestrian. Take the delightfully named Snatchly as an example: simply put, it’s like Pinterest but for porn; gathering all those sexxxy images from across the web into one place. Take a look. I honestly don’t know what’s worse: the possibility of finding a family member on there, or another fucking Instagram of a cappuccino. Basically, everything's free and we can have it whenever we want.
Some people may well argue that watching porn is not having sex, porn is wanking, and wanking is not sex, they say. But given the growing predominance of porn in popular culture, and the sheer amount of it that we are consuming, is it the case that the future of sex is doing it solo? Because those men and women you're watching – they’re not real. Not even if you put your 3D glasses on. Not even if you’re using one of those special dolls. It’s a one-way street. By satisfying our urges using porn, we might be sparing ourselves the muckiness that sex brings – both physically and emotionally – but beating one off to your tablet device is not having sex. Even if you take your laptop to bed with you every night – sometimes for wild, eight-window porn sessions, sometimes just for a quiet night spent snuggling up to it and watching endless Limmy videos on YouTube together – it's not a person. You know that, right? It's become the new normal to say that online sex now acts as our blueprint for offline sex. That it's our new sex education: “Twenty years ago, sex talk in the playground was all giggles. Now it’s a competition,” says sex therapist Michelle Bassam. “Teenagers are experimenting with more adventurous sex within weeks of their first experiences. The emotions follow afterwards, and the girls, especially, are regretting what they’ve done.”
It used to be that you knew when you were an adult because you suddenly enjoyed eating mushrooms and could be around someone else's child without wanting it to immediately go away. These days, you know you're an adult when you're bored of porn. The future of sex is our nephews and nieces and our kids, and they've taken "dealing with porn" to a whole other level of creepy. A friend recently had to delete his teenage niece off Facebook thanks to her very public sexual confessions (apparently her social group sees nothing wrong with composing Facebook statuses revealing who they’ve recently given "blowies" to). Are you scared? You should be: the future of sex is 14-year-olds in rigorous therapy, having partaken in the kind of activities professional sex workers frequently refuse to perform. But it’s easy to demonise porn, and that’s something we need to resist, even in spite of the continued rise in sex addiction. As addiction to porn increases, it's easy to sensationalise and be all Alan Carr about it while forgetting that most addictions are a tedious fucking drag. As psychotherapist Paula Hall points out, “Value judgements change. It’s a matter of choice, tastes. We do the young a disservice by suggesting they don’t understand porn and know what will harm them and what won’t. There will always be generational differences, different fashions and different norms. Porn only becomes a problem when you’re getting into stuff that goes against your own value system.”
Alain de Botton and his bedroom eyes
Indeed, slaphead pseud Alain de Botton is on a mission to create a “version of pornography which wouldn’t force us to make such a stark choice between sex and virtue – a pornography in which sexual desire would be invited to support, rather than to undermine, our higher values.” I wish him luck. I wonder if he's yet to discover that there’s also that place behind the internet. That place where you can buy guns and girls. I haven’t been, I don’t know how to get there. That, surely, is where one version of the future of sex is being played out. De Botton wouldn’t like it. I know I don’t want to see it yet.
Given our apparent preference for our laptops and self-love over the warmth of a fellow body, it’s pretty easy to let our minds create a sinister kind of future in which we’re all sitting in separate small darkened boxes, our eyes flickering as we plug our bits and pieces into teeny weeny little computers and watch made-up versions of ourselves intercoursing in some kaleidoscopic, fibre-optic, parallel reality. But let's not get too Lawnmower Man. That's not what’s going to happen, is it? Probably not. I mean, hands up who’s even got an avatar? A few of you, maybe. But not enough. The internet may now be the starting point for relationships, sexual or otherwise, but they cannot be fully lived out there. We use technology, Skype and chatrooms, to begin or maintain relationships, but we need the fleshy stuff too: “Sex on the internet is like cookery programmes, they cater to our innate appetites,” explains Hall. “A great cookery programme can ruin your appetite for a bit, it might make normal food taste boring. But at some point, you have to eat.” Robyn Exton, founder of Dattch, a dating app that helps lesbians "eat", also recognises that “online dating can’t recreate a real-life experience, people will always have to, and want to, meet in person.” What dating digitally does offer though, is efficiency. As Exton points out, using a dating app you can look at “50 people in five minutes. What’s the point of waiting for your mate's house party to find someone you like, when you can meet up minutes later?” Not only that, more and more apps are not just about cheeky pics and stats – they allow you to curate the body of users according to specific interests. Sort the wheat from the chaff before you’ve stepped out the front door. Before we have sex, there’s an intermediary stage, a screen, a buffer. We will vet everyone, completely, before we agree to let our parts touch.
Choosing our prospective partners using apps and dating websites is no longer taboo. Over the next decade, it's pretty obvious that we'll stop being embarrassed about hooking up with strangers using technology, but how might our experience change? With the whole world logging on, the selection process will have to become, to put it bluntly, way harsh. Everyone will have to toughen up because rejection will be just around every corner. It's a total catch-22: all the fuckable strangers in the world in one place, and you still can't get laid.
Along with the no-strings sex, it's pretty clear that people – especially women – are increasingly confident about sharing their sexual fantasies. This is good news, though I refuse to believe that it is due entirely to that God-awful bonkbuster book you all already know the name of. Now women can talk about wanting to be tied up and spanked, and they can talk about it wherever the hell they want – in Cafe Nero, on Mumsnet, by the office water cooler. Taboo: broken.
“Women’s expectations are a lot higher now, they want more adventurous sex from men, and they are increasingly less emotionally attached,” says Bassam. “Women have always been taught to deny their sex drives,” agrees Hall. “Whatever the future of sex is, I hope it’s that we’re all more honest about sex and what we want.” Without wanting to sound over-optimistic, I guess that’s always what tends to happen in life and society over time. In years to come, it is possible that all our current sexual taboos will no longer exist at all.
Micah Elizabeth Scott, chilling by a wall
“It feels as if women can do whatever they want,” says Exton. “They have twice as many options as men. Straight women sign up to Dattch, but men aren’t doing the same with the gay alternatives. More and more, women know how to please themselves.” Blogger Micah Elizabeth Scott recently wrote a piece entitled "Hacking My Vagina" (not as Lars Von Trier-y as it sounds), charting her journey to create a bespoke sex toy that "listens" and responds to her vagina in a sensory way. I expect a lot of women would choose an evening with some highly responsive rubber, over some unsatisfactory stranger sex. But maybe men would choose an evening with a bottle of moisturiser and some 3D porn over them anyway. Maybe the future of sex is just us alone in rooms, headphones on, wanking ourselves to death as the bills pile up on the doormat and the dog eats the cat and the child eats the dog in the living room.
Or maybe, just maybe, that's overly pessimistic. Maybe they'll evolve a pansexual version of Grindr for Project Glass and we'll all be stalking the pavements with our goggles on, engaged in a hyperreal version of Snog, Marry, Avoid called Fuck, Fuck, Fuck, indicating our endless openness to others on the prowl with blinking LEDs in our peripheral vision – red means stop, green means go.
For a brief moment, it may seem like the billion-dollar hippies at Mac and Google have finally achieved their endgame of enacting a second Summer of Love. But then, as the little light on your sex app's map that's been getting closer and closer begins to retreat, you realise that people aren't built that way.
Yes, they’ve seen you; no, they're not staying. It is still how it has always been.
Illustration by Marta Parszeniew.
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