Technology has always played a major role in the enhancement of our human sensual reality. Ripples from the future find voice in the quaking tremors of sex toys, the seismic shifts of mass media, and enduring whispers of unanswered questions.
From the Printing Press to Virtual Reality
Since the beginnings of literature with Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, erotica — sensuality conveyed through words alone — has consistently been among the most profitable genres of fiction, especially among women 1.
From Victorian times, vibrators were often disguised as anything from handy kitchen utensils to mechanical neck massagers. One look at their elongated, bulbous shapes and attachments often betrays their dual-use versatility.
Today’s technology still transforms our lives in ways both subtle and obvious, as remotely sharable teledildonics share news headlines 2 with emergent virtual reality spaces 3. Media, hardware and software will eventually come together to redefine our conception of wetware, literally and figuratively, reaching deeply into all areas of public and private life.
There has never been a monolithic “right” versus “wrong” way to approach human sexuality. Non-Western societies have a multiplicity of words for an assortment of genders 4, 5. Both ancient Greeks and Japanese regarded love between men as the highest form of bonding 6. In ancient English and Asian 7 theatrical traditions, the roles of beautiful women were often played by young male actors.
Theatrical technology continues into the future, pervading everyday life in the realms of makeup, fashion and style. Increasingly sophisticated clothing interweaves synthetic materials with cloud-based programs to track vital signs 8 and fitness, embed our communications devices 9, and even disguise our appearance to protect us against increasingly intrusive surveillance 10.
From Sexual Liberation to Social Dystopia: Meet The Real Enemies of Society
In an increasingly uneven economic landscape, where the rich get richer and everyone else feels pressured by the downward slide into corporate-owned dystopia 11, young women increasingly sell nude photos by the dozen to their online followers. Non-nude pornography proliferates on sites like Twitter and Tumblr, from lingerie selfies of playfully bared nipples and shapely rear ends to blogs full of blatantly erotic “fitspo” models and yoga posers. Influence cultivated via homespun “authentic” Youtube videos can lead to careers fueled by invasive behavioural profiling, innocently re-cast as “Internet advertising” 12. This is a technology-driven form of “soft” entrepreneurial sexwork evolving from the self-exposure demanded by Silicon Valley’s social media companies. Privacy policies dictated from above in dense legalese are minimally skimmed by attention-seeking users who gladly thumb their noses at the more prudish sensibilities of generations past.
There are harsh downsides and real dangers in this new world of sensuality, sexuality and sex in society. Shaming campaigns, revenge porn, and Internet stalking have reached epidemic levels. Amoral corporate entities like Facebook restructure our ideas about privacy to nudge us into oversharing while packaging and selling our digital identities — drunk tweets, lonely late-night nudes and all — to anyone who will buy them 13. Our immediate present becomes a long-tail past that, once uploaded and shared, can haunt us long after an initial indiscretion, perhaps for a lifetime. The entirety of Gamergate was based on attempts to shame and harass indie game developer Zoe Quinn into committing suicide, partly based on recirculation of nudes that were published nearly a decade prior. What people do consensually in private is never the business of a stranger, much less a pack of voyeuristic keyboard warriors hellbent on false “madonna versus whore” moral-purity witchhunts. Society loses sight of basic morality at its peril, and this is a peril that has quickly become an existential threat.
Privacy and the right to be forgotten, left alone or simply able to control access to non-public data has never been more important. The twenty-first century heralds an age where nation-states increasingly wage information warfare campaigns in tandem with kinetic battlefield tactics. Similar to our understanding of cyberwar, the average person remains woefully unprepared for the new era of misinformation, disinformation and malicious identity distortion that already envelopes and threatens the world’s democracies 14. We are now all potentially social media superstars — or at least stars to our few followers. With stardom’s intense fascination comes the perils of “reputation management”: a single cheeky semi-nude photo, cellphone “sextape” video or inebriated sexy tweet can be intentionally and virally misconstrued to slander a person’s entire identity. Technological capabilities have raced far ahead of the average person’s awareness of their responsibility to check facts and seek context, instead of jumping to unfounded conclusions based on assumptions and prejudice. Our hunger for entertainment often outpaces our willingness to accept the diversity of human sexual expression as technology spreads across the globe at an ever-increasing rate of acceleration.
The overused and irresistibly true William Gibson quote applies here, paraphrased, as everywhere else: the future (of human sexuality) is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. Gibson wasn’t talking about sex 15 but in some ways, sex is now just another aspect of cyberpunk, though Gibson’s original vision (and sexuality itself) is so much more than that.
Trans, human: Redefining nature, shifting social norms, Hollywood and porn
Glacial as it may sometimes feel, social norms are quietly changing. Rap stars now brag about not only fast cars and money, but also an increasing diversity of sexual orientations and inclinations. Pop stars continually push new boundaries as the glistening baton of sexual freedom passes from Madonna to Lady Gaga to Miley Cyrus, Halsey and other mass-media brand names. Androgyny and non-binary gender presentation has become cool with genderfluid personalities like Ruby Rose. Movie stars are increasingly comfortable with identifying as gay, from action heroine Michelle Rodriguez of Fast & Furious and Resident Evil fame, to the surprising insights brought by a refreshingly mature Lindsay Lohan. Transgender actresses and directors like Laverne Cox and the legendary Wachowski sisters, respectively, are powerfully visible role models for young trans women. Many people across the gender spectrum in the Hollywood spotlight are openly LGBT now, and it no longer necessarily consumes the gravitational centre of their public identity.
Homosexuality, bisexuality and pansexuality are as “natural” as any other sexuality; there are hundreds of species whose members engage in non-heterosexual behaviour 16. Human beings simply extend such natural inclinations into the symbolic and technological realms, and bring our intimately imagined desires to life. The internetworked spread of ideas clarifies what has been true for as long as species Homo sapiens sapiens has existed on this planet.
In the fashion world, reality stars like Carmen Carrera and high-fashion models like Andreja Pejić have built careers defying, challenging and changing gender and beauty norms. In January of 2017, model Hanne Gaby Odiele came out as intersex in a bid to raise awareness and help others who are born the same way 17.
Even pornography itself is changing. What used to be considered “gay” among cisgender heterosexual men is now becoming mainstream when a man and a woman do it together on camera. Transgender model Ines Rau graced the centrefold of the November/December 2017 issue of Playboy 18. Playboy is still the world’s most famous and well-respected “lad mag”, renowned equally for its beautiful models and for its high-quality in-depth journalism.
Above all, Playboy and Hollywood encompass massive business empires. They only hire, print and promote what sells to mainstream audiences. The fact that LGBT and non-binary actresses, directors and models (and yes, even porn stars) are increasingly visible means that society is not only becoming “tolerant”, but more accepting of expressive sexual diversity.
Returning to technology, cosmetic surgery merges with transhumanism as more people experiment with body modification. Techniques become more refined, strategic and precise, and will even become even moreso as robotic surgeons take over the scalpel from their human forebears. The line between “extreme” fashion, body modification, transhumanism and posthumanism blurs as augmentations combine style and function. Advancements like augmented reality built into our eyes will increasingly be adapted for ornamental and recreational purposes. First, essential medical devices like pacemakers found their way onto computer networks. Now, consider the increasing prevalence of sex toys that are already being connected via Wi-Fi; as technology begins to enter and take more permanent places inside our bodies, what’s next?
Questions for the future of sex and society
Gender reassignment surgery is real. How long until we have functioning implantable wombs?
In what ways will our perspective rebalance after the realisation that sexuality, sexual orientation, gender, and genitalia aren’t necessarily hardwired together?
How will our attitudes change as robots learn to accompany us and fulfill even our most taboo fantasies?
What happens when our technology-enhanced bodies and brains — meshed into a next-generation Internet of Things, Minds and People — inevitably get hacked 19? How will we protect ourselves from malicious software and memetic viruses that contain transmissions of a sexual kind (in a sense, the newest form of “social disease”, or more accurately, social-networking disease that contains a sexual payload)?
These are questions to be pondered, explored and played with here in this subproject of AltSciFi. The same imaginations that have constructed erotic narratives for millennia can anticipate unseen new directions before they become our collective reality over the coming decades.
Science fiction has always been a place to look toward possible futures. As you’ve read in this overview, society is changing faster and in more ways than most people are consciously aware, but we can all feel it. Sensuality, sexuality and sex offer a window into an aspect of ourselves that few people explicitly consider, but is evolving nonetheless. The implications of our relationship to our bodies and minds as expressed in sexual thoughts, desires, behaviours and technologies has always been intrinsic to our existence as human beings. The sooner we accept who and what we are, the sooner we move to a better future for all.
Welcome to AltSciFi ピンク. ;)
Join us. Explore. Enjoy. Above all, be safe and protect your privacy.
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17. Lindsay, Kathryn. (Jan 2017). This Model Just Revealed She Is Intersex. Retrieved from http://www.refinery29.com/2017/01/137416/hanne-gaby-odiele-intersex
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