The orgasmatron from Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973) seemed like one of those futuristic devices, like the flying cars from The Jetsons, that was destined to be actually invented someday. A cylindrical machine the size of a phone booth, it ensured perfection for people's couplings (or solo pleasures when Allen's character stumbled into the machine on his own).
In Sleeper's dystopian parody, the orgasmatron suggests a warning that sex might in the future become mechanical and soulless: Everyone (except for males of Italian descent) in Allen's imagined 2173 is frigid or impotent, dependent on the machine's artificial stimulation. But if Sleeper reveals those cultural fears, it may also embody some of our desires. Orgasmatronic sex is quick and easy, uncomplicated by all the intricacies that books like The Joy of Sex, published a year earlier, were bringing into the mainstream.
Certainly the movie confirmed, early in our modern technological revolution, that cutting-edge inventions will inevitably be applied to one of our most compelling drives. Forty years on, sexperts are still trying to figure out what the future holds, and to actualize at least some of those concepts in the immediate moment.
"FutureSex," more familiar from the title track of Justin Timberlake's steamy 2006 album, also describes a concept in the field of sexuality, where scholars are assessing and predicting what comes next. Those who sweat these matters converged at Brunel University's "Sexual Cultures" conference here this spring. I'm not a certified sex specialist, just a committed amateur, though when I'm in London I do find that my first name—"Hi, I'm Randy!"—suggests a more eager interest. I was there as a voyeur.
What I found was an engaging overview of Sex 2.0, involving a range of tools, practices, ideas, and other cyberstuff that may demarcate a new frontier in sexual consciousness, both academic and popular. The digital realm offers more pornography than ever before, and other digilibidinous activities like sexting and camsex. Computer dating, chat rooms, and online sex work remain the permeable membranes between virtual interactions and face-to-face experiences. Web portals provide ever more clinical information on sex and health. And virtual communities, AI pioneers, and Second Life gamers continue to stoke and satiate, not to mention monetize, people's sexual appetites.
While cynics may wonder if all this is merely an overly technophilic and perhaps superfluous reinvention of the wheel, many believe these phenomena constitute not just random gimmicks and fetishes but also a fundamentally changing consciousness—a paradigm shift in the way we conceptualize and practice sex.
New technologies generate new experiences. Kenneth Maxwell, a professor emeritus of biology at California State University at Long Beach, predicts that psychologists, chemists, pharmacologists, and computer programmers will collaborate to supplement the sensations that produce sexual pleasure. We've already seen how technology provides vastly increased visual stimulation, and Maxwell thinks all our other senses are similarly ripe for enhancement. "Sensations still untapped electronically are odors, tastes, touch, pressure, and kinaesthetic sensations," he writes. "In the case of odors, we can expect that research will unravel the presently unsolved mystery of human sex pheromones." Other researchers are exploring a "sex chip" that intensifies desire by sending shocks to relevant regions of the brain.
But while cyborgian science promises to have a keen impact at some point in the future, porn is the most obvious indication of changing sexual culture today. Readers of a certain age will recall skeevy porn palaces and rumpled magazines hidden beneath mattresses. Now the greater challenge is not to stumble upon Internet smut: It's as profuse as it once was secretive.
It has become a commonplace that the porn industry drives Internet innovation. From the printing press, photography, and film to cable television, VHS, DVD's, and camcorders, new technologies have always counted porn aficionados as early adopters. Finding dial-up access inadequate, porn consumers led the migration to broadband. The profusion, popularity, and niche orientation of pornographic Web sites serve as models for many other commercial Web enterprises.
Pornography may seem a banal portal to futuresex, but scholars value the entree into people's most intense, otherwise inaccessible psychological and emotional experiences: desire, fantasy, transgression, disgust. It brings private experience into the public realm. Pornography extends people's sexual portfolios beyond their own personal activities, potentially expanding sexual consciousness and dispelling prejudices and hang-ups.
It's a vital societal barometer: Some social groups respond with moral panic, characterizing porn as a trigger of deviance and inveighing against escalation, desensitization, and addiction. Those who are more open—cleverly self-designating as sex-positive, implicitly relegating the opposition to the unenviable sex-negative camp—believe that audiences learn from porn. Viewers pick up new techniques and styles, but more broadly, said Martin Barker, a professor of film and television studies at the University of East Anglia and a keynoter at the London conference, consumers see porn "as a very functional way to open conversations with their partners, and to think about their own sexuality: sexual desires and boundaries and experimentation."
Today's porn is more properly considered as "porns." A new breed of pornographers has democratized the medium with alt-porn of various types: DIY (do it yourself) porn (also known as homecore or realcore), fan porn, indie porn, zombie porn, etc. You name it, someone's excited by it. While the genre has always featured a range of variations (threesomes, French maids, foot fetishists), alt-porn more pointedly spotlights nonnormative bodies and sexualities.
Consider "fat sex," a growth industry, if you'll pardon the expression, in both pornographic and real-world constituencies. It is futuresex not only in some abstract academic meta sense, but also because people are clearly getting larger. Fat activists offer advice and information on topics like sexual positions and fertility, enabling a supportive and self-defined community to supplant a tradition of mockery and marginalization. Like many other emerging sex niches, this one empowers sexually those who were once supposed to be undesirable and without desire themselves.
Futuresex promises such pluralism. One size no longer fits all, not that it really ever did. The formulaic instructions and rote templates ("When two people love each other, the man puts his ...") that once composed our sexual consciousness are anachronistic. The discourse is full of striking new vocabulary: mononormativity, skingays, homospaces, technosexuality, Facebonking, ladyblogs, self-pornification; not once in three days at the conference did I hear anybody say "sexual intercourse."
Another example of new twists and decentered conventions involves the "money shot" (male ejaculation), which has traditionally been the pornographic pièce de résistance. Lucy van de Wiel, of the University of Amsterdam, asked "why the female climax has traditionally been granted minimal visibility" and proposed that "the emergence of the visible female orgasm introduces a new moment in which the economy of fluids is no longer the only primary visual confession of pleasure."
Pornography studies has global facets, too. Katrien Jacobs, a conference speaker from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, studies what she calls porn activism. In People's Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet (Intellect, 2012), she discusses the recent flourishing of that culture's pent-up desire for porn manifesting itself in a range of new outlets, and she sees in this phenomenon the seeds of popular counterauthoritarianism.
A complete ban on pornography dates back to the formation of the Communist state in 1949, so there is officially no pornography in China. But, in fact, Jacobs has found a burgeoning industry. A common motif features "hidden camera" scenes of people in places like parks and libraries, perhaps co-opting and subverting the profuse trope of government surveillance. These scenes are titled and archived by location—"amateur sex in Beijing"; "Chengdu college students"—which Jacobs characterizes as "sexualizing China, or, perhaps, resexualizing it after an era of suppression. The films are very rough and amateur, very 'authentic,' as if to say, sex is going on all over the country."
Jacobs posits crosscurrents between pornography and political activism: For example, the Chinese government accused the artist/activist Ai Weiwei of spreading pornography after he appeared with four women in a nude photograph called "One Tiger, Eight Breasts." And Internet porn-distribution networks also feature subversive memes like the "Grass Mud Horse," a made-up animal whose name resembles a Chinese profanity for a taboo activity involving one's mother.
The liberating aspects of sexuality represented by China's growing porn culture have a spillover effect that fosters other incipient freedoms, Jacobs argues. The appeal of cybersex creates a keen impetus for developing new Web outlets and overcoming censorship and firewalls.
Beyond pornography, futuresex promises emancipation from constraints and scripts. Judith (Jack) Halberstam, who teaches English and gender studies at the University of Southern California, predicted that "the tyranny of the biological family" will dissipate with changing sexual and emotional configurations. As divorce rates rise above 50 percent, she sees a new openness to alternative arrangements. "Marriage might have been OK back when people died at the age of 45," she said, "but nowadays, 'till death do us part' is a lot harder." The future of sex will see the subversion of dysfunctional and crumbling institutions, Halberstam asserted, in favor of potentially fresher and stronger kinship structures like queer families and community parenting.
The University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz believes the future will bring a range of ethical and intellectual global advances in sexuality as significant as the technological and cyberspatial breakthroughs. In the future, "sex will be more of an appetite and less of a moral crisis," she predicts in an essay titled "Creating Sexual Pleasure and Sexual Justice in the Twenty-First Century." And once that liberation is achieved, she hopes the franchise of basic human rights will be expanded to include the realm of sexuality. The right to choose one's sexual partner and one's sexual practices, she envisions, will bring sexual equality for all.
Such macro visions can be approached in microcosmic ways, speakers suggested, like the circuitry of our smartphones. Via "personalized technopractices," mobile technology mobilizes sexual activities, said Sharif Mowlabocus, a lecturer at the University of Sussex and author of Gaydar Culture: Gay Men, Technology, and Embodiment in the Digital Age (Ashgate, 2010).
"App cruising" epitomizes the double-edged sword of new media in sexual consciousness. Grindr is a gay hook-up app, an "all-male location-based social network," as its Web site describes it: "quick, convenient, and discreet. And it's as anonymous as you want it to be." It has generally been enthusiastically received in gay communities, Mowlabocus said, and "not just for sex. It's for the three F's: friendship, flirting, and [the third one]." If public spaces have traditionally proscribed gay desire, relegating courtship and sex to such liminal locations as bathhouses and lavatories, apps can inscribe a gay presence over this proscription, carving out a space and a process for fulfilling desire.
But another geolocational app has evoked a much more negative reception: Girls Around Me, which was recently pulled out of circulation, used Facebook and Foursquare data to reveal who's nearby, what she looks like, and lots of other personal information (which the "girl" won't realize is being harvested from her profiles). One blog called it a "stalker's dream come true," and another said it "takes creepy to a new level."
While Woody Allen's orgasmatron has never made it into production, many sexcessories are gushing onto the market. Japanese sexbots feature soft, pliant human features, touch sensors, mechanical pulsation for tactile arousal, and sound systems to provide love talk when certain parts of the doll's body are squeezed.
Other new gizmos include body suits, programmable vibrators, and teledildonics. That's a kind of simulated and stimulated reality involving interactive sex toys. Devices like dildos and Fleshlights (male vibrators) connect to computer hookups enabling friends and lovers, or even strangers, to activate wireless erotic play from another room or another country. An interactive Fleshlight might record and transmit the specific speed and force of one user's thrusts, and then translate them into pulses and vibrations on the other end. Webcam users, eat your hearts out.
For those seeking new thrills, obviously, this is a doozy, though some will lament the loss of what used to be the fundamental intimacy of human touch. Futuresex is replete with virtual content and commodified products, and the standard dilemma is whether such mediation enriches or alienates.
In Alone Together (Basic Books, 2011), Sherry Turkle argues that increasing dependence on technology leads to a consequent diminution in personal connections. "Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities," she writes. "And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections ... may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship."
And accompanying that arguably lost intimacy is a loss of privacy wrought by the digital revolution, just as privacy has been sacrificed in other realms of entertainment, work, and communication. Privacy and secrecy have traditionally been fundamental to sexual culture. To digital immigrants like myself, their loss is unnerving. But to digital natives, perhaps it will be liberating.
Freud, Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, Dr. Ruth, and so many other 20th-century sexuality mavens worked to liberate sexual consciousness from the psychological and social isolation of an earlier era, in which the watchword (not just for LGBT soldiers, but for everyone) might have been, "Don't ask, don't tell." For better and worse, sexual images, discussions, and communities are now indelibly part of an open-access civic realm. Futuresex is commodified, archived. Sex has at once become technologically advanced and technologically tainted.
Prognostications come with the futuresex turf. The artificial-intelligence visionary David Levy: In 30 years, sex with robots will be commonplace. The journalist Liza Mundy: Women are going to want sex more than men do. The political activist Peter Tatchell: In a future nonhomophobic society, as taboos recede, more people are likely to have gay sex.
I won't add my prophecies to the many already out there. I'll just buckle up and try to keep an open mind—come what may.