Interview with Bryony Cole, Founder of ‘Future of Sex’

Despite being inherently natural, the topic of sex, especially that of female sexuality, still manages to draw somewhat uncomfortable reactions. With the rising age of technology, sexual practices are evolving rapidly and to a point where the discussion of ethics are loath to keep pace. It begs the question: what happens when humanity’s most rudimental function assimilates entirely with the digital age? Furthermore, what are the social ramifications of technological advancements when it comes to the progression, and arguably, production, of the human race?

Combating these tough topics is Bryony Cole, founder of Future of Sex, a podcast that explores the connections between sex and technology. A true pioneer of her field, Bryony regularly converses with sex therapists and technological experts on all facets of sex tech, and the potential consequences, threats and moral dilemmas that emerging technologies may pose.

We sat down with Bryony to discuss what inspired her passion for sex tech, as well as her thoughts on being a woman in a heavily male-dominated industry, and the recent revelations of the Harvey Weinstein case.

How did Future of Sex come about?

I was designing an innovation lab for Absolut Vodka, and as part of that, I did a research project where I interviewed over one hundred technologists, artists and entertainers in the US who were redefining the future of nightlife. I met these two guys who were designing these scent releasers that you connect to a virtual reality headset as an attachment. What they were trying to do was recreate a scenario in a virtual reality where you simulate being in a hot tub with three supermodels. I thought it was incredibly interesting and found out it was called ‘sex tech.’

A lot of what gets reported in the media about sex tech is the entertainment angle or pornography. When I started exploring this more it I realised it was a much bigger problem than I’d originally thought and expands so much more than virtual reality. Many technologies impact how we think about love and relationships, artificial intelligence and robotics, to dating apps, science tech and health and education. It all falls under this umbrella called sex tech. That’s how I really got into it as I thought ‘there’s a lot of people creating amazing technology but nobody is discussing the technology and ethics involved.’ What if you create these scent releases and people can simulate being anywhere with anyone?

Say, if you were interested in someone who didn’t like you back and you replicated them somehow?

Exactly! An example would be Facebook. When you upload photos, it can recognise faces and you could ultimately use that technology to put someone’s face on something and engage with them in their own world. We haven’t really thought about it as a culture what the rules should be, and how it would affect human behaviour if say, I decided to date you in virtual reality.

Surely, they have celebrity sexbots? Are they legal?

They’re illegal because it’s constituted as identity theft. Honestly, nothing’s really been put to paper so far. For example, a man in Japan made a Scarlett Johansson doll and things like that are only going to become more commonplace as people get their hands on the technology. There are legal barriers in place but nothing comprehensive. This is really a call to society and not just technologists, to really think about the implications involved with developing celebrity robots. Who governs them and decides the rules?

Could you potentially make a robot and say ‘I didn’t realise the bot happened to look like that person?’

Potentially yes. That’s why people have trademarked their image. Kim Kardashian, for example, has trademarked and insured her buttocks.

What would surprise people most about your job?

I guess people might think I’m pretty out there but I’m a fairly normal person and very traditional in a lot of ways. People think sex is a foreign concept but everyone has sex – it’s how we all got here! I think people expect to hear all these shocking things but in reality, I just get to interview really interesting people. Podcasting is such an easy medium for anyone to pick up. You can do it all on your phone.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

I’m so curious about the future and I get to hear about it from the best people in the world. Sex therapists, technologists, women who are designing and innovating in women’s health and fem tech. I love being able to have discussions with experts and share it with people.

What has been your favourite topic so far?

My favourite topic has definitely got to be one of my most recent ones, which hasn’t come out yet. It’s quite topical as it’s about the future of masculinity, which I think is a really important topic adjacent to sex tech. It’s really taking the tech out of it and looking at humanity, where we are all going and what it takes to be a man. When you look at the news, especially the cases of Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, you see some clear examples of toxic masculinity which are coming from very powerful places.

I’ve been talking to people who are redefining what it means to be a man and incorporating how we reshape these ideas that men are instinctively aggressive, or how they can better harness that aggression. A good example of this is in the episode where I interview a leading sex expert (sexpert) about a sport called ‘Chessboxing.’ You play nine minutes of chess and three minutes of boxing, and that goes until you lose at chess. It really drains all of your mental and physical strength. Though it may not conventionally sound like sex tech, it actually has a lot to do with sexuality and self-control.

My favourite episode, which also hasn’t been released yet, is with Matt McMullen, founder of ‘Real Doll’, a life-size sex doll. We discussed the innovation there, and how augmented reality and virtual reality are shaping how the dolls are seen as companions.  

Have you seen the TV show ‘The Dark Net?’ It’s a show that explores the darker side of the web and how humans are integrating more and more with technology.  In one episode, they explored a growing number of Japanese men forgoing human relationships in favour of virtual girlfriends. What are your thoughts on technology and the potential threat to the human population?

In the past ten years, our attitudes and behaviours towards sex have changed so much. Dating apps and social media have given us so much choice and really decoupled the idea that sex is just for marriage or procreation. Back in the agricultural age, when we were dividing up land and deciding who inherits what, it really created this idea that sex is for procreation. Then recent advancements, such as the pill, really changed our attitudes towards sex.

I did a sex therapy course in New York last year and they gave us a sheet of 500 documented reasons why people have sex. So, not just to have a baby or for fun, but also boredom or a way to relieve stress. There are so many different reasons. It wouldn’t surprise me now with how quickly technology is advancing. At some stage, we won’t be having sex to procreate at all. We can rely on science and medical technology for that. We’ll purely be doing it for the other 499 reasons.

Do you believe it’s harder for people to stay faithful in the age of technology?

Absolutely. I think it all goes back to choice as there are so many options, temptations, and distractions. Straying from a relationship may not necessarily be about the partner, but more so a person questioning their lost sense of self. I think that temptation, when it’s put right in front of you, is a lot harder to control. When the internet first came out, divorce rates went up exponentially, especially with the Baby Boomer generation as people were reconnecting with old high school lovers. Now you’ll see that people are getting married a lot later, and as you mentioned, not at all. A lot of men in Japan between the ages of 25-35, known as ‘herbivores’, don’t date women at all. They’ve given up and there’s a real crisis in Japan with birth rates as people are opting out of partnering.

I believe, at the end of the day, that humans are meant to pair bond no matter how much technology advances. The need to connect and be close to someone isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s a fundamental need, just like eating, sleeping, and shelter.

What have your experiences been like as a female in technology? Especially one that delves into sexuality?

I’ve been really lucky as it’s been pretty positive. I think that’s due largely in part to the community I surrounded myself with in New York, who were all women in sex tech. That has been a great buffer and a source of support when things go wrong, which is a normal part of being a woman, I think. Harassment, gender shaming, belittling and all these horrible things that happen to us as women. It’s all a bit different now as its online and, as someone in the public eye, the spotlight is more focused on me because I talk about sexuality.

Some of my friends who are writers in the industry will receive threats multiple times a week. I’m really lucky that I haven’t had that, more so just interesting people who’ve wanted to connect with me on a different level than I’m comfortable offering.

You have to separate the online vitriol from real life and who you are. Friends are really important to remind you of that, as well as the communities of people working in the same industry. Doing simple things like disabling the comments section on Facebook or putting a quality filter on Twitter are a great way to block out that negative feedback. Ashley Judd did a wonderful Ted Talk on how much bullying she gets online, and even how she has a team of people with an excel document that measures all the type of hate mail she gets, just to quantify it. I think every woman is privy to it in this day and age, which is quite sad.

Check out Bryony’s website here

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