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Digital Feminities and the Ethics of Sextech

Technology is increasingly pervasive in our everyday lives. Given this, it is not surprising that technological developments modulate experiences of sex, intimacy, and pleasure through new devices.

Sextech serves as an umbrella term for digital technologies that facilitate sexual experience. Further clarifying this term, sextech can encapsulate sexual experience “through”, “via” and “with” technology. An example of each of these experiences would be meeting a sexual partner ‘through’ an application, having sex ‘via’ webcam, and/or sex ‘with’ a digital character. The heterogeneity of this field complicates encompassing research, especially in these early stages. Their genealogy, however, is tied to their analogue counterparts, sex toys. Some interesting reflections can be gleaned from turning to early feminist discussions.

Historically, sex toys have been divisive in feminist spaces. As Hallie Liebermann documents in her book Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, sex toys and pornography were not exempt from the US feminist ‘sex wars’ and dildos in particular were a polemic topic. For radical feminists the dildo symbolised women’s oppression subjected to the phallic order, replicating penetration and phallocentricism through capitalist consumption, while pornography epitomised the degradation and objectification of women. At the same time, ‘pro-sex’ feminists argued the sex toys were transformative tools to reclaim and destigmatise women’s sexual pleasure, and acknowledged that women’s arousal was at times reliant on erotic media. These polarising attitudes reflect the controversial nature sexual devices and media initially created in feminist discourse, while also showing how feminist engagement changed the markets and attitudes in sexual devices for women.

Academic research, feminist perspectives and attitudes show a general shift into considering sex toys, and their sextech counterparts, as having emancipatory potential for women. Recent research illustrates growing acceptance and less taboo around sex toy usage. This is so pronounced that sex toys are now seen (and marketed) as tools for women’s sexual liberation and empowerment, a significant factor in maintaining one’s sexual ‘wellbeing’ and a disruptive force in challenging heteronormative views on women’s pleasure linked to penetrative sex. Current, and valid, criticism of sex toys overwhelmingly interrogates the capitalist forces of this field that emphasises sexual empowerment through consumption or challenges the dearth of research beyond European and North American women’s experiences.

In a parallel fashion, little research or thought attends to men’s use of sex toys and sextech – particularly heterosexual men’s usage. Overwhelmingly, this field comprises of sex-doll research, and their potential evolution into sex robots, which is characterised by sensationalising and overgeneralising personal experiences. In sextech production, Ronen notes that: “girl-power sex positivity discourses valorise women’s orgasms, but men’s sex toy use is disavowed and even openly reviled by producers”. This is equally prevalent in academic research, as limited literature interrogates men’s sex toy/tech usage, let alone consumption motives, advertising tactics and design choices.

My current doctoral thesis probes these aforementioned dimensions. Initial research suggests that heterosexual men’s sextech advertising and design choices overwhelmingly emphasise emotional interaction with digital feminities over but along with erotic interaction. These development choices offer sextech products with affordances for emotional interaction with technological constructions of femininity.

This is best illustrated with one case study, RealdollX Application. This AI avatar chatbot is marketed as a “perfect companion”. Promissory discourse states “she is made to fall in love”, users can “take her wherever you go” so therefore – “Goodbye Loneliness!”. The users construct the avatar’s personality and physical appearance. They can select the hair, skin, eye colour, along with clothes and accessories. From the twelve personality traits that include ‘Moody’, ‘Sensual’, ‘Talkative’, ‘Jealous’, and ‘Spiritual’, users select features to create the most compatible character with which to interact. Since its release in 2017, only female constructions are available. Through conversing with the character, users can fill up her ‘pleasure’, ‘happiness’ and ‘lust’ barometer in order to ‘have sex’. This culminates in the user stroking the screen until the avatar ‘orgasms’ as you advance in the game to unlock more activities and “get to know her more”. Ultimately this application, while an illustrative sextech example, centres on conversing and building a bond with the character – albeit for erotic outcomes.

RealdollX highlights where sextech deviates from the sex toy genealogy. The digital affordances, displacement of sex as bodily experience and reliance on digital femininity as emotional assistant illustrates where the tensions are.

Although much more can be unpicked from this one example alone, the case study nevertheless probes some of the ‘sex wars’ feminist debates. What constitutes sex? How far can symbolism, of the dildo or digital character, influence the politic of erotic content? How do representations of women in erotic media, be it through a digitally-constructed avatar or pornography actress, affect our social perceptions - especially when they are represented as servile, controllable, and desirable?

It also exemplifies the complex intricacies of feminist digital/ technology research. Why are technologies increasingly gendered? Why are those gendered-female technologies overwhelmingly assistive? Can a feminised digital character be ‘dehumanising’ to women? And can this have repercussions in our social consciousness of how women are expected to behave?

A growing corpus problematises these questions regarding ‘gendered-female’ technologies and their significance. Early work shows sufficient gender bias to prefer ‘female’ voices in assistive roles. Concerns about how feminised digital technologies will permeate our perception are already being explored. As a UNESCO report highlighted, assistive technologies that laugh when berated and insulted present ethical dilemmas and poorly thought-out choices on the designer’s part. Strengers and Kennedy note there is a “Smart Wife” phenomenon, where feminised digital technologies increasingly offer emotional and domestic support – be that through embodied sex robots or home assistants such as Alexa. Recent media coverage highlights how some users create AI girlfriends to abuse, prompting moral dilemmas about how to curb this.

While emergent sextech reliant on digital feminities is fraught with problems and controversial topics, research on sextech necessitates urgent and further attention. The emphasis in advertising and design for emotional interaction shows a marked shift in sex toy genealogy – but current research would do well to consider the historical controversy that has consistently mired covering sex, erotic media, and sexual devices.

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 Chloé  Locatelli

Chloé Locatelli

Graduate Teaching Assistant in Digital Humanities

Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that use gender as a category of analysis or explore…

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