Queer and Feminist Reflections on SexTech

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15/09/2023 12:00 am

Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters

A recent article in The Economist suggested that the rapidly growing global market for sexual pleasure and wellbeing-focused devices and technologies would likely increase even more in 2023,Citation1 projected to reach 40 billion US dollars. This market growth has coincided with a proliferation of industry conferences and hackathons worldwide, such as the Reimagine Sexuality conference; the Love and Sex with Robots conference; the Sx Tech EU conference, and the online tech accelerator SexTech School (facilitated by marketer and podcaster Bryony Cole), which has run multiple sessions per year since 2018.Citation2

Sextech is a broad umbrella term, encompassing biomedical technologies, therapeutic apps and platforms, and pleasure and entertainment-focused technologies – from vibrators to Virtual Reality erotica, machine-learning powered chatbot “companions” (such as Replika), and doll-like sex robots. The term itself is widely attributed to Cindy Gallop, founder of the platform MakeLoveNotPorn.Citation3,Citation4

The category of sextech often intersects with femtech, a field that focuses on “innovation that supports and improves female health by way of software, products, pharmaceuticals, and technology”Citation5 (p. 6). While many sextech products and services target audiences via overtly gendered marketing materials, some specifically seek out users who do not wish to associate their sexual pleasure with a specific gender identity or specific anatomical features.Citation6

As sextech founder Andrea Barrica has observed, digital technologies and platforms offer the promise of personalised support, pleasure and information service provision, as an accessible (if market-based) alternative to conservative and/or under-funded public health institutions.Citation3 Certainly, mobile apps are used globally to support sexual relationships and health, although usage varies widely across settings and contexts, and is influenced by local attitudes to gender and sexuality.Citation7

Queer and feminist researchers interested in the intersection of technology, politics and culture are beginning to explore the ways sextech products and marketing materials represent and engage with sexuality, gender, global markets, human rights and data justice. This work builds on concerns raised by global public health and development practitioners and researchers, who argue that the “disruptive” ethos that underpins tech start-up culture is fundamentally incompatible with values such as sustainability and universal access to healthcare.Citation8

This short commentary presents a brief overview of recent literature and popular commentary, including suggestions for new research agendas. We do not seek to quantify the prevalence of sextech use, or evaluate its therapeutic utility. Instead, we adopt a queer feminist sociotechnical approach, reflecting on how cultural assumptions around gender, sexuality, health and pleasure guide and inform sextech markets.

While sex robots have been the subject of both scientific interest and feminist critique (e.g.Citation9,Citation10) – as well as concerns related to data privacyCitation11 – they currently represent the “luxury” end of the global sextech marketplace.Citation12 Consequently, our commentary focuses on questions of data and ethics generated by more mundane, affordable technologies, such as menstrual-tracking apps, sex education chatbots and Bluetooth-enabled vibrators. As digital technologies for sex and pleasure are increasingly networked, both bodies and digital devices are opened up to privacy breeches and data leaks. These highlight the importance of placing community needs for sexual rights and data justice at the centre of sextech futures.


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Citation: KathAlburyZahraStardust & JennySundén (2023) Queer and feminist reflections on sextech, Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters, 31:4, DOI: 10.1080/26410397.2023.2246751

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