Sex — where is it going? 5 years, 50 years, 500 years.
For the last thousand years, changes to human sexuality have become more and more frequent, until it’s hard to keep up from generation to generation. If this keeps going, in a few years from today sex may become unrecognisable!
Whenever I talk to people about sex and sexuality, there seems to be a common assumption that the last 50 years are essentially the whole of human history. Forget the fact that attitudes change all the time, with the rise and fall of empires, civilisations, and reigns. But what has happened is these changes are taking place more and more frequently, which explains the small window we as a society tend to focus on. We can talk about the Romans, the Egyptians, the Ancient Greeks and Chinese, but the further back we go, the slower changes in sexuality and sexual behaviour take place. Fast forward to the start of Modern History and the changes are starting to accelerate, usually in line with the monarchy, i.e. a dynastic or political change, due to people with power enforcing or removing societal boundaries in the shape of laws. Like Henry VIII shutting down the brothels.
Sex is like a window to a cultural or social identity, one that’s as much a statement about our place in civilization as it is about a moment in time. Our perceptions of who we are owe a lot more to the development of, research on and cultural attitudes around sex throughout the ages than many of us would like to admit.
Gender and politics in the 22nd century
Take politics for example — politics and sex have been inextricably linked throughout human history. Whether it’s sex trafficking in the earliest known form of slavery (such as Sumer in Mesopotamia, which dates back as far as 3500 BC), or Henry VIII shutting down the brothels in London in 1513, sex has shaped the world as we know it. In her book, City of Sin: London and its vices, author Catherine Arnold points out how London itself was practically built on sex! In the words from the book’s blurb: “ From the bath houses and brothels of Roman Londinium, to the stews and Molly houses of the 17th and 18th centuries, London has always traded in the currency of sex. Whether pornographic publishers on Fleet Street, or fancy courtesans parading in Haymarket, its streets have long been witness to colourful sexual behaviour.”
Modern attitudes to gender identity — probably the biggest social shift in the last 50 years — may show us a glimpse of a more fluid, more accepting approach to sexuality that defies categorising and labelling. As human beings, we seem to be obsessed with labelling, almost as if being unable to label something means we can’t understand it — or at least, can’t talk about it. Cynically speaking, without labels, we can’t commodify it, and put it on the Internet. Which leads us to sex and technology…
Sex and technology: blurring the lines
Sex and technology are rapidly approaching each other. We’ve even coined the term, ‘digisexuality’. What distinguishes ‘digisexuals’ as a sexual identity is that they find their connection to their technology to be very close to those sorts of connections that we would make with human partners. We’re all first wave digisexuals of a sort, in that most of us are using technology, e.g. Skype, WhatsApp, Tinder etc. in our dating or relationship lives. However, there is a rising number of people who are preferring robots, A.I. and virtual or remote experiences over human intimacy. It is easy to turn our nose up against something we don’t relate to, but every non-binary sexual identity that exists today from homosexual to bisexual, to pansexual and asexual has suffered initially from the stigma.
A 2019 Kinsey Institute study found that users of technology designed to enhance sexuality reported feeling connected to virtual partners not just sexually, but emotionally. While 74 percent of visitors to webcam sites, for example, reported experiencing sexual gratification from their visits, 68 percent reported that they received emotional support, and 66 reported that they felt a sense of emotional closeness with a cam model.
The use of technology is very much intertwined with social change — changes on how we view and, in general, judge behaviour. For example, 10 to 15 years ago, online dating was almost taboo. Today, people swipe and hook up and date via app, which is an evolution past online dating, and which has been totally normalised.
Broadband internet and the availability of porn is changing our brains. Intimacy is changing. The human evolutionary drive to have sex, once purely physical, is moving us towards the digital world — for all the good and bad that may entail. Younger generations are growing up with porn addictions and an inability to form fulfilling intimate relationships, and increasing expectations modelled on pornography. As more pornography is consumed it has become more ‘extreme’ and hardcore over the years. As a result, arguably, so too are the boundaries of what’s considered ‘normal’ or expected behaviour with sexual partners, especially in those consuming it.
Face-time not face-to-face time
The age-old way of meeting partners organically, face-to-face, seems to be at an end for younger generations, who now rely on dating apps. Instead of calling they message and text, before even meeting up. Does this make sex more transactional?
Seduction in a virtual world
Some have even lamented the lack of what is often called ‘the chase’ — a slow release of dopamine that is more often as not associated with competing, winning and losing — gamification, if you like, of our Darwinian evolutionary drive. This drive is historically male, but transgender in a modern context.
The rise of digisexuality and the increase in virtual sexuality have placed ‘the chase’ in a new context (the metaverse, as many are now calling it). Gamification of sex has arguably been prominent in male/macho culture for thousands of years — the old notion that the more people you sleep with the more ‘manly’ you supposedly are…but in a world of big data, apps and actual gamification (swiping, etc.) where identity is virtual, fluid, and often constructed, new rules and new rewards are yet to be fully understood.
The act of flirting is changing too. #MeToo and cancel culture has put more scrutiny than ever on appropriate vs inappropriate behaviour, and on consent. The word seduction feels darker and more ominous in a modern world. It implies manipulation, persuasion…will it have a place in a post-#metoo, post-Weinstein future? Or will it become illegal, as nefarious as grooming, and other heinous activities that lead to breaking the law. Has it ever been ethical?
Consent in a virtual world
Technology like hook-up apps does not mean consent is more easily established. Although all parties involved are able to say yes or no long before being in the physical presence of the other person, it is every person’s right (and the law) to be able to say no at the very last second, without fear of recrimination, on equal terms, and with a clear head. However, the hook-up app has created situations where people take more risks. They have also amplified predatory behaviour and people not being who they say they are, which continues to lead to some horrifying situations which the law and policing are still trying to catch up on. And while the adoption of these kind of platforms increases exponentially, so do the risks, and the need to educate ourselves on the dangers.
Where will it all end up?
There is definitely movement to more open-mindedness and more acceptance of sex and what it means to people and to wider society. But at the same time technology has created new consensus, which requires delineation and definition. Perhaps we are witnessing a ‘pendulum’ effect, where after a short period of liberalness future generations may swing the other way. I’m not suggesting that we will return to pre-Victorian eras of excess, but our children’s children may be a lot more conformist and restrained, by choice. Perhaps we will see the rise of a puritan culture in the metaverse. One thing is certain — everything changes.