(00:04) Welcome to another episode of Humans Aren’t Robots. A series of conversations with designers and creative thinkers uncovering the human elements of teams and modern business practices. Today we have an incredible guest, Bryony Cole. Bryony is doing some really cool work in the field of sex tech. What’s that? Bryony has been spending the last four or five years interviewing and talking to a whole very diverse range of people, from sex educators through to astronauts about sex and narratives around that. So she talks a lot through the lens of technology and wellness and how tech is actually changing sex for us as humans. But we dove in and talked about a whole range of things, narratives around sex and technology, how sex is communicated to young people, how technology is changing the way we look at sex.
(03:07) What was a time in your life that you felt was a defining moment for you that sort of changed your life for the better or worse?
(03:20) I would say being broken up with. I think heartbreak is one of those things that you feel like is only ever happening to you at that moment or could only be as bad. I think heartbreak really defines you. So for me, that was like a real strength build up ultimately and got me skilled in the art of knowing how to look at people and just what character builds.
(04:16) It’s always adversity that builds us stronger. It’s very rare you ask that question of someone and they have this great defining life moment that was this big shining positivity. It’s often a negative.
(04:27)The worst times stick out more than the better times don’t they.
You need both of them right.
(04:32) Isn’t it like you need five compliments to counteract one mean thing someone says to you.
(04:57) They say that feeling’s really only last six seconds or emotions come to visit you, but we think that they’re so much a part of ourselves that the emotions are us. But if you can hold on to those six seconds, hopefully that feeling where your heart’s about to stop moves through you.
(05:27) I was reading an article about that same sense of heartbreak over leaving a career. And that could be through losing a job or just changing.
(05:45) It’s your identity, I think it’s who you see yourself as and who you think, so much of how we see ourselves is reflected in how other people see ourselves. I think if someone took away the Future of Sex today, who would I be? But in fact, I did not have this career four years ago. And so it is such an interesting thing to think about the heartbreak that comes from leaving a career and leaving an identity behind. And there’s something also really exciting about that, like who could I be and who do I want to be ?
(06:46) I talk about future of sex through the lens of technology and wellness. I’ve been studying sex tech, which is a 30 billion dollar industry today, valued at 123 billion dollars in the next five years as part of this sexual wellness industry. I’ve been studying this for the past four years through interviewing and researching with all sorts of people that I would consider experts in these domains. So scientists, founders, sex therapists, entertainers, even astronauts, looking at how technology impacts their intimate lives and society at large and just why it’s so hard to talk about, because we know sex is a taboo topic, and yet there is so much potential with technology to enhance that part of our lives and thinking about sex, not just about an orgasm, but everything that surrounds that. So your health, education, sexuality. So gender identity and things like crime and violence reporting, assault reporting, all these different aspects of sexuality that when we mix them with technology, can have really profound effects, can help us solve social issues like sex education, but also come with a set of challenges like interfering or perhaps disrupting intimacy in terms of emotional intimacy, certainly physical intimacy and whether that’s a good thing. We looked at the rise of virtual assistants that outsource our emotions, and our intimacy skills, whether that’s Ghost Bot. I think the other question is, do we really want to outsource those challenging conversations to a bot, especially for younger generations, around setting boundaries? It’s also like, do we want to outsource, like heartbreak, those sorts of things, such human experiences to outsource? And we also looked at the rise of virtual assistants and marriages to human hologram marriages in Japan, which effectively do the same thing. But they don’t ghost, they actually attach to you and send you emotional text messages and say, I miss you, can’t wait for you to come home. And why are people marrying technology?
(09:31) A virtual hologram that can plug into like a Google Nest or into your automations in your home so you can have someone turn the lights on when you get home or in the future cook dinner or who knows what’s coming next. But there’s a lot of human questions around those things because on one hand, that could be really empowering for some person that isn’t great for me and into personal human connections. That’s actually a way of having an experience that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise have. And on the other hand, is that, I suppose, scary thought about it, depersonalizing us and taking us away from the human element of life.
(10:05) Perhaps for people that just don’t have the opportunity to cultivate those skills because they immediately default to technology, is there an opportunity here for technology to help us be better at that and help us put down the phone and actually engage with our partners? I think they’re really exciting examples of sex tech at the moment that are sort of taking off and getting some funding is the apps that are used for couples to help them become more intimate, whether it’s a series of activities, workshops or telehealth, and like sex therapy tools, like providing people with the tools to actually be human and be in relationship with each other is a real positive.
(10:42) So a big part of what I think what you’re studying, what needs to change is this narrative around sex and intimacy and everything that comes around it. Is the conversation becoming more open, do you think?
(11:05) I think there’s really good signals that it’s changing. Might be a bit slowly. Women’s pleasure is often presented as strange or funny, humorous or weird, even to women that are experiencing it. It’s festivals like PauseFest where they’re putting sex tech on the agenda that makes it an accessible conversation, that normalizes sexuality, and that is a big part of the sex tech industry. And the job that we have to do is actually just normalizing the fact that this is something that happens to everyone. It’s how we all got here on the planet and that helps by having those platforms.
(13:40) It’s funny seeing we’ve got mainstream television sort of normalizing human sexuality, but still we’re having that repressed feeling of well, we don’t really want to talk about this in front of the kids.
(14:07) I don’t think we have given parents the tools to be able to talk about sex and everything that’s around sex. Consent and communication and STIs and all these things that parents should be able to talk to their kids about, especially at a really young age today, because we all carry around smartphones, kids inevitably have to have them at some point and then they have what is effectively porn in their pocket. And we need to help parents have those conversations with their kids.
(15:13) But I think that talking about content, that is actually, one made for women, not from the male perspective and two, actually putting things out there that are going to be empowering as opposed to having a negative effect on a young person that might be watching it. Because there is this worry about the over sexualization of younger people now with things like Instagram and Tik Tok.
(16:03) I think people, when they are confronted by that feeling of like I don’t know if I should be watching this or I feel uncomfortable. A tendency is to want to look the other way. And part of the research I’m doing is actually like, no, we really need to look at this stuff and understand it and talk about it. Otherwise it will get carried away into the darkest depths.
(16:27)We built mobile apps with the Law Society of South Australia a few years ago and built a tool for them. It was around cyber bullying, but a lot of it had to do with revenge porn and nudes and selfies and these types of things. It was an app aimed at sort of 13 to 14 year olds to start tell them what the legalities are, because a lot of the laws are still very antiquated.
(17:10) It’s so important. Most people don’t know. So it’s like, how do we make this sort of more visible?
(17:31) Losing face time virginity?
(17:36) It is popularized as this thing of like choosing who the first person will be that you’re masturbating on FaceTime with in front of. That’s a whole set of issues that we’re not equipped to deal with and kids don’t know. Kids think it’s cool.
(18:15) It’s almost like there needs to be tools to keep everybody in touch with what’s happening.
(18:22) Yes, I’m aiming to build them. But I think that, yeah, people do need to start talking about that. And we probably need more sort of ambassadors to be engaging with youth. There needs to be more engagement with that demographic in the building of these policies or the building of education systems.
(19:10)What is the national framework around sex education these days in Australia?
(19:13) I’m not sure. Sadly, I wish I knew more. I think it is just a lack of education around pleasure. I think we’re better at consent now.
(19:40) What age do they start doing sex education?
(19:43)I think it’s still in high school.
(20:24) I think in Finland they start at five years old and it’s just conversations don’t have to be explicit or about sex, it can be about consent or unwanted touching. And that really helps with, especially now that kids are on technology and we don’t really know what they’re doing is if you can create an environment as a parent or a teacher that’s safe enough for your kid to come to you and say, hey, this is weird, like this guy just asked me about this picture. If you can create an environment for at least when they feel safe to come to you, I think you’re winning.
(20:53) It’s not just all about the orgasm, it’s reproduction. I mean, it’s such a strange thing that the reason why we exist is something that’s kept from us till we’re like ten years. People know about Santa Claus before they know about sex.
(21:08)And Santa Claus isn’t real and then they find out about sex.
(21:42) So how do we start dealing with the Googles and the Facebook’s of the world, the Apples of the world are essentially running our world and that do have strict morality laws around some of this stuff?
(21:52) We protest and we do take lawsuits for discrimination to them. So it’s very grassroots at the moment. We just keep fighting. You got to really love sex tech and want to make something happen to be in it because there’s a lot of barriers like, as you said, banking, advertising, which how are you going to reach your customers otherwise? And I think what we do is kind of find hacks of ways around things to try and get the word out. But there’s yet to be an alternative platform that has the same reach.
(23:00) And there’s obviously, I suppose, a legacy of the adult industry being tied to a more nefarious part of society. But that seems to be shifting quite a lot as well.
(23:23) The conversation does seem to be changing. I mean, podcasting and the media that is available, especially from a female perspective and hearing things from a woman’s perspective as opposed to from a male seems to be growing considerably.
(23:37) I actually think there’s a big space for men there too to also have a voice, because what we hear it’s great that we have all these pleasure conversations that are coming out now involving women. I think that’s really important and needs to grow. But one thing I notice is the lack of conversation about male sexual pleasure in a way that’s kind of healthy or promoting wellness.
(24:31) But then there are nuanced conversations about, well, how do we operate as these men in the world and have those conversations?
(25:10) To have the conversation, yeah, I think it’s so necessary and that’s also like finding a new identity, to do the loop like, well, who are we now? To knowing different things now and change as a society, what does that mean to be a man?
(25:35) It’s a strange being raised as alpha men and living in a culture and growing up and dealing with the world around.
(26:25) But it does feel especially now because technology is making us move so much faster.
(27:30) The technology we have now allows the feedback loop. How do we encourage that, especially from young people to tell them that this can be a two way conversation? It doesn’t just have to be that passive watching other people.
(28:08) That’s a really good question. I feel like that happens throughout all society. But just in general, creators are artists, right? So there it’s just like being able to enable everyone to create. I think the Tik Tok and other Internet tools have done a really good job of that. I think humans are just lazy, like creation takes energy consumption is a very passive tool. And it’s about inspiration.
(29:05) Do you think it’s really changed us? It’s slightly different, but you’re still engaging and sharing. So I wonder if it’s just us sort of looking back, oh, was all better back in our day because every generation seems to do that, I think.
(29:53) I talk to my parents for sure. They’re thinking it was better in their day. I do think there is something to be said about inspiring people to create.
(30:14) One thing I think is amazing about the Internet is you can actually reach out and have conversations with people that you otherwise wouldn’t.
(30:40) This sort of thing happens with technology or any innovation. There’s always the opportunity for it to go positively, as you are a great example of, or to be challenging. And I think for most people they experience both.
(31:55) I don’t think anybody understood, like it wasn’t like this sort of consciousness we’re going to make tools that are going to take over everyone’s mind and all their attention, like it’s just naturally happened organically. And now we’re sort of retroactively going, oh, shit, we spend too much time on these things.
(32:31) Quick question about your podcast the Future of Sex. I really love the format. I like how you structure it. How did you come to that sort of format and structure?
(32:39) I really just made it up. I was listening to podcasts that I liked and I love how they bring in different sorts of colour into the episodes and different perspectives and use different clips and make it a bit popping, for me that was the most engaging. It kind of feels to me like a story or writing a story or filming a movie.
(33:06) Do you sit down and write the story and then go back and work where you can bring interviews in or do you start with the interviews?
(33:12) I start with the topic in mind. So, for instance, space and then space and sex. And I think, well, who would be interesting to talk to? Who knows the most about this? An astronaut, maybe a researcher and a psychologist. Do those interviews, you never know where those interviews are going to go. And then from there, I get a transcript and cut it all up and figure out what’s the common theme here? What’s the patterns, what’s the narrative?
(34:31) Well if you want to find out more about you, where can they find the future of sex?
(34:35) I think the easiest now is Instagram. Future of sex on Instagram or futureofsex.org.
(34:47) Hey, everybody, Sam here again, thanks so much, Bryony for the conversation and PauseFest for making that happen. Some incredible insights there. And, you know, perhaps a new world for some of you. Some of the stuff like Gatebox and some of those tech that’s coming out is really interesting and challenging. And I think what it means to be a modern human and I’m really interested in some of the angle of what is going on is, you know, you see people getting there legally married to robots, you know, in Japan and things like this. So where does this put us in the future? It starts putting us in instead of a Blade Runner kind of scenario.