Far too many of us still associate sex education with putting condoms on bananas or watching a VHS of a couple running around their bedroom tickling each other with huge feathers.
Saying that, I should probably be grateful for the bananas in the UK sex ed: in the US, the government has continued to back an ‘abstinence-only until marriage’ approach to sex education for decades – in 2016 alone, it provided $85 million worth of funding for it.
Understandably, many people turn to the internet to learn a thing or two about just how they do it on the Discovery Channel. And while online sex education is in a field of its own (with YouTubers, podcasters and forums all providing a diverse and expanding remit of information), we’re increasingly seeing sextech firms offering a more educational slant to their products.
The question is, why? This didactic offering is being coined as a part of the ‘second wave’ of sextech, which goes beyond solely forms of adult entertainment (a first wave trope) to include different elements that connect to our sexuality, including health, e-commerce and education.
This direction is one that many sextech firms (and brands that fall under the more broad ‘sexual wellness’ category) are heading towards, to facilitate a better experience for its users and, crucially, to avoid strict censorship regulations. Mindful sex audio platform Ferly is one such firm that has gone for an approach that focuses on learning, with the help of its expert-approved, sex-positive audio guides.
Ferly’s co-founder and chief product officer tells, Dr. Anna Hushlak, tells SEXTECHGUIDE that the overlap between health and sex has been largely inadvertent until now.
“The use of technology for sex education in the past has been somewhat accidental. Most of us had pretty bad sex ed, if we had it at all. As a result, we turned to good old Google and in a lot of cases, porn. Now, while there is absolutely nothing wrong with porn in general, there are certain types of porn that are more representative of real sex than others, and unfortunately, it’s only recently that mainstream porn is starting to get a bit of a shake up,” Hushlak says.
“We’re also seeing the rise of hugely controversial forms of sextech, such as sex robots with ‘resist functions’ or virtual partners used to replace loneliness,” Hushlak adds. “Beyond the obvious challenges, without explicit education around consent […] much of this technology risks perpetuating what has so far been, a pretty inaccurate approach to sex and pleasure education.”
While some areas of sexual technologies have caused controversy in the past, particularly in terms of consent in the robotics field, the sextech label – while gradually building a better name for itself – also wrongfully comes with some negative connotations. It’s of no suprise to anyone in the industry that the ‘sex-‘ prefix can make things a little difficult in terms of marketing and promoting your product, particularly when app hosting platforms – such as the App Store or Google Play Store – have such stringent censorship rules.
We, of course, are no stranger to these issues ourselves, as a publisher invested in the industry.
Andrew Yaroshenko, co-founder at sexual wellness app Fantasy Match, told SEXTECHGUIDE: “Despite the obvious demand in the market, Fantasy Match faced censorship when speaking openly and freely about sex. But since the beginning, we decided to have a civil discussion and show our positive attitude towards sexuality, so we’ve developed Mindful Guidelines that we use to create our content. They help us create content that talks about sex without being offensive.”
As such, many startups and businesses are now realising that adding an educational element to their sextech product gives it a better opportunity to rank highly on app stores, and allows it to be shared more widely across social media.
Hushlak from Ferly said that it’s a balance of challenge norms and being deliberate around the use of language.
“From a product perspective, we’ve had to think a lot about language and imagery. Needless to say ‘masturbation’ doesn’t go down so well with Apple and Google. We’ve also had to be mindful of how we portray sex, sexuality and bodies. Interesting that a hand-drawn illustration of a uterus is considered more offensive than a dick pic on Snapchat. On the flip-side, we’ve also just kind of said, ‘f*ck it’, we’re not here to be quiet and the whole point of why we exist is to challenge the status quo around female pleasure and sex education. If people are uncomfortable with that, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Back to school
Offering to teach new positions or help with issues around sex is a pull for many users – many will even pay extra for an educational offering. With evidence-based, sexologist-approved information becoming commonplace among many new sextech apps, it seems you never stop learning – and sextech wants to help with that.
Elise Schuster, co-founder of sex ed app Okayso told SEXTECHGUIDE more about the advice-based app.
“We’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm from teens for Okayso, and actually our oldest user is 74, so there’s a need for information across all ages. As a teen it can be hard to see that there are so many people experiencing similar issues so our users really love that they get to have their own real conversation with experts who really care about them and want to help them and who they can come back to over and over again.”
Fantasy Match’s Yaroshenko told SEXTECHGUIDE: “We help couples bring intimacy into their bedrooms and their lives. For that, we’ve built an in-app Learn section with a variety of educational content. We offer both free and paid themed decks with sexual fantasies which a couple can swipe through to see what fantasies that they share.”
But educating users shouldn’t only come with a target to expand your subscribers. Isn’t there a larger social need to facilitate education in an online space, to reach audiences that previously wouldn’t have been able to access it?
Schuster thinks sextech has a brilliant opportunity to educate such users. “Because sextech companies have audiences who trust them, they have a unique opportunity to provide education that not only helps expand their potential customer base, but also meet people in a moment where they’re already thinking about these topics,” they told SEXTECHGUIDE. “Providing education in environments that aren’t explicitly about education increases the chance that someone might be receptive to that information in a way they wouldn’t have been if it had come from a source they were expecting.”
More health than sex?
The question is whether there’s still room for products that are more ‘sex’ than ‘health’ to compete? Many second wave apps have capitalized on the fact that including wellness elements can make them more marketable, but in doing this, has sextech lost its smutty potential?
Anna Hushlak from Ferly admits a health-focused image does help the company reach potential customers.
“Because we’re also a health and wellness product, there is – albeit slowly – greater recognition of pleasure and sexual wellbeing as a legitimate component of health tech, as well as recognition of the importance of mindfulness for mental health, thanks to the likes of apps like Calm,” Hushlak says.
However informing subsequent generations about sex education has a greater social responsibility than simply executing a successful marketing campaign. It’s a view shared by Schuster from Okayso.
“Sex educators understand that the barriers to engaging with sextech products are not usually monetary, they’re internal, and a genius marketing campaign can only take you so far. Even barriers that seem monetary on the surface are often really about how much we value our own pleasure – we’ll spend $200 on a pair of boots but not on an amazing, high quality toy, because we don’t believe our own pleasure is worth that much. I love that sextech is really embracing education because it’s a good idea financially, but also because it can have a huge impact on people’s lives.”