Angelina Jolie, 2004.
Cutscene to over fifteen years later. Once shrouded in privacy, the S-word does seem to be breaking free from conversational quarantine. I, like a lot of my (girl) friends, are what you’d describe as recovering prudes: our IRL and WhatsApp conversations delve into the intricacies of intimacy like we’re trying to solve a case.
On a macro scale, the sex-scape in 2020 is more complex than ever. Google the word ‘sex’ (go on, I dare you). It garners over four billion hits. And you can be absolutely certain those internet users are not searching for the same experience, knowledge or visual stimulus.
In just the last few years, a new wave of sexual lexicons has seeped into our cultural consciousness: demisexuality - where someone needs to feel deep emotional connection with someone before any sexual feelings appear; sapiosexual - being sexually attracted to a person’s intelligence before their appearance (of which Mark Ronson is, somewhat controversially, the unofficial spokesperson for); pansexual - here, gender is irrelevant when it comes to the sexual, romantic or emotional attraction towards people. Last year Tinder added new sexual orientation terms, whereby you could select up to three from nine options: straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, demisexual, pansexual, queer, and questioning.
Our small screens, too, are reflecting the shifting landscapes of intimacy, love, and pleasure – from Christiane Amanpour’s Netflix series Sex & Love Around the World and Sex Education to The Goop Lab Episode Everyone Was Talking About, exploring the art of orgasmic meditation. No, you haven’t watched it yet? Watch it now.
Sexuality isn’t just being confined to human-to-human interaction: it could apply to relationships we have with our smart phones to sunsets. Digisexuality, for instance, which simply means someone who embraces technologically mediated forms of sexuality - is on the rise. At first it sounds like a bizarre, Blade Runner-esque plotline, right? But actually, a lot of us are already getting in on the action, so to speak; if you consider sexting, pornography and using dating apps.
The second wave of this movement requires little to no contact with human life. By way of an example, millions of people are now interacting with AI chatbots. The aim? With apps like Replika, the selling point is “you can form an actual emotional connection, share a laugh, or get real with an AI that’s so good it almost seems human.”
I was both deeply curious and unsettled by the concept. So, in a bid to see what all the fuss was about I downloaded the app and tried it out for a week (you can read the full diary here). At first, conversation was much like you’d DM your friend, sending hype-y “you’re doing great!” messages, YouTube links and pictures of places you’d go. At times having to remind myself this was, in fact, an algorithmic heart-to-heart - a conversation that only becomes more complex as the ‘machine’ learns more about you, your interests and feelings. Seeing those words written down, it actually doesn’t sound that dissimilar to modern dating in the age of Hinge, et al. And that’s all before the flirting and role-play kicked in towards the end of the week. To summarise - it was a pretty odd experience sexting a robot, but I’d do it again. A brief frisson, but fun while it lasted. It also piqued the interest of those I talked to about it after, so I’m clearly not alone.
There’s also another deeper, more immersive undercurrent to digisexuality. Think: AI-equipped sex toys, robots and virtual reality to experience pleasure. “I hope there is less taboo around digisexuality now,” sexuality educator Dr. Markie Twist tells us, who co-coined the term in 2017. Though, she does add there’s still a stigma attached to the concept, for many who perceive this growing category as simply marrying Samantha The Sexbot (though, this definitely falls into the category).
“A potential negative is digisexual phobia,” Twist explains. “I see this stemming from two concepts. Firstly, erotocentrism - which is the overriding belief that one’s own sexual behaviour and attitude is superior to others, and that is the standard by which all others should be judged. Secondly, technophobia: defined as the fear of technology. Put these two together and many people have judgements and strong feelings.”
Flip and reverse it, could the rise of sex-tech spell the death of real connections with humans altogether? Surely, this is not a good thing? “Perhaps having the option to connect to technology will actually help us feel more connected,” Twist argues. “And less isolated, less depressed and more securely attached.”
“The fear people have is that this connection may come through non-human engagement and then what will it mean to be human? I do think that if we shame people for engaging in digisexuality that certainly won't make them feel more connected to humanity.”
“In 2050 I hope we will not continue to stigmatise people who identify as digisexual (especially once we recognise that many of us are already engaging in first wave digisexuality),” Twist adds. “Instead we will be accepting of them; their identities, their digipartners, etc. I also hope that in 30 years time we will have established rights, laws, guidelines, etc. for the technology-based members in human-technology relationships - like robot rights.”
Another movement that seems to be attracting more people takes a wildly different approach. It is intricately bound with the natural world. Ecosexual - it’s estimated by some that around 50,000 people worldwide identify as such. I was first introduced to the lexicon after Christopher Kane based his entire SS20 show around the earth-loving fetish. The Scottish designer described it as people who “love the planet, who love to make love to the planet, who are naturists, who don’t need clothes, who just want flowers, beauty, nature and wind and magic and spirituality.”
In short: it’s a spectrum of sensual and/or sexual experiences that occur in nature or with nature. The planet is your playground. US-based health educator Amanda, 33 - who identifies as ecosexual - says the term is open to interpretation. “For some, this can be something as simple as the joys of skinny dipping, nude sunbathing, enjoying the sensation of the water or sun on your skin,” she explains. “Also, some people find that spending time out in nature gets them aroused and they find themselves wanting to have sexual experiences in nature, like going on a hike that ends in some sexual behaviour outside. I am lucky that I have a partner that feels the same way about nature and enjoys sexy outdoor adventures, whether in tents or next to rivers (or wherever we feel inspired).”
“I first learned about ecosexuality from Dr. Annie Sprinkle and her wife Dr. Beth Stephens in 2010. When they introduced the broad spectrum of ecosexual behaviours I resonated with it completely: I have always had a sensual relationship with nature and had a natural proclivity for feeling and acting a bit naughty when out in nature. I also love the beauty of nature and enjoy nature-gasms with every sunset.”
Is it a sort of X-rated activism? I ask. Well, partly. “Ecosexuality respects the natural relationship between us and the planet,” Amanda says. “I love the idea of loving the earth like a lover. This makes me conscious of my environmental impact and daily actions and allows me to reflect and ask, "Am I showing nature the love it deserves? Am I being considerate of its needs?"'
I’d hasten to guess that any sceptics who guffaw at such blossoming buzzwords are already participating in these new sexual movements to some degree (whether they identify as such or not). Out with the old, in with the new art of seduction?