Technology has revolutionized how we approach everything from our businesses to our social lives to—well, even our sex lives. The internet has opened virtual doors for both pornography and online dating—two industries thriving in our uber-connected society. Let’s examine what the digital explosion has done for sex and dating—and vice versa—and explore at what’s in store for the future.
Porn: King of the Internet
The premise of content being widely available, at will, and often for free has had a tremendous impact on the traditional media business. It’s had an even larger, and more rapid, impact on the porn industry and has drastically impacted revenue. Want proof? Stats show that in 2001, there were 70,000 porn websites in the United States. Fast forward to today, and that number has soared to over 42 million. A whopping one third of internet downloads—and 25 percent of all internet searches—are pornography related.
The porn industry has long been on the cusp of innovation, especially as it relates to technology. In fact, for all those live-streaming enthusiasts out there, did you know it was a Dutch adult film company that brought the concept of “live streaming” to life back in 1994? Now, of course, live-streaming is everybody’s favorite thing, taking brands from storytelling to storyliving, across multiple platforms in multiple iterations.
A slew of other technologies can be attributed to pornography’s rise. Have you ever bought anything online? If so— and who hasn’t, really? —you can thank the porn industry. In the early 1990s, the first website charging customers for access to porn was born, paving the way for security and e-commerce solutions that ultimately allowed giants like Amazon and PayPal to eventually dominate. There are others, too—the happy endings for products and services such as webcams, increased bandwidth, digital cameras, and more—all have roots in the pornography industry.
It’s safe to say the purveyors of porn are no strangers to being early adopters. Now, the industry’s new focus is virtual reality (VR) and robotics. VR porn, in fact, already exists—and the equipment associated with this application of technology goes far beyond the headsets or smart glasses of yore. Now, enter teledildonics—a fun word you can use to impress (or horrify) your friends at your next dinner party. Teledildonics describes a suite of tools that can convey touch, from a hugging jacket to other not-safe-for-work (NSFW) applications. And there are humanoid sex robots coming on the scene—although they may be harder to take to a dinner party than a living, breathing date.
Similar technologies are also inching their way into virtual dating. FastCompany reports since 2013 alone, the number of young adults using dating websites or apps has tripled. Instead of the now-archaic method of chatting with a possible partner (or, gasp, emailing!), you can use your avatar to role play with potential mates.
As more technologies play a role in the world of sex and dating, challenges will present themselves. My fascination with this stuff is related to privacy and security, because I think these are key issues, and things that it’s safe to say many developers of sex toys and the like aren’t keeping top of mind. Bad enough to have a smart TV spy on you, but to have your personal sex toys subject to hacking—not good.
Changing Patterns and Perceptions
This discussion is about more than the growth of an industry. Technology has also changed how society feels about sex, dating, and our level of access to interpersonal relationships. The norms have shifted. While it has become mainstream in the last decade or so, using technology to “match” people romantically is not a new phenomenon.
As a history of dating compiled by PBS shows, the first personal ads appeared in newspapers as far back as 1685, and the first newspaper for singles was published in San Francisco in 1870. (Fun fact here: Men paid a quarter per ad, but ads placed by women were free of charge.) In 2000, San Francisco’s Craigslist added the option for personal ads before closing it a decade later for fear it would encourage prostitution.
It was back in the 1940s, though, that companies began using data to spearhead matchmaking efforts. In 1965, a Harvard student founded the first electronic dating service, Operation Match (see Figure 1). Forty years after Operation Match, more Harvard students released what would eventually become OKCupid. As the popularity and accessibility of digital technologies has grown, some argue the line between social networking and online dating has been known to blur (see Figure 2). Today, 40 million Americans have tried online dating, and it is the second-most-common way couples meet.
Figure 1. Source: PBS
Figure 2. Source: PBS
Technology drives everything today, from the porn industry to the business of interpersonal relationships—romantic dating, casual hookups, and even friendships. It will be interesting to see the impact VR and robotics have on sex, relationships, and how we communicate with one another in the future. I look for this to be a discussion we’ll be having for a long time to come.
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Shelly Kramer is a Principal Analyst and Founding Partner at Futurum Research. A serial entrepreneur with a technology centric focus, she has worked alongside some of the world’s largest brands to embrace disruption and spur innovation, understand and address the realities of the connected customer, and help navigate the process of digital transformation. She brings 20 years' experience as a brand strategist to her work at Futurum, and has deep experience helping global companies with marketing challenges, GTM strategies, messaging development, and driving strategy and digital transformation for B2B brands across multiple verticals. Shelly's coverage areas include Collaboration/CX/SaaS, platforms, ESG, and Cybersecurity, as well as topics and trends related to the Future of Work, the transformation of the workplace and how people and technology are driving that transformation. A transplanted New Yorker, she has learned to love life in the Midwest, and has firsthand experience that some of the most innovative minds and most successful companies in the world also happen to live in “flyover country.”