In one of the leading speakers at the upcoming Reflect futurecasting festival, THEO PANAYIDES meets a risk taker, a former competitive snowboarder and IT executive who is now the world’s leading authority on sextech
If you want to see how technology is changing the world, note that I spoke via Zoom with Bryony Cole in Australia – 10am in Nicosia for me, 5pm on the outskirts of Melbourne for her – a (surprisingly non-glitchy) face-to-face that would’ve seemed like science fiction two decades ago. You want more? Note that she’ll be talking to a whole online audience at the very excellent Reflect Festival (www.reflectfest.com) next weekend, joining a host of speakers at the Limassol-based fest which has had to go (mostly) virtual, for the usual precautionary reasons.
You want even more? How about ‘Harmony AI’, the first sex-capable AI (a.k.a. sex doll) that comes with 12 different personality types and will even recite poetry to you? How about Mend, an AI chatbot that helps you get through a breakup using a specific algorithm for three months? How about OMG Yes, using touchscreen technology to teach women how to bring themselves to orgasm? How about a virtual-reality headset – the tech is there, albeit still in the experimental stage – that’ll allow men and women to swap (virtual) bodies, so you look down and you’re suddenly a different gender?
It may seem like we’ve veered off the subject – but in fact it’s not just communications that have been transformed by the tech revolution; how, after all, does it help to be instantly connected to a person halfway around the world if you’re still alienated from your own body? Bryony, an affable 37-year-old, is also “the world’s leading authority on sextech” according to her Reflect bio, ‘sextech’ (a $30 billion industry) being all of the above plus a good deal more – not just “sex robots and VR porn, all these sorts of sci-fi fantasies” but technology used to facilitate intimacy, to improve relationships. to prevent or report sexual abuse, above all (as she says from her locked-down abode in Victoria) to try and foster “communication and empathy and listening, they’re the things that make sex great”.
Those are also things that make newspaper interviews great – and I wondered how accessible she’d be, given her extremely high profile (she’s appeared on assorted TV shows and had write-ups in Wired, The New York Times, Playboy, Mashable, ABC, Forbes and many other global media), but in fact she’s very open, and delighted to talk. Maybe it’s to stave off the boredom of lockdown, an enforced hiatus that’s applied more or less continuously since March in Melbourne – Bryony uses the time difference to her advantage, working in the mornings and taking Zoom calls or teaching “sextech school” in the afternoons – or maybe it’s because of her life before lockdown, which involved constant speaking engagements. Her subject is a popular one, wherever in the world she happens to be. “If you put sex on the agenda, the room is always going to be packed,” she admits wryly.
It’s strange, in a way. A YouTube clip shows her speaking at Brain Bar, a high-profile Hungarian festival; the audience is young and presumably savvy – yet, when Bryony opens her presentation with “Let’s talk about sex, right?” (the ‘right?’ being an Aussie-ism that’s survived her years in New York and globe-trotter status), a little titter of excited laughter ripples through the room. “Yeah, we still carry so much shame around the topic of sex, and it’s still a taboo topic,” she replies when I wonder why we still get so excited over something so basic. People are titillated “because they don’t get to talk about it very often. Most of the time, they don’t even talk about it with the people they’re actually having it with.”
She herself was no different, having grown up “pretty average” in middle-class Australia – and her background is slightly unusual in that both of her parents are creatives (both work in TV, her dad as a director, her mum as a producer), yet “I was taught growing up not to have sex until I was married,” she recalls, a bit surprisingly; “It really wasn’t until I was 30 that I realised it’s okay to have sex with people that aren’t your boyfriend”. It was only when she started doing ‘Future of Sex’, her popular podcast, that she even heard about alternative options like Skirt Club, a global sub-culture where straight (but bi-curious) women go and flirt with other women. Bryony shakes her head ruefully: “I wish I could tell my 16-year-old self that virginity is a myth,” she sighs. “Y’know, you’re not going to lose anything, it’s a complete social construct!… You could say you’re a virgin with every partner that you have, because you learn their bodies – but so many of these lessons I feel like I learned so much later. [My sex life] was the one area I didn’t take any risk in.”
That last sentence is important, though – because she’s always been a risk taker in general, not in the sense of being reckless but just going for it. It may well be significant that she started out as an athlete (a competitive snowboarder), athletes tending to be can-do types who don’t overthink their decisions. At 21, she and her then-boyfriend relocated to Western Australia and lived in a commune (their home was actually in a treehouse) for about a year. Earlier, at 18, she decided to travel the world, “so I looked in the newspaper, got a job door-knocking selling phone plans, made my money in a month [and] got out of there… I was always quite precocious in that way”. She travelled across southern Europe, “worked in hostels and slept on rooftops, stuff that now I’d be like ‘I can’t do that’ – but I think it’s been very much a part of my DNA to do things that most people don’t feel comfortable doing. And if they’re like ‘Oh, you shouldn’t do that’, I’m like ‘I’m gonna do it!’.”
Bryony calls herself “a provoker”, yet she doesn’t really seem like a troublemaker; she was never the type to start fights, or get chucked out of school. (School was actually an elite all-girls’ school where “we were told we had to be lawyers or doctors or business people… but there was never any talk about relationships or sexuality”.) Even as a snowboarder, she seems to have lacked the killer instinct that makes world champions; instead, she launched a programme to get more women into snowboarding. Her main traits seem to be that she’s open, optimistic, a connector who loves meeting people – and, again, that she goes for it, ignoring (and indeed provoking) the play-it-safe crowd. Her career, she muses, has “just been a series of saying ‘Yes’ to opportunities”.
She wandered a bit in her 20s, from Lonely Planet to a tech-related job at the Department of Justice – then she joined Yammer, an early social network (“like Facebook, but for work”) which in turn was acquired by Microsoft, who gave her a position as ‘Head of Community and Thought Leadership’. All this took her closer to sextech, without being sextech – but the final piece in the puzzle was something else, something unrelated yet very much related: the fact that, like many women, she encountered “typical, I would say, sexual harassment from school onwards, into university and right through the workplace”.
Some of it was just condescension, “like being introduced as a Barbie doll in a sales meeting when you’re an executive” (being blonde and bubbly cancels out being brainy, in the eyes of some men). Some of it was outright harassment: “I remember thinking, ‘Isn’t it strange that I walk outside my house and consider whether to go left or right according to how strong I feel that day, [and] whether I want to be catcalled by the guys at the end of the street or not?’”. Bryony developed early, while still a pre-teen; she recalls her pride at going to Target with her mum to buy her first bra – yet “that was the last positive message I got about being a woman, and my body, and celebrating that”; if anything, being a little girl in the body of a woman made her want to hide, to be smaller. None of this really explains her current career – yet she started doing her podcast around the time of #MeToo (which revealed how common her experience was), “and I found that talking about the future of sex was a really powerful way to reclaim my voice, and do things that people find confronting”.
Gender isn’t sex, yet the female experience – like the sexual experience – is tinged with a certain repression; the taboo around sex still derives much of its power from women being ashamed of female pleasure and female sexuality (though men being ashamed of ‘toxic masculinity’ is catching up fast). Easy to see how confronting one kind of repression might ease the other – and it’s surely no accident that a lot of the most successful sextech is aimed at empowering women. One current trend (typified by Dipsea, an app that’s raised over $5 million) is for “audio porn, or erotica, for women… We’re [also] seeing things like vibrators synced to erotic literature. The erotic literature market is huge, right? It’s a huge industry driven by female consumers”. Harmony AI notwithstanding, women’s sex toys have been the real growth industry – backed by female celebs, thus for instance Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop brand selling a ‘This Smells Like My Vagina’ candle – though Bryony reckons that too will change. “For me, when I think about the future of sex, the most interesting part isn’t the technology. It’s the cultural conversation that opens up because we talk about technology.”
“This is horrifying” reads a YouTube comment under Bryony’s explication of sextech at Brain Bar – which is also part of the cultural conversation. ‘Saying yes’ to this looming new world is a struggle for many people, especially when modern society (exacerbated by lockdown) is so full of solitary strangers staring at their screens, never venturing outside their homes; surely more apps and robots – let alone those promising to supply sexual pleasure – are the last thing we need. “We’re emotional creatures and technology is not, at the moment,” disagrees Bryony (granted, those last three words don’t inspire confidence). “I’m yet to be convinced we can fully rip out emotionality and copy it into technology.” One should also note that sextech is often not as radical as it seems. Mend, the post-breakup app, is actually “a journaling tool”, giving you prompts to “journal your feelings” and tracking the aftermath of the relationship; it supplies information, not emotional cues. Dipsea isn’t really so different to romantic novels in audiobook form. Harmony AI may indeed recite poetry – but can she supply the feeling a flesh-and-blood woman would bring to it?
In the end, sex (and sextech) is still about people – and Bryony Cole is a good ambassador, coming off as a sociable extrovert rather than a tech nerd or wild-eyed futurist. Much of her mission actually has to do with making sex more inclusive (normalising all the different kinds of sexuality, not just straight, able-bodied and pre-menopausal) and letting people talk about it. Fittingly, lockdown has made her (even) more expansive and gregarious: rather than withdraw into herself, she and her Trinidadian boyfriend now want to bring new life into the world. “I can’t wait to have kids, I’m so ready to have kids now,” she enthuses. “I’ve frozen my eggs, and I’m ready for it!” Her globe-trotting lifestyle of the past few years was great, but also rather lonely; Covid has been something of a gift – even in the most locked-down city on the planet – making her pause and think about what comes next.
So what does come next – not just for Bryony, but for all of us? Will we start the day with a couple of orgasms, like the people in Woody Allen’s Sleeper? Will we finally shed the taboo around sex, and will that lead to freedom or general depravity? (Didn’t we already have a sexual revolution, 50 years ago?) Will sextech simply enhance our lives in the way Apple watches and vitamin supplements do, allowing us to be happier on the inside by being happier on the outside?
One thing’s for sure: as confirmed by Bryony’s travels and speaking engagements – hopefully including Reflect in a couple of days – everyone in the world is “obsessed [with], yet so scared of sex. Everyone thinks that ‘Everyone else knows what they’re doing with sex, everyone else is doing the normal thing. Only I have no idea about it’. That’s what I’ve found”. I leave her to gaze at the great Southern Ocean (the house is right on the beach) while I look at the Pentadaktylos, 14,000 kilometres away. Two random lives linked by tech, and a common obsession.