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We need to take sex tech and privacy seriously

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This week a vibrator app company was accused of storing “highly intimate and sensitive data” without the user’s knowledge. This is not only creepy, says Daisy Buchanan, it’s unhelpful and damaging to women

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By Daisy Buchanan on

The Wearable Technology Show took place in London’s Excel Centre for the fourth year running this weekend. Globally, it’s estimated that the wearable tech market will be worth $34 billion by 2020. Three million fitness bands were sold in the UK in 2015, even though there’s evidence that these trackers are not helping us to become any fitter. The revolution is happening in our heads as well as our bodies. We seem to be getting increasingly comfortable with allowing technology to track our movements and enter every corner of our lives.

Still. It was shocking to hear that sex toy company Standard Innovation has settled a lawsuit to compensate users of its We-Vibe vibrator and app. The company is accused of collecting and storing “highly intimate and sensitive data” without users’ knowledge, tracking the frequency with which the toy was used, effectively spying on users’ sex lives without their consent. How dare they?

It’s easy to be outraged when our sex lives are at stake. But why does this feel so different from collecting data on what we eat and where we run? I think it’s because we’re still squeamish about sex, and there’s a pervading attitude of prurience which makes us see sex toys as something kinky and weird. There’s a focus on the creepy aspect of the story, but an unwillingness to discuss the idea that we need to take sex tech, and privacy, seriously. These items are designed primarily for female pleasure. Historically that’s one of the last things to ever be protected or defended. We’re reluctant to discuss sex toys when they should be a huge, helpful part of sex education. Also, that education tends to stop at school when it should evolve throughout adulthood.

We’re surrounded by images and messages that make us feel estranged from our bodies. Toys can help us to get to know them better, and boost our wellbeing

It should not be legal for any company to capture someone’s data without their consent. It’s right that Standard Innovation should accept the expensive consequences of doing so, and agree to destroy the information that they have collected. However, I worry that this case will make many women too anxious to explore sex tech, and discover how it might enrich their lives. Sex toys are designed to make us feel good, in a world when everything from toothpaste adverts to multivitamins are positioned to make us feel bad, or at least a little insecure, and less than the person we could potentially be.

We’re surrounded by images and messages that make us feel estranged from our bodies. Toys can help us to get to know them better, and boost our wellbeing. When we accept that sexually active women are entitled to satisfying sex lives, we’re embracing the idea that women can make decisions, pursue their desires and take charge. When we put our orgasms, our libido and our pleasure at the top of the agenda, we’re saying that we’re not here to be objectified, we want the chance to decide to be active and willing participants. We will choose when we want to be sexual, and it will be clear when we consent to it. When a company like Standard Innovation takes something intimate from us without our permission, they’re definitely doing something wrong, but they’re not doing anything new. They’re the latest in a long line of people who have exploited female sexuality, violating women and making us vulnerable in order to increase their own power.

We’re getting increasingly comfortable with allowing technology to enter our lives at all levels, and we’re becoming more relaxed about sharing intimate data. If there was compelling evidence that capturing information about the way I used a vibrator could improve my sex life and benefit many women, I might consider it. Sex itself doesn’t necessarily need to be a private matter. Arguably, the more we talk about it, the more we learn and the better we become at celebrating it and ensuring it’s a joyful and positive experience for everyone who chooses to do it.

Ultimately, it should be up to us to decide what we conceal and what we reveal about our lives. This goes for our sex lives, how we sleep, where we run and what we eat. If we choose to track any of that information, and have a clear understanding of where it is being stored and how it is being used, we’re deciding to be a proactive part of the tech revolution, and we might benefit from it in the future. If we are encouraged to use the technology, but we’re not explicitly told about how our data is being captured and utilised, we’re being exploited. I want to live in a world where sex tech makes life better for women, and we’re encouraged to be informed, thoughtful consumers. We can’t do that when anything is being taken from us without our permission. Sex toys are supposed to put us in control. I hope that in the future, companies like Standard Innovation learn to put female agency before their own agenda.


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