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A new form of social responsibility for sex tech companies
The focus of most corporate social responsibility initiatives typically falls into the same categories: the environment, safe working conditions, equal pay and increased diversity. While these are all noble and worthy areas to commit to, they are generally risk-free options for companies to speak about publicly. Whether or not they are effectively executed on (they aren’t) is not really the point; for many it’s more of a calculated virtue-seeking or reputation cleansing PR tactic.
Sex tech companies, on the other hand, face a unique opportunity to hone in on the rights and safety of some of society’s most marginalized and at-risk people. These companies—particularly those in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics and virtual reality—can not only redefine and expand the scope of sex, but help protect those often victimized in the sex industry.
Sex is not a commodity. Sex is not a right. Simply labeling sex, however, as an intimate act between consensual parties is naive. It is an industry, and it is a booming one. The porn industry generates as much as $97 billion annually according to some reports, though that number is hard to quantify. Statista reported the global sex toy industry was worth $28 billion in 2019.
For an industry as lucrative as sex tech, it remains incredibly heteronormative, and is by and large designed to appeal to males. By expanding offerings to appeal to even just both genders, it is easy to imagine these numbers doubling. Communities like the Women of Sex Tech not only recognize this, but are also the driving force behind the growing number of women-led initiatives. A more forward-thinking sex tech company could use this exponential financial and growth potential as more than an opportunity to double sales, but also as a strategy to create a wider range of products and services that aim to reduce harm while celebrating sexuality and sexual wellness.
The question of whether sex work should be legalized, or how to properly define it, remains a complex one. The image of independent women as sex workers by choice and reaping financial success while doing so is a small margin in an otherwise complex landscape. The majority of people in the sex trade are being trafficked, abused and coerced. According to Polaris, 25 million people are trafficked annually.
Young LGBTQs often seek out sex work as the only option for any kind of financial security, as more traditional means of work are not made accessible to them, particularly trans people. This remains the biggest problem to tackle, creating economically viable and safe options outside of sex work; particularly for young and marginalized people. Sex work should be a choice, not a last resort.
Even the most well-intentioned legislation has proven to be complicated at best. At first glance, the idea of an anti-sex trafficking bill was, as many people referred to it in 2018, a no-brainer.
When the FOSTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, bills were passed, the unintended consequences included the cost of human life. Part of the bills stipulated that websites could be held criminally accountable for third parties publishing ads for sex work on their platform. That means that if someone was offering sexual services on a website—even if it was consensual sex work—the platform would be liable for trafficking. Because the bills made no effort to distinguish between consensual and nonconsensual sex, Craigslist, Tumblr, Backpage (the website that set the bills into motion and was ultimately seized by the government) and many others removed their personal ad sections entirely in order to be in compliance. In so doing, sex workers who had used the internet not only to find work but to communicate with each other as a safety tactic lost both. Without access to “bad date” lists and other client vetting tactics, sex workers—already an incredibly high at-risk group—were left even more vulnerable.
Today, EARN IT, Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act, is seen as an extension to, or latest version of, FOSTA. With equally vague language and “best practices”, if passed, EARN IT will do more to strip everyone of their privacy and safety online than it will to protect children, as it claims it is poised to do.
Consensual sex work is not the problem. It is those looking to traffic, exploit and harm that need to be addressed. According to RAINN, sexual violence effects one American every 73 seconds. As a society, we know that violent men exist. We also know that sex workers—via providing a service to these types of men—increase their odds of experiencing gender-based violence. What if tools, products or apps were created that focused on these men and their violent tendencies and exploitative tactics as a specific target customer with the overall goal of reducing this type of harm?
This could manifest itself in many ways. Sex tech platforms could invest and build community-driven intervention tools like bad date lists, where sex workers can alert each other about men or areas to avoid, with resources with where to go if you do experience harm, threats, robbery or anything that extends beyond the scope of the agreed upon boundaries.
Robotics companies could partner with rehabilitation efforts in order to study offenders and offer subsidized tools, apps or products to recently released convicts who may be high risk reoffenders, reducing the human interaction while providing a form of sexual release.
Erotic audio or visual companies could build sexual education platforms that focus specifically on consent, sexual health, and mutual pleasure. These could be created to target high school and college students, or be used in reintegration efforts for convicts facing decarceration.
Any funding or partnership, particularly government backed, feels far off today. Sex tech as an industry is still seen as taboo to many, and much more work needs to be done to normalize sex. Private firms, however, could allocate research and development funds towards creating products that remove the human interaction element while still satisfying the physical component, thus creating an entirely new form of corporate social responsibility; one forged in sex tech as a sexual wellness industry and one that promotes safety. Keeping people, especially our most marginalized, safer would improve any company’s culture, help with staff retention rates and attract investors all while advancing the industry as a whole. The only question that remains is who will take the lead?
Image sources: Marco Verch