Money, Sex and Power: Can Sex Tech Save Silicon Valley?
It’s no secret that Big Tech has a gender problem.
From the Ringer to the New Yorker, almost every major news outlet has reported on the ongoing abuses of power and inequality that permeate the tech industry. For many, the solution seems simple: bring more women into senior technology and leadership positions and these abuses will cease, or at least decrease significantly.
However, in order to truly and meaningfully address the underlying issues causing gender imbalance and abuse in Silicon Valley, we cannot simply place more women in positions of power.
We need tech companies to be led by women (and men) who have an in-depth understanding of the complexities of sexuality, power dynamics, and gender relations. This is where sex tech comes in.
Sex tech to the rescue
“Just adding more women to leadership positions won’t be enough, particularly if these women have already had to fit into a certain prevalent culture in Silicon Valley to succeed,” says Estrella Jaramillo, an expert in sexual health and co-founder of B-wom.
B-wom is an app that guides women through the different changes and symptoms their bodies experience in a lifetime. It focuses on common issues among women such as incontinence, sexual discomfort, and recovery after childbirth.
Jaramillo sees the sex tech industry as a great example of how leaders with a deeper understanding of the complexities of interpersonal relations, gender issues, power dynamics, and equality can really benefit the workplace:
“Because of the nature of what we do [in the sex tech industry], we start from a baseline of having already thought through all these aspects. Discussing them is less of a taboo since we are sitting in the middle of this shift.”
More talk, less taboo
Less taboo topics in tech translate into better workplace environments where employees feel safer and freer to be their authentic selves.
As more liberal arts majors enter the SV workforce, many women’s studies graduates, trans persons, and those interested in social change will join sex tech as the success and innovation in the field will be directly reliant on understanding the complexities of sexuality, sex work, human desire, and sensitivity to gender issues.
Bryony Cole of the Future of Sex Podcast agrees that sex tech’s true potential goes beyond robot girlfriends, virtual reality dates, and sex toys.
“Sex tech is where technology can innovate around sex education, intimacy skills, gender identity, crime and violence reporting, medicine and anything under the umbrella of sexuality that will enhance our sexual lives.”
Women at the helm
Cole, who also hosts sex tech hackathons worldwide, notices that sex tech events are an anomaly in the industry, as they tend to attract groups that don’t traditionally have access to capital and industry expertise. For example, the’ Sydney sextech hackathon in March of this year had almost 90% female participation.
“We actively encourage for this to ensure there is a diversity of outcomes in sex tech,” says Cole.
So how can sex tech influence the broader culture in Silicon Valley? Industry leaders such as B-Wom, the Future of Sex Podcast, Unbound, Make Love not Porn [NSFW] and Lips (all female-founded companies, the last of which I started!) are helping to bring discussions of sexuality, power, and equality into the startup world’s lexicon. These organizations have taken on the project of communicating the sex-positive, inclusive culture of sex tech via social media, public artworks, and events.
Throughout the month of August, Lips and Cole’s Future of Sex Podcast are teaming up to host a showcase of sex-positive artists, workshops, screenings and panels in Brooklyn designed to bring sex tech to the mainstream.
Sex tech is already a $3-billion industry, but it’s potential as a cultural influencer among the rest of the tech industry has yet to be realized. This is mostly due to the very reason that SV has a problem in the first place—the mainstream tech culture does not condone honest, open discussions of inequality, harassment, and sexuality.
However, as sex tech grows in mainstream presence, tech will be forced to reckon with reality—healthy workplaces require honest conversations about taboo topics, as well as a diverse workforce from a variety of educational, racial, economic and gender backgrounds. If sex tech accepts it’s role as a cultural leader in tech, this realization and dramatic change could occur quickly.