THE FUTURE OF SEX
The week of February 8th, 2014
An illustration of Lux Alptraum

Me IRL: Lux Alptraum

By EJ Dickson

If I had to list my favorite sex writers on the Internet, those whose work is smart without being smarmy, sexy without being smutty, and frank without being gratuitous or overly prurient, the list would probably be as follows: 1) Dan Savage (obviously), 2) The Cut’s Maureen O’Connor, and 3) Lux Alptraum.

A writer, sex educator, and former editor-in-chief of the blog Fleshbot (very NSFW, so fair warning), Alptraum writes about things that women aren’t supposed to speak—let alone write—openly about. As a longtime contributor to sites like Jezebel, the Atlantic, Medium, and Salon, she’s tackled everything from high-definition porn and bisexuality to high-tech sex toys, treating her subjects with gravitas while never failing to lose her sense of humor. If there was ever any doubt that a journalist could write openly and intelligently about Deep Throat or Tumblr porn, Alptraum’s work has definitively proven otherwise.

Alptraum is currently a consultant for various adult and sexual health companies and the star of the Web comedy series The Wonderful World of Boning. The Kernel caught up with her to discuss the future of porn, vibrators, and whether or not we’ll all be having sex robots in the future. (Spoiler alert: Probably not, because they’re creepy.)

What was your first screenname?

Technically my first screenname would’ve been some gibberish line and random sequence of numbers and letters that I don’t even remember, because I had Prodigy. When I finally did AIM, it was Yeodie, because it was a weird conversation when I was 10 in camp my friends said I looked like a Yeodie. That’s what I used in high school. 

What’s your earliest memory of the Internet?

I had early access, because my parents are academics. They had email. I’m 32, and I remember emailing my dad when I was 7 and he was in Israel and being blown away. I remember Mosaic, the pre-Netscape browser, which my parents showed me. I was probably around 12, but the problem was I didn’t know any websites, so I couldn’t do anything. When search engines came out, I just used them to look up Simpsons websites.

What’s your essential app?

I really like the Headspace app, which is a meditation app. I also use [the language learning app] DuoLingo. A lot of the apps I use every day are personal self-improvement apps that force you to use them every day.

The uncanny valley is a huge thing to surmount.

What’s the one thing you think that would make the Internet better?

I think the problems with the Internet are the problems with humanity generally, so what would make the Internet better would make humanity better. If people listened more and were more thoughtful. If people took more time to engage in other people’s intentions, rather than just jumping down people’s throats about the words they use or what they’re perceived as being. That would make the Internet great.

You’ve been writing about sex for a long time. How has this space changed since you started?

How people are finding partners has changed. I started online dating in 2000, on SparkMatch, which in many ways was the precursor to OkCupid. It was very taboo, and you didn’t want to admit how you met people, and it was a weird thing. For me, where I saw the cultural turning point was Friendster. 

Friendster, the social network?

Friendster kinda created the change of, “Well, we’re all connected, so it’s really just a friend’s friend.” Suddenly, meeting people on the Internet became a lot less threatening when Friendster launched. Now, with us Tindering and whatever the new things are, I think the decrease in stigma around meeting people online has changed. But what people are doing hasn’t actually changed that much. For instance, I hear all these people saying porn has changed sex, and young men don’t care about sex now, and everyone’s horrible at sex. Maybe it’s just the people I’ve been with over the years, but I don’t think I’ve noticed a dramatic change.

You say you don’t think porn has changed the way we have sex at all, but do you think porn itself has changed?

Porn doesn’t change in the way people think it changes. In the ’90s and the early 2000s, really extreme porn was on the rise in popularity, and there were gangbangs and bukkake and all this extreme stuff. And commenters were like, “Oh, my God, what’s coming next? It’s gonna be forced bukkake,” and blah blah blah. But that’s not what happened. Actually, what we saw was kind of a toning-down of porn. Things go in cycles. It’s not just this straightforward trajectory toward hardcore, really disgusting things. It’s actually really fascinating to me how piracy has changed porn, because now that it’s not guaranteed that people will pay for your porn, you have to figure out what they will pay for. And what people will pay for is not necessarily what’s most popular in porn, in terms of eyeballs. You find a lot of feature-length, story-based porn, which people are more likely to pay for. And parody porn—even if people are buying it as a joke, people are more likely to buy it. 

People don’t understand that porn is essentially a capitalistic enterprise, and what’s interesting about that is that it always for a lot more creativity and innovation and flexibility than people realize. People think porn producers wanna make just what makes money and stick with what works, but if you show them something works, they all wanna copy it. Like, for instance, 15 years ago, heavily tattooed girls in porn was kind of a rarity.

Now it’s everywhere.

Then [alternative porn company] Burning Angel came, and [Burning Angel founder] Joanna Angel was like, “People will pay money to see heavily tattooed girls have sex,” and you saw the rise of mainstream alt porn, and you’re seeing performers like Bonnie Rotten, who won Performer of the Year at the AVNs in 2014. And now we’re seeing it with the rise of queer porn, which challenges what’s the default and what’s acceptable. You have mainstream producers casting a gender-queer performer like Jiz Lee, or performers who don’t have the standard body type. It’s like, “This person has a fan base, people will pay for them to have sex, let’s do it.” In that regard, actually, the Internet really opened stuff up.

Do you think that we’ll see more opening up of the industry in the next 10 years?

I think porn is in a period of destablization, and it’s going to continue to destabilize. I suspect some big companies will survive, but I think we’ll see more small, niche production companies. A good example of what future porn companies might look like is the Crash Pad Series [a queer porn studio in San Francisco]. They’re really small, they’re really lean, and they don’t make tons of money, but they have a loyal fan base that pays them money and keeps their operations going. You’re going to see more smaller, independent studios and maybe a few big studios. You’ll also see more individual performers working independent of big studios and turning to sites like Clips4Sale [a customized porn clips website], which is good and bad. If you’re working for yourself, there’s less of a question about if you’re being pressured or coerced into anything, but there’s also a lot more pressure on people to perform and get more gigs.

There’s not that much difference between meeting at a bar and meeting on OkCupid, in terms of the end result. It’s just the initial point of contact.

I hear a lot about how amateur porn is exploding, and people are increasingly willing to get naked online. Will we see people being more receptive to broadcasting their sex on the Internet? 

No. There might be less of a stigma surrounding it. People who make that choice will face fewer negative consequences. But I don’t think everyone secretly wants to be a porn performer. There are very specific tendencies that correlate with a) wanting to do that, and b) being good at it. Not everyone is an exhibitionist. Not everyone wants their sex life to be public. And I don’t think that’s a problem. There’s a big difference being wanting your privacy, and feeling ashamed.

But do you think the general stigma surrounding sexual expression will decrease over the next few years?

I think there will definitely be less. You see projects like Everybody Sexts, which shows how common sexting is, and we need to stop treating it like it’s something only sluts do. But sexting isn’t really about making porn. It’s just creating something for private consumption. The more leaks we have, the more we have to accept the fact that sexting is something people do, they’re not gonna stop doing it, and there’s nothing shameful about it. But sexting and being OK with sexting is different from actively wanting to publicly create sexual content for consumption.

From the sex tech side of things, what’s an innovation you’ve seen in the past few years that you’ve gotten excited about?

Well, I’m of the opinion that it’s not the big, loud things that change us the most. Everyone wants to find the iPhone of sex—the dramatic, lofty achievement that changes everything. I think the change is quieter, more cumulative. Sometimes they don’t seem that major, but they are. Like, I think MMS has been huge. The ability to discreetly take and send photos of a sexual nature is really huge, and as it becomes easier, it’s become more prevalent. I remember when digital cameras were a) shitty, and b) getting the photos off them was a hassle, and the only way to send them was email, so it was a much bigger barrier of entry. That’s much more complicated than taking a quick bathroom selfie and just texting it off. That has dramatically transformed the way we interact sexually with each other.

Do you see sex toys going in the direction of being smarter and more responsive?

Yeah. Not all sex toys will be like that, but I think we’re seeing a precursor of things to come. They’re simple, they’re easy to use, and they’re naturally enhancing the sexual experience. … I think stuff like that, that’s just a simple change in interface that has a dramatic effect on the usability and emotional experience of using the product, is what people want, not teledildonics [the term for sex toys that users can control and operate remotely].

Why do you say that? What are the issues with teledildonics?

There are a lot of problems with teledildonics. Teledildonics, at this point, is an expensive solution to a very limited problem. The number of people in situations who want or need to remotely interact with a partner is pretty limited. There aren’t that many people in long-distance relationships. People aren’t paying for porn. Are people willing to pay $100 and continue to pay $100 to use to interact with a porn performer or cam girl or cam boy or whatever? That’s a pretty big leap.

Teledildonics right now is kinda this “gee whiz” thing that’s very expensive, but there’s no indication that there’s a market to support it. That’s my number one problem with teledildonics. Number two is, I just think it sounds more cool than it feels good. Some people absolutely get off on the tech aspect, or on this idea of having sex with technology and robots and whatever, but for most of us, I don’t think we want the technology to be that present. Maybe teledildonics will get to the place that it’s awesome and cheap and it’s a cool thing to have for one week when your partner is away on business, but I think now it’s just not compelling to me. 

What do you think the market would be for something like sex robots?

I am very anti-sex robots. I actually wrote a piece about this. There is definitely a gendered element to the appeal of sex robots. Speaking very generally, I think sex robots are dramatically more appealing to heterosexual males. The idea of having a robot lover is much more appealing than if you are a receptive partner. I just don’t find the idea appealing at all, and I think women are much less likely to find that notion appealing, and women are the primary market for sex toys. So this idea that people who aren’t buying sex toys now are suddenly gonna make a very expensive sex toy that requires a lot of R&D [research and development] seems laughable to me.

There’s something tremendously fascinating about using data and biofeedback to give women this more accurate picture of their sexual response.

I think we’re only gonna have sex robots when we get to a point where lifelike, humanoid robots are happening. But until then, nobody’s gonna design a really awesome, really lifelike robot for the purpose of having sex. Someone tried that, with Roxxxy True Companion (NSFW), and that was a failure. The uncanny valley is a huge thing to surmount. I just don’t see that happening. 

What about online dating? Do you think in 10 years or 15 years or so, we’ll be meeting new people differently than we do?

Maybe with smart watches and wearables—if wearables become a thing, you can match up with whoever’s in the room or whatever. But I think it’ll all be iterations on existing stuff. I don’t think Grindr is all that different from standard online dating, except it’s location-based. Maybe wearables will allow us to connect in different ways, where it’s like, “Oh, we have the same interests and we’re in the same room,” but I don’t think it’ll essentially be that different. Connections might be through a different mode, but if you go on a date, things are still the same. If you have sex, the sex will still be the same. There’s not that much difference between meeting at a bar and meeting on OkCupid, in terms of the end result. It’s just the initial point of contact.

I would say that’s the sole advantage of location-based dating apps like Tinder and Grindr: It’s easier to meet people that you wouldn’t normally meet otherwise. But it’s not easier to actually forge a connection with them.

Right, you still have to go have a drink with them and decide if you actually like each other. Relationships themselves aren’t any different, and you still have to go through the whole, “What about you and me? Where are we going, what are we gonna do?”

It’s interesting, though, because there are startups that claim to predict future compatibility based on DNA analysis, which are saying they can take the next step for you. 

I really don’t think we’re gonna get to Gattaca [the 1997 sci-fi film where people are matched based on their genetic compatibility], because I don’t think people actually want that. We’re not all gonna be like, “Let’s get partnered based on our DNA.”

Why don’t you think people will be interested in that?

There’s this idea that knowing about our DNA will change our behavior, and it’s not true. We know smoking is bad. We have tons of science behind that. And we still smoke. So if you tell me, “Oh, you’re genetically compatible with that person,” if I don’t like them, I’m not gonna meet them, just because genetics tells me I should.

So you’re not a fan of DNA-matching or sex robots. Is there anything that you’re excited about regarding the future of sex and tech?

Yes, this is something I wrote about in my [sex robot] piece. I spoke to this person named Kristen Stubbs [who runs a startup for sexuality-focused technology], who mentioned closed-loop sex toys, which is basically sex toys that can learn from your body and sexual response, and they improve their function based on your response. That’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever heard about. It’s a quiet tweak, but I think it could be transformative in terms of teaching people about their bodies.

Technology that tracks sexual response and reacts to that and improves performance based on that is a really big deal, particularly for women. There are a number of women who have difficulty knowing what they like, have difficulty processing if they are about to have an orgasm. Some women have orgasms and they don’t know about it. So I think there’s something tremendously fascinating about using data and biofeedback to give women this more accurate picture of their sexual response, and condition them to recognize when they’re having orgasms, and better understand what it is they respond to and what they like. Having data that quantifies and helps analyze female sexual pleasure could be really great.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated for clarity. 

Illustration by J. Longo