Researchers discover people are using the internet for sex

The real surprise is how many are seeking out high-tech sexual experiences.
Grant Currin
A cyborg wouldn't need a headset, but VR is becoming a more popular way to experience porn.iStock / gremlin

Suki Dunham was a product marketing executive at Apple when Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1996. Back then, iPods had just begun to support video playback. The iPod Nano came in capacities of two, four, and eight gigs. The Jobs homecoming sparked an unprecedented period of growth that turned Apple into the $2.5 trillion company it is today.

Dunham had a front-row seat to, “the advent of what Steve described as the digital lifestyle,” Dunham told IE. 

She brought that approach to a new industry fifteen years ago when Dunham and her husband founded OhMiBod, a high-tech sex toy company. “It made a lot of sense that your digital lifestyle would converge [with your personal life so] you would have an intimate digital lifestyle,” she says.

According to a study published earlier this year — on Valentine’s Day — it was an idea way ahead of its time. 

Researchers asked some very personal questions

The research paper, published in The Journal of Sex Research, reported the results of a survey of more than 7,500 adults in the United States. (For the record, the survey took place in 2019, before the pandemic, and was sponsored by a webcamming site.)

Researchers had already spent a lot of energy studying how people use two specific forms of sexual technology: Internet pornography and sexting.

While those are the two most popular forms of sex tech, some emerging technologies have developed large user bases – and they’re growing quickly.

This study comes from researchers at the famous Kinsey Institute at Indiana University in Bloomington. They asked for basic demographic information. Then they got personal, asking participants how often they:

The results contained plenty of surprises. 

Porn and sexting lead the pack

It turns out that Internet porn is still the most popular type of sex tech — by far.

Fifty percent of the participants in the study said they visited such sites, including 70 percent of men in the survey and 30 percent of women. Those findings align with previous work that shows about half of Americans regularly view porn online.

It’s also consistent with the remarkable popularity of the most popular internet porn sites.

According to a 2021 report, four of the 20 busiest sites on the internet host pornography. The two most popular, Pornhub and Xvideos, are each busier than Netflix or Zoom. In this study, the researchers specifically asked about “clip sites,” which are large platforms that mostly aggregate porn clips from other producers.

Sexting was a distant second in the survey, with 27 percent of respondents saying they’d sent an explicit picture or video.

Surveys of different populations have found that sexting appears to vary by group and by time, with recent studies showing more and more people using their phones for such activities. A 2020 analysis of more than 50 surveys of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 shows that a much higher percentage — 38 percent — of people in this age group have sent a sext. Forty-two percent said they’d received one.

Camming: A variation on a classic theme

What the researchers were really interested in were emerging forms of sex tech. These are relatively new technologies that people are using in various ways to enjoy themselves.

The most popular new sex tech is a variation on internet porn. It's called camming, and it's typically a one-to-many live broadcast where a performer uses their webcam to put on a show for a paying audience.

Nearly one-in-five participants in the Kinsey survey reported having visited a camming site. Men were five times more likely to have visited a cam site than women, with 30 percent of men and just six percent of women in the survey.

Somewhat surprisingly, many people who are visiting cam sites aren’t just lurking — they’re participating. Eleven percent of respondents said they’d interacted with performers by posting a message or leaving a tip.

Immersive tech is on the rise 

A small-but-not-insignificant minority of participants reported using sex tech that puts users in the middle of the action. Thirteen percent of respondents said they'd played a sexually explicit video game. Like many of these technologies, men and younger people were far more likely to report playing these games. One in five men said they'd done it, as did one in three respondents 18-20 years old. 

Virtual reality porn was a bit less popular, with ten percent of respondents saying they'd accessed VR porn at some point in the past. Men were four times more likely to have engaged with this emerging form of sex tech than women, and the well-to-do use it a lot more than the merely middle class. Eighteen percent of respondents who make more than $150,000 per year are VR porn viewers, as compared to just eight percent of people who make between $60,000 and $75,000.

The least popular form of sex tech the researchers asked about was chatting with risque bots. The researchers found that eight percent of Americans are talking dirty with A.I.s. Men are about three times more likely than women to be exchanging explicit messages with silicon lovers. Nearly one-in-five of the richest respondents said they'd had such a conversation.

Tech that brings people together when they're far apart 

All but one of the technologies the researchers investigated are forms of visual media. But the world of sex tech isn't exclusively porn. 

"[The word] 'teledildonics' has been around a lot longer than the term 'sex tech,'" Dunham said. She should know. In 2008, her company launched a Second Life integration that paired with the company's vibrators.

"If [a user] was interacting with another avatar who had an OhMiBod device, they actually had control within Second Life to control the vibe," she says.

"Everybody's talking about [the metaverse] now, but I kind of chuckle because that was Second Life," she says.

When the researchers asked participants if they'd used that kind of teledildonic product, eleven percent said they had. Dunham said she was surprised by the number, saying "it seems a little low for usage."

As with the other technologies, some groups were far more likely to admit they had used this kind of technology. Men were three times more likely than women to report that they had, and almost one-in-five wealthy respondents answered "yes."

This sort of information might be helpful for entrepreneurs like Dunham, but it's not easy to come by. 

"When I worked in the tech world... you had all of these companies that were were measuring the size of the market and what types of computers consumers were buying. [But] in the sex industry — we do not have data like that," she says. Companies like hers mostly rely on their own information and public surveys such as this one. 

Sex tech is here to stay

Sex tech might seem like just another random research topic, but technology and sex go way back. The printing press, for example, spread a lot more than Bibles.

In modern times, the porn industry has been at the forefront of technological innovations such as cable TV, VHS tapes, streaming video, and even the concept of beta testing software.

"It's often said that the tech will happen in the sex industry first and then be dispersed out to other use cases, whether it's encrypting DVDs or VR," Dunham says, repeating a long-held truth about porn content.

For what it's worth, her company didn't stop with Second Life. OhMiBod is keeping pace with tech industry market leaders. The company now has an app that pairs with some devices, enabling users to do earn points (and get feedback) while doing Kegel exercises. 

"As you exercise, you earn badges [and] unlock vibration patterns that you can use for pleasure," Dunham says.

It's like having Duolingo on your Fitbit. Kind of. 

It's something even Steve Jobs couldn't have dreamed up back in '96. 

Study Abstract:

Social technology is ever-evolving, and increasingly offers novel domains for sexual experiences. In the current study, we investigated demographic correlates of engagement with emerging forms of sextech, defined here as internet-based applications, platforms, or devices used for sexual pleasure. Our web-based, demographically representative sample included 7,512 American adults aged 18–65 years, with a near-even gender split of men/women and moderate racial diversity (63% White). Participants indicated their engagement with eight forms of sextech, including six emerging forms of sexual technology (visiting erotic camming sites, participating in camming streams, teledildonic use, accessing virtual reality pornography, playing sexually explicit video games, and sexual messaging with chatbots or artificially intelligent entities) as well as two more common domains (online pornography and sexting). Participants who were younger, were men, had higher income, and were sexual minorities reported more frequent engagement with all forms of sextech assessed. Unlike prior work on pornography, religious individuals were more likely to engage with emerging sextech. Beyond online pornography (50%) and sexting (29%), visiting camming sites (18%) and playing sexually explicit video games (13%) were relatively common. Findings may contribute to the destigmatization of sextech engagement and forecast future norms in technologically-facilitated sexual behavior.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board