Robots at a trade fair in China. Photo: Tang Yi/PA Images. All rights reserved.
What is the future of sex? Perhaps you’re seeing visions of artificial intelligence, vibrators that steal your data, four-square based fornication. Or something like deleted R-rated scenes of I, Robot, the dystopian Hollywood film starring Will Smith, with highly intelligent robots conspiring to enslave the human race?
The digital realm is monopolising how we see and engage with sex. This manifests itself in sci-fi visions – but also in the transformation of sex, often considered a private issue, into something that is publically consumed online. Demands for sexual and bodily autonomy and notions of ‘sex positivity’ (and its nemesis slut shaming) are also on the rise. More people are talking about sex outside of reproduction and avoiding sexually-transmitted diseases.
demands for sexual and bodily autonomy, and notions of 'sex positivity,' are on the rise
Digital spaces are both a blessing and a curse in this context. Take the negative effect of online porn on young people (especially boys), presenting sex as something that is ‘rough and ready’, reinforcing impossible body goals for women as well as very dodgy conceptions of consent. Adding to this are acts of ‘revenge porn’, where sexual images of (mostly women’s) bodies have been distributed online, without their consent.
Positive ideas can also be shared and developed in online spaces, whilst problematic ones can be exposed and challenged. Much public engagement with sex is still, at once, wildly exposed yet extremely covert. You can use sex to sell anything from coffee to tires, but discussing one’s own sex life in public remains largely taboo. The digital realm can help us unpack this and build healthier sexual practices.
the digital realm can help us build healthier sexual practices
A lack of holistic sexual education in schools and at home is a significant issue worldwide. Many countries lack comprehensive sexual education; some seem to ban it altogether, often under the flawed premise that it will simply encourage young people to have sex. African countries have notably conservative views on sexual education – arguably in contrast to historical practices.
In her 2010 paper Osunality (African Erotic), Nigerian-born scholar Nkiru Nzegu explores how a number of tribes across Africa had ‘sexual schools’ in pre-colonial Africa (and in some spaces in present-day) which sought to equip young people with all the knowledge they needed to know to keep the sex steamy once they were married.
These ‘schools’ focused on pleasure and sought to make sure that all parties enjoyed sex. They were set up by tribes such as the Gola, Bassa, Laobe, and Dipo in west Africa, as well as by the Tonga of Zambia and the Makhuwa of Mozambique. In some countries, such spaces to pass on sexual knowledge still exist.
The digital realm has the potential to replicate these spaces. Many people are already using tools from audio visual material to 140 characters to build and challenge ideas of sex online.
Many people are already using audio visual and social media tools to build and challenge ideas of sex online. Photo: Siphumeze Khundayi.
The art of storytelling, the power of narrative and the interconnected nature of the online world can help us engage differently with these issues – in online publications, conversations using hashtags and digital platforms for communities to gather and connect.
Blogs like Adventures From The Bedrooms of African Women and HOLAAfrica!, multimedia spaces like The Spread Podcast and Twitter titans including Mbongomuffin and Dr Tlaleng are creating space for discussions often seen as uncomfortable or off-limits, around everything from religion to masturbation.
There are gremlins in the system and people who use the digital realm to commit violent and harmful acts. But the potential for digital spaces to archive knowledge, create new content and ideas and build safe spaces seems infinite.
Already, sex is in many places no longer defined exclusively by ‘man and wife’, tradition or cultural practices. Online spaces can help us further examine and challenge ideas that used to be held and propagated primarily in private. Combined with human rights and social justice work, this can help us progress sexual and reproductive health and rights. It is also a chance for more holistic and healthier engagements with sex, in many more spaces.