/ 14 June 2023

Sextech and the mating habits of humans

Sextech Industry
The sextech industry is changing our pleasure-seeking behaviours.

Your brain is your biggest sexual organ. Have you thought about it that way before? It’s a complex interplay of not yet fully understood dynamics involving your somatic and autonomic nervous systems both centrally (in the brain) and peripherally (nerve conduction outside of the brain). 

This universal human drive is a driver of population growth, intimacy, meaningful connection and, hopefully, pleasure. It is a strange reality to consider that people seem to be having less sex than ever before, men’s sperm counts are lower than they have ever been and the sextech industry is booming. With so much of sex being cognitive, it makes sense that it’s digitisation is upon us.

How do we reconcile that 29% of Americans aged 35 to 45 haven’t had sex in the past year and that 17% of married Americans have sex only once a month? We don’t have data on South Africans, but if my general practice in Johannesburg is a reflection, people’s libidos don’t seem to be as high on their priority lists as their career aspirations or the burden of their bills to pay. 

The latest United States Census Bureau report tells us that fewer men are looking for romantic, committed relationships than they were before the Covid-19 pandemic and that one in six men report that they have no close friends. With women under 30 earning more than their male counterparts and women not wanting to be partnered with men who earn less than them, the loneliness is growing.

What are the public health consequences of these trends? What does this mean for our species? Different sites state that up to a third of internet web content is adult in nature and 87% of American men watch porn daily. Pornhub reports that three in 10 of their users are female. It seems a likely explanation that the pandemic’s imposed isolation has had a significant effect on people’s pleasure-seeking behaviours. At the same time, the world has seen an uptick in sexually transmitted infections in the American population, which must mean that the people still having sex with real people are doing so unsafely. 

It is a global phenomenon that men’s sperm counts are the lowest they have ever been in history and I wonder if having your cell phone snuggly tucked into your pocket has anything to do with the scrotum’s decrease in provisions. It’s difficult for our reproductive systems to escape the effects of the digital revolution.

The sextech industry is a $30 billion market. It boggled my mind to learn that while it took Facebook three years to gain 50 million users, it took Pornhub only 19 days to achieve the same. Pornhub is the Netflix equivalent for adult content. While this sex-use case may prevent some unwanted pregnancies and reduce the burden of chlamydia, it was Anaïs Nin who famously said, “Abnormal pleasures kill the taste for normal ones.” And she was right. More than 50% of men who watch porn suffer from erectile dysfunction that is entirely psychological. Which brings me to the estimated value of the erectile dysfunction drug market. In 2021, it was valued at $2.3 billion and is on an upward trend of 8.5% annually.

We have fewer people seeking partners; those who are seeking a partner can’t get an erection and the frequency of intimacy in longstanding relationships is on a decline along with men’s sperm counts. I am an advocate for inspiring reverence for the beauty and intelligence of the human body. I have faith in the design of the natural world. And I believe that meaningful human connection is what keeps humans sane. So it’s no surprise to me that this generational sexlessness and use of technology for auto-erotica is, in part, responsible for some of our collective psychic undoing and no one is talking about this flaccid elephant in the room.

How do we heal this evolution from how nature intended things to be? Are we accelerating towards a new reality where human form and function is metamorphosing? If we continue on this trajectory, that might be very possible. While we may be more efficient with gadgets and screens, I argue that we are losing the essence of what makes us unique and beautiful as a species. And the symptom of this loss is a debilitating effect on our mental health, which is a euphemism for widespread anxiety, depression, obsessive thoughts and suicidal ideation. Add to this bouquet, performance anxiety in the bedroom and not being aroused enough by the pretty girl next door when she comes knocking.

Because so much of our arousal is through cognitive stimuli, we need to be extremely mindful about tickling these networks artificially. A virtual reality where you can observe your greatest fantasy with any face you choose superimposed on the actor’s body is a potential quagmire. Why would you have sex with your husband when you can enjoy Mel Gibson virtually (I am showing my age here.) It also raises the question of consent in a wholly different way because, now, not only can technology put your face in the farmyard, it can dub your voice for a saucy dialogue with the virtual avatar.

I am not throwing water on all of the sexy spark these innovations are offering to the free thinking movement and making a certain kind of joie de vivre accessible to all and sundry. Perhaps we are also protecting a certain population from sex offenders who can now get their kicks safely with their screens. But what of the deep, quiet human need for touch, intimacy and human connection. I fear that if we lose this, we lose our very selves, for what are we but mirrors of one another. 

Skye Scott is a GP based in Sandton. She has a special interest in patient education, integrative medicine and mental wellbeing.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.