Tech + Health

05.29.14

Silicon Valley’s Soft Sex Ban

The tech world is all about innovation—yet refuses to retire the Old World value of ‘no adult content.’ Why the digital world needs to stop failing sex.

Today’s tech scene is startup-fueled and app-driven, actively encouraging disruption in every sector imaginable.

Except sex.

The most recent example would be Happy Play Time, an iOS game designed to “eliminate the stigma around female masturbation.” Happy Play Time is a sexual education game featuring an anthropomorphic and not-very-explicit vulva named Happy. Designed and developed by Tina Gong, the app made headlines when it was banned from Apple’s App Store after a review for “excessively objectionable or crude content” and “containing pornographic material.”

Although Apple’s qualms with Happy Play Time seem to suggest otherwise, Gong and her app are not out to titillate. Rather, she aspires to enact positive social change through tech.

“I’m not a sex Ed expert by any means, but I am a designer, and what I do think is important is creating experiences for people where they can absorb that education and information in a lot of different ways,” says Gong. “Doing it in a way that's novel creates more exposure for the topic and also helps people absorb information better because it’s both fun and entertaining.”

Gong’s recent travails highlight a glass ceiling in the tech world—startups and entrepreneurs are encouraged to break all manner of boundaries and let the chips fall where they may with such regularity, words like “innovation” begin to lose their meaning. But when it comes to sex and tech, they’re stonewalled.

“When you force something, anything, into the shadows and underground, you make it a lot harder for good things to happen and you make it a lot easier for bad things to happen.”

Enter Cindy Gallop, an entrepreneur determined to shatter that ceiling. Gallop made waves in 2009 with a frank, four-minute TED talk that she used to launch Make Love Not Porn, a site designed to host open and frank discussions about sex and sexuality. The ultimate goal, according to Gallop, is to “celebrate real world sex,” and fill a social void that has been co-opted by pornography.

“Our entire aim is to help make it easier to talk about sex,” says Gallop. “Because we don’t talk about sex currently, in the real world, we have no socially acceptable vocabulary with which to do it. The language of porn has rushed in to fill that gap.”

In growing and expanding Make Love Not Porn to include a streaming service that embodies the startup’s sex-positive ideals of inspiring social change through sex, Gallop encountered a level of resistance that most startups would never encounter on their worst days. Because, no matter how groundbreaking the tech world aspires to be, it still clings to one Old World value: no adult content. Even if said content is purely geared toward a positive social mission.

“What people are failing to see is that, because we don’t talk about sex, we don’t talk about porn, all of that exists in this parallel universe, in this shadowy underworld,” says Gallop. “When you force something, anything, into the shadows and underground, you make it a lot harder for good things to happen and you make it a lot easier for bad things to happen.”

Compounding the problem is that marginalization of sex tech companies is so ingrained in our culture that reasons for shutting them out are never examined.

“The collective gripe about the way mainstream service companies treat those of us in the adult space isn’t just that they ‘slut-shame’ adult businesses,” says Jen McEwen, co-founder of MiKandi, an adult app-store. “It’s also their lack of transparency when they do it.”

MiKandi was the company behind Tits and Glass, the first porn app for Google Glass—and the app responsible for Google banning pornography on the device. The incident was exemplary of the lack of transparency McEwen speaks of—the app was developed after careful scrutiny of Google’s terms and conditions, which had no restrictions on adult content at the time. However, shortly after MiKandi announced the app last summer, Google’s policy was updated to restrict adult content. Then the app was banned.

“The thing is, when Google decided they wouldn’t allow facial recognition apps for Glass, they publicly notified developers and users,” says McEwen. “But when they decided to ban adult content after the fact, we didn’t hear a word and were subsequently punished for it.” But McEwen acknowledges that big tech companies have a long history of restricting mature content. “Still, it bothers me to see apps like Happy Play Time and Weed Firm pushed out of mainstream app stores. Happy Playtime is not pornographic and Weed Firm isn’t any more objectionable than Grand Theft Auto.”

While tech gatekeepers like Google and Apple are often the biggest obstacles facing sex-tech companies regardless of their social ambitions, McEwen also believes that the adult industry isn’t entirely absolved of the current state of affairs. “There are plenty of companies that are more than happy to spam and scam customers with bare-minimum products,” McEwen says. “So what can next-gen adult companies do? Continue to change the way people think about adult companies through honesty, ethics, and great tech. We have to work twice as hard as non-adult tech companies to be taken seriously and treated fairly.”

But there’s another thing that can get lost in the shuffle in examining the tech world’s sexual conservatism. It’s that sex-tech startups represent a solution to another one of Silicon Valley’s big problems—gender equality.

“This is what a venture concepted by a woman, co-founded by two women and a man, and built by a tech team that is more female than male looks like: different,” says Cindy Gallop. “Because the tech world is male-dominated, people don’t think sufficiently about how tech is responsible for creating new social dynamics that are absolutely influenced by how male-driven they are as opposed to female-driven.”

Gallop, who is fond of saying that “women challenge the status quo because we are never it,” argues that the day the porn industry is equally informed by men and women alike is the day we have a porn industry—or any industry—that looks very different, one that can engender a healthier society with regards to sexuality.

“If I and my team achieve our social mission of socializing sex,” says Gallop, “one day, nobody should ever have to feel ashamed or embarrassed ever again of having a naked photograph or a sex tape of themselves posted on the Internet, because it’s simply just a natural human part of who we all are.”

Technology is often used as cultural shorthand for the future. It’s where we make progress of the most tangible sort, where new tools flatten hierarchies and let everyday people achieve more. In marginalizing sex in the tech sector, we are saying that there is no progress to be made here, that it is a conversation that does not need to be had.

Clearly, there is.

“Nobody wins when there is so much shame or guilt around the topic,” says Tina Gong. “And having an open dialogue about sexuality, even in tech, would be beneficial for everything.”