Better loving through technology: a day at the sex-toy hackathon

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The sex tech hackathon under way at Goldsmiths, University of London.




The sex tech hackathon under way at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Photograph: Sonja Horsman for the Observer

Better loving through technology: a day at the sex-toy hackathon

Sound-controlled vibrators, 3D-printed clitorises and ‘Michael Gove’ as a safe word: coders and inventors try to find the future of sex in south London

Twelve years of Catholic school prepares you for a lot of weird things, but walking into a church to find 50 people testing vibrators on each other’s noses, strapping each other into inflatable hug machines and flinging around bits of deconstructed sex toys under a huge stained-glass window that reads THOU ART THE KING OF GLORY O CHRIST is not one of them.

I am at Goldsmiths, University of London, in the church of what used to be St James Hatcham but was transformed, some years ago, into an arts “hub”. Hacksmiths, the student-run tech society at the university, runs “hackathons” – invention marathons – where over the course of three days, attendees of varying skills and backgrounds camp out on air beds and eat pizza while brainstorming and building machines. For this event, the theme was sex technology.

While the aim of all these hackathons is progressive, building new and better sex toys to your own specifications is, in itself, nothing new. George Clooney’s character in Burn After Reading whipped up a sex chair for a $100 using stuff he found in Home Depot (not counting the dildo: “those things are expensive”). In 2002, the photographer Timothy Archibald discovered a small American web community of homespun inventors and made them the subject of his book, Sex Machines, starring such people as “the laid-off industry tech exec who transforms a thrift store pasta-maker into a high-powered sexual appliance; an apocalyptic visionary who builds a sex machine prototype for female survivors of a future without men; and an Idaho cowboy who intends to use his device as a form of Christian marriage counselling”. But each of the machines – all made by men, mainly heterosexual, on an unselfish mission – features a realistic-looking rubber penis attached to the end of some repurposed domestic appliance, a mechanical thrusting device of varying speeds and violence. For all their ingenuity, these guys stuck pretty close to the most basic definition of what (bad) sex is.

Compare that to the sex tech hackathon and it’s clear the idea here runs in tandem with identity politics and social equality. There is no clearer proof of diversity than a place for sex toy invention experiments where the minority is the white heterosexual man; at the end of the event, only one of the inventions will be penis-shaped. The crowd here is as diverse as they come in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, age and hair dye.

In his welcome talk, the organiser, Kevin Lewis, asks everyone to be conscious of people’s pronouns when addressing them (“she, they, he, hit, zir, ze, hey, ey, peh, fae, etc”) and there’s a box on our name tags to write what you’d prefer. Lewis encourages everyone to think along the lines of three themes when inventing their new device: intimacy, accessibility and personalisation. He wants the attendees to think of solutions to problems the mainstream has failed to recognise are problems at all, toys for marginalised groups and people who want to have sex but are physically unable to, as well as those who just want toys that do not exist – ones that pertain to some kink no sex toy manufacturer has yet covered.

One attendee, Florence Schechter, a science YouTuber currently raising funds to open a vagina museum, tells me that she’s interested in making a toy for women with vaginismus, a disorder that causes the vaginal walls to involuntarily contract, preventing penetration – or maybe something for those with vulvodynia, a chronic pain syndrome where the vulva hurts for no reason. “As women, we are conditioned to believe that pain is just what happens,” she says.

Physical problems needn’t prevent you from having a sex life; a grant scheme in the Netherlands gives money to people with disabilities to enable them to pay for sexual services. In the absence of that, we have this event and if we’re striving for a more accessible world for all, sex tech is a massively ignored frontier.

Dr Kate Devlin is a senior lecturer in the department of computing at Goldsmiths. In her talk, she stands in front of a projection of 30,000-year-old stone phalluses and tells us that she is a former archaeologist who now researches how society interacts with technological change and how sex is an overlooked part of society. Her speciality, as evidenced by her TEDx talk and her forthcoming book, is sex robots. She melds slides of the sex robots we’ve all seen in the news with the history of people building lovers for themselves; one example is Ovid’s Pygmalion, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved from ivory, brought to life with a kiss.

Getting to grips with one of the inventions at the sex tech hackathon Goldsmiths University of London.


Getting to grips with one of the inventions at the sex tech hackathon Goldsmiths University of London. Photograph: Sonja Horsman for the Observer

She shows us Roxxxy TrueCompanion with its (highly dubious) “frigid mode” and contrasts her with other sex robots with which you have to commit to a certain period of foreplay before you are granted consent. She shows us another robot, with long blond hair and huge breasts, and says the weirdest thing about it is that it speaks with a soft Scottish accent, the result of niche market research. Its name is Harmony and it costs $10,000.

Up close, says Devlin, you come to regard these robots as sculpted pieces of art rather than the hypersexualised hetero ideal they appear to be from afar. But ultimately, she is not keen on them – no matter how hard you try, they will never look human, they will always look like what they are: robots. “They will never look right if we try to make them human,” she says. “We need to go abstract.”

The hackathon is not just an event for people who wanted to build bigger, faster vibrators or make a blow-up sex doll prettier. The philosophy and psychology behind sex technology run deeper than that. After Devlin’s talk, neuroscientist and coder Andy Woods explains how the human brain works. “Everything in the brain links to everything else in the brain; the paths are like a lump of spaghetti,” he says. “Which means, if you think like a coder, everything is a pathway that can be hacked. Who here is a coder?” About 80% of the crowd raise a hand. Woods says that if you understand the brain, you can use one sense to bolster another sense whose signal is lacking. In the same way that a piano tuner might choose to work in the dark to heighten their sense of sound, senses that are weaker because of physical disability can be replaced by the strength of another. He demonstrates how you can augment reality for the totally blind, using beeps and whistles to make “a shape” of sound that translates into a shape in the mind. “What shape is this sound? Which of these shapes is bitter and which is sweet?”

After a full day of talks and discussion, the attendees divide themselves into teams and set to work. There is a station at the front of the room stacked with wires and hardware, beside two 3D printers (which were, when I saw them, printing a bright pink clitoris that went missing an hour later. “Has anyone found the clitoris? This is not a joke.”) There are also some standard sex toys ready to be broken up and used as spare parts. I pick up a Sqweel, a clitoral oral sex toy designed years ago in a competition organised by the British sex toy retailer Lovehoney. It has since gone on to become a bestseller: 10 tiny silicone tongues spinning on a motorised pinwheel. “That was designed by a man,” says Bevis, the person in charge of the equipment. “Like, how lazy are you?”

Very quickly, sticky yellow notes start to fill the walls with ideas and all the sensations of sex besides the basic in and out: squeeze, slap, lick, pinch, etc. Under leaking moulds, unset silicone pools on the floor while the chaotic noise of the hackathon bounces off the stone church walls: royalty-free female orgasm sound effects, vibrators buzzing on tabletops, the unfurling of an air bed for a full-body hug machine. (When volunteering to test out the latter, lying motionless as a plastic strap was wrapped around her throat, Devlin tells us that her safe word, should we need it, is “Michael Gove”.)

On the final afternoon, the teams present their work to the crowd one by one and there are winners and losers, but it seems like more of a motivational technique than the point of the exercise. Someone with carpal tunnel syndrome and RSI has made a gyroscopic “tugging” device for a penis that was not only loud but monopolised the 3D printer for most of the weekend; there is a vibrator that is controlled by the sound of moans rather than buttons (for those unable to move their hands); and interchangeable silicone vibrator sleeves, the closest thing to anything penis-shaped made over the weekend, though one of them was green and scaly and could have been a dragon’s and the other had tentacles at the base.

There is a string of coloured lights controlled by Twitter, so those who become anxious away from their phones could be aware that their friends were thinking of them as the colours changed; and a rose-pink shawl made by someone who found masturbation boring – the actual orgasm was not key to her experience; she wanted more of a whole body feeling of being a cloud that people could walk through (her inspiration was Zeus shape-shifting to have sex with mortal women). It probably made more sense if you were there, but not much. Another person has made an app for the geographically distant that allows users to touch their fingers to the glass as if their partner is on the other side. Exploring intimacy inevitably means highlighting loneliness.

One of the attendees taking part in a VR experience at the sex tech hackathon.


One of the attendees taking part in a VR experience at the sex tech hackathon. Photograph: Sonja Horsman for the Observer

It isn’t strictly a sex toy that makes me feel like I am desperately unaware of problems that exist outside my bubble, but a packer — the prosthetic penises that trans men can wear under their clothing for a realistic bulge that makes them feel more comfortable passing as male. “It’s awkward when you end up having the same penis as the person you’re getting frisky with,” says one team member, as they presented SoftDongs, a website where users will be able customise their own penis size, shape, length, width, colour, etc. In a world where the trans community is dealing with so much, why does this simple and personal thing that would make lives just a little bit better not exist already?

In Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine, a book about transhumanists attempting to meld their bodies with technology to solve the problem of death, he talks about cyborgs. When the term was first used in a 1960 scientific paper, cybernetic organisms were a solution to the human body being unsuited to space exploration; if the bodies of astronauts and technology were integrated, they could function in hostile environments.

But arriving as it did during the Soviet threat of nuclear annihilation, the idea of the cyborg swiftly became transformed into a war machine. It’s not unfair to say that when humans invent a new technology, they will generally find some way to kill each other with it or have sex with it: they can either destroy the world or save their own one.

But if we allow taboo to stifle innovation, we allow it to stifle the sex lives of the differently abled and we allow it to affect the interior lives of trans people walking around with prosthetics that have no bearing on who they are. If, in this complicated gender landscape, VR can help people inhabit the bodies they feel are true, then why not? There is a kindness and an understanding that can be reached if the taboo is quashed. This is what the sex tech hackathon is about – it’s not just masturbation.

“We make sense of the world through our bodies,” says Devlin. “I’m a sex tech optimist. We have a chance to shape where this is going.”

Tricky tech questions

Is hacking a sex toy sexual assault?
Sarah Jamie Lewis is an anonymity and privacy researcher who maps the dark web, a place designed to allow people to browse with complete anonymity. In August this year, she connected her smart vibrator to the dark web, allowing others to anonymously control it. “I think this is as queer and as cyberpunk as it gets,” she tweeted. Though Lewis consented to anonymous controllers, technology and internet lawyer Neil Brown raised the question of hacking. If you hack someone’s vibrator, is it assault by penetration? “The law isn’t ready for the internet of sexual assault,” he said.

Do lookalike sex dolls infringe people’s image rights?
The lines on this are blurry and mainly moral ones rather than legal, but as long as you aren’t selling a sex doll on the basis that it looks like a trademarked character or someone famous, it’s not illegal. However, if you falsely claim the doll was endorsed by the famous person, or if the person was misrepresented in a way that was likely to damage their reputation, you would be on shaky legal ground. Likewise, if you’ve made a sex doll that looks like a real (but not famous) person for your own use — it’s not illegal in the UK, it’s just gross. “Personal use is less risky,” said Brown, “But all of this is untested as far as I know.”

Who owns my sex data?
In March this year, the Canadian company We-Vibe – makers of smart sex toys that can be controlled remotely via Bluetooth and a smartphone app – agreed to pay out millions of dollars after a class action lawsuit over collection of private data (temperature changes to the device, dates and times of use, vibration intensity, etc). It’s a rare case. Brown makes the general point that updated privacy policies are often forced on users: they have to agree to these new terms or their smart device would become unusable. After laying out hundreds of pounds for a device, users are unlikely to take issue with the new policies and even less likely to sue because of the hassle and embarrassment of publicity. Because of the taboo and our unlikeliness to speak up, companies are able to do unethical things.

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