Sex, on its own, in the wild, natural and unadorned, is still complicated. Don’t believe me? Look at a peacock or a bird of paradise. Salmon die after they procreate. Sea slugs penis joust. Now throw in evolved human biology, history, culture, technology, and science and you have a real disaster on your hands.
According to IEET readers, what were the most stimulating stories of 2010? We’re answering that question by posting a countdown of the top 31 articles published on our blog this year (out of more than 600 in all), based on how many total hits each one received.
The following piece was first published here on February 28, 2010, and is the #25 most viewed of the year.
Sex isn’t alone in being affected by these things. But for everything that isn’t sex, we apply “lifehacks” to increase our productivity, organization, mood, and leisure time. We read monthly manuals on what to eat to lose weight, how to stay fashionable, what entertainment we might like, and news about our favorite hobbies. Yet we constantly mystify sex. Our culture treats it as this untouchable, morally ambiguous, thing-that-is-not-mentioned that EVERYONE talks and thinks about. We are at the beginnings of an era wherein sex and sexuality will become both more liberated and more complex than any previous era by orders of magnitude.
Transhumanism, as a philosophy and the technologies it embraces, may offer us a chance to finally take some of the stress and mystery, and hence create more enjoyment, over this taboo part of our lives. When Ben Goertzel and I had our little exchange on sex (he mostly ignorned my critique and tsk tsked me), I said “If sex is messy and imperfect, we need to improve it, not get rid of it.” here are my suggestions on how to do it.
1. Better matches: It is always impossible to guess what discoveries will occur in the future, but science has been confirming over the past century that both sexuality and gender are more of a spectrum than a binary. You know how politics is better plotted on a grid than a line? Well, sexuality is best plotted in a kind of hypercube. Sexuality is more like taste in music than it is an either/or situation, with thousands of combinations and often very eclectic interests. Now consider this: imagine a Facebook app that takes the voluminous knowledge of OK cupid, Match, or E-Harmony, combined with psychological research and an enormously powerful algorithm that is designed to help you understand your sexuality. In short: a Pandora or Netflix or Amazon “you might like this” of dating and relationships. It might even suggest a whole genre shift: “you like partners that bite, pinch, and slap, you should try: Bondage!” Instead of worrying about whether or not your profile picture is right, you can focus on being yourself.
2. Safer: There is already a vaccine available for HPV, it isn’t impossible that other strains of both viral and bacterial STIs could be vaccinated against. The stigma that protection oneself against STIs means one is sexually reckless (a paradox, given that a person taking preventative measures is likely to be a good decision maker in general) is going the way of the dodo. A combination of vaccinations, regular testing, antibiotics and barrier methods, if used in large enough numbers, could effectively create a herd immunity. We eliminated small pox, measles, mumps, and polio, we can get rid of STIs.
3. Reproductive Choice: To make something a choice, it has to reasonably something you control. Reproduction, as it stands, is hard to control, despite all the options. The Today sponge, which went of the market temporarily, is available again in the US. Lots of different forms of long term hormonal birth control are available. IUDs are now far safer and better designed. Condoms are cheap and prolific. There is some truly great news on the horizon, however: the male pill. Despite the clamor of men’s magazines and the apparently hilarious joke that men are reckless morons, every guy I’ve talked to would love to be able to take a male pill. Why? Because most of my friends are smart and realize the awful consequences of accidentally getting someone pregnant. The male pill lets men take a much bigger role in pregnancy prevention and ads a huge aspect of redundancy to birth control. And better control means fewer accidental pregnancies, the central goal of both the pro-choice and pro-life movement.
4. Science Knowledge: A common complaint is that porn causes unrealistic attitudes about sex. A common joke is that young boys look at naked natives in National Geographic to get their jollies. Perhaps the undiscussed middle ground – TLC and Discovery Channel shows on human sexuality – could provide a fruitful place of learning. I know a lot of people (myself included) who learned how all the plumbing and hardware worked, while satisfying their curiosity and need for titilation, by watching science shows. Having the birds and the bees narrated to you by David Attenbourough is a glorious thing (it also makes Planet Earth even more erotic). Knowledge is sexy.
5. More Intentional: I posted about “tinkering with libido” some time ago, but it’s really an astonishing idea that bears repeating. Presuming well-made, low side-effect drugs, one could actively control one’s libido. Long day at work? Pop a libido suppressor and keep saucy thoughts from distracting you. Finally heading home? Take a libido enhancer and be very excited to see your significant other by the time you come in the front door. As Megan McArdle pointed out in a brave post on pedophilia, there are some sexual desires that are taboo, but still natural and uncontrollable. Schizophrenics, the mentally disabled, severe autistics, and a range of other conditions would be greatly eased by a reduced sex drive. Alternatively, those on anti-depressants or social anxiety drugs often lose sex drive, canceling out one of the major benefits of their medication. Libido control, and many of these drugs are in the works, would do wonders for many.
These are just a few ideas working with what we have and what we could accomplish in the near future. In the long term, ideas are absolutely mind bending. Synthetic skin could allow a person to amplify nerve endings all over the body, making every sexual experience otherworldly. Anti-aging might radically alter just how long our “hedonistic” youth is while simultaneously letting us have long term monogamous relationships that don’t have to suffer from the libido dampening effect of aging. Telepresence and virtual reality could help make long distance relationships easier and less taxing. Radical but safe and effective body modifications might allow for entirely new forms of sex and sexuality and gender to emerge.
As with everything transhuman, the goal is not to reduce the very things that make us human, like our sexual drive, but to open them to new and exciting possibilities. The goal isn’t to guide sex and sexuality towards some version of perfection, but instead to create orders of magnitude more options, to allow better control and safer conditions. Transhumanism is about diversity and choice, why not bring that to sex? Sex can be mystical and is perhaps ultimately ineffable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make it better with technology, knowledge, and freedom.