In a pitch presentation that capped off hours of collaboration at New York’s first SexTech Hackathon, the subject turned to a decidedly unsexy scenario: Parents talking to their kids about sex.
“How can we foster a safe environment at home for children having conversations about sexual education with their parents?” asked one of the hackathon’s more than 40 participants during a pitch presentation for what would become the event’s winning project.
Better communication would emerge as a theme as hopeful entrepreneurs — many of them new to sex tech — considered how tech can be used to enrich human sexuality.
For six hours on Jun 10 at New York’s ThoughtWorks, participants with a range of backgrounds — from coding to design to sex therapy — worked in teams to imagine products that fall under the vast umbrella of sex tech. Though the term often covers forms of adult content — VR pornography, for example — the event’s website made clear the criteria for hackathon participation : “While we recognize sexuality is a diverse field, we will not be accepting hack teams for anything related to pornography or entertainment.”
Rather, Saturday’s event was meant to push ideation in the realm of sexual education and pleasure. Following a pitch and feedback session, a panel of sex tech entrepreneurs would select a winner.
Seven teams, formed just a few hours earlier, pitched their visions to the judges panel. “Spinucation” — a connected game that aims to start conversations about sex between parents and children — took home the top prize: one month to develop the project at Galvanize, a “learning community for technology.”
The winning team’s concept features an app-connected toy, modeled after Spin the Bottle, that determines who will answer a question prompt from the app. Questions would come from an AI built into the app that would use news items on sex and sexuality to generate content. Made for children between ages 5 and 18, the game would also allow parents to choose which topics they want to discuss with their children.
“This is a tech environment, obviously, and we are very critical about technology and how we often end up hiding behind avatars instead of having a more human one-to-one interaction,” said Elena Habre, a designer who worked on the concept. “So we were also thinking how can we leverage AI, but not to hide behind it, but [to] have it facilitate a conversation.”
Other team presentations included concepts for VR that simulates sexual situations for educational purposes, an app or website that would help users understand if they perpetuate rape culture, a subscription box that helps couples in long-term relationships try new things in the bedroom and, the event’s runner-up, an app that facilitates conversations about sex between partners.
While the event’s goal was to encourage female-led innovation in this space, the hackathon — open to all genders — featured a near fifty-fifty split between men and women participants. The organizers acknowledged a need for a future hackathon organized entirely for people who identify as women.
But though the event was open a diverse set of genders, Bryony Cole — hackathon mentor and host of the Future of Sex podcast — says the goal was to create a safe environment where women can feel comfortable exploring what might be an unfamiliar industry.
The day started off with a talk from women sex tech entrepreneurs including Mal Harrison, director of the Center for Erotic Intelligence and Kris Jandler, co-founder and CMO of Emojibator. The event also included an ice breaker and discussion session where participants could get to know one another.
Encouraging women-led innovation in sex tech is critical at a time when it’s such a challenge for female entrepreneurs to secure funding in a still-stigmatized industry.
Cole belongs to Women of Sex Tech, a New York-city based group of more than 70 entrepreneurs dedicated to increasing the number and diversity of women working in sex tech. Per its Facebook page: “We want to increase access to funding for female-founded startups in sex tech and decrease the stigma of female sexuality.”
“The interesting thing about that community is they would traditionally be considered competitors,” Cole said. “So we have a group of women that are making sex toys for pleasure, there are people who are doing sex educational apps, and we think these are competitors, but … because the industry is so small and there’s so much stigma, it forced people to band together and go, hey, we need to break through these walls first before we even start to tackle things like how do I sell my vibrator over yours.”
And while these women work to create better opportunities for themselves and their peers, the aim is also to encourage women-led tech industry’s overlooked areas: education, pleasure and, as we saw Saturday, improved communication.
“If you were to look right out to the frontiers of what’s happening in sex tech— that’s in VR or teledildonics or AR,” said Cole. “[At this hackathon], we want to solve a really simple problem: We want to get more education about sexual health and awareness to children, or we want to improve the intimacy between couples … That’s nothing crazy and out there— that’s just simply the cultural moment we’re at right now.”