Cindy Gallop is a bold, provocative leader and speaker in the advertising industry as well as an entrepreneur whose goal is to bring us closer together in the real world. MakeLoveNotPorn, Cindy’s sextech startup, works to redefine how a digitally-minded generation thinks about sexuality by balancing the myths of hardcore Internet pornography with the real world. Iran and Allison Huang, our Design intern, talked to Cindy. They asked her to inspire us with her vision for a diverse, inclusive world where technology is designed to facilitate honest human experiences and relationships.
Iran Narges: How do you define sextech?
Cindy Gallop: Essentially, sextech is any technology or tech-driven desire to amplify or improve the quality of human sexual experience.
As a society, we are all remarkably mixed up about sex. Our reluctance to talk about sex openly and honestly, and the shame and embarrassment we feel around it, has many implications. For example, because the media and tech blogs are just as uncomfortable covering sex as anyone else is talking about it, when they do talk about sextech, they tend to default to the hardware side of sextech. And so you’ll see all the coverage in the media about teledildonics, VR porn, sex robots.
The issue with that is all of the awareness and coverage goes to that side of sextech when there are many more interesting things happening on the side I call software, which is where my own startup, MakeLoveNotPorn, operates. The software side is technology that is designed to bring people closer together in the real world. The reason that the media are not comfortable covering that side of things is because it involves people actually having sex with each other.
The irony is that when you default to the hardware, what you are doing is placing all of the emphasis and focus on sextech on those aspects of it designed to drive each of us further and further apart from each other into our own little isolating virtual world, and I am all about the software side of sextech that brings us closer together in the real world.
IN: You’ll be speaking to an audience made up mostly of designers; more from the UX side of design, but it does tend to be a pretty general, broad design audience. What do you want this audience specifically to know about sextech?
CG: There is a huge amount explored and discussed and talked about with regard to the user experience in every other aspect of tech and in design generally, but not when it comes to the user experience in this most sensitive of all areas. We had a fascinating task when it came to designing MakeLoveNotPorn, particularly because we are a whole new category on the Internet that doesn’t currently exist—social sex. Our competition on MakeLoveNotPorn is not porn, it’s Facebook and YouTube—or it would be, if Facebook and YouTube allowed sexual self-expression, self-identification. We have a platform that is all about socializing sex, and that has very interesting ramifications for the user experience and therefore the UX design that nobody else has engaged in the way that we did.
There is a very standard design default that happens when it comes to sex. Again, this is symptomatic of society’s reluctance to open up to and explore sex in creative and interesting ways, and equally in interesting ways when it comes to design. When we were looking for designers to work with, I said to my co-founder, Oonie Chase (who is our UX lead), “I don’t want to see any portfolios where the word sex instantly conjures up the same kind of iconography that we regrettably see all too often in media pieces covering us”: the default of red lips, red stilettos, women in lingerie. We are so limited in our instant sort of cliché-dom when it comes to sex because we are so reluctant to explore it.
I was looking for a truly innovative approach to bringing something that normally is forced to stay in the shadows out into the open. Our entire design process with MakeLoveNotPorn was about getting away from all the clichés. So, for example, very early on, Oonie said, “You know, everything to do with sex online is dark. People use a lot of black. We’re going to be white. We’re going to do the exact opposite, we’re going to be out in the open, we’re gonna bring light to this, we’re going to open this up, we’re going to be healthy and natural—you know, everyone else is dark, we’re gonna be white.” Even something as basic as that is a revolution in this area.
I want to talk about the design and other areas like the semantic approach, the tagging approach that we took to socializing something that people are not used to talking about and being open about and using openly at all.
IN: I have a question following up on that. The human-centered design process is anchored by insight into human needs, human behaviors, emotions. We typically start with deep, qualitative research to uncover those needs.
I’m familiar with how MakeLoveNotPorn came into being through your own talks and writing online. That came out of a need that you personally identified through your own qualitative research. What other deep human needs do you feel are currently going unmet that could be addressed by sextech?
CG: MakeLoveNotPorn came out of direct personal experience. It began as MakeLoveNotPorn.com, a very clunky little side venture that, after my talk at TED went viral, exploded in a way that I had never anticipated. The reason I then took it forward to MakeLoveNotPorn.tv was because of e-mails to my MakeLoveNotPorn inbox that come from everybody—young and old, male and female, straight and gay, every single country in the world. Even before the site, what amazed people was the fact that I stood on a stage in public, I talked about and I’m doing something about what everybody knows and no one ever speaks about. As a result, people feel able to tell me anything. They pour their hearts out to me in e-mail; they tell me things about their sex lives and their porn watching habits they’ve never told anyone else before. They write to me for advice: 15-year-old boys write, 50-year-old women write.
We hear from our community every day and all of that input is utterly factored into everything we do. This is one of the reasons why it’s so frustrating that we find it challenging to raise funding. Everything we are building and want to build we are being asked for on a daily basis by our community. This is not if and when stuff. In the broader sextech community, it is no coincidence that the most interesting and innovative ventures in sextech today are coming from female founders. Women are owning their sexuality in a way that we have never really been afforded the opportunity to do, as much as we are today in the world we live in.
I define sextech very broadly in two categories. I call the first “standouts”. By that I mean people and companies and technologies that are doing what already exists, but doing it better. In that area, I would class sex toy manufacturers like Jimmyjane and LELO who are doing an extraordinary job redesigning sex toys, but are enhancing things that already exist. The other side is what I call outliers, and those are the innovators and disruptors. I would obviously class MakeLoveNotPorn, introducing the area of social sex there, but women are coming up with really disruptive approaches for sextech that are fascinating.
For example, I posted the work of a Royal College of Art graduate called Wan Tseng, who has designed completely new kinds of sex toys. Sex toys, generally speaking, are viewed as instruments to get you off. The focus for sex toys, whether male, female, cross-gender, whatever, is to achieve orgasm. Wan Tseng has designed a fabulous range of wearables which are pads and beautiful objects you wear on your body that are designed to replicate very light touches, breath on skin. It’s a whole different kind of sensory, sensual, sexual experience that is not geared purely at focusing on the genitals and getting off. I find that absolutely fascinating.
IN: You’ve touched on a lot of the themes that I want to ask you about, but there’s one conflicting pair of ideas that’s coming up for me as I hear this.
You are such an advocate for human and real sexuality—I identify your perspective as being fundamentally humanist. But when I think about technology and sex, we already have this very compelling, addictive technology. People are already finding that their social interactions are compromised by their addiction to their mobile phones. We are about to get hit by a wave of immersive and innovative experiences through virtual and augmented reality. When you throw in AI and machine learning, we are looking at a future of virtual sexual experiences that may be more compelling for some people than other human beings.
How do you think that designers should navigate that? What are the experience principles that designers should use to keep these experiences human? How can we steer sextech away from a relationship-disrupting model and towards one that supports human interaction?
CG: There is only one thing you need to do to guarantee that outcome, and it’s the one thing that you need to do in every single area of business and life in the world today. That one principle is to have gender-equal leaders, founders, designers, teams, executors, funders, supporters, and champions around every single venture in this area.
I’m a feminist, I’m a rampant feminist, so I champion gender equality in all areas of business and in all areas of tech. At the moment, in Silicon Valley, there is a huge bias in favor of funding male founders. When you have tech ventures at scale that are founded by an all-male founding team, designed and built by all male designers and developers, funded by all male venture capitalists, and therefore have an all-male advisory board—you get ventures with a male-centric worldview.
This worldview then embeds itself in popular culture in a very fundamental way.
I wish society understood the opposite of what it thinks is true. Women enjoy sex just as much as men, and men are just as romantic as women. I have many 20-something men friends who are dying to find romance and find it just as difficult as women do. When you have a world that is equally informed, influenced, designed, managed, led, and driven by women just as much as men, you have world in which men are far happier, just as women will be, too. Just one key principle—gender-equal everything in the design world—leads to the humanity-focused, humanity-driven, humanity-celebrating, vastly improved world that all of us would like to see.
The world I want to see is one where we bring people closer together in the real world. MakeLoveNotPorn is a tech platform designed to improve communication around sex, to get to better sex, get to better relationships, get to better lives. As long as I and my fellow female founders trying to do the same things do not get funded, as long as our tech platforms don’t get to scale in the way that Tinder does, we’re going down a very specific route, and it’s not going to make mankind happy. It’s not going to make womankind happy, either, by the way.
Cindy will be giving a keynote at UX Week 2016 (August 9-12) entitled “Redesigning The Future Of Sex Through Sextech” in San Francisco. Register here to hear the talk, and keep an eye out for part two of our interview with her.
To read Pt. 2 of this interview, go here.