- Vulnerability is a building block of passion and intimacy and an unavoidable aspect of sex with human partners.
- Sex tech increasingly provides powerful sexual sensations without human partners.
- This is the first moment in history that intense sexual experiences can be experienced without vulnerability.
- Intimacy with tech has the power to modify how some people give and receive love.
Vulnerability is an emotional experience that many people find cringeworthy. After all, being vulnerable implies a lack of protection, and thus the potential for exploitation or rejection. However, it is also the case that vulnerability makes for great sex. Researchers have suggested that passion is dependent on vulnerability to such a degree that sex void of vulnerability is also boring and passionless.
Chances are that your personal experiences validate this claim. Take a moment and think of the best sex of your life – was it with a new or relatively new partner? New partners enhance our sense of vulnerability because of the mystery and lack of predictability inherent in new relationships. Or perhaps your best sex ever occurred when you did something unusual in bed, trying out new sexual behaviors involves risk that feels vulnerable. Maybe you are a fan of BDSM, a type of sex play focused on one partner dominating another, thus intensifying a sense of vulnerability in the non-dominant partner.
This correlation between vulnerability and passion is why sex therapists suggest trying new things with your long-term partner, both inside and outside the bedroom, to keep your sex lives engaging. After all, once a couple has been together for a while, it becomes more difficult to feel vulnerable and as a result, passion can wane. It’s why maintaining eye contact during sex, sex with lights on vs off, and letting the desire for your partner show on your face amps up the intensity of sex.
These behaviors make people feel vulnerable, and thus increase passion, but only if they are well received. Further, we tend to feel closer and more connected to people we let see our true selves, as opposed to our more public persona. In this way, vulnerability is critical not just to passion, but to intimacy. It’s also why we tend to feel closer to public figures, such as actors, who open up about their life challenges. These people, whom we have never met, nonetheless allow us access to the more vulnerable, intimate details about them. As a result, we feel closer to those who disclose to us, even if we don’t know them.
For hundreds of thousands of years, most human sexual interaction required some level of vulnerability. The simple act of allowing someone into your personal space feels vulnerable. Taking off the protective barrier of your clothing feels vulnerable. Letting your body and your sexual responses be seen by another feels vulnerable. Yet these experiences increase passion only if they are well received. If one partner shows up in a vulnerable way and feels rejected, it can cut like a knife. This is why people stop initiating sex if their partner continues to reject them; initiating sex feels vulnerable, and after a while, people are no longer able to tolerate continued rejection.
One of the many fascinating implications of expanding sex tech is that, for the first time in history, passionate sexual experiences will be increasingly available without having to take risks and show up vulnerably with another human being. As sex in virtual reality advances, sex with tech increasingly mimics interactions with human partners on both an emotional and sensual level. Yet all of this sensation is increasingly available without actually having to reveal any of yourself to another human being. You get all the passion, and perhaps even the sense of intimacy that accompanies vulnerability, without the risk of rejection or criticism inherent in human relationships.
It’s probably too soon to determine what this epic shift will mean for humanity. But when I began my research on the future of intimacy, I didn’t believe people would fall in love with their tech. Now, I’m not so sure. If the emotions of passion, love, and intimacy all can be reduced to neurophysiological activity, it would make sense that at least in some situations, we could have the same neurophysiological activity we interpret as love for a human partner as with a virtual one. In addition, if we can achieve this sensation without having to take the risks inherent in vulnerability, would a risk-free experience of passion be preferable, at least for some of us?
I believe the answer to that question is yes. And as a sex therapist who spends her days helping couples negotiate the many challenges inherent in human intimate connection, I’m pretty sure that at least some folks will find intimacy with tech more rewarding than intimacy with a human partner, since human partners are all difficult to interact with at times, and all capable of being rejecting. Considering the rates of divorce, extra-marital affairs, sexual dysfunction, and sexless marriage, human intimacy is challenging for just about everyone at times. Passion without vulnerability and without the challenges of relationships may be profoundly compelling for those who are frustrated with human intimacy. Even if they would prefer a human partner, the safety and comfort of non-judgmental sex may be a reasonable alternative. Furthermore, it’s conceivable that the open-minded environment provided by a virtual lover will enable some people to experience a deeper level of vulnerability with their tech, and thus enjoy even more passion than with a human partner.
Ultimately, humans come in a wide range of personalities. We differ in how we love and in what feels sexually exciting. What is certain, though, is that like all aspects of our lives, tech is changing intimacy. Buckle your seat belt, we may be in for a wild ride.
Grebe, N., Kristofferson, A., Grontvedt, T., Thompson, M., Kennair, L. & Gangestad, S. (2017). Oxytocin and vulnerable romantic relationships. Hormones and Behavior, 90, 64-74.
Khalifian, C. & Barry, R. (2021). The relation between mindfulness and perceived partner responsiveness during couples' vulnerability discussions. J Fam Psychol, 35, 1-10.
Obert, J. (2016). What we talk about when we talk about intimacy. Emotions, Space and Society, 21, 25-32.