Is Sex Tech the Next Feminist Frontier?

Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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Art has a long and complex history with the female body. And as tech continues to evolve, some women believe it’s the key to changing the way we think about — and perhaps more importantly, look at — female sexuality. Below, meet five artists and innovators at the forefront of sex tech in the art world and adult entertainment or both.

Anna Uddenberg, “CLIMBER (Pierced Rosebud)” (2020), Aqua resin, fiberglass, polyurethane foam, styrofoam, steel, vinyl, pleather, synthetic hair, wood, acrylic nails, crocs, faux fur, plywood, steel bracket, 160 x 280 x 170 cm; 63 x 110 1/4 x 66 7/8 in (image courtesy the artist)

Anna Uddenberg

You’ve probably seen Anna Uddenberg’s work on your Instagram feed. Her futuristic sculptures of scantily clad and erotically posed women are part-cyborg, part-influencer, and perfectly primed for sharing on social media. “I’m interested in how algorithms are shaping and altering social behaviors and how sexuality plays a big part in that,” she says of her practice. Beyond the digital aesthetic principles that make Uddenberg’s work feel right at home on platforms like Instagram, her sculptures have social media in their DNA. “The materials that I’m working with function like triggers to me — layers of references, much like memes, reproduced, copied and mutated, while forming new meanings,” she says.

Those meanings are rooted in a response to consumer culture through which Uddenberg explores representation and the female body as it has evolved with technology. In her world, the physical bodies of her sculptures are not the only thing made from those “layers of references.” She also views sexuality and gender as fluid and malleable, influenced by what she defines as “rampant consumerism” and the over-saturated world of social media. It’s no wonder that as her portfolio has grown, so too have certain body parts on her sculptures. It also makes sense that with each new series, her sculptures are outfitted with more technology — an iPhone here, a selfie stick there — and that their compositions look more and more like sex robots. Her works are an eerie representation of identity and sexuality in the age of self-representation: the ultimate pastiche, a collage of memes, pop culture references, and nods to our Saved folders, filtered (literally) through technology. 

Ani Liu, “Untitled (Small Inconveniences)” (2019), Silk, nylon, silicone, elastic bands, 43 x 33 x 5 cm (image courtesy the artist)

Ani Liu

“I think of myself as a very traditional sculptor,” says New York-based artist Ani Liu. In place of marble or granite, though, Liu uses technology to create complex works that explore gender, sexuality, and what she refers to as “the unpaid invisible labor” of the female body. In 2017, while studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she witnessed a project in which two of her classmates created a version of the retro arcade game Pong by using an electric field to control single-celled organisms called Paramecia. At the time, Donald Trump had just been elected, and Liu was feeling particularly uninspired. “I remember seeing the ‘Grab them by the pussy’ phrase all over the news, and I kept thinking about the violence of controlling another body, especially how female bodies have been historically controlled for reasons related to production — producing babies, producing sexual pleasure,” she recalls. The Pong remix was a revelation for her: “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I wonder if this works with sperm and what it would mean for a woman to control sperm in this way.’ So, I got a microscope.”

The result, Liu’s buzzy “Mind Controlled Spermatozoa” (2017), in which she created a system for women to control the movement of sperm using only their thoughts, became the foundation for her practice. Since then, she has developed a body of work that explores social constructions of sexuality and gender, as well as what she views as misogynistic notions about the female body, with pieces such as a machine-learning A.I. model that produces toys using an algorithm developed from the gendered descriptions of IRL children’s toys; and “Untitled (Woman Pains)” (2019), a garment that simulates pregnancy symptoms, including labor pains.

“I’m really interested in how science and technology create a kind of invisible framework by which we view other aspects of society and in particular, gender and sex,” she explains. “There’s so many underpinnings of how identity and gender and sexuality can be understood through the lens of science, but unfortunately, for a long time, there was this kind of myth of what females were capable of based on biology. Things like that can now be changed because of technology, especially when it’s shared through art,” she says, adding that for her, freedom comes from that mix of art and science. “It’s a space of potential and creation.”

Screenshots of a TikTok video by the artist (source) (screenshots courtesy the artist)

Liz Klinger

Lioness founder Liz Klinger was studying art at Dartmouth when one of her professors told her to stop making work about sex. Klinger had questions about her sexuality and, as a photographer and sculptor, wanted to use her art as a means of navigating her experience. Instead, her teacher told her to find a new subject. “She said, ‘There isn’t anything left to explore, this isn’t a shocking or interesting topic anymore,’” Klinger remembers. For her final project, Klinger decided to ignore her professor and displayed a giant photo of her vulva as part of the class exhibition. During the opening, she walked around the room and was shocked to find that most of the people in attendance had no idea what they saw in her self-portrait. That was the first time she realized she wanted to work in the sex industry.

A decade later, Klinger is the co-founder and CEO of Lioness, a sex tech company responsible for the world’s first smart vibrator. Using biofeedback and precision sensors, the Lioness tracks usage data, kind of like how a FitBit counts steps. Then it connects to an app that allows users to “visualize arousal,” explains Klinger. “You use Lioness like a normal vibrator and then afterwards, you connect to the app, which is kind of like a sex diary,” she continues. “Part of it is actual data and feedback, and the other part lets you add tags and notes, so it’s a way for people to really see what works best for them, and to learn what they like, not just physically, but on a biological level.”

For Klinger, developing and launching the product is a natural extension of her art practice. “My work was about learning and exploring my sexuality, trying to take the shame and stigma away from it,” she says. “That’s what we do at Lioness: we’re recontextualizing sex and pleasure. Those can be abstract ideas for a lot of people but having this sort of data and these visuals allows people to actually see, and engage, with them.” Some users have done that in innovative ways, like musician Von, who uses her orgasm data from the vibrator to make electronic music. “People experiencing and understanding their pleasure and doing what they want with it — that’s what I get really excited about.”

Leah Schrager, “Selfie-examination” (2015), digital Print on Aluminum with removable censor bar (image courtesy the artist)

Leah Schrager

Leah Schrager started making something akin to NFTs before there were NFTs. For over ten years, the artist has been making one-of-a-kind digital art that explores themes of celebrity and sexuality, merging the worlds of porn and art in a kind of ongoing online performance piece. Playing a variety of characters such as her viral @onaartist, Schrager uses her own body as a canvas, implementing technology as a tool to manipulate the raw materials; she then uses the digital world and its transactional platforms as her means of distribution. In doing so, Schrager has built her practice around autonomy — she is her own model, photographer, editor, gallerist, publicist, and accountant — while exploring the possibilities of self-presentation online, blurring the lines between self-promotion, art, and porn. “The internet is a very performative space,” she says. “It also creates a cool vortex between the art world, social media, and the adult world, because online, you don’t necessarily know who’s looking and for what reason. It brings up all these questions about audience, and if the audience is what defines something as art, or as pornography.”

In Schrager’s mind, her adult performances are a conceptual expansion of her work as a performance artist. Capturing and showcasing her nude body across both spheres through technology, she says, is a subversion of art historical tropes and traditions that she sums up with a concept she calls “man hands.” “It’s the idea that women’s bodies are only accepted if they’ve gone through the hands of men,” she explains. “So, Richard Prince can sell a selfie that a woman posted on Instagram, or women’s naked bodies can be celebrated when they’re painted by Manet, but if I post a selfie, it’s not art, and if I share my naked body, it’s sex work.” 

Schrager believes all technology is the cure for “man hands”: “With technology, you’re giving women the space to not just create but own her own image.” And though that doesn’t solve all the art world’s problems — she still believes the industry needs to adapt and include digital art into its critical discourse — it does add an important feminist perspective. “I don’t think that’s just the male gaze anymore,” she says. “It’s still there, but now there’s also a female gaze.”

Joey Holder, “Ophiux” (2016) (image courtesy the artist)

Joey Holder

Her work is a kind of “world-building practice,” Joey Holder says. Creating large multimedia installations, she examines both the natural and the digital worlds, using technology to understand their relationship. “I’m trying to display the complexity of the natural world against something like technology,” she says about her art, which combines biology and technology to look at nature in a way that transcends human experience. The result, a mix of “weird creatures and strange life forms,” juxtaposed with scientific elements, “like data extraction, screensavers, or some kind of measuring device,” as she describes them, offers what Holder calls “new knowledge systems, or challenges to the dominant power structures.” 

One enduring structure she tackles in her work is the cultural conception of female sexuality. “I want to uncover what is usually hidden to us in these narratives,” she explains, “and if we think of our own bodies and our own sexuality in terms of the broader perspective of the natural world and not just the dominant narratives we’ve been taught, we’ll find endless possibilities.” For Holder, those boundless cycles mirror the technology that inspires her practice: “We’re living in this saturated space, where technology becomes a tool — an extension of ourselves — and in its complexity, it sort of has a life of its own.” That duality, and the questions it raises, has become a focus for Holder, who collaborates with scientists, biologists, and journalists to explore the natural and the artificial through her immersive installations that address the contrasting worlds of history and technology… Or maybe they’re no longer so conflicting. “It seems like everything these days is becoming a branch of computer science,” she adds. “Even life itself can be thought of as code or something that’s programmed.”

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