Skip to main content

Sextech (sex toys with cutting-edge technology) raises intriguing legal issues. These issues centre around the sensitive data that sextech devices collect. Like most cutting-edge technologies, they have the potential to harm us.

This post introduces sextech and highlights how it challenges people, businesses, and the law. When it comes to the law, I consider the relationship between sextech, data protection law, and digital criminal law. I end the post with some prescient thoughts.

Sextech and the law’s role

Sex ????. It touches nearly every part of our lives. If you think about it, it’s the reason most of us are here today. Plus, we have a long history of finding creative ways to engage in sexual behaviour. The early Greeks used stale baguettes for pelvic stimulation, and ancient Africans crafted wooden objects to satisfy sexual rites. Fast forward a few thousand years: we’ve reached the stage in our narrative where we combine sex toys with cutting-edge technology, i.e. “sextech”.

Fascinatingly, more people are purchasing sextech. Analysts estimate that it’s a USD 30 billion-dollar industry that will continue expanding. In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic, sextech sales skyrocketed. Why? It appears that social distancing has split up some couples, limited casual sex, and driven us to seek comfort from intense isolation, stress, and boredom.

But, what’s the law’s role when it comes to sextech? Well, it needs to balance fundamental human rights (e.g. non-discrimination and privacy) and corporate interests. It also needs to reflect the current values of society. Any decent lawyer will tell that balancing rights and managing values aren’t easy tasks. But it needs to be done. However, before these tasks can start, we need to understand sextech and the challenges it creates for the law. Let’s begin by looking at the types of sextech.

What are the types of sextech?

Sex apps

These apps facilitate sex, sell sexual content, or provide a platform for online sex. Below are two examples.

  • OnlyFans. This platform allows content creators to earn money online by selling sexually explicit images of themselves.
  • Grindr. It’s the world’s most-used location-based social networking app for gay, bisexual, trans, and other queer people.

Device plus app

Here, manufacturers combine a sex toy with a mobile app. Let’s look at two instances.

AI device

The concept is a sex device with AI technology. The most recent instance is a product called HUM. It’s the world’s first robotic AI vibrator. The device boasts body-response technology. In essence, it uses algorithms to analyse and predict the user’s pleasure points.

AI hologram companions

This sextech is a blend of AI technology with a hologram of a human being or living creature. A recent illustration is Hatsune Mik. She’s an anime character in holographic form and powered with AI technology.

AI sex robots

Until recently, AI sex robots were a fantasy. Now, there’s Harmony AIShe’s an AI sex robot that comes with 12 different personality types and even recites poetry.

The legal kinks

Now that we know what sextech is and the types of sextech, we can look at how they create legal problems.

Privacy and data protection

A user’s data is the lifeblood of sextech devices. These devices record data and determine the user’s preferences and tailor the experience to their needs. Also, sextech businesses use the data for product development.

Sextech data can cause harm

A user’s sextech data can harm them and other people if it gets into the wrong hands. This data includes the user’s sexual preferences and orientation and their health and location. It may also have data on co-users (e.g. contact history, chats, and video logs). For a moment, think about how ruinous it could be for queer people living in countries with bigotted laws or where they have unsafe living arrangements.

Because of the data’s sensitive nature, specific data protection regimes regard it as worthy of extra protection. The EU’s GDPR calls this data “special category data” while SA’s POPIA refers to it as “special personal information”. When a business processes this data, it can only do so if the user consents, the law allows the company to do so, or it is in the public’s interest.

Data protection principles

In handling this data, sextech businesses may need to follow certain data protection principles. Here are two relevant principles:

  • Principle of transparency. The user must know what data of theirs a sextech business processes and why it does so.
  • Adequate security safeguards. Sextech businesses must have sufficient security measures to prevent hackers from accessing sextech devices.

An example where a company didn’t follow the principle of transparency

A Chicago woman sued the sextech company, We-Vibe, for collecting personal information about how she used her device without her knowledge. The device was a personal vibrator that she controlled via her smartphone. She accused the company of secretly amassing “highly sensitive, personally identifiable information” about how and when she used the device.

It turns out We-Vibe collected the user’s preferred vibration settings, dates and times of use, and the email addresses of We-Vibe owners who had registered their devices. The app also contains chat and video features and allows a smartphone user to remote-control the vibrator, lending itself to long-distance users.

The parties settled the matter.

Automated decision making by AI sex robots

When it comes to AI sex robots and devices, like Harmony AI and Hum, sextech companies must have more protection for users. Consider the GDPR’s position:

  • “[D]evice manufacturers must ensure that they have mechanisms of communicating…data to their customers and, where the data [is] generated through machine-learning or other forms of automated decision making, they must also provide ‘knowledge of the logic’…or ‘meaningful information about the logic involved’…”.

Internet sex crimes

Remote sexual assault

We’re living in a reality where we can be intimate without being physically close to one another. Sextech empowers us to have cybersex with people across the world.

Why would you connect your device to the internet? You could do so for software updates, to live stream to an audience, or to allow someone to access and control your device remotely. 

But what would happen if a malicious hacker were to hijack your device? It’s possible. Consider the Svakom Siime Eye, a Wi-Fi-enabled vibrator. It comes with a built-in camera for live streaming. A cybersecurity and penetration-testing firm, Pen Test Partners, believes anyone within the WiFi range can easily hack the device. Some publishers called it a “spybrator”. Other tabloids suggested hackers could “livestream the inside of your vagina”. 

Practically speaking, the hacker would gain control of an object that could penetrate you. Would this be rape? There is no universal definition of rape. So, the answer would depend on the jurisdiction. But, it would probably be some form of sexual assault. Things get more complex when you connect your device to the dark web, and the remote controller is anonymous. What happens then?

Online sextortion

Many people use sextech for flirting and cybersex. Sometimes, the person on the other side may be a stranger. You may or may not know their identity. After all, anonymity is a kink.

But, the person you call or give control over your device may have malicious intentions. They may record your conversation or online session then threaten to share the content with your partner, friends, and family. They may also use your fear against you to coerce you into paying them for not releasing your intimate content. This is “online sextortion”.

The laws of online sextortion are not clear. It differs depending on the jurisdiction. Usually, lawyers have to apply a range of different criminal laws to get victims justice.

If you’re a victim of this crime, click on help to get helpful information.

Happy ending?

No! Several legal issues need answering. We also need to have more conversations about sextech and the law to know how to resolve the issues.