Cindy Gallop
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Porn, Sex, Tech, And Cindy Gallop

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“Most likely it will be amateur pornographers who make best use of Meerkat’s special features,” observes The Economist drily, ending an analysis of the battle between Meerkat and Periscope. “They have a long history of kick-starting new video technologies.” Indeed. Porn is always at the forefront of technology. But what about sex?

A couple of months ago I sat down with Cindy Gallop, an advertising maven turned sex-tech startup founder, who delivered one of the more memorable TED talks of all time some years ago (and has the world’s best Twitter bio.) She wanted to discuss her disruptive notion, the thing she believes that few others believe: that the tech industry, and the Internet in general, should be more receptive to sex.

Which probably sounds almost oxymoronic. After all, everyone knows that sex is pervasive on the Internet. Right? “Rule 34.” Just look at Alexa’s Top 500 Global Sites, and count how many purvey pornography.

…But that’s porn. Gallop, radically, thinks the Internet — and the tech industry as a whole — should have more sex. Not at all the same thing. Sex is messy, funny, impulsive, intimate; porn is none of the above. Sex is, or should be, preceded by enthusiastic consent and discussions of STD protection and contraceptives; porn has none of that. Sex is about people; porn tends to be about bodies.

Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. One of Gallop’s slogans is: “Pro porn. Pro sex. Pro knowing the difference.” A difference which young people can find confusing. As she puts it: “There’s a huge unfilled gap between porn and sex ed … Nowadays children encounter porn starting at age 6 to 8. [Or even earlier.] So ‘The Talk’ has become ‘Sex Isn’t Really Like That.'” (See also this New York Times piece on that same subject.)

Is the call for sexual content (and sexual technology) that isn’t porn really so radical? Well, yes. The Internet — and the tech industry as a whole — has essentially polarized into two separate, independent fiefdoms: porn, and non-sexual content. There is little-to-no room for anything in between. Anything remotely sexual is (generally) considered porn, and treated as tainted, by “respectable” businesses. As The Daily Beast puts it: “Today’s tech scene is startup-fueled and app-driven, actively encouraging disruption in every sector imaginable. Except sex.”

Consider Gallop’s startup, Make Love Not Porn, intended as a platform for socially acceptable and shareable sexual content … one which includes copious quantities of community-generated explicit material. But: “The small print always says ‘no adult content.'” It was an enormous struggle just getting the external infrastructure for her site up and running. Payment processors turned her away. Video hosting sites turned her away. Email providers turned her away. Venture capitalists turned her away. No one wants to be involved in any way with sexual content.

It’s easy to blame the much-maligned and much-misunderstood porn industry for this. Easy, but probably wrong. When I asked Gallop if she thought sex was a near-untouchable business sector because porn has poisoned the water, or whether it’s simply a consequence of our society’s frequently twisted, hypocritical, and messed-up attitude(s) toward sex, she didn’t even hesitate before responding: “The latter.”

And so much of the tech industry won’t touch sex with the proverbial ten-foot pole. “Mary Meeker won’t talk about the number-one use of the Internet,” Gallop accuses, despite the fact that “this is a sector that can make an absolute fuck-ton of money.”

If you doubt that, just look at the mindboggling worldwide box-office for FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, despite it being something of a problematic mess of a movie. Look at the crowdfunded Eva. Socially acceptable sex is a huge market; more interestingly, it’s a huge new market.

Gallop has huge ambitions, as befits a founder: to become “the Khan Academy of sex” and then “the Y Combinator of sex.” But it’s clear in conversation that this is a personal mission more than simple ambition. “I’ve received thousands of emails from people, telling me the most intimate details of their lives … I feel a personal responsibility for this,” she says. “We’re in the market of human happiness. I want to accelerate the eradication of shame.” A noble goal. I hope the rest of the industry catches up with it soon.