Sir Arthur Clarke

Retrofuturist Sex: How the Past Thought We’d Be Loving in the Future

How did people in the 70s and 80s think we’d be having sex today?

We’ve always been fascinated by what could be: looking at the present and thinking, “If this keeps up what’s tomorrow going to be like?” And, naturally, more than a few people have gazed off toward the horizon and thought to themselves, “If sex is like it is now, what could it be like in a few years… or a few hundred years?”

Lots of folks love to see what the past thought the future would become, otherwise known as Retrofuturism. The great Matt Novak at PaleoFuture has done great legwork compiling not just what people tried to predict for technology and society, but also for sex.

So we at Future of Sex thought it could be fun to look at some of these past projections and see which ones were wildly wrong—or even close to being right.

1. Prediction: Sexbot marriage by the mid-1990s

Robot in love

Back in the bygone years of the early 1980s—1982 to be exact—Stephanie Mansfield in The New York Postpenned a piece called “Android Love of the Future.” She described how hot and passionate android love wouldn’t just be common, but we’d become emotionally and legally connected to robots.

“He comes home every night, grabs a beer and falls asleep in front of the television. You might as well be married to a robot, you say. Well, by the year 2000, you could be,” she wrote.

Arthur Harkins of the University of Minnesota is quoted in Mansfield’s article saying that while there might be a few—to put it mildly—challenges to the idea of human/android marriage, falling in love with your artificial sexbot is simply a matter of time.

He also predicted that relationships between humans and machines could be viewed similar to common law marriages, but unions would not be legal.

Sixteen years later, it’s pretty obvious that we don’t have android lovers or common-law partners. Though looking at the current state of artificial intelligence and robotics, we may be tying the mechanical knot in just a few more years.

That people can become emotionally and especially sexually connected to technology is nothing new. But these days, what with the sensuality being designed into all kinds of devices, it’s not a big leap to envision people preferring artificial over natural ones.

Chatbots, software that can mimic human interaction, are getting better and better at their job practically every day—to the point where the legendary Turing Test for artificial intelligence will more than likely have to be rethought.

Named after computer scientist Alan Turing, an artificial Intelligence passes the test when it cannot be distinguished from a human. According to the BBC, a program created by Vladimir Veselov may have already done this by convincing a wide range of people of its “humanity.”

So while we may not be walking down an electronic aisle with our sexbot partners quite yet, Mansfield’s New York Post piece may not be that far off base. Time will tell, though, if the marriages will be legal or just common law… and who will get custody of the kids.

2. Prediction: Civilized adultery by 2000

Sex was on everyone’s mind in the 1970s: the pill, women’s liberation, the birth of gay rights, experimental communes, as well as experiments in sexual group dynamics.

It’s kind of natural then that in 1970 Albert Ellis would have crystal gazed when writing in the book Prophecy for the Year 2000 about a future where polyamory was commonplace:

What I call civilized adultery will exist a great deal more in the 21st century. People will agree with each other, husbands and wives, to have adulterous affairs from time to time quite above board instead of having them secretly behind each other’s backs. They will not get upset about these any more than lots of people in other societies in the past, and present, do not get upset about adulterous affairs.

Two ladies holding a banner

While polyamory, which according to Wikipedia is “the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships involving more than two people, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved,” isn’t widely accepted, it is seriously on the rise. Psychology Today (back in 2014) reported that while it’s tough to be precise, there could be as many as ten million polyamorous groups in the U.S. alone.

Recognizing the growing popularity of consensually loving more than one person at a time, quite a few social media venues have started to offer polyamory as an option. The online dating site OKCupid, for instance, now gives members a choice of all kinds of relationship statuses, including polyamory.

Meanwhile, a staggering amount of poly-specific dating sites has also sprung up, including Polymatchmaker,Beyond Two, and the app The Poly Life, just to name a few.

So while polyamory hasn’t yet achieved a “people next door” status, we have to give Ellis a very high score on this one. Ten million people, after all, more than qualifies as “a great deal” in anyone’s book.

3. Prediction: Arthur C. Clarke on Sex in 2019

Sir Arthur Clarke

Also in the 80’s—though this time in 1986—science-fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke put down his thoughts on the future of sexuality in a chapter of his book July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century

Clarke is no slouch when it comes to predictions. Known for scientific realism in his fiction, and thoughtful insights in his non-fiction, it should come as no surprise that quite a few of his visions of 2019 aren’t that far off.

In one part of his book, Clarke describes a sexual personal ad:

Married white female, 40, seeks well-endowed SWM, 18-28, for 3-month intimate companionship. My husband’s hormone treatments (he’s 6 months pregnant) have put him out of commission temporarily. You take care of me; I’ll take care of you. Electrostimulation okay; as is drug-enhanced orgasm, but prefer partner with original equipment rather than implant. Send photo and vaccination certification to Box 2238.
—Personal ad, The Village Voice (July 20, 2019)

Sure, Clarke didn’t get the medium right, as his ad was printed in a paper magazine not the Internet where personal ads more commonly spring up nowadays. But the message in his faux ad is actually pretty accurate—if we allow ourselves some flexibility.

Gender, for example, for many has become less a matter of genitalia and more a form of self-identification. Transgender individuals, choosing to live the gender they should have been born with, have redefined the concept of male, female, or any preferred combination.

Clarke’s pregnant male, therefore, could be seen as a near-miss, prediction-wise: that born-male individuals haven’t yet been able to become pregnant, but male-identified persons with female anatomy certainly have.

Off a bit more are his thoughts of electrostimulation and pharmacologically induced sexual pleasure. Sure, we are getting very close to having direct neuroelectrical orgasms. In fact, Future of Sex has some fascinating articles on the very subject here and here—and researchers are working on drugs that can intentionally generate orgasms, but having both reliably deliver is still years ahead, and most likely to happen after 2019.

Conclusion: predicting sex

In the end, we have to give these predictions a close—in some cases very close—but no cigar.

That doesn’t mean, though, that they eventually won’t come to pass. Just not in the timeframe the authors foresaw.

True, we haven’t legalized robot marriage. But we are rapidly coming to a time when software will be indistinguishable from “real” humans. Yes, polyamory isn’t totally widespread. But it isn’t totally rare either. Absolutely, we don’t have biological men becoming pregnant but we do have a wide range of gender options.

Which brings up an interesting point: even though we may not, exactly, be living in what these people thought of as the world of tomorrow, what are the real technologies, social changes, and options that’ll be coming in our sexual future?

Time will definitely tell—and sex will also definitely be there.

Image sources: Joamm Tall, Robert Ashworth, ITU Pictures