The lay of the land: How sex apps tread the fine line between fratty and classy

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on October 14, 2013

From The News Desk

The App Store may have been around since 2008, but we seem to just now be entering the dawn of the sex app era. In the last year, loads of popular apps from Tinder to Vibease have have launched, promising a dizzying array of tools.

There's the matchmaking app for finding a sex buddy the way you'd call an Uber. There's the phone-bump app for finding out a potential partner's recent STD test results. (Wtf.) And of course there's the useful app that just straight up turns your phone into a vibrator. (Ew.)

Despite the increase in sex appification, it's still the Wild Wild West out there. App creators are treading the fine line between fratty and classy, with many falling face first into gross-ville. Just like any other aspect of our lives, apps have the ability to make sex easier, more adventurous, more efficient, more convenient, more dynamic. But unlike other aspects of our lives, sex turns developers into tittering teenagers.

So is technology being used for the advancement of our sex-lives or the degradation of the experience? Like technology's impact on most things, it's a little bit of both. Let's take a look at the apps that make us want to vomit, and the ones that just might disrupt our experiences in the bedroom.

The first sex apps to arrive on the scene were all about matchmaking hookup partners, Grindr of course was the groundbreaker in this arena in 2009, allowing gay men to find other gay men nearby on the fly for sex. It took four years for apps tackling other sexual orientations to appear, with Tinder launching in October 2012 and Bang with Friends soon after in January 2013. Bang with Friends focuses solely on hooking up, but with people you know on Facebook.

The most recent sex-match app Pure, the "Uber" for sex, is like the illegitimate lovechild of Tinder and Bang with Friends. No need for messaging or communication, Pure just shows a user's basic information -- gender, location, whether they can "host" the session -- and a yes/no button. The site is straightforward: Anyone using it wants sex. Not a date. Not a friend. Not flirting. In that way, the app hopes to take all the "complication" out of an app like Tinder.

As though Tinder wasn't straightforward enough. The trajectory of apps from Tinder to Bang with Friends to Pure is one of stripping any social or personality element from hooking up. Classy to Fratty. Sex matchmaking apps might be getting grosser as time goes on, but on the bright side Tinder will probably outlast the newbies.

After all, Bang with Friends keeps getting kicked out of the App Store (it's back by the new name "Down" with a substantial two star rating), and Pure is waiting on approval. Apple's gatekeeper guardians are not convinced the world needs an app solely for sex-matching.

The apps that facilitate better sex are a whole different ball game from sex partner matchmaking apps. It's clear that app creators are still dipping their toes into this arena, and are not entirely sure what people want. There's also just not that much out there. There's only a few apps focused on improving the sex itself, either through advice, experimentation, or communication.

IKamaSutra, the oldest of the bunch, is just a grafting of the Kama Sutra onto an app. It's been around since 2008 and it's not that compelling. There's lists of positions with pictures and directions, for lovers' perusal. You could get that functionality from the book though, so this isn't taking advantage of the mobile app experience. In tech speak, it's not "native." But at least it's not frat-tabulous.

Then there's Spreadsheets, where the quantifiable self enters the bedroom. You set your phone on the bed and Spreadsheets tracks the rhythm, speed, and loudness of your "session." Lordy lord. Somehow this is supposed to be an accurate assessment of your sexual progress. Then over time you can try to go faster (hint fellas: that's not necessarily a good thing), or more vigorously. Talk about taking the quantifiable self movement a step too far. I don't think the tenets of athletic training really apply to sensuality.

The last sex-specific app Kindu has the most promise of any I've come across. Partners can each download the app, and receive prompts on various sexual scenarios like "using hot wax in bed." Ouch. Partners then hit thumbs up, thumbs down, or "maybe" on whether they'd be open to enacting that fantasy.

They can see each others' answers, hopefully opening up the sexual experimentation discussion without one person having to go out on a limb about their secret hot wax fantasy. Kindu is the first app I've seen to take the intrinsic mobile app properties -- like gamification, ease of answering questions with a click, the on-the-go nature -- and apply them to a couple's communication about sex.

But Kindu wasn't even created by app developers: it was built by a group of med school students after a sexual health course. You can tell by the look of it -- clunky, and not visually compelling. So basically the most disruptive app of them all was a homework afterthought.

App creators really need to up their game. This is a significant section of human life just waiting to be transformed by appification. Unless users aren't quite ready to bring their phones in the bedroom? I doubt it though -- after all we bring them everywhere else.

As time goes on I suspect we'll see more innovative products on the market. For now though, it's clear that developers are still figuring it out when it comes to sex. They're newly minted virgins, if you will.