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Mechanical Sex: The Relationship Between Intercourse And Intimacy

Computer scientists are developing robots that can provide intimacy, rather than just sexual pleasure.
Javier Pierini
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Getty Images

Many people start exploring their sexuality in college. The lessons they learn about intimacy and attraction during these years lay a foundation for the rest of their lives.

"I have students who have had sex many times drunk but have never held someone's hand," says Occidental University sociologist Lisa Wade.

In her book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, Lisa catalogs the rules of hookup culture.

"One of the saddest realizations for me when I was writing the book was just how powerfully hookup culture has convinced students that they should be embarrassed for having feelings, and feel weak for wanting connection."

This week on the Hidden Brain radio show, we explore complicated stories about intimacy. In the first half of the program, we speak with Lisa Wade about hookup culture. Computer scientist Kate Devlin joins us later in the show to talk about sex toys. She charts the history – and the future – of humans seeking out artificial lovers in her book Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots.

"The media like to paint sex doll owners as being very isolated men who are bad at social communication – probably, you know, stuck locked away in their basement or their bedroom with a sex doll," Kate says. "These people who own the dolls do so for a number of reasons [...] In fact, very few of them are driven by sex."

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Parth Shah, Rhaina Cohen, Laura Kwerel, and Thomas Lu. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Parth Shah is a producer and reporter in the Programming department at NPR. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.