Should we all be using sex therapy apps now?

Should we all be using sex therapy apps now?

There’s an app for everything nowadays, and sex is no exception. A quick Google search for ‘sex therapy apps’ will bring up hundreds of results, all promising to fix up your sex life no matter what the problem is: there’s Blueheart, Relish, Coral, Lasting, Paired, Lover, Rosy, Ferly, Love Nudge – the list goes on.

Some are created to help you on your own sex journey, like Ferly, where users can listen to audio erotic stories and podcast-style guides. Others, like Coral, were set up to deepen connections between couples, offering sexy conversation prompts, quizzes and exercises. Many of these apps do seem to work, too: a 2020 study found that 62 per cent of men who used the sexual wellness app Lover to treat erectile dysfunction reported improvements. 

The growth of sex therapy apps tracks with the rise of wellness culture and the ever-mounting pressure on people to ‘optimise’ their personal lives, usually with the assistance of tech. The number of wellness-oriented apps is rising more and more by the day, and the global mental health apps market size is expected to reach USD 17.5 billion by 2030. On top of this, a 2017 survey by counselling organisation Relate found that only 34 per cent of UK adults are satisfied with their sex lives, so it’s no wonder sex therapy apps are on the up.

Şerife Tekin is associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She links the sex and relationship therapy app boom to three different factors. “The first is the neverending stigma surrounding problems relating to mental health, sexuality and relationships,” she explains. “It is hard for people to open up comfortably to their partners, friends, or even doctors about the issues they are experiencing. [On the surface], these apps promise and provide anonymity and privacy.” This is particularly important for ethnic minorities who are often less likely to access therapy than their white counterparts, due to factors like stigma and lack of culturally sensitive treatment.

“The second is the effect of the pandemic. People were all stuck indoors spending way more time with their loved ones, often confined in small spaces; this increased both mental health problems and relationship problems,” she says. The data backs this up: a recent Tavistock Relationships YouGov poll found that 47 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds experienced conflict with their partner during the pandemic.

“Finally, the low or no cost of downloading an app is attractive to people. Compare this to the costs – both in terms of finances and in terms of time and emotional energy – of seeking a clinician or therapist. People who are already in vulnerable mental states do not want to take more risks,” Tekin continues. She’s right: as we’re currently living through an economic shitstorm, forking out hundreds of pounds for private, IRL therapy is likely not a priority for most people right now.

Gigi Engle, a certified sex educator, welcomes the rise of these apps and anticipates that they will make sex and relationships therapy easier and more accessible. “These apps have an opportunity to give access to sex and relationship therapy to so many different people with different financial situations,” she says. “And they can help people who find talking about sex uncomfortable to find a way to bring up issues with their partner, and work on them from the comfort of their own homes.” Tekin agrees, saying that in future, these apps will be able to “educate individuals about their bodies and satisfying their sexual desires, as well as reduce the taboo around talking about sexuality.”

“The low or no cost of downloading an app is attractive to people. Compare this to the costs – both in terms of finances and in terms of time and emotional energy – of seeking a clinician or therapist” – Şerife Tekin

In theory, this all sounds amazing. But in practice, is it really as simple as hitting the ‘download’ button? Dani, 24, tells me that she used Paired for a couple of months with her ex. The app works by encouraging partners to answer daily questions about issues such as family, money, and work, and take part in quizzes to learn more about each other. “I personally thought it would be a great way to communicate as we had different schedules and [my partner was] always on their phone anyway,” Dani says. “We started because we had differences in communication and issues with infidelity.”

But in the end, using the app didn’t work out for Dani. “My partner barely used it. Out of the conversations and prompts answered, I did 73 and they did seven,” she says. “I think if they used it as much as I tried to, it could have been beneficial. Both partners need to be as interested as the other in learning more about their partner and how they want to be treated or understood.”

She also notes that she was unable to cancel her subscription even after she and her partner broke up, and had to continue paying for the app in full – £60 for one year – and as a result, found that this actually ended up stoking even more feelings of resentment towards her ex. Evidently, sex therapy apps can’t work miracles, and in some cases can actually cause or exacerbate relationship issues.

Plus, while they can create an accessible space for people to access information and sex-positive messaging around sexuality, these apps ultimately require us to go on our phones. As our phone addictions are already damaging to so many of our relationships – a recent survey found that 70 per cent of married women feel as though technology has interfered in their relationship – is communicating via an app and spending even more time on our phones really the best way forward?

Privacy on sex therapy apps is also cause for concern – if you’re going to be revealing all your bedroom secrets, you’ll need assurance that your data will be kept private. “The technology is growing so fast that addressing its ethics, policy, and legal ramifications are lagging behind,” Tekin says. “So if they end up having serious harms, or they are prone to privacy breach, it will be too late for us to address it. Companies behind developing these apps have to commit to responsible scientific research and be guided by values that will benefit the public at large.”

In any case, Tekin reckons that as we emerge from the pandemic, “people may lose interest in getting help from an app, through their phone” anyway. She adds that nothing can replace sitting down with a therapist in the flesh. “People are seeing that AI chatbots promising to provide psychotherapy are not actually as helpful as they were hyped to be, and that psychotherapy with a clinician or a counsellor is more effective,” she says. Engle agrees, adding that she doesn’t think “anything can replace a specialist face-to-face”.

Tech won’t save us. We should be sceptical of putting too much faith in big companies which often put profit before people, and face-to-face therapy with someone who is trained to observe your non-verbal communication will always be hard to beat. But these apps aren’t claiming to be able to heal us anyway – they exist more to facilitate our healing. Ultimately, they’re making therapy more accessible, starting important conversations between partners, and encouraging a deeper understanding of our own bodies and desires – which surely can only be a good thing.

As Engle says, “apps can serve as a great starting opportunity or to supplement work done in therapy”. With this in mind, moving forwards, perhaps striking a balance between online and offline therapy might turn out to be a particularly powerful combination.