Utopian futures for sexuality, aging, and design

Authors: Britta Schulte, Marie Søndergaard, Rens Brankaert, Kellie Morrissey
Posted: Tue, January 19, 2021 - 1:35:54

This excerpt is from a letter to a future self, a story written at a workshop held at DIS 2020 [1], where participants reframed and reimagined what intimacy might mean for the aging body and what role technology might play. Aging and the changes to the body it brings with it are often portrayed as something negative, a time of loss and fading away. Images of older bodies are rarely publicized or celebrated; in fact, old age is more often expressed through a (black and white) image of a hand placed on a shoulder. Although initiatives such as #nomorewrinklyhands try to make this lazy messaging visible as well as counter this stereotype, the prevailing societal fear of growing and appearing older means that— deliberate or not—we can tend to erase images of bodies that are engaged in processes of aging. However, when we ignore the aging body, we also erase experiences such as menopause and the changes—positive and negative—that this period brings for people undergoing it. When ignoring the body, we erase close intimate practices that are part of caregiving, including bathing, dressing, and close physical support. When ignoring the body, we erase experiences of intimacy and sexuality and the important part they play in our well-being.

Increasingly, HCI practitioners problematize and critique the way we, as a field, frame and address aging and the aging body [2,3]. This framing impacts the ways we configure and design new technologies that address (or ignore) the well-being of older people [4]. While the community is growing in this respect, many research and design projects in HCI still often steer away from intimacy and sexuality, choosing instead to focus on how older participants can gain satisfaction through family or civic life instead [5,6]. Although there is a healthy body of work in HCI on innovating surveillance technology or memory aids for older people, HCI has similarly balked in engaging with the “bodywork” that is also necessary in aged care (and which is often left to women carers, or to low-paid care workers). Elsewhere, however, intimacy is a reoccurring topic for HCI research (see, e.g., [7] for an overview). And beyond this, as a young, cross-disciplinary field, HCI often expands the border of  “what can be talked about”: Here, sexuality is often a subject of design research, exploring technology through the lenses of sex toys [8,9], and kink [10], while others explore the role sexuality could play in HCI research through workshops at top-level conferences [11,12]. But it can be argued that there is a comparable pattern here: Through these publications and projects, sexuality is framed at least implicitly as a prerogative of the young and able-bodied.

Organized as part of the ACM Designing Interactive Systems conference in 2020, our workshop, titled “Don’t Blush: Ageing, Sexuality & Design,” explored the (dis)comforts surrounding the potential role of technology in sexuality and intimacy in later life [1]. Bringing together researchers and practitioners from many disciplines, we particularly wanted to imagine speculative, positive futures of aging to help us visualize a sex-positive society. The workshop relied heavily on storytelling as a means to approach, communicate, and ground this sensitive topic in a manner that all felt comfortable with. In a first step, we used three stories—two descriptive of current scenarios (drawn from current practice), one speculative— to kickstart the discussion and familiarize ourselves with the different themes this topic might encompass. The stories described 1) the experiences of a couple not able to find space together privately in a care home, 2) experiences of nursing staff with a “Mr. Carter” and his unsatisfied urges, and 3) the story of a couple who asked the salesman of a robobutler company if the robot could provide support in the bedroom. These initial discussions were useful to find common ground and as a tool to develop a shared vocabulary on intimacy and sexuality. Participants were able to raise the topics important to them, outline blindspots, and relate the stories to their own areas of expertise, as well as to the things they found interesting from the other participants’ workshop submissions. After extensive discussions, smaller groups collaborated on writing a new story. The only direction provided was that the stories were to be optimistic, maybe even utopian, so that, instead of lamenting the status quo, we could develop visions of what we want to see. 

The four resulting stories exceeded our expectations of what could be possible in such a short amount of time, as they were subtle, sensitive, and sensual accounts that allowed us to collectively think the “unthinkable.” Drawing on the variety of experiences the participants brought to the table, the stories covered a range of experiences, including: 1) enriching bodily experiences through lingerie that is suitable for people using incontinence pads, 2) sensitive, tailored sexual care package subscriptions openly advertised in care homes, 3) love letters to the body and self-care rituals surrounding menarche and menopause, and 4) a sex-positive older blogger embraced by her family. 

This illustration was developed alongside story 2, illustrating the different sex packages available in the fictional future care home.

Even though these stories were planned out as utopian stories, they are inherently grounded in the everyday, the mundane, and the values of the writers. Drawing on the body as a focal point has enabled the authors of these stories to discuss societal changes not in the abstract, but rather on a personal, embodied level. Even though all stories describe deeply personal encounters, they all link to changes beyond these experiences, which are articulated through the artifacts that the stories’ protagonists use. The erotic lingerie that Jo—a nonbinary character—uses to change their body (image) is not only their own imagination: Jo also reflects how it has been shared widely through Instagram adverts, showing that society has made space for conversations around desire, changing bodies, and incontinence to happen. The care home presented in story 2 advertises the sexuality packages they developed openly, hinting at a whole history of conversations, changes, and decisions that took place beforehand. Through the family members, who are somewhat uncomfortable about the idea, we get a hint as to how far society has adapted to it.

As with every good workshop, “Don’t Blush” left us with more questions than answers. But we are convinced that these questions are useful for us as a field to move toward technologies that are truly supportive of the lived experience of older bodies. We tried to summarize some of them here to stimulate discussion within the field.

If we acknowledge that older adults might have or wish for an active sex life, what does that mean for the technologies we develop in this area? How can we ensure that the technologies we create support the joy, dignity, and privacy that we would allow everyone else? How do we develop research and design strategies that approach the question in suitable, sensitive, and satisfying ways?

If we acknowledge that good care in older age means caring for the body as well as ensuring people’s basic health and safety, how can we extend our understanding of intimacy, privacy, and dignity to improve and enrich often-ignored body work (bathing, dressing, and toileting)?

If we acknowledge the aging body and the changes it goes through, what directions does this open up for us to explore through our research and design work? How can we make space for the body in our research and keep an open dialogue about experiences, staying with the (dis)comfort of such conversations? 

We hope to keep this conversation going and growing. All organizers, as well as most participants, came from a Western European perspective, with a strong focus on the U.K. and the Netherlands. Both the stories that inspired the work and those that came out of the workshop embody a certain understanding of sexuality, intimacy, as well as aging and caregiving. The majorities of the stories focus on a female perspective, which again mirrors the composition of the workshop participants. Even though not always explicitly, most stories further present a heterosexual outlook. While this is a limitation of the current work, it is also an explicit invitation to build on these stories, contradict them, and expand them. In addition, the experiences and wishes of people in their later lives themselves are missing here. We are planning to respond to this by using the stories developed in the workshop as conversation starters and other ways of qualitative and co-design research with aging people. We will further distil the insights and stories from the workshop into a zine to be shared within the academic and non-academic audience. You can get a copy by contacting [email protected]. If you want to be part of this conversation, please get in touch or join the conversation at #agesextech.


1. Schulte, B.F., Morrissey, K., Juul Søndergaard, M.L., and Brankaert, R. Don’t blush: Sexuality, aging & design. Companion Publication of the 2020 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference. ACM, New York, 2020, 405–408;

2. Kannabiran, G., Hoggan, E., and Hansen, L.K. Somehow they are never horny! Companion Publication of the 2020 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference. ACM, New York, 2020, 131–137;

3. Schulte, B. and Hornecker, E. Full frontal intimacy - on HCI, design, & intimacy. Companion Publication of the 2020 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference. ACM, New York, 2020, 123–129;

4. Vines, J., Pritchard, G., Wright, P., Olivier, P., and Brittain, K. An age-old problem: Examining the discourses of ageing in HCI and strategies for future research. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction 22, 1 (2015), 2.

5. Reuter, A., Bartindale, T., Morrissey, K., Scharf, T., and Liddle, J. Older voices: Supporting community radio production for civic participation in later life. Proc. of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2019, 1–13;

6. Welsh, D., Morrissey, K., Foley, S., McNaney, R., Salis, C., McCarthy, J., and Vines, J. Ticket to talk: Supporting conversation between young people and people with dementia through digital media. Proc. of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2018, 1–14;

7. Hassenzahl, M., Heidecker, S., Eckoldt, K., Diefenbach, S., and Hillmann, U. All you need is love: Current strategies of mediating intimate relationships through technology. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 19, 4 (Dec. 2012), 1–19;

8. Bardzell, J. and Bardzell, S. Pleasure is your birthright: Digitally enabled designer sex toys as a case of third-wave HCI. Proc. of the 2011 Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM Press, New York, 2011, 257;

9. Juul Søndergaard, M.L., and Hedegaard Schiølin, K. Bataille’s bicycle: Execution and/as eroticism. Executing Practices (2017), 179.

10. Buttrick, L., Linehan, C., Kirman, B., and O’Hara, D. Fifty shades of CHI: The perverse and humiliating human-computer relationship. Proc. of the Extended Abstracts of the 32nd annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM Press, New York, 2014, 825–834;

11. Brewer, J., Kaye, J., Williams, A., and Wyche, S. Sexual interactions: Shy we should talk about sex in HCI. CHI ’06 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM Press, New York, 2006, 1695;

12. Kannabiran, G., Ahmed, A.A., Wood, M., Balaam, M., Tanenbaum, T.J., Bardzell, S., and Bardzell, J. Design for sexual wellbeing in HCI. Extended Abstracts of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2018, 1–7;

Posted in: on Tue, January 19, 2021 - 1:35:54

Britta Schulte

Britta F. Schulte is a postdoc at Bauhaus University Weimar. Her work explores our relationships toward technologies for elderly care and the ageing body, with a strong focus on intimacy and sexuality. In her works she often uses speculative and creative approaches such as storytelling and design fictions in many forms. [email protected]
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Marie Søndergaard

Marie Louise Juul Søndergaard is an interaction designer and design researcher. Her work explores critical-feminist design of digital technologies for intimate health, such as menarche, menopause, and sexual pleasure. She is currently a postdoc in interaction design and digital women’s health at KTH Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden. [email protected]
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Rens Brankaert

Rens Brankaert is professor of health innovations and technology at Fontys University of Applied sciences and assistant professor at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e). His work focuses around the design of technology, systems, and services for and with people living with dementia by using design research and living lab approaches. [email protected]
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Kellie Morrissey

Kellie Morrissey is a lecturer in design for health and wellbeing at the School of Design in the University of Limerick, Ireland. Her work focuses on experience-centered and phenomenological approaches to the co-design of digital technologies for and with marginalized participants. [email protected]
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