What Happens When You Ask Siri Questions About Sex


Dec 18, 2017


Siri is a prude. Is anyone surprised?

There’s little sex education in India. And now condom ads are banned (which, if not education, were at least exposure). So, if a naturally curious teen wants information on the birds and the bees, where do they go? With anywhere from 25-50% (and rising) smartphone penetration in India, more and more will turn to the Internet.

But that’s were things get tricky, because Siri and Google Assistant — digital assistants that use voice-activated software to answer questions and perform tasks on users’ Apple or (Google-backed) Android phones — are really bad at answering questions about sex.

A team of academics based in New Zealand asked these two virtual assistants 50 questions about sexual health. Questions were based on information from the UK NHS site Healthy Choices and recent sex-related news, or were designed to test functionality, for example, locating services or finding images and videos on how to have sex. Each researcher made a maximum of three attempts per question when speaking into the smartphones.

They found Google Assistant performed better than Siri with 50% of best (or equal best responses) versus 32%. Google Assistant had a lower outright failure rate, t00, providing no useful response for 12% of the questions compared with Siri’s 36% failure-to-answer rate.

When the team excluded some of the functionality test questions, 48% of the search questions were answered with what they determined were expert sources, such as the NHS, Family Planning (New Zealand) and the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC). And 14% of searches provided websites with “some expertise,” such as Wikipedia articles, commercially oriented sites (eg, condom manufacturers), and online magazine articles.

Google Assistant seemed better than Siri at finding pictures of how to have sex, say the authors. Somewhat surprisingly, Siri failed to find any videos of people having sex on the internet. Siri was also more likely to be diffident, with responses to some questions about sex being: “I don’t have an opinion on that,” and also had trouble with New Zealand accents at times, repeatedly confusing “sex” with “six.”

Siri’s response to, “Tell me about menopause” was to suggest the show Menopause the Musical in Wikipedia (a show apparently running in Las Vegas) and interpreted “STI” (sexually transmitted infections) as a stock market code.

Google Assistant had fewer such problems, but responded to a question on STIs by providing a website link to the popular seaside resort of “St Ives” in Cornwall.

Siri was best at locating some nearby services, such as the nearest place to buy condoms or obtain emergency contraception, but less ideally suggested a local acupuncture clinic when asked for the nearest “sexual health clinic”.

Finally, questions around magazine and newspaper articles provided answers of variable quality.

Interestingly, Google searches via laptop outperformed both Siri and Google Assistant, providing 72% of the best (or equal best) responses for the sexual health questions.

“Our experiences suggest that people can find quality sexual health advice when searching online, but this is less likely if they use a digital assistant, especially Siri, instead of Google laptop searches,” the authors say.

“Parents too embarrassed to respond to their children’s questions about sex, can reasonably say “just Google it,” but we would not suggest asking Siri until it becomes more comfortable with talking about sex (or at least has an opinion),” they add.

They say their findings “show the importance of improving digital literacy in the general population” and call for more to be done “to encourage internet users to treat information in online lifestyle magazines with caution.”

And also maybe show the importance of sex ed (or condom ads, at the very least)?


Written By Karun Bhandanker

Karun Bhandanker is a staff writer for The Swaddle. He likes both coffee and chai, eats both veg and non-veg, had a great childhood and yet still regularly spends time in a therapist’s office. Perhaps unsurprisingly, on the weekends he’s an all-rounder.


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