Illustration by Eleanor Doughty
From fully customizable vibrators to bioelectronic headsets, smart sex toys are on the way up. But does personal pleasure necessarily make for better health?
Pleasure is personal, mostly because it has to be, and not least because female scientists continue to face grinding discrimination regardless of their area of research. And when it comes to sexual health, breakthroughs are few and far between: in spite of increasing documentation of associated health risks, birth control hasn't really been reformulated since the 60s, and last year's much-anticipated release of Addyi, a pill meant to fix female sexual dysfunction, only worked for ten percent of the women who tried it.
It's clear that sexual emancipation has not yet been freed from the bedroom. In spite of its roots in scientific misogyny—the vibrator was developed in the 19th century to cure women of hysteria, after all—a swathe of new devices have people looking hopefully to sex tech (or sextech, as it is also known) as the answer to systemic gaps in sexual health. History, it seems, is coming full circle; where the 1960s saw the vibrator de-medicalized and uncoupled from science, today's consumer market is beginning to see pleasure and health unified in the pursuit of wellness. Yet what we call "sex tech" is tied more to the lucrative sex toy industry—worth $15 billion this year—than it is to scientific institutions, with much of its promise linked to idea that personal pleasure makes for better health.
These days, more people than ever understand that a woman's ability to understand what turns her on and why is a crucial step in developing a healthy perspective on her sexual life. So it makes sense that we're seeking out masturbatory experiences that are more tailored than your average stand-in phallus. It's the driving force behind the popularity of devices like Crescendo, the first-ever fully customizable vibrator, which raised £1.6 million in funding to date and shipped out over 1,000 pre-orders after a successful crowdfunding round.
Designed to cater to the inherent complexities of female arousal, the vibrator can be finely customized, equipped with six motors and the ability to be bent into any favorable shape. An accompanying app allows users to control each motor individually; it remembers favorite behaviors, provides pre-set vibration patterns, and responds to mood-setting music.
"We were inspired by the concept of tech designed for the human, rather than the human having to adapt their behaviour to tech," says Stephanie Alys, the co-founder of Crescendo creators Mysteryvibe. "Human beings aren't just unique in terms of our size and how we're put together genetically, but also in terms of what we like. What turns us on can be different from what turns another person on."
Mysteryvibe's flagship product is the Crescendo, a customizable sex toy. Photo courtesy of Mysteryvibe
But in spite of the life-improving promises of consumer sex tech, the reality is that official, peer-reviewed studies remain crucial to reforming policy and education. Founded by Dr. Nicole Prause, Liberos Center is one of the few sex-centric research institutions in the United States. Much of its work investigates the relationship between psychology, physiology, and sex, with an emphasis on the hard data that is often lacking in sex tech.
Liberos presses on in a particularly antagonistic climate; the American government is famously skittish about sexual content. Sexual material is banned from government-funded computers, says Prause, making it difficult for researchers to, say, screen porn to test subjects as part of a study on arousal. She adds that congressional bodies actively seek to pull funding from research that addresses the topic head-on—four recent studies that had already been awarded funding were re-opened for assessment because of their sexual content.
"People report having certain types of experiences all the time," says Prause. "But they're often poor observers of their own behaviour, and don't see anyone's behaviour but their own. They don't really have that external perspective, which is why I think it's important to take both a psychological and laboratory approach. For example, in science, people haven't been verifying that orgasm actually occurs. So we've been developing an objective way of measuring that, and of measuring the effects of clitoral stimulation—on how to best capture the contractions that occur through the orgasm."
For women to be able to engage in sex and address consent as equals, they need to learn about female pleasure.
Liberos is also investigating the effect of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and direct current stimulation (tDCS) on sexual responsiveness. Both are non-invasive treatments, meaning anyone seeking a cure for low libido may not require anything more than the use of a headset. TMS holds potential for long-term changes to a person's sex drive; the technique, which uses a magnetic field generator to produce small electrical currents in the brain, has already been used to treat neuropathic pain and otherwise stubborn cases of major depressive disorder. DCS, on the other hand, uses a headset to deliver a low-intensity electrical charge, stimulating the brain areas where activity spikes at the sight, or touch, of a turn-on.
If using the brain's electrical signals to control the rest of the body sounds like a dystopian fantasy, the reality is that these medical treatments aren't far off. Bioelectronic firms are now backed by the likes of Glaxosmithkline and Alphabet, Google's parent company, and similar applications have already been established for hypertension and sleep apnea, while chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, and arthritis are targeted for future development.
According to Dr. Karen E. Adams, clinical professor of OBGYN at Oregon Health and Science University, anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of women experience varying degrees of sexual dysfunction. Medication that targets neurotransmitters, like the SSRIs used to treat depression and anxiety, can fluctuate in efficacy depending on the unique makeup of the person using it.
Combined with the trickiness of locking down the nebulousness of desire (and lack thereof), it's no wonder that Addyi, a failed antidepressant pursued because of its unexpected effect on serotonin levels in female mice, was a flop. Non-sex-specific studies have shown that electrical stimulation can be more adaptive to the brain's constantly-shifting landscape than medication that interacts with its chemistry. For the 90 percent of women who found Addyi to be a sore disappointment, bioelectronic treatments could soon offer an alternative solution to low sexual responsivity.
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"By giving women information about their bodies that they can decide what to do with, we're enabling more female empowerment," says Prause. "And by allowing women to decide which aspects of sex they want to be more responsive to, we're giving people more control, and not with charlatan claims. We actually have good scientific reasons that we think are going to work, that are going to make a difference."
Yet the field's burgeoning successes are only as good as the social environment they take hold in. Sociopolitical hurdles notwithstanding, money remains a significant roadblock for developers, as the controversial nature of sex research has many investors shying away from backing new projects in spite of consumer interest. Whether they're seeking government funding or VC investments, sex start-ups and labs alike are often forced to turn to crowdfunding to raise money for development.
"It's pretty unsurprising that heavily female-oriented tech products do so well on crowdfunding sites; these are solutions to problems faced by half of the population, that are overlooked by a male-dominated industry where male entrepreneurs are 86 percent more likely to be VC funded than women," says Katy Young, behavioral analyst at research firm Canvas8. "But the audience is clearly there—Livia, a device which targets nerves in order to stop period pains, raised over $1 million on Indiegogo."
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Outdated sex ed programs, which emphasize procreation and normalize straight male sexuality without addressing female sexual development, are ground zero for unhealthy social perspectives on sex. Acknowledging that change can't just come from devices alone, New York's Unbound, a luxury sex toy subscription service, is teaming up with "campus sexpert" app Tabù to bring both sex education and affordable masturbation tools to colleges across the country.
"There's a national discussion right now surrounding consent, which is 100 percent needed and super important," says Polly Rodriguez, CEO and co-founder of Unbound. "But for women to be able to engage in sex and address consent as equals, they need to learn about female pleasure—they should understand their own bodies so that when they are engaging in sexual activities with someone else, they know what feels good to them, they know how to communicate that, and they don't feel uncomfortable about it."
It's tempting to buy into the idea of tech as freeing: that the increased presence of smart devices in our lives will help us form healthier habits and a better understanding of our ourselves, or that the availability of medically-approved tech will be a panacea in the intricately fraught landscape of female sexual dysfunction—which is as socially determined as it is biological, and as cultural as it is psychological.
But sex tech is still far from being paradigm-shifting. Its success will be dependent not only on consumer dollars but on government policies and public attitudes; at a level of engagement this intimate, tech is only any good if people feel free to use it.
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