Anal sex is no longer quite the salacious taboo it once was.
Not only has society steadily become more accepting of sexual relationships between men, but more heterosexual people are trying it and trying it more often than ever before. Recent surveys estimate that 40 percent of women between the ages of 20 to 24 have tried anal sex, and 20 percent of all women have tried it in the last year.
Our greater societal acceptance aside, you may have heard that anal sex can have some dangerous effects on our health, particularly as a leading cause of anal cancer. So let’s take a brief look at some basic facts and myths about anal sex and its connection to cancer.
The myths and facts behind the connection between anal sex and anal cancer.
1. It Can Cause Anal Cancer
The long and short of it is that yes, anal sex is a risk factor for anal cancer.
Anal sex can transmit the human papillomavirus (HPV), and HPV in turn leaves the cells around our rectum more vulnerable to mutating and becoming cancerous. A similar risk exists wherever HPV rears its ugly microscopic head, including the mouth, throat, and cervix. And because anal sex is generally more damaging to the inner lining of the rectrum than the stereotypical notion of heterosexual sex is to the vagina, HPV and other sexually transmitted infections are more easily spread between people who engage in anal sex. Similarly, the greater number of sexual partners, the greater the risk of cancer.
2. But It’s Rare
Close to 90 percent of anal cancer cases can be traced back to HPV. But the cancer itself is relatively rare.
According to The American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons, only 8,000 people will be newly diagnosed with anal cancer this year. And though cases have been slowly increasing in recent decades, only one of every 500 people will develop anal cancer in their lifetime, generally between the ages of 55 to 64 — a stark contrast to the one in every 22 people who will develop colorectal cancer.
3. And Preventable
Like other forms of cancer fueled by HPV, the available HPV vaccine can likely cut down the risk of developing anal cancer in both men and women.
While HPV vaccination rates still aren’t anywhere near as high as we’d like them to be, there is already evidence that the vaccine has lowered the risk of later cervical cancer in teen girls. And though we don’t have any concrete evidence that the same decline has occurred for anal cancer just yet, there is some showing the vaccine reduced the risk of cells in the anus becoming precancerous in young men who have sex with men.
Both teen boys and girls are now regularly encouraged to get the HPV vaccine, but when it comes to anal cancer, it may benefit women more — two-thirds of new cases are diagnosed in women.
1. “When you’re giving me oral, just because you’re moving your tongue really fast, doesn’t mean you’re moving it in a way that feels good. It’s a beautiful combination between sucking and licking that you have to practice, not just flicking your tongue around mindlessly.” —Cara, 25
2. “Don’t just stick it in, warm me up first. Rub my body, kiss my body, make me feel something before you put your dick inside me and cum in 3 minutes.” —Tiffany, 26
3. “Let me take control once in a while. I understand you’re a man, and you don’t have to tie me up to prove it. Some women get off from control alone, so if I tell you you can’t touch me until I say so, don’t.” —Vanessa, 25
4. “Oral works so much better when you use your mouth AND your fingers.” —Meghan, 26
5. “When I’m rubbing my clit while you’re inside me, don’t take it as an insult, just accept it as some extra assistance, a helping hand.” —Alanna, 26
6. “When you kiss me, don’t dig any deeper than necessary. Your tongue should not be down my esophagus.” —Molly, 24
7. “You stare at my boobs all day, so don’t ignore them when we finally decide to have sex, that’s just negligent.” —Emily, 25
8. “Not all girls want you to ‘make love’ to them. Occasionally we like to be fucked.” —Chloe, 24
9. “If you’re wondering about something, just ask. Literally the best way to have the best sex is to talk about what’s going to make it THE BEST. Pretty self-explanatory.” —Arianna, 25
ıo. “Not all women are vocal, just because I’m not screaming at the top of my lungs, doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying myself.” —Morgan, 27
11. “Foreplay is key. Don’t rush it.” —Victoria, 26
12. “Let me help you with my bra. I understand it can be confusing at times, but it will be 100% less awkward if you just let me help you take it off rather than both of us waiting 5 minutes for you to figure out it clips in the front, not the back.” —Zoe, 24
13. “Stamina. Try to last. Please.” —Hailey, 25
14. “Openly communicate what you like or don’t like. You won’t know that I like you biting my nipples unless I tell you so, just like I won’t know whether or not you’d like me to suck your balls. It’s amazing what improvements we each can make if we just talk about it.” —Adrienne, 26
15. “Stop asking for anal. Ain’t gonna happen.” —Casey, 28 TC mark
On 18 May 2011 , the prolific dominatrix-turned-pornstar Asa Akira sent her Twitter followers one brief, but provocative message: “Ass is the new pussy.”
Although Akira was not the first to utter this smutty axiom, the tagline has been pegged to her name. That may have made it easy for many to dismiss the concept as nothing more than a shocking, perhaps self-promotional assertion by a savvy performer sometimes known as porn’s ” Ass Queen .” But the starlet wasn’t just blowing smoke out of her buttocks. She was channeling a growing and convincing body of data on the inexorable rise of heterosexual anal play in America.
We can actually track the rise of heterosexual anal sex over the past quarter century thanks to your tax dollars. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a series of studies in which they asked huge groups of people the same nosey questions about their sex lives— including whether men had ever put their penises “in a female’s rectum or butt” and if women had experienced a man putting his penis in their rectums (or butts) . In 1992, 20 percent of women and 26 percent of men aged 18 to 59 had reached fifth base with an opposite sex partner at least once. In 2005, the figure was 35 percent of women and 40 percent of men aged 25 to 44. In 2011, it was 39 percent of women and 44 percent of men aged 15 to 44. In some smaller age subgroups, the prevalence of anal experimentation was even more common.
The CDC didn’t ask whether people had heterosexual anal sex on the reg (probably because it’s hard to measure what “the reg” means), experimented with other forms of anal play, or tried male-recipient butt stuff. The best numbers we get regarding frequency are studies that look at what proportion of people had heterosexual anal sex in the last year, or the last time they had sex, which is a weak proxy at best. But it give us a sense that recurrent hetero butt sex is on the rise as well as one-off experiments.
A 2010 study also suggests that experimentation with wider forms of anal play may be even more common than experimentation with anal sex amongst heterosexual couplings. Among its subjects, 43 percent of women and 51 percent of men surveyed in heterosexual couples copped to testing out anilingus, anal fingering, or anal toy play at least once. A 2008 study suggests that at least some self-identified heterosexual men are receiving anal pleasure as well (mostly fingering, some anilingus). We have no good data to compare that to in terms of trends. But given the taboos against men receiving anal play, any male-receiver experimentation seems, anecdotally at least, like a pretty big sign of the times.
Yet for all that we’ve collectively bickered, raved, and railed about this widely acknowledged trend, almost no one’s investigated what America’s changing anal inclinations have meant for the sex market— namely brothel owners, pornographers, and toy manufacturers . To find out, I reached out to a few makers and shakers in the sex industry to get a quick look at how America’s smut mongers have responded to the rise of hetero anal sex.
Art by Peter Johann Nepomuk Geiger
PORN IN THE HETERO ANAL-ERA
According to Pornhub, the king of dirty search data, the heterosexual anal revolution correlates with exactly the trends you’d imagine. Anal-relatedporn searches still represent less than 10 percent of all queries on their site. However, anal is a more common term among straight content searches than gay ones and its pervasiveness in hetero searches is rising rapidly. Pornhub crunched the numbers for VICE and found that between 2009 and 2015 , anal-related searches increased by 120 percent in America. That’s significantly higher than the 78 percent increase in anal-related searches globally. The increase was steeper among male than female users, but anal-related tags were still the 18th most searched most searched terms among the site’s female clientele.
(As a side note, Pornhub’s investigation found that users aged 18 to 24 are actually 33 percent less likely to look for anal content than users aged 35 to 44, which is unexpected given how often we talk about hetero-anal as a young person’s game. But that 18 to 24-year-old demographic is 290 percent more likely to search for My Little Pony porn than any other age bracket, which is certainly its own can of worms.)
Image by Paul Avril
Yet, despite this clear demand spike, and the excitement a first-time anal scene can generate for a female performer, anal-focused heterosexual videos make up a small portion of the market. A Pornhub investigation last year revealed that just 7 percent of their straight content has an “anal” tag on it. And it doesn’t seem like porn studios are making any notable move to increase the volume of anal-focused content they create.
“I don’t think the overall production has gone up,” says Holly Kingstown, the editor of Fleshbot and a fixture of the adult industry since 1999 who’s held every job possible save actress. “In your talent pool, there are still [only] a certain number of girls who will do [anal]. And how many of that scene can you do with that girl?”
“There are performers who are willing to do it,” possibly due to industry pressures and consumer demand. “But in terms of the quality, when you’re talking about DVD sales…” she adds, before pausing briefly. “You can get a crappy internet scene or two out of a girl, but if she’s not really good at it, you’re not going to get that too many times. And when you’re talking about a girl who does it just to get a scene, it’s usually not going to be a girl who loves it or does it very well. So she’s not going to get that much work.”
Kingstown does believe that there’s more consumption of the anal-focused content that already exists. But the absolute number of anal-focused titles available for consumers is fairly static.
What has changed, says Kingstown, is the tone and packaging of the anal porn that gets made. Towards the early 2000s, when Kingstown was still working at Buttman Magazine, she and a her colleagues realized that more couples, versus angry men looking for painal (grimacing girls , visibly suffering and un-lubed ass-ramming), were exploring their content. Adjusting to this mass market, pornographers shifted to portraying anal as pleasurable and normal versus painful and sick, which had apparently been the norm for the bulk of anal porn content up to that point.
“You still see the stuff where you’ll see a woman called an ‘anal whore.’ But you also see the tone overall to be a bit more… I want to say woman-positive,” says Kingstown. “For example, I’m looking at my desk and I’ve got James Deen Loves Butt here. This isn’t James Deen Loves Sodomizing Little Girls and Making Them Cry . That title would sell too, but to a whole different audience. There’s Anal Warriors, where women are shown as strong and powerful and in control of the sex that they’re having. There’s a whole ton of these kinds of movies where the women who enjoy anal are shown as strong and powerful.”
But even if movies today portray anal sex as pleasurable, they still don’t paint it realistically. They don’t focus on the time and preparation most (s)experts agree good anal requires . They often show a ramrod, angled experience that wouldn’t be pleasant for more than a few women in the world. Of course, a lack of realistic sexuality is a chronic problem in all niches of fantasy-driven porn.
We’re seeing a lot more prolapses. We’re seeing double anal. It used to be five anal scenes, done, not four anal scenes and a double penetration. They can go further, so they do. –Holly Kingstown
This pleasurable-looking anal, says Kingston, is now treated like a run-of-the-mill aspect of porn rather than a specialty act. Whereas in the past, you might stuff all your anal content into one niche film, nowadays directors think nothing of nonchalantly inserting an anal scene into a larger project. The overall amount of anal content remains the same—it’s just not as clustered into niche markets and individual movies. Yet, as anal becomes a normal part of heterosexual porn for a wider audience, a small audience craving painful or extreme porn, for whom anal is now too passé and mainstream, has started demanding more physically taxing and (Kingston believes) potentially dangerous ass play acrobatics from the limited actress pool.
“You see a lot more circus stuff than you used to,” says Kingstown. “We’re seeing a lot more prolapses. We’re seeing double anal. It used to be five anal scenes, done, not four anal scenes and a double penetration. They can go further, so they do. And physically, there’s only so far that you can go with your body [as a performer].”
SEX TOYS IN THE HETERO-ANAL ERA
“Anal sex has always been a frequent topic of conversation with our [mostly heterosexual] customers,” Claire Cavanah, co-founder of Babeland, told VICE when we asked for data on anal-related sex toy sales. The Seattle-based outfit with three outlets in New York is often hailed as one of the most accessible and acclaimed sex toy shops in America—a profile that lends it a large consumer base. “The ‘How to Have Butt Sex’ content on Babeland.com is the number one viewed piece of our [editorial] content. It has almost double the number of eyes on it as the ‘How to Give a Blow Job’ article, which is the second most viewed [item]. We don’t have data before 2009, but it’s always been number one.”
A Babeland survey of 18,412 customer respondents in 2009 (not a reliable sample, due to self-reporting issues, but still one of the better pieces of data you can find on this subject matter) also found that, 60.5 percent of men and 40.1 percent of women had tried using a butt plug, 56.8 percent of men and 31.7 percent of women had tried using an anal dildo, 51.8 percent of men and 29.2 percent of women had tried using an anal vibrator, and 37.4 percent of men and 27.8 percent of women had tried using anal beads.
Yet even with a high baseline of anal interest, Babeland has seen an increase in anal-related sales. Between 2012 and 2015, the genre averaged about 5 percent growth per year. As of 2015, Cavenah estimates that such toys, specifically made with anal in mind, make up about 16 percent of Babeland’s sales.
What’s more significant to Cavenah and company, they say, is how they’ve witnessed the tone and level of openness their customers use when talking to them about purchases and proclivities evolve. The hushed voices and seedy aura customers once took into transactions has faded away. And as people get more open, comfortable, and explicit with their anal sex toy needs, toy makers have responded to their feedback with a deluge of new, specifically anal-targeted sex toys , including smaller models marketed towards anal beginners. Babeland’s also noticed more luxury anal sex toys coming onto the market—products made of metal or glass, substances with higher price points—which suggests the emergence of a fair number of swankier, less bashful customers.
“We’ve definitely seen a shift in more interesting, innovative, and high-qualitybutt toys from some of the leading sex toy companies,” says Cavenah. “Je Joue debuted a remote-controlled vibrating prostate stimulator this spring. Anal toys come with vibrators, apps, and magnetic resistance that creates a pulsating sensation. There are also lubricants, such as Sliquid [Naturals] Sassy , that are marketed specifically for anal use.”
We continue what we started earlier in the week, I was all involved in responding to a young woman’s query about porn for women when I ran out of time. Let’s pick up where we left off in Part 1, shall we?
Last week we considered the proliferation of porn for straight women. This week we take a look at some of the other categories of porn for women. Remember this is by no means an exhaustive list. And just so you know, you can find most all of these titles in Dr Dick How To Video Library. Look for a Video Library tab in the header of DDSA for this great sex resource.
Porn for straight couples.
New York-based filmmaker Tony Comstock forged his own path in the adult business, creating films previously unseen in the world of porn. Blending a documentary style with hardcore sex, Comstock created a new genre, “pornumentary” or “docuporn”. His films feature real-life couples talking about their relationship and sex lives before having sex on camera. The result is a fresh and revealing look into the lives of real people, and depicts the kind of sex real people have. This is porn without the fakery and cliché so often seen in mainstream porn. It’s erotica with emotion and context.
Anna Span is Britain’s first female porn director and she brings a unique perspective to her hardcore films. Her college dissertation was titled “Towards a New Pornography.” She created her first hardcore adult film in 1997, and worked for adult TV channels in the UK. She is the author of the book Erotic Home Video. Her production company, Easy on the Eye, also releases films by other female directors.
Anna’s films are made for both women and men, but she makes a special effort to include more female perspectives in her films, with a focus on female pleasure. Her movies feature excellent acting and engaging plots. Anna Span created a series called Women Love Porn, which features a selection of newer female directors hand-chosen by Anna.
Tristan Taormino is an author, editor and filmmaker who made a career out of sex education, particularly in the area of anal sex. We’ve featured lots of stuff my Tristan here on Dr Dick’s Sex Advice. Her column and website Pucker Up deals extensively with anal sex and her book; The Ultimate Guide To Anal Sex For Women won a Firecracker award. It was also made into a film in 1999. In 2006 Tristan created her own production company, Smart Ass Productions, so she could create her own brand of porn films. She was honored at the Inaugural Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto in 2006 and her film, Chemistry, won an AVN award in 2007, the first of several such awards and nominations.
Tristan has her own line of educational films with the porn giant, Vivid, called, VividEd. Again, you can find all these titles in Dr Dick’s How To Video Library.
Tristan describes herself as “queer”, saying she dislikes the label “bisexual”. Her films are designed to appeal to women and men of all orientations.
Joybear is a another UK-based erotic film company that makes films for both women and men. It was established in 2003 by Justin Ribero des Santos after he won a Playboy filmmaking competition, Joybear creates high-quality, high class explicit films and makes an effort to cater to the real desires of their audience. The company regularly runs surveys and focus groups to determine what it is that people want to see. Which is pretty cool if ya ask me.
Porn Movies For Lesbians And Queer People
While girl-on-girl action has long been a mainstay of the porn market, authentic lesbian erotica is still relatively rare. But nowadays, there are a number of people working to create their own brand of lesbian and queer porn, reflecting their own experiences and tastes.
Maria Beatty and Bleu Productions
Paris-based filmmaker Maria Beatty is world renowned for her innovative and beautiful lesbian erotic films that focus on BDSM. Having previously worked on documentaries about artists, Maria began to make her own special brand of porn in 1994, producing The Elegant Spanking, which received international acclaim. This film documents the intimate sadomasochistic encounters of Maria and a dominant female partner.
Since then Maria has produced an impressive number of adult movies, all exploring “the playful relationship between pleasure and pain” as she says. Her films have been produced independently in order to keep her vision of erotica unblemished by the demands of studios. She also does all the writing, editing, camerawork and production design herself. Maria recently completed a second feature length film called The Boy in the Bathtub, is currently working on is working on other erotic films.
San Francisco-based Madison Young describes herself as a “bondage/ fetish model, adult performer, artist, gallerist, activist, published writer, rope slut, queer and feminist.” She runs a non-profit art gallery called Femina Potens and performs in porn to help fund it. She’s an exhibitionist who enjoys exploring the kinkier side of her sexuality on film. And she has been a guest on my SEX WISDOM show. Use the search function in the header, type in Madison Young and Voilà, the two parts of her podcast will appear.
Madison says, “I wanted to be part of a movement of sex positive feminists taking control of their sexuality on film. Somehow documenting my sexual explorations always gave me some unbenounced permission to explore parts of my sexuality that I didn’t feel comfortable exploring in the bedroom. I love the camera. I always used to beg my partners to tape us having sex even before I got into the industry. I believe that it is educational to document honest sexual exploration and experiences and I try to feed into that and put all of my sexual energy into a scene.”
Aside from performing in numerous mainstream porn films, Madison used to run her own website. Madison Bound, but now it’s closed. Her subject matter encompasses many different tastes but usually includes BDSM and a lot of lesbianism.
S.I.R. stands for Sex, Indulgence and Rock n Roll. This company was one of the pioneers of real lesbian erotica and their titles are considered classics. Their movies are legendary for capturing raw emotion, intense chemistry, real orgasms that convey revolutionary queer desire. No wonder their films have played to sold out audiences to almost every LGBT film fest around the world.
The Submission Of Emma Marx
Here’s the story line: Emma Marx is a beautiful, confident, well-adjusted woman. Unfortunately, when it comes to love and romance, all of her previous relationships have turned out to be a bit routine and mundane. Suddenly, that is all changes with a chance encounter with a handsome and mysterious man. He introduces her to a world she had only dared to fantasize about, a world of erotic sex, role-play and BDSM. She is surprised by how a man can so easily strip away her inhibitions and replace them with lust and desire. How is it that he has such control over her? Why does she like it so much? This is her journey of self-discovery and sexual awakening, but it comes with a price. What happens when the greatest love you’ve ever known forces you to face your greatest obstacle – yourself?
Shades of Kink
Enter the dark territory of unbridled sexual perversion and fantasy in Sweet Sinner’s taboo-smashing feature film, Shades of Kink. Riley is a sweet, innocent and motivated college grad looking for her first job at Norton Ashe’s marketing firm. The mysterious Ashe is looking to help his new recruit open up her imagination and body to new experiences. With intense drama and explosive performances by Maddy O’Reilly, Andy San Dimas, and Lily LaBeau, Shades of Kink guarantees to re-invent erotica.
Fifty Shades Of Dylan Ryan
Back to award Winning Feminist Pornographer, Madison Young, who I mention just moments ago, brings you Fifty Shades Of Dylan Ryan. Wealthy entrepreneur and book publishing mogul, Ms. Grey, has met her match in young college student and curious submissive, Dylan Ryan. After a sexy and defiant Dylan challenges Ms. Grey to a bet, Dylan forgoes her freedom and submerges herself into a life of total submission, testing her boundaries, proving her servitude through sexual gratification, masked orgies, soaked in female ejaculate, vibrated and fucked to orgasmic heights coupled with fellow sexual servants Bianca Stone and Berretta James. Dylan is whipped to climactic moments of pain and pleasure and collared while cradled in an intimate embrace of tenderness after an aggressive and beautiful journey into the depths of her darkest desires. How fun! Sounds like holiday viewing material, huh?
Ok, that’s it for my porn for women presentation. Hope ya liked it.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.