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How Mindfulness Killed My Sex Life


The spiritual path will burn away all illusions, including the sexual kind. The good news is that something better is reborn in the ashes.

by Jessica Graham


Mel was tall and lanky with short dark hair, good tattoos, and a black motorcycle. I wanted her bad. Lucky for me I was in an open relationship with my partner and he was all for it. It had been a long time since I had gone for a bad girl like Mel. I figured since it was just going to be a fling, it didn’t matter that a truck full of red flags were dropped on the first date, the biggest of which was the dopamine rush coming on hard and fast like a fat line of cocaine after a long time sober. I knew I was in trouble the first time I smelled her salty skin and felt her nicotine stained fingertips on my throat.

I wasn’t practicing polyamory, per se, and my partner was my top priority. I’ve always been fluid when it comes to monogamy, depending on the relationship I’m in and how I’m currently feeling. I’m sure my poly friends probably cringe and call me a swinger. I prefer to think of myself as a free spirit. Since I wasn’t looking for another serious relationship, I needed to keep my feelings in check for the sexy butch I was drooling over. This meant getting mindful about lust.

You know the way it goes. Constantly checking your phone, even on the freeway, thinking you see the object of your desire everywhere you go, dreaming about them, the extreme highs and lows that come with seeing or not seeing them. The throes of a new relationship make most of us temporary drug addicts looking for the next fix. I didn’t want to get carried away with this culturally acceptable insanity. Lucky for me, as a meditation practitioner, I had all the tools to observe this crazy ride without climbing on it.

So I let the affair run its course (trust me, it burnt out quick—I’m not a kid anymore), while I deconstructed and carefully explored the activity of my body and mind. At first I fell into the lust trap and caused some trouble with my partner. But soon I was able to ride the wave of new relationship energy like a pro. It was absolutely comical how the chemicals would flood my system and my mind would start to swirl when I got a text from her. Pretty soon the experience became something I could just watch without getting involved in. Those sensations and thoughts were just impermanent activity and they were certainly not me. How could they be if I was witnessing them?

This wasn’t the first time I’d had the insight that I am not my mind or my emotions. Each time that insight deepens, I experience a period of disillusionment. It had happened with my career, with habits, and so on. Basically I see the emptiness in the experience and I “lose” it. That’s to say I lose my attachment to it and my ability to get a fix from it. When I saw through the self who viewed herself as an actor, my acting career crumbled. Once I knew that my enjoyment of a film or a big piece of chocolate cake was simply a collection of thoughts and emotions, I lost my taste for them as well.

This can be a painful and scary part of spiritual development. It can feel like nothing is enjoyable or meaningful. I often have meditation students report that they feel depressed and apathetic during this stage. My first meditation teacher sat me down after few classes and told me, “Meditation is going to ruin your life.” He wasn’t joking. The cost of waking up is everything. With each awakening I’ve “lost’ a little more, but I wouldn’t want to give any of it back.

So here I was getting mindful about the off-the-hook sexual attraction I had for Mel. I didn’t really consider that I was in the process of screwing up my sex life, just like I had once screwed up my career, and my love of cake. The road to hell is paved with good intentions I suppose. By the time my bad girl fling had run out of steam, my sex drive was plummeting overall. Sex just didn’t seem that important anymore. Thanks to good old mindfulness, sexual disillusionment had kicked in.

Now, let me be clear, up until this point my sex drive couldn’t get any higher. I had never had a partner male or female who wanted as much sex as I did. I was insatiable. One might say that I used sex to get “high,” to ease stress, to encourage creativity, and to feel more connected to myself and others. I had been told that one day I’d have to let my attachment to sex go too, just like everything else. But let me tell you I was hanging on tight to this last frontier. Little did I know the romp with Mel was my last hurrah.

My partner and I had always had a phenomenal sex life. It was never less than great, even after three years together. But my merciless dissection of my obsession with Mel launched us into an awkward period. I just didn’t care about sex anymore. Plus we were going through some relationship growing pains (due mostly to my actions in the early days of Mel), and not being able to use sex as a way to connect created a huge sense of separation.

It was incredibly strange for me to feel sexually removed. My sexuality was something I felt so identified with. I was Jessica, the girl who loves to fuck. Meditation has the side effect of tearing your identities from you piece by piece, and this one was no exception. That part of me had vanished. I could no longer use sex as a salve for whatever ailed me. It didn’t work anymore.

As you can imagine, my partner was none too fond of this development and honestly neither was I. I trusted it would shift, but who knew how long that would take? My desire and drive to be an actor took years to come back. But I knew that when my sex drive returned sex would be better than ever. That’s what happened with my creative work. When I lost my attachment to being an actor I became a better actor and started to have a lot more fun doing it. I just hoped my new and improved sex life would materialize before my partner walked out the door.

We had sex every once in awhile, but it wasn’t great or even always good. We didn’t open up the “sex cabinet” next to our bed even once. It started to get a little dark at the homestead so my partner and I decided to keep the focus on having fun and enjoying each other’s company. It was kind of like a lovingkindness meditation for our relationship. I practiced something I call the “Just Be Nice Campaign.” It’s just what it sounds like. I was just nice. When I got annoyed, scared, frustrated, felt not heard, got triggered—I was just nice. Sometimes that meant leaving the room for a moment, but no matter what, I was just nice. I focused on being the best partner I could be and took any focus off of what I thought he was doing wrong. I kept my side of the street clean. I still spoke to someone and/or wrote about my feelings, but I didn’t take problems or negativity to my partner. I also got more clarity on what was actually a problem versus me simply being reactive.

I kept using my mindfulness practice to work with the thoughts and emotions that came up about my lack of interest in sex. People can get stuck in the meaningless trap that can arise along the spiritual path. In reality the self that thinks everything is meaningless is just another self that can be deconstructed. So, I just continued to peel back the layers, keeping my eyes and heart open as I woke up to new truths. Spiritual development is neverending. There is no graduation date. As I learned to be without my nympho identity I found new ways to ease tension and connect with others. I also found I didn’t need sex to be creative.

Not having sex to fall back on also gave my partner and I the opportunity to work through some issues that had been hiding under the surface up until then. A new kind of love and trust bloomed between us, and we started laughing a lot more. We spoke openly about the lack of sex and the challenges that it brought. We don’t lose hope. We figured it could only go on that way for so long. And then one day a few months later, as quickly as it had vanished, my sex drive reappeared. And the angels of carnal joy sang Hallelujah!

When I say it came back I don’t mean that it was recognizable. My relationship to sex had been transformed. It felt fresh, clean, and fluid. It no longer gave me a fix. Without the attachment sex became more fun, more connected, and way more pleasurable. I had been grasping at the pleasure, and now I just let it run through me, unimpeded by my mind. My partner and I dove into a whole new kind of connection during sex. I felt a deeper freedom to let loose. I was no longer limited to a fixed sense of self when it came to my sexuality. I let my sexual self die in the fire of awakening and it had reemerged shining and alive.

So yes, mindfulness essentially screwed up my sex life. But then it was reconstructed into something I never imagined possible. The self that needed to have sex all the time hasn’t returned. Previously I would pass up a good night’s sleep or a social engagement for sex. Now my priorities are a little different. Life feels fuller now, less uneven. My sexuality will continue to evolve as I evolve, and I’m willing to lose it again if need be. I’m also fully willing to embrace a period of non-stop sex. Whatever it takes. Anything to keep waking up.

Complete Article HERE!


Your Kinks Aren’t Nearly As Weird As You Think


A survey shows many supposedly paraphilic desires are anything but abnormal


your kinks

The world of psychiatry considers a desire for spanking or whipping abnormal, despite “Fifty Shades” of evidence to the contrary. Now, a new study provides proof beyond the publishing phenomenon that these masochistic yearnings, along with several other taboo fantasies, are actually fairly normal.

In fact, researchers have found that nearly half of surveyed adults have an interest in at least one of a handful of desires that have been officially labeled as “anomalous.”

The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is often referred to as psychiatry’s bible, categorizes sexual interests as either “normophilic” or “paraphilic.” So, basically, “normal” or “abnormal” (which doesn’t seem like a totally healthy approach to sexuality, but that’s an issue for another day). The listed aberrations are voyeurism, exhibitionism, frotteurism, masochism, sadism, pedophilia, fetishism and transvestism.

The study, published in The Journal of Sex Research, was based on a survey that asked 1,040 Canadian adults about their interest in these eight “non-normophilic” acts. Researchers from the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivieres and Philippe Pinel Institute of Montreal found that 45.6 percent reported having a desire for one of the paraphilic behaviors, while 33.9 percent had actually engaged in one of the behaviors.

Voyeurism was the most popular, with 46.3 percent expressing a desire for it and 34.5 percent having experience with it. Next up, fetishism, which the study defined as sexual arousal by an “inanimate non-sexual object,” with 44.5 percent fantasizing about it and just over a quarter effectively saying “been there, done that.”

Coupled exhibitionism and frotteurism, which the paper defined as sexual arousal from “touching or by rubbing yourself against a stranger,” came in close behind. (Note: the definition of frotteurism given to the survey respondents, unlike typical definitions of the term, didn’t necessarily imply a lack of consent.) Finally there was masochism, with 23.8 percent reporting desires and 19.2 percent saying they had tried it.

All of these numbers are big enough to place these desires outside of what is considered statistically rare or unusual, according to the researchers. However, sadism, transvestism, solo exhibitionism (i.e. showing your genitals to a stranger, as opposed to having sex with a partner where someone could see you) and, thankfully, sex with children were found to be unusual or rare. If these results are to be trusted, several desires that the DSM defines as paraphilic, or abnormal, are actually within the statistical range of what’s normal.

you kinks 2

Back to the DSM, that incredibly influential tome that defines mental illness. Let us not forget, this is the same DSM that for more than two decades defined homosexuality as pathological. In fact, it was only three years ago that homosexuality was completely taken out of the manual. Suffice it to say, it’s a document that is informed by science but still subject to changing social mores, and the paraphilias are no exception.

In order for a diagnosis of paraphilic disorder to be made, the DSM requires that these desires have to either be intense, persistent and distressing to the individual or criminal and acted upon (as in the case of a pedophile who abuses a child or a frotteur who assaults people on the subway). Even without distress or illegal acts, though, a person can still be considered to have a paraphilia—but not a diagnosable mental disorder—if their interests are recurrent and as intense or more so than supposedly “normal” desires. But even if you’re less interested in pain play than, say, missionary-position sex, you’re still considered to have “anomalous” desires.

That means that regardless of whether you have an unwanted and deeply distressing kink or are a proud member of a thriving, consensual BDSM community, you’re still technically given the “freak” stamp by the DSM. Which is something many kinky people wear with pride—and that’s wonderful!—but it doesn’t seem all that accurate. Sorry if that ruins it for you.

Complete Article HERE!


Price of Intimacy: The Time I Hired a Sex Worker


“Though I’d been learning to embrace my life in a wheelchair—a result of cerebral palsy—going without touch, or even access to my own body, was taking a toll.”

By Andrew Gurza

learning to embrace my life in a wheelchair

I’d never considered the price of intimacy until I hired a sex worker. Though I’d been learning to embrace my life in a wheelchair—a result of cerebral palsy—going without touch, or even access to my own body, was taking a toll. Even so, I didn’t come to my decision lightly. I was worried about shame, stigma, and fear, and concerned I’d pay for time and still not get what I needed. I spent weeks quieting the voices in my head telling me that using the services of a sex worker was not a good idea. Would this be the only way I could find intimacy? Would someone even want to do this with me, or would he only view it as a charitable opportunity to help a cripple? Despite all these questions, I sat in my apartment reflecting on my nearly year-long celibacy. It was time to take care of myself.

After scouring site after site with rows and rows of horny men holding their hard-ons, I found David. His smile was warm, inviting, and intriguingly devious all at once. He was older than me, in his mid-40s, and his photos showed off a powerful body, a strong charisma, and an undeniable charm. I’d often felt physically invisible within the mainstream LGBT community, but David possessed everything I longed for.

I sent David a cursory email, telling him that I was interested in using his services, but that I had never done this before, that I was nervous. I also casually explained as best I could that I lived with a disability and used a chair. He emailed back some hours later, letting me know that he had experience working with clients with disabilities. David wrote bluntly: “If I’m unsure of something, I’ll just ask.” It was a refreshing change from all the guys who tripped and tumbled over their discomfort.

We ironed out the logistics—a time, a location, a fee. Knowing that my sexuality would be broken down into a succinct session was daunting, and it took away from the fantasy and spontaneity I had dreamed of. But this, perhaps, was the cost of getting what I wanted, what I needed. David gently reminded me that I was paying for his time, and whatever happened happened. On our very last exchange, just a day before we’d meet, he called and asked me a simple question, though one I have never been asked before: “What do you want?”

Shyly and nervously I outlined my likes and dislikes as well as my abilities. I wanted kissing. I craved body contact. I couldn’t bottom for him because of my spasticity and tight muscles. I’d need help undressing and being put in bed. I paused, smiled. My needs were at the forefront.

On a rainy, blustery Saturday afternoon, my iPhone blinked with the message that David was in my lobby. I looked at myself in the mirror: a long-sleeve shirt, cozy winter sweats, a baseball cap. I headed downstairs in the elevator. When the door opened, I recognized him immediately. “Hey there! How are you?” he said, giving me a big hug as if we were long-lost friends. I kept watching him, in part because I still couldn’t believe this was happening, and because he looked really good in those tight blue jeans and that leather jacket.

A sexy man was in my house. We made small talk, waiting for someone to strike. He led himself into my bedroom and asked me about the transfer device I use to get into bed. I told him he would have to lift my legs while I held on to two gymnastic rings fastened to a hydraulic lift in my ceiling. I continued babbling, watching him get closer to me, taking off his coat, revealing a tank top and thick, muscled arms. He then straddled my chair, bent down, and kissed me. As I reached and pawed at him—my limbs flailing, not wanting to miss an inch—he stopped me. He looked into my eyes, past the rejection and pain caused by other lovers, and spoke with a firm honesty. “It’s OK.”

David drank in my disability and I dared not stop him. He lifted me out of my chair and held me in his arms. He grabbed me, cradled me, and kissed me. I curled up into him so he could feel the scars, curves, rods, and contractures that inform my disability. I felt sexy. He took off my shirt, and together we revealed my skin. As he moved down my body, and took off my pants and shoes, I worried what he would do when he saw my leg bag and my toes, which curled into each other. But David made this act of care exciting and real for me. When I was finally naked with him on the bed—my body going into spastic fits as a result of CP—I started to tense even more as I neared climax. In a piercing moment of release, I felt my two identities collide: queer and crippled came together in a surge of pure, uncomplicated pleasure.

The afterglow was setting in as David lay beside me. He held me tight and kissed my forehead. He told me that I was handsome, and as I looked at his arms wrapped around my spindly legs, I felt he meant it. Moments passed and he placed me in my chair, planting one last soft kiss on my lips before ending our session and saying goodbye. As I sat alone, my adrenaline became diluted by a calming bliss. I could not shame this experience because it marked a passage greater than a fleeting carnal exchange. It was the start of my own physical assertion. I would not settle for an affectionless existence, and I had to strive to honor what I wanted as a seated, but sexually alive, man. I finally had someone see me, and regardless of the cost, I finally showed myself to someone else.

Complete Article HERE!


BDSM Versus the DSM


A history of the fight that got kink de-classified as mental illness

A history of the fight that got kink de-classified as mental illness

By Merissa Nathan Gerson

Asking your partner to tie you to the bedpost, telling them to slap you hard in the throes of lovemaking, dressing like a woman if you are a man, admitting a fetish for feet: Just a few years ago, any of these acts could be used against you in family court.

This was the case until 2010, when the American Psychiatric Association announced that it would be changing the diagnostic codes for BDSM, fetishism, and transvestic fetishism (a variant of cross-dressing) in the next edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published in 2013. The new definitions marked a distinction between behavior—for example, playing rough—and actual pathology. Consenting adults were no longer deemed mentally ill for choosing sexual behavior outside the mainstream.

The change was the result of a massive effort from the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), an advocacy group founded in 1997 “to advance the rights of and advocate for consenting adults in the BDSM-Leather-Fetish, Swing, and Polyamory Communities.” At the time, these types of sexual behavior, by virtue of their inclusion in the DSM, were considered markers of mental illness—and, as a result, were heavily stigmatized, often with legal repercussions. In family court, an interest in BDSM was used as justification to remove people’s children from their custody.

“We were seeing the DSM used as a weapon,” says Race Bannon, an NCSF Board Member and the creator of Kink-Aware Professionals, a roster of safe and non-judgmental healthcare professionals for the BDSM and kink community. (The list is now maintained by the NCSF.) “Fifty Shades [of Grey] had not come along,” says Bannon, an early activist in the campaign to change the DSM. “[Kink] was still this dark and secret thing people did.”

Since its first edition was published in 1952, the DSM has often posed a problem for anyone whose sexual preferences fell outside the mainstream. Homosexuality, for example, was considered a mental illness—a “sociopathic personality disturbance”—until the APA changed the language in 1973. More broadly, the DSM section on paraphilias (a blanket term for any kind of unusual sexual interest), then termed “sexual deviations,” attempted to codify all sexual preferences considered harmful to the self or others—a line that, as one can imagine, is tricky in the BDSM community.

The effort to de-classify kink as a psychiatric disorder began in 1980s Los Angeles with Bannon and his then-partner, Guy Baldwin, a therapist who worked mostly with the gay and alternative sexualities communities. Bannon, a self-described “community organizer, activist, writer, and advocate” moved to Los Angeles in 1980 and soon became close with Baldwin through their mutual involvement as open participants in and advocates for the kink community. “I’m fairly confident that I was the first licensed mental-health practitioner anywhere who was out about being a practicing sadomasochist,” Baldwin says.


The pair was spurred to action after the 1987 edition of the DSM-III-R, which introduced the concept of paraphilias, changed the classifications for BDSM and kink from “sexual deviation” to actual disorders defined by two diagnostic criteria. To be considered a mental illness, the first qualification was: ‘‘Over a period of at least six months, recurrent, intense sexual urges and sexually arousing fantasies involving the act (real, not simulated) of being humiliated, beaten, bound, or otherwise made to suffer.’’ The second: ‘‘The person has acted on these urges, or is markedly distressed by them.’’

“1987 was a bad shift,” Wright recalls. “Anyone who was [voluntarily] humiliated, beaten, bound, or any other alternate sexual expression was considered mentally ill.”

With the new language, Baldwin says, he quickly realized that laws regarding alternative sexual behavior would continue to be problematic “as long as the psychiatric community defines these behaviors as pathological.”

“I knew there were therapists around the world diagnosing practicing consensual sadomasochists with mental illness,” he says.

At the time that the new DSM was published, Baldwin and Bannon were planning to attend the 1987 march on Washington, D.C., in support of gay rights; after the new criteria came out, they decided to host a panel discussion for mental-health professionals in the State Department auditorium, where they announced the launch of what would come to be known as “The DSM Revision Project.”

“We asked how many people in the room were mental-health professionals,” Baldwin says, and “two-thirds of the people in the room raised their hands. And we said, ‘The way this needs to happen is, licensed mental-health practitioners need to write the DSM committee that reviews the language of the DSM concerned with paraphilias.’”

Around 40 or 50 people left the session with the information needed to write the letters. “We did not know exactly what would result,” Bannon recalls. “We did not think we would see dramatic changes suddenly.”

They didn’t—but the changes they did see were positive. The next edition of the DSM, published in 1994, added that to be considered part of a mental illness, “fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors” must “cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

“This was a definite improvement from the DSM-III-R,” says Wright, who later took over leadership of the DSM Revision Project from Bannon and Baldwin.

“These criteria gave [health professionals] wiggle room to say, ‘They have issues, but it is not about their kink. For the vast majority, it is just the way they have sex,’” Bannon explains. “Rather than saying, ‘Because you are into this method of sexuality, you are sick,’ [they could say], ‘Pathologically, if this impacts your life negatively, then you have a problem.’”

But the new language in the 1994 DSM also allowed for wiggle room of a different kind: The threshold of “significant distress” was often loosely interpreted, with the social stigma of kink, rather than kink itself, causing the negative impact on people’s lives. Workplace discrimination and violence were on the rise, according to a 2008 NCSF survey, and people were still being declared unfit parents as a result of their sexual preferences: Eighty of the 100 people who turned to the NCSF for legal assistance in custody battles from 1997-2010 lost their cases.

A few years after the 1994 DSM was published, Wright decided it was time to fight for another revision. When she founded the organization in 1997, the NCSF’s goal was a change to the APA’s diagnostic codes that separated the behavior (e.g., “he likes to restrict his breathing during sex”) from the diagnosis (e.g., “his desire to restrict his breath means that he must be mentally ill”). The next DSM, the group argued, should split the paraphilias from the paraphilic disorders, so that simply enjoying consensual BDSM would not be considered indicative of an illness.

Their efforts were largely ignored by the APA until early 2009, when Wright attended a panel discussion at New York City’s Philosophy Center on why people practice BDSM. Among the panelists was psychiatrist Richard Krueger, whose expertise included the diagnosis and treatment of paraphilias and sexual disorders.

During the meeting, Wright says, “I brought up the point that the DSM manual caused harm to BDSM people because it perpetuated the stigma that we were mentally ill. [Krueger] heard me and said that was not what they intended with the DSM.” Krueger, it turned out, was on the APA’s paraphilias committee, and following the meeting opened up an email dialogue between Wright and the other committee members, in which Wright provided documentation about the violence and discrimination kinky people experienced. “I credited that to the DSM,” she says. “Courts used it. Therapists used it. And it was being misinterpreted.”

Over the next year, “I sent him information, he gave it to the group, they asked questions, and I responded. It was very productive,” Wright recalls. “We [the NCSF] felt we were heard, we were listened to—and they took [our arguments] into account when they changed the wording” of the DSM in 2010.


Another major factor in the NCSF’s favor was a paper, co-written by sexual-medicine physician Charles Moser and sexologist Peggy J. Kleinplatz and published in 2006 in the Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, titled “DSM IV-TR and the Paraphilias: An Argument for Removal.” According to Wright, the paper, which “summed up opinions of mental-health professionals who thought you shouldn’t include sexual activity in the DSM,” played a significant role in the paraphilia committee’s eventual shift in language.

In February 2010 the proposed change was made public—clarifying, Wright says, that “the mental illness [depends on] how it is expressed, not the behavior itself.” The new guidelines drew a clear difference, in other words, between people expressing a healthy range of human sexuality (for example, a couple that likes to experiment, consensually, with whips, chains, and dungeons) and sadists who wish others genuine harm (for example, tying and whipping someone in a basement without their consent).

The DSM-5 was released in May 2013, its contents marking a victory for the NCSF, Bannon, and Baldwin. The final language states: “A paraphilia is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for having a paraphilic disorder, and a paraphilia by itself does not necessarily justify or require clinical intervention.”

“Now we are seeing a sharp drop in people having their children removed from their custody,” Wright explains. Since the change, according to the NCSF, less than 10 percent of people who sought the organization’s help in custody cases have had their children removed, and the number of discrimination cases has dropped from more than 600 in 2002 to 500 in 2010 to around 200 over the last year.

“The APA basically came out and said, ‘These people are mentally healthy,’” Wright says. “‘It’s had a direct impact on society.”

Complete Article HERE!


How the penis disappeared from the sex toy



by Hannah Smothers

You’ve seen what a penis looks like. Sure, there are variables that make each one a little different—the world is beautiful that way—but, generally speaking, they all fit a certain mold.

As the male sexual organ, the penis was designed to transport sperm from one body into another. As an added feature, the penis can also summon orgasm in a female partner during this process. But we know this isn’t always the case. While a healthy male organ works pretty well for its intended reproductive purpose, there are some design flaws in terms of maximizing female pleasure.

LILY 2So what if you could redesign the penis, make it a little bit better? Which pieces would you change, and which would you keep? Erasing the need for reproductive functionality, would you scrap the whole thing and start from scratch? In the end, would this magic device—capable of bringing women waves of pleasure—even resemble the penis in its current human form?

Welcome to the world of modern-day vibrators, a place largely devoid of the original pleasure device.

As sex toys have become increasingly sleek and modern—taking cues from the minimalistic designs of like Apple and Ikea—one clear trend has emerged: They no longer look like human penises. In fact, they no longer look human at all—which, according to designers, entrepreneurs, and sex therapists alike, is a very good thing.

Kitschy and grotesque

The first time the American public saw a non-human organ used to stimulate sexual arousal was in the early porn films of the 1920s. Over the previous few decades, small home appliances marketed under the guise of medical necessity (to cure the female ailment of “hysteria“) had become commonplace—kind of like how we now see “personal massagers” advertised in Brookstone. But in the new black-and-white pornos of the ’20s, audiences saw these appliances used for very non-medical purposes.

zini-deux-293x300And once the public was confronted with the idea that these devices could be used strictly for pleasure, the products disappeared from women’s magazines and reputable store shelves.

Vibrators made a second coming about 30 years later, during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. But even though Americans were talking about sexuality more openly than ever before, we still weren’t totally cool with the idea of incorporating these objects in our sex lives. In response, early industry leaders made them as outlandish as possible: Rotating glitter-dicks, two shafts emerging from one testicle-shaped base, rubber duckies that secretly vibrated. We displaced the awkwardness of using machines as sexual aids by turning these aids into novelty objects, or toys.

But there was a big problem with this approach. Since the products were advertised as “novelties,” not health aids, they were held to lower standards than medical devices and other things we put inside our bodies. The cheap toys were unsafe, ugly, and ineffective. And not at all sexy.

“I don’t think anyone has ever said, ‘I want a vibrator that looks like a bunny rabbit and a penis all smashed together,’” Ti Chang, the female co-founder of sex toy and jewelry design company Crave, told me. “I think the sex toy industry has really had a lot of male voices—it’s been men designing products for women, so it tends to be very male anatomy centric. Like, ‘Oh, it’s sex, she wants a big cock, so we’ll just make lots of different colors of cocks, and to make this really silly, we’ll put a little rabbit on it.’”

Companies like Doc Johnson—a leading novelty company for decades, notorious for its line of Zini DonutRealistic Cocks—offer a good example of the “she wants a big cock” mentality that dominated the industry during the late-20th century. Robert Rheaume, the president of high-end sex toy company JimmyJane, charmingly described these hyper-realistic dildos as the kind of severed penis you’d get if “there was an Orc from Lord of the Rings walking around, and they cut his penis off.”

He also argued, by nature of them being just so grotesque, they’re not very sex-positive. He put it to me this way: “Let’s say you and I are well into our sexual relationship, and I pull out this giant, Doc Johnson, 15-inch cock,” Rheaume said. “You might be like, WOAH, where’s that going? Get out of my apartment right now, I’m leaving—call me a taxi, call an Uber. It’s just intimidating and scary for some people.”

Kitschy, intimidating, grotesque—all are terms you could use to describe the sex toy market up until the early 2000s. The poor designs, cheap rubbers and plastics, and incredibly dick-centric domain of products presented itself as an untapped valley of junk, just waiting for a messiah. This is what Ethan Imboden, the founder of JimmyJane, realized upon walking into an Adult Novelty Manufacturers Expo a little more than a decade ago.

“As soon as I saw past the fact that in front of me happened to be two penises fused together at the base, I realized that I was looking at the only category of consumer product that had yet to be touched by design,” Imboden said in his 2012 Atlantic profile. Coming from an industrial design background, and lacking the desire to manufacture what he saw as landfill products, he left his job designing everyday consumer products to launch JimmyJane—a sex toy company that would put safety, design, and sex-positivity first. Around this time, a small, luxury intimate toy company in Sweden called LELO started doing the exact same thing.

post-phalic 01The kitschy sex toy industry was primed for a big change, and companies like JimmyJane and LELO were ready to usher it in.

Disrupting the dick

Skeuomorphism is a concept in technological design that describes our tendency to retain tactile aspects of the physical world as we move more of our lives onto screens. At Apple, for example, skeuomorphic design was thought to ease the transition from the real to the virtual. Turning a page on your Mac or iPhone would closely resemble turning a page in a real notebook, paper sounds included. If you can recreate the physical aspects of a very familiar, tactile world in the flat, virtual reality of an operating system, designers have long believed, maybe more people will feel comfortable using the product.

In sex toy design, this has translated into manufacturing dismembered penises and inventing crevices meant to resemble human vaginas and mouths. But why—if women and couples are looking for something more than their own, very real human parts—would they want a plastic knock-off of those same parts in bed? Just as some people argue that retaining archaic, physical traits of notepads on our iPhones is unnecessary, companies like JimmyJane and LELO saw retaining the original design of human organs as unnecessary and outdated.

Of course, there will probably always be a market for straight-up dildos—which are different from vibrators—and which, by nature of their intended internal purpose, must resemble a human penis. But female-oriented vibrators allow more room for innovation.

With this in mind, JimmyJane and LELO’s emphasis on design, coupled with major tech advances of the early 2000s, allowed these pioneering sex companies to essentially reinvent the penis. “Technology drives the industry—it’s tech, tech, tech,” Patti Britton, a clinical sexologist in southern California, told me. “Everyone’s going for the faster, the most options for control, as well as these really unusual and really sophisticated designs.”post-phalic 02

Those sophisticated designs are now pretty commonplace, and they look nothing like human parts. The design shift comes as a result of technological advances, yes, but also reflects a pretty significant ideological shift. Vaginal penetration, as we now know, isn’t necessarily the key to female orgasm, and penises aren’t naturally shaped to stimulate the elusive G-spot. Skeuomorphism started disappearing from the industry, and the dick was reinvented—and ultimately displaced.

Luxury investments

When sex toys start looking less like severed organs, it gets easier for consumers to take them seriously. And when consumers start to take them seriously, it opens up room for a luxury class of sex toys—something that LELO and JimmyJane, especially, have capitalized on. Most of LELO’s products start at more than $120, though the company also boasts a 24-karat gold plated vibrator for $15,000. As Steve Thomson, LELO’s global marketing manager, told me, creating toys that last a lifetime, like a nice espresso maker or television, is “a way of challenging assumptions about the sex toy market as a whole.”

“There’s always going to be a place for novelty goods and phallic-shaped items,” Thomson said. “But I don’t believe that’s the future of sex toys in any way. People are moving away from the assumption that it’s purely a substitute for a partner.”

post-phalic 03To Thomson, as well as industry leaders at JimmyJane, Crave, and the numerous other companies that have joined the modern sex toy craze, the future of sex toys is in making objects that fit easily into a consumer’s everyday life. That’s why, as technology improves, we see things like app-controlled panty vibes and vibrators equipped with memory that will store your favorite sexual patterns.

Along with loosening cultural values around discussing sex—almost everyone I interviewed cited the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise as a major breakthrough—the shift in toy design has transformed the industry from a $1.3 billion a year industry to a $15 billion a year industry in revenue alone. “If it’s okay for the modern mom to have dialogue about Fifty Shades of Grey, sexuality and masturbation, I think it gives us complete permission to have these conversations and to make these products available,” Rheaume said.

He’s not wrong. Research shows that not only are more women using toys, they’re owning up to using more toys. Consumers are literally taking their orgasms into their own hands, and they’re commonly paying upwards of $150 to do so. Is it worth it to buy a vibrator that costs a bit more than something you might find at your neighborhood adult novelty shop if it means it’ll last longer and isn’t toxic to your body? Absolutely.

But not everyone can afford it, and while some products come with a money-back, orgasm guarantee—they don’t always work as advertised. Has design for the sake of being beautiful, and innovation for the sake of being advanced, displaced the actual functionality of the vibrator?

That’s what was bothering Janet Lieberman, a mechanical engineering grad from MIT and enthusiastic sex toy user. Facing repeated disappointment in the toys she bought, Lieberman realized she was in a unique position to utilize her expertise to make things better. The technology was good, but she saw it going in the wrong direction. There was a sort of machismo attitude slipping into products designed for women—who cares if your device can track your orgasms, give you Bluetooth feedback, and looks like modern art if it doesnt work?

Now, as co-founder and lead engineer for the New York-based sex toy company Dame, she’s ushering in the newest wave—and quite likely the future—of sex toy design.

Women come first

One of the big problems with the sex toy industry is how male-driven and controlled it’s been throughout most of its history. Sure, the men at LELO and JimmyJane have women’s desires in mind—both Thomson and Rheaume told me about the extensive research measures their companies take when designing new products. JimmyJane, for example, relied on data about average labia size from the renowned Kinsey Institute when creating its new Form 5 vibrator, which is designed to simultaneously stimulate a woman’s labia and clitoris.

And to make sure the products hitting the market are truly effective, the leading companies also rely on demo communities—women who test new prototypes and provide detailed feedback. But, as Lieberman argues, there’s a difference between running a product by a demo audience and having a woman—the target consumer of the product—involved each step of the way.

And so, it’s becoming increasingly common to see women-run sex toy companies, or to see women involved in the design and engineering process, according to industry insiders. “If they’re products for women, you kind of want women everywhere in the process so they’re making the right priorities,” Lieberman told me.

A female designer and engineer, for example, might know right off the bat whether something is going to work. It’s not that men don’t take all the important components into consideration—after all, some of these products are used mutually between partners—it’s just that women are more likely to understand the various nuances in their own anatomies, and take those into consideration in the engineering process.

While enabling sex toys to track activity and communicate long distance via the internet—both features on the newest models—is cool, Lieberman and Crave’s Chang both stressed a personal mission to deliver what sex toys have long promised: really fantastic orgasms.

“Having an orgasm is like a birth right, you should have it!” Chang said, in a sentiment famously voiced by Nicki Minaj and, more recently, Amy Schumer. In her process at Crave—which steers clear of trying to mimic anything anatomical—function always comes first.

Lieberman and her business partner, Alex Fine, took a similar approach when building Dame’s first product, a couple’s vibe called Eva. “I wouldn’t say that one of our primary goals in designing this was that we wanted it to be beautiful,” Lieberman said of the device, which resembles a futuristic beetle. “We wanted it to be accessible, but we put function ahead of form.”

They also wanted to make sure the cost wasn’t prohibitive—a sex toy that’s too expensive can actually detract from sex, she argues. Eva sells for $105, a price-point Lieberman attributes mainly to the device’s high-quality silicone and the rigorous research and design process that went into it. Lieberman likens the Eva to a pair of really good headphones: You can hear the music, it sounds incredible, but you aren’t super aware of the fact that there are two small speakers in your ears.

Lieberman acknowledges that before sex toy designers could think about getting back to the core purpose of the industry, consumers needed to be introduced to beautiful, high-end luxury products. But the next wave of sex toys will likely follow her function-over-form philosophy—and encourage an even bigger audience to come.<

So, are we moving toward a world where penises, and human sex organs, are obsolete? Of course not. We’re just moving toward one where we can do better than what the average human body has to offer. As Patti Britton, a certifiable expert in all things sex, put it, there will always be an element of humanity that can’t be captured by even the most elaborate of sex toys.

“We’re still human beings—we’re skin and bone and flesh and energy,” Britton told me. “So far we really haven’t matched that one in the lab, we may one day. But I think, overall, humans will want to be with humans. That’s how we’re wired.”

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