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Screw Science: The Futuristic Sex Tech Aiming to Penetrate Your Bedroom

From fully customizable vibrators to bioelectronic headsets, smart sex toys are on the way up. But does personal pleasure necessarily make for better health?

sex-tech

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.”

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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.”

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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.

Complete Article HERE!

Let’s Talk About Sex (for Trans Men)

By Buck Angel

buckangel1-s

Here is a simple fact that not a lot of people realize: Many trans men choose not to have what we call “bottom surgery.” That is to say they chose not to have any surgery on the genitals they were born with. This means that the world has a significant number of men with vaginas. I have spoken with a lot of trans men through my life and work, and I would estimate that around 90 percent of trans men around the world — I have interviewed men from Sweden, the U.K., Brazil, Mexico, and other countries — have not opted for bottom surgery.

For some this decision comes for financial reasons, for some a fear of complications, and for some it’s more of a “one step at a time” kind of vibe: “Let’s see how this first stage (chest surgery, hormones) feels, and I will take it from there.” Regardless of the reason, the newly transitioned trans man’s body is a new landscape for him, and perhaps one that isn’t very well understood or accommodated, even by the man himself.

When I first transitioned, I was worried that I might not be able to find a partner or even love. I was worried that people would simply be turned off by the idea of a man with a vagina. I’ve since interviewed and spoken with hundreds of trans guys who echo the same anxieties. Kevin, 30, who lives in Brooklyn, said, “Deciding not to go with bottom surgery was something I went back and forth on for many years. It wasn’t until I saw videos online of your work (a docu-series that I make called Sexing the Transman) that I realized I didn’t need a penis to become a man. I was worried about sex, but surprisingly, most of my sexual partners have been very open to me and my body, even if it’s unfamiliar territory for them.”

I personally will always remember the exact moment I realized that my genitals were OK — that my vagina was a part of me and that is was OK to be a man without a penis — and it was through masturbation and orgasm. It was one of the first times that I penetrated myself, and I felt a bit guilty that I actually climaxed. It was a weird feeling to enjoy my vagina for the first time — it had always been something that I was not connected to and even hated. But that orgasm changed everything for me. It was really a turning point in my identity and my self-love.

Masturbation became a daily ritual for me, which is true for many other trans men I have spoken with. Because of this we are always looking for new ways to get off. There was nothing in the sex toy world that was designed for our bodies. What makes trans male vaginas and vulvas unusual is that they become enlarged, specifically the clitoris, because of the testosterone usage, and with that our vaginas also become a little bit more sensitive. Guys talk about a newly heightened sexual awareness and desire for sex. When that is combined with a detachment from your body or a lack of information or resources, trans men are at risk of not experiencing their best sex lives.

Because there was nothing made for trans men in the sex toy (or “pleasure product”) world, I had to be very inventive!  I would cut up products made for the cisgender man and women to fit my anatomy, like dildos that had a suction cup backing, rip that out, and use the hole in the end to masturbate with. I would find things like snakebite kits, which are used to suck out the poison from the bite of a snake, or toys like nipple play suction cups, and adapt them to fit me. Some trans guys showed me how they used the ends of water bottles filled with water to create suction. One guy would even use a small hand towel filled with lube to rub on. Its pretty amazing how you can engineer things just to masturbate.

Jim, a 23-year-old trans man from Philadelphia told me, “Masturbation is something I do daily. It was not easy at first for me to find the space to feel comfortable touching myself; it felt weird because I never did it before I transitioned. Though through that I realized that I love sex and that I needed to feel myself and let that be a good thing.”

Buck-OFF - Buck Angel FTM Stroker

Buck-OFF – Buck Angel FTM Stroker

When I was finally able to love my body and be comfortable with it, I was more comfortable on so many levels that went far beyond sexuality. For this reason I’ve been on a mission to teach trans guys to love their bodies and through that to love themselves. These conversations are so important to our well-being, and it’s why it’s been a years-long dream to actually create a toy that is just for us. It’s validating; it says, “Your body is real, it deserves to have pleasure, and you are not alone.” I’m really hoping to use the Buck-Off to start conversations outside of the trans male community as well to create larger awareness of trans male bodies and their specific needs. This is important not only for us, but for our potential partners, teachers, health care providers, and legislators.

Complete Article HERE!

How To Have The ‘Sex Talk’ with Your Kids

USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Mother with daughter (8-9) talking on bed

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Let’s talk about “the talk.” Yep! The birds and the bees.

At some point, every parent needs to give their kids a heads up on what’s going on with their bodies and their sexuality, right? In a perfect world, that would be true, but even well-meaning parents may not know how to approach the topic. In my family, for example, I never even heard my mother or father say the word “s-e-x” until I was in my 30s!

I want to equip ESSENCE moms with a cheat sheet on how to give your kids “the talk.” After all, sexuality is a natural part of life, and loving your sexual self is important to having high self-esteem overall. Since I’m not yet a mom, I called on a friend who is also a parenting specialist to weigh in on the topic.

Parenting expert Erickka Sy Savané was once an international model and host of her own video countdown show on MTV Europe. These days, the woman who has also written for almost every major publication can be seen as the host of a new digital series called POP MOM. She says that the show and accompanying blog is a way to get African American mothers to share and discuss hot topics. Erickka lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters, ages 6 and 4.

Sex ed is such an important topic. Consequences of poor sexual education at home may include unintentional pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, body hatred and low self-esteem. My parents told me absolutely nothing about love, sex, dating and relationships. Were your parents open about sex and sexuality?

I grew up with a single mom talked to me about my period after it happened, and I vaguely remember her telling me something about sex when I was in high school. She might have mentioned getting on birth control pills if I felt like I was going to have sex. But it wasn’t a talk that started when I was young, like I’m starting to do with my daughter who is 6 years old. For instance, my daughter asked me about my current POP MOM episode that talks about ‘the sex talk and dads,’ so I had a conversation with her.

I want to be honest and I want sexuality to be something that is viewed as normal, while also letting her know that it is something for when she is much older. I wish my mom would have talked to me about sex as I was growing up so by the time I was in high school it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. I think it’s important to take the taboo out of it because as humans we are here to reproduce.

When parents ask me about how to talk to their kids about their bodies and sex, I generally advise them to begin early with age appropriate topics, as you’re doing with your daughter. How young is too young to have these conversations?

I say, if they’re asking give them answers that they can handle, while maintaining certain levels of truth. I had to start the sex talk with my daughter when she was in kindergarten because she had a classmate and best friend that started telling her all these inappropriate stories that she was observing either in her home or on TV. I didn’t want my daughter learning about sex through a 5-year-old. Psychologist Dr. Kristin Carothers says that appropriate sex conversation should begin as early as 8 or 9 years old.

Whenever we have thought about sex ed at home previously, as a culture, it has been mom talking to girls and dad talking to boys. I am so grateful for you approaching the topic of daddies talking to daughters as our relationships with our fathers define, to some extent, our de facto relationships with men.

I decided to address the sex talk from a dad’s perspective when I realized that, “Oh! I have a husband.” Unlike my mom, who was a single parent and had to do it alone, I was able to see that I can share this experience with him so it made me ask my own husband about his plans with our two daughters, and from there I wanted to hear from other dads. I was able to see that dads do have plans, even if they don’t verbalize them. I was also able to see that just by posing the question to dads, they were able to more clearly define their plans. It’s a conversation that moms and dads should be having, and having with their girls together because dads do have a different perspective that girls need to hear. It’s real value.

Growing up, my mom gave me a stack of pamphlets and books to answer my questions. How does a parent who is nervous and uncomfortable about the topic themselves bring up the issue?

Good question. Books and youtube videos give good advice. Also, a parent doesn’t have to go all-in, from the first conversation. They can start by talking about related topics like dating boys and what that means to them and their friends. Start slow and build up.

What do you advise moms say to their sons?

I think they should be honest about how babies are born. Like the technical and emotional aspects of it. I think moms should talk about respecting a woman’s body, the consequences of sex (pregnancy and disease), and I think women and men should be big on discussing consent. I read that Nate Parker [who was accused of rape] had no talks about consent beyond if a woman says yes or no. How about if a woman is drunk, unconscious? It’s still a no. I think that needs to be addressed with boys for sure. Women can do it.

Great conversation, Erickka. I am thankful for your work. Why do you feel that this topic so important?

It’s important because we were put on this planet to reproduce; so sex is a natural part of our lives like eating and sleeping. If we normalize it from a young age by talking about it, with all it’s grey areas, kids will have a better time. I find myself having identity, gay and transgender talks with my daughters because there’s no way around it

Complete Article HERE!

French Researcher Wants to Make Sex Education More Accurate With 3D Printed Clitoris

by

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What’s this? Many people still don’t know.

Sex education varies greatly from school to school, location to location – some places don’t teach it at all, while others teach abstinence only; some schools are much more thorough in terms of discussing safe sex and birth control. I went to Catholic elementary school, and I remember getting a textbook called Gifts and Promises, a few awkward anatomical diagrams, and dire warnings about ruined lives and sin. That was more than two decades ago, so I don’t know how the program may have changed since then, but there has been some encouraging news lately about public schools introducing increasingly comprehensive programs that address issues of consent and safety, as well as same-sex relationships and non-binary gender identities.

Then there’s sex ed in France. According to researcher Odile Fillod, the system has a lot of room for improvement, especially when it comes to the female anatomy. She’s not the only one who thinks so – in June, Haut Conseil à l’Egalité (High Council for Equality), a government organization dedicated to issues of gender equality, published a report indicating that sex education in France is still full of woefully outdated and sexist ideas. The information – or lack thereof – about one particular female organ especially concerns Fillod.

She turned to Melissa Richard, mediator of the Carrefoure Numérique Fab Lab at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in Paris, who took to Blender to create a 3D model of an organ that remains a mystery to many, and one that’s still given little mention in many sex ed programs: the clitoris.

clit diagram

“The idea came as part of the preparation of videos dealing with non-sexist way of themes SVT program about sex and sexuality,” says Fillod. “In textbooks, the clitoris is often overlooked and is systematically misrepresented when it is. It was therefore able to show concretely what it looks like to talk about sexual anatomical and physiological bases of desire and pleasure remembering women, for once.”

Fillod has been working with V’idéaux, a Toulouse-based documentary film production company, to create a Ministry of Education-supported website dedicated to the promotion of respect and equality between men and women. V’idéaux wanted to include a video about the clitoris on the website, which is set to launch in January 2017, and Fillod realized that she could incorporate a film of the 3D design and printing process onto the site. You can see the video, which probably has the most sensual soundtrack you’ve ever heard in a film about 3D design, below:

It took a bit of work to find anatomically accurate drawings of the clitoris to base the 3D model on, showing that Fillod is correct in her assertion that this organ has been a highly misrepresented one. Once Richard had a realistic model designed, it was printed in PLA on a Mondrian 3D printer, and the open source file has been made available – the world’s first open source, 3D printable clitoris, if I’m not mistaken.clitoris

Fillod is hoping that 3D printed clitorises will be used by teachers and doctors to learn and teach about the actual structure, dimensions and function of this important part of the female body. Even though France has the reputation of being sexually progressive, Fillod told The Guardian, the focus is still mostly on male sexuality, to the extent that women and girls are largely uneducated about their own bodies.

“It’s important that women have a mental image of what is actually happening in their body when they’re stimulated,” she said. “In understanding the key role of the clitoris, a woman can stop feeling shame, or [that she’s] abnormal if penile-vaginal intercourse doesn’t do the trick for her – given the anatomical data, that is the case for most women.”

Will 3D printed clitorises start showing up in the classroom? We’ll see…but at least Fillod and Richard have brought some much-needed attention to the often-downplayed and still-taboo subject of female sexuality and pleasure.

Complete Article HERE!

Are you getting any closer? A pocket-sized primer on female sexuality

By Clarissa Fortin

Stay curious between the sheets, friends.

Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality
by Sarah Barmak
(Coach House Books, 2016; $14.95)

If it weren’t for Sarah Barmak’s Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality I might have gone for years of my life without ever finding out what my clitoris actually looks like.

“Illustrations of it resemble a swan with an arched neck,” Barmak writes. “When I saw an closerillustration of the clitoris’s true shape for the first time I felt like a blind man finally seeing a whole elephant when all he’s ever known was the tip of it’s trunk.” I realized while reading those sentences that no one in my Catholic high school health class ever bothered to show me such an image and I’d never thought to seek one out.

I consider myself a feminist and a sexually liberated woman. Yet, there are still surprising gaps in my understanding of my own body. And that’s why a book like Barmak’s is important. Closer tackles its subject with eloquence, intelligence and humour.

The book is split into five essays that tackle the “fear of pleasure,” the history of female sexuality, the science and psychology of the orgasm, the “female sexual underground” and the politics of acknowledging female desire.

While each essay has its own strengths, I think the most effective chapter is “A History of Forgetting.” This section aligns the historical “discovery” and “loss” of the clitoris with the individual experience of a woman named Vanessa — an actual interview subject.

We first meet Vanessa on the table at the doctor’s office filming herself masturbating in order to prove to the doctor that she can indeed ejaculate. We learn that Vanessa has been having a series of problems — pain after sex, recurring yeast infections and so on — that no doctors can figure out.

From here Barmak momentarily leaves Vanessa’s story behind and turns her attention to the clitoris itself, noting that “the mapping of the human genome was completed in 2003, years before we got around to doing an ultrasound on the ordinary human clit.”

While the tendency is to see history as ever moving forward and progressing, Barmak counters that “women’s sexuality began by being celebrated, then was feared as too potent, before being downplayed and denied in the scientific era.”

The Christian church, the scientific revolution and various other factors resulted in a demonization and rejection of female bodies. It’s a generalized historical account to be sure, but Barmak does point readers in the direction of Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, a much more comprehensive book on the subject.

What makes this essay so powerful is the way it revisits and concludes with Vanessa and her struggle. Her story held up against the larger history of the clitoris itself demonstrates all too well an overall contempt for and neglect of the female genitalia.

Along with research and anecdotes, Barmak amasses a diverse collection of interviews with doctors, researchers and sex educators. I was excited to learn many factoids that I will surely whip out at dinner parties in the future — for instance, vaginal self stimulation actually blocks pain in women, and even women who are paralysed can sometimes still feel sexual pleasure because of nerves which bypass the spinal cord and communicate directly with the brain!

Barmak combines this research and traditional journalistic writing with first-person narration, bringing her own experience into the story. This means attending seminars and workshops, watching a demonstration of a female orgasm at Burning Man, and getting a vaginal massage.

Barmak is open about her own skepticism and trepidation during these investigations. “I like to consider myself open to new things,” she writes. “Yet, the idea of a strange lady’s gloved fingers all up in my jade palace falls somewhat outside my personal boundaries.” She goes through with it and the personal account makes for a richer narrative overall.

A note about the term “woman”: Barmak uses it throughout the book to generally refer to the cisgendered female experience. If I have any strong critique of the book it is that by celebrating the distinctly female anatomy, the book sometimes verges on unintentionally emphasizing a gender binary. This is something Barmak herself seems aware of. She notes on pg. 21 that “the word woman can refer equally to cisgender, intersex, genderqueer and transgender women all representing varied shades of experience.” While it’s good that the acknowledgement is there, I think a declaration like this belongs even earlier on as a note for readers to keep in mind before the book even begins.

That said, Barmak does make an effort to include the experiences of typically marginalized women such as trans women and women of colour in her narrative. “Being white affords privileges even in non-mainstream spaces of revolt such as sexuality,” she notes.

The topic is something “that requires far more depth and attention than this little book can offer,” Barmak says and while this seems like a partial cop-out for having only a few pages devoted to women of colour and trans women specifically, Barmak makes a valid point. Issues regarding sexuality faced by marginalized women warrant entire books altogether, preferably penned by a writer who has lived those experiences.

Nevertheless, I think this book would have been more complete with a sixth section devoted specifically to these issues.

At its core this book is compassionately optimistic, celebrating the innate complexity of sexual pleasure itself and arguing in favor of orgasms for all, something I can definitely get behind.

Sex educator and vlogger Lindsay Doe has a motto she repeats at the end of each of her videos: “stay curious.” Closer isn’t the definitive book about female sexuality and it doesn’t claim to be. But it made me curious about my own body, and even more curious about the wonderfully vast array of experiences we humans have between the sheets.

I recommend it to my friends of all genders, my boyfriend, my sisters, and especially the woman who started it all, my mother.

Complete Article HERE!