Could A Smart Vibrator Revolutionize The Way We Talk About Sex?

Lioness is so much more than ‘just a vibrator’ — it’s out to shift social mores.

Masturbation conjures all kinds of images, few of which are typically called beautiful, empowering, or communication-improving.

“Touching yourself” is a term that’s still snickered over and scoffed at. It’s an act that’s largely been made synonymous with lonely, hormone-thrumming teenage boys miserably hunched over their desktop computers, clutching Kleenex in the blue glow of their sticky bedroom.

I exaggerate, but just by a little. Pornography is a multibillion-dollar industry almost entirely predicated on folks taking matters into their own hands, if you will…and yet we still find ourselves in a neo-Puritanical hellscape where masturbation is a dirty word.

Especially for women.

Not surprisingly, this societally-sanctioned shame of self-exploration and satisfaction has pathologized masturbation and rendered a huge swathe of women ignorant of their own bodies. They don’t know what they like: how hard or how long is ideal, if they’re a penetration person or a clitoral person. Or both! Do I need lots of foreplay? Do I need my nipples pinched? What makes me come harder than other times? What’s it all about?!

And even if these lovely lascivious lasses are having (maybe even great) sex with other partners, they aren’t even able to convey what their body needs — and bliss out on their corporeal being — because they’ve founded their entire sense of pleasure on interacting with someone else as opposed to themselves.

Dr. Sherry, a veteran OB/GYN, the author of She-ology, and a “firm believer in the power of masturbation!” told me that sex is a “learned activity.” As she put it:

“You don’t magically have an orgasm without having an active role in making it happen. Being in the right mood and with a relaxing environment helps your experience be a success. Using fingers, hands, lubricants, sex toys, porn, and fantasy are fun ways to learn your pleasure spots. Once you have identified what feels good through masturbation, you can guide your partner in making your bedroom experience successful for the both of you.”

Even more important than translating your bodily cravings into someone else’s hands is the fundamental shifting of one’s paradigm; sex (with oneself or five others) shouldn’t be conceived of as an afterthought, but rather an important piece of the personal health puzzle.

Sarah Merrill, a human development doctoral candidate at Cornell, explains that one of the ways we can surmount stigmas that are entrenched in gender roles and stereotypes is through masturbation.

“It can be difficult for women to even feel comfortable with their own bodies and sexualities to masturbate, but by slowly becoming more comfortable, and acknowledging the biological normalcy of the act itself, women can discover themselves and their pleasure.”

She explains that in addition to the much-celebrated “cuddle” hormone oxytocin, there are additional neurochemical releases of dopamine and mu-opiates and serotonin, all of which leave you feeling satisfied, positive, and better able to combat stress, anxiety, and pain.

In short? A lot of us would benefit a helluvalot from getting our hands on a Lioness vibrator.

Founded by Liz Klinger, James Wang, and Anna Lee about three years ago, Lioness is out to fill the knowledge gap using vagina-driven data from a tech-savvy vibrator. Integrating four advanced sensors to measure sexual response through vaginal contractions, temperature, and movement, you can track patterns in your arousal and orgasm over time, and learn what works for your body. Lioness interacts with a beautifully designed app, with data that’s shareable with your partner and never (not a in a million years) with strangers, recharges with a USB, and yes, will even alert you when the battery is low. (The horror!)

Using Lioness, your vagina can tell your phone all its wonderful secrets!

This vibrator is poised to fundamentally change the way people have sex, establish intimacy, and relate to their own bodies.

Merrill believes that:

“having this data is an outlet to have a conversation with themselves about themselves, and grants an opportunity to share that conversation with others if they so choose. Second, interoception — the psychological awareness of physical cues also known as a mind-body connection — is a concept in psychology that has been shown to increase well-being and motivation. It also declines with age. Having this physiological feedback to pair with psychological sensations may help to increase mind-body awareness, sexually and holistically.”

The Establishment sat down with Liz in Berkeley, California, to talk about why masturbation is important to our health, happiness, relationships, and so much more.

I know you’ve been working on this project for a long time — you left the banking world six years ago. While I’m a dogged masturbator and have admittedly followed Lioness’ progress for a long time, I was still struck by your homepage, which says, “sexual health is a basic human need.” How did you come to the realization that educating people about this was so important?

I think I was 18 when I thought about making my first vibrator in sculpture class. (Laughs.) But silicone was too expensive so it never happened. I grew up in this Midwest upbringing, where we didn’t talk about sex. But then in moving to different places over time I realized “not talking about it” was a thing everywhere.

Eventually I was working at an investment bank (that’s a whole other story!), but this was all still gnawing at me. Knowing about your body and being able to talk about it in a way that’s productive and doesn’t feel shameful is important. I really wanted to go and do something about it.

Even in the Bay, where we appear more open to talking about topics related to sex, we’re still seeing sex as a luxury and not a basic human need. Sex and pleasure and human intimacy are considered a “nice to have,” but not that important. And for lots of women, they’re considered something given to someone else.

But that’s problematic. When you look at all the health benefits of having a happy sex life — whatever that means for a person — there are so many benefits. There are hormonal reactions that affect the entire body, self confidence, and your romantic relationships.

Discover how your sexual health is connected to the rest of your health (and vice versa!).

Was there a final a-ha moment when you finally decided to pursue the overhaul of human sexuality?

I had an opportunity to sell different intimacy products to women through Passion Parties. [Those get-togethers where you basically have a popup Good Vibrations store at home with your friends, and look at different products together.] Anyway, this was my way back into it. So I’m selling these products — you’re in this circle handing them out — and I’d always have people come up to me afterwards and ask questions, about themselves, about their relationships…questions they had never asked anyone, not even their friends or doctors.

It just didn’t feel right. In one case there was a woman turning 30 — she was getting married, this was her bachelorette party — and she pulled me aside into this closet area and confided in me she’d never had a orgasm. She had also never told her soon-to-be-husband this. She felt she wasn’t normal, and she didn’t know how to talk about it. She was so distressed about it. What does this mean for me? For my relationship, for me as a person? Is there something wrong with me?! And that kind of confession wasn’t an uncommon thing.

How does empowering women to understand their bodies better intersect with breaking taboos around sex and helping to shift social mores?

“Data isn’t sexy…” but I’ve found the irony is that taking away some of that “sexiness” can actually make sex better for people — data helps removes some of that stigma.

All this data is a basis for conversation — we’re not diagnosing anything. We’re offering generalized advice. This is physiological data, just like your menstrual, diet, or exercise patterns. Your body and its orgasms are not this weird and magical thing. It’s just like any other bodily function.

And sex can strain your relationship! I recently had a woman (she and her husband were beta testers of the Lioness) tell me a story. She had said to her husband, “I need more foreplay,” but what he heard was, “you’re not doing a good job” as opposed to “my body needs this.” She wasn’t sure how much to push on it or if she was asking for too much, and she wasn’t sure what else to do. But once he saw the data in a chart he was like, “I get it!” Using Lioness’ data took the personal out of it and improved their communication. Communication is super important for having a happy sex life.

The Lioness app which includes daily data collection, quizzes, and a forum where users can connect and talk.

How awkward is it to tell people like every day you’re the founder of the fanciest vibrator/dildo company on earth? It’s so much more complicated than just trying to sell products — it’s trying to shift social systems.

I’ve been talking about sex and vibrators for a while now! For over a decade. I’m very comfortable talking about these topics, but regardless, I think you need to talk about it in a way that relates to everyone’s experiences — sex is one of the main reasons we’re all here. This isn’t a licentious lecture…it’s a human need.

Starting a company is hard. Regardless of who you are, you can have all the money and resources in the world and it’s STILL hard. There are particular difficulties in our field since we’re categorized as an “adult product” on Facebook, for example — even though we’re approaching this from a sexual wellness standpoint. You’re not letting me talk about the benefits of sex?! I can post an article about Lioness, but I can’t advertise for it. That’s been frustrating.

Talking about sex is a barrier but I don’t believe it’s insurmountable, you just have to be creative.

Honestly I just want to tell people, instead of eating an apple or taking that Pilates class, you can masturbate. Or do both. Honestly, there’s probably a higher percentage of enjoyment with masturbation. It’s like being told that slice of cake is good for you!

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