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From Vulva to Vagina, Sex Health Apps Are All Up in Women's Junk

They're like the modern equivalent of the old hand mirror exploration your sex ed teacher advised.
February 15, 2016, 12:00pm

Back in the 90s, when I was but a fresh-faced, innocent teen, a woman who wanted to get better acquainted with her vulva had limited options—and most of them involved some combination of flashlight and mirror. But once digital cameras (and then camera phones, and then smartphones with a front facing camera) became de rigeur, that all changed. These days, a woman who wants to know what she looks like "down there" can snap a quick selfie (velfie?) and get a view of the vulvs from a wide range of angles.

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If you happen to have been born with a penis, it may surprise you to learn that for many women, the whole vulva/vagina/uterus area is something of a mystery zone. Unlike the penis, which resides outside the body and has some pretty visible responses to stimuli, the vulva, clitoris, vagina, and associated parts are hidden away between the legs and inside the body, far more difficult for their owner to examine. And that doesn't even factor in the female hormonal cycle, which—despite what you may have heard about a rigid 28 day schedule—is often wildly unpredictable, leaving unexpected mood swings, outbursts, and bloody panties in its wake.

But, as with many of the pesky inconveniences of being human, a number of tech companies have stepped up with some solutions, offering gadgets and apps that help educate women about the inner workings of their sexual anatomy, with an eye towards improved health, pleasure, and self-awareness.

A screenshot from the period-tracking app Glow.

One of the first entrants into this space was the period tracking smartphone app, a category that's proven so popular the iOS App Store now boasts dozens of them (including some that offer Apple Watch compatibility, for those that want it). Because hormone levels can effect much more than just your likelihood of getting knocked up or ending up with bloody panties, these apps can offer women a window into the inner workings of their bodies–from when they're likely to get moody, break out, or even look their hottest. ("I try to schedule photo and video shoots and even job interviews around my ovulation so I'm prettiest," rapper Clara Bizna$$ told me over text while gushing about her favorite period tracker.)

But hormones aren't the only aspect of female biology that have their very own technical solution. The past few years have seen the birth a new category of app-enabled devices that promise to demystify pelvic floor exercises–the series of vaginal pulses that have been demonstrated to make pregnancy easier, help with incontinence, and, yes, lead to better sex–and make them fun in the process.

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Pioneered by the kGoal, this category now includes a number of products, including Elvie, PeriCoach, and LoveLife Krush—and a number of fans, including, apparently, The Daily Show's Jessica Williams. (Disclosure: I provide consulting services to MinnaLife, the company that produces the kGoal.)

Each device has its own special features, but they all offer the same basic functionality: insert into vagina, connect to your smartphone, and marvel in awe as an app provides visual feedback in response to your pelvic exertions (and even allows you to play video games that improve your vaginal squeezing prowess).

Though the primary goal of these exercisers is to make pelvic floor exercising more fun, and thus more likely to be a part of a daily routine, one fascinating side benefit is the way they help kegels "make sense" for a number of women. With the device in place, either vibrating or providing visual feedback in response to vaginal squeezes, users get a better sense of the mechanics of this invisible exercise, much more vividly than the old "pretend you're trying to stop the flow of pee" explanation of pelvic floor exercise could ever provide.

For Erika Moen, the creator of sex toy review comic Oh Joy Sex Toy, trying out one of these devices dramatically changed her understanding of how that whole area works. Prior to getting her hands (and vagina) on one, "I'd kind of just tighten all my downstairs muscles, as if trying to hold in a bathroom emergency, and hope my kegels were getting included in there by osmosis."

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But once her kegel routine was Bluetooth-enabled, "for the first time in my life, I could have visual confirmation that, yes, I was indeed engaging the correct, isolated muscle. I know what it feels like when my kegels flex!"

The final frontier may be devices that help conquer the most storied sex mystery of all: the sometimes-elusive female orgasm. Vibrators have long helped women unlock sexual pleasure by providing new pathways to orgasm, but a new class of sex toys promises to take things one step further. Instead of passively providing one set experience, these products promise to use biometric data to optimize the masturbation experience, responding in real time to a user's arousal state and changing their stimulation patterns in response—and, in theory, showing women what gets them hot in the process.

One of the earliest entrants into this field is Hum, a crowdfunded vibrator that recently made its official debut. It remains to be seen whether Hum lives up to its promise of being "the smartest vibrator around," but chances are good it'll soon be one of many members in this new class of product.

But whether tech is being used to make hormonal fluctuations more predictable, demonstrate proper pelvic exercise technique, or reveal a path towards better orgasms, there's no question that it's helping to open up conversation, and reduce stigma, around the topic of sex—and that's the most important mission of all. Well, that and ensuring that no one future woman ever has to awkwardly squat over a hand mirror with a flashlight just to get a peek at her labia.