Virtual Vulvas Are The Only Hope For the Female Orgasm

You know things have gone to shit when college students aren’t clear about whether women can have orgasms.

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Jan 23 2017, 1:00pm

Sometimes you have a sex question that's not just, you know, an idle passing thought. And in those times you need a real answer—one that's based on deep research and scientific rigor. In those times you need Hard Data .

I have been teaching human sexuality courses at colleges and universities around the country for more than a decade. Each semester, as my students shuffle through the door on the first day of classes, they get the opportunity to anonymously submit their biggest sex question. What do they want to know that wasn't covered in their previous sex education courses? 

Year in and year out, the single most common topic students are curious about is the female orgasm. A lot of students actually ask whether it's even possible for women to have orgasms. More commonly, though, students—both male and female—want to know how women reach orgasm. 

The popularity of these questions doesn't surprise me. American sex education classes are notoriously bad about teaching students the kinds of things they really should know about sex and the human body. Neither my middle- nor high-school sex education classes bothered to teach us the word vulva, and they sure as heck didn't offer any tips or tricks on pleasuring a woman.

This failure to teach even very basic information about the female body is problematic on multiple levels. For one thing, it means that a lot of people grow up not knowing what a vulva even is, let alone what one is supposed to look like. In light of this, it's no surprise that so many women are worried about whether their genitals look "normal," a concern that is feeding demand for genital cosmetic surgeries, such as procedures designed to reduce the size of women's labia.

For another, it has contributed to a serious orgasm gap between the sexes. It should be news to no one that women are less likely than men to reach orgasm during sexual activity—and study after study has shown just that. For example, a nationally representative US survey from 2010 found that, whereas 85 percent of men reported an orgasm the most recent time they had sex, just 64 percent of women said the same.

My personal hope—and hunch—is that modern technology will change all this. While most of the sex tech to hit the market in recent years has focused on masturbation aides like VR porn and Fleshlights modeled after pornstars, some companies are capitalizing on recent technological advances in order to teach people what their sex education classes did not. Enter the virtual vulva.

Last year, the interactive website OMGYES launched with a series of instructional videos on female sexual pleasure coupled with unique touchable technology that allows users to interact with simulated vulvas on their smartphones or tablets. These vulvas are based on photos of actual women's genitalia and, when you touch them, they respond with audio feedback based on scientific research into what women find pleasurable. 

This concept has the potential to do two big things. First, by exposing women to images of real vulvas, it might help them become more comfortable and confident in their own genital appearance. Consider, for instance, a new study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology: Scientists showed female college students one of two different photo slideshows. Half of the participants viewed images of other women's vulvas, while the other half viewed neutral images, such as photos of art, architecture, and nature. As it turns out, the women who saw vulvas reported feeling the most positive about their own genitals afterwards. This wasn't a fleeting effect, either—when the researchers followed up with these women two weeks after they saw the slideshow, those who viewed vulvas continued to report more comfort with their bodies than those who saw neutral images. 

OMGYES and products like it—including smartphone apps such as Labella and HappyPlayTime—also stand to increase men's and women's understanding of female sexual anatomy and pleasure, which may ultimately help women have more frequent and reliable orgasms. Scientists have known for a long time that there's a lot more variability among women than there is among men in the kinds of stimulation that lead to orgasm. When the only form of stimulation is penile penetration of the vagina, most heterosexual men have no problem reaching orgasm; however, only about half of women say they can reach orgasm through penetration alone and, even then, they say it only happens sometimes.

A lot of women are under the impression that vaginal penetration should be sufficient to induce orgasm and that, if they aren't orgasming this way, there must be something wrong. The reality, though, is that different women may find very different kinds of stimulation pleasurable and there isn't just one "right" or "correct" path to the female orgasm. The creators behind instructional websites and apps like OMGYES recognize this and, as such, they showcase a variety of techniques and strategies that users might try.

If the virtual vulva concept continues to grow and expand, it might help to not only stem the growing tide of women seeking unnecessary cosmetic surgery on their genitals, but also to close the orgasm gap once and for all.

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