In March of last year, Christina Vasiliou published an essay in the Huffington Post about one of her earliest sexual experiences. While fooling around with a clueless guy in her teenage years, she tried to instruct him on how to touch her. Instead of going with the flow and following her gentle guidance, he asked her, disgusted, if she masturbated.
"An 18-year-old boy literally asked how I knew what felt good and could not believe that I masturbated," Vasiliou told me. "This was definitely an eye-opening moment for me. I came face-to-face with someone who was a product of a society that does not speak openly about women's pleasure and sexuality. Then, when I reported this situation back to some of my friends, almost everyone had some kind of similar experience, where their pleasure was at best not understood and at worst completely disregarded."
Vasiliou now works as co-director at OMGYes, a website devoted to exploring the latest research and scientific understandings about variations in female pleasure. Less of a "how-to" guide, OMGYes uses a multimedia arsenal of video testimonials, stats, pointers, and vaginal stimulation simulation technology to educate people about and explore sexuality. The site's founders, Lydia Daniller and Rob Perkins, wanted to create a place where women and men could get versed on techniques for better orgasms.
"The topic [of female pleasure] is so taboo that even scientists haven't studied the specific and various ways of touching that feel best for different women. Can you believe that?" Daniller asked. Daniller and Perkins partnered with Indiana University and the Kinsey Institute to conduct a study of over 2,000 women ages 18 to 95 to find out about techniques and pleasure. Their findings were peer-viewed and presented at the International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health. "We started the company to conduct research and get the findings to people in a way that's fun, experiential, and practical."
Navigating through OMGYes can be overwhelming, but only because nothing like this has existed before. It's like an interactive pamphlet from the free clinic, except it's not about herpes or breast cancer, but how you can achieve better orgasms with or without a companion. There are 12 categories of varying techniques like edging ("bigger orgasms by approaching and denying it") and multiples ("overcoming sensitivity to build multiple orgasms"), featuring videos of women telling stories and demonstrating their own techniques. But what makes OMGYes truly unique—in fact, a little bizarre—is that it loads a very real virtual vagina for the user to practice their new skills on.
The simulations are technology in service of empathy.
"We went back and forth for years about the simulation," Daniller said. "Making it feel real, but not like being with a lover—like being with a friend who is showing you what she likes and guiding you to practice it."
OMGYes is not the only digital company providing vaginal stimulation simulation. HappyPlayTime is a site created by Tina Gong that features a chubby, bouncing, cartoon vagina that talks to the user and shows her how to masturbate through a series of interactive games that unlock levels revealing pleasure education. Although not nearly as real as the photographic vulvas featured on OMGYes, HappyPlayTime is like a sexual education video game, something girls at summer camp could play. The little vulva character actually looks like a baby, which even Gong admits is a bit ridiculous.
"I think every product naturally comes from trying to solve a problem that you have, or in this case, finding harmony for parts of yourself that feel dissonant," Gong says. "I grew up in a conservative family and was really sensitive to the expectations that culture placed on me—so much so that I grew up alienated from my own body." Gong's mother was very strict, and she cut off contact with Gong when she found out she was having sex before marriage, even though Gong was in a long-term monogamous relationship. "[Creating HappyPlayTime] was actually something that was very selfish," she says. "[It's] how I learned to overcome my own embarrassment over sex and sexuality. It's like playing a little trick on your mind: Do something that you're uncomfortable with, put your whole heart into it, and suddenly you don't fear it anymore."
Vaginal stimulation simulation apps were recently in the news when a popular program, La Petite Mort, was banned from the Apple App Store for being "excessively objectionable or crude." Created by the small Danish studio Lovable Hat Cult, La Petite Mort allows users to play with a heavily pixelated vulva while the presumed woman attached to it reacts to the user's touch.
"Apple is very strict about their non-pornography terms," says Lovable Hat Cult producer Andrea Hasselager. "Even art games that do not contain any explicit content are still being banned from the App Store. [La Petite Mort] focuses on a very human and positive feeling, but somehow we have formed our society so that this is seen as objectionable, while Kamasutra apps are somehow OK?"
Hasselager explains that Apple's complaint was that users are actually touching a sexual organ in the game, so despite the fact that the female body part is so pixelated it looks like a blob of colors, it's the insinuated stimulation that they find inappropriate. (Hasselager claims the Apple representative even played the "well, you're European" card to explain why her company wouldn't find such a game objectionable.)
Hasselager and co-creator Patrick Jarnfelt made La Petite Mort for the same reasons most of these other companies did: to expand and normalize the conversation about female sexual pleasure. The difference is that La Petite Mort is in no way educational—just erotic and fun. Marketed as a "one-of-a-kind erotic digital experience," the game features different vulvas, each with different preferences and responses to user-initiated stimuli. If something feels good to the virtual vagina, pleasure emanates from the stimulated spot, until eventually the entire screen reaches an obvious climax; if something isn't so great, the implied woman behind the vagina will respond with a text message that says, "Slow down," or, "I'm sensitive."
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"Many women are still too timid to express their desires and wishes sexually, and this will lead to an unsatisfying sex life," says Hasselager. "Even in places like Denmark, where we talk so openly about sexuality and sex. With [La Petite Mort] we wanted to convey more of a feeling and art experience, an opening to the touching and hearing senses, and not just the visual."
Although playing with virtual vagina feels disconnected, strange at first and maybe even ridiculous, time spent on these websites and apps becomes addicting and wildly entertaining. HappyPlayTime's cartoon vulva feels like a baby step into the hyperrealistic world of OMGYes.
"When online dating first started, people asked, 'Should technology enter into our love lives? Is it good for humans? Will it replace our face-to-face interactions?'" remembers Rob Perkins, of OMGYes. "And then, over time, everyone realized that the tech was useful and additive. In the same way, OMGYes has technology designed to make our offline experience more fulfilling. The simulations are technology in service of empathy."