The Science of Sex is a column from Broadly exploring the tech behind the complicated and fantastic ways we get off—because sex is sexy, but science is sexier. This week, we learn how therapy tools can help survivors of sexual assault.
Designer Nienke Helder struggled to enjoy sex and intimacy after she was assaulted. “I saw so many doctors,” she recalls, “but they didn’t seem to work together, and their approach was so clinical. Some of them were so helpful on certain levels, but improving your sex life by lying down on a treatment table and having a physical therapist relaxing and stretching your vagina muscles just didn’t really work for me.”
On one occasion, Helder remembers, a doctor struggled to inject a long-term painkiller into her vagina as five male medical students looked on, observing. Bleeding profusely, Helder began making jokes to defuse the tension. “Clearly they were instructed not to laugh, no matter what, so it was really awkward,” she says.
The painkiller didn’t work. Helder continued to find penetrative sex extremely painful, and doctors told her they couldn’t help. “At the time I thought, how is it possible that we have such advanced healthcare solutions, but they can’t fix my vagina?”
Helder's design project, Sexual Healing, was born of that realization. Each item in the collection of tools has been created to aid a specific aspect of a survivor's recovery. There’s an ergonomically shaped mirror to allow them explore their genitalia, and a horsehair brush to helpmake them feel comfortable with non-sexual human contact.
The collection also incorporates biofeedback principles that visualize the processes that happen inside the body. An sensor, shaped like a bar of soap, is designed to rest on the abdomen. If you start breathing sharply, the sensor vibrates and reminds you to try and relax. Another object is designed to measure the pressure in your pelvic floor. Inserted vaginally, it vibrates if the user tenses up, again reminding you to relax.
Helder hopes to open up a conversation about how we rebuild female sexual pleasure in the wake of assault. In particular, she wants to challenge the body-mind dichotomy that often characterizes treatment models.
“Too often, we see the psychological as separate from the physical,” she explains. “When your body stops functioning, you go to a doctor and a therapist to work on your mental trauma, but those specialists never work together. We need a more interdisciplinary approach to trauma. Separating the body from the mind happens quite often in our society, but they are just the one you.”
Helder believes that Sexual Healing can aid women who’ve experienced traumatic medical procedures such as surgery or childbirth, in addition to sexual assault survivors.
“My aim with Sexual Healing was to help people re-learn how their bodies work and how your mind influences this, in order to get over trauma,” she tells me.
As part of the process, Helder wanted to avoid healthcare-centered solutions in favor of a more holistic treatment approach—and an aesthetic that favors neutral pastels and non-phallic shapes.
“I wanted to stay away from medical colors like blue or white, and I also wanted to avoid the bright pink and purple colors we associate with sex toys,” she explains. “After I decided on the color palette, I began shaping the models. I wanted the objects to feel soft, but still serve their purpose.”
Having exhibited her work at Dutch Design Week, Helder hopes to manufacture her prototypes eventually. And her favourite tool from the collection? “I like the brush, because it represents so many things," she says. "Getting used to touch can take a long time after trauma, and talking about your sexual problems is also a challenge, even with a long-term partner. The idea with the brush is that, by giving them the object, you make them a part of the process of healing."
For Helder, this dialogue is key. “I don’t think Sexual Healing is the solution to every woman’s trauma-related sexual problem, but I do think it can help for many. And even for those it can’t help, at least we’re opening up the conversation around sexual assault.”