sex ed

The Next Sexual Revolution Won’t Come in a Pill

This week marked the launch of OMGYes, “Khan Academy of the clit.”
This week marked the launch of OMGYes, “Khan Academy of the clit.” Photo: Don Bayley/Getty Images

After months of hype, it looks like one of this year’s biggest flops is Addyi, the little pink pill that claims to address lack of sexual desire in women. The libido drug — which must be taken daily and has such severe potential side effects that women are told not to drink while on it — has been prescribed just a few hundred times since it hit the market in October. Even in trials, Addyi helped such a small percentage of women that many wondered how it gained FDA approval at all.

The next sexual revolution will not be medicated. On the heels of Addyi’s failure, businesses are popping up to make the opposite pitch: That women’s sexual experiences can’t be improved with a quick fix because they are a complex and personal thing. This week marked the launch of OMGYes, a website with conversational videos and explicit tutorials to encourage women to explore their sexuality. OMGYes calls itself a “Khan Academy of the clit,” and the point is to help women get to know their bodies better, with or without a partner.

Everyone seems to agree that women could be having better sex, and OMGYes is just the latest in a rash of start-ups that purport to address the problem in a highly personalized way. There’s also Lioness, a company that’s developing a “smart” sex toy and an app to help women learn about their own arousal patterns. And HappyPlayTime, an oddly infantilizing sex-ed game designed to destigmatize masturbation for women. And the Mod, a vibrator that women can customize to their exact pleasure profile by downloading apps and connecting controllers. But given that the impediments to satisfying sex can be as complicated as women’s sexuality itself, I wonder how effective any of these start-ups is going to be.

“The most important sexual relationship is the one we have with ourselves. And it’s the one women have been discouraged from exploring,” says Jaclyn Friedman, the author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety, host of the “Yes Means Yes” podcast, and a self-described pleasure activist. “We’re encouraged to think about our sexuality in response to other people. That’s what I like about OMGYes and Lioness — they are not about partners. You can use [them] with a partner, but it’s primarily focused on you.” Many of these start-ups are tools for sexual self-quantification. They share an underlying philosophy: What do women want? It’s a tantalizing question, but too general to answer accurately. What does one individual woman want? Now that’s something you can collect data on.

There’s a research gap when it comes to women’s sexuality. When OMGYes founders Lydia Daniller and Rob Perkins — a lesbian and a straight guy who are old friends — decided they wanted to create a website that got specific about women’s sexual pleasure, they started looking for existing studies of what turns women on. “We found that the specifics had never actually been researched before,” Daniller says. “There have been studies about arousal and what orgasm looks like when you’re having it, biological factors. But the actual specifics of what women enjoy and what they need to feel pleasure had never been researched before.” So the founders interviewed a thousand women over video chat about the mechanics of how they enjoyed sex with themselves and others. Then they partnered with Kinsey Institute researchers to survey a broader group of women, too.

They’ve distilled the findings into a series of diagrams and videos that feature real woman — not actors or porn stars — talking about what gets them off. Conceptually, OMGYes is not a huge departure from the work of pioneering feminist sexologists like Betty Dodson, who’s been helping women find their pleasure and articulate their desires for decades. But the interface is more modern, the packaging more slick. The videos on the site now, which OMGYes refers to as Season One, are about genital touch and clitoral stimulation. And they’re categorized by technique — “edging,” “surprise,” “accenting” — with names that the founders created after asking women to describe actions they found pleasurable. Their hope is that women and their partners go through the techniques and videos, use them to explain what they do and don’t like, and find new things to try. Upcoming seasons will focus on different broad topics, like penetration, menopause, or how things change after having kids.

“I’m for anything that celebrates research of women’s bodies and their personal experience,” says Myisha Battle, a sex coach in San Francisco, “but I find it difficult to be 100 percent onboard with something that is so prescriptive, or that simplifies female orgasmic experience into technique.” Like Battle, I immediately saw both the positives and a few negatives of compiling a list of research-supported stimulation techniques. On one hand (a deftly rubbing hand), it can be helpful to put words to specific sex acts that get women off but are not often discussed. On the other hand (rubbing at a slightly different speed), I could picture a woman’s overeager partner using the list of techniques as a checklist, and growing frustrated if the woman didn’t respond like the women in the OMGYes videos.

Still, the tutorials seem great if you’re into them and can afford them — full access to the first season costs $29. But the truth is, helping women have better sex has less to do with technique and data than OMGYes and its sister start-ups seem to think. “Women both need to know more about ourselves from a physical point of view, but we also need a way to understand how the context in which we’re fucking affects our sex drive and our sexual response,” Friedman says.

Do you feel safe? Judged? Exhausted after a long workweek or hours of child care? Research shows that everything from health problems to relationship quality to political and religious beliefs can affect satisfaction in the bedroom. And women bear disproportionate responsibility for mundane household responsibilities, are at a higher risk for assault, and have had their sexual enjoyment ignored or downplayed for centuries — just to name a few entrenched cultural problems. It’s not that male sexuality is inherently simple and female sexuality is complex. It’s that a web of systemic inequalities have historically made sexual pleasure less attainable for women. These are factors that no pill, web tutorial, or smart dildo can address immediately.

“Addyi failed because it didn’t work that well. But also because there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to reach for to improve women’s sex lives before we get to pharmacological conditions,” Friedman adds. Hyperpersonal new ways of increasing women’s sexual satisfaction like OMGYes and Lioness are a sensuous swipe at that low-hanging fruit. The true sexual revolution, though, is unfolding both in the bedroom and outside of it. And it won’t be fully realized until we recognize that women’s sexual pleasure isn’t just a matter of having the right tools or vocabulary. It’s about having safety and agency, and economic and political support. Until we get there, every innovation is a potential flop.