Closing the Pleasure Gap: can tech save sex for the next generation?

10 mins
08 Apr 2022
Closing the Pleasure Gap: can tech save sex for the next generation?

The future of sex has never looked more exciting – but inclusivity in the pursuit of pleasure is up for debate

image Christa Jarrold (@christajarrold.art)

words Ruchira Sharma

Five minutes of Euphoria or out in the club losing it to “WAP” and you’d believe mind-blowing sex had finally been democratised. But data suggests many of us are experiencing a ‘pleasure gap’, whether that’s because we’re reportedly glued to our phones and losing a libido because of it, or simply by virtue of having a clitoris - a sexual organ vastly underappreciated during heterosexual sex, and largely left out of the pop cultural script.

The ‘pleasure gap’ is often used to refer to the orgasm disparity between cis heterosexual men and cis heterosexual women. Understandably so. A 2020 study from the sex toy company Lelo says that men are still climaxing more often than women during sex - 66%, compared to 43% respectively. Studies consistently find that cis heterosexual women are the least likely demographic to orgasm during sex. In The Case of the Female Orgasm, Elisabeth Lloyd’s research found that only 25% of women are consistently orgasmic during vaginal intercourse. In addition, one in 20 women have never orgasmed with a sexual partner.

But look beyond this definition, and ‘pleasure gap’ also encompasses the imbalances many people outside the heterosexual and binary norms experience. Disabled and LGBTQ+ people continue to face feeling misunderstood by society, uneducated on non-heterosexual sex, or not catered to in sex tech and toys. The big issue? Their pleasure matters less.

“When these marginalised community members are deliberately not included in discussions of pleasure, it makes sex and pleasure dishonest for us all”
Andrew Gurus, founder of Bump'n

Experts say that while we’ve come a huge way in destigmatising sex, pleasure equity isn’t here yet. So what’s the solution? Increasingly diverse sex tech companies are emerging, with ventures from gender neutral sex toys to equipment that improves mobility during sex.

Yasmin Benoit, a model and asexual activist, thinks “in comparison to any other sexual orientation, asexuality is still one of the least talked about”. Asexual people can still have a libido and get aroused, she explains. “People find asexuality hard to understand for some reason, and I definitely think many tend to find it very controversial and taboo. It’s just that this sexuality isn't directed towards anyone else,” she adds. “I think the sex positivity movement could definitely do with expanding how sex is represented, so that it's just a bit less focused on who you're having sex with, and how you how much you want to have sex, and instead build empowerment around your sexuality.”

It’s a common misconception that asexual people would have no use for sex gadgets, but many asexual people do self pleasure - asexual sex toy reviewers and blogs like Ace in the Hole and Asexual Activities highlight that. Across the reviews and forums, asexual people highlight that exaggerated anatomical designs - think veiny dildos - are a turnoff. Some people even show an interest in the fantasy designs of Bad Dragon.

Benoit isn’t the only person who feels the sex positivity movement could face a rehaul. The founders of Bump’n, a hardware start-up creating the first line of accessible sex toys designed for and by people with disabilities, believe so much of “sex positivity” and sexual wellness assumes able-bodiedness. Founded by brother and sister Heather Morrison and Andrew Gurza, Bump’n began because of Andrew’s experience of disability and his declining ability to masturbate.

Their own survey found 56% of people living with physical disabilities had difficulty self pleasuring and 92% wanted a toy designed for them. Their first product, the Joystick, works for all genders. It bends and flexes for different positions, body types, preferences and needs.

“When marginalised communities are not included in discussions of pleasure, it makes sex and pleasure dishonest for us all”
Andrew Gurza, Bump’n

“We don’t see enough people of colour, overweight people, or especially, disabled people in pleasure settings or contexts, and it is a huge issue because it sets an impossible standard that pleasure is only accessible to thin, white, cisgender, able-bodied folks. And we all know how untrue and false that is,” Gurza says. “When these marginalised community members are deliberately not included in discussions of pleasure, it makes sex and pleasure dishonest for us all.”

Bump’n found 93% agreed that disabled people are ignored and overlooked when it comes to sexuality, while 76% agreed that society incorrectly assumes they’re non-sexual or asexual because of their disability.

Poppy Scarlett Lepora, owner of Self and More, began her sex toy boutique in 2019 because she wanted to create a place where people could be sexually free of gender labels. “Let's face it, products don't need to be gendered. That’s a marketing ploy,” she says. “It's not for a brand to tell someone whether they should use a toy because of the gender that they identify with - it’s just for a body part.”

Her items aren’t marketed using gender as a result and simply highlight their use. Take the 5 inch curved glass beaded dildo, which is a series of small transparent orbs and looks like artistic homeware. Lepora’s description states it’s “ideal for external rubbing and targeted yet gentle penetration” and claims it is akin “to a generous finger, with ripples of smooth glass that feel excellent when dragged along the skin”. It’s an ideal toy too for anyone who might struggle with larger penetration due to a medical condition.

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“Removing labels just makes the process so much more comfortable for people,” she says. She feels the narrative of sex toys is “rooted in this kind of heterosexual version of sex, where you're buying toys to please your partner to perform a role of sensuality rather your own pleasure”. But at the same time, many hetererosexual men have been afraid to incorporate them into their sex life for fear it emasculates them.

The LGBTQ+ community has been far more open to sex toys, Lepora says, and sees them for what sex toys are: a tool in your arsenal, rather than a replacement for a person or genitals. It’s one reason why a physical pleasure gap has rarely been an issue in this community in the same way it has in hetero partnerships.

But this isn’t a new phenomenon. Dr Hallie Lieberman – a sex historian who holds the world's first PhD in the history of sex toys – highlights a cultural turning point in history about 500 years ago, when men began to fear that women deriving pleasure from elsewhere would mean they shirked their responsibilities as wives and mothers. There’s also a pervasive myth that sex toys were first used by doctors to treat the now defunct medical term ‘hysteria’ in women - true or not, it highlights a funny little gap in women’s and sexual health more widely that still stands. So far, not so good vibrations.

“In the infamous Sex and the City episode, Charlotte gets addicted to her vibrator and the group do an intervention. They say she'll never be with a man if she continues,” Lieberman adds.

While we have some way to go in tackling the patriarchal views of sex that prioritises male pleasure, we’re seeing a clear marketing shift on women’s masturbation. Look on NastyGal or ASOS and you'll find an array of vibrators and dildos. Celebrities from Lily Allen to Cara Delevingne releasing sex toys has also contributed to this transformation. Lepora points out, in many ways, this is capitalism moving in on a market demographic - women and queer people. Is this the trade-off to busting unnecessary taboos on female masturbation?

“We don’t educate on intimacy or pleasure, which is partly why there is such a gap in knowledge”
Callum McSwiggan, sexual wellness influencer

Sex toys can only do so much of the heavy lifting when it comes to bridging societal pleasure gaps however. So how is sex education looking? On the hit Netflix show Sex Education, Maeve Wiley, a character who sets up her own sex clinic to help students at her school, tells a teacher: “You make sex sound terrifying, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be fun and beautiful and teach you things about yourself and your body.”

“So much of my and Andrew’s work is giving people education around sex and disability, and through that education people’s minds are changed - not overnight - but the seeds are planted [to destigmatise it],” says Bump’n’s Morrison.

A survey of young people aged 16-17 in England carried out by Censuswide found the quality of Relationships and Sex Education is getting worse. One in five students rated it ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’, while a majority felt unable to ask questions or for advice. It doesn’t need to be this way. Last year, Scotland was the first country to integrate LGBT+ education into the national school curriculum. A recent study from PLOS ONE found that sexual health programs which teach sexual desire and sexual pleasure can improve knowledge and attitudes around sex, as well as condom use.

Calum McSwiggan is an influencer who focuses mainly on sexual wellness and LGBTQ+ issues, such as being a gay man who does not enjoy anal sex, and is also an ambassador for sex toy company Lovehoney. He believes LGBTQ+ people are “introduced to the world of sex in a very heteronormative way”, resulting in them being excluded. “We don’t educate on intimacy or pleasure, which is partly why there is such a gap in knowledge,” he says.

Bryony Cole, host of the Future of Sex podcast, says with such a huge gap in sex education, sex tech and sex toy companies are realistically the forces to fill it. We saw this in 2020, when PornHub launched a sex educational series, with 11 videos on sex, relationships and sexual health, from information on sexually transmitted diseases to checking consent.

“In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be on sex tech to educate us on sex and relationships, but that’s the situation we’re in,” says Cole.

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Sex Education

PornHub cannot and should not be the one to teach us everything, especially when it profits from sex’ workers stolen content, revenge porn and sexual assault videos. Thankfully, there has been a rise of thoughtful innovative porn producers such as Erika Lust and Matt Lambert, whose works centre women and queer stories. They blur the boundaries between art and pornography, offering an alternative and arguably more realistic portrayal of sex and sensuality. Lust told the New York Times her goal was for female performers to have real orgasms in her films. “If there is a scene with penetrative sex, viewers need to see a woman using her hand or a vibrator at the same time - because that’s what works for most women,” she said.

A surprising wake-up call on sex and intimacy came with the pandemic, when we reckoned with the importance of physical touch. Countless people experienced a “touch crisis”, its own kind of pleasure chasm, during lockdown. Many of us became more cognizant of the need for contact - intimate or otherwise. Dr Lieberman points out that the exponential rise in VR porn and remotely controlled sex tech in the pandemic has been hugely beneficial for disabled people too.

Tech isn’t our salvation, and we shouldn’t have to rely on big brands seeking to profit on our pleasures for better sex, but it has been key in bridging the gap for issues mainstream society turns a blind eye to. “I love the boldness of the younger generations to wear vibrators as necklaces,” Morrison says. “I think we are seeing so much change and sexual liberation, particularly from minority or previously excluded groups that dont fit into the cis, able bodied, white, thin persona. That said, there’s still a lot of work to be done - in normalising sex and sexual wellness, and also in sex education which is more inclusive, more realistic to the experiences and pressures of today.”

Anything short of true, equal pleasure for all isn’t the vibe(ration).

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