After Melissa, a 35-year-old event planner living in Chicago, masturbates, she sometimes studies a chart that resembles the output of a heart rate monitor or that of a seismograph capturing an earthquake.
The data is generated by her vibrator, the Lioness, which measures her arousal and uploads information about her orgasm patterns to the company’s app. The sensors embedded in the toy track her pelvic floor movements. With each involuntary squeeze and release of her pelvic floor muscles, the app displays a graph showing her rhythmic pattern in a series of peaks and valleys. She typically uses it in tandem with her other clitoral stimulating vibrators, so that she can compare the orgasms she experiences with each one.
“I use it just as a data collection dildo, essentially,” said Melissa, who asked to be identified only by her first name because of privacy concerns. Besides the Lioness, she doesn’t own any wearable activity trackers, like the popular Apple Watch or Fitbit, but she says she likes “to have quantifiable information when I’m learning things.”
Whether it’s obsessively collecting step counts or waiting for Spotify to reveal our musical tastes each year, we may be growing more accustomed to tracking every aspect of our lives through technology. The option to track female orgasms at home introduces the possibility of hacking what some scientists have treated as an enigma. Some people use the tracking technology to combat sexual changes that can come with menopause or polycystic ovary syndrome, for example. Others say they want the data to see how certain foods or medications may affect their arousal — and they’re thinking about how to optimize their orgasms with smart, Bluetooth-enabled sex toys they hope will help them better understand their bodies.
“We really call it a tool for ‘sexperiments,’ so doing experiments with yourself or with partners — how caffeine can have an effect on your orgasms, how alcohol, how CBD, how stress, all these things,” said Anna Lee, the chief executive and co-founder of Lioness.
Ms. Lee started the company about eight years ago with Liz Klinger, and the pair pitch their vibrators as a way for people to have “smarter” orgasms, joining a wave of everyday devices that are connected to the internet.
As sex toys have gotten smarter, they have been advertised as far more than sources of pleasure. Now available for purchase in stores like Target and Sephora rather than just sex shops, these toys may pledge to help users practice self-care or sexual wellness, offering people — particularly women — the glimmering promise of a fully optimized life. They’ve also introduced some pitfalls. Devices that collect data can be subject to data hacks, and some experts have warned that sex toys that track orgasms could become sources of tension with a partner.
“A sex toy can be a collaborator but not a competitor,” said Jamye Waxman, a therapist and sex educator in Los Angeles. “And I think you have to start to notice if it’s keeping score.”
Lioness isn’t the only device on the market offers users data. Perifit, while not a vibrator, is a Kegel exercise device that allows users to connect to an app where they can play Kegel games to strengthen their pelvic floor and track their contractions.
And Wujj, a sex tech company whose devices also use sensors to measure and improve orgasms, is set to begin beta testing this month. Its namesake product is a flexible U-shaped silicone toy that comes in flesh-toned colors that will also include a phone app with A.I.-powered audio erotica, how-to videos, insights from OB-GYNs and guided meditations.
Penda N’diaye, the founder and chief executive of the brand, said that the goal wasn’t to “pathologize orgasms” but to give users the tools to understand themselves. She uses words like “biofeedback” or “machine learning” to talk about Wujj — terms that aren’t usually associated with masturbation and sexual pleasure. But she said it’s those features that allow users to receive information that’s useful for their bodies.
Ms. N’diaye, who also is the founder of Pro Hoe, an organization for sexual wellness and sex education for women of color, said she had found that having “the gumption” and “boldness” to go after what you want sexually — and not wait to be chosen or remain on the receiving end — could be transformative.
Ms. Waxman said the orgasm tracking devices could also be beneficial for women who were perimenopausal or menopausal, or who were taking medications like S.S.R.I.s, which can make it challenging to have a satisfactory orgasm.
“The pros are it can really help us understand from a physiological perspective what’s going on, which can then help with the psychological perspective,” she said. “If the toy creates an opportunity for discussion with your partner around what you’re experiencing and what’s giving you pleasure, then I think that can be a really huge positive.”
But the frequent use of vibrators and sex toys may also create space for judgment, resentment and avoidance, she said, if a person and his or her partner cannot achieve the same level of pleasure that a toy can offer.
“If you are really into monitoring your orgasms and they start to change or you’re not having the same, huge orgasmic experiences, and that starts to change, the concern is ‘now something’s wrong with me because this isn’t happening,’” she said.
To strike a balance, Ms. Waxman said smart sex toy users might use the data from their devices as a jumping-off point for a vulnerable conversation.
“If you notice that you’re using your vibrator at 11 a.m. because that’s the time you’re most aroused, but your partner is working, then there is a conversation about timing that you have to have and that maybe on weekends you set aside 11 a.m.” she said.
Not everyone is so sure that an optimized orgasm is really the best kind of orgasm. Lioness includes a “live view” that allows users to see their orgasm chart develop in real time and log when they are about to climax.
April Damaso, a 33-year-old tech designer living in Vancouver, British Columbia, said she was excited about the product but that the tracking feature could be distracting. Sometimes it “takes away from the experience,” she said.
Ms. Damaso, who identifies as lesbian, said that the toy’s tracking function had limited use for her, as it only works if it’s inserted. “I’m not somebody who likes penetration all the time,” she said.
Data capture also increases concerns over privacy when it comes to smart sex toys. While brands like Lioness state in their privacy policies that user data is encrypted, and many companies do not require users to sign up with identifiable information, other brands have come under fire for their practices. In 2017, a Canadian sex toy company, We-Vibe, was ordered to pay customers up to 10,000 Canadian dollars each as part of a class-action lawsuit after the smart vibrator tracked owners’ use without their knowledge.
As for Melissa, she isn’t using the Lioness to chart “every single” orgasm she’s had, but she uses it “every once in a while,” such as when she’s had a strong cup of coffee and wants to see how it affects her body’s response.
“I am very much an advocate of sex education,” she added, “and I think even adults are still learning about their bodies and learning about self-pleasure.”