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Want better sex? Audio erotica and mindfulness could be the answer

Sexual wellness app Ferly is promoting female pleasure through mindfulness

For Dr Anna Hushlak it’s not about getting off, it’s about how you get there. That’s why she, along with co-founder Billie Quinlan, created Ferly, a safe space for women to help us get in touch with our bodies and learn about our sexuality, desires, and pleasures.

Part of a growing number of apps catering to female sexual wellbeing, Ferly focuses on the self-care aspect of sex with a particular interest in the mental and emotional side. Combining mindfulness and cognitive therapy with self-touch in immersive audio experiences, Ferly guides you through exercises involving body mapping, self-pleasure, fantasies, and nuturing desire so that you can get more sex-literate and have more positive, mindful sex. It’s like Headspace but with masturbation.

“In the UK, 51 per cent of women aged 16 to 64 have reported experiencing three or more sexual difficulties in the last year, everything from pain or anxiety during sex to low libido and issues with arousal,” Hushlak tells me from where she isolating in rural Canada. “For us, having good sexual wellbeing is as important as getting regular exercise or getting a good night’s sleep. It's one of those things that's just so fundamental to our health yet we haven't historically seen it that way.” 

Guiding their community on this journey towards sexual confidence and wellbeing is very close to Hushlak and Quinlan’s hearts – they’ve travelled down the same path as many of their community and they themselves are still discovering and navigating what works for them. Both founders have experienced sexual violence personally and shared similar feelings of guilt, shame and stigma around it. “Billie was sexually assaulted at work. I was raped when I was a teenager. And neither of those experiences we really had support around,” Hushlak tells me. “There was a feeling of having to rediscover ourselves and our sexual selves and our autonomy through sex. And that led to Ferly because it's the support that we wish we had that wasn't there when we went through it.”

We spoke to Hushlak to find out more.

How would you explain the concept of mindful sex to people who haven’t heard the term before?

Dr Anna Hushlak: It's about really slowing down. It's about understanding how you feel about sex, not just how you have it. Most of our education, if we've even had an education around sex, has been focused on the ‘doing it’ and it's often come through a particular lens of heterosexual sex. Generally it's two people, generally it's penetrative, and generally it's considered successful if it results in an orgasm – typically that's male climax.

For us, mindfulness is about flipping the script. It’s about saying: how do you actually feel about it? What's your mind-body connection? Have you taken the time to explore and discover your body? Have you taken the time to actually notice sensations in your body, to create awareness of your body? And it's much more focused on things like cultivating intimacy, on playing with sensation and touch and experience. And it's really about body awareness and bringing that into your sex life.

Why was an app the right choice for the platform?

Dr Anna Hushlak: Looking through the science around digital interventions and online therapy, there's quite a bit of research showing that online interventions are as effective as offline and face-to-face. And another big aspect for us is accessibility. When you're face-to-face, you're required to be there physically and that assumes that you've got financial freedom to get there, that you've got physical mobility to get there, and that you've got time to be able to get there.

The other aspect to that was that not everybody is comfortable with the topic. If people are in relationships, their partners might not be supportive of it, or it might be kind of a tense topic for them. We know that not everybody is starting in the same place. So an app allows for a degree of privacy and a degree of going at your own tempo and your own rhythm in a way that's yours and yours alone. An app was what we saw as the most accessible and the most affordable option for people to do that. And it also allows us to tap into countries around the world. We've got users in Saudi Arabia, we've got users in Argentina, we've got users in the Philippines. So it's meant that we have that global reach in a way that we wouldn't be able to do if it was just face-to-face.

One of the techniques that you use is cognitive therapy. Can you explain that a little bit?

Dr Anna Hushlak: There's a really phenomenal researcher, Dr Lori Brotto, who's pioneered using mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for sexual wellbeing and treating sexual difficulties. The principles of it are a combination of cognitive therapy, which focuses on reframing negative beliefs and ‘head tapes’ or ‘thinking areas.’ It's different tools and techniques that help you restructure those thoughts so that they're not so paralysing and overwhelming and you don't get wrapped up in these thought cycles. That's then combined with mindfulness-based techniques. So for example, breathwork, body mapping, focusing on non-sexual touch, really tapping into body awareness.

The combination of the two allows us to help our community members reframe a lot of the messaging they've been told and the beliefs they have around sex. For example, that good sex results in orgasm and to reframe that more to say, ‘What does pleasure mean to me? What feels good?’ Alongside doing physical practices that help them kind of ground themselves in the moment, either alone or with a partner. So mindful masturbation where instead of taking two minutes to get off, it's taking 15 minutes to and touch your collarbone, to play with touch on the inside of your leg, to notice the movement of your breath, to play with different feathering techniques on the clitorus and so it's much more about a combination of mental and physical practices working together.

What has been the effect of technology allowing such easy access to porn on women’s relationship to sex?

Dr Anna Hushlak: Mainstream porn brings up all these issues around toxic masculinity, around performance, around gender roles, around body image and what a body should or shouldn't look like. We've definitely seen rates of labiaplasty on the rise. One of the reasons we decided on audio erotica for the app was because it allows us to move away from body ideals. It also allows us to tap into imagination and fantasy, which we know are incredibly important to healthy sexuality.

The use of fantasy and erotic stimulus is incredibly important in that it allows us to create the context and it helps us to get in the mood, which, or women and folks AFAB is particularly important because for them desire tends to be more responsive instead of spontaneous, whereas for men, it tends to be more spontaneous. Dr Emily Nagoski, writes about this and she describes it as this lightning bolt to the genitals, which is the main story we've been told about what desire and arousal looks like. But that's actually not what most women experience.

Are women more inclined to prefer audio rather than visual erotica?

Dr Anna Hushlak: I'm not sure statistically the difference between men and women in that regard. A lot of our community comes from backgrounds where they've experienced sexual difficulties. People who have felt a lot of shame or stigma, whether that's from trauma or just ‘meh’ average-type sex. Erotica has been a way for them to transition into opening up their own sexuality, whether there's a difference between their preference for audio or visual. 

I'm completely making an assumption but I would think that because of the nature often of body insecurities and the pressure around women to have a particular looking body, I would say that audio allows for there to be more left to the imagination. Generally, in mainstream porn, there is a typical idea of what you have to look like and audio allows us to just kind of step away from the visual. A lot of us have actually lost the ability or muted our ability to imagine and visualise and fantasise because we’re fed images all the time.

The stories section of the app has a queer section, how have you tailored content specifically towards queer women?

Dr Anna Hushlak: What we’ve found is that thoughts around same sex often fall into two categories: either same sex is wrong or same sex is fetishised. One of our big things is how do we try to challenge our own limitations around thinking about it? How do we try to broaden the conversation around it? Having queer stories in there, but also, when we do our guided practices if we're talking about people in relationships, not assuming that it's a couple. It might be a polyamorous relationship. Not assuming pronouns, so by default using they instead of he or she. Making sure that we're not describing sex as heterosexual penis and vagina penetrative sex, which is the default that most of us have been taught is ‘normal’.

It's an opportunity for us to challenge those norms and to think about how we can support our queer community as well as how we can learn to be better allies to that community. Making sure that we're not speaking for but we're speaking with. I know that the stories are an interesting area for some of the queer folks in our community to start to explore that side that some of them haven't necessarily had the opportunity to do based on more traditional upbringings or kind of shame and stigma around that kind of cultural taboos.

During lockdown you’ve seen an increase in downloads of 65 per cent and an increase in content such as the Body Mapping being consumed. Why do you think that is?

Dr Anna Hushlak: On one hand, you have the people who are now suddenly in lockdown with a partner and are now having to navigate a much more intense environment. A lot of the topics that came up around that were: healthy communication, fluctuations in desire, low libido, how do you keep your sex life going? On the flip side, we had the community members that were in lockdown on their own. So you've got the people that have been maybe using sex as a tool for confidence and self-esteem. So with them you had the switch to starting to look inwards as opposed to externally for validation. Taking the time to re-evaluate what sex means to them and develop a healthier relationship to sex

Then we had the other group of people who were on their own that were coming from a sex-neutral or sex-negative lens where it was like, I've never really masturbated before. I don't really know how to do this. I've got a lot of shame or stigma around it, I don't feel comfortable touching myself. We would see an increase in, for example, body mapping as a practice which is much more around shifting from a perspective of masturbation to self pleasure. Not being focused on this goal of getting off, not masturbating in the same way that we've kind of been masturbating our whole lives: vibrator on for two minutes, I’m done, scratched that itch. Self-pleasure is much more of a mindfulness approach: I'm going to just feel sensations in my body and I'm going to explore what I like and what I don't like, what I may be curious about. And the whole purpose of it is just to be present with my body, not necessarily to come.