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Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

Want to see your orgasm? Measure its strength? Try the Lioness vibrator

Co-founder and engineer at sex tech company Lioness, Anna Lee is making it possible to measure your pleasure

One day, a long-time user of the Lioness vibrator contacted the company to ask if they could diagnose her broken vibrator. Previously, the device had recorded the data from her orgasms as a ‘volcano’ pattern (more on that later), but now her sessions were showing up flat on the graph. “We checked the firmware, the hardware, the software, and we couldn’t find anything wrong with it,” says Anna Lee, co-founder and head of engineering at Lioness. “So we asked, did something happen on the day when the data really starts flatlining, and she said ‘oh yeah, I had a sports injury, I had a concussion.’” 

The team began to wonder if the two were connected, and as a result the woman, an athlete, decided to take a break from her sport and start physical therapy. “In the course of the six months she was doing the physical therapy we saw that data come back,” says Lee. Lioness has since presented the findings at a medical convention; a case study of how traumatic brain injuries can have a correlation to orgasms. “When we do these data analyses on orgasms, we can detect other health things.”

For centuries considered a myth, a mystery, an aberration, the female/AFAB orgasm is only just beginning to be studied. Lee and Lioness, the sex tech company she co-founded with Liz Klinger and James Wang, are at the forefront of this research, collecting findings through technology which allows people to see real-time data – in the form of rising and falling waves on a graph – of their orgasms. 

This is how it works: the (world’s first) smart vibrator uses AI, sensors that measure tension, temperature and motion, and biofeedback to record your arousal and orgasm on a chart. Vaginal contractions are visualised as spikes or a circle that contracts and expands, so you can learn how your body responds to different speeds, motions, and outside circumstances – you can tag masturbation sessions with external factors like alcohol, drugs, stress, sleep, mood and caffeine.

The aim is to help users learn more about their bodies and give them a better grasp of their orgasms – what makes them tick. It’s not just about the individual, though. The Lioness team also collect and aggregate the data (anonymously with permission) of their thousands of users to build a better understanding of female/AFAB arousal and orgasms. Earlier this year, for example, Lioness research was published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine in a study by Charles University in Prague which identified three patterns of orgasm.

The most common pattern is called the ‘ocean wave’ and involves rhythmic squeezing and relaxing of the pelvic floor. There's also ‘volcano’ (huge explosion that quickly drops off) and ‘avalanche’ (starts very high and then goes rhythmically up and down, like an ocean wave, decreasing over time). “In our data that we’ve seen so far, we haven’t seen people jump from one type to another,” explains Lee.

Here we talk to Lee about why the company was founded, creative ways users have been interpreting their orgasm data, and her engaging and educational TikTok presence.

I really enjoyed your TikTok about how sex toys are all purple. It was so funny, because it’s so true. 

Anna Lee: If you ask people ‘do you have as sex toy’ and the answer is yes and you’re like ‘which one do you have’, no one really knows what the brand name is but they’re like ‘oh its a purple one’. A lot of sex toy shops will say that purple and pinks are their best-selling products. I have my own theory on that. You only see purple vibrators so people associate vibrators with purple, so you buy purple vibrators. I think we’ll see the change as we see now there are so many different colours. For us, the grey still has a higher percentage of sales than the purple one. 

Purple to me, especially in pastel lilac, feels almost non-threatening, that they’re doing it to be like ‘it’s a sex toy but it’s not scary.’

Anna Lee: Yeah, like ‘oh it’s cute!’ I think definitely that. From an engineer’s perspective, some colours are just much harder to produce than others, and also once it’s finished you can see specks of dust if it’s a light colour, but with a dark colour if there are any fluids on it you can see those fluids. So it’s a constant back and forth in terms of what is a good colour, and also what is a colour that’s easy to manufacture. If it’s handled can you see a scuff mark, and you can see the lube, there are all sorts of random things we have to take into account.

The difference with Lioness is that it’s a smart vibrator, so it’s collecting data as well as just being a sex toy. How did that come about?

Anna Lee: I had started to realise how historically male-dominated this industry was and how little tech innovation is actually in sex toys for how far we’ve come in tech as a whole. It was so interesting to me that vibrators just didn’t have that same kind of innovation. When we started we actually were trying to build an AI vibrator, so the more you used it, it got smarter and knew your body. The two things we learned from that was that there wasn’t enough research around female sexual function to even fill out that AI. There weren’t enough research papers, and if there was it was like a sample size of like 27 women from 1982.

And also when we had beta-testing a lot of people were like, ‘Well I know what I like and don’t like.’ But they were curious how we got that information, so we showed that [pelvic floor contraction] graph. That was a really big pivot moment for us to realise people were like, ‘that’s not data I’ve ever seen about my body.’ We realised we had to start from, not square one, but even just helping people actually know about their own bodies.

@annatheaverage likeee I don’t think you understand. I’m. OBSESSED. #seggseducation #vibing ♬ SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY - Remix - Amaarae & Kali Uchis

Yeah because as you were saying, there has been historically so little research into women’s sexuality.

Anna Lee: Oh yeah it’s crazy. I think there’s a statistic that for every eight papers there are about male sexual function there’s one on female sexual function, and most of the time that female sexual function paper is about fertility. Fertility is absolutely important but I think that when we’re talking about sexual pleasure, if were talking about erectile dysfunction versus female sexual dysfunction, the papers and the amount of funding that goes into it are just so vastly different. I think that’s where this idea that women are complicated, or that women are really hard to figure out, comes from.

Do you get criticisms that the research isn’t necessary? 

Anna Lee: We get a mix, I mean I think we’ve heard everything. We used to call it a ‘FitBit for your vagina’ and FitBit didn’t love that! But it is really this idea of quantified self and the more you have data for your body the better you get to know it. I think people definitely come in with ‘well, why?’ But we always explain how little data we have, how data can actually help us learn more about our bodies and give us that understanding, and how tracking how different parts of their lives, like concussion, can interact with your sexual aspect. 

And there are some people who just find it a fun thing to do with their partners, so I love seeing the creativity with how people can use it beyond what we made it for, especially within the kink communities. 

Have you seen people project the live streaming data up on walls and stuff?

Anna Lee: That’s been my dream. I’ve been talking to a couple of play parties, I’m really trying to get that launched off cause that would be so cool! We know a lot of people in the swinger community have been fans of the Lioness, like ‘I want to use it with this partner, and then this partner and see if it changes the data’. 

I think it’s so cool how people get creative with it. We’ve had a musician make music with her orgasm data. We’ve had someone who made a 3D model with her orgasm data and bronze casted it. We’ve had people cross-stitch their orgasms. It was just the most wholesome sweet thing I’ve ever seen.

@annatheaverage Tell me this isn’t the best kind of science facts. #womeninstem #fyp #whenwomenwin ♬ Day 'N' Nite (nightmare) - Kid Cudi

So wholesome! What you were saying about FitBit is interesting, that they don’t even vaguely want to be associated with anything to do with sex or female pleasure, I think it’s very indicative of how it’s still viewed in the culture.

Anna Lee: Definitely. I mean, as much as I am always hopeful and I think a lot of things are changing, a lot of policies are changing and people’s general acceptance of it is changing, I would still say overall there’s still such a big hurdle to jump. I would say society moves faster than how policies can for companies. A lot of times I see places like Meta or Instagram that never made a policy that protects sexual education in a way that is healthy, especially with TikTok. I think there are still a lot of hurdles left in figuring out that companies can actually collaborate and use orgasm data as part of their platform, or just education in general around sex and all of that. 

I was researching for an article last year, and was coming from a slightly critical angle that a lot of the language that some of the new wellness sex toy companies use to promote the products is kind of euphemistic. I was like why are we talking about sex in this childish way? Then I spoke to someone at one of the companies and they said ‘well it’s because we use social media to promote these products, and we actually can’t use any, even scientific, words for body parts.’ So they’re forced into this euphemistic language. 

Anna Lee: Totally. For me, on TikTok, the way that I say everything is not the way that I would ever choose to say things. Content gets banned if you say even the word vagina, or the word vibrator. I think that’s been a really big challenge. We did bus ads in San Francisco years ago, and I remember one of the things we really wanted to do was show the vibrator, and the ad agency were like, ‘you can do it if it’s one-third of the vibrator,’ and we were like which one-third of the vibrator can I show? They kept coming up with these very arbitrary rules. 

We wanted to write ‘made by women, for people with vaginas’ and they said you cannot put the word vagina on an ad. It was this back and forth of what term we use, in the end, we just didn’t even use that sentence at all. I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of the time companies have to be forced down this odd way to be able to talk about it. We only do more harm because we don’t use proper terms, or figure out ways to actually talk about it.

Speaking of TikTok, why did you decide to take on that social media educator role on top of your actual job?

Anna Lee: I wish I had a more inspiring answer, but actually the TikTokking was completely accidental. During the pandemic, I was already completely obsessed with TikTok and there was a viral question, ‘what did you study and what do you do for a living now?’ I was like ‘I did engineering and I now make sex toys for a living!’ So I had very jokingly made that stitch, and then that night I was making dinner and my Instagram was getting pinged a lot, and purchases were going through. We couldn't figure out where it was coming from, and then realised that the TikTok had gone viral

Coming from someone who was so scared about her own body, and so timid about her own body, I was like let me just put things that I’ve learned about it and the cool data that I’ve seen from it [on TikTok]. It became a natural progression of realising that people were super curious about it as well. I wish I could do it more often but on top of running a company it’s been insanely complex to keep trying to put out content, but I love doing it because I’ve learned so many random things that I’ve been like ‘this should be out in the world somewhere’.

Especially at school, sex education is so terrible, so it’s great that you are making these fun, very approachable videos, that kind of takes the fear out of it.

Anna Lee: Yeah! I would say that I hope that they get better education beyond TikTok, but I agree. One of the big things that we did last year was that Liz and I both got certified as sex educators, because if this is going to be a platform for us we should be able to make sure that we put out content, and terminology, that’s correct as far as possible.

What do you find is the biggest misconception that people have about female and AFAB pleasure or orgasms?

Anna Lee: I think it being termed as ‘complicated’. It’s more that we just don’t know enough to really give ourselves the time to say what we like, what we don’t like. There is commonly the ability to not orgasm, which is completely normal and fine, but people chalking it off as ‘well it’s complicated’, I think it doesn't HAVE to be complicated. People write it off very easily that if you just don’t have one then it’s fine, but it’s more like, it could happen, you just have to figure out what could be happening, what factors could be adding to this inability to orgasm.

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