The guy looks like Jesus — and he’s busy tonguing a blue-haired woman. Their tongues lunge and swirl midscreen, and players jab at their iPads while trying to achieve the perfect make-out score. When the goal is reached, the characters’ tongues morph into hands and fist-bump. Smooth Operator isn’t a solo game; you need to partner up for this particular one.
Sure, playing this game won’t give you real-life kissing skills, but it does illustrate how popular — and arguably necessary — tech-styled sex education has become. Smooth Operator is just one of a slew of sex games, apps and gadgets focused on sex instruction in a country where only 24 states are legally required to teach sex ed. Beyond the educational opportunities, there might be big money to be made here. The sexual wellness market was valued at roughly $20 billion last year, according to market research firm Technavio, which predicts the sector to grow by 40 percent by 2020.
Some of this tech is aimed at a demographic that’s largely disconnected from the physical body in day-to-day life. Women suffer the most here: 28 to 35 percent of millennial women say they never masturbate. “Women are socialized to believe that our genitals are weird and icky, so many feel uncomfortable touching themselves,” sex therapist Vanessa Marin says.
Enter modern-day, how-to guides for solo sex exploration such as OMGYes, the current mecca for self-stimulation training. For $29, you get lifetime access to an interactive website, which launched in December and features explicit how-to videos that focus on expanding the ways women can achieve orgasm. The 12 methods include edging (getting close to orgasm, then pulling back) and hinting (building anticipation). Emma Watson seemed intrigued.
Some offerings in the sex tech space take a more simplistic approach. The Happy Playtime Web app, for one, uses cutesy animations to demystify female anatomy. Its free-to-play game asks users to make “Happy the vulva” climax, a feat achieved by circling your fingers or mouse around Happy’s bubble-gum-pink clitoris. For those who prefer a less direct approach — training with metaphors, essentially — there’s Luxuria Superbia, a game where you stimulate flower petals to boost happiness.
Market interest isn’t enough to get these products traction, though. Happy Playtime’s app was rejected by Apple’s app store, which is known for denying mature content. Knowing this, the team behind OMGYes bypassed the app store, focusing instead on building an interactive, mobile-friendly website. Marketplaces like MiKandi feature adult apps, but they’re not widely known. Add to this the cultural and religious shame often associated with female masturbation and there are personal resistances to break through as well.
Which is precisely what inspired designer Tina Gong to create Happy Playtime. Growing up in a conservative family, Gong felt sexually alienated, with the result that “I wanted players to have a sense of empathy with their own bodies,” she says. “You have this cute vulva that just wants to play, and be loved; it’s some weird metaphor for how you treat your own body.”
At the same time, there’s been a broader growth in the physical pleasure sector. The traditionally phallic vibrator has morphed into something more discreet. The Womanizer, which was named Innovative Sex Toy of the Year at the XBiz Awards, is a clitoral suction device that looks like it could double as a pore extractor. Its big selling point: the 60-second orgasm. “It’s designed to help women discover their bodies,” says Ryan Poirier, vice president of Epi24, the Womanizer’s creator. Other gadgets gamify getting off. To incentivize women to build healthy practices, the Bluetooth-connected Kegel device Lovelife Krush rewards players by vibrating when they achieve pelvic-training goals.
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